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Wednesday 31 December 2008

My Year

Well, every other blogger seems to be doing it... but I'll keep mine short because, frankly, it's been one of those years where you can't run through the best of it without the risk of sounding like a total arse. Let's just say I've had a lot to be grateful for.

But to put that into perspective, here's how I started the year. I was working quietly on a book and my last half dozen screen jobs had included:
Sales to two successful shows created by other people and cancelled by channel controllers for reasons only an insider can know

A BBC commission torpedoed by a rival producer and followed by an ugly battle with Business Affairs over payment due

A project that I’d walked off two weeks before it went to shoot

And then, almost the last straw, an expensive two-parter that I was particularly proud of, hastily rescheduled to run against one of the biggest live football matches of the season. They didn't even waste money on a trailer. Don't ask me what I think of the £45,000 launch party for Merlin unless you've got an hour to spare.
(For the actual last straw, you'll have to look at a piece I wrote at the request of BFS chair Guy Adams for the next issue of Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society. A barefaced plug for the BFS? Whatever next?)

I think I learned two things this year.

1. Nothing ever turns out as you planned. But if you don't make plans, nothing happens at all.

2. The secret of happiness, in work and in all of life, is to go where you're wanted.

Happy New Year!

Crusoe Slash

I suppose it had to happen...

Monday 29 December 2008

Future Proof

In the comments to Television Q and A, Piers Beckley writes:

"Riffing off the technology point: Lew Grade's ITC stuff from the 70s was shot in 35mm with a view to worldwide sales. And the thing about 35mm is that you can even now remaster it into blu-ray and other hi-def formats... (snip) Record your show in a sensible format and you've got an archive, something to build on. Sure, it costs more, but you make your money back five or ten or twenty years down the line."

A term in vogue for a while - I forget exactly when - was 'futureproofing'. The idea was that you aimed for the highest technical standard you could achieve, rather than the one that prevailed, in the certain knowledge that the prevailing standard will quickly date. Hardly a new idea - Richard Greene pressed for the 1950s Adventures of Robin Hood to be filmed in colour rather than black-and-white, which would have given them a broadcast life to this day. Within the past couple of weeks I heard that the all-colour Thunderbirds is to be remastered, repackaged and relaunched yet again.

But TV execs are like politicians. Less interested in long-term benefits than immediate ones. I can remember ITV huffing and grumbling about shooting a drama in widescreen even though 4X3 was patently on the way out. They cared only about next week's ratings, not long-term value.

(In the end they compromised on the awful 14X9, which was no use to anyone even then.)

But couldn't you weep to look at something like The Jewel in the Crown now? Such an enormous enterprise, and all that talent... all in a little square, and seen through a sock.

Friday 26 December 2008

Television Q and A

How did you begin your career in television?

I was writing for radio at the time. It was a science fiction piece for Radio 4’s Saturday Night Theatre and Martin Jenkins, my producer, sent the script over to the Doctor Who production office. So out of the blue came this call to go over and talk to them.

Was it easy to find steady work writing for television?

I’ve never had steady work. The nearest to it was the time I spent on BUGS, where I wrote 10 shows over 3 seasons and acted as consultant on seasons 2 and 3. But even then it was a case of “one sale at a time.”

How much input did you find you had in a production of one of your screenplays?

That’s always going to vary. Once the script’s locked, there’s no reason to have the writer around except as a courtesy. You usually get a call when they’ve changed something and it’s caused them a problem and they need it fixed. If it’s something practical like a location they couldn’t get or a sequence that doesn’t work as planned, then great, that’s what I’m there for. If someone’s made a perverse change and failed to foresee the knock-on effect, I’m less sanguine.

How did you find you were treated by other members of the creative team when working on a project?

Again, that varies. In general I’ve been treated very well.

What was your biggest breakthrough in television?

I’d have to say Chimera. Prior to that I’d done just a couple of Whos and one episode of a crime show. Chimera took me from contributor to creator and put four hours of prime time drama on my CV.

Which gave you more creative input, being a writer or creator of a series?

It’s the difference between being paid to drive a car and being hired to design one. Actually that’s not entirely fair. But when you write for a series there’s a lot that isn’t on your shoulders. I can’t imagine why anyone might prefer that.

Were you ever frustrated by the workings of the television industry?

Daily! Dealing with the industry involves a whole separate set of issues from the act of writing.

Do you think writers are given enough credit when it comes to the creative process and audience appreciation?

Obviously I’m going to say no. But the fact is that there’s a very small number of names get on the front of a show and the writer’s place there can never be disputed. Although in feature films particularly, you get directors who encourage the notion that the writer’s role is to type up the director’s thoughts. One of the things holding back British TV is the resistance to a writer having a true executive producer role on a show.

What is your opinion of modern television drama?

On the plus side, it’s a relief to see that the drab hand of social realism is no longer holding it down. Throughout the 90s almost every British drama looked and played like an effing soap. And the kind of technology we’re getting now – HD, widescreen, downloads – is what I’ve spent my life waiting for. The downside is a lack of confidence and direction... of old-fashioned showmanship. Everybody wants to be edgy and relevant and issue-driven. And no one wants to see it.

What is your worst experience as a writer working within television?

Being excluded from a project I'd initiated.

What was your best experience as a writer working within modern television?

If I had to pick one moment, I’d say walking my dog down Gotham City’s main street on the Pinewood backlot after a meeting in the Chimera special effects workshop.

Which do you prefer, writing prose or screenplays for television?

Standard answer, and it’s always true... when I’m doing one, I yearn for the other.

Do you believe there is a big difference between writing for television and writing for feature films?

Yes. Mainly in choice of subject. A feature film is a one-off universal myth. TV’s a continuing parade.

Chimera photo by Stephen Morley

Thursday 18 December 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

This just in from somewhere...


Earning significant weekly increases among all 18-49 and 25-54 measures (ranging from +21% to 54%), as well as Households (+24%) and Total Viewers (+24%), ELEVENTH HOUR earned 1st place in its 10PM hour among those same demos. Delivering its largest audience to date (13.4 million), ELEVENTH HOUR also earned new or matched series highs among all 18-49 and 25-54 measures, Households, as well as Adults and Women 18-34.

That was last week. This week:

A repeat CSI built +93% on its MILLION DOLLAR PASSWORD lead-in, easily placing as the #1 program in the hour and for the night. Retaining 79% of its CSI lead-in, ELEVENTH HOUR earned 1st place in its 10PM hour and 2nd for the evening overall. CBS won Thursday night and outperformed 2nd place FOX by +16%.

And that one was a repeat. I wish I could claim some of the credit, here, but it's all down to the team.

It Quacks Like a Duck

The BBC has announced Defying Gravity, a 13-part science fiction series to be co-produced with America's Fox Network.

"Set in the near future, Defying Gravity will star Sex and the City and Band of Brothers actor Ron Livingston and will follow eight astronauts from five countries on a mysterious journey through the solar system."

Oh, sorry. It's not SF at all. It's a 'space travel drama'.

Monday 15 December 2008

Truth in Escapism

Andy Greenwood's comment on Crusoe and the Doctor, directing us onward to a fan's mashup of Doctor Who images cut to the music from the Happy Days title sequence, made me think.

In today's Guardian, playwright Mark Ravenhill writes:

"in the minds of many programme-makers, there now seems to be a crude binary option: you're either safe or you're edgy. And, since very few producers feel happy to say they want safe shows, practically everything we see on our screens believes it is edgy."

British TV's most successful all-ages drama is a decades-old format that makes no pretensions of edginess, of being issue-driven or of being in any way 'relevant', but which sets out to create simple escapist joy. And by doing that well, it draws a response from its audience that is both complex and transcendent.

Just to extend it - how edgy was Oliver Postgate? And how profound the life experience he brought to those who grew up with his work and who mourn him now?

But if you're looking to break into the business, don't bother learning from any of that.

Write about how grim it is to be buggered in prison. There's a vanishingly small audience for it, but you'll have a much better chance of seeing it commissioned.

Mister Home and Handy

Between revising an outline on Friday and the studio notes call to discuss it on Monday, I found myself with a Saturday on which to catch up with all the stuff I can normally use the writing to get out of.

Made it through the day with just three wrong holes drilled and one smashed light fitting.

So as DIY goes, one of my better efforts.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Crusoe and The Doctor

I have no idea what brought this about. But it's neatly done and kind of beguiling.

Play it again. You know you want to.

Right There, Right Now

In her craft blog Write Here, Write Now, Lucy Hay posts on the reluctance of British and American writers to tackle sex scenes in their screenplays.

Which reminded me...

I once wrote a draft of a script with a sex scene where I constructed it as I would any kind of action - laid out the basic moves so it would reflect the characters and be a progression of the drama, not an interlude.

The script came back with a pencil stroke through the scene and the words Director's discretion in the margin.

So in the next draft I just wrote, "They shag enthusiastically".

Tuesday 9 December 2008

And While We're Talking About Sexy Science...

From today's Independent:

"A respected research institute wanted Chinese classical texts to adorn its journal, something beautiful and elegant, to illustrate a special report on China. Instead, it got a racy flyer extolling the lusty details of stripping housewives in a brothel."

The text in question was used as cover art for the journal of the Max Planck Institute, the "Hot Housewives in action!" special. More here.

I particularly liked the aside about those unsuspecting people who are walking around with tattooed Chinese characters that look stylish but actually read, "This is one ugly foreigner".

"Physics is the New Black"

Recent editions of the Wired blog and The Los Angeles Times carry similar articles about the rising popularity of hard science in TV drama, reflected in the launch of the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

The Exchange is "a program of the National Academy of Sciences that provides entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines."

(The National Academy of Sciences, founded by Abraham Lincoln, is a US equivalent of Britain's Royal Academy)

Nearly a decade ago, Michael Crichton was urging the 'science establishment' to stop moaning about the way science and scientists were portrayed in news and drama and to get engaged in its own presentation. On the reporting of science issues, he said, "it's my impression that science has not kept pace with other professions. Scientists retain the old disdain for the press. To do interviews badly may even be a point of pride, establishing your intellectual bona fides. You are above the fray. But the truth is, the world has really changed and science is now suffering."

Part of his 'stop complaining' argument involved pointing out that drama can never give an accurate and direct portrayal of science in action, because the real action isn't that dramatic. And he was right. Science in drama, like all of life in drama, is dramatised. Rendered as a series of symbolic moments, never as-is. You only have to scroll down some of the comments in the Wired blog to see the extent to which some people don't get that.

But you can dramatise with probity. I once argued that science is like nineteenth-century Africa. It's big and it's real, and with some trouble and effort you can go there. While with no trouble and no effort you can stay at home and make up your own weird geography and exotic animals. Your audience may be none the wiser. Many will assume it's all equally true and, anyway, who cares if it is or it isn't? But my argument was that if you take the trouble and go, you'll bring home a different and better kind of traveller's tale.

The Science and Entertainment Exchange is a timely resource. According to the LA Times, "taking cues from the success of House and before that CSI, television is revisiting the lure of evidence. The pieces of the puzzle are all right there, if only you know how to put them together. Science is the new medicine, physics has gone mainstream."

Monday 8 December 2008

Widget, I've got a Widget...

You may notice that over in the right-hand column there's an Eleventh Hour widget. Anyone can download it from the CBS site's Eleventh Hour pages, and it delivers a daily factoid to your website or blog.

A couple of days ago I learned from it that every time we sneeze, some of our braincells die.

There I was, imagining that the feeling of relief and well-being following a sneeze was related to some kind of endorphin rush.

When in fact, I'm just taking one step closer to a lobotomy.

Friday 5 December 2008

I'm a Media Whore, Get Me Into There

I was in London earlier this week, and while walking down Westbourne Grove I was collared by a young woman with a clipboard and a man with a lightweight video camera.

They were collecting vox pops in the rain for I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here (a Survivor-style reality show).

She wanted to know if I had an opinion on fake boobs, as (worn? Sported? Deployed?) by one of the contestants.

Did I have an opinion to offer? Of course I did.

No idea if they'll use it... and I can't say I plan to watch to find out.


Just to add that in the following Saturday's Guardian, columnist Charlie Brooker wrote of the show and the contestant in question that "Nicola McThing spent hours grumbling on her back in a bikini, which made her fake tits resemble two giant wax testicles resting on her ribcage like immovable paperweights."

So unkind. But so true.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Separated at Birth?

I was organising the pictures on my hard drive, and here's a conjunction of images that got a smile out of me:

Clearly there's some common DNA in all my protagonists. On the left we've got Rufus Sewell as Eleventh Hour's Jacob Hood, on the right is Stephen Tompkinson as Jim Harper in my Oktober miniseries.

The two were contemporaries at London's Central School of Speech and Drama, old mates and no doubt old rivals too.

I just heard from JBTV that CBS have ordered another five Eleventh Hour shows. As TV Tattle puts it, "The British remake is inching closer to a full season with 18 total episodes."

More on that soon. And in case you hadn't noticed, there's now a free Christmas story available for download - check out the link in the sidebar.