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.


  1. You're going to read a Jane Austen novel? that is what you said, isn't it? You did, effectively say that. ENFIN!

  2. If you're off on a fiction splurge I would wholeheartedly recommend James Wood's 'How Fiction Works' or, even better, John Sutherland's 'How to Read a Novel'. Can loan you them if we catch up soon.

  3. A few years ago, I set myself a similar resolution to read more over the course of the year. I was completely inspired by a great BBC programme called The Big Read ( and ended up reading about 20 of the top 50 books on their list. It was a totally SMART and satisfying objective and I would very much encourage everyone to do it. If you want to borrow some of the books you're more than welcome. I started with Pride and Prejudice and confess I have now read it more than 5 times. Good luck... Anna