Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What the hell has got to happen

...before TV execs get it into their heads that something is rotten in the State of Primark? Land of cut price TV.

Jeckyll lost a million plus viewers on Saturday. Time of Your Life a whopping 2 million plus. I can't comment on the quality because I've watched neither. But I respect the writers hugely. So I'd be interested to hear any comments on either.

But as ratings in general continue to spiral downwards I can't help thinking that a comment made by Zigster in the previous post hits the nail on the head. Much of what is on is bland middle of the road PC inspired pap. And I'd also guess a lot of that is foisted on the writers and not their choice.

You hear some of the old school writers talk wistfully about the heady days of the 70's and 80's when the writer was king. Can you imagine a script editor or producer or network exec telling Dennis Potter or Alan Plater or Troy Kennedy Martin what should and shouldn't be in their scripts? Very changed days my friends I can assure you.

The current and recent regimes seem to be of the opinion that a writer is a disposable asset to be moulded and shaped into their way of thinking. A mercenary to be indoctrinated and pointed in the right direction to fight the battle they are incapable of fighting. It is their issues and agendas that are pushed. There is no question in my mind that creativity is being stifled by those at the top. Save your arse TV might save your arse for a short time. But drama is about taking risks and I see little evidence of that.

It is this one size fits all mentality that is destroying UK TV. Nero was an amatuer compared to these guys.

Writers work on confidence. Confidence gives them voice. Voice is what distinguishes good drama. A bunch of cloned script eds and execs with the mentality that it is their script and you are just the hired gun does not inspire confidence.

Unfortunately given the total guff that has been on screen recently I now can't actually be bothered to watch any UK drama. Jeckyll and Time of Your Life may be excellent for all I know, but until I hear that they are I'm not going to put my self through the horror of another disappointment.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Too much Eostragen?

.... was something my agent said the other day [the male one] in response to what is wrong with British TV. Now I've never really thought about it in those terms before and I don't think I agree. I'm certainly not going off on a Sir Patrick Moore rant but it does give food for thought.

Jana Bennett - BBC Director of Vision [whatever the hell that is] Jane Tranter Controller BBC Fiction, Lucy Lumsden -Controller BBC Comedy. ITV Network Centre dominated by women. The Bill, Doctors, Casualty and a host of others exec produced and largely script edited by women.

In case anyone thinks I'm off on a mysoginistic screed I thought long and hard before posting this. Again let me say I don't think I agree, but it is something that perhaps should be discussed and the day I self censor on PC grounds is the day I quit blogging.

The main reason I don't think I agree, certainly as far as exec producers go, is I've dealt with some who have a lot more balls than some of their male counterparts. But at the same time I can't help wondering why it is that the young male audience is what the networks crave and yet make such a hash of attracting?

I think it is a fact that women tend to watch more drama than men. But is that because the drama being produced is more female-centric? Or is female-centric drama being produced because that is naturally the bigger audience? Would more male-centric drama entice male viewers back? Or have we stopped tuning in because our tiny minds are engrossed elsewhere in a cornucopia of distractions?

So many questions. But here's a point to ponder. In most sit- coms the male is portrayed as the bumbling buffoon and the female the stable voice of reason. And most sit-coms are written by males. Perhaps we are our own worst enemies?

Friday, June 22, 2007

The business of show

A very rich man and big risk taker once told me his philosophy in business. ''If you owe the bank ten thousand pounds you've got a problem. If you owe them ten million, they've got a problem.''

It was just after hearing that Holby Blue has been commissioned for a second [and bigger] series that this came into my head for some reason.

Because a bank will not hesitate to pull the plug on Joe Schmoe and his small fry, and therefore non career threatning debts, but how do you think Enron and Robert Maxwell got away with it for so long?

Now, maybe Holby Blue is a grower. 8 eps is not a long run to build an audience on what is hoped is a long running show. But given that it seems to be failing to even break into the top thirty ratings wise [as of June 10th, maybe ratings have improved] you've got to be thinking that particular recommission was more to do with personality, reputation, and BBC politics rather than what the audience actually wants to watch, Much like the second series of New Street Law.

HBO are producing some of the best TV around right now. I think that has got to be because the audience vote with their hard earned cash. It concentrates the mind and leaves no room for empire building.

This is a business. Like a clothes shop. We are the customer. We might not like some of the products but if we think we can still find something of good quality and style that we love we'll keep coming back.

I haven't found much to love lately. Apart from the excellent Trawlermen. More addictive and emotional than a bagfull of the latest 'dramas' .

I pitched a drama series about fishermen a while back. Was told it was too expensive and nobody was interested in fishing boats. Hey ho.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Academy

No, not the Oscars. The BBC Writers Academy. From what I understand a number of writers are taken on, given a salary and guaranteed at least one ep of Casualty EastEnders, Holby and Doctors. They shadow exisiting writers, learning the ropes and then press on with their own episodes.

I think that's the bones of it. I may be wrong. And to me it sounds like a good thing. With so few avenues available for the new writer to break in this sounds like a great opportunity.

However, I hear rumblings. This being the BBC it seems to have taken on a political aspect. Academy writers are allegedly being given more than the one ep guarantee on orders from above. Read The Yorkie Bar Kid.

This is pissing off both script editors, who have a lot more hand holding to do, and existing writers because it is taking bread out of their mouths. I guess it also engenders a degree of resentment because those exisiting writers had to come through the trenches, not be handed the keys to the kingdom.

But times change, and overall I like the idea that the door has been opened a little. But I have a proviso. There is another Academy, one run by Paul Abbot. I have no idea how you get on it. But bearing in mind his comment on the BBC Academy which was basically ''They are training writers to write shit'' Given the choice I know which Academy I'd be trying to get in to.

I also know that if I were a new writer offered a place on the BBC Academy I'd snap their hand off.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ratings and Rantings

I'm looking at the BARB figures for week ended 3rd June. And if I'm scratching my head then you can bet that network execs are shitting their pants. I'm intrigued. They are seeing their pensions flying out the window. Well apart from the BBC where failure upwards is the preferred method of promotion.

I wrote my last episode of Casualty maybe 18 months ago. Close on 10 million viewers. [See the Writers Guild blog and Gregory Evans' ballsy Casualty post for an insight into how disposable we writers are] For week ended 3rd June? 6.3 million.

Holby City, which used to push Casualty in the ratings is down to 5 million. [Okay blame the Yorkie Bar Kid for screwing with the scheduling so he could pimp the abysmal Holby Blue]

The Bill [ used to write for this too, around 7 million if I recall] 3rd June? 4.3 million.

BBC's biggest non soap drama? Are visions of blue police boxes flashing through your head? Well close. Hypothermically blue policemen would be closer, because it is New Tricks with a whopping 8.5 million.

I think it is quite watchable by the way and I don't care if you make jokes about my incontinence pants.

The Chase was equalled by BBC2 live nature programme Springwatch. Nuff said.

Here's the English Dave solution. Give the vast majority of the population a reason to come back to network TV. Get rid of the apparatchicks and get creative people making creative shows.

You know the main reason I'm scratching my head? I can't understand how they've screwed it up so badly. How they've let the most powerful medium the world has ever seen be relegated to a Woolworths pick n mix. Some are okay but mostly you have a bag full of crap.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Notes That Don't Make Music

Ah yes, the thorny subject of notes. Script Eds and Development Execs vary from show to show and company to company in their approach. Their brief, whether instructed or of their own volition can vary wildly in the detail of the notes given. From the broadest strokes on structure and tone to micro-managing every scene including their own take on dialogue.

How you deal with these notes, and note givers, goes a long way to determining your length of career.
Here's what not to do. Don't phone them up immediately after reading the notes and say -

''Who the fuck do you think you are? This is how I make my living. You've been in the job 2 minutes and you're telling me what to do? If you want to be a writer then fuck off and be one and stop ruining my script with your crap dialogue suggestions and take on character motivation. You wouldn't know motivation if it jumped up and bit your arse.''

Tempting I know, but it doesn't work for you as often as you might think. You see, it's all about the balance of power. If you want to move through the ranks it is not only a case of picking your battles, it is also a case of making them think it is an honourable draw when you win.
This months shavetail script ed is next months producer. Well, not quite but you get the drift. It's a small world and over the years I've seen a receptionist becoming a producer in eight years. And she likes me because I was always nice to her when she was a receptionist.

So, real life example. On Friday I got 2nd draft notes. I read them Friday night and to be honest wasn't overly impressed. 70% is suggested dialogue ''tweaks'' I.e ''this is what I would write if anyone would actually pay me to write.''

Damn I promised myself I wouldn't be sarky.

As a whole I reckon that about 15% of the notes help the script. 55% don't matter a damn to me either way as they are largely continuity issues arising from changes to previous episodes and 30% actively set the script back in my view.

Okay, what to do? Well the first thing to do is take a deep breath and not lift the phone. Think about what is being said and why. For example I know that several of the suggested dialogue changes I have been given are because the script ed has seen a line that looks jarring or out of context but hasn't recognised how it will play rather than read. Writers write with all the characters quirks, motivations and psychology in their head, and how that plays on screen, some script eds can't or don't read with the same viewpoint. A quick explanation on the phone and a ''wryly'' here and there will fix those.

The same related aspect goes for visual moments. A picture does paint a thousand words, but some script eds can't see past the words on the page. They read scripts like a novel, forgetting the potency of a visual. For a certain type of script ed, everything has to be explained in dialogue. Hopefully you won't come up against many of those but they are there, believe me. It is a writer 101 no -no, but they are not writers. Heck they are barely script eds.

I've identified the notes I have problems with. I've analysed why and come up with reasoned arguments or alternative suggestions. And on Monday I'll phone for a light hearted chat about it.

I'll be aiming for the honourable draw.

Don't get me wrong, I'm talking here about those times when problems arise. That isn't always the case.

Nice to end on a positive note!

Friday, June 15, 2007

45 Minute Focus

Okay, I didn't quite make the hour. I have various excuses at the ready. Gorgeous Blonde is car shopping today. She has a Mazda ''something'' sporty little thing with the weird back doors? She's changing it for something else that I think begins with T and might have 6 in the number. She did say, but cars are an area where my eyes glaze over. I just want something that starts when I turn the key and gets me where I want to go.

Needless to say, given my obvious level of expertise she feels she needs to call and text me at regular intervals to make sure my opinion of trim, options, finance and horsepower are taken into account. I drive a 14 year old Citroen. Nuff said.

Then I had a flash of inspiration of how to play the Manchester Cathedral level of Fall Of Man on ''Hard'' level. However, as it turned out The Very Reverend Rogers Govender was not an option on my weapons list.

Writer mate and I then bitched about a show, the industry, had a laugh and generally shot the breeze for a considerable length of time. The collective noun is indeed ''a bitch of writers''

But...... in my intense 45 minutes I firmed up the premise, got the theme and the 4 main characters. I call that a good day. I would have an ending too if I had made up my mind how long it was going to be. A movie? A two parter? A series? Don't know yet. But I feel so good I may even look at the notes I got at 5.30 on a Friday with a deadline for Monday. I know production need like 3 months to get their shit together when the most important part of the whole process is rushed through in an obscenely short space of time but.........oooops bitch bitch bitch!

One Hour Focus

My mind wanders easily. I don't beat myself up about it because I know that everything I see, hear, think or read will eventually find it's way into something I write in one form or another. But it is not particulary helpful when you wake up with the bones of a premise in your head and a day when you have other things pressing on you.

So I promise myself one hour. One hour of intense concentration. No internet, no email, no coffee no phone. Just me a pen and paper. I know from experience that in that one hour I will achieve much more than a whole day flapping around.

But it is very important that intense concentration is achieved. Not the half hearted ''I'll sit down and think about this'' With that, what tends to happen is when you hit a snag you give up and move on to the other pressing matters.

Intense concentration takes will power. And about an hour is all I can manage. But it will be by far the most valuable hour I spend today.

As far as writing is concerned, to my mind the time factor is always about quality more than quantity.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ego - good or bad?

As you can probably tell, I slam down these posts in a stream of consciousness. There are spelling and grammar mistakes galore. And they are way more haphazard than most [but not all] paid writing I would submit.

Some might think that's because I don't care. Actually it is the opposite. This is my time. If people want to read this, and God bless the 100 or so a day of you die hards who do, then I think it is only right that you get the raw material not the sanatized 3 rewrite version. I'm ugly enough to take 'hey you spelled sanatized wrongly' and trade it off against emotional truth.

To be fair not once has anyone intimated that. Something that continues to make me want to post.
But someone, somewhere is thinking ''Man he has some ego on him, what makes him think he has anything valuable to say''

And the truth is I have nothing valuable to say other than explain how I feel about a given situation. That might resonate with others in the same position or help those who have yet to encounter that situation. Writers are always learning. Always.

I posted ealier about confidence. Confidence and Ego could be cousins.

But confidence is always good. Ego is good too but can be destructive when it blinds you to commercial realities.

Your Ego has to be a friend. One who tells you which battles to fight and even if you lose and it all goes tits up, then comforts you that you did the right thing.

But if your Ego throws you in a cage with a 300 pound chainsaw wielding psycho at every opportunity, then I'd rethink the company you keep.

Friday, June 08, 2007

I am saddened

Because a very good friend of mine has just quit a show. This is a show that went through some troubled times and needed someone from the creative side to speak up. He did. Got changes made. One of which was a new producer promising a new spirit of cooperation between production and script and a much more writer friendly environment.

This is a writer with 70 plus episodes of network TV under his belt on several different shows. He's paid his dues and more. But the apparatchiks have driven him out. The politics and general idiocy of those in charge of the show but with no discernable talent other than climbing the network greasy pole, were stifling him and his sense of what made him a writer.

Criticism is part of the writer's lot. But disillusionment with the whole set up is when it is time to go. He decided it was that time.

I'll miss you mate.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

My Day

In the spirit of Danny Stack and Dom's blogs I thought I would post on my day today as a working writer.

7.15 am shower, breakfast watch BBC News.

8.35 Take son to school. Go for walk and smoke a couple of fags.

8.50 Watch Frasier

10.oo Start to read 'The Secret'' by Rhonda Byrne

10.10 That's enough of that crap.

10.15 -11.45 Read Blogs

12.00 Go for walk and smoke a couple of fags.

12.30 Have idea for a drama based on an update of an Emile Zola novel.

1300 Realise I can't be arsed.

1306 Play Fall Of Man on son's PS3

1500 Decide I better stop fannying around and do something.

1501 Read some more blogs

1530 Watch Two and A Half Men on Paramount

1700 Go to pick son up from School.

1735 Begin cooking Stirfry

1736 Get telephone call from BBC script ed asking if I can take notes on a script over the phone. The ones I've been hanging round the house all day for .

1737. Back to stirfry having told BBC script ed to call back tomorrow, I'm cooking and the deadline is next Wednesday.

1900 Blog.

Don't get me wrong, not all days are as busy as that.


Years ago, while trying to catch a break as a writer I put gruel on the table by script reading. I read all sorts from HW A listers to first time bedroom scribblings in green ink. It was a great learning tool. Mostly in how not to write screenplays. But that is valuable in itself.

But the greatest lesson I learned from all the good scripts I read was that truly great writers [to me anyway] exhibited a confidence on the page. They knew exactly what they were doing, where they were going, how they were saying it, and most of all didn't give a shit what anyone else thought about it. There were no obseqious platitudes handed out. No flowery 'please like me' touches. Just a drive and determination to tell a story that they were 100% committed to.

Now I'm not one for screenwriting jargon. Probably because I don't know my MDQ from MDF and I'm sure USP has something to do with computers. But to me - that is VOICE. That is the writer speaking to you from the pages. You can feel the energy of the moment it was written.

From the carefully phrased line of dialogue or action that exquisitely captures the moment, to the pace and tone and love of characters. And that takes confidence.

The writer BELIEVES. Is IMMERSED. And has the TALENT and SKILL to get that on the page and suspend your disbelief.

So to me - confidence is a basic requirement of a writer.

Of course, the writer's career has more ups and downs than a streetwalker's knickers. One week you are lauded to the hills, the next told to take that piece of crap and start over. But through all that you have to retain that inner core of confidence. Because that is your voice. And it will come out in whatever you write.

On a show I write on I reckon about 6 out of 10 times I can guess who the writer is after watching 10 minutes. They have a distinguishable voice and the episodes are usually good. On the ones where I can't guess the writer the episodes generally aren't so good.

They lack that - confidence?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Pop Quiz

Who is the most depressing blogger?

No I kid. That's too easy. lol

Out for a walk today between computer crashes and I met Gym Buddy who I hadn't seen in six months. Mainly because I haven't been to the gym in six months.

Gym Buddy was a biggish name quiz show host. We kinda know some names at the higher echelons and have both been in the biz long enough to roll our eyes at some of the names.

He is early to mid fortyish and had some interesting things to say - completely unbidden by me.

He doesn't watch any UK drama. But makes a point of watching Shark, Desperate Housewives, Entourage, and House. Because he likes fast paced shows that don't treat him like an idiot - which means dialogue cut to the bone and the story told as visually as possible.

He hates reality shows because they are train wreck tv rather than affirming tv. Even if that affirmation is in the skill of delivery rather than the ultimate ''message''.

A good quiz show format is like a good drama because both need to have the audience caring what happens next.

It seems to me you can plug those opinions into what makes any good entertainent. Movies thrive on those ethos.

I try to watch as much as I can even if I have to have a sick bag handy. Like the latest Big Brother. I'm old enough to know that no matter how long I watch there is no chance of a tasteful flash of vag from the Barbie twins or the sudden death of the opinionated old bird so 10 minutes is quite enough for me thank you. Nothing to see here folks. Unless you are a pre-pubescent wondering how a guy deals with 11 girls rather than just thinking ''lucky bastard'' and flicking over to Late Night Poker. I'd love to see the demongraphics for BB. I'd guess the weighted average age of viewers was about 20. That takes into account the aged insomniacs and terminal masturbators.

At least it's got the twentysomethings actually watching TV. But wouldn't it be good if they were watching something that actually meant something more than ''how can I get on TV and make a fast buck just by being famous for being famous''

One can but dream.

Friday, June 01, 2007

When the going gets tough

Those times when in the face of adversity [some producers, networks, script editors, directors and even the occassional 1st AD] you wonder what the hell you are doing and why the hell you are doing it, a writer needs a mantra. Here's the one I go to. A little cliched perhaps but it works for me, maybe it will help someone else. With thanks to Rudyard Kipling for this and the cakes.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted 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 make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
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 minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!
--Rudyard Kipling

I substitute Writer for Man. That does the trick.


I like this show. Ok some of the cons are a bit pony but the characters are engaging and it is a pacey hour. Also, they like to throw in a few tricks like last night's Manga style inserts about the blowfish, or Danny becoming Bruce Lee in his imagination. All good stuff.

But here's what I really get from the show. From what comes out on screen I feel the people involved actually seem to enjoy making it . That isn't as common as you might think. Between budget issues, production issues, creative issues, network issues and the sheer grind of getting something on screen it seems to me that too often what appears has a bland and jaded feel to it.

As a big name writer on a popular show told my mate ''I'm just an old slapper. Every episode I tell myself that's the last one. Then the phone rings.''

It's one of the reasons that Exec producers only tend to last 3 or 4 years on a show at most. The burst of enthusiasm they go in with lasts about that long before the shine wears off and it becomes a chore.

Hopefully that will never happen to you as a writer. You can always find something to really enthuse about in a script if you look for it.