Sunday, December 27, 2009

The classical Greek/Roman comedy model

“In the protasis characters were introduced and the initial situation was unfolded; in the epitasis complications began to be developed, schemes and stratagems devised and set to work; in the catastrophe difficulties were brought to a head and then resolved so that harmony might be restored, often through an unexpected discovery being made.”

William Tydeman, Introduction to Four Tudor Comedies, Penguin, London, 1984

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ITV's festive dramas

Mark Lawson sounds a downbeat note in today's Guardian:

"...this blizzard of quality fiction [on ITV] is not quite what it seems. Sleep With Me, a story of bisexual infidelity based on Joanna Briscoe's novel, was completed in the summer of 2008 and has been waiting for transmission since then, while An Englishman in New York, a sequel to the 1975 film The Naked Civil Servant, was first expected to be screened at least a year ago.

"Nor is transmission over the holiday season necessarily the accolade it immediately seems. ITV traditionally concedes the late December schedules to the BBC because advertisers are expected to have spent the bulk of their budgets in the run-up to the festivities. And so, in commercial TV terms, these dramas are being dumped like corpses in the middle of the night."

['Christmas TV schedules a dumping ground for expensive drama'.]

Lawson is talking about ITV, which in theory should mean that here is a key broadcasting field in which the BBC can have to itself, thus redefining the definition of public service broadcasting. In practice, however, most of the year's drama hits have been on ITV. Worrying, indeed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ed McBain: What is a novella?

The late Ed McBain/Evan Hunter came up with this neat summary in the introduction to Transgressions (2005):

"A novella today can run anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words. Longer than a short story (5,000 words) but much shorter than a novel (at least 60,000 words) it combines the immediacy of the former with the depth of the latter, and it ain't easy to write. In fact, given the difficulty of the form, and the scarcity of markets for novellas, it is surprising that any writers today are writing them at all."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Katie Hims wins WGGB radio play award

Katie Hims has won the Writer's Guild of Great Britain award for best radio play (The Gunshot Wedding), which is a little weird as it wasn't one of the nominations. Still, nobody pretends the WGGB is a democracy.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Big Top, big disaster

Every since Wednesday evening I've been trying to think of another contender but haven't found one that comes close. BBC 1'a Big Top is officially the worst British sitcom ever (and I include L for Lester, Lame Ducks and the one on ITV that featured Victor Meldrew as some sort of River Authority policeman). Its first ep got 3.3 million viewers and at least half will be back next week to make sure they hadn't accidentally ingested a hallucinogen.

"It's set in a circus, the only form of public entertainment more doddery and decrepit than the traditional British sitcom", said Michael Deacon in the Telegraph. Over in the Guardian, Sam Wollaston likened the experience to "being repeatedly banged over the head in the 1970s". Sam obviously doesn't remember the 70s as well as I do; the decade saw the Winter of Discontent and the Thatcher putsch but it wasn't as bad as Big Top. Wittiest of the critics was Andrea Mullaney in The Scotsman - "if this was any more of a turkey, Delia Smith would be wrapping bacon around it" - but the Independent's Tom Sutcliffe put his finger on the problem by calling it "one of those programmes that has you wondering about the commissioning process."

Exactly. Commissioning by committee is never going to scare the horses or unearth a genius who hasn't built massive credibility in another form (stand-up in the case of Ricky Gervais) but it is meant to guard against the inrush of sewage. Yet Jay Hunt, who is paid the thick end of £300,000 a year to gatekeep BBC 1 signed off on this garbage. Sure, everyone wants a family sitcom and we should never give up the search for the next Fools and Horses or even My Family. But this had none of the necessary attributes and anyone who knows anything about TV forms could tell you so. A 'traditional' sitcom requires a family, however loosely defined, family members who argue among themselves but present a united front to the world, fully rounded characters with back stories, hopes, ambitions and failings - characters that are just like us no matter how different their world is. And the Number One ingredient for a major worldwide hit worth megabucks in syndication: OPTIMISM. Admittedly, Daniel Peak, woeful begetter of Big Top, is by no means the first British writer to overlook the last one. Apparently Peak co-wrote some of Not Going Out with Lee Mack, which I didn't watch because it had Lee Mack in it. (Close inspection shows that Peak only wrote the third series, after which the show was cancelled - coincidence?) The thing about Mack though, is that he works tirelessly on his material, writing and rewriting until he has polished it smooth. I can only assume that Daniel Peak misheard and polished Big Top with a tyre.

So what do we have? A sitcom set in a circus wherein the inciting incident is a ploy to get the lead character (Amanda Holden) out of the situation. Fatal. We have a circus in which we never see anyone perform and which, unlike any other circus since the dawn of time, has only one foreign artist in it. We have a queasy combition of childish slapstick (hand buzzers, ferrets down trousers) and alleged witty banter. All the characters are downbeat, hopeless and untalented. The cast is surprisingly big name - Holden, Tony Robinson, John Thomson, Sophie Thompson and Ruth Madoc - so I suppose we must call them undiscriminating.

The truth is, Big Top could have been made to work perfectly well as a children's sitcom - perhaps with a teenage runaway to add normality and resonance. Otherwise, best forgotten.

Jay Hunt, however, has questions to answer, for her other big commission of the autumn is the derivative Paradox which, a standout performance from Tamzin Outhwaite notwithstanding, bids fair to be a clunker of Borgia-esque proportions (remember that one, do ya, Sam Wollaston?)

Saturday, November 14, 2009


ITV ran Anthony Horowitz's car-crash drama in the 9pm peaktime slot Monday to Friday this week. And, against all expectations, it worked pretty well.

What I really liked was the pay-off, the revelation of how all this physical and emotional trauma came about. Torchwood, for example, blew a similar big question with some computer blah-blah. Collision, however, took the butterfly-flap-its-wings-on-the-other-side-of-the-world option - one driver trying to swat a wasp - laid clues from the outset and gleefully twisted it by misdirecting us into a paedophile red herring. Brilliant and credible.

The other bonus was the use of performers outside the usual ITV casting subset of the 35 British-based working actors not currently or recently in crap soaps. Great to see Mick Ford again after all these years. Likewise Jan Francis, though her story strand was less successful.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Prix Italia 2009

The radio drama award went to Mathieu Farbolet's Farben from France Culture (SRF), directed by Margarite Gateau, described as:

"A fascinating radiophonic exploration on the themes of anti-semitism, feminism, the ethics of scientific exploration and their disastrous unexpected consequences, set in an historical context of 19th and 20th Century Europe. Outstanding performances and direction combined with wonderful sound design make this work achieve its fullest potential even to the extent of the feeling that the sound entered the pores like the sulphur gas that is at the heart of the play."

The sound, incidentally, was by Philippe Bredin and Clotilde Thomas.

The best adapted drama was from Germany's ARD - My Body in Nine Parts, adapted from his own prose text by Raymond Federman.

The BBC's Criminal Justice was the best TV drama series/serial.

(Tell you what won't be winning in 2010 - Tony Marchant's po-faced Garrow's Law: Tales from the Old Bailey, which debuted on BBC1 last night. For starters, could it have a more clunking title? OK, this is unfamiliar territory for many and needs setting up for most, but it was writing by numbers and acting with the handbrake on. It might develop but it's got a long way to go with just 3 eps remaining.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Prix Europa (radio drama) 2009

Best European radio drama (prize donated by Radio France): I will tell you/Ik Zal Het U Vertellen, written and produced by Joris van Damme for Belgian radio (Erasmus Hogeschool Brussel Departement Rits).

A special Prix Europa for Best Episode of a radio drama series or serial (donated by NRK Norway) went to Norway's own Twisted Mirror/Trollspeilet episode 1, dramatised by Carl Jorgen Kionig from Tom Egeland's book and directed by Else Barratt-Due. NRK also picked up a special commendation for Liv Heloe's Lise L.

For TV and new media winners see:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Surrealism, the forgotten women

Manchester Art Gallery have an exhibition of female surrealists which I wish I could afford to go see (but such things are not affordable in Gordon Brown's Glum World). The above is by Leonor Fini (1907-96) who, according to Sarah Kent in today's Sunday Telegraph is a sort of female Dali - colourful, extravagant, as famous in her heyday for her personal appearance as her art and ostracised by Andre Breton, which is always an inverse recommendation.
There is also a new book, Sphinx: The Life and Art of Leonor Fini, by Peter Webb, on sale for a mere £60. Now that's what I call surreal.

Monday, October 19, 2009

State of art? I hope not

Nominations for the Writers' Guild radio drama award 2009 have been announced - and evidence the loss of airtime for original single dramas, which I consider critical to the heath of British drama in general.

The only 'play' nominated is Peter Souter's Puddle. Jonathan Myerson's Number 10 is actually a series of Friday plays from 2007 but at least has the virtue of being original. The other two nominees - Linda Marshall Griffith for A Prayer for Owen Meaney and Andrew Lynch for Ragged Trousered Philanthropist - are dramatised novels, one of which (the latter) has been dramatised so often that many think it actually is a play.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Essential Reading

Best new book I've read in years. Cannot be recommended too highly.

How come it didn't win the Booker? Is it because it's northern and about socialism?

In Treatment

Stunning to begin with but will struggle to maintain the same level of interest as the run progresses. It's only halfway through week two and I'm already disengaging. The acting, nevertheless, is of the highest quality and that alone makes the show compulsory. Typically for British TV du jour, it is not available on terrestrial. Still, all kudos to Sky Arts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ironic insight from A Secret Alchemy

"Yes, it's the end of Richard III, when all in the kingdom - for a Tudor playwright - is set to rights. One of the things I'll be fighting against is our Shakespeare-shaped vision of the times, though he was so much nearer those times than I am. For him the War of the Cousins was a not-so-distant past that he was refashioning; old men could tell the tales [...] If you take the plays as history, then they're wrong. They lie, if you like, in the cause of a story that grips us still. So how did it look to their grandfathers themselves, not a gripping tale or a propaganda lie, but a life, as it was lived, day after month after year? That's what I want to know, the history I want to write. My refashioning is another kind of tale, I hope and believe, though my historian's conscience will always be the ruler of my storyteller's desires.

"It sounds so dry, so puritanical. So dead. How can I bring them alive, yet have a clear scholarly conscience?"

Emma Darwin, A Secret Alchemy, [pb] Headline, London 2009 pp 112-3

Very insightful - and a lot better written than much else of the novel. I really enjoyed that phrase "day after month after year". Unfortunately, Darwin's own research is demonstrably sketchy and/or wrong. Groby near Northampton? And she has mistaken Astley for Anstey. Kind of leaves throbbing big question marks over anything else she advances as 'fact'.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Summertime blues

Like the economy, TV drama is beginning to emerge from the darkest of days (June). Like the media-spawned recession and swine flu, it hasn't actually been as bad as we feared.

The Bill has dropped an episode a week, moved to 9pm and gone HD. That is to say, the photography has gone HD for no apparent reason (it's not like the show was ever known for the scenery) but the acting and writing is as analogue as ever. On its way out, methinks. Likewise the latest ITV Monday night romcom, Monday Monday, has gone the way of all ITV romcoms, head-first down the toilet. And yet there is, against all odds, quality drama on ITV in August, Barry "The Vice" Simner's Single-Handed, a masterclass in how to build tension before unleashing a truly jaw-dropping twist. The bad news for ITV is that this is a two-year-old RTE production. Still, small mercies...

BBC's Desperate Romantics, the lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, looked ghastly in the endless previews but turned out to be huge fun. We're halfway through the run as I write and I like it more each week.

Taking the Flak, also on BBC2, has hardly been promoted at all, and yet is half-an-hour well spent. Effectively an update on the adventures of Damian in Drop the Dead Donkey, it uses the technology of 24 hr rolling news to great comic effect, has a nice mix of established names and newcomers and cleverly ropes in cameos from more expensive actors (Mackenzie Crook) and real BBC media megastars (John Humphreys). Fun extras on the red button, too.

Tru Blood, now showing on FX before going terrestrial on C4, is also a major hit with witty scripts by Alan "American Beauty" Ball, bags of gratuitous sex, fabulous casting (solving the mystery of whatever happened to NY-LON's Stephen Moyer) and the greatest titles/music sequence since NYPD Blue.

But the sleeper summer hit to end all sleeper summer hits has to be BBC4's Getting On. A cinema verite sitcom set in an NHS geriatric ward, written by the three actresses involved, one of whom is Jo Brand - how can this possibly have been any good? Because it was sheer genius: compassionate, tragic, pin-point accuracy in deflating the culture of pretension which is eating through public service like a runaway cancer, and screamingly funny. Just three eps, which may have been the secret of its success in that it wasn't spread too thin. The director was Peter Capaldi, which makes four geniuses creatively involved (and Ricky Grover was pretty damn good, too).

Whatever happened to the working class voice?

From writer Dreda Say Mitchell's brilliant piece in today's Independent:

The difference between negative representations of the middle class and working class in the arts and media is fairly simple. All of middle-class life is available in our media and public life, so depictions of the down side are balanced by the positive.

But the British working class is only called on to occasionally perform their circus act as the people you wouldn't want living next door. And what is especially depressing for those of us who actually grew up on council estates is that these circus acts are usually done by middle-class artists under the handle, "giving a voice to" or "depicting the reality of". Because, of course, the working class doesn't actually have a voice of its own or least not one that anybody can be bothered to go out and find.

Even a generation ago, things were very different. That great generation of working-class artists that came to prominence in the 1960s were still at work. Harold Pinter was writing plays, Keith Waterhouse was writing novels, Galton and Simpson wrote comedy drama that was as good as Beckett and a lot funnier.

Barrie Keeffe, now best remembered for The Long Good Friday, wrote a series of television plays on working-class themes in the 1970s that were subversive and incendiary. But if Dennis Potter turned up at a TV station in 2009, they'd probably put a security guard's uniform on him and tell him to keep the riff-raff out.

There are obvious reasons why this isn't good news for our arts and media, and also some that are less obvious. The obvious one is that our culture is a lot poorer and becomes dangerously unbalanced when only part of the population has a voice. The less obvious one is that these representations affect the attitudes and decision-making of the people who run this country.
Most members of the "progressive" middle class are signed up to the idea that it would be a good thing if a few more working-class youngsters appeared in the professions, the arts and politics.
But, as someone who has attended a fair few meetings in her time, I've often been struck by the subtext. It goes: "Of course we're trying to do our best for these awful people but, be honest, would you want one of them as your doctor, lawyer or MP? I mean, have you seen Shameless?"

It's still the case that most of those with their hands on the levers of power in this country come from the same classes as they did in the 1950s. They also know as much about the life of those who don't come from those classes as they did in the 1950s, and this is true whether they call themselves "conservative" or "progressive".

Absolutely 100% spot-on - and likely to get much, much worse.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tinniswood/Imison shortlists announced

Nominees for the Tinniswood Award (best new original radio drama broadcast during 2008) are:

The Switch by Ali Smith (David Jackson Young, BBC Scotland)
Goldfish Girl by Peter Souter (Gordon House, BBC Radio Drama)
The Heroic Pursuits of Darleen Fyles by Esther Wilson (Pauline Harris, BBC Radio Drama, Manchester)
Far North by Louis Nowra (Judith Kampfner, Corporation For Independent Media)

Nominees for the Imison Award (best new original drama by a writer new to radio broadcast during 2008) are:

Flaw in the Motor, Dust in the Blood by Trevor Preston (Toby Swift, BBC Radio Drama)
Girl From Mars by Lucy Caldwell (Anne Simpson, BBC Northern Ireland)
Cobwebs by David Hodgson (Gary Brown, BBC Radio Drama)

Winners in October!

Playwriting tips

Found this on the Bruntwood site of the Royal Exchange Theatre: Thanks guys!

1. Use stimuli such as music, photographs, a newspaper article, an object etc…to help you come up with the idea for a character or story.

2. Start off by trying to write a stream of consciousness. With paper and pen (or computer) give yourself 15 minutes, and just write anything that comes into your head. Try not to censor or stop certain thoughts, just give your mind and pen freedom to wander. You may surprise yourself as to what you come up with. Some, or most of it, may not be of any use to you, however, you may find that you stumble across an idea, or a little nugget of inspiration that you could develop. This may be a good exercise to do each time you start writing, or even when you hit a brick wall and don’t know where you should go next.

3. Listen to the way that people speak. Eaves-drop on conversations and note the differences in their voices and the way they speak e.g. accents; repetition; interruption; pauses; volume; vocabulary; what they say; what they don’t say; length of speeches etc… These ‘things’ are the tools that a playwright uses to create individual voices for their characters. It’s important that each character you create has a distinct voice.

4. People watch. Whenever you are out and about observe other people, how they act and interact. Make notes, and attempt to write down an exchange you have witnessed, or think you may have witnessed, even though you couldn’t actually hear it. Think about them as characters and try to work out what their stories might be. Consider the 5 ‘w’s – who, what, where, when, and why? One of these characters, or situations just might provide the spring board for your play.

5. Write a piece of dialogue between 2 characters, in which each character can only speak 3 words per line. The purpose of this exercise is to force you as a writer to focus on exactly what your characters want and are trying to say with each line of dialogue, and doesn’t allow for any rambling or exposing back story.

6. Write a scene with 2 characters, in which the first character (A) wants a physical object from the second character (B), but B doesn’t want to give the object away. Create characters and decide why A wants the object and why B doesn’t want A to have it. Think about not only what they say, but what they don’t say, how they relate to each other physically, how they move etc…
7. Re-write the above scene in a totally different location. What setting would raise the stakes for one of or both the characters? Could you switch from a private to a public setting or vice versa? Think about how this particular setting affects the dialogue, what is said and what is left unsaid, and the way the characters move /relate to each other.

8. To develop a character, (or all the characters in your play), try to write a list of 50 things about them, without letting your pen leave the paper. You can write about anything, such as where they live, who with, what they like, what they dislike, what makes them angry, what they had for breakfast…absolutely anything. Try to let go of your imagination and write whatever comes into your head. You want to get to know them, and the world they inhabit, inside out and back-to-front.

9. With a character you have developed, think about what it is that they want most in life. Think of a moment or event in their life when this ‘want’ is magnified for some reason – the stakes are heightened. What obstacles stand in their way (may be other people; something in themselves, such as fear; or a physical obstacle, such as being trapped in a room). Decide which other characters are in the scene and develop them (exercise above). What do they want? Write this scene.

10. Once you have written a scene, read over it, or even better ask friends to read it out, and ask yourself the following questions: does the dialogue wander aimlessly, or is it driven by the characters need for something? Does the dialogue contain lots of back story? Are the characters believable as people? Do you think the scene will leave the audience wanting more? Answer as truthfully as possible and then re-draft as necessary. Be ruthless, even if it means cutting large chunks of writing you feel attached to.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sitcom tips from Paul Feig

Top US sitcom writer Paul (Freaks and Geeks) Feig gave the Guardian his top tips:

1. Nice can still be funny

"The first series of The American Office really struggled to find an audience. The producers soon realised that American audiences didn't really warm to unlikable lead characters. Michael Scott [Steve Carell] didn't have enough redeeming features. I came in on the second series and directed an episode called Office Olympics, which was a turning point. Steve's character Michael was having a bad time trying to buy a condo and, to make him feel better, his staff let him win a trophy at the office Olympics. I encouraged Steve to get emotional when they presented him with the trophy. He suddenly had this vulnerability that made people warm to him. I think it's important for shows to have a sweetness at their heart."

2. Stop sneering

"For me, the worst sort of comedies are the ones where the writers or the actors seem to be looking down on the characters. There are so many comedies that portray people living in the suburbs as living ridiculous or hypocritical lives. But I grew up in the suburbs of Michigan in midwest America and tend to think that everyone is just trying to get through life as best they can. You don't have to sneer or poke fun at them to get a laugh. Most laughter comes from people seeming real and giving the audience recognition. Freaks And Geeks was a reflection of what it was really like growing up in a suburban environment. It was partly a response to all of those 80s teen movies where the characters didn't really talk or act like real teenagers."

3. Make them cringe

"Regardless of where or when your story is set, it's important for the peoplein any comedy to act just like real people act. That means not speaking in a constant stream of pithy one-liners. It means getting into the same sort of horrible, awkward situations we all get into every day. Easily the most funny, fascinating and cringeworthy time in anyone's life is school. It's the only time that you get lumped in with a whole bunch of people without any filter; it's not to do with skills or interests, just age. And you're forced to spend every day with them for years. With Freaks And Geeks I wanted to write scenes that people would squirm while watching because it would seem so familiar. Seeing people cringe is the jackpot for me. The thing is, not everyone wants to sit through the exact same situations they already had to go through at school. So it's the jackpot that nobody wants to win!"

4. Cut the jokes

"A script packed full of jokes is what a network executive will sign off because it will seem funny on the page. But it won't work when you shoot it because people don't really act that way. A great comedy is about real characters who make you laugh because you appreciate their personalities and how they react to particular situations. They have to be believable human beings, not just vehicles for gags. Will Arnett, who played Gob in Arrested Development, was a dramatic actor before he got that part. Gob might have been a dumb character who did stupid things but Will played him in this serious, believable way which made it so much funnier. I ruined more takes by laughing off camera at Will than I did on any other show. But that's why I love my job."

5. Slow it down

"Watching TV comedy is a sharing experience. People like to look at each other after a funny moment to show they both got it, and maybe even repeat it back to each other. Arrested Development was never a big hit in the States because it didn't allow people to do that. If you stopped to look at each other after each laugh you'd miss the next three jokes and four set-ups. Mitchell [Hurwitz, the show's creator] never wanted to drop a scene so we ended up with shows that were so dense with laughs that it left you with no room to breath. It required a lot of labour on the part of the audience just to keep up, and there just isn't enough people in the States who are prepared to put that sort of labour in. The Office has been more successful because it has a slower pace; there are actually long moments of silence so audiences can consume the whole thing easily."

6. Hope the boss likes you

"The truth is, it sometimes doesn't matter how funny your show is. What matters is who is in charge of the network it's on. If he loves your show then it will survive long enough for you to build the characters and build an audience. The guy in charge of NBC when Freaks And Geeks was on never liked the show so we knew it never really stood a chance. But 30 Rock is an example of a show that had huge support within NBC which is why it was allowed to ride out its difficult early days, when it didn't get much of an audience. Tina Fey helped that; her profile grew thanks to the Sarah Palin thing so the bosses warmed more to her show and they moved it to an 8.30pm slot on a Thursday night. In America, Thursday night is comedy night, and so if you get a prime time slot on a Thursday, you've got a great chance of being a hit."

7. Milk your cast

"If you're trying to make a great comedy, most of your time and effort should go into casting. Find the right actors and let them do their thing. Some writers and producers can be inflexible: they write their scripts, think they're hilarious and won't let the cast change a single word. But it's important that the actors feel natural in what they're saying. I prefer TV to movies because you can shoot a pair of actors with two cameras, let them play off each other and see what happens. That's when the funniest stuff usually happens. I could write 1,000 gags into Freaks And Geeks but none of them were as funny as Martin Starr [who played Bill] just responding to someone by saying 'Huh?' 'Huh' doesn't sound funny on paper so you have to write a joke to get it past the network bosses, then let the actors do their own thing."

8. Create a family

"A great sitcom makes you feel like you're part of a family. You'll hear viewers refer to characters by their first names as if they're close friends. They'll say, 'I hope Jim gets together with Pam!' or, 'I can't believe Michael did that!' and that's when you know you've got a success. One of the most important things in building this family atmosphere is having one main location."

9. Thank God for DVD

"The popularity of DVD box sets has saved many sitcoms. Networks have persevered with slow starters like 30 Rock because they know there's the potential for them to make money and build a wider audience through DVD sales. Plus, if there are scenes you've had to cut, you can always put them on the DVD extras!"

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Last year Torchwood marked the switch-on of CERN with a radio special, available for download. This year the controversial cutdown Children of Earth on TV (only five episodes, only one week) is preceeded by three radio specials (Afternoon Play, R4, July 1-3), also available to download for 7 days after broadcast.

The first, Asylum, was about a teenage girl who falls from the sky having been burned out of Cardiff AD2069 because she's a 'ghostie', half human, half alien grey. Things are all 'skillaboo' until the final twist: she was pulled out of her burning house by a Torchwood operative. Intriguing start. Good enough. Notable use of internal monologue for the girl, Freda.

The second play, however - The Golden Age by James Goss - was much closer to the best of Torchwood, using Jack's immortality to merge history and sci-fi. Jack, Gwen and Ianto (one striking element is that we don't in any way miss the two team members killed in TV series II) are drawn to Delhi by massive energy spikes. They find Torchwood India frozen in 1924, just as Jack left it. The jilted Duchess has used alien technology to freeze time, feeding it on India's greatest resource, the collossal (dispensable) population. "You're no longer human!" Jack cries. "But I'm still British!" she declares. Tremendous stuff.

The third, The Dead Line by Phil Ford, was beached somewhere between its two precursors. Great teaser - "Jack's dying!" - and neat echoes of Jack's past, but it ended up about computer viruses, and that's always too easy in current sci-fi. Really, though, it rendered itself second rate by having Jack in a coma for slightly more than half the running time. In fact, looking back over the three days, Jack wasn't exactly front-and-centre in any of the eps. Odd...

And then came Children of Earth, stripped across five nights, BBC1 9pm. Great premise - Midwich Cuckoos with a twist - and some agonisingly dramatic moments - the death of Ianto (totally unexpected) and the round-up of kids to be sacrificed, transforming the school bus run into a plangent echo of Auschwitz. But there were also problems carried over from the radio run - Jack sidelined for the whole of Episode 2 and a clumsy 'magic box' computer solution bolted on at the end.

But for all that, this was the best British sci-fi since Deathwatch in the 70s. Important issues; very clever (or fortuitous) references to hot issues of today, such as government spin, swine flu and the death of childhood; and the cliff-hanger ending to end all cliff-hangers. Just two Torchwood staffers left standing - one off to the stars, the other about to start maternity leave; the Cardiff hub blown to smithereens. Will there be another series? How can there not be, when the audience figures for Day 4 topped 6 million? How can Moffat top Russell T's crowning glory?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Verbatim Theatre

Paul Allen has a fascinating post in the Guardian media blog (June 29):

"... In their search for must-do (and therefore must-see) drama, theatres everywhere are turning to local factual plays in the wake of the success of Black Watch and Deep Cut.

Hull Truck's Every Time It Rains tells the story of the floods that killed one young man and devastated the lives of thousands two years ago this month. Docudrama veteran Rupert Creed – co-author of the legendary The Northern Trawl – made use of an oral history website to reach more than 150 people with memories to share. They included Michael Barnett, father of the young man of the same name who was trapped in a culvert as the water flooded in, and Richard Clark, the policeman who was the first person on the scene from the emergency services and was traumatised because he couldn't save him. Every Time It Rains is being met with tears nightly at Hull Truck.

Last week saw the first preview of You Really Couldn't Make It Up at Live theatre in Newcastle. Father and son writers Mike and Tom Chaplin in Newcastle talked to a number of "football insiders" but came up with the idea of having four fans tell the story of Newcastle United's relegation from the Premiership. The play uses these four fans to tell us what they think the likes of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer might have said.

Elsewhere, West Yorkshire Playhouse is to premiere June Hancock – a Fight Against Asbestos at a venue described as "rear of Pet and Garden World", before staging it in the theatre. June was already terminally ill with cancer in 1997 when she won a legal battle against the owners of a factory where she and her friends had played as children, making "snowballs" out of asbestos dust.

David Thacker's first season in Bolton this autumn includes the latest piece by Robin Soans, the sometime actor who researched and wrote Talking to Terrorists. A co-production with Out of Joint and directed by Max Stafford-Clark, Soans's Mixed Up North tackles the racial disturbances in Burnley through the eyes of a youth theatre group trying to bridge the differences so easily exploited by the BNP. Purportedly based on real events, it allows the stories of the young actors and community workers to unfold during the group's rehearsals.
What does factual drama do that factual journalism or fictitious plays can't? Well, it can make you feel a personal tragedy or social injustice rather than simply understanding it. Whether it changes anything is hard to say, but as you leave the theatre you may certainly feel it should do."

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gillian Reynolds previews Journey into Space

Jet Morgan, BBC radio’s own spaceman, first appeared in the 1950s, long before Star Trek. His creator was Charles Chilton, 93 this month, who wrote and produced Journey into Space in a hugely industrious and successful BBC career which had already encompassed classy features (I Hear America Singing), jazz (Radio Rhythm Club) and variety (Riders of the Range) before sending Jet and his crew into our mysterious universe. David Jacobs, from the original cast, does the opening announcement today and plays The Host in this second of two new adventures by Julian Simpson (Spooks, Hustle). Starry Toby Stephens plays Jet. Sound design and music are by David Chilton, son of Charles. And you’ll hear Chilton himself doing the closing credits.
Happy Birthday, Mr C.

And well done Nick Russell-Pavier of independents Goldhawk, for balancing past and present so well.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Jet? Seriously? Were your parents drunk?"

The BBC would have us believe that this week's Lost in Space adventure, Host, is an adaptation. But it isn't. It is an entirely new episode, so far as I know the first not written by Charles Chilton himself, and is thus a significant milestone in the series' 50-odd year history. The writer, then, is Julian Simpson, who brings weighty credits including Spooks.

He should perhaps have brought a script editor from Kudos. The episode was like a first draft, with the signature narration from Doc used to skate over gaping holes in the plot.

The idea was good, the concept radiogenic. The Host turned out to be "sentient information" - a computer programme that had become a virtual lifeform. Great idea for the invisible, intangible medium of sound. It began well: the Ares, heading home at long last, picks up a red flag distress signal from inside Saturn's orbit. It comes from Jet's friend-cum-sparring partner J J Andreyev - who's been dead for 8 years. Naturally our heroes investigate. Andreyev welcomes them - invisible, intangible, for he has become a personality construct in the computer system.

So far so good, but then it all goes off-kilter as Jet and JJ get embroiled in some guff about Saturnian microbes in an underfunded research station being reprogrammed by the Host. What's at stake? Forty-seven cryogenically-frozen scientists we haven't met. Big deal. Hence my comment about slack plotting. This becomes even more apparent as Lemmie and Mitch are packed off to create the mother of all computer viruses to destroy the Host. Yes, exactly like Independence Day, only in Independence Day we saw how it was done and it was exciting.

There were, however, many good points. The wisecracking Edie (the author's wife, Jana Carpenter, in a rare example of successful nepotism) who came out with the zinger quoted above. The legendary David Jacobs, who played Jet last year, this year as announcer and voice of the Host. Toby Stephens, perfectly cast as the kill-em-first-decide-why-later swashbuckling Jet. Basher Savage, whose work I don't know, brilliant as JJ. David Chilton's sound design - and father Charles himself, reading the credits at the age of only 92. "Created by me" - it doesn't get much better than that.

See also: Frozen in Time - the ageless Journey into Space, April 12 2008

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Guardian tips 4 promising new women playwrights

Last year, Rebecca ­Lenkiewicz's Her Naked Skin became the first play by a ­living female playwright ever to be staged in the National's ­largest auditorium, the Olivier – a fact that, understandably, caused a stir. This year, the number of twenty­something ­British female writers coming up through the ranks suggests the venerable theatre could soon be hosting a slew of exciting new plays by women.

At the head of the queue is 22-year-old Polly Stenham, whose second play, Tusk Tusk,
completed a sold-out two-month run at the Royal Court in London last month. Director Rupert Goold's company Headlong, meanwhile, is about to tour Enron, a new play about the defunct US energy corporation by 28-year-old Lucy Prebble. A former secretary at the National, Prebble was also behind the TV dramatisation of Belle de Jour's salacious blog, The Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

Snapping at their heels is Ella Hickson, 24, who has become the youngest writer ever to be taken on by drama publishers Nick Hern for her first show, Eight. A series of eight monologues charting the state of Britain today, the play won Hickson a Fringe First award at Edinburgh last year, and will transfer to the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End
next month, following a successful run off-Broadway. Finally, 20-year-old Atiha Sen Gupta's first full-length offering, What Fatima Did . . ., about a Muslim schoolgirl, will form the centrepiece of Hampstead Theatre's autumn season of new writing. Here come the women – and about time, too.

[Female playwrights set to take the West End by storm, Laura Barnett, Guardian 17.6.09]

The headline is a horrendous gaffe, though. What remains of the West End is terra incognita for serious living playwrights irrespective of gender. Unless these women are prepared to challenge Ben Elton for the privilege of knocking out crap narratives to wrap round the back catalogues of pensionable pop groups, or inferior stage versions of so-so movies, then I'm afraid it's strictly the subsidized sector for 'em.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Trailing Digital Britain

On the eve of publication of the Carter Report, Broadcast have posted four video interviews. These are the two more relevant to me, on-line piracy and licence fee:

Friday, May 29, 2009

Writing tips from Robin Kelly's blog

The greatest UK blog for writers is without any doubt Robin Kelly's legendary Writing for Performance. I look every day. Today, for example, I found not one but two motivational blogs Robin has collected from elsewhere:

"13 Tips For Actually Getting Some Writing Done"
By Gretchen Rubin:"One of the challenges of writing is...writing. Here are some tips that I've found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page:
1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don't wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it's often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)
2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don't mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, "If I don't have three or four hours clear, there's no point in starting."
3. Don't binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life -- these habits lead to burn-out.
4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought -- even mid-sentence -- so it's easy to dive back in later.
5. Don't get distracted by how much you are or aren't getting done. I put myself in jail.
6. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you're writing regularly and frequently, when you're constantly thinking about your project.
7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I've found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.
8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don't have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.
9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute--if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn't pressed against the top of your mouth, don't sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.
10. Try to eliminate interruptions -- by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet -- but don't tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.
11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: "Wait." My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: "Now." Both pieces of advice are good.
12. If you're stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: "The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw."
13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it's a lot easier to write when you're trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you're having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible -- until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I've ever written.


5 Scene Tips for Screenwriters
Here's today's 5 tips for screenwriters on scene structure. When rewriting your scenes, ask yourself the following questions...
1. What is this scene about?
2. What do the characters want?
3. What is the "turn"?
4. What does this scene contrast?
5. Is it a duplicate?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sony Award winners announced

Big news! The Sony judges agree with me! I insisted Mr Larkin's Awkward Day (Chris Harrald) should win the prize for which I was co-judge and, lo and behold, last night it wins the Gold Drama Award at the Sony's.

The judges said: "Assured direction, excellent performances and concise, skilfully-researched writing all made this deceptively straightforward story a masterpiece. Funny and touching by turns, a single, seemingly insignificant incident in the life of Philip Larkin brought out the humanity and humour of a poet whose personal life is not commonly associated with either."

(Note to self: if that is counted skilful research, I should be a shoo-in every year!)

Silver Award went to a dramatisation, which is absurd though I'm sure it was a decent job (Patricia Cumper's dramatisation of The Colour Purple) and the Bronze Award went to Peter Souter's ambitious Goldfish Girl.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Another historical lesson for our times

From the Times Review, Saturday May 9, p. 4:

"All banking crises back to 1825 have been caused by pretty much the same thing: gross vanity leading to absurd risk-taking, too much lending suddenly turning nasty because of unforeseen circumstances, undermining confidence first in a few institutions, then the system itself. Equally, the 1890 crisis, in particular, was met in the traditional manner by the authorities: complete ignorance that anything was wrong, followed by refusal to get involved, followed by blind panic."

This is Ian Pears writing in connection with his new novel about the Barings Bank crisis of 1890, Stone's Fall. The big difference with the crisis in question, as Pears eloquently points out, is that the directors of the bank met the losses out of their own pockets.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


A welcome re-run for Simon Burke's brilliant series from 2004. I have never understood why C4 always seemed ever-so-slightly furtive about this transatlantic romance. It is clever, witty, well-crafted in all respects and pretty much avoids all obvious cliches ... so why has C4 never shown it again (until now), particularly since it was self-evidently pretty expensive to make? Must've run up against Big Brother, I suppose.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Worldplay 2009

This year's international festival of radio drama (shamefully relegated to the World Service in the UK and then only released in meaningless dribs and drabs over several months) involves productions from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the US and UK. The common theme is science.

The BBC starts the season on May 23 with a dramatisation from Australia of a Peter Goldsworthy novel. The BBC's own contribution will be Tim Crouch's England.

Friday, April 10, 2009

John August on writing scene description

Fantastic example from expert in the field:

John's blog is at and is WHOLEHEARTEDLY RECOMMENDED.

Sony Awards - radio drama

The Sony Awards shortlists were announced this week. The winners will be revealed May 11 2009.

The radio drama shortlist is as follows:

Cavalry (Dan Rebellato) - BBC Radio Drama for Radio 4
Goldfish Girl (Peter Souter) - BBC Radio Drama for Radio 4
Mr Larkin's Awkward Day (Chris Harrald) - BBC Radio Drama for Radio 4
The Color Purple (dramatised by Pat Cumper from Alice Walker's novel) - BBC Radio Drama for Radio 4
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (dramatised by Andrew Lynch from the novel by Robert Tressell) – Above the Title & Woolyback Productions for BBC Radio 4

Note, only one independent production nominated, and the subject matter made that an obvious choice. I'm intrigued by Goldfish Girl, which I had not encountered before. Turns out it's an Afternoon Play from April 2 2008 with the following synopsis:

Joe can remember everything about Ally, the love of his life for ten years. Ally, however, can remember nothing about Joe.

Thus all the original plays nominated originated in the Afternoon Play slot. Good news.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

TV drama is crisis?

This from the Broadcastnow blog:

Jason Thorp, the FX UK managing director who helped bring The Wire and Dexter to British screens, reflects on how TV drama faces a challenging future.

We are busy preparing to launch True Blood this summer on FX, the latest big hitter from premium pay powerhouse HBO. It's somewhat of a departure from our last HBO pick-ups - The Wire and Generation Kill - in that it's pure entertainment, full of vampires, blood, humour and heaps of sex. The level of quality and diversity of content coming from HBO is a reflection of their good health as a business.

It's no secret that HBO, as a premium pay service, are afforded the luxury of indulging the likes of Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) and David Simon (The Wire), allowing them to deliver on their vision relatively unimpeded. The Wire wouldn't have been commissioned, let alone make it to five seasons on a free TV network.

It's almost the perfect model, especially in a market where you have the critical mass in terms of premium pay subscribers required to fully finance high end drama. Something we haven't been able to do in the UK. That said, HBO only deliver one night a week with first run drama, even with its funding model, which I think illustrates just how difficult it is to support first run drama of any quality.

It's clear that the pay model is resistant to the impact of the recession. Even in the basic cable stateside, although the channels are more impacted by the advertising downturn because they take less per sub, the exposure is limited to part of their income. In the UK, Sky enjoyed an improved ARPU and an increased subscriber base proving that people are still willing to pay for their TV when times are hard.

This is all in stark contrast to the free TV sector around the world, which is fully exposed to the huge downturns in advertising sales. And what will go first? Naturally, the biggest per hour expenditure – drama.

Amongst the big networks of CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, I have no doubt there will be huge changes afoot. The current system, whereby pilots produced to potentially fill a single slot number in the double figures, simply isn't sustainable. That's just one side of it. Once you get to schedule, more often than not a show will be dropped after a handful of episodes if the numbers aren't hitting target.

Ad revenues across the networks, like pretty much everywhere else are in real trouble. If you add to that the disastrous state of the syndication market (where local US stations have been hammered by the demise of the motor industry), you have to wonder where US free TV drama will be in five years.

Unfortunately, digital media doesn't seem to be the knight in shining armour with monetization per set of eyeballs not close to that of the traditional models, and the likes of PVR viewing making it more difficult to make a free model work as ads are simply skipped.

Gap and deficit financing, pre sales and co-productions are one way to ease the pain. We've recently taken that path with 'The Listener', with FIC getting into bed with NBC, Shine Reveille and a Canadian broadcaster. But there is still resistance from many to give up full editorial control – too many cooks do often spoil the broth.

Already stateside there are moves in the schedules to reduce reliance on first run drama – for example the move of The Tonight Show. We're also seeing in the UK, with ITV looking to deliver a more cost efficient schedule with changes to the format of The Bill.

One thing that is for sure, it's going to get a lot more difficult for free TV to sustain high-end drama production, especially in a way that allows the creative freedom and expression that the pay sector affords.

FX still has the luxury to showcase edgy, clever and engrossing shows like The Wire, Generation Kill, Dexter and True Blood and not become figures obsessed. If we had not been there to fight for The Wire there is a chance that it would never have made it onto British screens.

Jason Thorp is managing director of FX UK and helped bring The Wire, Generation Kill, Dexter and now True Blood to British screens.

TV drama wishlist

BBC drama commissioner interviewed in Broadcast:

The BBC's top drama commissioner is happy to engage with his critics but won't be deflected from offering shows that appeal to all audiences.

Ben Stephenson's commissioning priorities

BBC1"For 9pm we're looking for 'ordinary lives' drama, pieces that will reflect people's real lives. We'll also be focusing on how we can reinvent genre drama like crime and to a lesser extent sci-fi."

7pm on Saturdays are full for the time being "but we are looking for colourful crime series for 8pm on Sundays."

BBC2 "We are going to evolve what we do on BBC2 a little bit [with dramas that are] author-led, ideas-driven and entertaining. What am I looking for? I like the word saga - something that takes a number of characters and follows them over a number of years."

BBC3 "BBC3 is one of the most important channels we've got and we're keen on bespoke drama [for it]. My number one ambition is to have three series a year at 9pm."

BBC4 "The key on BBC4 is that we give audiences something they can latch on to, but that we don't just tell a story because it's famous."

Period drama "We will always look to do something with an angle or that is surprising somehow. It's got to feel 'oh my God, I haven't seen that for ages' - not 'here we go again'."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Saturday night viewing figures

Both Primeval and Robin Hood failed to attract quite as many viewers as usual when their third series launched on Saturday night.

Robin Hood has missed a year and its new writing team for season 4 has long been trailed, however I thought David Harewood's new Tuck added a welcome dose of acting gravitas and Richard Armitage's Gisbourne character has developed new and intriguing levels of psychosis - certainly since the last time I looked. The plots remain derivative and the fight scenes were amateurish but I will watch again next week.

Primeval, which I normally adore, was a big disappointment. Why-oh-why-oh-why are we still sticking with one of TV's less charismatic actresses (Juliet Aubrey) as one of its least engrossing characters (Cutter's ex-wife, now inexplicably evil nemeis)? The new member of the team, the wholly unconvincing archeologist, is plain silly (even foolhardy in the wake of Bonekickers) and I swear there were times when the monster was a chap in a skin.

Viewer wise - and nothing else counts with shiny floor shows - The Colour of Money is an unmitigated disaster, drawing only 2.7m in the traditional Millionaire slot. Surely ITV will have to ditch the show (and whoever commissioned it) before it infects Ant and Dec or, come to that, You've Been Framed (repeats).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rich Markey on Amos n Andy

From "The Rise and Fall of the First Sitcom: The Story of Amos 'n' Andy" by Rich Markey in Script

The largest audience ever recorded for any broadcast in history was an Amos ‘n’ Andy episode. It achieved an 80 share—80 percent of all Americans capable of tuning in.

Amos ‘n’ Andy was a national obsession for almost 30 years on the radio, was later turned into a popular movie, and ultimately made a successful transition to TV where it had groundbreaking success before racial controversy brought it a premature death. Yet, a half-century after its last broadcast, it is still a matter of contentious controversy. One wonders what the hullabaloo was all about. How important could a comedy be?

Amos ‘n’ Andy was very important. Its massive popularity changed the very fabric of American culture. It was not only the first situation comedy, it was also the first soap opera. More importantly, it changed the way that society perceived African-Americans.

To understand the phenomenon that was Amos ‘n’ Andy and absorb its lessons, one needs to understand the importance of that new entertainment medium—the radio, as well as the state of popular culture in the late 1920s.
Before radio, one had sought out entertainment or information at one’s discretion. Radio, however, delivered its content directly to the audience in a deeply intimate way, and did so on its own schedule. Furthermore, it did it anew, every day of every week.

Perhaps most importantly, for the first time, a mass audience, almost the whole of American society, became focused on the same thing at the same time. The changes manifested by this new technology of radio was revolutionary. It unified the nation to an unprecedented degree via popular culture and this, in turn, elevated popular culture’s influence to rival the cultural power of even America’s most traditional institutions.

An example of radio's influence was when Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. The nation followed the historic drama moment by moment. It was radio technology that enabled the story to be burned into the national memory. Marshall McCluhan was right: The medium was the message. Lindbergh was the hero, but radio was really the central player in that drama. America had always been a union of different peoples with differing social customs, and different cultural tastes and appetites, but with radio, the audience shared the same experiences, felt the same emotions, and became absorbed in the same stories and characters. With the advent of radio, Bangor, Chicago, New Orleans, Seattle and the Ozarks all shared one popular culture. The first beneficiary of this phenomenon was Amos ‘n’ Andy.

Amos: We is supposed to call dis man at nine o'clock tonight. His wife say dat he wouldn't be home till 9 o'clock.
Andy: Well, yesterday when it was nine o'clock, my watch was eight o'clock an' I didn’t change de time on it. Now today dey stahted dis daylight savin' bizness so dat make my watch two hours off.
Amos: Well, den, it's ten o'clock den, aint it?
Andy: We was supposed to call de man at nine o'clock.
Amos: Den we is a hour late, aint we?Andy: Not if de man's watch is wrong, we aint.
Amos: Dis heah's de biggest mess I done ever got in.

The creators of Amos ‘n’ Andy were Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden. Each had roots in the deep South and grew up immersed in a culture that marginalized blacks and generally held them in low regard.

Both Gosden and Correll found employment in Chicago in the 1920s, which had a vibrant and diversified culture. Since World War I, Chicago's black population had swelled as blacks moved North lured by the opportunities for a better life. To Gosden and Correll this “great migration” offered a perfect dramatic opportunity to write and perform a continuing comedy series about two African-American characters, Sam and Dave, that they had been portraying in vaudeville sketches and on radio. When they got an offer to do a six-nights-a-week series on the NBC network, they invented new characters and a new format—the evolving storyline.

Elizabeth McCleod, a recognized authority on the history of Amos ‘n’ Andy and the golden era of old-time radio, points out that “Correll and Gosden, through their success, turned dramatized radio from a stage-influenced, stage-actor-dominated medium into an entirely new art form. They were the first radio performers to fully understand that radio's lack of a visual element was an advantage rather than a liability, and they were the first radio performers to build the entire structure of their program around that advantage." She has also stated that “I think it's to their credit that when fate put them in a position to do so, Gosden and Correll tried to create black characters that were really people—and not just clowns and caricatures.”

Most of the stories dealt with basic themes, such as Amos' pursuit of Ruby Taylor, Andy's romantic problems or schemes to make money. Amos believed in hard work to earn money, while the Kingfish continually engaged in duplicity and transparent hustles. And Andy was the evergreen sucker who’s pride and greed overrode his common sense. Like an Aesop’s Fable, Andy inevitably got his just desserts.

Amos: Dat man cert'ny do look fast, don't he?
Andy: Dere's a bizness man.
Amos: He is a BIG bizness man. I ain't never heerd nobody rattle it off like HE do.

Not everyone thought the situation was humorous. To some, the characters in Amos 'n' Andy were offensive. They spoke poorly, were easily confused and duped, and often behaved like children. The NAACP officially protested the program objecting that, "Every character is either a clown or a crook," "Negro doctors are shown as quacks," and "Negro lawyers are shown as crooks." The NAACP appeared in federal court hoping to legally block the broadcast of the series. To many in America, both black and white, who loved the characters, this was lunacy. After all, they asked, how was Amos ‘n’ Andy different from other ethnic shows then popular, which were based upon Italian, Jewish or Irish families.

Amos: Whut is de difference between a democrat and a republican?
Andy: Well, one of 'em is a mule and de other one is a elephant. Dat'sde way I get it.

What the critics missed, in my opinion, was that these characters weren’t funny because they were being mocked, they were funny because we saw in them people just like us. When Andy gets conned by Kingfish, he isn’t a character of derision, he is a character of sympathy. Correll and Gosden were interviewed in 1942 and stated, “Radio and the world may have undergone some changes—but people and human values haven't.”

The controversy about the program, however, was just as dramatic as the show itself. While the NAACP hated it, Gosden and Correll were celebrated at the Chicago Urban League and the DuSable Club, Chicago’s leading organizations of black business and professional men. They were strongly supported in the Chicago Defender, an important black newspaper. One great issue of controversy was over the “Mystic Knights of the Sea.” This was a fraternal organization that Amos and Andy joined when they arrived from the South. It was where they made friends and contacts that were to populate the show. To critics, the lodge was an object of ridicule.

The lodge was governed by officers with fish titles. The Kingfish, who was to become the series' central character, was the headman, and other officers included the Whale, the Mackerel and the Catfish. In addition to the high officers, there were also lesser functionaries. The Shad was treasurer, the Swordfish guarded the door and the Jellyfish was in charge of charity. The new members were known as Sardines. There was also an Auxiliary for the wives of members.

There was a secret password (“Ship Ahoy”) and a secret handshake. To many this childish behavior was derogatory. But Correll and Gosden were both Masons and the Mystic Knights of the Sea were inspired by their membership in the Masons. The aquatic theme of the lodge was taken by Correll and Gosden’s experience in "The Dolphins," a swimming club in which all the members has fish titles. Once again, the show’s critics and detractors misinterpreted the true nature of the Amos ‘n’ Andy humor, possibly deliberately.

Most certainly the show’s critics were fighting a legitimate cultural war for African-American civil rights, but I think they underestimated the great help. Amos ‘n’ Andy was to that cause, ignoring how much this mere sitcom had altered the American social fabric in changing the cultural perception of the Black-American. One wonders if there would have been a Porgy and Bess, a Duke Ellington or a Jackie Robinson had not Amos ‘n’ Andy captured the American imagination and made people laugh, and maybe think a little, too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The problem with Brigstocke

For want of anything else to do, I caught up with I've Never Seen Stars Wars on BBC4 last night. Unashamedly a clone of Room 101, including a set of extraordinary similarity, an infallible premise with a clever, catchy title. It was never going to scale the heights but equally it was never going to fail. And yet it fails to engage. Why? The Brigstocke problem.

Marcus Brigstocke is ubiquitous on the Beeb. He is, as Patrick Keilty was in days gone by, the coming thing - the banker - insofar as the current crop of commissioners at the Beeb would recognise any such thing. Keilty failed to shine for the simple reason he is not likeable. The Brigstocke problem is more subtle. He is certainly clever, witty and on paper more than capable of hosting the standard Hat Trick fare. But we cannot love him because his background is so stunningly privileged. He recognises this and works it into his stand-up routines. But in this sort of one-on-one format he cannot avoid the whiff of condecension. He is absolutely not condescending (although last night's guest, John Humphreys, is so full of himself on the back of a career largely spent reading out loud whilst moving his lips, that anyone would be tempted) - but the suspicion remains. Room 101 worked because both Hancock and Merton are unashamedly proletarian and therefore below or at most equal to their guests. The viewer therefore sides with the interviewer as they make gentle, non-confrontational fun of the celeb.

One can, of course, point to Stephen Fry, who is plainly even posher than the Brigstocke, with plummy accent to boot, and yet a national treasure. There are two reasons for this. First, his openness about his manic depression. And secondly Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth, perhaps the greatest performance in a comedic supporting role ever.

Until Brigstocke can endear himself in some way I fear his prospects remain limited. And for pity's sake, BBC, give the poor devil a week off. After all, it's not like he needs the money.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Henrik Holmberg on writing horror

Found this on Robin Kelly's indispensible writing blog []. He found it elsewhere.

A horror movie has certain rules. If you break too many the audience will be disappointed.

This is a very short, no fluff, blueprint of how to write a horror script.

1. The Hook. Start with a bang. Step right into a suspense scene. (”Scream” opens with a terrifying sequence with Drew Barrymore on the phone with a killer)

2. The Flaw. Introduce your hero. Give him a flaw. Before you can put your hero in jeopardy we must care for him. We must want our hero to succeed. So make him human. (In “Signs” Mel Gibson plays a priest who has lost his faith after his wife died)

3. The Fear. A variant of The Flaw. The hero has a fear. Maybe a fear of heights, or claustrophobia. (In “Jaws” Roy Scheider has a fear of water. At the end he has to conquer his fear by going out onto the ocean to kill the shark)

4. No Escape. Have your hero at an isolated location where he can’t escape the horror. (Like the hotel in “The Shining”)

5. Foreplay. Tease the audience. Make them jump at scenes that appear scary — but turn out to be completely normal. (Like the cat jumping out of the closet) Give them some more foreplay before bringing in the real monster.

6. Evil Attacks. A couple of times during the middle of the script show how evil the monster can be — as it attacks its victims.

7. Investigation. The hero investigates, and finds out the truth behind the horror.

8. Showdown. The final confrontation. The hero has to face both his fear and the monster. The hero uses his brain, rather than muscles, to outsmart the monster. (At the end of “The Village” the blind girl tricks the monster to fall into the hole in the ground)

9. Aftermath. Everything’s back to the way it was from the beginning — but the hero has changed for the better or for the worse. (At the end of “Signs” Mel Gibson puts on his clerical collar again — he got his faith back)

10. Evil Lurks. We see evidence that the monster may return the future..(Almost all “Friday The 13′th”-movies end with Jason showing signs of returning for another sequel)

Now you can start writing your horror screenplay. Good luck!

Henrik Holmberg writes horror scripts for indie filmmakers.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The novelistic process

The opening of Natalie Sandison's review of Aravind Adiga's White Tiger for Times Review, Saturday March 21 2009:

"Subtlety in fiction does not guarantee success, but a novel should work in a process of step-by-step revelation that leads to illumination of human character. Usually the more subtle the lighting the better we are able to see. As readers we generally object to being dazzled or cajoled. The slower the build-up, the greater the impact of the moment of denouement, when it seems that all human nature is lit up for a brief moment."

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I'm currently reading Don DeLillo's remarkably prescient 2003 fictional consideration of the fatal flaw then lying in wait for the movers and shakers of international finance.

DeLillo's master of the universe is monitoring the markets from his armoured stretch limo as he slowly tours a Manhattan where the bubble of total anarchy is about to pop. Parker has taken on board his enigmatic chief of theory, Vija Kinski, who tells him [p.85, Picador paperback]:

"To pull back now [from his reckless plunge into the yen] would not be authentic. It would be a quotation from other people's lives. A paraphrase of a sensible text that wants you to believe there are plausible realities, okay, that can be traced and analyzed."

"When in fact what."

"That wants you to believe there are foreseeable trends and forces. When in fact it's all random phenomena. You apply mathematics and other disciplines, yes. But in the end you're dealing with a system that's out of control. Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don't have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It's simply how we live."

She finished with a laugh.

I love this book. I love DeLillo's writing. His scrupulous eradication of cliche, which means the reader has to give each word due weight. His clever use - or avoidance - of the question mark in dialogue, except to reinforce an actual, meaningful question.

Comedy tips from D B Gilles

Found a great article by the scriptwriting theorist D B Gilles at

He structures the article around four "rules":

1. Just because you can say funny things doesn't mean you can write funny things
2. A strong story without a lot of laughs is preferable to a weak story with three jokes per page
3. Two heads can be better than one
4. Find your genre

Under rule 4 I found this gem which throws light on where I'm at in my comedy thinking process:

"Sitcom writers have an expression for the parts of a script where there are intentionally no laugh lines: laying pipe. Information crucial to the plot is given. Comedy screenplays are allowed to have some laying pipe sections, but not many. And there shouldn’t be one in the first 15 pages. You have to keep the laughs coming."

Thanks for the help DB! Your article is RECOMMENDED.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Advice from James Moran on getting an agent

Great advice from the fabulous writing blog of James Moran (Torchwood, Primeval, Doctor Who, Spooks etc):

"Write something really good. Send a short, polite query letter to an agent, asking if they'd like to read it. If they say yes, then send it to that agent. If they reject it, send it to the next agent. Repeat until someone takes you on. If the script is really good, then you will get taken on. That's what I did. I sent a film script and episode 1 of a TV script, an agent liked them, and took me on. Actually, he only liked the TV script, he thought the film script was shit. So that 30 page episode script was enough, because he liked it. I liked it. It got me in.It will probably take you a while to do this. While you're doing that, send scripts to production companies - again, you can find places online that accept submissions. Look at the credits of shows you like, and the name of the company will be there. Enter script competitions, put scripts on Peerage or Triggerstreet for feedback, go to to see if anyone is looking for short film scripts (they always are), see if you can get a short made or hook up with other aspiring writers or tv/film makers. Try and get a temp job or free work experience at any media company - the pay's shit, but it's good experience. Keep pushing yourself, keep writing, keep rewriting, keep sending stuff out. You can't just write one thing and hope that everything will magically fall into place."

Friday, March 13, 2009

TV drama "wishlists" revealed

According to Broadcastnow, the main channels want:
BBC1 (commissioninjg controller Ben Stephenson): for 9pm weekdays, Big pieces of "muscular storytelling" over several weeks in the mould of Life on Mars, Criminal Justice and the forthcoming Iraq drama Occupation.
With second series of Five Days and Criminal Justice in the works, no more stripped dramas are wanted.
Also looking for pieces about ordinary lives – whether in the mould of The Street or Cutting It.
7pm Saturdays: With Doctor Who, Merlin and Robin Hood, this slot is now full and Stephenson is not looking for any more - although he is still interested in "swashbuckling" boys-own style show
Single dramas: Stephenson said it was "quite rare" to read a single that feels big enough for BBC1, but he is keen for singles with "scale and talkability"
ITV1 (drama controller Laura Mackie): Successors to earlier character-driven pieces such as Fat Friends and At Home with the Braithwaites. These have to have "a real narrative pulse" and show signs of being strong returning hits.
She doesn't want "niche" or "cool" dramas, and costume drama is out as it's "too expensive".
Singles: ITV1 will show fewer than in recent years, but there are still slots, with a particular emphasis on family dramas for bank holidays.
C4 (head or drama Lisa Marshall): Purely 'grim' drama is out. "Don't bring me people addicted to heroin in council flats – it's too bleak," she said.
C4's 2009 drama slat is filled, but 2010 is up for grabs and the budget is looking "relatively healthy" for strong, author-led pieces. The key is that they can really cut through and get noticed.
In the case of BBC1 and ITV1 this really describes what they have already bought, which they pray won't blow up in their faces. Robin Hood, of course, has suffered and a new writer has been brought in to try and salvage what is always a premise full of potential. We await developments with keen interest and general best wishes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

P J O'Connor winners 2008

I should have noted this at the time but, for the record, here they are:

1. 10! 9! 8! 7! 8! 9! 10! by Kevin Gildea, a black comedy in which the caller at the door could be a visitor or a visitant. Gildea came second in the 2007 awards.

2. The Lottery by Shay Linehan. An Alzheimer sufferer scoops the jackpot.

3. Thinking Ahead by Jack Olohan. A comedy in which a hypochondriac ruminates on all his possible ills.

The O'Connor awards commemorate RTE's long-serving head of drama who died in 1981.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

New US radio audience technology

From Broadcastnow Blog: Seeing audiences in US radio
Published: 03 March 2009 12:39

Exciting new technology is allowing US radio programmers to study the behaviour of their audience minute-by-minute. And it will make them the envy of their UK colleagues, says Paul Chantler.

The task of analysing audience figures has become a quarterly ritual for UK radio programmers. Many a late night is spent pouring over spreadsheets and computer screens trying to work out what's gone right and wrong.

Part of the difficulty is that the figures relate to content aired several weeks previously. It's also tricky to determine what precisely is to blame if figures go down (or up) – is it the presenter, the music, the imaging or the marketing?

This is because UK audience figures are compiled using a traditional pen-and-paper diary method based on recall. In essence, the figures don't actually measure listening, they simply measure what people remember they heard.

However US programmers are starting to reap the benefits of electronic audience measurement – and amazing new tools are being unveiled allowing programmers extraordinary abilities to see precisely what turns listeners on and off.

The US system, introduced a few years ago and now in the top dozen or so American radio markets including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, is based on Portable People Meters – PPMs – which 'hear' what listeners are tuned to and record the results later to be matched accurately with the output of different stations.

At the recent Programme Director's Grad School convention in Los Angeles, hosted by veteran radio consultant Dan O'Day, attendees saw a jaw-dropping demonstration of just what's becoming possible.

The demo came from RCS – the company making the popular Selector music software. They've teamed with the inventors of the PPM, Arbitron, to produce software allowing programmers not only to see what listeners are doing at any given moment but also match those actions with audio of what was happening on the air at the same time. Did an unusually large number of people tune out at 8.21am on Thursday? With a mouse click, programmers can hear what was actually being broadcast then to cause that.

It also allows programmers to see where the audience is coming from and, if they tune out, which other station they tune into.

Of course it's costly. According to Gary Marince of Arbitron, it's about 60% more expensive than the diary system. Sadly RAJAR abandoned trials of the system in the UK a year ago after spending more than £3m.

One big concern they had was ensuring respondents carry the meter with them. This problem has now been overcome in the States by use of a motion sensor within the meter. When it remains still for too long, the respondent gets a phone call checking they are carrying it. However, for the first time in radio's history US programmers have direct access to timely information about listeners' habits.

There's still a timelag between the data being gathered and its delivery to the station but it's usually a matter of days rather than the months under the diary system.

Can the experts ever foresee real-time audience data being streamed into a studio so that presenters can see exactly how many people are tuning in at the time they're actually broadcasting and, more importantly, change what they do to keep more people listening longer?

Philippe Generali, President of RCS, who proudly showed off the new tools at the convention says it's a strong possibility but he doesn't think real-time information is necessarily a good idea: "It would be a very bad way to do your show by looking at the results of the meters." Philippe draws on his experience as a private pilot to explain why: "In a plane, you're told not just to fly by watching your instruments. You have to fly using your nose and your senses."

Being able to 'see' the behaviour of your audience is giddy stuff - and the reason why UK programme directors will look across the Atlantic jealously - but Philippe's comments are one reason perhaps why, despite all the new tools and technology, radio programming will remain an art rather than become a science.

Paul Chantler is senior partner for international consultants United Radio

All credit to

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Colour of Money (continued)

Caitlin Moran on TV, The Times Review p. 14:

"If the genius of a classic game show is in its very simplicity (find the box with the most money in/guess the price of the fridge/answer pub-triv questions for £1 million), then The Colour of Money is as dumb as a mug of mud. If I were to put it in a nutshell, I would have to use a coconut, at the very least.

"... The Colour of Money is basically Michael Barrymore's Strike it Lucky. It's just tellies in a line, with prizes in. Classic Barrymore. You can't fool me. Quite how it's taken the six people listed in the credits to come up with the format is a mystery. It takes only two people to make a baby, for God's sake."

And Tim Teeman devotes the whole of his "Trash Can" column in the Playlist supplement to this entertainment triumph:

"It's rare for a quiz show to be quite as bad as The Colour of Money. At least Hole in the Wall has ridiculous suits and the perils of an advancing wall and water. At least Countdown has the naughty insurrectionies of Dictionary Corner. But there is no tension, depite the contestant and the audience's hysteria, in The Colour of Money.

"In case you missed last week's first episode, the contestant stands with Chris Tarrant who asks them to choose a colour. Once past this decoy of possible interest, a clock begins to tick. The sums of money go up by a thousand pounds. The contestant must shout "stop" when he or she thinks this process is going to screech to a halt. If the clock stops and the contestant hasn't shouted "stop", they lose the money. And so it goes on, meaningless colour categories and all.

"Tarrant, the poor man, must say absurd things like "Why did you choose lime?" to another grown adult. That adult must reply to this in all seriousness. As on Deal or No Deal, another game show with no real skill or knowledge on display, the contestant imposes their own logic on this ridiculous process, or sometimes gives up entirely ("I just really like lime!"). The sums of money to win are very "recession": respectable but not edge-of-sofa, will-they-won't they? woo-hoo. Milly Clode, the busty co-presenter, aims to sound wise, as if her own steely, firm reassurances ("You could still win") are pivotal to the contestant's "method".

"Maybe I'm missing something. Maybe Gail Trimble, the University Challenge brainbox, can deconstruct The Colour of Money's thudding intellectual heart. But really, it makes The Price is Right look like QI."

Friday, February 27, 2009

E-commissioning at the BBC

From the Writers' Guild of Great Britain blog 9posted by Naomi MacDonald, the Guild's Assistant General Secretary):

The BBC has updated its commissioning process by introducing an online system for submitting proposals. The BBC says that e-Commissioning enables them to handle the 10,000 proposals they receive per year faster and more efficiently. They also say that the e-Commissioning system will not replace creative conversations with producers and that it is designed "simply to make the process of filtering and comparing ideas much easier".


One member told us " It's the very nature of the system that is the problem, dreamt up by people who seem to have no understanding of writers at all. It just seems to put paid to the possibility of developing any sort of creative relationship."

Another told us that she managed to register for the system quite easily but got in a pickle trying to submit her pitch. On the other hand, we've heard from writers who found the process complicated the first time but found it easier once they'd got the hang of it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Whitechapel, Moses Jones and The Colour of Money

ITV's three-parter Whitechapel and BBC2's Moses Jones both concluded last Monday.

Whitechapel was a clever but obvious concept that fully embraced its subject matter - including the various Ripperologist hobbyhorses, throwing in a candidate for the 1888 Ripper I had never considered (the Kelly witness, George Hutchinson, who has previously been regarded as the man most likely to have seen rather than been Jack) - and ended up with a genuine sense of excitement. The characters were stereotypical but the clash of old school v new was made central to the drama and in any case this is a genre in which character should always be subordinate to plot.

Joe Penthall's Moses Jones, on the other hand, valued layered characterisation and smart writing above plot and lost out badly. Protagonist and antagonist eventually sacrificed all the careful characterisation to end up as Valiant Knight and Pantomime Villain simply to facilitate a conclusion. Even then we had to endure five minutes of straight voice-over exposition to wind up the loose ends. All bar one, that is - motivation. In a programme that set out to showcase Afro-Caribbean acting talent, Denis Waterman turned out to be the best thing in it.

Typically, neither show really understood the central premise of thrillers - that the protagonist must always be in the most jeopardy from the antagonist. But at least Whitechapel had a perfunctory go at it - our hero was assaulted twice by the Ripper, albeit incidentally rather than malevolently, and his crusty oppo stabbed.

The two channels went head to head. And ITV won. Again.

ITV did not do so well with its more usual fare, Saturday night's new curtain raiser for Harry Hill and Ant and Dec. What follows are extracts from Andrew Billen's review for The Times:

The Colour of Money is a Saturday night shiny floor show that aims to be the next Who Wants to be a Millionaire? This may be why its host, Chris Tarrant, was wearing a three-button black suit from Millionaire's heyday. It would be tedious to explain the rules - it was tedious - but they involve contestants picking from different coloured ATMs, each of which contain between £1,000 and £20,000. They have to amass a predetermined sum or go home with nothing.

[...] Tarrant failed to dominate. Not that there was much to dominate, the game requiring no general knowledge or tactical skill.

[...] The Colour of Money is advertised as the "most stressful game on television". It's as stressful as bingo night at the village hall. And the shiny floor didn't even look very shiny. We know ITV is hard up, but has it replaced its spotlights with eco-bulbs?

One of the reasons it lacked tension was that it was overproduced, with extracts from what was about to come topping and tailing each section. This practice confirms to the viewer only one thing: the programme is not live.

["Shiny bore show", Times 2, Monday February 23, p. 18]

Disastrous, one might assume. But no - its primetime competition across on BBC1 was Total Wipeout, which has simply gone on too long, and the unbelievably awful Let's Dance for Comic Relief. Note to Beeb: Claudia Winkleman's talent is for spontaneous, unscripted, ironic wit. Her stooge here, Steve Jones, has no talent whatsoever and should be slapped on sight. Claudia's jokes were as well flagged as Nelson's fleet at Trafalgar, but the idiot boy still walked all over them. Unmitigated kack.