Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Power Of Three

If I hear this phrase one more time on the blogosphere I'm going to vomit. Might just be me. What does it mean? Power indicates some kind of.....well.... empowerment. Three people read your script and give notes? But they are the same incestuous bunch attending the same seminars, reading the same books and latching on to the same ''this is how you do it' bagatelle. Nett result - a bunch of lifeless, cloned scripts. I don't mean that in a bad way. Every writer craves recognition and support deep down. But support coupled with good advice is a hard thing to come by. Work at it. It takes time and experience.

As Paul Schrader said. Fuck upwards. Peer revue is not worth that much if you are on the bottom rung. Find one person who actually knows what they are talking about and is willing to give you the time of day. That is worth The Power of 3 cubed. I mean that seriously.

Okay I'm not gaining friends and influencing people by saying this. But that's not why I blog.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Rumblings In The Dumblings

So Tony Marchant is the latest writer to have a pop at the state of UK Drama, following on from Paul Abbot and Jimmy McGovern. In an interview with The Stage he accuses much of it of being ''badly written and unoriginal'', laying the blame at the feet of execs dictating content.

Oddly enough just after I read the interview I switched on the TV to watch the Athletics, closest I get to exercise, and saw a trailer for something on BBC1 Sunday night 9pm. It is called Coming Down The Mountain, and to my surprise and delight was trailed with 'By award winning writer Mark Haddon''

I don't personally know Mark Haddon. I'm sure he is a splendid chap. My delight though was more that the writer's name was used in the lead in to the trail. It's great to know that the BBC value writers so highly.

You want to know the truth?

From the trailer I gather that the subject matter of this show is a family, more specifically, two teenage brothers, one with Downs Syndrome.

The trailer was utterly uninspiring. That isn't the writer's fault necessarily, unless those truly were the best scenes in the show, in which case it is. I'll be completely honest. A teenage angst drama with disability isn't going to get me to alter my evening plans so I can tune in. Unless there might be a reason to.

Hang on a sec? Award winning writer? Okay, in that case it might not be the pile of cliched ridden melodramatic dross I'm used to. I might be interested enough to hang around to find out. See how it works?

It might be great entertainment. Deep, insightful and emotionally fulfilling. Because in writing it's not what you write about, it's how you write about it. Hence the writer being named. Award winning is a marketer's wet dream.

No offence to Mark, a Bafta winner, but though I love to see the writer's name trailed, I'd prefer it to be more as a matter of course rather than a sugar coating for 'this won't be as crap as it sounds, honestly' I hope it is really great. I think that given the lame. unoriginal low concept badly written fare that has been served up lately it is fighting an uphill battle for viewers. And that is a shame. Meh, who am I kidding. No way on God's Green Earth am I going to tune in. But that's just me, and that's very subjective. As per the last post I don't tune in to X Factor either. I am catholic in my distastes.

And I still don't blame the writers for the drivel. I'm with Tony Marchant. TV has become Exec led, and that is the problem. Here's a simple ploy. Take the Execs off salary and tell them we'll pay you if you give us a hit show. That puts writers and Execs on the same wavelength and payment structure.

Only that won't work either. Because you'd have no Execs applying for the job.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The X Factor

I noticed Broadcast were bigging up The X Factor in the recent email edition. It gets good ratings, but are they seriously postulating that it is the most important light entertainment show for 20 years? Perhaps it is.

I've never actually watched the show. But I recently recall seeing some bloke who sang opera being interviewed on some chat show as a winner of some talent show . That sounds like it had something to do with it. And did Girls Aloud [or Allowed?] win it at some point or was that something else? And Gareth Gates and Will..... someone.

The X Factor is important. Because of the times we live in. There are few programmes nowadays that can deliver a solid 9 million viewers across the demongraphics.

Thirty years ago Opportunity Knocks and New Faces did that week in week out without batting an eyelid. But times have changed.

ITV is losing money hand over fist on most of it's programming. The X Factor is carrying the channel. That's why Simon Cowell gets rich, and deservedly so. Not having seen it, I have nothing to say about the quality or merit of the show. The fact is that it is a hit. I suspect because it has that blend of ''car crash TV meets we, the public, can make a star'' just right.

So to me, it's not an important show for what it is or what it does. Which seems to be about giving the thumbs up or down in some Gladiatorial contest. It's an important show because it proves to advertisers that a big audience can still be had. That the rumours about TV being a dieing medium are ill founded.

If we could produce drama that did the same a bit more often we'd be on to a really good thing. And yes it is a little depressing that Mr Cowell can come out with x number of shows that are just variants on the same theme and make them hits. But hasn't drama been doing that for years?

Rupert Murdoch owns both The Times and The Sun. Complete opposite ends of the newspaper spectrum. Well not opposite thematically, but you don't get tits in The Times. There's a joke in there somewhere.

Murdoch is potentially dangerous because of his understanding of the economics of the media. Holy crap that is way too political for this blog. Jeremy made me do it.

The Paxman Cometh

Wow, Jeremy Paxman really gave the networks the old right hook at his McTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh. This prompted a Newsnight interview with the BBC Director of Vision. Which quite frankly I gave up on after the first few sentences of gibberish apparatchick speak.

Admittedly old Paxo was having a pop at news and current affairs more than drama. But the same holds true in my opinion. The reliance on focus groups, the concentration on the means of production rather than the content. Chasing ratings rather than delivering quality. Here are the weekly average hours watched for the last four July's between BBC1 and Non Terrestial TV

.......BBC1/ Non Terrestial

2007. 5.27 ..........8.31

2006. 5.16........... 7.25

2005. 5.19 ...........6.59

2004. 5.52............ 6.19

Those figures pretty much speak for themselves. A massive percentage rise in in Non terrestial viewing and a decline in Terrestial.

But instead of taking an aggressive stance and delivering the kind of programming that would attract new audiences and stop others leaving in droves, I believe the BBC took on a defensive posture and went all out to simply keep the hard core 5 million or so fans happy with a steady stream of the usual cops docs and legal. Not to mention all the property, cookery, and diy shows.

There is a place for these shows, but if that's all you get? Channel 4 are making noises about ditching Celebrity Big Brother and only having one returning series next year to make way for new programming. Guess what one of the new programmes is. An everyday family have their home festooned with cameras to try to recapture that seminal 70's series, The Family.

Yup that's really new. I despair sometimes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Customer is always right.

I just got slaughtered on a scene by scene. Justifiably so. It was crap. But the interesting thing is that I was slaughtered in a nice way because the script editor knew what she was doing and couched the bloodshed in writer terms. Clear and concise. What was wrong and why and how to fix it.

I could come up with any number of excuses why my sxs was crap. Some of them might even be valid. It's all wrapped up in the history of the show. The personalities and dramatical likes and dislikes of a 'regime' for lack of a better word.

The 'regime' is changing on that show, and if yesterday's black becomes white, then you have to become either an ammonite or a shark. One died out, the other survived intact.

The key is to recognise what has changed and why. Then adapt your writing style appropriately. Now humour is important? Write humour. Drama as opposed to melodrama? Write it. Studio/lot breakdown used to be the watchword but not now? Deal with it.

I happen to agree with every single one of the notes I was given. Well almost every one. C'mon it's me.

But, as writers, for me the ammonite and shark analogy doesn't really hold up. Writers make a free choice to say ''bollocks to this'' They tend not to be constrained by either evolution or rational thought. They work on feelings and emotion. The best producers and script editors know this and factor it in. The worst take no account whatsoever.

This is a business. In business the customer is always right. But in this business the customer is ultimately the viewer. Long term, for a writer, satisfying the viewer is going to be much more rewarding both financially and spiritualy, than satisfying just the paymaster. Search for paymasters with the same vision.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Big Mouth

Has, I've just calculated, cost me somewhere upwards of £80, 000 in the last couple of years. That is one shit load of mullah. Essentially it breaks down into one show where I refuse to walk around with a shit eating grin on my face, something that appears to be mandatory there despite the ratings, and one where I got canned after complaining that the script editor had the dramaturgical knowledge of Mike Tyson coupled with the common sense of a lemming on speed.
One or two of you may have got the false impression from this blog that I am a whining Diva. Oh wait.... did I say false. I'll edit that later.

Anyway, I think I've posted this advice before, but I'll say it again. It doesn't matter how stupid, nonsensical, impossible, just plain crap or bordering on lunacy the notes are that you get from a producer. If you want a career in this Biz you keep your head down, do what they want to the best of your ability, negating the awfulness where you can and then set fire to the cat. THEY pay your wages. It is okay for me to piss my career up against the wall. But DO NOT follow my example.

Okay that's the Surgeon General's advice out of the way.

I am passionate about what I do. I have to be to write it. I'm old enough and honest enough and been doing this long enough to have no time for tact. And I'm crazy enough not to give a shit if I get fired. Well that's not quite true. I don't go out of my way to get fired. But in the scale of threats, it doesn't figure large.

I've said before 'pick your battles' That implies pick the battles you can win and that is very sound advice. I really mean that. If I did as I said you should, rather than what I actually end up doing, I'd be in Cancun right a shelter, but hey?

I am possibly one of the least 'political' guys on the planet. I act entirely on instinct. It's what makes me tick. Can't change that. Don't want to. So please bear that in mind when reading this blog. My rants here are pretty much the same as I'd do in person to a producer. That is NOT advisable by and large. I make a pretty good living, but I'd make a much better one if I kept my mouth shut. Or rather, developed some tact.

But I ain't gonna.

Both Existentialsmn and Jungesim are a requirement of a writer. Did I spell those right? Do you care?

You shouldn't. It's all bollocks.

Care about what you write and why you write it. Leave the lables for those who need them. And those who need them aren't writers.

Grandstanding dialogue but true nonetheless.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Couldn't help myself

I have to break my self imposed sabbatical because this maloderous crap was brought to my attention by my mate Dublin.,,2151869,00.html

How frickin' typical is that. Casualty, a series about doctors, can't do a story on Islamic suicide bombers because of BBC editorial guidelines?

Ummmmm, the two Glasgow bombers were Islamic doctors. Ummmmmm nearly everyone arrested in connection with this and the London bombs were connected to the NHS?

Ummmmmm do they not think this would be a perfect opportunity to show the public that not every Islamic doctor is waiting for the call to blow up their four by four in a crowded street? That say, if the bomber were treated by an Islamic doctor who thought terrorists were pieces of shit and had real moral difficulties about saving their life but because of the Hippocratic oath and his own humanity did so, that would be a really good thing to see as far as showing what by far the vast majority of Muslims in this country feel?

Ummmmm shouldn't editorial policy be more about ensuring that what is on screen is fair and balanced rather than making decisions based on which minority is going to complain more? Obviously Muslim extremist suicide bombers have the ear of 'Points Of View'' more than Animal Rights activists, because I'm straining hard to remember the last Animal Rights activist suicide bomber. I'd be up in arms if I were them! That's bordering on libel.

But most importantly of all, shouldn't drama be used to show truths and expose falsehoods? The truth is that most suicide bombers are Islamic. The unsaid lingering falsehood is that most Muslims are terrorists. That sounds crass, but if you throw enough shit it sticks. News coverage gives the hard facts of another Muslim terrorist outrage. That is the shit that sticks deep in the subconcious of the average viewer. It is rarely balanced by a report on how the vast majority of Muslims wish these assholes would just piss off. That is what needs to be promoted. We are adults, we don't need some BBC wanker deciding for us that the reality of life is not politically correct enough to screen. We want to see the different points of view explored. To be enlightened, educated and entertained - like it said in the original BBC charter.

You can do that in drama, or you can substitute it for a road rage suicide bomber for the sake of PC gone mad. No offence to anyone with road rage by the way, just in case you are reading this and don't realise what an asshole you are.

Would E.R hesitate for one second to run that story? Absolutely not! And not in a rah rah American propaganda way. In a rah rah this is drama way. Meat and drink to a show that prefers to explore real moral issues rather than who is shagging who.

Or alternately we could get BBC drama heads in charge of the news. I can see the headlines now.

Someone that no one cares about did something bad. And we hate them.

Someone that some people care about thought about doing something bad but changed their minds thanks to right minded people. And that takes us to act 2.

A really good character on a high salary but who doesn't have any more story did something completely out of character that was really bad, but oh boy had a great exit. And I might get to work with them again if they make it big.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Last Post

For a few days. You don't get off that easy!

I'm flying to a commissioning meeting tomorrow and have the rare luxury of the BBC swinging for club class. Nothing whatsoever to do with how much I am held in esteem. That would be a one way ticket on National Express. They just left it so late that was all that was available. Yay for me though, I can now drink my weight for free in the BA lounge.

Taking that into account and the fact I will have to put some grind in over the weekend and at the same time recover from a serious hangover, some of you will be pleased to know my rantings will not resume until next week. Or until I get bored and the kids skipping and jumping outside finally realise I'm firing blanks.

Anyhoo, here's the best writing tool I think you can have. A Writer Buddy. I'm not talking about a writing partner. I mean a buddy who's a writer. Someone whose judgement and instincts you trust. WAGS Shags and Lags are okay up to a point. But when you have a writing problem a writer buddy shorthands it. Knows the ropes. Zeroes in on the problem. What might take 20 minutes to explain to a non writer takes half a sentence to writer buddy. Writer buddy 'gets it'.

How do you meet writer buddy? Good question. My soon to be ex wife asked me today how she could meet another fella. She's tried looking helpless in the gym, smiling in wine bars and throwing herself in front of cars. No dice.

OOOps. It's just occurred to me my son reads this blog. Ah hell, he's got a sense of humour. Hi Gus!

Anyway, it's the same answer. If it's meant to be it will happen. Same wavelength, same tastes, whatever. The vibes are like a magnet and you will meet. Writer's club, internet, on a job? Doesn't matter.

Writer buddies never take umbrage at the other's opinion. Because there is no competition between them. They wish each other every success. Writers buddies never for one moment hesitate to talk about their idea or concept because they know they can trust the other not to nick it. Yes the party line is that no one nicks ideas because why would a studio or prodco risk an expensive law suit when they could just shell out a lot less to buy it in the first place. But in the real world it does happen. You think the head of Universal knows if a lowly Dev Ex reads a script, leaves the company and several months or years later writes a screenplay the same but different to the great one they read and buried like a squirrel with a nut in Autumn? Companies don't steal ideas. People do. As a lowly Dev Ex, if you also happen to be a scumbag, the shortest route to fame and fortune isn't neccessarily discovering great scripts. It's bastardizing them and passing them off as your own. They are like paedophiles. You can't imagine someone being that way but empirically they are out there.

But the good news is you will meet your writer buddy. Be open for it because it might be the best thing to happen to you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Deal or No Deal?

One more thing today! I've just noticed the deal Craig Mazin, John August and other lumanaries have signed with Fox. Basically for a vastly reduced up-front fee they will each write an original for Fox. In return they get more creative control and a slice of first dollar gross. Excellent! It's about time writers got first dollar gross instead of the crapola rolling nett profit which essentialy means you get sweet F.A. thanks to highly creative studio accounting.

''A'' list actors have had a slice of this for years. I think Jimmy Stewart was the first one to take a reduced fee in return for Box Office back in the fifties. Same with some directors. But here's the thing. An actor or director can more readily agree to that deal. Because they know the movie is actually being made.

The writer doesn't. There is no guarantee Fox are going to actually make any of these originals. And that is the big gamble these writers are taking. Ok the deal is only for one script each, but are Fox going to love these scripts so much they will make them all? Highly unlikely. So some are going to be disappointed. The ones who do get made could be laughing all the way to the bank. And that is clearly a good thing. But are Fox now going to be tempted to turn round to every writer with a property they want and say 'Hey guys this is the deal the 'A' listers are on. You really want to grab a slice of this too''

I'd say the chances are they will and I'd say don't do it. Unless you have a guarantee the movie is going to be made. Which you won't get. Most bought scripts never end up anywhere near being made. But a company as aggressive as Fox can easily use this deal to beat other writers over the head with. Like ''Why should we pay you $300k for your script when we can get a John August or Craig Mazin or Elliot and Rossio for 100? Be smart, take the 100k and a slice of the back end''

That's a lot of pressure. Good luck to those writers, but I'm not sure they've done the rest of us any favours. And try getting something set up with Fox in the next year or so with 12 'A' listers already ahead of you, desperate for their movies to be made.

What would I do if I were a few letters higher up the alphabet? I would take the deal. What am I, a schmuck??? If it works then in the words of Robert Evans ''that's ''fuck you'' green''

Damn, it's already been done!

I got that feeling yesterday when it came to my attention that a concept I'd been pretty jazzed about was the basis for an American show that was cancelled a few years ago. It was a knock, but I took a deep breath and then began focusing on the differences that my take had on the subject.

Because when it comes down to it there are very few concepts we haven't seen before. Your different spin on it is the important thing. Life On Mars was a popular series. Time travelling Cop? Seen it. Is it real or is he in a coma? Biggest hoary old chestnut on the planet. But the take on it was to exploit the social differences between the 70's and now, especially as far as policing is concerned. And you got to see them tool around in a big brown Ford Granada and relive your youth with The Sweeney.

The buzz word at Network Centre is 'Clear Concept'. Coming up with a highly original clear concept is a very difficult thing. The concept of Hustle is hardly original, it's been done in both TV and Film. But the take is on a cosy gang of Brits, and one token American of course. How many variations of cop shows are there out there? Midsommer Murders, Inspector Lindley Mysteries, Morse, The Commander, Blue Murder, Taggart, Foyles war ....and on and on. Similar concepts, different takes.

Heroes isn't all that original. it's just X-men with ordinary people. Studo Sixty, a show about a show? Heck, Sorkin himself did it already with Sportsnight, so not exactly original - but the take is completely different.

So I'm going to plough on with my idea. The concept might not be original but I think the take is different enough. Time will tell. As Joe Gillis said in Sunset Blvd, ''Every time I pitched I was told it was either too original or not original enough'' But you never really know until you get it out there.

Couple of last things before I have to do some proper work. I've noticed a significant spike in numbers reading the blog today. First of all welcome and I hope you enjoy it. Have I been linked somewhere?

Secondly, last call for script reading. I've really enjoyed it and hope I've been of help and will consider keeping on doing it in small numbers. But after next week my response time will be weeks rather than days. You can get me on

Monday, August 13, 2007

Slings And Arrows

As if needing talent, luck, discpline and a vivid imagination weren't enough, one of the main things you need as a pro writer is a hide like a rhino.

I'm not just talking about sucking up notes and getting on with it. That's a minor irritation. I'm talking about the myriad of blows that can come at you from all angles. The project that is all set for a green light, the one you've sweated blood over, then it falls at the last hurdle. The commission that you were expecting and counting on but didn't materialise leaving you wondering how to pay the mortgage. The prodco who kick you off after one draft, go to a script doctor, then try to get you to rewrite the script doctor.

Or one I heard recently, when a single drama you created and was shown to acclaim is going to be made into a series and the prodco involved then stiffs you for half the money they were contracted to pay and kick you off the project. Your project! I'm not going to name names, but I doubt if they could sell a door.

Perseverence isn't just about keeping on writing in the face of rejection. Writers are a strange bunch. We are self effacing Divas, businessmen artists, gregarious loners. And everything in between. We need to be. What you also have to remember is that you are the person in the process with the least to worry about. With the possible exception of actors. When you have written your script it's there in black and white. It is what it is.

Everyone else has to worry about the nuts and bolts. How do we get it on screen? How do I keep my job? Where do I get the money from? What if this turns out a big pile of shit? That tends to make them removed from you and your feelings. That's no help when you feel undervalued, unappreciated and isolated or that your words have been twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools but them's the breaks. I paraphrase Kipling. But writing is one of the few occupations where heart and soul go into the product and huge money is needed to see that product reach the public with no guarantee of any return. That's the dichotomy you have to deal with as a writer. Unless you put up the money.

NEVER take rejection personally, believe it is about that project, not you or your talent. NEVER let some asshole's opinion stop you from doing what you love, believe in yourself as a writer. NEVER think quality beats nepotism or profit, but believe that there are producers out there hungry for quality, because there are. NEVER get dispirited by suits dicking around because of politics you neither know nor care about. Because they do. And if you thought it really mattered it would drive you nuts.

You're a writer. It's a club of survivors. But it's a damn fine club to belong to.

The Cold Opening

Set up is possibly the most important part of your script, be it movie or spec pilot. If you don't nail it the chances are that either your script won't get read to the end or the reader has built up a negative expectation that is hard to shift.

So ideally you want an interesting character or characters in a situation that is intriguing. But at the same time, you don't have to sell the ranch in the first 15 pages. The back story doesn't have to be all there before you can progress.

Empathy on BBC 1 had a good cold opening in my opinion. Okay maybe one or two too many sequences of him bumping into people and seeing their past, we get it already! But the set up was swiftly done, and the character given just enough to make us care but also intrigued and slightly unsettled. Here was a guy who at face value seemed like a pretty decent chap, so why was he in prison? The answer came later in the episode. Why in the opening sequence was this pretty decent guy seen brutally knifing another prisoner? The answer came later in the episode. One of the reasons I continued watching. I wanted to find out.

Don't be afraid to leave unanswered character questions in your set up and don't believe anyone who says you should never use flashbacks. Flashbacks are a perfectly legitimate screenwriting tool if used correctly. In Empathy they were used to denote memories. We all have memories and how else can you portray them? I hate flashback used to fill in plot holes that could have been avoided with more thought going into ongoing narrative, but in the case of Empathy I thought it was entirely justified.

I don't expect to see much more of it in the rest of the series as the specific answers to character motivation they were required for are now revealed. But they are a great way of avoiding pages of backstory set-up in your opening and also leave the viewer/reader hanging around wanting to find out more.

The writer could have spent 5 or 6 pages in the set-up showing our hero in prison, the reason for the fight and the reason he was in prison in the first place and then cut to six years later. But that isn't the story. That is the character. And we don't need to know the ins and outs of the character to want to go on the journey. Get to your story as quickly as possible.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Movies movies

I recall some time ago I said I'd post about writing for movies in the U.K. The reason I haven't is mainly because I haven't even tried to write a movie for about six years so I am a little out of the loop.

When you have a family to support, TV writing is the only reasonably steady source of income you have. In this country not just steady, but in financial terms way superior to writing movies. I'd say that in the U.K at most there are maybe half a dozen movie writers who make more in a year than a reasonably established TV writer.

But money aside, and in a perfect world that is how it should be, here is my current thinking on the U.K film industry.

There isn't one.

It is getting there, but has some way to go.

When I first started there was no real spec market. That is changing. And that is a good thing. When I first started there were no lottery franchises but we have them now. And that is a bad thing. Lottery franchises only served to give dolts who didn't know what the hell they were doing piss my lottery quid up the wall. Anyone remember Janice Beard 45wpm? Didn't think so.

The U.K film industry is divided into three. Art House, Commercial, and Tax Monkey.

Art House producers do the rounds of regional film funding, private investors, the EEC and all those other well meaning bodies. I don't mean that in a bad way. Writing is art. If it's done well. And artful writing needs support and encouragement. A Theme Park movie provides an experience that lasts as long as the ride. Art House can change the way you think and feel. providing enough people bother to go and see it. And that's more down to the producer, distributor and publicists than the writer - If the writer has something worth saying.

Tax monkeys. U.K tax laws being what they are it is quite easy for a producer of a complete flop to still make a wedge of dosh. I'm sure there's a musical or movie in there somewhere! Tax monkey films are quite easy to identify. The idea is commercial enough to suggest there might be an audience to those funding it but what ends up on screen is enough to suggest the first draft was shot.

Commercial - there aren't that many prodcos in the U.K who are making movies that make money. There are definitely not many prodcos in the UK who you can make a living from as a writer. But..... and here is the big but. As a writer you have a story to tell. That might be a movie. If it is then get it out there because writers who write from the heart will always garner a fan club. Same for TV. Heart is what makes us different from the suits, and should be celebrated.

What I'd be pitching

I've got a lot of time for Michael Grade. He's a very savvy guy. So if he says he wants returning 14 part series you'd be a mug not to be pitching those.
But if you are a new writer I'd avoid pitching cop, doc and legal unless you have a spectacular twist. Plenty of gnarled wizened veterans are already pitching those genres and the biz being what it is they are far more likely to go with them than you.

I think you have to aim for something that is 'different' but not waaaaay out there. We're talking prime time remember, so it has to be something a mass audience can connect with. Apparently the latest buzz word from Network Centre is 'clear concept' I'm not sure what that means. It is either High Concept's younger brother or comes from someone who doesn't understand that High Concept is Clear Concept by it's nature.

Okay if you take cops docs and legal out of the equation that can be both a bit scary and quite exhilarating. Yes they are the usual suspects for returning series but aren't we all getting a little bored with them? At least in the cosy chintzy way we tend to do them here.

The Americans do this kind of thing really well. Largely down to the writer's room system in my opinion. But we are where we are, so what makes a good returning series? Essentially it is empathetic characters in a situation that gives the opportunity for many ongoing stories. Lots of 'good'' ideas will never make a returning series mainly because the concept gives rise to a finite story. Hence the reason cops docs and legal are so popular. But if you look outside those genres there are lots of other ways you can go.

Shows like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, The Sopranos, Doctor Who, Six Feet Under, Spooks, My Name Is Earl and Entourage are all great examples of this. They have ''legs'' as they say and went to multiple series with no difficulty.

But writing is the easy part of the business. Ideas are the hard part. Good ideas I mean. Bad ideas are ten a penny. I'm always slightly alarmed when a new writer tells me they have a ton of great ideas waiting to be written. I think a bit of analysis rather than enthusiasm would save them a lot of time. Because most of them won't be great ideas. A lot of them will be concepts that Dev Execs have already seen time and time again. A lot of them will only be good in the writer's head because they have some personal connection with it. A lot of them won't have 'the legs'' to last a movie never mind a TV series.

So if you are about to consider coming up with ideas for a returning series, remember the legs.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Who makes this stuff up?

I was intrigued by the Broadcast headline that ITV banker THE BILL topped the ratings with 4.4 million this week. Having written for the show, that sounded low to me, and therefore perhaps a bit less of a banker than might have been thought.

I trotted off to BARB and looked at the equivalent week for 2006. Mmmmmm....... 5.76 million. Wow that's a pretty significant drop for a ''banker''. Well......... maybe 2006 was a good year. I'll go back to the same week in 2005. Mmmmmmm 5.76 million. Nope begining to look like 2007 is a bad year. Just to check I'll go back to the same week in 2004. Mmmmmm 5.76 million, so that means..........wait a minute WTF???????? The show had exactly the same amout of viewers in the same week three years running? Wow that is consistant! So either something is badly wrong at THE BILL and they have managed to lose 23% of their viewers in a year or someone has got their figures wrong.

Not having watched The Bill in some time I can't comment on the show. But it did make me delve into how these figures are produced. It just seemed to me that 5.76 million in the same week three years running was a bit too coincidental. Granted, The Bill has a core audience, but you'd expect some difference surely?

Anyhoo, I knew it was done by a sample audience with electronic gizmos wired to their TV and DVD players, but I thought I'd go to the BARB site and see just how they chose the panel and how many households were involved.

Panic over. According to the website we have no need to fear that the panel are anything other than a neat cross section of the population because .........

'' Panel homes are selected via a 'multi-stage, stratified and unclustered' sample design. What this means is that the panel is fully representative of all television households across the whole of the UK.''

Good to know there's someone else out there watching Porn Week on Bravo.

I tried to find out from the site just how many households were on the panel but the closest I could get was that 52000 interviews are held to determine who should be on it. How many of those interviewees made it to the panel I couldn't say. For all I know there might only be a couple of dozen households purporting to be the zeitgeist, perhaps someone could enlighten me.

But something very interesting showed up.

''Key features of the current service are a larger reporting sample and improved panel design. Among the main developments are:
Removal of demographic disproportionality. The under sampling of downmarket audiences has ended and the design of the panel is now proportionate to the population. ''

Ah well that goes a long way to explaining the current crop of crap. What this industry definitely needs is a more downmarket audience.

I honestly can't believe that anyone would announce that there is such a thing as a downmarket audience, what a fricking cheek! I hope all you downmarket pannelists start watching Panorama just to spite them!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Silly Season

I've just been looking at the BARB top thirty stats for week ended 27th July. If you knock out soaps and the perennial Casualty and Holby, the top rated BBC 1 drama came in at number 24. What do you think it was? Have a guess, no cheating.

It was The Chase with 3.6 million viewers.

What?????????? Shurely shome mishtake? Surely BBC 1 have a drama series that can get higher than number 24 and 3.6 million? Apparently not that week. Waking the Dead and Jeckyll trailed in it's wake. Surprising to me because I like them better but there you go. Heroes on BBC2 blew them all away.

Okay I know it's summer and they are saving their crown jewels for the dark winter months.....I hope, but it's no use complaining about audience fragmentation when they seem to go out of their way to cause it. As banks, power and phone companies are finding out, if you want loyalty buy a cocker spaniel.

The networks are in year round competition now with non-terrestial, and so it is frustrating that they still seem to use the same model as 30 years ago, which was basically summer was for repeats and 2nd rate shows with only the occassional bone thrown to us. They can no longer rely on loyal viewers coming back to them when the nights draw in. We've scanned the schedules found them wanting and headed for cable, dvd, internet and the pub. And there ain't no guarantee we're coming back. They really do need to raise the bar or end up catering to the over sixties exclusively.

Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about was glue. That is my highly technical term for what makes an audience stick to a show. The thing that makes us want to hang out with these guys week after week. Doesn't matter if it's thriller, comedy, relationship drama, they all need the glue. I don't care how twisty your thriller is. I don't care how funny some of your lines are and I don't care what problems your soap family have. What I do care about is who are the twists happening to? Who is delivering the funny line and who are the members of the family with problems? And curmudgeon that I am, if you don't make me care about them I won't be tuning in.

Only Fools and Horses was a show I never found all that funny really. A good giggle here and there. But I watched it regularly. Because I loved Del . The trier, the ducker and diver, the eternal optimist with a heart of gold.

The Green Green Grass spin-off. Same writer, same style, but not on my watch list. Because Boysie is a bit of an arse with few redeeming features. Not enough glue.

Heroes is on my must watch list, but you know, without the Hiro Nakamura character I think it would be on my dipping in list. For me, he's the glue.

Does anyone remember a single Inspector Morse plot? I doubt it. No doubt they were well thought out and caused the writers several headaches. And we'd kick up a stink if they were rubbish. But we didn't want to see a story per se, that's not what we tuned in for. We wanted to see Morse solve something. Something intriguing yes, but that was just a close second. He was the glue.

For me, Glue equals memorable empathetic characters in situations that let them shine. Crack that and the chances are you're on your way to a hit TV show.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Another T.L.A

Yes in the land of the three letter acronym here's another one. DOE.

I think I just made it up. It means Don't Overthink Everything.

I was shooting the shit with a writer mate this afternoon, just this and that, and one topic of conversation was the scripts I've been sent and currently reading. One of the posters was kind enough to point out that my notes are largely devoid of any guru speak. It's not something I really go in for. I kinda know about MDQ's and USP's and arc and dilemma and POV and ....blah, blah, blah....... but I can't get away from the fact that 'hey, we're telling stories here, people!'

When you tell fairy tales to your kids are you thinking about act breaks and mid points and P.O.N.R's and MDQ's? Of course not. Story telling is instinctive. To me, dressing it up with fancy names is just a way for gurus to appear more intelligent and sell more books and for execs to trot out to try and make people think they know what they are talking about! Unfortunately it means writers have to learn the language too so they can communicate with them!

I kid ....... a little. But it seems like a layer designed to add mystique to the process. There is so much information out there, and while it is easy to say ''keep what works, discard what doesn't'' how do you know what works unless you try it? Sometimes I wonder how anyone who has read half a dozen of these books can write anything. I'd be frozen to the spot.

I only have one golden rule. Don't be boring. Because that works on every level. Pace, tone, character, action, dialogue, narrative....... everything. It's a mantra I try to keep to on every page, heck every line.

A story generally has a begining a middle and an end. The key is to have story moving all the way through the acts to reach an inevitable conclusion. Cause and effect. Cause and effect. Cause and effect. Each scene relating to the spine of your story. The stakes getting higher, the jeopardy greater. Yes you throw in twists and reversals and complications but you can't lose sight of the fact that what you are doing is telling a story.

Because that is what story telling is. Someone goes on a physical and/or emotional journey to attain a goal and we want to go with them. They meet obstacles and face jeopardy. And end up with a resolution that is happy ever after.....or not.

How you actually structure that can make your screenplay live or die. But think about it? If the story is told appropriately then good structure will happen anyway.

''Someone goes on a physical and/or emotional journey and we want to go with them?'' There's your first act right there. You've set it up so that we're invested in the character so when they are propelled into the second act by the inciting incident [ doesn't count as guru speak because I use it!] we duly follow.

''They meet obstacles and face jeopardy'' Sounds like a second act to me. Nice big reversal half way through and a bigger one at the end to take us to.........

A resolution that is happy ever after .....or not.

Okay that all sounds pretty simple, but it is my honest belief that it actually is. Sure the hard part is coming up with an original story. But that is what being a writer is about. Almost anybody can read a book and trot out 110 pages of what looks very much like a screenplay. Story telling is instinctive though. Everyone can do it, so long as they don't get bamboozled into thinking it is some mysterious black art with a few mystic gurus holding the keys. Read a lot of scripts. Write a lot of scripts. Hone your talent and your craft.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Who Are You?

A script I was sent recently also included detailed character bios. I mean detailed down to preference of breakfast cereal.

Never send character bios with your script unless it is part of a pitch document for TV. And in that case it is broad strokes only, a couple of paras per character.
Personally, I rarely use them, except in the above case when it's pretty much a necessity.

I know that is sacrillege to some teachers, but I'm not a teacher. I'm not saying they're wrong, heck there are no absolutes in writing but when I create a character, normally after I have an idea and premise, [see previous post] I have just a few things in my head.

What do they want and how does that change?
What was their upbringing like and how can I use it?
What do they fear and how can I use it?
What are their relationships, familial and personal and how can I use them?
What are their quirks and habits, if any and how can I use them?

And that's about it. When I have that in my head I don't need to write it down. I work on inhabiting that character. It's a kind of osmosis, so that when I come to write that character, I am that character.

No wonder my marriage didn't last! I kid, it's not as spooky as it sounds. But I find it helps me to tailor dialogue and action to that specific character instinctively.

Because those five questions are all I think you really need to ''know'' your character. I suppose I could expand the answers to those questions to fill a couple of pages but simply by thinking about them, lodging them in my head, more feeling it than thinking specifics, I find I get to know them for their specific purpose. The reason for their creation. To drive or react to story.

It's about character traits and archetypes more than what side someone gets out the bed every morning.

In my pro reading days I once got a sci fi script to read and it was about twenty pages in before I actually reached the script. There were about 5 pages explaining what the script was about and 15 pages of bios for just about every speaking character.

Obviously I ignored them and went on to read the script. When I had read the script I went back to the bios. I had to out of curiosity. Because the script was terrible. I mean really terrible. Fifth rate knock-off of a very, very bad episode of the first series of Star Trek. Plodding. predictable story, cardboard characters, on the nose dialogue throughout.......just awful.

The bios were actually the best part of the script. Someone had been to college and been taught how to write them. Unfortunately they were completely wasted because virtually nothing in any of the bios actually came out in the script pages. Not in sub-text, actions, story ........nothing.

I felt if more time had been spent creating characters that would actually drive or react to story in a meaningful way rather than just creating characters, then the script might not have ended up quite the mess it was.

To me character and story are symbiotic, anything else is a waste of paper.

I feel Empathy

I took a look at my last week's entire TV viewing. It consisted of Scrubs, Two and a Half Men, Heroes, Dexter, Studio 60, My Name is Earl, a couple of documentaries, Newsnight Review, and a couple of movies, Winchester 73 [Yay!] And the Da Vinci Code [jesus, that sucked]

Finally I came across something homegrown I could actuallty sit through. Empathy on BBC1. Okay it's not the most original premise - a guy sees your past - and possibly future judging by the trailer for next week's ep - by touching you or something that belongs to you. Kinda seen it and done it, though not on BBC1 recently.

But in the main it was slickly done, well acted, directed and written and though I thought the last act was a bit pony, the story held you pretty much to the end. Something that has been very sadly lacking in most recent dramas.

Kudos to Steve Lightfoot the writer who came up from the ranks of script ed to writer to producer, doing all three pretty much at the same time on Casualty.

Is it a series though? Time will tell. I hope so.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Idea to Story

There have been some good blog discussions around on which comes first - character or story. I think the concensus was 'whatever works for you'. Which I think is absolutely right. But to me, and this may be entirely personal, it's a bit like arguing over the most important ingredient in a chicken salad sandwich. Most people forget to mention the bread. And without that you've got well ...... a chicken salad.

To me the bread is the ''idea''. The very basic kernal that hits you as a good concept. Something that can be explored dramatically or comedically. How you then proceed to explore that idea is a matter for individual preference.

But if you don't expand that idea into a premise first then you are making life very hard for yourself. This is the way I approach it and the terminology I use. Your mileage may vary.

Here's an idea - We all think we are living our normal lives, but it's all an illusion created by robot overlords.

Here's a premise. - one of us wakes up from the illusion and discovers the truth. They also find that there are others who have 'woken up'. Together they fight to destroy the robot overlords and restore humanity.

Wow, I hope nobody steals that one! lol

Okay, so I've got an idea and a premise. I haven't even thought about character or story to this point. And I'm still not gonna. I'm going to think about ''theme''

I'm getting a very ''underground, let's stick it to The Man'' vibe from this premise. We are all controlled in our lives by outside forces - laws, customs, convention. We should be free to make our own heaven or hell stripped back to the bare bones of good versus evil.

Heaven and Hell? Good versus evil? Mmmmmmm? Very west coast pseudo religious? So what if our protag was a messiah like character? An unwilling messiah who over the course is forced to accept his destiny. Yeah, that's good. That's a great sub-plot and character arc rolled into one.

What about the antag? I don't think I want a huge super robot, the concept is so big I want to reduce the antag to something recognisible and identifiable. So let's see - it has human like form but is pretty well invincible. Ahhhhh- except to our protag when he finally accepts his destiny as the chosen one. Yeah baby! - on a roll now.

Etc, etc etc............. refining and refining until character and story come together.

See, only now am I thinking about character and story. Not plot. Story. And pretty much at the same time. But before I got anywhere near character and story I needed idea and premise. The bread in the sandwich.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The Logic Gap

Those I've been giving notes to will recognise that phrase well! An extreme [and fictitous!] example - A guy gets a breakfast flight from London to New York. A few scenes later he's back in London in time to pick his son up from school.

Logically, that's not going to happen. But it's the kind of thing that can easily creep into a script if you aren't on the look out. It may sound petty. And if you got a note like that you might think ''What the hell? Does it matter ?''

The answer is it really does. Logic gaps can kill you stone dead. Suspension of disbelief is the hold you have over the audience. But that hold is tenuous and is very easily broken. Logic gaps stand out like an erection in a convent.

That logic gap might mean nothing to most of the audience but a great deal to others. For example, a show I watched recently had a British girl announce she was going to work as a sales assistant in a shop ......... in America. Ummmmmmm no. I'm afraid the INS aren't going to allow that to happen. ''Sales assistant'' figures lower than whale crap in the list of occupations likely to get a work visa. Granted I may have noticed that more because I wrote the fucking episode. But not that particular line!

Bang! I was out of the story. Just like that. Okay that was a research matter more than a logic matter. But the same thing applies. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those writers who has to know everything about everything I write about. I make shit up all the time. But I hope it's logical shit.

And the thing is, many of these logic gaps do make it to the screen, essentially because they are not picked up early enough.

The writer is so close to the script they don't see it. The editor has different proplems with the script and doesn't notice. The producer is more concerned with snaffling an actor for the lead and budget problems. The director is busy looking at motivation and scene construction and location. The actors are......well.... actors. lol

So as well as your Character pass, and dialogue pass and action pass, I'd also throw in a logic pass.

Thanks to all who sent scripts. I'm nearing the end of the current batch now so if any one else fancies a read from a pro, now's the time.