Thursday 30 December 2010

Good Intentions of Self-Improvement

And so we'll soon be staggering into 2011. And New Year's Resolutions beckon. What would it be useful to resolve to do as a writer?

Career goals are nice to have. A series of one's own on television in the next 12 months would be the obvious one - but we have no control over that kind of goal. We can write furiously, daily and sometimes amusingly, but what may or may not be commissioned is relatively arbitrary in my experience. Maybe your show will be get picked up and broadcast and maybe it won't. The reasons given for the show being bought or turned down will sound, on inspection, non-sensical. It's almost impossible to know whether or not a show will work until you actually make six of them, at least. It's impossible to know why it will work, if it works. Usually it turns out to be successful for different reasons than those planned. (Friends was written with Joey and Monica planned to be the 'hot couple'. Yes. I know) It's also impossible to know whether or not the Great British Public have the slightest interest in watching it. And even if they don't, the show may yet succeed. (The ratings for the highly-acclaimed Peep Show are pretty dreadful, but Channel 4, to its credit, has stuck with it since it delights its regular followers and it's nice to win awards.) So, in the words of Melchett in Blackadder II, 'Like private parts to the gods are we. They play with us for their sport.' Or, as Goldman says, 'Nobody Knows Anything'.

But some goals are achievable when they are personal ones. We have no control over what is commissioned and what is not. Be we have complete control over the words we write on the pages, what the characters say, how they talk, how they are - and what they want, what stops them and how they overcome those hurdles. How, then, can we improve those words and stories? How can we find better words, a more interesting order for them and a more original plot? Where can we find characters that a real and vibrant?

Reading. No, not by going to Reading - although that may throw up some fairly bleak and powerful storylines. Reading books. I need to read more. Fiction and non-fiction. To be honest, I find non-fiction very easy reading. I'm naturally a facts person, I think. I'm interested in almost everything, which is very helpful. But I need to read more books. And better books.

This has partly been hammered home to me through reading The Venerable Stephen Fry's latest autobiography. It seems like he turned up to Cambridge at the age of 18 having read more books than I have at the age of 35. I've read plenty of books - especially between graduating from Uni and having kids. The books I like to say I've read include most of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Michael Frayn and Tibor Fischer. But there are so many classics to read. And I've not read them. I feel ashamed and embarrassed to reveal that I've not read any Dickens or Austen. No Henry James, Tolstoy or anything of that sort. I read a Hardy at school (virtually at gunpoint). But overall, my reading list is pretty shameful.

There is no doubt that reading decent literature, and just well-written or well-researched books generally, improves one's thinking and writing. It's what all the great writers tell other not-so-great writers to do. I need to do it. But how?

Well, herein lies the poetic agony of the human condition on which the genre of sitcom itself is predicated: character flaws and failure. Sitcom characters turn over a new leaf virtually every week - trying to do something, start something or change. But they don't. They fail and return to how they were. They don't learn. And we laugh because we recognise this tragic quality in ourselves.

So to change we need to be smart. I need to read more. But I have a finite amount of time. I have a wife and two young children that I need to keep spending time with. So I can't save time there. I need to work and earn money for the aforementioned wife and two young children and landlord. So something else needs to give. And I know what it is: television.

Now, I'm a screenwriter, so I'm hardly going to throw the TV out of the window on January 1st. (I don't want to be one of those superior people who work in television but don't own one - with the implication being that TV is vulgar and for the masses. It's part of the myth that clever people and the rich people (often not the same people) enjoy live arts, theatre, opera, books, Radio 4 and Film (not films. Not film. But Film.)).

In order to make more time to read, I need to watch less television and be smarter in what I watch. I can keep watching the really good stuff - like House, Modern Family and 30 Rock. That's all fine - and very inspiring. It's the stuff that just doesn't get you anywhere that I needs to go. And that is, largely, watching panel games, stand-up comedy and tedious documentaries about the making of sitcom.

I don't mean to denigrate these forms of television. Anyone who's developed a panel game will tell you how tortuously hard they are to get right. They delight millions. And that is fine and large. But I don't find panel games nourishing. So they need to go, for now.

Likewise, stand-up is a superbly compelling form of comedy, even through the lens of TV. One man or woman - and a microphone. It's exhilarating stuff. Or can be when the comedian isn't talking about the differences between cats and dogs, or men and women. Or alcohol, recreational drug-use or commercial flights. Of all, at the moment, I find Dara O'Briain to be the most delightful - and I find it very difficult to switch off, even when I've seen it several times. (I love his 'learning to drive' routine. Love it.)

And no-one is more interested in learning about the craft of sitcom from documentaries than me. But they've all the great sitcoms have been documented. Thrice. I don't need to know any more about that chandelier in Only Fools and Horses. Or that bit in Father Ted where he goes up to Richard Wilson and says 'I don't believe it'. I get it. And I'm not thinking that more time has been spent making programmes about these shows than on the programmes themselves. A bit silly, really.

But my plan for 2011 is to stop watching these kinds of television and read more. I'm going to avoid panel games (with the exception of Have I Got News for You, obviously), televised stand-up (will happily go see it live) and comedy docs. Oh, and movies that I've seen before. And I'm going to used that time saved (maybe a few hours a week) to read those book that have been on my shelf for months, or years and just haven't been read. Yes, that stuff like War and Peace, Leviathon, The Koran. (I'm pretty much up to speed on the Bible, if I do say so myself.)

So that's the plan. It's foolproof, surely? Which it needs to be since I, like every man and woman every born, am a fool.

Monday 20 December 2010

Seriously Recommended Reading

I am currently reading a book about screenwriting that I can thoroughly recommend - On Film-making by Alexander MacKendrick. It's so good that I'm telling everyone about it and taking it with me everywhere I go. I'm only a third of the way through, and I'm rationing myself, sipping it slowly so I savour every drop of it. (Isn't it dreadful when you finish a wonderful book quickly and realise you can't go back?)

To put the book in context, MacKendrick knew about movies. He only directed Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Soon after, he gave up directing to become dean of the California Institute of the Arts. He died in 1993. But his articles, notes and lectures survive and are in this book. It oozes confidence on the subject, within tipping over into hubris. He freely admits his own shortcomings and mistakes - both in film-making and teaching. And the writing is pleasingly louche.

The book is full of short articles on specific subjects and crafts within filming-making. Lots of it is about writing, storylining and script-editing. It is, in short, a must. I can think of no other book that is 'a must'. (You could sum up McKee's bafflingly expensive paperback in three words: 'Story is character'. Or four words. 'Story is character. Kerching!')

Naturally this book is out of print in this country - otherwise the Brits might get hold of it and get good at screenwriting. But it's on Amazon's marketplace. Go find. Buy. Read. Re-Read. Learn. And do.

Monday 13 December 2010

What a Waste

In the last year or so, I've been writing shows with other people. Although the obvious down-side is that less money is forthcoming, the up-sides are considerable. For a start, it's less lonely, more fun, and you feel like you have allies. In fact, it hardly even feels like work. The other upside is that sometimes, your writing partner is working on the script, leaving you free to do something constructive. Or blog.

On top of that, my hands are tied on a number of other projects because I'm either waiting for someone important to read a script, or someone even more important to commission a series, neither of which I'm expecting to happen any time soon. (One idea that is 'in development' has just passed it's second birthday. What a happy day that was. The second script I wrote (free of charge) is still on the big desk of an important person with other scripts waiting to be read. But let's face it, if you were that exec, you'd pick up Paul Whitehouse's script first, wouldn't you? And then there's all those meetings about 'shows in development' to attend.)

And so today is the sort of day I have about every 3-4 months in which I can look through what other projects I have 'on the go' and ideas I'd like to work on. I'm looking at the list of possible shows, ideas and projects from a few months ago and realise that a number have gone nowhere and done nothing. Or that I was waiting to hear back from someone and didn't.

In this industry, people rarely tell you they no longer think an idea has potential. They just tend to stop responding to your emails. And being a writer, you never phone or arrange a meeting because that would put them on the spot. Then, you'll run into them at a drinks thing about six months later and they say 'Hey, sorry I never got back to you about that thing' and you say that you were the one who didn't do anything and that it just felt by the wayside and that it's no-one's fault. Which isn't true. It's mostly their fault.

But getting meetings in which they have to tell you straight that they've gone off your idea is more wasted time - even if it's both gratifying cathartic and crushing simultaneously. A few months of radio silence tells you that they obviously no longer believe in the project so you might as well abandon pursing that project with that producer. (Any producer reading this would protest, and say 'Sometimes we're just busy'. But you know I'm right) But this is where the slowness of the paperwork comes into its own. You probably haven't even signed anything even after all this time because legal departments move more slowly than aged glaciers. You can probably take the idea elsewhere. And go through the same process again. Unless your idea is about chairs, and suddenly BBC1 decides it wants a sitcom about chairs. Or BBC4 is having a 'Chairs season' (it's only a matter of time).

But the fact is that when you look back at the idea, you might have gone off it yourself, or realise it's been trumped by another show. Or that it just isn't funny (which apparently isn't the worse crime you can commit in comedy anymore).

So, today, I'm trawling through the files, reading my old lists and realising that some things are dead in the water and one or two things have a new relevance. But most of it is fine, but not fantastic. Comedy is a wasteful business - mostly in terms of time, but also in ideas. It takes years to get used to it. I'm still adjusting.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Mind the Baby

This evening, I got round to watching Raising Hope, the comedy comedy from Greg Garcia, one of the guys behind My Name is Earl (which was a show that I liked very much). In fact, it's a cross between My Name is Earl and Raising Arizona. And it's funny. I can't fault the jokes and characters and the pace and the script and the direction and the casting. It's the set-up. In particular, it's the baby. The baby makes me worry.

Let me briefly explain. The set-up of the show, done brilliantly in the first ten minutes, is that a poor young guy, who wants a new challenge, sleeps with a girl who is then convicted of double murder and executed (which is funnier that it sounds). Before she is executed, she gives birth to a baby, who is then given to our hero to look after. He is totally unprepared for it, and his family tell him leave the baby at the fire station to be taken in, but he refuses. He's going to raise this baby. On hi own. And his family refuse to help or get drawn in.

And so we have a guy who doesn't know about car-seats, or nappies or anything to do with babies, trying to raise the baby by himself. The guy is great and good and kind and sensitive. And the baby is gorgeous. But the whole set-up puts me on edge. What is at stake in this story? Theoretically, it's a quest for our hero. But his quest depends on the well-being of a baby. And it makes me worry. And when I'm worrying, I'm not laughing.

I'm sure this is because I have a toddler and a baby of my own, and I'm such a wuss, my heart goes out to any little child on the TV. But there's nothing I can do about this instinctive reaction. I'm unable to enjoy this show. I wish it well. God bless it, and all who buy the boxed set. But, unfortunately, I'm out. (which is fine, really. I have about 17 eps of Modern Family on my Sky+ box. But we'll leave that for another post.)

Monday 6 December 2010

The Tricky Fifth Episode

Last night, BBC7 broadcast Episode 5 of Series 2 of Hut 33. It's called Getting Heavy and the official blurb said:
Hut 33's record is the worst in the complex. Charles is mortified with shame, Archie is desperate to prove himself and Gordon wants to impress a girl he has just met. They break into Hut 7b to get extra information on a message they are decoding, which turns out not to be a good idea.

Getting Heavy was easily the mot difficult episode to write of that series. And it happens every series I've ever done. You write episodes 1 and 2 fairly slowly, as you're just character's voices into your head and feeling your way. Then episodes 3 and 4 are written in fairly good time, as the ideas are flowing and the characters are talking. Then comes Episode 5, which is like pulling teeth. It takes lots of drafts and just doesn't want to settle down - leaving you about a week to write Episode 6.

One of the problems for me is that with episode 5, I start writing the script before the story outline is in place. Flush with the 'success' of writing episodes 3 and 4 quickly and con brio, the temptation is to dive in to writing dialogue when the plot doesn't actually work. There's also the desire to save time and cut corners - but this normally backfires and I often end up deleting pages and pages of dialogue.

I'm aware that others write differently from me. One writer I spoke to the other day, who writes a much loved Radio 4 series, starts with a couple of slightly garbled pages of an outline and then writes a very very long script before he starts cutting and redrafting. I tend to start with a fairly long and detailed outline with some key jokes and bits of dialogue in it, so the process of actually starting to write the script isn't too painful. Sometimes, I abandon the ending and come up with a better one en route. But I have to start with something in place.

So Getting Heavy was one of those tricky ones that took six full drafts to crack. It was only in the fifth draft that I deleted a whole plot strand about radioactivity, which is was one of the reasons I wanted to do an episode in the first place. It thought it would be funny if our characters not really understanding Uranium, touching some and then being bundled in a van and taken off to some secret facility where they would be tested, poked and prodded. There was even a part where they thought they might have special super-powers as a result of the exposure to radiation based on Gordon's comic. This sounds rather preposterous but let's not forget that in 1941, not an awful lot was widely known about radiation. The first H-Bomb was still to be invented. In the end, we had a Quarantine episode in a different show, so the idea of being sealed off was covered in the series.

What I was able to retain, however, was the rivalry about sex-lives between Archie and Charles - and then Gordon. Archie is full of bravado, but short on delivery. Charles is aloof and unimpressed by innuendo, but has finally given into Mrs Best's pestering. Then step forward Gordon, who becomes the star of this show. Once he finds his woman, loses his virginity - he thinks - he becomes a man.

Two parallels spring to mind. One is Arnold Rimmer's alter-ego in Red Dwarf who is known as Ace - and says 'Smoke me a kipper. I'll be back for breakfast' played by the splendid Chris Barrie (who, let's not forget was also Brittas in the hugely popular Brittas Empire). The other is Harry Enfield's whining Kevin character, the teenager who hangs around with Kevin and complains about everything. He radically transforms once he's had sex, becoming polite to his parents and very contented.

Then, of course, comes undoing this transformation since one of the rules of sitcom is that they end up back where they started (unlike in movies where characters are changed by their 'journey').

The Views of the Author
I should add that I don't share this view about losing one's virginity. It doesn't 'make you a man' or turn you into a contented polite person. We're back to the theme of myself as the writer having different views from the characters that I write. I hope, if anything, that this episode demonstrates that the hypocrisy and lying that goes on around sex is rather feeble and very pervasive.

And let's be honest about this. There was War on and people weren't sure when their time was up. So there was a lot of it about. In Hut 33, I was hoping, where possible, to painting a picture of Wartime Britain as it was rather than how we would chose to remember it. If there's no truth in a show, it's just jokes and won't last. If there's no jokes, well, that's another story...