Friday, 15 December 2017

The TV Writer

Here's an excerpt of a story *lightly* based on personal experience of writing for telly back in the 1990s...  the whole, tawdry story can be read on my Patreon page if you subscribe! Here's the link Patreon!

But then Kevin the producer and his script editor Bill called him in for a series of one-to-one meetings.
     Ian left each one feeling bruised and confused.
     Every draft he did of his single episode seemed to get worse and worse, in their eyes.
     ‘Can’t you see?’ Kevin shouted. ‘It’s just shitty! And it’s getting shittier and shittier! And that’s why we’ve called you in, yet again, for an emergency meeting this time. We want to give you every chance to get it right, but that only goes up to a certain point. We’re getting to the stage where my Exec needs to see this and I’m not happy about handing it over in this state. This, what you’ve written, Ian – five times now – is still shit. It’s worse than shit. It’s like the scum on the shit it was five drafts ago.’
     Bill the script editor smiled and shrugged from behind his computer.
     Ian didn’t know what to say. It was like all his life force was draining out of him via the squeaky swivel chair he was sitting on. He hardly dared move or breathe. He saw that he had got everything completely wrong.
     Kevin was going on, ‘We think you’re good. Or, we did do, at the start. But you’ve lost it completely, haven’t you? Look at this. Have you even read it back through? It doesn’t make any sense at all. No one, not one of them, is talking about what they should be talking about. It’s as if you’ve completely ignored the story-lining document and gone off in your own direction. What are all these twats talking about? Frigging nonsense!’
     Ian tried to break in, saying that he was trying to show how distant the characters were from each other by giving them rather stilted chitchat…
     ‘Stilted chitchat?’ Kevin shouted. He was getting a bit shrieky by now. He actually stood up and for a moment Ian thought he was going to punch him. ‘Who wants to listen to stilted frigging chitchat? Is that why we shell out millions of pounds to produce quality, ratings-grabbing, world class telly? Is that what our viewers want to sit down to watch? Is that why they want to vote for us at the frigging BAFTAS and the TV Quick awards? The Stilted Chitchat Show? Are you frigging joking? They want drama. Quality frigging drama. And do you know what that is, Ian?’
     He was looking down at his script. Kevin was right. It was terrible. Ian must have been in a dream. What had he been thinking of? Battering away at Liz’s word processor in her ground floor flat. Staring through the venetian blinds at the geese wobbling by and the cats slinking under the cars. Going over and over the same scenes and crunching down the lines of dialogue till they were as small and as real as he could make them.
     ‘Drama isn’t what you’ve written. Drama is her saying, ‘Look, Mike. I know you don’t love me anymore.’ And him saying, ‘I do, Hannah! I love you more than ever!’ And her going, ‘No, you’re lying!’ And him going, ‘But I do!’ And her saying, ‘I can feel it. Deep down. I know what’s true.’ There! That’s off the top of my head but there’s more real drama in that than the pile of shite you’ve given us. It’s pathos! It’s real life! And it’s eight million bastards sat at home on their settees thinking, ‘Shit! She’s actually saying it! She’s coming out with the truth!’ That’s eight million inarticulate bastards, Ian, and they’re all living dull little lives full of awkward chitchat. You see, they want to hear the twats on telly saying exactly what’s in their heads. They want to hear those twats saying exactly what they mean. They want her to tell him he’s wrong when he lies and tells her he still loves her. We all know he’s talking out of his arse and we want to hear her call him out! That’s drama, Ian. That’s soap. And you haven’t got a clue about it. Everything you’ve turned in for three months has been just frigging awful. You haven’t got a clue about bringing out the subtext. It’s clear you never knew what we were on about at all. And so, you’ve had your last chance, lovey. And you’re out.’
     Before he knew it, Ian was out in the corridor. He caught a glimpse of Bill the script editor giving him a sympathetic look. The door slammed, and he heard even more shouting, a bit muffled.

     Then he was leaving. He was heading back to the lift. He was out of there.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Lord of the Rings - the Fotonovel!

Reminded by Stuart Douglas of this childhood favourite. I loved the feature length cartoon of 'Lord of the Rings' and this FOTONOVEL - which i bought with my pocket money the very first night Newton Aycliffe's Fine Fare Superstore had late night opening - was a wonderful improvement on the brick-thick and over-complicated book club edition of Tolkien on our living room shelves.

This was pure story distilled to its glorious, glossy essence, with just a few snippets of dialogue and wonderfully atmospheric artwork. I still think so much of English Literature could be happily supplanted by feature length cartoons and Fotonovels. 1978 had all the best ideas.

Monday, 11 December 2017

'Podkin One-Ear' by Kieran Larwood

I love a good saga about rabbits or moles or mice: I love it when we are invited into their mythology and their sagas. All those Watership Downs and Duncton Quests and Redwall Abbeys. Kieran Larwood’s projected ‘Five Realms’ series (it’s a series! Hurray!) promises to be a bit different in that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. Humans are gone. Huge rabbits have the run of the world. It’s a kind of Planet of the Apes scenario, with bunnyish tendencies.
            It’s a rollicking great ride this first book, with hardly a second wasted, right from the arrival of the old story-telling rabbit in the snow, to the final battle with rescues and magical reversals galore. It’s a lovely mash-up a warmly familiar elements from Richard Adams and Tolkien – but with touches taken from Star Wars, too. All of this brings a pleasingly epic quality to the adventure.
            The thing that elevates it all above more perfunctory by-the-numbers fantasy adventures published in recent years is the characterization. I absolutely believe in everyone we meet here. They’re all archetypes – and recognized as such within the story, but each one is wonderfully vivid. The three young rabbits forced to flee their ruined home at the start – Podkin, Paz and Pook – are immediately recognizable. What happens to the life and home they have known is horrifying, right at the start. What happens to Podkin’s ear when they escape is actually painful for us to read.
Our attention stays absolutely fixed on them as they careen through the wintry wilderness from haunted burrows to witchy hideouts. All the characters they encounter are just as well drawn, too, I think – Mish and Mash the dwarf acrobats, Crom the blind and noble soldier, Brigid the mysterious witch rabbit. And, above all of them, the terrifying figure of Scramashank the Gorm Lord – a rabbit chieftain possessed by some demonic force that manifests itself from under the earth. His zombified hordes are rather like the Borg from Star Trek with their hideous meshing of iron and necrotic flesh.
Who’d have thought the spectre of Borg Bunnies hunting down the cast of Watership Down could ever be so riveting..?
I reckon there’s something special about this series, and I’m glad to catch it at just the right point – with the second volume newly published, meaning I don’t have to wait too long for the next instalment.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

'Christmas on Coronation Street' - by Maggie Sullivan

Back in the Seventies there were three wonderful novels by HV Kershaw adapting key moments and storylines from early episodes of ‘Coronation Street.’ As a kid I would pore over these paperbacks from our living room wall unit (just as I would through titles by James Herbert, Jackie Collins and Catherine Cookson.) There was something, to me, absolutely compelling about being allowed inside the minds and thoughts and the pasts of characters familiar from TV.
For me, it was a bit like listening to family gossip. It was like when my Big Nanna came visiting (usually with her friend, Deaf Olive in tow.) They would sit all afternoon and Glad would reminisce. ‘Do you remember her who was married to whatsit, who lived down by so-and-so, and they were the ones who had all that bother with the you-know-what, well, it’s her who’s died.’
I would listen, completely agog to this kind of gossip. To me it was a wonderful art form: ripe with allusion, metaphor and folk history. These women were the bearers of great dollops of oral history. Glad coming to ours and drawing out these tales was her way of making sure all the stories got passed on, to the next generations.
‘What was that?’ Deaf Olive would shout. ‘Eee, you bugger!’
One of the very precious people from the past who was only available to us now via my Big Nanna’s spoken tales was her husband, my Granda-as-I-never-met, as she called him. Mam’s long-lost, beloved Dad, who’d died of lung disease when she was only nine. A proper gentle man, he always sounded.
Glad told a story of him, not long before he died. It was when ‘Coronation Street’ first came on the telly. She was in the scullery, being busy, and he was sitting in his chair with the telly on. He stared at the screen and he could hardly believe what he was watching. ‘Glad! Glad! Come through! They’re talking like normal people on here! On the telly! They’ve actually got normal people on here!’
She came through, muttering, reluctantly, and peered at the screen. She was always very sceptical about the telly (it was often too rude and nasty for her taste) but she had to admit: ‘Coronation Street’ was more like real life than anything else. It was more like the terraced streets of South Shields she’d grown used to in her adult life.
A few years later, when her husband was dead and she was working all the cleaning jobs she could, her twin girls were full of excitement one Christmas because the star of the Street was coming to town. Elsie Tanner was going to open up the new Binns Department Store on Fowler Street.
Glad gave her daughters permission. She’d be too busy to go and she wouldn’t have been that interested in anyway. Why go gawping at someone off the telly? They were just the same as us, weren’t they? They just had more money, that’s all.
My Mam and her sister – they must only have been about ten – went into town and stood in the crowds on Fowler Street, outside the great big Binns. When Elsie Tanner stepped out of her limousine their eyes nearly popped out of their heads. Not just at her huge, Hollywood-style fur coat, but also at her hair.
‘Mam, it was red like Heinz tomato soup!’
In fact, the whole crowd had gasped. Everyone in those black and white telly days was amazed by Elsie’s dark red tresses.
Many years later – 2004 – I told some of these family Corrie stories to Tony Warren as we had tea at the Midland Hotel. We were supposed to be having high tea in the special tearoom but he said he preferred to sit slap-bang in the foyer where you get to see more of life going on; more people going to and fro.
I told him these stories knowing full well that he’d have heard similar ones from all kinds of people over the years. Surely it had all been said before. But he listened very graciously when I told him that this stuff that he’d created was intrinsic to my family’s sagas. It was a huge part of our lives.
I also told him that he’d ruined my life.
‘How’s that?’ he cackled, looking delighted.
‘Because of all those strong female characters confronting each other over the years. They made me think that, when you have a problem with someone, the way to tackle it is to barrel up to them and go: ‘Listen, lady!’ And have it out with them straight away. And it generally isn’t.’
He shook his head firmly. ‘It usually goes horribly wrong.’
‘So I’ve been mislead!’ I said.
‘But it’s fiction, Paul,’ he said. ‘Coronation Street is all made up.’
‘Ha!’ But I refused to believe that.
And I still do.
It’s all extremely real to me.
Except when it comes to the current show. I don’t find all those serial killers and explosions and kidnappings very convincing.
I’ve really tried to carry on loving Corrie as much as I did in the past… but I think they’ve forgotten something central to the show. We should look at that street and think – this could be any street in this country, or the world. Instead we think – this is like nowhere else on the planet. We are invited to look at a place full of freakish secrets and deceptions, rather than the more humdrum ones that make up normal life.
So… in recent times I’ve felt a little exiled from Weatherfield.
And yet… this past week I’ve been delighted to indulge in a novel by Maggie Sullivan published by Harper Collins and called ‘Christmas on Coronation Street.’
It fits beautifully, easily within that genre of cobbles-n-heartache that we see everywhere (mostly in branches of The Works): they’re usually books set during the Forties or Fifties, about the early lives of working class girls. Pregnancy and war. Work and men and children and holidays. Custard creams and munitions factories. Often they come with a kind of built-in soft focus. They are about nostalgia and recounting a version of working class history that wouldn’t shock or cause anyone to choke on a bourbon.
On first seeing this book, and realizing it’s the first in a series that takes us back to Weatherfield during the Second World War, I thought: how canny. How clever. A brilliant way of bringing together a well-known brand and a very identifiable book genre. (I do love a good Saga, though I’m quite cynical about them. They have to be very well written to snag my attention.)
Pretty soon though, I realized that this is one of those books that’s branded so well that it doesn’t really have to be that good in order to sell well. The elements are all there already. However… the text itself is the thing of course, and the text itself is really good, I think.
What Maggie Sullivan (is it a pseudonym? It sounds too perfect a name for a novel like this. She already sounds like a Catherine Cookson heroine.) what she does is create a proper novel from all this TV backstory stuff. The scaffolding was already there in those in-fiction non-fiction books published over the years, but what she makes us do is live through the late Thirties and early Forties with these younger versions of characters we knew only when they were much older.
She fleshes out the drama. Those old painted flats and canvas backdrops get blown away. The sun comes streaming in, along with the smoggy clouds and the filth and the drenching Manchester rain and, as the book goes on, the real horror of the bombs falling and sudden, violent, arbitrary death.
She takes Pat Phoenix’s legendary performance as Elsie Tanner and makes her into a novelistic creation. She’s hardly even sixteen for most of the book and we watch her scrabbling about in the slum conditions her family are used to in scenes that feel like they’ve come from Elizabeth Gaskell. We see Elsie’s determination to get out and discover love and protect her siblings. She falls in love with a boy who goes off to fight Franco and finds early death. She falls for a dodgy gangster who gets her up the duff, but who installs her in the home she’ll Queen over for forty years… It’s a great story, and one we thought we already knew, but it comes up fresh and brand new in the telling.
The final chapters are, I think, the best of all, when we see Elsie settling into the Street. She is joined by pitch perfect recreations of Ena Sharples and Annie Walker. It’s a huge relief to be back in the company of these battleaxes again – when they’re younger, more vital, and still in the prime of life.
What I love about this is there’s a rawness to it all. The diseases and disasters of the past are evoked unsentimentally. Houses drop on people, people go missing. Terrible things can happen to folk. But those who remain still have to go on: they have to go on living out their own personal saga with stoicism and grit, and maybe a touch of wry humour.
Elsie’s fraught scene of giving birth – helped out by the terrifying Mrs Sharples – is one of the best in the novel. While all is erupting in drama Annie Walker - filled with dismay at what is transpiring in her back parlor - adroitly removes her good cushions from the settee where the expectant mum writhes in agony. A priceless touch.
I’m overjoyed to hear that a sequel – this time from Annie’s jaundiced, snooty point of view – is on our way come Mother’s Day.
And I hope there’ll be many more to follow, each of them dwelling on the years before TV cameras ever trundled their way over those famous cobbles.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Art of Flippancy

Last night we watched the Spielberg movie of Roald Dahl’s The BFG and crikey – how slow and portentous was that? Dahl was the zippiest and wittiest of writers. I could just imagine his impatience grinding at every scene of his that was being endlessly prolonged and distorted and stretched out of shape. His books always zoom along beautifully and if any boring interlude or explainy bits start swimming into view – he just skips. He hops over it. He never dwells and he never gets sentimental and he never bores us daft.
            Anyhow, one of the most unforgivably endless sequences involved Sophie and the BFG having breakfast with the Queen. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as the Queen. She’s wonderful in everything. She’s someone whose every little quirk of reaction you’re waiting to see. But in this she’s pinioned into endless moments, standing regally by as Spielberg labours over each and every point…
            The point is, what I was reminded of was being eight years old and being at Junior School. This was 1979 and my teacher was the horrendous Mrs H – the woman who once called me a fat lump in a gym class, told my mam I wasn’t as clever as I thought, never washed her hair or wore a scrap of make-up (which was sacrilege to my mam) and told me that the root of all my problems was that I didn’t even try to fit in with all the ordinary boys. Anyhow, that was Mrs H, whose idea of teaching was copying out of a book onto the board huge screeds of text for us to copy out in turn into our exercise books.
            It was for Mrs H that I wrote some of my wildest and strangest stories when I was seven. When we were asked to fill three pages I would fill twenty. I would go to the end of the exercise book. I would take it home and staple further pages into the back of my book and keep my story going. How she must have hated getting stories from me.
            Once I wrote her some long adventure story and I can’t remember exactly what it was about, but I myself was a lead character, and there were various talking animal companions, and I think my Big Nanna might have been involved, too. It was a big adventure and, at the very end of it, we were all invited to Buckingham Palace for a slap-up tea with the Queen, as a thank you for saving the world from whatever it was we had saved it from. Giant vampire bats who lived in the Lake District, possibly.
            And this episode must really have stayed with her, in fact, because when it came time for our report cards, she gave me a fairly average mark for English and wrote: ‘HE MUST LEARN THAT LIFE IS NOT A COMIC STRIP. HIS STORIES CAN BE VERY FLIPPANT AND SILLY.’
            Huh, I thought.
            Actually, I thought much more than that, because I was mortified. I was horrified. I’d put so much into the stories I’d written that year. Were they flippant? Were they silly? Perhaps I really did read too many comic strips. I read Dracula Lives,  The Broons, Planet of the Apes, TV Comic, Buster, the Beano, Spiderman, the Hulk, The Defenders, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Howard the Duck, Marvel Two-in-One…
            I read books as well, but when I thought about it, the ones I really loved could be pretty flippant and silly, too. I loved Doctor Who and I loved Roald Dahl…
            And I guess my stories stayed pretty flippant.
            I believe the BFG came out when I was about thirteen. I missed out on reading it until a few years later… and when I did I hooted with laughter.
            For ages I’d thought of Roald Dahl as my spirit animal. He was my guiding spirit of mischief. I’d watched that footage of him on Blue Peter, stomping off down his garden and sitting in the chair in his shed and getting ready to write. Sharpening his pencils and his wits and setting about doing battle with words and sense, and doing this every day. This seemed like a perfectly sensible and proper way to spend your life, and from a very early age it was the only thing I really wanted to do.
            So – he was always a hero.
            And there he was in 1982 – sending his heroes off to have a slap-up tea at Buckingham Palace with the Queen. He didn’t give a flying fart if that was flippant or silly or impossible. It was a beautiful vindication of sorts, and I wish that book had been around in 1978 for me to show Mrs H and I could tell her where to shove it.
            And so, ever since, I’ve never really cared if people have thought of what I’ve written or said is flippant. I rather dread writing that’s too solemn or sententious. That kind of slow earnestness usually covers up deep stupidity: flippancy is a cover for the very opposite, I’ve found.
            I remember getting feedback from an editor of a very literary list, rejecting a book of mine, quite a few years ago: ‘How lovely to see what Paul is writing these days. But I found this rather flippant, as opposed to serious and meaningful.’ Although it was a rejection, it made me smile. I loved being called flippant, still. I’ve come to think of it as a badge of honour.
The book that particular editor (poor thing) had been offered was one that mediated its story through pastiches of fairly low class literary modes: Gothic horror, gay erotica and working class saga novels. And her assumption that literary fiction had to flag up its own deep seriousness above everything else had blinded her to the deeply serious silliness at play.
And I was left feeling a bit hollow, after the laughter – what a shame not to see the deep silliness in stories, and how they all have to play with pastiche and flippancy at times – relying on the readers’ knowledge of stories and acknowledging that we’ve all read stories before. For, if nothing else, speeding the process of story-telling up and not boring the reader’s tits off is a very, very important thing, I think.
Because there’s nothing worse and stodgier and duller than deeply earnest fiction, moving slowly and heavily with great meaningfulness… and the thing that so many people still fail to see is that it’s far harder to be funny and light as air, and to conceal your complexity and all your deep thoughts. That’s the bit that takes the skill, I think. (No one really wants to hear your deep thoughts. They’re usually awful.)
Being flippant with style – that’s still my aim.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Christmas-That-Wasn't

Christmas 2015 was really awful. It was one of those years when everything goes wrong on Christmas Eve and suddenly you’re confronted with the realization that you’re not actually going to have a Christmas this year. After the build up, and the easy assumption that you’ll be able to kick back and enjoy yourself as usual… suddenly it all looks very different.
            And when I was in a quiet house on Christmas Day, completely alone, with no decorations or dinner or anything going on… it was a strange, still feeling. I almost felt that everyone should experience this… just once, perhaps. Looking out the back window at our misty street and gardens, and all the windows gently lit up… I was thinking how lovely it would be to be part of any of those family gatherings right now…
            If your Christmas is ruined one year it ensures that you’ll never take it for granted again.
            In 2015 Jeremy was whisked into hospital in the early hours of Christmas Eve. He’d had a suspected flare-up of the Crohn’s that was diagnosed nineteen years earlier. Suddenly he was in agony in the very early hours of the night, and I had to call an ambulance. Next thing I was sitting by his side as they zoomed us to Manchester Royal Infirmary. We stayed awake all night in numberless waiting rooms and consulting rooms and corridors. We were placed on ward after ward and the nightmare went on through the next morning and into the short afternoon. Everywhere we went people were wearing Christmas jumpers and trying to look cheery, and Jeremy was gasping in pain the whole time.
            And, as they tried to sort him out, it became clear he’d be stuck there for at least a week.
            And so our Christmas was off.
            Just as it got dark I walked home through the south of the city. I was popping home for a few hours to feed the cat, get a shower, and pack a bag for Jeremy. I walked through the traffic chugging home and through streets with glowing trees in every window. I remembered the running tally we always kept as kids, counting the trees we saw in windows.
            When I eventually got to our street it was dark and the lamps were on. The neighbours were starting up their Christmases. And Bernard Socks was racing towards me down the middle of the street. Our strange, psychic cat seemed to have had advance warning, and he came bounding up to me… I was delirious with lack of sleep and it seems to me that he came running up on his hind legs like Puss in Boots…
            In the hours I wasn’t visiting Jeremy in hospital during that Christmas-that-wasn’t, I sat on our settee with Socks on my lap and I turned for comfort-viewing to a certain box of DVDs I’d built up into a collection over the years. I’ve made a habit of curating my very favourite Christmas specials and episodes and movies into an impeccably tacky collection of discs.
            That Christmas our house was still a bit wrecked and half-decorated following a disaster we’d had with ceilings falling in, and being left at the mercy of awful insurance people and awful builders. The place was chilly and the bare boards were covered in blobs of dried plaster. I felt adrift on the settee with Socks… I didn’t touch any of the Christmas food I’d bought with Jeremy. Everything went into the freezer… I ate pies made by my friend Wendy, who had her own pie-making business (‘Life of Pie’) and had baked a batch with variously festive fillings…
            And I sought solace in old friends from the telly… Tom and Barbara Good, Doctor Who and Rose, Sarah and K9, Cagney and Lacey, Larry Grayson and Isla StClair, MR James and Michael Hordern… from low comedy to high drama, sci-fi to sentimental TV movies… Each single episode took me back to different Christmases past… from childhood, from years in Edinburgh and Norwich and here in Manchester.
            They filled an entire week, and were curiously comforting. They reminded me: there have been other Christmases. There will be other Christmases to come. It won’t always be like this one.
            That’s the feeling I wanted to get into my book about Christmas Telly. I wanted to dig down into the reason for my obsession with vintage shows like ‘The Box of Delights’, or my seemingly ridiculous devotion to, say, the Christmas 1979 edition of ‘Crossroads.’ All these things are festive, but they’re brimming with pathos, too: with a sense they represent a happiness that’s always only just, and only briefly, within reach…
            Our hellish Christmas of 2015 forms the over-arching story of my book about telly, ‘The Christmas Box’, and I hope it’ll be a fun reminder for readers of the joy of old telly. It might prompt them to go and find particular shows, it might trigger a few happy dormant memories. Also, I hope it’ll be a reminder never to take Christmas for granted.
            Here we are in 2017 and December is approaching fast. Unpacking boxes from the attic, a hale and hearty Jeremy unfurls a miniature pink Christmas tree. He fits new batteries and the lights glow brilliant white. He brings it up to my study and we put it pride of place. It’s the first bit of Christmas in our house this year.
I couldn’t give a fig if anyone thinks it’s too early. Jeremy puts on records, crackly and vinyl: records he’s kept preserved almost all his life. It’s early for Christmas but these days I just think if you feel even the tiniest bit festive… get a bloody tree up. Chuck some tinsel on. Who cares if it’s September or January or Christmas itself? Make the bloody most of it. Don’t wait for it to come to you. Because one year it might not turn up. So – get on with it. And happy holidays – whatever and whenever you wish to celebrate.

Order 'The Christmas Box' from Obverse Books here!