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...

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