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Been very quiet on this blog for the last few days.  Perhaps this is going to end up being a regular thing: blog starts up in January each year then tails off as work begins to arrive from strange and various angles.  Last week was taken up with the film,various radio projects and some potential work buffing lines on a computer game.  Will any of these come to anything?  We’ll have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, I wanted to blog about those moments when, through no fault of the writer’s own, they see their good work crash and burn.  Last night I think  I saw one of those moments.  Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell are a hugely talented team (just think of The Thick of It, Peep Show, Moving Wallpaper et al) and, in The Old Guys, they’ve put together what should be a great show.  Roger Lloyd Pack and Clive Swift work together brilliantly, the script (judging by the first ten minutes of last night’s programme) is excellent and there’s even a good theme tune.  So why did I only get to see the first ten minutes of the programme?  Because some idiot decided to balls up the laughter track to the extent I couldn’t watch without cringing.

Now you may have heard the phrase “canned laughter”.  It’s something they used to use (may still do on some shows) in US series: pre-recorded laughs dubbed in at the (jn)appropriate moment to punch up gags and tell the audience (whom the producers obviously believe to be Delta-Gamma Semi-Morons) that “this is funny, laugh you dogs, LAUGH I SAY!”.

British producers/directors will always tell you with pride that we don’t do that sort of thing over here.  The laughter in British sitcoms is the laughter of a real audience, who genuinely watched the show.  There’s a piece over at Graham Linehan’s site on exactly this point.  BUT what was omitted is that, thanks to the wonders of technology, it is easier than ever to play around with those audience laughs, to take a laugh from here (in some notorious cases “here” may mean the pre-show audience warm up) and drop it in there, or to whack up the volume of the laughter to ridiculous levels (you can tell the level is as artificially enhanced as a Coca-Cola Championship WAG because if it were real the actors WOULD HAVE TO SHOUT ALL THEIR DIALOGUE LIKE SOME PRODUCERS SHOUT AT THEIR RUNNERS TO HAVE ANY HOPE OF HAVING IT HEARD).  If audience laughs are treated with taste and discretion  they enhance the overall experience enormously.  When done badly (as on The Old Guys and far too many other recent BBC shows) you end up with bursts of uproarious laughter over what the writer intended as mildly-amusing lines of exposition, sudden HUGE LEAPS in laughter volume, laughs that die off suspiciously quickly and, above all, a ruined televisual experience.

So there you go: you can write something brilliant, get a fantastic cast acting beautifully, be given a nice prime slot on BBC1 and lots of trails … and still see your work of art cocked-up by someone who thinks audiences at home are too thick to get a joke unprompted.

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Keep Write On

So, last week could very easily have turned into one of those weeks.  Those weeks are the weeks in the year where sunny optimism is drained away and replaced by hail-battered gloom, when projects new and old are cut down before, during and after their prime, when the keyboard feels like broken glass and 17 pints in the boozer seem like a really, really good idea.

Come to think, I’m not quite sure how last week didn’t manage to turn into one of those weeks.  I finally managed a meeting with type-3 producer, who was sweet and kind and told me she liked and laughed at my sitcom script (why I couldn’t have been told this by email/over the phone still escapes me) only to discover 10 minutes later that – even before my script was commissioned – a sitcom with a not-altogether-unconnected premise already had a series scheduled.  This makes several months worth of writing, corner-fighting and tactical strop-throwing utterly pointless.

Then the next day I discovered that another producer has decided that the book she had originally agreed was “perfect for adaptation” was actually far less than perfect, again negating a lot of work involved in roughing it out.

So, not a good week.  The question is, why didn’t I end up drowning my sorrows?  And the answer is, because drowning my sorrows wouldn’t have got anything commissioned ( the fact that it’s taken me a decade to realise this suggests that I’m really nowhere near as bright as I like to think myself).  Instead of the pub I found myself back at the keyboard, making a frantic set of emergency changes to the script and treatment for the sitcom and drafting out the best argument I can muster to save the adaptation.  Will they work?  Probably not.  Nonetheless I feel much, much better for having at least made these rescue attempts.  Maybe Robert the Bruce and his spider had the right idea after all.

… over at Larval Subjects.  It’s actually addressed to the question of writing productivity and the academic but much of it holds for any writer.

Check out the whole post but here are a couple of extracts …

… we create a sort of ideal audience in our minds that already possesses knowledge of everything we’re trying to say and then deny ourselves the possibility of writing because writing under these circumstances is impossible.

Oh yes, been there, done that.

And now, the best advice any writer can get …

… the more you write the more you will write. This sounds like an idiotic tautology, but the point isn’t that if you write more you’ll write more. Rather, the point is that thought and writing grow It is very difficult to write a lot if you don’t write at all. However, if writing becomes a part of your daily routine, this writing will generate further concepts and ideas, which will, in turn, become the ground of yet other ideas. The activity of inscription allows thought to come into being. As you write the more you write the less painful this experience will become, the more your plant will grow.

Anyone who’s ever tried to put pen to paper for a living knows this only too well but still the reminder is always useful: a writer writes.

Cheat!

So, did anyone see BBC1’s Hunter?  It’s one of those shows that falls effortlessly into the category of “Superior Police Procedural” and boasts some great characters (Hugh Bonneville’s harassed and overworked DSI and Janet McTeer’s rude, semi-alcoholic but efficient and effortlessly charismatic DS) and some great acting – Bonneville seems to have recovered well from the metre-thick wedge of ham and cheese he had to adopt for Bonekickers and Janet McTeer is, as always, just brilliant, transforming relatively few lines into a dominating performance (there was one scene, I swear, where she had nothing to do but sit in the back of a car, listening while the other characters talked and yet you spent all your time just watching her listening).  McTeer is one of those actors you’d give your right arm to cast in something, rather like David Tennant: you just can’t avoid watching them when their on screen/stage.

All of this is very well but why, you may be asking, is this entry entitled “Cheat!”?  Well, that’s simple.  It’s because part 1 of the two-part Hunter featured what I regard as a cardinal sin of screenwriting.  It goes like this (**Spoiler Alert**) : Detective A is having an affair; he is confronted by his, possibly pregnant ex (whom I might as well call X); he tells X that his latest conquest isn’t in the department and is nobody anyone knows; X says “in that case what’s her name?”; cut to a hospital ante-natal unit, Nurse 1 calls to Nurse 2, “Hannah”.  What that sequence tells us is that Detective A’s girlfriend is the ante-natal nurse called Hannah.  It tells us that as clearly as if they had put up a subtitle under Hannah saying, “Hannah, ante-natal nurse, Detective A’s girlfriend”.  That’s the way the grammar of cinema/TV works.  So it was bloody annoying (if increasingly obvious) when Detective A’s girlfriend turned out to be his DI and Hannah turned out to be one of the baddies.

I have no objection to the lies told by Detective A (“She’s not in the department”, “Nobody knows her”) because that’s what characters do, they lie and cheat and do whatever else real people do, but I get bloody annoyed when a script uses  the screen itself to lie to the viewer.  It’s as bad a failing as the deus ex machina ending or Agatha Christie’s habit of concealing vital information from the reader until the moment someone like Hercule Poirot announces, during his final confrontation with the villain that he spotted it weeks ago.

Time to think

I’m really happy with my New Year’s resolutions. Really, really happy.  What differentiates this year’s set from all the previous ones is that they’re prescriptive rather than proscriptive, “thou shalts” rather than “thou shalt nots” and, as such, leave one with a feeling of achievement, rather than a fear of failure.

Probably the most successful resolutions are those relating to the timetabling of my day.  For years I’ve been a believer in getting down to work early and carrying on through the day.  That, at least, was the theory.  In fact what I’ve believed in is sitting in front of my computer early, then finding as many ways to distract myself from working as possible (oh Wikipedia!  how you tempt me with your “Random article” link) until it gets to 10.30 and I can slope off to a coffee shop for a shot of caffeine and a bun, before returning to my computer hours later only to realise that (a) calories have left my brain lethargic and (b) actually, my VAT return is probably more important than the next few pages of script.

Having a set beginning and end to the “main project” part of my writing day, with afternoons left aside for all those irritating bits of admin and, er, paying jobs,  has been a massive improvement.  Obviously, kicking the various distractions into the long grass of the afternoon helps productivity during the morning but, more than this, ending the main project at noon and not starting it again until 8.30/9ish the next day gives plenty of time to ponder what those next 3ish hours of writing will involve.  A lot of the time one chooses to distract oneself when writing because one doesn’t really know what’s coming next.  It’s much easier to surf the net/go for a bun/play-17-hours-of-LittleBigPlanet-and-still-get-stuck-on-that-sodding-wheel-of-death than it is to sit down and come up with the answer to “what happens next”.  Under the new regime, I (and my subconscious) get 21 hours to work on that problem, with the result that, when I start in anew on the film script each day, I know pretty much exactly what I want to happen and how I’m going to get there.  It’s hugely liberating.   Now why didn’t I think of it 10 years ago?

Here are two important cliches about writing:

  1. It’s worse than coal mining
  2. Writers are lions led by donkeys

Obviously, these are only cliches among writers.  Equally obviously, they’re not necessarily true.  But there’s something in each of them.

As to “worse than coal mining” (that may be a bit of an old reference these days, now that there are only about 3 people in the whole country involved in deep-cast mining), well who doesn’t think there’s something uniquely testing about their job, even if the testing thing is only boredom.  In the case of writing, the testing thing is frequent self-doubt, the worries as to whether what one is writing is good or awful (this isn’t just me, as you’ll know if you read Wednesday’s entry).

As to writers being “lions led by donkeys”, well sometimes it really does feel like that.  There are essentially three sorts of executive (be they producer/exec/department head or whomsoever): type 1 is efficient, returns emails swiftly, has their schedule well worked out, but thinks in spreadsheet (“Act 1 needs to end 2 pages earlier and there need to be 2.5 foreshadowings of the mid-act turning point by page 27”); type 2 is less efficient, has a desk that sometimes resembles a minor explosion in a paper factory but always has time for writers and can be persuaded to spitball ideas down the pub towards the end of the day; type 3 loves talking about ideas, loves the 27 shows they’re working on, loves your work in particular … but can’t answer a single email, keep an appointment or even remember your existence the moment you’ve left the building.

This week I’ve had to deal with a type-2 with type 1-leanings and with a type-3.  Or, at least, I was supposed to be dealing with my type-3 but … after the hour-and-a-half long trip into central London to meet them, it turned out they’d completely forgotten the appointment (despite the confirming email I sent on Monday) and had decided to work from home.  To make things even more annoying, this same person has been sitting on my commissioned script since October and I still don’t even know if they’ve read it.  Dealing with this kind of producer can leave you feeling that the lions and donkeys comparison is really rather unfair on the donkeys.

On the other hand, my type-2 with type-1 leanings producer was great – lots of clear, no-bullshit feedback on the ideas I’d come up with and a plan of forward movement.  Even better, I actually got told that I could be much darker and more daring with one of the projects I was pitching.  You NEVER get that kind of feedback, except in your wildest dreams … and then you also have to put up with Famke Janssen demanding that you get back to bed and don’t forget the whipped cream.

So, the lesson is simple: type-3 producers should be taken out and shot.  What is weird though, is that when you talk to other executives, it’s almost always the type-3 producers that they’ll direct you towards – “Oh, he’s very creative”, “She’s definitely going to do well”, “Such wonderful ideas”.   As William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything”.

Actually, that’s not quite right: for a very wise post on the need for writers to plough on in the face of adversity, why not look here?

It’s funny this.  I always assumed that other writers enjoyed writing as much as I do but at the weekend I was chatting to someone who – despite having graced radio and TV with some fantastic sketches and sitcom episodes – admitted that he often hates the job: the gnawing doubts, the worries over deadlines, the constant interference from assorted TV/radio hierarchs, many of whom seem to know less than nothing about the actual business of putting a good and successful show on the air.  Again, read something like Russell T Davies’s The Writer’s Tale, covering a year of writing Dr Who, and you’ll see much the same complaints and more (although it quickly becomes apparent that, not-so-deep-down-inside, he loves the job with a real passion).

The fact that I’m really enjoying what I’m writing at the moment now begins to worry me.  Admittedly, the film script is an uncommissioned project and thus free from any deadline or interference outside my control, but am I really doing it right if I’m not wracked with guilt/grief/anger about it?

Still, I can at least belatedly point to one unalloyed piece of good news: the Golden Globe award for Sally Hawkins.  As she had a major role in a piece I adapted for radio a few years ago I’m happy to claim her success is all down to me (even in the face of the fact that it clearly isn’t and I’ve probably exchanged no more than 20 words with her).