Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Age Before Duty?

Sunday night I emailed The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo to tell her about the suit, wondering whether it would be her jaw or the back of her head that hit the floor in stunned amazement. As a lawyer, she always had to be well turned out for work, while I was dressed down at the animation studio.

Although I made an effort, she used to hint that I could make a bit more effort at times. I put up with the odd barb and she put up with me because the sex was really great.

In fact after we broke up she’d still come round for sex until I told her it was messing with my head. Then she’d come round for a bath and after five minutes soaking in the tub ask me to bring her a cup of tea. Cunning.

Still, it was better than when I met up with The One That Got Away, four years after we broke up. After a few meals out, she spent the night screwing me senseless. A week later an invitation to her wedding arrived in the post. Unsurprisingly I didn’t go.*

Within a couple of hours of me sending the email The Blonde sent back a reply. We’d only spoken or corresponded rarely over the past years. Suddenly she wanted to know what I was up to and whether, the next time she’s down in London for a conference, we could meet up. That seriously suits me.

She also asked me what I was doing for my birthday. Which was more of a surprise because she hadn’t sent a card or even mentioned it for quite a while. With everything going on I’d forgotten which darn day it was, especially since, with the folks halfway around the world on their second holiday of the year, I didn’t have my mum to call up and remind me.

Obviously the date bounced up in the paperwork today. And the old dear had got someone to post the card while they were away. Typically it rained all day. Having picked up the second season of The Outer Limits on DVD in a sale recently – I think it was a tenner – I came back and watched Demon With a Glass Hand while eating what was left from last night’s chicken stir-fry.

Living the high life. And because of the fill-in work keeping me busy, I didn’t get around to inviting that girl to jump naked out of a cake either. Damn.

*Maybe I should blog about the litany of twisted crash-and-burn relationships I’ve been involved in. That should fill up a good amount of space. But on second thoughts I don’t think I could afford everyone’s therapy bills.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Grand Dame

Was that speech pure class or what?

Colonials take note: That's how it should be done!

(And huzzah to Alan Arkin and Martin Scorsese.)

Suits Me

Got talked into doing some fill-in work for a company in Wembley. Nothing too exciting, but it gives me something to do while Work Buddy bashes his head against a wall with the DVD authoring for a regular client who really should have his beaten against a wall, repeatedly.

The thing with the Wembley gig is that the dress code means I have to wear a suit. Which meant that today was the first time I’ve worn a suit to work, ever.

All these years bouncing about between animation studios, design and advertising consultancies, documentary film making companies, and even more animation companies, I’ve managed to get away with it, wearing anything from smart casual to scruff, and all points in between, depending on how many hours we were racking up that week.

I’ve only really worn the one suit I have for weddings and funerals, but I never felt comfortable. Flashbacks to the years of school uniforms didn’t help as well as always feeling constricted around the neck and wrists.

So I was dreading it. Until I went out and bought myself a new suit. Sure, it cost more than twice what I had been planning to pay, but it fits perfectly, I actually feel good wearing it, and I’m getting looks from the ladies.

I mentioned the last point to Work Buddy who said “Now you see why I wear the damn things!”

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wrap It Up

A week after De Montfort University’s Television Scriptwriting Workshop, it’s time to stop rabbiting on about it and move on to other topics. But before I grasp blindly for something new to talk about, a few final bits and pieces to round it up.

After the applause died down following the last talk of the day, the 1st Year Tutor stepped forward to thank everyone for coming. Planning the event they had initially expected twenty people to turn up. They got that wrong because the lecture theater was packed out, with additional chairs having to be brought in to seat everyone.

While there was a lot Work Buddy and I knew about the process, there was an invaluable whole lot more we learnt from the assembled speakers. After their talks most of them stuck around and were happy to chat. The only person who lit out as soon as he was done was Paul Ashton, the Development Manager of the BBC’s writersroom, who probably had a prior engagement. Sorry Lucy, he slipped from my grasp.

There was no opinionated, self-centred twaddle from individuals when it came to questions from the audience. Which was a very good thing. The gamut of experience amongst those attending meant that some people asked specific, knowing questions while another asked what “greenlighting a project” meant.

The guest speakers agreed that when you come up with an idea keep working on it until it works. Writing dialogue comes last so don’t sit down to write until you know where you are. If you race ahead and start the journey without a map you’ll probably get lost.

When you have finished a script put it away in a drawer for up to six weeks - “maturing in wood” - then see how it reads. It’s better to get it right rather than get it in. And don’t just work on one thing at a time because life will just stop still while you wait for a response.

Oh, and there is no secret cabal or charmed circle that steals ideas and only gives the work to people they know. All you need to get your work on television are three things: Talent, Drive and Luck.

One final piece of advice from Laurence Marks: Enjoy the slow time. Because once you get your foot in the door it won’t stop.

So that’s it. A number of the MA students helped run the event and we talked to one about the course over a glass of wine. Everyone in Leicester was incredibly friendly, which made a change from the sourpusses that stalk the streets of London.

A letter arrived Friday from the MA in TV Scriptwriting Course Tutors thanking me for attending and hoping I had an enjoyable and interesting day. Plans are underway for a similar event next year. I suspect they’ll need a bigger room.

Research For Real

In his Drama Keynote Speech at De Montfort University’s one day Television Scriptwriting Workshop, Tony Marchant illustrated his talk with clips of two new projects - Recovery, shown later this evening on BBC1, and the Iraq War drama Mark of Cain, which will be broadcast on Channel 4 in the near future – and couldn’t stress enough how much research helped inform his writing.

Starring David Tennant and Sarah Parrish, Recovery is about the unconditional love between a man and a woman after his whole personality changes in the wake of a road accident.

Preparing to write the drama, Mr Marchant worked extensively with the brain injury association Headway who introduced him to people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and their families, who gave him insight into how they have coped. Prior to Mark of Cain, he managed to meet up with disenchanted soldiers back from Tours of Duty in the Gulf.

He explained that to write you have to get the facts right and know what you are talking about. You can’t get it wrong. You can’t simple wing it. You have to do your research. “You can’t beat the insights you will get,” he told the assembled audience. “Don’t be arrogant enough to think that you have the insights sitting alone at the computer.”

Research of course can be a costly and time-consuming business but Mr Marchant noted that everyone should be alive to the possibilities of research enhancing their work. Even though he now sometimes has a paid researcher written into his contracts, Mr Marchant still gets scared that he may be missing out on the slightest gesture or remark that will help bring the work to life.

Friday, February 23, 2007


With Paul Ashton on the Drama Q&A panel at the Television Scriptwriting Workshop, talk obviously veered toward the BBC writersroom.

Set up to read unsolicited material submitted to the BBC, the writersroom (according to the handout) “works across Drama, Entertainment, and CBBC to target and nurture new writing talent.” Which means they read the material sent their way, assess the potential talent of the writer, as well as the script’s suitability for any of the BBC strands.

Everyone can have a good idea. It’s having the ability to follow through with it that counts. Mr Ashton noted that typically there were no hard and fast rules to what they were looking for. Across the panel, the clear consensus was that the material had to have that indefinable extra spark to it.

With (according to the literature) up to 200 scripts arriving at writersroom every week, the readers tend to limit each submission to just the first ten pages. If they find themselves reading something that hooks them, they keep going, looking, at the next page marker to have a grasp of what the story is.

Working through the submissions, the readers then meet up in London on a regular basis and discuss the merits of the material amongst themselves. As well as finding new talent, Mr Ashton explained the writersroom is there to encourage new writers who aren’t quite there yet and provide feedback on their work.

“What is the story? Whose story is it?” is the most common note from the readers. If material arrives that ticks all the boxes, Mr Ashton asks the writer in for a chat and then sends the script on to the relevant department head. Whereupon Doctors, Casualty, Holby City or EastEnders beckons.

Giving it some more thought, putting untried writers on one of these shows is a good training ground. For an entry-level writer, getting their foot on the first rung of the ladder, it’s probably a pretty good gig. Just as Laurence Marks mentioned how some of the new writers taken on by Alomo Productions could do the funnies but didn’t have it in them to create their own comedies, some new-found drama writers may be able to come up with dialogue and situations, but can’t come up with the whole package.

My problem with the quartet of ongoing shows is that they’re the foundation of BBC drama. A good portion of the annual drama budget is being shovelled into their gaping maws and they’re just so freaking dull and worthy. Still, if you’re on the outside and you want to get in, the writersroom is the door.

The simple truth, as one of the panel noted, is that the demand for talent is huge.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Obsessions & Notions

...is what it all comes down to. But more about that later.

The saving grace of the late morning Drama Q&A at De Montfort University’s one day Television Scriptwriting Workshop was that it came after Laurence Marks’ excellent Comedy Keynote speech. If it had come first on the schedule, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach would have pushed me to crawling under the seat and hacking off my ears with my front door key.

The panel was chaired by BBC Executive Producer Mervyn Watson, who, even before everyone seated around him had finished giving a brief rundown of their career, was already fervently bigging up the BBC Drama Series Writing Academy initiative. Never mind that it was for writers who have already had at least one film, television or radio drama script produced or one theatre piece performed professionally, and when he asked who fell into this category the percentage of the audience that raised their hands was low, Mr Watson kept hammering the point home.

Initiated by John Yorke, Controller of Continuing Drama Series, the Academy trains a number of writers each year, culminating in guaranteed work on Doctors, Casualty, Holby City or EastEnders. In my notes I scribbled down “the most boring fucking hospital drama ever!” which, from the list, doesn’t exactly narrow it down.

Hospital settings make for great drama because it runs the whole gamut from birth, life and death, and I know we should be standing on the touchline cheering on homegrown shows – because apparently anyone who doesn’t is a schmuck! – but Doctors, Casualty, Holby City or EastEnders? I mean, Jesus! I assume at some point in the year Doctors and Casualty take a break but Mr Watson made it known that Holby City runs 52 episodes a year and, although it has been recently denied in the press, EastEnders will soon be broadcast five nights a week. In total, somewhere between 200 and 300 hours of bland drama produced annually. Which means they need writers.

Make the grade and there’s the opportunity for an in and regular paycheques but... Look, I’m not trying to make out that I’m some highly principled idealist. I’ve worked on McDonalds commercials and the like in the past and for pharmaceutical companies more recently, so I certainly haven’t gotten away clean. But at least I had the choice of being allowed to spit rather than be forced to swallow. Wouldn’t it be better for the Writing Academy to work on rearing a juicy steak every once in a while rather than churning out a conveyor belt of toadburgers?

Worse, Paul Ashton, the Development Manager of the BBC’s writersroom, chimed in as he talked about two new exceptional talents that had recently been discovered through his selection process who, after careful shaping, were now writing for these damn hospital dramas. All the while, all I could think about was Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Luckily the two other members of the panel – literary agent Frances Arnold and Jyoti Fernandes, a writer and producer who was a very welcome last minute substitution for Lizzie Mickery, who had come down with the flu – didn’t wholeheartedly endorse their opinion. Which was a good thing.

Thankfully nobody asked Tony Marchant’s opinion. As the afternoon’s Drama Keynote Speaker he soon made plain his feelings of some of UK TV’s current hackneyed offerings and implored each person in the audience to find their own voice.

Beginning his career as a playwright before branching in to television, Mr Marchant wrote the award-winning Holding On, Passer By, and Kid in the Corner as well as adaptations of Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. The recipient of BAFTA’s 1999 Dennis Potter Award, he reminded us that Potter had once remarked writers have only two stories or themes that they constantly rework – their demons and obsessions.

A Catholic brought up on an East London council estate, Mr Marchant identified themes of guilt and moral responsibility as being prevalent in his work. Even when it was for more mainstream drama, the themes were still smuggled into the story.

To show how that could be done, by way of an example Mr Marchant gave us The Adventures of Robin Hood. ITV's first hit series back in the very early days of commercial television, the series was scripted in part by blacklisted writers who, having fled the McCarthy witch hunts, turned family tea-time viewing into a drama about a corrupt society.

That said, Mr Marchant reminded everyone that writing about obsessions is not therapy by proxy, which meant attention must had to be paid to the story. But the passion for the story had to come from the writer.

After the Workshop was over there was an Evening Reception with wine and nibbles in the foyer. Briefly talking to Mr Marchant about his obsessions, I said, “So this makes you the English David Milch.” He laughed and said he liked that, rolling the words around on his tongue to see how it sounded.

One of the second year MA students clustered around him, who hopefully had initially misheard, asked “Who?” Ouch.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Life Without Mars

When the first series of Life on Mars premiered on BBC1 early last year, Work Buddy and I were up to our necks fighting a deadline. Most of that week, if the machines were powered down before one in the morning it was something of a minor miracle.

Looking back, I wondered if this might have coloured our opinion of the show. A couple of minutes before the first episode’s transmission we left the computers and retired to the sofas. Roughly nine minutes later the television was turned off and we were back at our desks, busy with the edit.

Back during the fun and games of the animation days, with short-schedule projects continually battering us over the head (as well as slapping us around the face and neck), there were a number of damn good dramas I missed out on due to time constraints including, I’m rather ashamed to admit, the first handful of episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street. So as not to repeat the mistake, for the next few years I got into the habit of assigning each new drama a video cassette all to itself and taping the first few episodes, watching them when the pressure had eased up.

With everyone going on about just how ace and skill Life on Mars was, I tuned in to the odd decidedly-odd episode and was mildly entertained. With the second series making an appearance, last week London’s Evening Standard newspaper helpfully provided a free promotional DVD containing the first two episodes of the show.

Back from Leicester, late on Sunday afternoon, I put my feet up and watched them more or less back to back to give them a second chance. Sadly it didn’t alter my earlier opinion. Sorry. The opening episode still seemed too hurried, as if they were racing ahead so they could start play-acting The Sweeney as soon as possible.

To get to where they wanted to be, the script was just too tortuously convoluted to attempt to explain the too-high high concept. Briefly chatted over a drink at the NFT bar last week, even our Friend at the BFI admitted the episode would have worked better extended with an extra half an hour running time. This morning it was interesting to read Andrew Billen’s interview with Life on Mars’ John Simm in The Times and discover the actor dumped the script straight in the trash once he got to the page when the lead character wakes up in 1973.

Last week I missed the second series’ opening episode because I was out watching TKM’s Diary of a Young Man. At home tonight, I opted for the first part of Michael Cockerall’s documentary series Blair – The Inside Story, which continues over the next two weeks. After that I’ll have to find a different excuse.

Overjoyed Whoop!

The latest trailer for The Simpsons Movie is up on Apple's Quicktime site.

Now in it's eighteenth year, the show may not be as good as the earlier, funnier episodes, but this looks a hoot.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Funny Business

In the advance material for De Montfort’s Television Scriptwriting Workshop, the Comedy Keynote Speaker was still to be confirmed. On the day it turned out to be Laurence Marks.

Suffering from a cold, but only taking one time out to swig from a bottle of cough syrup, Mr Marks talked about how he got into the game, joining up with his writing partner Maurice Gran, and laid out the process of writing comedy. It wasn’t a laughing matter.

A number of years back I wrote a comedy piece that was performed live in front of an audience. I only did it because the person who regularly wrote the material took exception to me calling his last effort utter rubbish and suggested I do it, if I thought I could do better.

With better actors performing the parts it probably would have got a more positive reception from the audience. As it was, two of the performers went on stage having not properly rehearsed, a third didn’t want to be there and had been previously camped out at the bar, and the past year’s writer (who made up the quartet) kept adding his own jokes, which didn’t fit the situation. The audience didn’t get most of the references or appreciate the word play. After the smattering of applause dwindled, the person sitting beside me suggested it would have worked with more fart and poo jokes. Great.

Apart from working on the jokes – because, after all, comedy needs the funnies – most of the time had been spent working on the piece’s structure. There was not much I could do with the characters, which were already established and little more than caricatures. But the situation, as I saw it then, was the most important thing.

Years after the fact it was gratifying to hear Mr Marks explain that while character was vital, a good structure was even more vital for the characters to come out. In front of the Television Workshop audience he explained that structure was everything. Until you know about drama you can’t do comedy. (Back writing the performed piece, I tried to explain to the previous writer that just going for joke after joke after joke without story was basically stand-up, but it repeatedly fell on deaf ears).

Between the advice, Mr Marks talked about his entrance into writing comedy for television with Mr Gran, from working on Frankie Howerd’s radio show to the joy of being invited to the BBC for a cup of tea. He also covered their sojourn in Hollywood, writing television comedy at Paramount Studios where they worked in the collection of suites and offices that comprised the Writers Block. Then there was the tale of the Punch-Up Man.

Founding Alomo Productions in 1989, Marks and Gran took on a number of new writers. Some didn’t rise to the challenge or wasted the opportunity presented to them. Others were good with the jokes but didn’t have the talent to reach the stage of creating their own comedy series. The Punch-Up Man would never create his own show, but then he didn’t need to. Guaranteed to make any script 75% funnier, The Punch-Up Man would come in the day before each episode was filmed before a live studio audience, and come up with a stream of alternative lines and wisecracks. Once the script was 75% funnier, he’d take his massive great cheque and piss off home until the next week.

Although Marks and Gran had created the long-running hit sitcoms Birds Of A Feather and Goodnight Sweetheart for the Corporation, they hadn’t worked for the BBC in over six years. Maybe it was down to their McTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1997 in which they demolished the case for the license fee, after which, according to the Workshop’s programme notes, “their BBC car park privileges were revoked”. Or it could have been down to the pair declining the post of Head of BBC Comedy.

The afternoon Sitcom Q&A panel comprised of Bert Tyler-Moore, co-creator of Channel 4’s Star Stories, Justin Sbresni, who with his partner Mark Bussell wrote, produced and directed The Worst Week of My Life, and Michael Jacob, currently Head of Mainstream Comedy for BBC Television. Mr Marks sat in and, after everyone had talked about their work and how they had got into the business, he asked Mr Jacob the process of getting a sitcom on the air.

When Yentob had offered Marks and Gran to be Head of BBC Comedy they asked if they would have the power to say yes. When he said no, they said no. Now, if Mr Jacob liked a project that passed across his desk he would start out by optioning the script. The next stage would be to buy the script and then pay for a second script (presumably to see if the quality and humour was consistent). After that he would present it to the heads of the departments. Then it would go to John Plowman, the BBC’s Head of Comedy, who would have to sell it to the Channel Controllers. Simple.

Getting some air during the afternoon coffee break, I asked Mr Jacob what current comedies he found amusing. Off the top of his head he couldn’t think of a single one.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Write Course

Last week had dragged itself to a sorry end with me sitting at the desk spending more time staring at the shelves of DVDs across the room, wondering if I should reorder them, than adding to the still incomplete Word documents open on the monitors directly in front of me.

At least there wasn’t the opportunity to while the rest of the day away in a near vegetative state. With Work Buddy taking The Governess to Luton Airport to pick up her car, after the flight back from a business meeting yesterday had inconveniently been diverted to Stanstead, I grabbed a train from across the road and met them there so we could eventually continue on up to Leicester for the weekend.

Booked on De Montfort University’s one-day Television Scriptwriting Workshop, Work Buddy had decided we should head up the night before rather than have to wake up in the early hours of Saturday morning and tear up the M1 – with all the fun that entails – to get there on time. And of course a Friday night in a different city gave us the opportunity to... wander around the town centre checking out all the different architectural styles before having dinner at the hotel.

I’m in two minds about screenwriting degree courses. Rather than getting bogged down in argument and opinion, I’d concede that an MA is better than a BA because by the time you enrol on the former as a more mature student you’ve probably been out in the real world and lived some, which is more important.

Of course, having letters after your name isn’t worth a fig if you haven’t got a passion for writing and don’t respond the same way that Vicky Page responds to Boris Lermontov’s initial query. But that’s more or less the same for every discipline.

According to all the speakers, an element of luck was also required, which didn’t really come as a big surprise. Everyone in turn, describing how they broke into the business, mentioned that a degree of luck was a factor, but there had to be talent and determination.

Anyway the day started with coffee and pastries to give everyone time to arrive and register. If, as some folk believe, it’s all based on who you know – obviously the people that tip you the wink and usher you in through the back – then I’m well and truly screwed. Almost as soon as we arrived the MA in TV Scriptwriting’s 1st Year Tutor came up and shook my hand, asking how I was. Initially, I drew a blank, until his prompt reminded me we had only met a couple of weeks ago, in the NFT’s Green Room after the Troy Kennedy Martin interview. Yikes!

The Workshop was neatly divided into a comedy keynote speaker, a drama Q&A, a sitcom Q&A, and a drama keynote speaker, broken up by coffee breaks and a buffet lunch, and then rounded off with an evening reception.

Each of the guests was remarkably candid, certainly opinionated, and didn’t pull any punches. We made extensive notes, were pleased to discover we were pretty much on the right track, and picked up a few tips that can only prove to be very helpful.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Didn’t have to bother this year with flowers and chocolates as a precursor to the equation

Wine + Dine = Supine*

I’m too busy to get involved in the next crash-and-burn relationship, which at least saves me any future grief. If I put some effort into it, maybe. Nobody seems to find the charm-offensive offensive. But ultimately I can do without the eventual grief that comes after the moments of pleasure.

A (different) secretary recently described me to a colleague as “the king of the one-liners” and warned her to watch out for me before giving me a wink. Then, somehow, a conversation yesterday got steered around to me almost convincing a girl to jump naked out of a cake for my birthday in a couple of weeks.

Come to think of it, she suggested the cake. I just voiced my concerns about where the sugar frosting would end up.

* Where that popped into my head from, I have absolutely no idea. If it upsets anyone I apologise in advance. I’m not actively trying to get any more folk to drop me from their links, honest.

Diary Entry

A week after the NFT’s An Evening with Troy Kennedy Martin, last night Our Pal and I were back at the South Bank to watch an evening of TKM-written television that comprised episode one of Diary of a Young Man, The Chase from the BBC series Six, and The Wednesday Play’s Man Without Papers.

In the Spring 1964, two years after creating Z-Cars, Troy Kennedy Martin attacked the theatrical naturalism that had dominated television drama since its beginnings in an article in Encore, the theatre magazine, entitled ‘Nats Go Home: First Statement of a New Drama for Television’.

Beginning this manifesto with the opening salvo:

Television drama at the moment is going nowhere fast. Informed management believe it is so bad it can’t get worse. They are wrong. It can and will destroy itself unless a breakthrough in form I made, substantiated and phased into the general run of drama programmes

TKM announced that television drama should stop being “a makeshift bastard born of the theatre” and instead take on a visual narrative that allowed for a new dynamic realism. His ideas inflamed contemporary writers who saw the style TKM advocated, with an emphasis on visual storytelling influenced by film theory, handed the creative reins to the programme directors.

Four months after the article was published, his six-part Diary of a Young Man was broadcast. Freed from the artistic constraints of studio-shot drama, the series juxtaposed filmed location sequences, video-taped studio scenes, still images montages, music and voiceover.

Directed by “Kenneth” Loach, two years before his groundbreaking Cathy Come Home, the adventures of Roger and his friend Ginger, working class lads from the north looking for “A bird, a pad, and some money”, had an incredible impact when first broadcast. But how would it stand up over 42 years later?

Frankly... it was utterly fucking brilliant! Alternately serious, comic and controversial, the episode had a vibrancy and vitality that made it so much more than a simple snapshot of the Swinging Sixties.

Only episodes one, five and six remain. The final two episodes are being shown at NFT2 this Friday at 6:20. I’m away for the weekend and can’t make it – which seriously pisses me off. But if you can, get yourself down there.

The Chase and Man Without Papers were just as extraordinary. Six gave both writers and film-makers a free hand to experiment and The Chase, written by TKM and John McGrath, and directed by Michael Elster, was a surreal drama set in motion when a motorist unwittingly reverses over a stationary motorbike and is then chased by the motorcycle gang.

The Chase had an almost Pinteresque quality to it, as did Man Without Papers. Originally running for one and a quarter hours, only the first 46 minutes survive. Even without the denouement the socio-political thriller, which revolves in part around a series of telephone calls, was a remarkable piece of writing.

The star of the show was the late Benito Carruthers, as the mysterious Roscoe Mortimer who burnt his passport during the McCarthy days and now wants his identity back. An actor involved in the New York avant-garde scene in the 1960s, Carruthers played his character, in turn cajoling, seductive and threatening. Without a surviving credit sequence, it was only reading the programme notes after the screening that I discovered the songs he sings were written specially for the production by Bob Dylan.

Before the screening started, TKM’s daughter arrived with a friend. She saw us. We waved hello. They sat down and she introduced us as her father’s fan club.

After Man Without Paper’s abrupt ending, as the lights came up TKM’s daughter wanted to know what happened in the end. I shrugged, telling her I didn’t know. At least she could phone her dad and find out.

Monday, February 12, 2007


The annual BAFTAs bunfight took place last night. Tuning in to watch the event, broadcast a couple of hours after the fact, I called up the BBC website to remind myself of the nominees and discovered some helpful soul had already posted the winners for each category. Ace! Thanks for that.

Then again, there was only one award I was seriously rooting for.

Since the Venice Film Festival, Helen Mirren has had virtually every award served up to her, except in this country. At the British Independent Film Awards last November she was beaten by Red Road’s Kate Dickie and then last week, at the London Evening Standard British Film Awards, the Best Actress was awarded to Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal. I’m not saying all the voters should follow like sheep when it comes to ticking the box, and not having seen all the performances I can’t really comment, but there is a certain bloody mindedness in this country to be different just because. Anyway, she won.

This year the BAFTAs came from The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which made for a better location than the Odeon, Leicester Square, with its tired leopard print seats. (Of course it has been a while since I’ve watched a movie there so they may have re-upholstered).

The other big difference was the change in presenters after Stephen Fry stepped down. I’m a big fan of Fry’s witty and erudite locution. Next year the BAFTA council should make him an offer he can’t refuse and haul him back on stage. Because Jonathan Ross’ shtick was the awards show equivalent of a bad Best man’s speech. After a few embarrassed titters at the outset, each punchline was repeatedly met with a deafening silence that filled the auditorium of Edward Middleton Barry’s architectural masterpiece.*

The material seemed so forced that the arrival of Ricky Gervais to present an award was a welcome relief: “The BAFTA for Best Animated Film goes to... Helen Mirren! Oh, this is getting ridiculous. You can’t even lick a stamp any more.” (Happy Feet actually won).

If Ross was bad, what the hell was with the interviewer pouncing on the recipients backstage as they made their way to the press room? Asking Helen Mirren how she felt was a pretty crass question after she had almost lost it on stage paying tribute to the recently departed Ian Richardson who had been a mentor early on in her career at the RSC.

There were a few no-shows that missed out of being asked stupid questions. Amongst them was Michael Arndt who won Best Original Screenplay for Little Miss Sunshine. At least he had an excuse for not picking up the Best Original Screenplay Award in person. These things will happen when the BAFTAs are handed out the same night as the WGA awards.

After the awards were spread out across a number of competing films (except The Departed), it was great that the annual BAFTA Fellowship was awarded to editor Anne V. Coates, who gave a marvellous speech. After more or less starting out working on Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes she worked for the likes of David Lean, cutting together the miles of footage for Lawrence of Arabia and later helping with the film’s eventual restoration in the late 1980s, Sidney Lumet, John Sturges, David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh. And hey, Potdoll, she also edited Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines!

Seeing the clips from Lawrence of Arabia reminded me of buying the video years back (now replaced on shiny disc obviously). Christ knows what had happened at the duplication plant running off the tapes but the whole attack on Akaba sequence was missing. Maybe they had accidentally omitted one reel. Either way, it cut from travelling through the desert to Lawrence on his camel at the sea.

When I took the tape back, the chap behind the counter at HMV asked if I wanted to replace it with another copy. Only if it has the attack on Akaba, I told him. He stared blankly then told me to pick something else.

* Obviously you've got to have balls of steel to stand on stage and host this kind of ceremony. I hated talking in front of a handful of my fellow students at The Esteemed School of Art. Put in Ross’ place I'd probably wee myself and then scarper.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Prime Awful

Okay, so it wasn’t that bad - maybe the post should have been entitled Prime Adequate - but there was still something about Primeval that felt kind of flat.

For what it was, ITV made a better fist of it than Doctor Who, whose Saturday night family audience the network is obviously chasing. If I was watching this as a kid, or rather when I was a kid, I’d probably be glued to the box. But almost 14 years after everyone was wowed by the CGI dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Primeval didn’t really have enough going for it.

Maybe I’m just jaded. But it seems just another excuse for Impossible Pictures and Framestore CFC to roll out the builds they made for the likes of the 2002 version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Dinotopia, Walking with Dinosaurs, and its sequels Walking with Monsters and Walking with Beasts, and ITV’s recent Prehistoric Park.

I hope I’m proved wrong in the future. There is the interesting story thread of the evolutionary paleontologist leading the dinobusters discovering the personal effects of his missing wife after temporarily heading back through the temporal rift, but the first episode seemed to simply tick all the boxes by rote without really adding anything new.

Still, there are five more episodes to come. While the preview of next week’s episode seems to be little more than an extended bug hunt through the tunnels of the London Underground, there was (obviously for the dads in the audience) a quick flash of the blonde zoologist wandering about in her underwear.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Duelling Obits

A good indicator of how cock-eyed this wonderful celebrity-mired world we‘ve come to inhabit came about this week with the unexpected deaths of Ian Richardson and Anna Nicole Smith.

The former was one of the UK’s most highly respected actors of stage and screen. The other, an exotic dancer who wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe, turned herself into the main attraction in a three-ring media circus.

No prizes for guessing which one captured the attention of the British news programmes and newspapers.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Not Soon Enough

Somebody emailed me information about a job vacancy for a Publications Officer.

In the job description appeared the sentence:

In addition you will oversea proofreading, production and distribution to ensure the magazine is delivered on time and in budget.

Sometimes the shit gets so weird you just can’t make it up.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

An Evening With TKM

The evening out began with an announcement: “British Transport Police to the Victoria Line platforms. Help a member of staff with a drunken lady!” Ah, the joys of King’s Cross. And only just past five in the afternoon!

Trains rumbled lazily out of Charing Cross as I crossed the Thames. Below me the surface of the water shone blood red, reflecting the lights from the London Eye.

What was billed as An Evening With Troy Kennedy Martin, at the NFT, didn’t start for over two hours by the time I arrived. First there was a screening of The Italian Job. Having not sorted out the tickets myself, I didn’t know if we were on the list for the film. We weren’t, but a seat could easily be arranged.

The people I was meeting hadn’t turned up yet so I declined. Which turned out to be a good thing. Our Pal arrived a little later and we were killing time in the bar, waiting for everyone else to arrive, when TKM appeared with his daughter.

Amongst the books Our Pal has written/co-written, one covers a television show TKM had been heavily involved in. It’s an exceptionally well researched and entertaining read, and one that TKM was especially pleased with. (Anyone who listened to Radio 4’s Front Row last week will know that he’s not as forthcoming with his praise). When an autograph hunter actually appeared with their book for TKM to sign he insisted Our Pal and his writing partner, who had recently arrived, sign it as well.

Charming and avuncular, TKM chatted about his existing work as well as mentioning some of his unrealised projects. One of his favourites was a script about Enzo Ferrari which at one point Michael Mann was attached to direct. Even if it did eventually get made, TKM was resigned to the fact that it would be significantly altered from his original vision.

In fact later in the season of his work at the NFT there was to be a talk about the various as yet unfilmed scripts. Ironically, it had to be cancelled because of a recent project about global warming, in collaboration with James Lovelock, being greenlit. As his friends began to arrive, we left TKM to greet them and meandered away to take our seats in NFT1.

The talk was prefaced by the cliffhanging climax of The Italian Job, which seemed like an odd choice since it was well documented that TKM had originally written a different resolution that had been rejected and had nothing to do with what eventually appeared on screen. That said it was a good starting point. Talk turned to TKM’s almost cavalier attitude to endings, figuring out they would resolve themselves as production continued.

The Italian Job was meant to be a much darker affair, with TKM originally envisioning Nichol Williamson in the role eventually played by Noel Coward. With the interview interspersed with clips, an almost anarchic humour was revealed in even the most serious subject matter, whether it was a clip from Z-Cars, a savage beating – following a pub brawl – in The Sweeney that is cut short when the trio pummeling Sgt Carter recognise him as a fellow policeman, or the ambitious 12-part Reilly, Ace of Spies, based on the life of Sigmund Rosenblum. There was also time for Darius Jedburgh’s famous line from Edge of Darkness:

“Have you been to Dallas, Craven? It’s where we shoot our presidents. The Jews have their Calvary, but we got Dealey Plaza.”

Just marvellous.

On the way home, waiting on the platform at Blackfriars for one of the last trains north, an already overfed pigeon ambled over and stared me down the whole time I sat waiting on the bench, expecting food I didn’t possess.

An Evening With TKM – The Name-Dropping Version

At the NFT bar, as TKM spoke of the Ferrari project, his friends and colleagues began to filter in. Tony Garnett appeared, then Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi, followed by GF Newman and Ken Loach. Producer Michael Wearing make a late entrance just before the interview was about to begin and later we discovered Trevor Preston in the audience.

Having met Tony Garnett some years back at the bar outside Channel Four’s screening room on Horseferry Road, I went over and reintroduced myself. That first meeting, prior to the press screening of World Productions' No Angels, we discussed The South Bank Show special about the then-state of British Drama. Garnett had been asked to contribute and turned them down in no uncertain terms. ‘Catching up’, and skirting back around the same subject, I discovered exactly why Garnett had rejected their advances and left with a handshake and a smile.

After the interview was over, outside the theater, we ran into TKM’s daughter who invited us to join them in the NFT’s Green Room for a drink. We milled around, chatting with the BFI staff we knew and TKM. I even managed a brief chat with Michael Wearing before it was time to leave.

The hungry pigeon at Blackfriars still remained unidentified.

Monday, February 05, 2007


This evening the BBC paid tribute to Magnus Magnusson who died earlier this year. Although he had a long and varied career as a broadcaster, journalist and writer, Magnusson was best known as the presenter of Mastermind, which ran for a quarter century from 1972.

At a time when television quizzes are growing more ridiculous in their execution and the questions replace trivia for knuckle-dragging, knuckle-headed fuckwits who still can’t get the answer, Mastermind was about knowledge. Thankfully bereft of flashing lights, carnival sets and faux dramatic pauses, Mastermind was simplicity itself.

The show was the brainchild of a former RAF gunner turned television producer. The show’s ritual of asking the contestant’s name, occupation and specialist subject was based on his experiences as a Prisoner of War in Germany, reciting name, rank and serial number during questioning.

The contestant sat on a black chair with a spotlight shone at them. It was staged as an interrogation, Magnusson was the inquisitor and intelligence won out. Watching the show, growing up, it was doubtful that I could any any of the specialist questions, especially when the subjects were more esoteric. But that wasn't really the issue.

If the BBC's original mandate was to inform, educate and entertain, as present-DG Mark Thompson said in the tribute, Mastermind was the programme that expertly drew together those values. At a time when intelligence wasn't a dirty word, if I didn’t know the answer it meant I learnt something.

Though the show eventually came back after a six year absence, I discovered either I had become certainly more intelligent in the intervening years or the questions were less difficult. The same could be said for University Challenge, although in that instance it could be the students getting thicker.

Tonight, faced with a photograph of Peter O’Toole as TE Lawrence, the students of Corpus Christi, Oxford identified him as “Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.” The withering look Jeremy Paxman gave them was wholly deserved.

ITV Three

Back when I was a kiddie ITV showed lots of big bright American dramas. Their schedule was littered with the likes of Hawaii Five-O, The Six Million Dollar Man and Magnum PI.

While not the kind of shows I’d care to watch now – except perhaps Magnum PI, which displayed the same easy charm The Rockford Files had in spades – they did provide colour and entertainment to a dour, overcast England. Then over the years with the arrival of new channels, beginning with Channel 4, ITV stopped looking to the West Coast for new programming.

It was surprising to read in today’s Media Guardian that LA Law had been the last American import ITV had screened in primetime. Sure they went on to buy David E Kelley’s The Practice and Millennium – which I can only imagine they had paid for sight unseen – but both were buried in late-night slots as were the more recent Numbers and Supernatural.

It was more surprising to discover that ITV’s director of acquisitions had recently taken the company chequebook over to LA and picked up a selection of new dramas. Then again with four channels to feed, ITV can’t carry on repeating what appears to be all the old US dramas the BBC used to broadcast in the 1970s and 80s.

Perhaps not having the same budget to pick and choose as Channel 4, who, having lost Lost to Sky, are apparently having to cough up £1m an episode to keep Desperate Housewives from suffering the same fate, the woman from ITV still came back through customs with three new shows to place amongst the quartet of channels.

Unfortunately one of the picks, Six Degrees from Lost’s JJ Abrams, lasted only six episodes after it premiered on ABC so it’s fate in the UK is now uncertain. Friday Night Lights may be critically acclaimed but it hasn’t scored big in the ratings and may not go another season. While I like the occasional, sometimes quirky, small town dramas like Northern Exposure, one set in the Great Plains and centred around high school football didn’t do it for me. I watched the pilot and really couldn’t have cared less.

That leaves The Black Donnellys, the story of four Irish American brothers caught up in New York’s organised crime scene, which comes from Paul Haggis who made the incredibly pretentious Oscar-winning Crash. Whether it’s a success or not remains to be seen, as the show doesn’t debut in the US until early March.

I liked Haggis’ short-lived, morally ambiguous EZ Streets, but I’m in two minds about whether I want The Black Donnellys to be a success. NBC are broadcasting it Monday nights in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s time slot, which, according to the press release “will return later this season on a date to be determined.”

That sounds a little too vague for my liking. If The Black Donnellys succeeds it’s just the excuse the network needs to blow Studio 60 off.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The X-Flaws

People always mention that The X-Files went off the boil during the last few years of its nine season run. For me the flaws that ultimately fractured the series were evident much earlier.

Sure, during the latter years when it lost the plot so seriously and deliriously, the show was like some lumbering mythical beast, whose body is too large and brain too small to recognize that, mortally wounded, the time has come to lie down and die. Viewing it took on a whole new morbid fascination; like running your tongue around the edge of a sore tooth, or worse, slowing to gaze at the twisted flesh-and-metal carnage of a multi-car pile-up.

Really the wheels came off the wagon early in the third season – the third episode of the third season to be more accurate – even before The X-Files properly painted itself into a corner and then started digging a deep hole. From that moment on, the series went from “must see!” to “must we?” Before the niggling doubts grew into a throbbing dull ache that eventually felt like my tolerance was being stretched far beyond breaking point, The X-Files was good, dumb fun.

Back when it premiered in 1993, most TV pundits predicted the show would be a goner. Though the show was not a particularly high ratings grabber from the outset, what it had going for it was timing. Suddenly it seemed every boob desperate for attention had taken a ticket and waited in line to tell the world of their alien abduction experiences.

Apparently aliens, out looking for a good time, had decided it was worth travelling the vast emptiness of space to find some unsuspecting citizen and stick a probe up their ass without politely asking first. Which meant The X-Files could count on a loyal core audience of yahoos, whose family tree was in all likelihood a stump, sitting on a soft cushion in front the television to watch.

Of course it wasn’t just aliens abductions. Episodes mixed and matched between ET activity and paranormal events, mutations and monsters created either by natural unnatural phenomenon or as by-products of laboratory creations gone awry.

For the show this was a good thing. Because what else the early nineties had to offer was its place as the last decade of the last century of the millennium, clearly an open invitation for every loon to come tumbling out of the woodwork, waving their arms and rolling their eyes and screaming that it was the last decade of the last century of the millennium, everything imaginable was out to get us and the end of the world was quite possibly nigh.

All this rabid foaming at the mouth from even the most run of the mill whack-job helped elevate the series from a marginal genre show to the lofty status of cultural phenomenon. Wading through the column inches that suddenly spewed out as the show hit our shores, any potential viewer had to decide whether The X-Files was either:

Riding the wave of the cultural zeitgeist by taping into the national psyche to rationalize the palpable fear, growing in the collective unconscious, of being unable to come to terms with the lack of control and understanding we are facing in these modern times.


An opportunity to lie back on the couch for a 50-minute hour and see the show as an allegorical extension of modern day mistrust of officialdom in whatever form you want it to take.

But if you decided to ignore all the hyperbole it soon became clear that the true answer was in fact:

Deliriously dumb fun.

Given the subject matter there was a gleeful stupidity in the way the lead roles were largely underplayed to the point of narcolepsy, while the ill-lit pseudo-documentary style, with its slyly paced supers identifying times and locations, helped heighten the more outrageous sequences. Especially since FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully constantly found themselves nosing their way through a whole welter of weirdness. Whether it was genetic anomalies and gender benders, Amish ETs and prehistoric wood mites, most of which proved to be either inherently homicidal in nature or just downright pissed off.

They could easily have left it at that and the show would have been a riot. But at the time of the show’s inception recent national surveys indicated many Americans seriously questioned the legitimacy of institutions like the CIA and FBI. In The State of Disunion conducted by Gallop for the University of Virginia, at least twenty per cent of the Americans polled believed Washington’s elite to be involved in a conspiracy against the best interests of the people. Not only were the aliens out to get everyone, so too was the government.

The conspiracy angle lurked in the shadows from the onset. Throughout the first year, whenever evidence of the strange goings on remained remarkably intact, government agents would soon barrel in to get their grubby hands on it so obviously this was an avenue to pursue. Come the season finale it was out in the open with the revelations of alien viruses being introduced to human test subjects, Mulder’s inside man, Deep Throat, taking a bullet and the agents’ reassignments following the enforced closure of the X-Files department.

That was more than enough material to make an entertaining series. In fact along with the aliens, anomalies and conspiracy sneaks there was a fourth element: the motivations of FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder. With fewer expressions than Cesare the somnambulist in Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Mulder was driven by a desire not just to prove the existence of extra-terrestrial life but also discover the fate of his older sister, apparently abducted when they were both children.

Weaving all these threads together, how could it fail? Obviously quite spectacularly.

After The X-Files’ debut everyone pointed out its debt to the cheesy 1974 spook-fest Kolchak: the Night Stalker. There were also elements of Department S and Strange Report, although with the mismatched partnership the show was more like Dempsey and Makepeace spliced with Scooby Doo, Where are You? (Which made Millennium, The X-Files’ eventual twisted sister show – which seemed to exist solely to annoy the network’s Stands & Practises flunkies – Scooby Doo, I Spit on Your Grave!)

What The X-Files did have in common with The Night Stalker and the ITC shows was a classic 1970s TV drama sensibility. Which soon became its primary flaw.

The stand-alone, monster-of-the-week stories could get away with keeping the unexplained unexplained, rather than striving for a pat conclusion each time. Mulder’s obsession and the conspiracy, which would soon introduce alien clones; the black oil; human/alien hybrids; smallpox- carrying bees; “The Project” and “The Purpose” in the run up to “Colonization”; and the Syndicate, who loitered around a fashionable Manhattan apartment whose rent was so exorbitant they couldn’t afford enough chairs to go round; would need to lead towards a resolution.

This shouldn’t have been a problem. Although it appeared in The X-Files’ wake, Buffy the Vampire Slayer illustrated that series-long story arcs could be successfully threaded through monster-of-the-week episodes. Which was something The X-Files failed to do.

Only a few episodes managed to bring the two threads together. Red Museum reintroduced the agent who killed Deep Throat even if it put a bullet in him before the episode’s end. The fourth year's Leonard Betts started the ball rolling on Scully’s brush with cancer. Apart from these, the show divided into stand-alone and conspiracy episodes. Schizophrenic in nature, the gulf between the two sides widened even further as the conspiracy story tended toward po-faced solemnity and the singular episodes broadened into comedy and outright farce.

Worse there was no logical progression to these growing “mythology” story threads, which were thrown against the screen with no sense of rhyme or reason giving a sense that the writers had simply got bored with what they had been working on and simply come up with a better idea.

Two things to deal with in storytelling are a willing suspension of disbelief and internal logic. The audience exercises the first, accepting the environment presented to them and the actions that take place therein. The creators exercise the second, establishing the environment and creating the set of ground rules. Together they act as a pact between the two sides.

In terms of storytelling, the creators of The X-Files broke the pact. For me it came with third episode of the third season.

The second season had ended on a cliffhanger with the conspiracy thread episode Anasazi that continued into the third season with The Blessing Way and Paper Clip. The three episodes introduced the Government’s MJ documents brought to light; Mulder’s father implicated in the plot before his assassination; alien/human hybrids; Scully discovering a computer chip in her neck; the introduction of The Syndicate; the murder of Scully’s sister; the abandoned West Virginia coal mine with its tunnels filled with medical files and tissue samples of everyone born after 1954.

In total it was a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. And then in the very next episode, D.P.O., Mulder and Scully happily trot off to investigate the case of a spotty adolescent sociopath who turns out to be a lightning conduit.

How do you figure that?