Friday, August 29, 2008

Gender - Benders

I see Jeremy Paxman has been putting the cat amongst the pigeons again. First it's the dumbing down of the BBC, then it's Marks and Spencer underwear, and now he claims there is no place for the middle aged white man working in TV.

On the first point - agree. On the second point - agree. The best underwear I have found is Petroleum [the make not the liquid]. Doesn't fade and keeps the crown jewels safe. [The worst is Calvin Klein btw]

On the third point - well I'm not sure if he was talking about TV in general or the news department. And I'm not sure he's right in either case. It depends on what level he's talking about. The REAL big bosses are still predominantly male. But the commissioners and gatekeepers tend to be female.

Apparently 60% of the TV audience is female. But I've never been a fan of statistics, they tend to say whatever the proponent wants them to. Soaps are the biggest weekly ratings performer in any schedule, and soaps tend to be predominantly female orientated. Ergo I'm not surprised at that statistic. But does that mean that females are given preferential treatment over males when it comes to script editing, producing , development and commissioning jobs? I very much doubt it.

Here's a theory I have just thunk. It won't win me any fans with the PC brigade but hey ho. Men tend to fall into three camps.

The Ruthlessly Ambitious - climbing the corporate ladder or starting businesses for whom the deal is better than [or at least as good as] sex.

The Steady Eddie's - the salts of the earth who want a decent job with enough satisfaction and money to be content and look after their family.

The Wasters - Drink, drugs, violence and meaningless sex.

I reckon the split is about 1o - 85 - 3 [the other 2% want to be writers and so are beyond hope]

With females I reckon the split is more like 5- 93 -1 [only 1% want to be writers because they are way more sensible than males, equally only 5% want to be ruthlessly ambitious for the same reason]

So there you go. Using these irrefutable statistics it is easy to see why executive positions in TV are more favoured by females. Also, as any married man knows, women are both far more self convinced and more comfortable at telling you what you have done is wrong.

But to get serious. I don't think their is any gender conspiracy. Good grief, get a grip Jezza. What I do think is that I don't have a lot of faith in the current network regimes that they actually know their audience. I don't care if they are male or female.

Good drama transcends gender. The paucity of good drama on TV right now isn't a male/female issue . It's about executives of whichever gender being more concerned with media politics than the audience. They are so far up their own arses with talk of multi platforms and digital media and 360 degrees, and the rest of the jargon that they forget what their primary function is, if they ever knew it in the first place.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Bullshit Detector

I've had two sets of notes on my new spec from two different prodcos. One said they didn't think the twist to a classic genre was big enough and the other would prefer not to have the twist at all.

What's a girl to do?

Well, nothing for the moment. When faced with two opposing views of a major part of the script I tend to wait for a few more notes and then see which way the wind is blowing. It also goes without saying that if either of these prodcos REALLY REALLY liked the basic script concept, then they'd be on the blower asking if I'd be amenable to changing it to suit their wants. Phone is not ringing off the hook.

So I have good reason for not doing anything at the moment. But had either of them come back saying they would like it to be more x, y and z and could I do that? Well, that's when the Bullshit detector has to come in to force. It's a two way detector, picking up your bullshit and theirs and is one of the most vital tools in the writers.... . toolbox.

No one likes to work for free, but it happens all the time. Heck the spec was free work to begin with. But interest is interest, and if you figure you can do it and not harm your original concept and reason for writing it in the first place and if you have the time then why the hell not? It's a tough old world out there and at the very least you're showing willing.

But first your Bullshit detector has to come into force. On one level, who are these people, what's their track record? Are you just going to be throwing good time after bad? On another, do you actually think the notes won't harm your belief in the script or is it a bag over the head and write for old glory?

It's usually quite easy to tell the two extremes when someone is either blowing smoke up your ass or is just way off base with their take on the script. Much more tricky is to recognise difficult but constructive notes. And again that's when your own Bullshit detector has to kick in. Are you clinging on to the script as is, because you like it so much and how dare anyone say it isn't fantastic?

When I get notes on a spec I give them the once over then set them aside for a few days. It's very easy to get defensive at first blush, and you want to be open to whatever is being suggested. A couple of days takes the edge off.

William Goldman said that 'when you start believing all the hype, you're finished as a writer.' It works the other way too. Start believing all the criticisms and you might as well break the pencil.

Writing is always subjective to the reader. Sometimes you'll be right and sometimes you wont be. Hopefully your Bullshit detector will kick in and point the way.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Secret Millionaire

I'm watching it right now. Lovely altruistic idea. A millionaire goes undercover in a deprived area and at the end of the show gives a large wad of dosh to deserving recipients.

The voice over after every ad break reminds us that the millionaire is undercover. This weeks millionaire is posing as a street warden.

How many street wardens have a fucking camera crew following them around? Completely nuts. But I like it. I know it's a huge fake but I don't care. Would I watch it again? Possibly. It's life affirming TV and that's rare enough to make me forgive the fakery.

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's about The Audience, stupid

This seems to be a recurring theme in my recent posts. I guess it's weighing heavy on my mind at the moment. I read some of Armando Iannuci's Alternative McTaggert Lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival. Iannuci is responsible for some of the best comedy shows on TV including Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It, so whatever he says is worth taking account of.

He advocates the BBC creating a HBO pay per view type channel.
I had to think hard about that. My first reaction is that there is no way in hell the BBC should be involved in pay per view. Not while the licence is in force.

Ostensibly his argument is that given the budget restraints he's found lately and restrictions on what he'd like to do, the BBC should be maximising foreign sales in order to plough more into content that will sell world wide and therefore generate income, and when this happens there has to be a sales vehicle to capitalise on it.

There appears to be two different arguments here. By having a dedicated pay per view channel that doesn't go through the usual commissioning process of one size fits all they have more chance of the break out hit that will sell world wide. And secondly the current commissioners on the main BBC channels are a bunch of tossers and BBC Worldwide don't know their arse from their elbow.

Okay, it's actually the same argument but I gave the political spin and the actual meaning.

Iannucci is a writer/producer, so I can see where he is coming from. Look at The Office. A huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and sold to loads of other 'territories' [as the sales people have it]

It must be doubly frustrating for a writer/producer/writer to see genius fucked up rather than just the one hyphenate writer/writer.

But let's not get carried away here. Do we really want a two tier BBC? One that produces crap and one that makes money? Not while I'm spending how ever many squids on a licence fee.

If they can't make good TV with the billions they get then you have to look at who's in charge. Simple as that. At the same festival/jolly boy's outing, esteemed Director Of Vision Jana Bennet defended the accusation that digital channels BBC3 and 4 were denuding BBC 2 of it's status by saying 'that is an old argument and I don't buy it'

Well, old doesn't mean wrong, especially as the age of the argument probably dates to the time when the entire BBC2 drama budget was shifted to BBC3 and ....who the fuck are you Jana?

The AUDIENCE don't care about channel loyalty. The AUDIENCE care about entertainment. Mindless entertainment has it's place. Hey I love it on occasion. But like too much scrumpy, it's a yoofs drink that makes you regret it in the morning. The eternal dichotomy between entertainment, money and audience is that there has to be a tri-partite contract between them.

But the most important element in the trifecta is Audience. We are not stupid. I say that as the audience because that's how I watch TV.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What a tangled web we weave

I guess it's wading through the Gruniad media blog thanks to anons links that has set me off on a political bent [media politics] But make no mistake, media politics play a great part in what gets commissioned and what doesn't.

Take the news that the BBC have just greenlit a remake of The 39 Steps, to be produced by BBC Scotland.

I know, the first question is WHY? Several films and a series have already been made. But hey ho, I happen to love the story. So I thought about it some more. It really makes a lot of sense. Jane Tranter prodigy Ann Mensah, head of drama at BBC Scotland has been coming under fire in the Scottish press for a complete lack of Scottish based commissions. Relying on such Scottish fare as Waterloo Road and Film 2008 wasn't cutting it. A large swathe of the drama budget going on a Scandanavian based detective show didn't help matters.

There is Hope Springs in the offing. A Shed Productions effort already being dubbed by insiders as Hopeless Springs. But on the even more down side I hear the flagship soap River City is in deep doo-doo. The geniuses have decided that rather than be a two half hour a week soap they are going to get rid of many of the characters and sets and turn it into a one hour drama with self contained stories. By the way I'm also informed that the geniuses set about demolishing and rebuilding exterior sets without applying for planning permission and after it was pointed out to them that is a 'little on hold' shall we say.
So....... Fuck the audience then? Change the format and nature of the programme after 6 years? Better to dump it now and start afresh. The audience is going to be spitting feathers so the new format is on a losing wicket from the off. More fodder for the Scottish press.

So with that in mind it makes perfect sense to commission yet another remake of a well known and loved tale. It's Scottish [mainly] It's branded. It's almost guaranteed ratings and even BBC Scotland would have a job screwing it up.

So there you go. If you were in the political know, you could have pitched Brigadoon.

The drama crunch

This blog might seem to be the Cassandra of the scribeosphere. But bear with it. I am a glass half full guy really.

C4 has slumped to it's lowest ratings since 2001. ITV has slumped to it's lowest ratings ....ever? The BBC are on top only because their shit is less shittier than the others and it's the first channel on the remote.

The X Factor is ITV's biggest non soap ratings winner. Without it they would be toast. You can say the same for C4 and Big Brother.

I hear rumours that Julie Gardner is to replace Jane Tranter at the BBC. I'm sticking to my glass half full. Say what you like about Doc Who, she had the balls to let a writer be the showrunner, and made it plain for all to see that Stephen Moffat is going to be a great one. And all credit to Russel T Davies for bringing him on board.

But essentially what all the channels are missing is 'must see drama'. That's obvious. Why are they missing it? Not so obvious. There are various factors. but I think number one is a generation gap. A two fold generation gap. A 'Thatcherite' legacy has given us a bunch of middle ager execs who hold the purse strings and believe the market is King coupled with a brash know it all Blairite brigade who believe if they talk convincingly enough about 'new media' they should be listened to.
Neither really know what the fuck they're doing so you end up with the camel. The horse designed by committee.

And what they forget in the scramash for ideological domination is the most important factor.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Who put the ass in classic?

I just got feedback on a spec from a well known prodco. Please bear in mind the following is in no way a reflection on the prodco. They are doing what needs to be done.

So they loved the script, but didn't feel they could do anything with it as thanks to Life On Mars [meant ironically] the Broadcasters were only looking at classic genres if they had a massive L.O.M type twist.

Nothing wrong with that. Well, okay one major thing wrong with that. Apparently the perceived wisdom percolating down from the broadcasters is that they will 'only' look at classic genres if they have a massive Life On Mars type twist. That 'only' is the rub.

Now, whether that perception is erroneous or not, it is still there. And if that perception is true, then the Broadcasters are just plain wrong. I'm in no way suggesting my spec is shatteringly brilliant and these fools can't see it, by the way. Way too long in the tooth for that kind of thought process. And I know the person at the prodco enough to know that if my script sucked they would tell me. It's the reasoning that irks.

A huge twist is simply a bait and switch trick. A non recurring phenomenon. You can't build a drama schedule on it. Life On Mars worked, even though the concept of 'is it real or is he in a coma' is a hoary old drama chestnut. It just hadn't been seen on TV for a while and certainly not in series format.
But that was then, and this is now, and if you keep trying to emulate the success of something you end up with a load of pale imitations. The big twist series works if used sparingly. If not you get with what I call the 'Brookside'

A well loved soap garnered a few column inches and ratings with a sensational plotline. Instead of letting it rest, it was decided to try and emulate it in ever more frequent bizarre stories. As a result the audience grew tired as the characters they tuned in for were subjected to more and more unbelievable scenarios. Ratings began to dive and the soap was cancelled. Entertainment is a fickle son'bitch. The audience can smell a stinker quicker than you can write it.

Take a look at 3 of the biggest rating shows on TV. New Tricks, Foyle's War and Doc Martin. None have huge twists. Okay Foyle's War is [was] set in the Forties, but a twist on a classic genre in the vein of Life On Mars? Hardly. High Concept doesn't mean huge twist. New Tricks, Foyle's War and Doc Martin all have High Concepts.

But equally as important, they are well written, well acted dramas. And that is why they are and were ratings hits. Like Inspector Morse or Traffic. The 'let's have the same as the last hit but different' mentality may be okay for the film producer huckster out to make a quick buck. But TV has to be in it for the long term and that 'different and that's it' dog don't hunt with the mainstream TV audience.

It's also telling that a 3 year old series is being referenced as the bar to aim for. That mentality clearly hasn't produced much of note in the intervening years.

But hey, I remember when torture porn was the flavour of the month. This will pass, same as that did. Meanwhile it's hunker down and write. Hopefully what YOU like rather than just what you think MIGHT sell. Chasing an audience rarely works. Chasing what a Broadcaster says it wants is generally even less fruitful.

The spec has just gone to a few more prodcos. It'll be interesting to hear their take.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Two to be precise. I've just realised that the preceding post was my 300th, I know, it seems a lot more to you who have to wade through them, but it is also 10 years this month when I began writing for a living.

Been rich, been poor. Rich is better. But I wouldn't change a second. Well okay there are about 25 vital minutes spread out over 10 years when an ounce of shut up would have made a pound of gold, but hey ho.

So at the risk of being more pompous than usual here's my take on the state of play right now.

We're fucked.

At the BBC all I can see are the 'Tranterites' And by necessity that means the Indies pitching to the BBC. 'Will Jane like it' seems to be the catchphrase. Well I've got to say that the Tranterite taste doesn't really bear up to scrutiny. A glance at the schedules as you try to find something worth watching tells you that.

At ITV I see will and effort but no direction as they desperately throw shit against the wall hoping some of it will stick.

5, well I'm not sure they even do original drama.

Channel 4 - Used to be THE place for worthwhile drama. Now they seem to be capitulating to the yoof syndrome a bit too much.

Multi- channel - Sky make some attempts at original drama but it still is primarily the place to watch big budget high concept US shows bought in for a fraction of the production costs.

I could write an essay here as to why this has happened and my suggestions for fixing it , but 10 years of TV writing have sapped that particular skill. Instead I'll try to nutshell it, and there's nothing wrong with that by the way! So here it is. The answer to everything.


Monday, August 11, 2008

The spin off

So, we have the 'legendary' Holby franchise, Dr Who and Torchwood, Saving Grace and Doc Martin, Spooks and Spooks Code 9 [watch out for the upcoming Spooks- the kindergarten years] Echo Beach and Moving Wallpaper.

This set me thinking that maybe the wind is blowing in the direction of the spin off. Not as a result of fear, lack of imagination and reliance on branding to fool an audience of course, perish the thought. No, perhaps there are actually some genuinely great spin off ideas out there akin to Frazier - Cheers. I've listed some of my ideas below. Please feel free to add.

Will Scarlett medieval Rock God - the rise and fall of a Plantagenet poseur

The Bill After Hours - a drama surrounding the lives and loves of the Sun Hill cleaners who come in at night and solve crimes using only the white-boards and litter.

Spoks - Vulcans are recruited by MI5, writes itself!

Homes Under The Hammer House Of Horror - House flipper TV presenters are smeared with raw meat then given a hundred yard start before a pack of ravenous dogs are set after them. Winner takes all.

American Idle - Paula Abdul shags all the winners and they never work again. Oh wait a minute ....... been done.

Rose and Clone and Low Esteem are Wed - Dr Who's assistant finds living with his clone isn't as easy as she thought. Complications ensue. [ may change the title, bit of a reach]

Piece of piss this, I should be a producer!

Ears open

Bear with me, this starts off as an NHS story. I finally decided to do something about my ankle. It's been 8 weeks and the recovery seems to have plateaued. First I had to register with a doctor, as being a bloke, I haven't been for about 3 years and have since moved. Then I had to make an appointment which meant waiting 3 days for my details to go on line and then phoning up at 8.30 in the morning with all the other hopefuls.

Job done. My GP diagnosed a classic ruptured or torn Achilles tendon and gave me a letter to take to the fracture unit at my local hospital at 8.30 this morning to have an X ray and ultrasound. Perhaps I should have been a little wary when the letter started off ''Dear Doctor at fracture unit'

I tipped up at the fracture unit at 8.30 am having paid the 4 quid parking fee, only to be told by the doctor there to basically piss off he was busy and make an appointment. I went to the desk to make an appointment to be told that I couldn't make one there as I had never been to that hospital before.
Say what?
I was directed to make an appointment through Central appointments, which was located at a hospital 10 miles away. I phoned the place to be told that I would have to get a letter from my Doctor, which 5 days later would go to a consultant who within the next week or so after that would fix an appointment.

So it could be another 2 weeks before I got an x-ray? Yup. As I'm on the limit for surgical intervention as it is I thought 'bollocks to this' and went to casualty instead. They diagnosed a ruptured Achilles tendon and made an appointment for me at the fracture unit tomorrow. A complete waste of time today for me and hard-pressed casualty and another 4 quid parking tomorrow. However I gave my unexpired day parking ticket to an old dear on the way out so perhaps karma will operate and someone will do the same for me tomorrow.

Anyhoooooooooo, during the interminable wait in casualty an old guy came in and plonked himself down beside a young guy.
Old guy then launched into a moaning diatribe about the weather, the government, immigrants, and being old. He finished off with -
''They don't care about old people, when we reach 70 they should just take us out and shoot us''

The young guy replied ' Give me a gun and I'll do it now.'

Ears open all the time. You never know when you might hear a bit of dialogue gold.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What you talking about Willis?

Holby Blue has been axed - from Broadcast

'A source close to BBC drama said senior executives were concerned that the series could undermine the Holby brand.'

Say what?

Couple of things here. The Holby brand? You mean Casualty and Holby? Two medical dramas losing ratings as fast as the audience dies off. Whose bright fucking idea was it to call a cop show Holby Blue anyway? The little I watched had no connection with Holby or Casualty whatsoever. And whose bright idea was it to put it up against The Bill, a 20 year old ratings staple?

I'd guess it was the marketing bright sparks. The same ones now wittering on about brands. While we're on about bright sparks, can anyone tell me who or what a Director of Vision is meant to be? And if the BBC must have one can we have one a little more impressive than the current incumbent? She comes across like a startled deer apologising for crapping in a field.

Grump over. Normal programming is now resumed.

Suspension of Disbelief

In all the morass of character and story and rhythm and arc and structure, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the primary job of the dramatist is to have the audience lose themselves in what they are watching.

All of the above list, and more, go towards that. But here's what I think is the best 'assist' to that suspension of disbelief. Recognisable moments.

I don't know if that phrase has already been coined, or is even proper English, but by it, I mean those actions or dialogue which the audience can relate to and ground them in the story.

You have a wedding scene in an action movie? Have a shot of a six year old page boy picking his nose. No matter what happens next, the audience is with you. They believe this 'could' be a wedding.

Pulp Fiction is perhaps a good example, assuming you can write dialogue like early Tarrentino. The famous 'Royale with cheese' exchange both grounds the audience and serves as a great juxtaposition when they grab shooters out of the trunk. The audience is already with them, even to the extent that they can happily accept Uma Thurman drawing an imaginary square on screen.
Less is more is a very good and useful adage. But less can sometimes be less when it comes to immersing your audience. A shot here and a line there can make all the difference, especially if tied in to character. The audience MUST accept what they are seeing. Not believe, but accept.

I have a crap memory, but there are countless examples where a line or a shot is there just to ground the audience. And never forget the importance of 'background'. I tend to watch things like an audience and so don't specifically pay attention to what William Goldman called the 'shit-work' I.e the work that no one notices but without it the whole thing would fall apart. Take a staple 'great' movie like Casablanca. Shit work had already been done with the singer who went with the German to spite Rick and the guitar playing female, so that when Lazlo had them all singing the French national anthem, when we cut to them it really means something. Brought tears to the eyes, even.

'Moments' elevate a script. Tie them to theme, character and story and you've struck gold.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The most valuable hour you'll spend this year

Go to Jim Henshaws blog at and watch the Head Fake lecture given by Randy Pausch.

It's ennobling, life affirming and other adjectives not yet invented. As my son would say - I cried like a little bitch at the end.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Writers are crazy

You hear that a lot. Not to your face so much, but that tends to be the perceived wisdom in the industry. Not just in the industry, try telling a doctor or an accountant what you do for a living and be truthful about the insecurity and just how far you are out on a limb as far as a career and and a pay-cheque are concerned and you can see the crazy-meter hitting red in their eyes.

But define crazy? Writers don't live within those parameters. I'm considering becoming Bi-polar. It works for Paul Abbot. Talent will always be viewed as 'suspicious' by those with the money in this industry. They can't quantify it and reduce it to a formula of the sure hit, which is what every fibre in their being is aching to do.

We are in the ENTERTAINMENT industry. Define entertain? It's impossible to do on a subjective level. You can be a producer who says ' I'll put this actor in this project with this writer and director, and they are all big names so I can't go wrong.
Oh dear
Check out Eddie Murphy's last three films. If you're a glutton for punishment.

In meetings it never ceases to amaze me the disrespect the money people have for the audience. 'Will it play in Preoria' was the famous HW litmus test, and to my mind yet another of those damaging out of context sayings that are taken as gospel.

Good drama will always play. Anywhere. It doesn't matter what the subject matter is. It just needs to resonate I.E say SOMETHING to a big enough audience. To do that you have to step out of the conventions of life. Take a hard look at something that most people don't think about until you highlight it. Then they do. I'm not talking about being 'preachy' I'm talking about being 'meaningful' in a truthful way. Not patronising, not egotistical, just honest.

That's what writers should always strive to do. I've been as guilty as anyone for writing crap. I've got mouths to feed. But I tried to make it as truthful as possible.

If that makes writers crazy then more power to us.