Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Bill gets axe

ITV's The Bill is for the chop, I'm sorry to say.

I've never watched it, but that doesn't mean I cannot appreciate its existence just like Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat, both of which are going or gone. The fact that such dramas as The Bill are being made adds a certain security in these times of troubled financial instabilities and means that, somewhere, all's well with the world and turning back the clock to happier times needn't rely on science fiction.

But now the reliable world just got a bit smaller.

ITV says the programme has been axed due to low viewer figures, even after a recent re-hash of the viewing time and format. The BBC has recently said that viewer figures aren't important to them but, to be fair, they need to be important to commercial channels that rely on such figures to determine advertising fees for the programmes they interrupt.

What the loss of a weekly drama series such as The Bill means is that there are 50 less opportunities for writers to earn a living. Some of the other blogs and forums are rather scathing of ITV's desire to replace drama with reality TV, but in this case I'll give ITV the chance to do what it says – and that is to create more shorter-run dramas.

Let's hope it follows through.

Guardian article.

Monday, 29 March 2010


Finally it has happened: the very condition I never thought would afflict me has landed itself plop! right there on the mat – not literally, of course, so there's no actual mess to clear up; just a virtual expanse of nothingness that is even more frightening.

This concerns the 60-minute screenplay that I'm re-hashing into its Second Draft. The First Draft did work as a story (and I've seen much worse on TV) but, on reflection, it might have appeared too lightweight. My problem is how to convincingly get the protagonist to relent without making it seem too convenient when the story is about to end.

Since allowing myself to get bogged down with this, surprisingly I've been sleeping rather soundly, but waking up feeling like I've been doing The Times crossword all night. But if the solution has occurred to me during my period of somnolence, then why the hell can't I remember what it was?

I find myself speaking lines of dialogue in inappropriate places. I get strange looks. I'm only trying them out, but the more experimentally-bizarre the plot gets, the more space I am allowed by members of the public. My current wife says she's had enough – oh, not of me, well, sort of, I suppose, but of the characters encroaching on our lives.

"They're only pretend people," she snipes. Little does she realise that they are so real they're taking over, creeping up on me and whispering obtuse lines of dialogue for me to try out – until the day I can type "FADE OUT" and put them to rest.

Until the Third Draft, that is.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Short Seasons

I remember years ago being a fan of the BBC sitcom, ’Allo ’Allo. It was so popular, the Americans wanted it but, and this is the point, they didn't want TV series in anything less than 26 episodes.

So the BBC flogged the US all 4 series of ’Allo ’Allo bundled together as one US-sized "season" and then pulled out all the stops by going in for a mammoth 26-episode fifth series.

But, 20 years on, the norm is still 4, 6, 8, sometimes 10 episodes for a UK television series.

Is this a case of inadequate funding or simply not allowing the viewers to overindulge?

What has brought this to mind is a comment I read on Imdb written by a US fan of Kingdom. This person said that it was "a nice alternative to most American network television". After tasting the likes of... no, I'd better not fall into the trap of slaughtering the staple US TV diet; that would not be professional. Slap wrist and all that. I do, however, sympathise with this person.

But a viewer from Canada said: "What I can't understand is every television show that is shown in the UK only has about 6 episodes to them and it takes such a long time to produce them. My only guess to such little production rate is they're too busy with tea time than work time."

What a cheek! No, kind Canadian person, we make "shows" in such small numbers because we put so much care into them and, as my current wife says, "You can't have too many sweets at once; they make you sick."

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Can writing be taught?

I have a friend who says no, and a wife who says no. But I disagree.

It should go without saying that no one person and no university course can teach you (or me) how to get ideas. But they can suggest places to look. It might be just a case of pointing across the street and asking the student to imagine what that person in the smart business suit is doing with that old lady who is hitting him with her walking stick – and then to think beyond the obvious. Just teaching a concept of thought as simple as that one may be all that's required to get someone writing – that can be taught.

All stories, in whatever format (verbal, novel, script, etc.) follow the pattern of having a beginning. middle and end. There's a bit more to it than that, of course, and there are cases where the temptation to mix these up has been too great for some writers and directors, but I shan't confuse the issue by mentioning them. Let's accept that structure is important and many would-be writers start off without any planning or, indeed, having any knowledge of the form required to lay out a story – but that can be taught.

A little knowledge of the history of the English language (much of it lifted from other languages) can help in carefully choosing words to provide emphasis. You can learn that.

We were taught punctuation at junior school, yet now many 16-year-olds leave school without a clue about correct use of apostrophes and even simple commas – that can be taught.

These are just a few instances of teachable aspects used in writing.

"Ah but," you may say, "this is not teaching writing per se, is it?"

I agree that writers need to feel almost a primal urge to write – rather instinctively like breathing, eating, procreating... and not just so they can see their name in print or on the rolling credits (which, on TV, are getting faster, have you noticed?) I believe that wanting to write should not be to satisfy vanity. Quite simply, writers must want to tell stories.

And that cannot be taught.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Recommended: Up

Last night we watched Up.

I first came across the trailer for this when we went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 3D (make that the first 20-minutes in 3D, which they don't tell you about beforehand). I wasn't swept away, although the 3D trailer was entertaining enough. But that was just me being stubborn: I'd gone to see Radcliffe & and Co. battling with the forces of evil and had no time for mere animations.

But you see, once again I have been forced to change my mind, reconsider my opinion in the light of new evidence and admit, begrudgingly, not so much that I was wrong but that I'm not in a position to comment on a film until I have actually seen it.

Up is a scriptwriter's delight; the story is marvellous and "beats out" perfectly in the way taught in scriptwriting classes at many United States universities. After all, it is an American film, so why not? Unfortunately, this method of "beating out" a film is not so prevalent in UK institutions of advanced learning, I'm sorry to say.

Furthermore, it appeals to the audience quadrants as defined in Hollywood, and the story resonates. Scriptwriters, old and new, could learn a lot by studying the structure of this film – yes, I keep saying that.

We'll be buying this one on BluRay. This is one film I recommend, so remember: "Adventure is out there!"

Monday, 8 March 2010

A cavity to fill

There was some memorable children's drama when I was a kid:

  • The Battle of St. George Without (1969/70, BBC, black & white. Kids got together to save a disused church.)

  • Timeslip (1970, ABC) – brilliant adventure series.

  • Follyfoot (1970, Yorkshire Television) – okay, I realise this one was probably aimed more at the girls, but I fancied the heroine, Dora, so there. The producer sent me one of the scripts when, as a child, I asked if they were looking for new writers. He advised me to go out into the world, find new experiences and find out "what makes people tick". I think that, almost 40 years later, I might have done just that.

  • The Queen Street Gang (1968). This came with the brand new Thames Television and I have the theme music going through my head at this very moment.

  • Tom Grattan's War (1968). This was Yorkshire Television's adventure series, set on the farmlands of Yorkshire during the First World War. Amazing, and it could easily put to shame many recent offerings to children's entertainment.

Nowadays, the BBC seems to be producing the bulk of output for children, whilst ITV seems to have drastically reduced its content for the junior market. Why is this? Might it have something to do with restrictions on advertising crappy high-sugar food during the breaks of TV programmes aimed at kids?

So let me get this straight: ITV doesn't make many children's programmes, now, because advertisers aren't interested in the slots watched by children...

Perhaps, in a perfect world, ITV should see the production of quality drama for children as a moral obligation. And talking of which, the manufacturers of junk food aimed at kids should also consider their responsibilities.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A world without fiction

"Stories are an essential part of everyone's being," as one character said in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Made in 1995, this story from the show's first season describes an alien world where there is a shortage of fiction and literature, and yet some of the planet's inhabitants – a race that is obsessed with the pursuit of pleasure (– not necessarily that kind!) – are willing to risk the wrath of the elders by breaking a prime canon to satisfy their insatiable lust for stories. They will allow our heroes the technology they need to return home in exchange for... Voyager's immense catalogue of literature. And that will include Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Blyton and even Rowling.

Of course it sounds a bit on the extreme side – or at least it sounds about as far-fetched an idea as Borg drones assimilating humankind. But now that the supermarkets have been allowed to heavily discount books (which is good if you're a buyer; not so cracky if you're an author or an independent bookseller), publishers have been forced to consolidate their finances and repel as many brilliant debut authors as possible, and both BBC and ITV have decided to drastically (make that critically) reduce drama output... well, the days when the fiction-demanding public are literally crying out for further infusions of new stories may not be so far in the future.