Sunday, November 26, 2006

Luck Please

I've got a meeting tomorrow with a major reponsible for some of the worst crap on TV. In my head right now I've a lot of things I want to say to them.

But I'm a pretty quiet guy by and large. I say what I say and don't get antagonistic as a rule. But you know what? I'm fed up of the crap. So if any of you guys could send me a simple 'Fuck em' for me to wake up to tomorrow before I go it would be much appreciated.

Just a little something to bolster the spirit before I beard the lion in it's den.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Write what you know

So maybe the Kipling quote in the previous post gave away the fact that I'm spending the day navel gazing.

But that's what I have to do to come up with an idea I actually want to write. And I did. It comes from the 'If you get handed lemons, make lemonade' school of writing. See the subconcious connection with Kipling's 'IF'? I didn't realise it myself when I wrote the previous post. But in truth I've sucked on a few lemons recently.

And we all get handed lemons, all the time. In life and in work. But I've been able to take one of those lemons and hopefully turn it into melons. Jeez, get one of those inspirational speakers on the line, I can sell that one!

The point being the lemon I was handed was pretty insignificant in the great scheme of things. Pretty damned dull as far as anyone else is concerned. But if you get out of the insular 'me' and transpose that lemon and the motives and consequences to the wider world you create a 'Universal Question'. You are writing what you know. Be it in Space, The Roman Empire , or a SpongeBob Square Pants cartoon.

Pit Stop

I've just delivered what should be the last draft of something and now have that yawning chasm and no safety net known as 'no paid work' stretching before me. Maybe I'll pick something up before Christmas. Maybe I won't. The Law According to Sod tends to point to the latter. Things generally slow down from now to Christmas as dev execs wangle Christmas lunches from Agents.

But who knows? And after a good number of years of this I should be used to it. It really does tend to be feast or famine unless you're a core writer on a long runner. And that's something I don't really want to do. To be honest, it would bore the crap out of me. I did three eps on the trot for an hour long recurring drama and that was quite enough. Imagine having years of that ahead of you. I like change and I like a challenge. It might not make me rich but hopefully my soul will remain intact.

This year has possibly been my worst financially since I started writing professionally. And I still managed to pay the bills. For me, that's good enough. In fact I'd go further and say if it's only about the money then you are not doing it right.

Because writers are crazy. Sure, they can hide behind logical sounding sentences and structured scenes and stories. And that can definitely give the appearance of some form of sanity. But don't let that fool you. That quiet looking guy in the corner with his laptop is feverishly dreaming and scheming and plotting and fighting with 10 characters in his head. Slaving to the exclusion of all else over something that may never see the light of day and that quite possibly he'll never see a cent for. During those hours he is that story. Outside those hours he's still pretty much that story. It leeches into him.

He'll know that rejection and compromise await whichever way it goes. But he keeps going. Because he's crazy. And because to paraphrase Kipling-

''If you can bear to hear the truth you've spokenTwisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;If all men count with you, but none too much,If you can fill the unforgiving minuteWith sixty seconds' worth of distance run,Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,And--which is more--you'll be a writer , my son!''

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sky's The Limit

So Rupert Murdoch has bought a share of NTL, apparently to scupper their proposed take over of ITV.

Do I care? I think I do. But not much. Okay I'm not sure how one cable/satellite provider is allowed to take what is in effect a controlling interest in another. That can't be good for competition.

Secondly, if the motives were to scupper the takeover then those motives seem fairly suspect. It's no secret that ITV are on their uppers. Ratings and advertising are down and new legislation preventing junk food advertising is going to cost them another 40 mill a year. So are they trying to wreck ITV? That has to be a bad thing.

But at the same time I can't help thinking that the money men are running around doing their deals and forgetting ITV wouldn't be in the position it is in if it made better programmes. Now while that does have a lot to do with money, it has far more to do with talent. And I don't mean writing talent.

Someone commissioned the series of stinkers that made ITV a viewing no go area apart from Reality and Soaps. And believe me I mean someONE. Because that is the way ITV is set up. ALL network commissions have to go through Network Centre. Be it Granada, Thames/Talkback or the smallest indy. They can't move without the head of Network Centre approving.

Okay the BBC have Jane Tranter, but they also have commissioning through other routes like the regions and Indy commissions. All handled seperately.

A network having ONE person dictate what gets shown is not a good idea in my opinion. It's not about money, it's about talent. Would you risk a Billion pound enterprise on the talent of one person? That's how ITV operate.

Entertainment was, is and always will be about talent. Yes, people can make a great deal of money out of the fact that others have talent. Hell, making money is a talent in itself. But making money out of entertainment means having the right talent in the right place at the right time. Right now that means the ones who can spot 'Cool TV'.

The Holy Grail for TV execs is to bring back the 16-35 age group. The ones who are tuning off in droves. And the advertisers' wet dream.

You know what I want to see? Good stories, likeable characters and people saying clever things.

That might be deemed shallow, but clever is hard. And that's the difference.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Good Idea or Pants

Tony Jordan has just had two connected projects commissioned by ITV. One is 'Moving Wallpaper' a comedy drama about behind the scenes on a soap. The other is Echo Beach.- The soap itself.

Now when I first read that I thought 'Cool Idea!' And having thought about it I still think 'Cool Idea'

But will it work? That is the question.

See, as I understand it one show will go out on ITV1 and the other immediately after on ITV2. So what you are going to have in effect are two entirely different audiences. One for the comedy show the other for the soap. Granted some of the comedy viewers may tune over to see the soap and how it came together after the behind the scenes shenanigans, but that will mainly be to snigger.

The soap viewers may probably not watch the comedy of the behind the scenes as this could spoil their enjoyment of the soap. Especially if they know some of the comedy viewers are watching along and sniggering. Soap is all about believability.

I suppose it depends on the tone of each of the shows. But with a title like Moving Wallpaper, I don't expect the comedy to be all that complimentary to soaps.

So when I think Cool Idea do I really mean 'Interesting Idea' - because if I really thought it was a Cool Idea I don't think I'd have so many doubts about whether it can actually work.

It's about the imponderable X factor again. They may have it. They may not. But imagine if Eastenders had a comedy called ' Walford Wankers' showing immediately before it based on the goings on behind the scenes of Eastenders. I don't think that would help Eastenders ratings. Not unless they changed the tone of Eastenders.

[I'm available for both, either, Barmitzvahs, Christenings and Funerals Tony]
And let's take a look at the writers' situation. Out of the two, which would you rather watch, the comedy drama or the soap? Let's say 99% would say the comedy drama. Because probably 99% of us would prefer to write it.

So most of the writers on Echo Beach are going to think they won second prize. Unless they are the same writers of course, which I would doubt. Soap is one beast and comedy drama is another, and not many do both well. It's going to take the managerial powers of Zeus to prevent a full scale blood bath in story conference.

I hope this works. I can't help feeling it could be a disaster waiting to happen.

The Five Million Barrier

It seems to me that most UK Dramas fail to break past the 5 million band of ratings. The State Within is now posting just over 3 million, Robin Hood, Spooks and Vincent are all now around 5 and a half. The Beebs latest, The Innocence Project didn't even make it past 3 million.

Is there any rhyme or reason to this when Heartbeat regulary gets 8 million plus? I'm not knocking Heartbeat. Clearly it is a show that must have a wide appeal. Possibly it is ideal digestive biscuit and a cup of tea Sunday night viewing. It hits it's mark.

Doctor Who regulary averaged 7 million plus. Again ideal sit down with family early Saturday evening viewing. It hit it's mark. It also had a huge built in fan base of several generations which wouldn't do it any harm.

Robin Hood started off strongly but has shed a couple of million viewers. Everyone will have an opinion on why that is. And everyone will be right. I think it's a decent enough show, but the barometer for me is 'are my son's mates talking about it at school'. And the answer is no. Maybe it's just not cool enough despite the Robin Hoodie advertising. And maybe to hit the mark in the early Saturday evening slot a show has to be cool.

Or maybe there's just too much soap creeping in to drama. The Bill [slumped to less than 5 million recently] is really a soap with police stories, Casualty and Holby the same but medical stories. They have a loyal but static audience and in my opinion are well past their sell by dates. Shouting, tears and melodrama do not themselves good drama make.

I recently wrote a spec slick action thriller. It got a good response apart from two of the biggest players who gave feedback to the effect that they really enjoyed the script but felt there should have been more character development. So - either they didn't really enjoy the script or they thought I should chuck more character development in there for the hell of it?

It is what it is. That's the way I deliberately wrote it and that's the way it's staying. I've got a meeting with one of those players this week. And if the subject is brought up again that's exactly what I'm going to say.

I don't want to do 'mid-life crisis with testicular cancer' or 'woman realising her marriage is a sham' stretched out to six hours . There is a place for those kinds of dramas, of course, but I don't watch them. I want to do 'appointment TV'. Bold, in your face, escapism. And I'm pretty sure a lot of the viewing public feel the same way. That's the mark we have to hit if we're to break the 5 million barrier.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Box Set

It's occured to me recently that I rarely make a point of sitting down and watching a programme when it's scheduled. My favourite programmes that is. I simply can't be bothered waiting a week to see the next episode. I might have died by then. Or gone to the pub or...who knows what.

I think my viewing habits have actually been changed by DVD's. I'd think twice about filling my shelf space up with a dozen videos of a series. But a dinky little DVD? No problem.

And then I can fest out at my leisure. I can binge on Firefly, or House, or Entourage. A banquet instead of a snack.

There are exceptions of course. I like to sit down with my son 0n a Thurday night and watch 'Quite Funny Thursday' on E4. Though it has to be said George Sewel's VO trailers for forthcoming shows can sometimes be the funniest part. Frickin' hilarious.

I don't like messing around recording programmes. I want them there when I want them. Bang! And as a reclusive writer I don't have to be up with the latest shows for water cooler talk.

Take Entourage season 2, currently showing on ITV. I missed a couple of episodes. Saw it was on last night [11.30, get a grip ITV!] I might have made an effort to watch it but what the hell, the DVD is out in February anyway. I can look forward to a rainy day with a box of Pringles and 8 eps of induldgement. And no frigging Ad breaks.

Possibly bad news for ITV who rely on ratings for revenue. But the BBC are lapping up the box set revolution. They turned over 111 million quid last year in DVD sales alone. The Blue Planet? Cost 8 mill to make. They reckon they'll have DVD and TV sell through deals worth 40 million on it. Little Britain and The Office each sold more than a million DVD's. Bearing in mind writers get a minimum of 5.4% of the gross on DVD sales and you can see why Messrs Walliams and Gervais have permenant grins. And good luck to them. DVD's don't sell unless people want to buy 'em.

The biggest world wide earning shows for the BEEB are Hustle, Spooks and Doctor Who. They helped BBC World Wide to an 80 million net profit. That's the best part of a fiver off the licence fee.

Heck if they made even more decent programmes maybe we'd end up getting it for free? I kid, but quality makes money.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Turning Crap into Fertilizer

That's been a little problem I've had to think about over the last few days. I've been writing a mid-block episode for a series. The arc of a block in this show tends to go - aftermath of previous block - new stories - thickening - climax. So what tends to happen is the real slam bam story eps tend to be at the beginning and end.

The middle ones aren't what you could call dull, but they tend to be there to jog the stories along , but as is the nature of things you do tend to get the odd greenie. You get the first draft down and realise that the way the story is structured and told just ain't really cutting it. Possibly because you don't have enough story despite scraping a 30 scene sxs together.

This is where you really earn your corn. On a tight TV deadline there's not a whole hell of a lot you can do about story when it's already been planned out X Eps ahead and others are busy writing those Eps. So what I do is have a look at the effect of story. Is there another character I can bring in who has an interesting/dramatic take on that storyline that is flagging? Another viewpoint? A source of antagonism?

Usually if you think about it hard enough there is. And with a bit of luck they don't impact on the future course of the story very much. Writers down the line will erect a statue to you.

Now some unkind people might call that 'padding' but I think it's the opposite. You can get rid of entire scenes that were lying there like rotten corpses by the judicious use of additional characters with something to say in the matter in other scenes. If anything it tightens up the script as well as giving another edge to the story.

This is where a good script editor is also invaluable. Or failing that at least one that agrees with you. If you call and say this isn't working because of X but I want to do Y to fix it, you want to hear 'Go for it'.

If your instinct tells you something stinks it is generally because it does. But crap can become fertilizer.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The End of Civilization

Sad news amigos. I've just been on the phone to my agents. It was ostensibly to set up a meeting with an exec producer at a network. But what came out in the conversation depressed the hell out of me.

They had another writer meet the same exec producer a couple of weeks ago. The writer pitched his pitch which included references to such seminal classics as The Avengers and Budgie.

And the exec producer said she'd never heard of them.

My fucking God.

Budgie well maybe that's an age thing. But The Avengers? You are making programmes now and you have never heard of The Avengers? Even the abysmal Sean Connery movie?

No wonder TV is so crap when you have a generation of idiots in control raised on Casualty, Holby and The Bill and think that is great drama.

Is that too harsh?

I don't think so. John Yorke is head of drama at the BBC. Dammit, I didn't mean to mention the BBC. He's a soap man, out and out. Passionate about it. And that's a good thing. Passion is always good. He's so passionate he's set up a writer's academy. The only problem is the writers in the academy are being solely trained to write Holby, East Enders, Casualty and Doctors.

Hell, I make a living writing these kind of shows but do I consider them to be memorable, ground-breaking drama? Do I buggery.

How about a writer's academy that teaches writers about writing? Not perpetuating the moving wallpaper that passes for drama and caters to an ever shrinking audience.

Oh The Pain

So I'm in the middle of story lining six eps of my new spec project. And it hurts. It hurts because I want it to be really good. I want every scene in every episode to resonate thematically. Not that I'm doing much more than a page per Ep, but the story possibilities on each page have to have some linkage with the theme and still be a story with rising dramatic conflict and a slam bang ending.

Pretty damn hard. But that's what we get paid for.

Only it isn't, though it should be.

You see, should this spec project be optioned, I'll make a nut and a bun out of it. A few grand, tops. It's only if the series gets commissioned that I'll see any real money.

But all the really gut-churning, mind- exploding work has already been done in the Bible and story lines. The part you get the least amount of money for. Writing actual scripts is a doddle compared to this.

The major reason for this is pretty obviously that no one is going to shell out big bucks on an iffy spec project that may never see the light of day. An excellent reason and exactly the same one why prodco's option your spec feature.

But as we all know, that's cold comfort when you're slogging away in the trenches pouring heart and soul into something that is likely to be dismissed with a 'Not for us at this time'

And you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way.

This is the one time when you do it for you. No producer, director, studio exec or script editor throwing in their two cents. You and a blank sheet of paper. I think you only write in your true 'voice' when you have a 'fuck you' attitude. I don't necessarily mean write angry, I mean when you write and you don't care what anyone else thinks about it. Because much as you might try to think otherwise, as soon as you start getting notes, you can't shake the impression you are working for someone else and have to try to give them what they want.

I'm not saying that's bad. Scripts and projects often [even usually?] end up 10 times better thanks to intelligent input. However, input is much easier than creating. Those times when you as a writer have no agenda, no one to please, just passion, imagination and the solitude of your computer?

Heaven. And Hell. But mostly Heaven.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

When will I be famous?

This has probably been blogged all over the place. But for everyone who bitches about how writers don't get the rewards they deserve.......

Including me.....


The viewers seem to be unanimous in saying this newest reality offering from C4 is crap.

I'm not a big fan of reality shows at the best of times but this seems to be the most ill conceived effort since that one about sleep deprivation - which was little better than a snuff movie.

Unanimous - 9 people in a bunker arguing about who should be given a million quid and the decision has to be unanimous?

Firstly I don't give a stuff which one of them gets it. Except to think why the hell should they? For doing what exactly? Not one of them seemed the least bit deserving to be handed a million quid on a plate.

Secondly, in the few minutes I was able to suffer it, it appeared to me there was absolutely no audience participation whatsoever. The contestants argue amongst themselves with no outside interaction. No audience voting for their favourites, influencing the outcome based on what they see?

What? And C4 scratch their heads and wonder why the ratings are disappearing faster than the contestants' self-respect?

I say give them each a baseball bat and let them fight it out. It's by far the next logical step in these depressing shows.

No Mr Bond, I expect you to die.

So the early reviews for Bond 21, Casino Royale are coming in and YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY.

Praises are being heaped. I love Bond so I am incredibly relieved. It's always dangerous when a franchise is being 'reinvigorated' as was here. The gadgets and buxom beauties kept to a minimum in favour of character delineation and a more gritty realism. Not to mention a new Bond and a stripping back to the character actually envisaged by Fleming.

Apparently our boy Dan gives a fantastic performance and the script [perenials Wade and Purvis with the addition of Paul Haggis] is top drawer.

The kind of down and dirty Bond portrayed in The Living Daylights seemed to split audiences and critics. But this one seems to have got everything just right.

Deep joy. All is right with the world.

Now if I could just get these frickin' story lines done......

Quick note on ITV. I'm guessing a few writers out there have been to meetings with Indie prodco's recently and the subject of 'Does anyone know what ITV are looking for? came up.

I know it has for me on several occassions. Well now at least I know what they are not looking for. My agents were at a seminar last week with ITV drama [ you'd think they'd do the same with producers but there you g0] And they are not looking for.........

Police or legal - unless it's another 'Cracker'
FemJeps - females in jepordy apparently.
Psychological Thrillers - stalkers

And they are looking for ''Bold, talked about contemporary drama with something to say about the world we live in''

Aren't we all?

Oh and classic adaptations.

So now you know.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Why Does It Work

.....Is a question I always ask myself when I see a good movie or TV show. Usually I decide it's a combination of things, writing, acting, pacing, story. You name it.

But the one thing that nearly always crops up for me in something I like is 'a Universal Question'

Some part of the 'motor' of the story held my interest and enjoyment because I connected to it on a personal level.

I don't mean I have personally lived or experienced that story. I mean it kicks off something in my psyche. An emotional reaction to what is being portrayed on an almost but not quite sub-conscious level.

It might be The Matrix. - What would I do if my world was turned upside down and I went from being anonymous geek to being told I was the saviour of the world? Is that how Jesus felt? Is that why the Bible became so popular? Was Jesus one of the first archetypal heroes? Okay I digress, but what I'm saying is that if the story doesn't have a resonance on a 'what what I do if' level then I don't generally find it engaging. And I think that's why most people liked that movie. Yeah there were great FX and it was a cool story but without Neo's 'what if' would I have liked it so much? I don't think I would. I certainly didn't like 2 and 3. But there were other reasons for that too.

I think in good writing the 'what would I do if' part is done thematically rather than a specific part of the plot, especially in movies. I say especially because I think that due to time constraints it has to be a bit more on the nose in TV. The 'what would you do if' tends to be the premise!

But the magic trick as far as I'm concerned is the skill required in story and character to get the audience to that pot of gold 'what would I do if..' level. Because without that you are talking about a very short attention span. At least for me.

The best sit-coms do it well. They don't just take a 'funny' situation and run with it. They create dilemmas that get the audience involved. The worst sit-coms take something which they think is funny and concentrate on feeding the characters 'funny' lines rather than funny lines feeding off dilemmas.

You may say that shows like 'Everybody Loves Raymond' are middle of the road pap. I like it. Because it's got heart. ANYONE who has been married can look at a lot of those episodes and go ' Yeah right on!' They zone straight in on a lot of stuff that goes on between married couples.

The Universal Question' in that show is generally 'How the hell do I squirm out of this' Something dear to every married man's heart.

I kid. The real Universal Question in that show, to me, is ' I screwed up again, how do I fix it'

Friday, November 03, 2006

No Deeds To Do

No promises to keep
I'm dappled and drowsy and ready for sleep.

Yep today is one of those days when the scripts have been delivered, the deadlines met and I can kick off and relax.

Yes I know, I should be getting on with something else. And I did promise my agents six story lines for the new project. And by mid-afternoon I'll probably be bored shitless and get on with that anyway.

But I've a nice rosy glow right now. Not caused by alcohol. I think the script I delivered was pretty good. I could well be proven wrong of course. It's subjective, after all, but after a while you get a sense of what is actually pretty good and what was phoned in.

But the main thing is that right now there is nothing that I HAVE to write. So anything I do write will come straight from the gut. It's from me, for me.

I don't want to give the impression that I dislike writing episodic TV. I love ice cream but I prefer Phish Food to Walls vanilla. I'm also a terminal procrastenator and as such have a semi-permenant feeling of guilt about deadlines. Today I am deadline free. It's like that feeling you get when you finally put that shelf up that you've been promising for weeks.

But the subconcious never really stops. As I typed this I thought of a great line I can use in something and had to break off to write it down. I've always contended that being a writer is a state of mind rather than a profession. Whether you are writing or not you are always a writer.

I recall a story about James Thurber. He and his wife were giving a dinner party. His wife noticed him staring off into space. She slammed the table and shouted 'Stop writing, Thurber!'