Saturday, 28 February 2009

For Fun

Two pieces of writing will be taking up most of my next few weeks; one of them is proper serious work (the comedy), and one is just for fun (the drama).

The comedy is a TV project I've been working on with Colin Stevens for a while now, and he and I will be launching a web presence for it very soon: I shall keep you posted on this here blog. The drama? Well, it's very rare to have some screenwriting to do that's 100% for the enjoyment of doing it, with no hope to sell or make the piece afterward. And it's quite refreshing. Here's how it came about:

As many readers of this blog, and others in the scribosphere, will know, I regularly meet up with a group of writers in London for drinking, gossiping and the setting of script challenges. These are usually standard things: write a radio play, write a script report, finish something you've started, and all have the same timeline: one calendar month elapsed to complete, doesn't have to be good, but it does have to be finished, else you face a round of mockery from your your peers at the next drinking session. I've gone in for many of these in the past, but I don't normally post about a challenge as I'm superstitious, and worry that if I shine a little light on it, I'm bound to fail to deliver.

The latest challenge, to be completed in the month of March (and not a single word of which is to be consigned to hard copy before midnight tonight), is to write a spec episode of a current UK TV series. Unlike the US, in Britain this is a bit of a silly idea, as - according to every 'how to' writing guide you'll ever read - no one wants to see a spec episode of anything, and they'd rather see something all-original (although one occasionally hears of an exception to this).

Boring old best behaviour would be for me to do a spec episode of Doctors, as it's the nearest you can get to entry level TV, and I'm currently watching the episodes and studying the format, and I want to get to pitch ideas for the show; but, sod that: I'll do that in April (I don't want to rush it with an arbitrary imposed timeline). I'm going to write a Doctor Who.

This is the closest I'm going to get to a commission to write for the good Doctor any time soon. And it multiplies the silliness: it can't really be shown to anyone as an example of my work, it's for a show that one gets into by invite only and where a showrunner would give you a plotline rather than have you pitch one, and best of all... it doesn't have a publicly available house style at the moment. All the episodes of David Tennant's tenure have been written and are currently being shot, and no one bar Steven Moffat and Piers Wenger knows what the Matt Smith era is going to be like, or even who the companion's going to be played by. There is no other reason to write it than the fun of it...well, maybe there's the humble pie reason too.

An infamous Doctor Who novel author and online critic, who I'm not going to name, keeps a blog where his opinion of other people's TV Doctor Who scripts is never less than forthcoming, and is usually quite critical. When challenged, this person wrote and posted up an example of how they would write a script for Who; I read that script, and disliked it very much. I was quite free with my negative opinion of it at that last writers' meet. Now, it has occurred to me that this is no way to behave about a fellow writer, even one I disagree with. So, the challenge is to do what he did, and create my own script: it will be for a David Tennant-like Doctor, with no regular companion, in a style which would roughly fit within the Russell T Davies years.

I have so many ideas for this - the first Doctor Who script I will have written since the one I co-wrote with a boy called Graham when I was twelve years old which had a Cyber-Dalek hybrid in it - whirling around my head: roll on midnight.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Sixty Minutes

After multiple distractions working on other things, I finally completed the retooled version of the 'Life Support' pilot last week. All the fantasy sequences are gone, as are most of the flashbacks and voice over. I have set myself strict rules about how the 'story within a story' aspect works, and it no longer seems overdone. The first ten pages are tighter and get to the point quicker. All in all, I hope I've learned a bit from crashing-and-burning out of Red Planet at the first round. Whether it's a saleable commodity or not, only time will tell - it's very bleak and not very high concept, not the best combo in times of recession, so says Conventional Wisdom (but I prefer his brother Norman).

Talking of RP, I assume the word will be out soon as to who's got the glittering prize; good luck to those still in with a chance! I'm glad I did it - definitely a worthwhile exercise, and now I have a hard-earned pilot script for an hour-long drama series. Everybody wins. Interestingly – alright, semi-interestingly – a 60-minute script is harder than anything else I've tried to write, much harder than 10, 30, 45, 90 or 120. I don't see why this would necessarily be, but I've heard it from other writers too (so it must be true!). Now I know why Holby City has a musical montage at the beginning and the end of every episode!

Since completion of the script, I have done another half draft tidying things up, and the script is at exactly 60 pages, which is probably a little too long for a broadcast slot, so I'll review with a mind to cut two or three minutes of dead wood. Then, it will be ready for a good duffing up's worth of peer feedback before I rewrite it again. Hooray! Onwards and upwards...

Monday, 9 February 2009

Going Postal

We all know about character development over the course of a drama, it's something we all strive to do, and to do well. But there's another kind of character development, a rarer, non-deliberate kind, where a character endures in a popular medium through many years, multiple writers or production teams, and through multiple trend changes in that medium and in the wider culture. Big Russell, who I seem to be referencing a lot these days, acknowledges this in The Writer's Tale. It's not so much Doctor Who I'm talking about, though there's an echo of it that series: the changes in The Doctor's look and personality are a deliberate function of an individual script, and they are used to prolong the series beyond the presence of one actor. This is more the other way round, when an actor or character stays in place, and the series changes around them, The whims of unfeeling Father Time, and even more unfeeling New Broom Producer inadvertently cause the character to change, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so much.

For example: Dot Cotton used to be a hell of a causal racist. She's not anymore. We all know why this is, and we know it isn't a deliberate change of character on behalf of any one writer, but it's nice to take it at face value and imagine that maybe life has mellowed Dot in that one particular way. Extremely long-running soap characters like Ken Barlow and Ian Beale are rare, but fascinatingly rich: we've seen them young, and we've seen them grow older, and we may even see their (fictional) death one day. The totality of the character's fiction is bigger than any single imagination, and – like life – it can't really be appreciated as a whole, it can only really be glimpsed in little half-hour shaped pieces.

Some types of shows can throw up quirks when their characters are measured against real life. For example, Ken and Ian at least age. Doctor Who fans have to face up to the inevitability that a Doctor's going to come along that's younger than they are. It'll happen to me (and loads of other people - he's so young!) when Matt Smith takes over at the end of this year (David Tennant is about four months older than me, so I've avoided this until now). The writing is clearly on the wall: the show is bigger than any one of its fans (or writers, or producers, or stars). The fictions will go on, when we're all dust. We didn't know how lucky we were when Who was off air, not to have this ever-present ticking clock to measure out our mortality.

Then, you have to feel for the poor people who work on animations, where nothing and no one ages: I remember hearing one of The Simpsons' show-runners (maybe Al Jean) bemoaning the day that he overtook Homer in the age stakes. Homer may be old, bald and fat, but he'll never get older, balder or fatter (except in the episode King Size Homer, before anyone mentions it: I am aware of King Size Homer). We aren't quite so lucky.

All this is as it should be - if a little maudlin for me, but I seem to be in a bit of a 'Oh Shit, I'm getting old' mood at the moment (must be the weather). But what about when this supra-character development makes a well-loved character less interesting and less rich. What if this process causes character un-development? What the hell – if I might be so bold – happened to Postman Pat?

If you're reading this, you probably haven't seen Postman Pat recently. Even if you have because – like me – you have a young child in the house, you might only have seen the most up-to-date version. But, through the beneficence of his older relatives, and charity shops, my boy has accumulated a collection of these things called videos (remember them?!) from every era of Postman Pat. The show has been going so long, it's like a history of children's television over the last twenty-five years. And therein lies the tragedy.

The earliest episodes are quite slow, have very basic hand-made animation, and no lip-sync. Just one male voice doing narration, and putting on all character voices. They remind one of the Sixties and Seventies stop-motion shows like Camberwick Green and The Flumps, and were clearly a continuation of that tradition. This is the incarnation that my son likes the best.

A few years later, the colours seem a bit brighter, the animation a but slicker, but it still has the same wonky charm. Pat has got married (from the episodes I've seen from the early days, it's not clear what his marital status is, but it looks very much like he's a single man who spends a bit too much time with his black-and-white cat). And on the production side, the first major innovation: a woman has become the co-narrator, voicing all the female characters. Still no lip sync, though.

As the years roll on, the show enters the caring sharing late nineties/early twenty-first century and the changes get more pronounced: lip sync arrives, with different actors/voices for each character. Pat's postal patch, Greendale, which once was a small white rural community of stereotypes (vicar, posh lady, spiv, farmer, old washer woman), is now a much more cosmopolitan town peopled by multi-ethnic and disabled stereotypes. This, depending on your outlook, is either an admirable stab at diversity or Burger King kid's meal gang tokenism, but ultimately the widening of the supporting ensemble allows a broader range of stories, so it seems to be a worthwhile thing . Also, Pat has acquired a son, and the children in the cast are pushed much more to the foreground of the stories. Fair enough, again, it is children's show after all.

The final regeneration brings us to the present day: the show has got a new name - Postman Pat: Special Delivery Service - and a new theme tune (although they still use a section of the original theme at the beginning, you couldn't mess too much with that). And now Pat has kit. With a small 'k', I mean: he doesn't have a talking car. Although that's pretty much all he doesn't have: the SDS allots Pat a van, a motorbike with a sidecar, and a helicopter. He even has a mobile phone and SatNav. If this was a podcast rather than a blog, this is the bit where I would half cough, and half say the word 'merchandising' under my breath. But again, don't think I'm being Grumpy Old Man here. Merchandising is great, kid's TV is no longer the cottage industry it used to be in my day, and my boy has lots of Pat toys which he loves. I wouldn't want it any other way. Plus, it's still a good and well-made show.

But what of the star of the show in all this? What of Pat? Reader, I'm afraid to say, he's become a buffoon. And that's the bit that I don't like. Somehow, all of the changes detailed above have had the effect, without anyone necessarily wanting it to be so, of diminishing the main character's intelligence to a very low level. At the start, Pat is a good postman, who no matter what obstacles are in his way, will always get the letters delivered. He even rises to the occasion with a healthy dose of heroism and derring-do when necessary. By the end, though, he is reduced to delivering one package at a time, which he has an alarming inability to do without losing or breaking what's inside. However, he usually improvises some compromise solution at the eleventh hour, which heavily relies on the good will of the people of Greendale, and he keeps his job by the skin of his teeth.

A favourite example is the episode where there is a film festival, and Pat has to deliver the film can of the single movie they are showing. Pat is racing to get the print to the cinema before the screening, when he drops it in a muddy field and ruins it. The package that Pat has been given responsibility for delivering has not only been opened but its contents have been completely destroyed. And for this, they give the man control of a helicopter? Luckily, Pat's son has been making a home movie during this chaos, and this is what is shown at the festival instead. (This is not like any film festival I have ever been to: I couldn't help worrying for the members of the audience sitting at the back thinking 'I paid £350 for a delegate pass for this!')

I'd love to think that there is subtext at play here: that this is a comment upon the effect of increased technology to erode common sense, or a political statement about the deterioration of the Royal Mail's service over the last twenty-five years. But it isn't. They've just turned Postman Pat into a blithering idiot, and it shouldn't be allowed. Tell someone!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

And when it fails to recoup, well maybe...

Reading too many biographies can be bad for one's self-esteem. I've now finished reading about John Lennon. I know his story so well, I think I can summarise it in much less than 800 words. Here goes: born in Liverpool, Dad left, Mum died, lived with Aunt Mimi, School, Skiffle, The Quarrymen, Art School, Rock n' Roll, The Beatles, Hamburg, The Cavern, Parlophone, secret wife, George Martin, Beatlemania, Bigger Than Jesus, No more touring, drugs, great albums, Yoko Ono, Bed Peace, split, primal scream therapy, Imagine, New York, Visa problems, more albums, lost weekend, house-husband phase, Double Fantasy, shot by a nutter.

What's scary is that, aside from the house-husband phase onwards, Lennon had done all of that stuff by the time he was my age. And he only had three and a half years left, poor thing! Now, I'm not John Lennon (though I am working on the hair and the beard), and I'm really not going to start moaning on about quitting again, I promise. I have reconciled myself with the fact that I'll never write for Skins. But the feeling that you've missed the boat is is a natural emotion, and will occur at some time to anyone trying to catch a break in any business as youth-obsessed and hard to get into as the business of show.

Screenwriters as a breed – unlike, say, actors - should worry least about these kind of things; a writer can, after all, keep going until he or she's too frail to hold a pen anymore. And even past that, there's always dictation ( if it worked for Barbara Cartland...). But writers wouldn't be writers if they didn't want to leave their mark on the world. Why else write things down? Success isn't measured in fame or money, but audience. Every writer's got some sort of audience, but every writer would like more of one: every day that that goes by searching for that audience, is a day less getting the word out there, making a mark.

Does any of this matter, though?. If one enjoys the process, indeed if one is compelled to continue with writing no matter what (as is the case with pretty much every writer I ever meet), then would a wider audience make that much difference? Is Emily Dickinson's poetry any less good because hardly anyone saw it during her lifetime? Do good writers sometimes toil away and never find that audience? Is there such a thing as undiscovered talent?

I've always believed that undiscovered talent is a myth, and that true aptitude will very rarely get completely missed by the world, if accompanied by the requisite - and much more important - effort to develop it. I don't know much about Dickinson's life, but from what I do know I believe that it was her own choice not to attempt to publish the huge amount of work she was producing. As proposed in the book I've moved onto, Malcolm Gladwell's erudite and wonderful Outliers, talent is largely mythical anyway. Talent is just a word we have for enthusiasm combined with many hours of hard work combined with the right conjunction of circumstances.

Hmm.. What started off as a moan about getting older but still not having anything on the telly has ended with me dismissing the idea of talent altogether. Can anyone be a writer? Maybe. Anyone - crucially - that wants to, and is willing to put in the hours, has a good shot. As Piers noted last year, the magic number in the research that Outliers references is 10,000 hours. If you haven't done that much, then, in the words of the almighty Moz: you just haven't earned it yet, baby! In the book, Gladwell shoots through the mysticism of 'child prodigies' and 'overnight successes' with some persuasive examples that show that, through luck or through perseverance or both, anyone who's made it big has gained those hours, and anyone pretty impressive is on their way to that total. Lennon and the rest of The Beatles put the hours in playing in the dodgy bars of Hamburg for eight hours a night.

What's the moral of this story? It's all about choices. There's at least 16 waking hours per day: some of them will be used for other important things like day jobs, and family, and chores, and travel. Protect whatever writing time you have left, but accept that however few hours you can put in per week you're doing yourself good. You will envy your peers who have lots more free time than you, and seem to be on the fast track, but that's all just choices. If it's going to take longer to get to 10,000 hours, accept the slow path and enjoy the scenery as you go.

It would be nice though, to be able to read a biography of someone who took their time, and made their mark later in life: any suggestions gratefully received, at the usual address!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Bah! Ill and then Snow

A stop-gap post. Last week, the entire Perry clan was knocked out by the Noro (or Winter Vomiting) virus. That was fun. Then yesterday, I was snowed in. Still working from home as best I can, as the trains up to That London are still recovering.

All this means I have piles and piles of day job work building up, and not enough time (as ever). I had drafted a new blog post, but it was a bit too 'grumpy old man', so I'm rewriting it.

Hope you're all well, and got some writing done/built some nice snowmen yesterday. I might put up the picture of the fine effort that we put together yesterday (he's starting to melt now, and looks a bit too horrific for the young lad to see - a bit like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark).