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