Monthly Archives: November 2013

My travels with the Doctor

Doctor-Who-50Doctor Who is 50 years old today and I feel like celebrating. This post is going to be long, rambling and very self-indulgent. These are my memories of Doctor Who, my relationship to the show and the parts of my life he was there for.

If you don’t like Doctor Who, rambling or self-indulgence … probably best to skip this. To be honest, I’m not even sure I’ll bother to read it.

For me, Doctor Who began in January 1977 with the first episode of The Robots of Death. I’d only recently turned four years old and I was completely hooked.

Come on, what chance did I have? Robert Holmes? Tom Baker? Philip Hinchcliffe? Leela’s costume (not sure this was a consideration at four or not)? Great story, great costumes, great make up and wonderfully designed murderous robots. That story is so vividly burnt into my memory that it still felt familiar when I finally saw it again on VHS ten years later.

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Apart from vague snippets of home, parents and the birth of my baby brother it’s my first proper memory.

Or rather, that’s how I remember it. Maybe it’s not? Memory’s a funny thing, primarily because it doesn’t really exist. Or at least, not in the way we think it does. You remember that thing you were looking at five minutes ago?

No, you don’t.

You remember the story you told yourself about the thing you were looking at five minutes ago. And already you’ve embellished the story to make yourself cooler/stupider/sexier/wiser or whatever else your brain thinks your personality lacks.

I think The Robots of Death is my first exposure to Doctor Who, but maybe it wasn’t? Maybe I saw bits and bobs beforehand? Maybe it was just the first complete story I saw? Or just the first one I was old enough to remember?

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I don’t recall any kind of electric eureka moment – it’s not like I remember thinking “This is it! This is the thing I’ve been waiting for, the beginning of a life-long obsession!”

To be honest, I don’t even remember watching it. I just know I saw it. When I read the Target novelisation I could vividly remember every scene, I could picture bits and pieces of model work, I could recognise still photos in Doctor Who Weekly in years to come and I still find reflectors vaguely sinister.

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The Face of Evil? None of that’s familiar. Even watching it now, multiple viewings later it feels fresh and new and alien.

When The Master turned up in The Keeper of Traken – I had no idea who he was. I had to ask (not-so-obsessive) friends – some of whom could remember something about him and a disappearing Grandfather clock and maybe some fire. They believed I should remember it since it “wasn’t that long ago” (their words); but since I had no idea what they were talking about, I’m assuming I never saw The Deadly Assassin either.

Sarah Jane Smith was unknown to me as anything other than a photo or a book cover until K9 and Company … so I’m pretty confident in dating my obsession to January 1977 and The Robots of Death.

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Pretty confident, but not 100% certain.

I could, of course, have constructed the whole memory from still photos, clips and the Target novelisation. Maybe I was drunk in 1986 when I first saw the VHS omnibus, forget I’d already watched it and then “remembered it from my childhood” on second viewing?

I don’t know. But hey, I think The Robots of Death was my first trip in the TARDIS so that’s the story I’m sticking to.

That was the seed, which quickly blossomed into a fully fledged obsession.

I can still remember the night I was sent to bed as a child without watching Doctor Who – it stands alone as my only memory of being punished (or of the only punishment which hurt) even though I can’t remember what I’d done or which episode I’d missed.

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Well, I wouldn’t, would I? I’d missed it.

Because that was thing in those dark pre-VCR days. These things were shown once and once only. If you missed it, tough titty. Life just rolls on without you.

The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng Chiang … I don’t remember seeing The Horror of Fang Rock, but then … The Invisble Enemy. K9! I was five by then, similarly obsessed with Star Wars and enamoured with robots. A talking robot dog who shoots lasers?

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Yes please.

When Doctor Who Weekly came out, I was first in the queue. And I stayed in the queue until sometime in the mid-nineties … but I’ll get to that in a bit. The magazine was my first introduction to the artwork of Dave Gibbons – some may know him chiefly for The Watchmen, but to me he will always be inextricably linked with Doctor Who strips like The Iron Legion, The City of the Damned or The Dogs of Doom.

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When Denys Fisher released their ten inch toys, I was desperate to have them. A trip to London and Hamleys left me hating the store for decades. I asked if they, the biggest toy shop in the whole world, had the Doctor Who toys … to which they replied … no.

No? Why the fuck not?

For Christmas that year, Santa was very good to me. The Doctor, Leela and the TARDIS … all of which I dropped down the stairs on Christmas morning, breaking the TARDIS. Best and worst Christmas ever.

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Although the joy of getting the TARDIS was moderated by the disappointment I felt when I realised my parents were right – it didn’t really dematerialise. And the all consuming grief of having dropped it was ameliorated when my Uncle Hilton fixed it and I then had a much more fitting battered Police Box.

I can’t remember where or when I got rid of that, but if there’s one thing I continually drift back to on ebay, it’s that battered cardboard Police Box. One day, you will be mine.

In 1980, I moved to Mexico. Disaster! How was I going to see Doctor Who now? Luckily, my Gran kept getting Doctor Weekly and sending them on once a month. Or so.

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Even luckier, I think I must have been there between seasons – looking at the episode listings, I definitely saw The Leisure Hive. The Horns of Nimon I’m not so certain about … but I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. By far the best thing about being in Mexico was seeing old episodes, even some I’d never seen before! Always Tom Baker, mostly in black and white and frequently out of order … or in some bizarre order I just couldn’t fathom. I saw the first episode of Robot twice in a row and then episode three of The Invisible Enemy, followed by the first episode of Robot again … but it didn’t matter. It was Doctor Who!

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Whilst living in Mexico, my dad brought a pile of stiff card home from work and, using the template in The Adventures of K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures, built a scale (to an eight year old) model of K9. I loved that cardboard dog. My brother had one too, but mine was better. I modified mine – adding lego wheels, a drinking-straw-antenna-probe and a slot for disgorging printouts. Sadly, when it came time to go home … in true Professor Marius fashion, I couldn’t take K9 home with me. In not so Professor Marius fashion, my brother and I smashed our faithful yellow card-dogs up before returning to Monkseaton.

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I’m not sure how I became aware there were other Doctors. Maybe it was from the pages of Doctor Who Weekly? But that didn’t turn up until October 1979 – nearly three years later. Maybe it was from the Target novelisations – the only real source of archive information in those days? Or maybe my dad told me? He used to watch it when he was younger – maybe he even turned me onto the show in the first place?

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No idea. But somehow I knew. Somehow we all knew and decided the first two Doctors were boring because they were in black and white (an opinion I’ve long since recanted). I know when the BBC showed the Five Faces of Doctor Who series of re-runs, it didn’t feel like a revelation. It was exciting, getting to see Doctors past; but it wasn’t new information. Just new stories. New to me, anyway.

Tom Baker’s departure, my Doctor leaving, was painful. Even worse, it coincided with my brief attendance at Cubs. Peter Davison came in (and was awesome, allaying all my fears) and brought with him a change of time-slot. Twice-weekly, one of those twices was on Cubs night and so, for a brief period (until something cut short my cubs’ experience … something with a puppet?) I only saw episodes 1 and 3 of every 4.

Thankfully, my mum stepped up into the breech and faithfully retold the missing episodes on our morning walk to school. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, her re-tellings were vivid enough for the episodes to feel familiar when they were finally released on video years later.

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Somewhere in Peter Davison’s tenure, a move from the North East to the Midlands brought about a new group of friends, sporty guys who prefered football to telly. I mean, yeah, they watched Doctor Who and they read the books because … well, everyone did; but they didn’t really care. Not really. They couldn’t name all the Doctors, in order, for example. As for the companions … forget it.

Hanging around with those guys meant missing the odd episode here and there. Not many, but every now and then. If the sun was out, so were we. If it wasn’t … fuck it, we went out anyway. The sun going down didn’t really herald time to go home either.

My love for Doctor Who never waned … but my attendance for his adventures did. I re-read the novelisations voraciously, but somehow failed to video all the episodes. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because VCRs were so bastardly difficult to program? Or because it only took one inadvertent button press to bugger the whole thing up? Or maybe I did watch them all and just forgot? Or maybe I was just succumbing to peer pressure and beginning to believe I was getting too old to watch a kids’ programme?

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Again, like so much of this, I don’t know.

By the time Colin Baker arrived, I was a casual viewer. I saw the odd episode, but they seemed poor and not particularly interesting (except for Vengeance on Varos – still love that). Weirdly, I kept getting Doctor Who Monthly (as it was by then) – I rarely missed an issue. The comics in there were always the first thing I read – I needed new stories. Tales about behind the scenes stuff from past episodes or news about up and coming stuff … didn’t really interest me. So maybe my lack of interest was more to do with how I perceived the quality of the show than the Doctor himself?

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It would be nice to say I was developing more of an interest in girls and booze by that point; but I really wasn’t that kind of teenager. Booze, yes … enough so that by 18 I’d really had enough and have been teetotal ever since. Girls … well, I wasn’t interesting to them and they were completely beyond my understanding. So no, it wasn’t teenage life getting in the way of Doctor Who … it was just a gentle parting of the ways.

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Sylvester McCoy’s first season came and went and I barely noticed it. I think I saw a reasonable percentage of it … but I don’t remember caring. Paradise Towers sticks in the mind as a story with excellent bits, let down by silly bits like “fortamoloscope opening device”. I’ve never liked sci-fi-sounding words. Doctor Who, on TV at least, was pretty much a thing of the past …

And then there was Season 25. Daleks, Cybermen, Killer Clowns and Bertie Bassett.

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And just like that I was back in love.

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I bought the Dapol toys. I made pilgrimages to the exhibition at Longleat. I hunted down all the Target books I’d missed. My Aunty Sheila knitted me a scarf (seventeen feet long – long enough for me and four of my friends to wear it to school at the same time). I bought all the videos I could find … I was just obsessed. Again.

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Season 26 was even better … and ranks for me as some of the best the show has ever produced.

Weirdly, despite this renaissance, when I was allowed to write a story on any subject for GCSE English, I chose to write a Doctor Who story featuring Shockeye and Chessene from The Two Doctors. Obviously the Colin Baker years left some impression.

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First and only time I ever got a double A for anything.

And then it was over. The show was cancelled, the TARDIS grounded – he was never coming back.

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I wasn’t ready to let go though.

At some point in the sixth form I stopped sleeping. At least in any real meaningful way. A few hours here and there, nothing you’d recognise as a full night’s sleep. I needed a project to fill in the wee small hours after Sledge Hammer had been on or I’d finished staring at Mariella Frostrup’s legs on … whatever that Video programme was called. Video View? Something like that.

There’s only so much of Teletext’s Jobfinder you can watch at four a.m. before you start going a bit funny. I couldn’t play my guitar because it was too noisy. Although I had a TV in my room, the VCR was downstairs, directly under my parents’ room, so noise ruled that out too. I suppose I could have done some homework … but that never seemed important.

The logical thing to do was to build a new K9, this time sprayed the proper colour with remote control bits and light up other bits and proper full size and everything.

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Which I did. In great detail, from plans sent to me (on request) by Tony Harding. Plans, I might add, which differed slightly from the actual prop version built. Only found that out halfway through the build, ruining nights of work. I read and reread Matt Irvine’s book on visual effects during this period – half-convinced my true calling was to be a visual effects designer. Building model spaceships and then blowing them up? Sign me up!

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Unfortunately, I’d failed all the wrong A levels … so that was out.

When I left for university, K9 came with me. God knows what the guys I lived with thought about that, but I was unashamedly a geek and didn’t really care. He got left behind in a dazzling series of house moves over the next few years (nine in six years!). I’d like to think someone found in him in the garage of Cwmdonkin Terrace and gave him a new home. But I suspect damp and rats claimed him.

When the New Adventures books were published, I devoured them religiously – this is what I wanted, more complex Doctor Who!

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It was hard being a Doctor Who fan by then – the programme no longer existed, I was working a shitty job and couldn’t really afford to keep buying the videos, I had as many Target books as I could find and the New Adventure books grew less complex, interesting and enjoyable as the series progressed (my perception, not fact!) … and then my obsession was dealt a death blow.

Well, two death blows. I suppose, technically, only one of them can be the actual death blow though.

Two events really turned me off Doctor Who – one was I sold all my videos to buy an engagement ring for my first wife (the word first in the sentence should give you some clue as to how terrible an idea that was). So I no longer had access to repeat viewings of my favourite episodes. The other was a poll in DWM naming (what I thought was) the worst of the New Adventures book as a fan favourite. The reviews for this book stunned me – I thought it was terrible, full of stupid ideas and silly sci-fi names for simple things. It reminded me of the worst stories of the Colin Baker years … but, apparently, it was exactly what most Doctor Who fans thought the show should be.

So, in disgust, I stopped buying the magazine and the books and gave up on the Doctor for a second time. If that’s what they want it to be, I’m fucking glad it got cancelled.

Apparently I’m a fair weather fan.

In this second wilderness, there were two things which kept the flame flickering.

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One was the American TV pilot – an event which caused me to threaten to lock my house-mate (post-divorce living arrangement) out of the house if he wasn’t home on time (because I really, really didn’t want anything interrupting my enjoyment). I even made a sign for the front door: FUCK OFF, DOCTOR WHO’S ON. I was determined to enjoy it. And I did. Mostly – so much of it was so good, just a bit of a duff story, that’s all. Such a shame to waste such potential.

The second was a guy I worked with called Ashley who plied me with whole seasons on VHS, recorded off UK Gold. Thank you, sir – you kept that fan-flame alive.

But apart from that, it was over. Doctor Who was dead.

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Mostly.

Except for that little notebook I used to scribble story ideas in.

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Stories and a list of places in Swansea and South Wales which might make good locations for episodes. Most of which have now been used.

And that vague plan I had to write a CBBC series based around King Arthur, featuring an eerily familiar but never-referred-to-as-anything-but Merlin.

Then there was that recurring dream of mine, the one where I’m walking to school in the North East and there was a Police Box at the side of the road. Inside was … a full sized police station. Slightly odd. Not quite so odd as the fact there actually was a Police Box on the way to school, one I’d completely forgotten about (consciously) until I mentioned this dream and my parents told me about it. Even now, I can picture the space where the box was, but not the box itself.

How can a Doctor Who fan walk past a TARDIS every day without remembering?

Told you memory was an odd thing.

To be honest, I’m not 100% convinced it was actually a Mackenzie Trench box.

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I reckon it was probably more like this:

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But whatever it was, it lives on  in my dreams. The programme may have been dead, but it was never forgotten.

When the show came crashing back in 2005, I was so excited I nearly wet myself. I may even have wet myself, I can’t be sure.

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I loved Christopher Eccelston as the Doctor. I loved BIllie Piper. I loved the new 45 minute format (although, you kids today, you’ve got it easy. We used to live in terror of the Doctor dying for 3 out of every 4 weeks. 5 out of every 6 sometimes. That’s why the show used to give us nightmares. You get to see him win EVERY WEEK. Parents, try this for an experiment – show your young children half an episode, stopping it at the point where they think the Doctor is dead or is being throttled by something with tentacles … then lock them in a dark bedroom overnight. See how they fucking like it).

The redesigned TARDIS – loved it. Whilst simultaneously mourning the loss of that cosy, familiar roundreled glow.

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David Tennant I loved when he wasn’t being amazed by things. Which was a little too often for my taste. Having said that, most of my favourite stories from New Who belong to him.

Matt Smith I think is fantastic and I will be sorry to see him go.

Peter Capaldi … I look forward to loving with all my heart.

Although there’s a wrinkle. A wrinkle which may or may not be meaningless once I’ve seen the 50th anniversary episode tonight, at the cinema – courtesy of my second, last and far superior wife.

When we were kids, we invented our own Doctors. Future Doctors, ones we’d become when we were older. Ones we could, conceivably, play ourselves if we became actors.

Mine was the 12th Doctor.

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Until The Name of the Doctor – I always knew that when Matt Smith went, I wouldn’t get to be the 12th Doctor. The next Doctor, whoever he was, would be taking my space in the pantheon. At the moment, now that John Hurt’s been lobbed into the mix like a wrinkly hand grenade, it looks like Matt Smith sneakily took my place while I wasn’t looking.

I’ve been preparing for a lifelong dream to die, but it may well have already been murdered when I wasn’t looking.

Maybe tonight will throw new light on that and I can live in hope that I am secretly Peter Capaldi until next year …

But either way, I’m looking forward to the next fifty years with optimism and utter joy.

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As an adult fan, I’ve met socially with people involved in the show – something I wouldn’t have dreamt possible as a kid. I even managed to have a lengthy chat with Philip Hinchcliffe – the man responsible for my first (probably) Doctor Who memory.

But best of all, I’ve been able to introduce my own daughter to the show – holding her close when things get scary and reassuring her that, no matter what, it will be okay … because the Doctor will save the day.

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Because, ultimately, that’s what the show means to me – faith in the future. Faith in the idea that a single person who’s prepared to stand up and be counted, can make all the difference. Faith that intellect, curiosity and compassion will win out over those who try to enslave or impoverish humanity.

I guess this is why I’ve always liked hero driven stories. The idea that individuals can make a difference by doing what’s right. I think it’s a vitally important lesson, one which used to be told on TV all the time. Growing up there was a plethora of programmes which espoused this ideal, couched in action and adventure … most of those were American, most have them have gone now.

The Doctor is British and he’s still standing … because heroes don’t give up. Not ever.

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I’m glad I’ve been exposed to his ideals for nearly my entire life. I’m proud to have been there for all but 13 years of his life and hope he’s around to inspire my daughter for all of hers. I have no doubt the Doctor’s fortunes will wax and wane. I’ve no doubt he will get cancelled again at some point in the future … but I also know fans will keep that flame alive and one day he’ll be back again.

Maybe I’ll get to be part of that legacy one day? Maybe my daughter will when she grows up? Or maybe we already are? Maybe she too will hold her children’s hand when things get scary, as I’ve held hers and my father held mine?

I hope so.

Happy birthday, Doctor. Here’s to many more.

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Categories: BBC, Random Witterings, Writing and life | 3 Comments

Shakespeare’s leeway

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I was listening to the Nerdist Writers’ Panel Comics Edition Podcast thing the other day.

You know, the other day. Not this day, but the other one.

If you haven’t heard it, you really should. It’s great. Anyway, Ashley Miller was talking about writing Thor (the movie), about sitting with Kenneth Branagh and how Kenneth said he had spent twenty years trying to understand the soliloquy in Hamlet.

And it got me thinking.

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First off, I was thinking about the time I nearly accidentally killed Kenneth Branagh one day in Bath.

The town, not the tub.

He parked his car on double yellows and leapt out into traffic, forcing me to swerve wildly to avoid him. I don’t think he noticed; but if it weren’t for my mongoose-like reflexes, he would be dead now.

Thank you, I am directly responsible for Thor. You’re welcome.

If it was him.

Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe it was just someone who looked like him?

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Fuck it, I saved someone’s life. Sort of.

The car behind swerved into the opposite lane and caused a ten-car pile-up, killing fifteen people and a small pigeon; but that’s not the point. I didn’t kill anyone. I specifically didn’t kill Kenneth Branagh (or someone who looked a lot like him). *

Next up, I thought about how dedicated, awesome and serious he is as an actor and how amazing it is that he’s spent all this time trying to understand a single passage in a single play.

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My third thought was that would never fucking happen to one of my scripts.

Okay, so there’s a quality differential between me and Shakespeare. In fact, you could argue that every other writer in the entire world sits between me and Shakespeare … and I wouldn’t argue back.

I’m like that.

But that’s kind of irrelevant because no actor would attach that much weight to any speech in any film script they were presented with. Theatre – yes, I believe maybe that does happen. Certainly among the work by the deader playwrights.

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I can imagine a very kind actor spending half an hour, maybe 45 mins, trying to figure out how to make one of my speeches work before declaring “my character wouldn’t say that; but twenty years?

Twenty?

No chance. Probably because very few films are at the script stage for twenty years.

More likely because  if a play is still being performed 400 years after it was written then it’s kind of proved itself and probably doesn’t need to be improvised all over thank you so very much.

So not only is it pointless comparing myself (unfavourably) to Shakespeare; but it’s equally pointless comparing a film script written four days ago to a theatre script written four centuries ago.

Films change all the way through production. Lines are rewritten, chucked out, improvised, dug out of the bin and reinstated, forgotten and finally misread in an exercise which frequently leaves the scene unusable.

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New plays, I guess, go through a similar process.

Older plays, ones which have stood the test of time … they’re recited. They’re given respect. They’re given it because they’ve earnt it.

It’s different. I know it’s different. I do, honestly … but still, I can’t help feeling a little jealous.

Twenty years trying to understand the text.

Twenty. ^

Wouldn’t that be nice? For people to assume you put those specific words in that specific order for a specific reason and then try to figure out what that reason might be?

Makes me go all misty just thinking about it.

Then I go all sad because I know it’ll never happen.

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* It’s possible, not all of this story is true.

^ Actually, I can’t remember how long he’s spent – I heard the podcast weeks ago now (or possibly yesterday) and don’t hold information in my head for that long; but let’s go with twenty.

You know the only thing worse than an actor improvising all over a script? An actor not improvising anything at all. It’s all about balance, people. Good actors know when to improvise and when not to. Bad actors improvise the line back to the place-holder-line the writer discarded because it’s a cliché.

My biggest bugbear is when an actor decides not to use a word because they don’t know what it means. Especially when that word is a technical term used in a field their character specialises in:

“I don’t think my character, a submarine captain, would use all these long words about submarines and oceans. I think he’d say something simple like ‘Let’s go under water, please’.”

Mind you, I’ve also had an actor pronounce one of my  spelling mistakes because they believed in the sanctity of the written word.

Both of these approaches are fairly extreme and, luckily, pretty rare. As ever, reality, common sense and the majority lie somewhere in the middle.

Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way | 1 Comment

Tailoring the idea

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Tomorrow is the first meeting for a new feature project – my fifty-ninth, if anyone’s keeping count.

Wait, hang on. 59? Fuck, that’s a lot. Is that right?

Yeah, well, sort of. I guess that’s counting all the stuff that never went further than a synopsis or a single-meeting with some chancer who had no resources or drive to actually see a project through. You know, the kind of people who get business cards printed up before they work out how hard it is to actually be a producer.

Still, 59 feature projects (even if fifty of them were abandoned at some point) sounds like a lot to me. And that’s not including the three spec scripts I wrote which never got any interest or input from anyone.

Oh, and looking closer, buried in the middle of those is a job I was paid for but never actually did any work on. Still not sure how that happened, but somehow, after paying me to write a script, the producer in question distracted himself while we were in the middle of a meeting, forgot what we were talking about and ended up paying me to write a different film.

Truly, my finest hour.

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But I digress.

The first meeting for project 59 is tomorrow and I have no idea what to expect.

Well, I have some idea. The director I’ve worked with before and he was very story-focused and really pushed me to be continuously better in a really interesting ways. A guy who has a very clear idea of what he wants, but is happy to hand over the task of supplying it to the writer.

So I kind of know what I’m getting into there. Also, I’ve already had a partial cast list (ooh, him? Really? Cool! Wait, and him? Even cooler!), a vague back-of-the-DVD synopsis, a general idea of budget and roughly where the shoot will take place.

This kind of info is great. It really helps inform the story choices and gives me a head start on my favourite part of the process: tailoring the idea.

If you’ll excuse me while I slip into a more comfortable analogy …

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I often think of this bit, the first meeting after you’ve been handed the list of pre-conditions, as something akin to being a tailor when a customer asks you to make them a blue suit.

It’s exciting because you have a vague idea of what they want; but have almost limitless free-rein within that brief to stitch together whatever the hell you want.

Actually, no, that’s not quite right.

What happens next totally depends on the customer. It’s your job as the tailor to ask the questions which, subtly, point out that asking for a blue suit is nigh-on meaningless. I mean, it’s a fantastic starting point; but it doesn’t actually mean anything.

The tailor’s job is now to bring his experience to bear on the brief. What kind of suit? Is this for a specific occasion? A job interview? A general weddings/funerals suit? Is it for a fancy dress competition? For everyday wear? Once that’s established, do you want a two or a three piece? Do you want it in fashion, ahead of the curve, classically stylish or coolly retro? And that’s before you get into details like single or double-breasted? A vent? If so, one or two? What kind of lapels, if any at all? And so on …

I find this winnowing to be a joyous process, provided the customer knows that what they’ve asked for is actually quite vague and needs a lot more information to be useful. Because, unfortunately, sometimes the customer just gets angry:

“For fuck’s sake, I told you what I want! A blue suit! A suit which is blue. Just make me the fucking suit and stop asking all these stupid questions!”

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Other customers give you no further feedback, encourage you to pursue one idea right down to the tiny detailing on the buttons …

“Uh-huh, go on. Yes! Tell me more!”

… and then don’t bother getting in touch again. You clearly didn’t understand what they meant when they gave you the ultra-clear instructions of ‘a blue suit’. You’re obviously just not in tune with their vision.

The good customers (from my point of view) are the ones who are pleasantly surprised when you start asking the winnowing questions and are only to happy to be presented with choices. I like those guys.

Dropping out of  the analogy for a moment, one of the pitfalls of this prerequisite list type of job for scriptwriters is the “it’s basically x meets y!” kind of pitch. Because x meets y will mean different things to different people.

For example:

“It’s Reservoir Dogs meets Mary Poppins!”

“Okay, okay, so ultra-cool, ultra-violent with a touch of magic and bits of animation?”

“No, you fucking idiot! It’s about American bank robbers in Victorian London.”

“Oh, right. Yes, I see. Silly me. Um … wasn’t Mary Poppins set in 1910?”

“So?”

“Oh, no reason. Victorian, got it.”

clown

‘It’s x meets y’ relies on both films meaning exactly the same to the person listening as to the person speaking. Which doesn’t really happen. Was The Dark Knight Rises a superhero movie, a social commentary or a tedious pile of dross where nothing had any consequences at all for anyone at any time ever?

Totally up to the person watching it.

So if you were told the film should be that crossed with The Smurfs … what is that? What aspects of each film does the client expect you to incorporate into the script? It may be obvious to them; but it’s not obvious to anyone else.

no-idea-feature

But that’s why these first meetings are exciting – in an ideal world, no idea should be considered stupid. Everyone should feel free to voice whatever the hell they like and throw everything onto the table for inspection. The first meeting, the very genesis of the project, should be everyone trying to establish exactly what everyone else means. We’re all trying to get on the same page before anything is actually put on the page.

Which is my expectation for tomorrow – an excited, friendly winnowing of the ideas until we’re all committed to the same story.

I love this part of the job. In many ways, I prefer it to actually writing the script. Writing is hard. Bouncing ideas off people’s brains is just joyous.

Usually.

Hopefully.

Please?

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Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | 1 Comment

Notes from the other side (Part Three)

THINGS WHICH PISSED ME OFF

 

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I know I was no great shakes as a script-editor. I know I probably pissed people off by giving them what they thought of as stupid notes. I’ve had those notes, I know what it feels like to send in a script thinking it’s amazing … only to feel like you’ve failed miserably because it’s not loved unconditionally.

Notes are part of the process. Rejection is part of the process. Even when a script is good, parts of it have to be rejected – this is just what happens. It happens to the best writers in the world, it’s going to happen to you.

How you deal with the notes is what sets you apart from other writers. The best writers on PERSONA dealt with the notes in a timely, imaginative manner, with good humour and professionalism. These were the majority of the writers – I loved reading your work, you were, and hopefully still are, wonderful.

But I was under a lot of pressure, working late into the night every night for no reward on something I didn’t believe in. Sometimes writers, good and bad, did things which made me really, really fucking angry.

If you did any of these things during the writing of PERSONA, it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad writer. It doesn’t change how likely I am to hug you if I meet you in public+ or to buy you a drink^. I’m keeping these anonymous because I don’t want to point fingers or name names – I just want people to understand some of the additional pressures your note-giver might be under and how a writer’s attitude, behaviour or style might come across.

These are the things I found particularly irksome, the things I will be trying not to do to anyone giving me notes in future:

 

1. NON STANDARD FORMAT

Go Your Own Way

When you’re reading a lot of scripts very quickly, then you need to be able to read them quickly. Peering at a script trying to work out if the bit left-justified, halfway up the page in a narrow block is action, dialogue or an accident is just fucking annoying. Learning the craft means learning the format – a small army of people all have to be able to read this thing in order to make it. Standard format makes it easy for everyone, if you want to invent your own, write a novel.

I’m not talking here about things like when to use caps or when to underline stuff or whether you use passive voice or not – none of that shit matters, not really. Not writing dialogue which goes all the way across the page with the character names on the same line – that’s important. Don’t do shit like that.

Or shit like this:

Morgan

Morgan

Nathan

Morgan

confused

Morgan

You're Morgan too?

Nathan

Sorry, that's the limit of my German.

Morgan

Your name's not Morgan?

Nathan

Nathan thought Morgan was saying hello in German!

Nathan talks about himself in the third person.

Morgan

What?

Versus this:

                MORGAN
          Morgan.

                NATHAN
          Morgan!

                MORGAN
             (confused)
          You're Morgan too?

                NATHAN
          Sorry, that's the limit of my German.

                MORGAN
          Your name's not Morgan?

                NATHAN
          Nathan thought Morgan was saying 
          hello in German!

NOTE: Nathan talks about himself in the third person.

                 MORGAN
           What?

Okay, it’s still shit; but at least now it’s readable shit.

 

2. HARD TO USE FILES

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I don’t know if it’s still the case, but at that time CELTX didn’t play well with any other software. Scripts for PERSONA had to be put into the house style, and collated into a master document for the editor to assemble the appisodes. If I couldn’t export the script to anything, then I had to copy, paste and reformat or retype every script by hand.

Once you get past midnight, that becomes old really, really fast.

I know CELTX is free and is probably really fun/easy to write in … but (back then) the files it produced were completely fucking useless unless everyone on the production team switched to new software. That’s not going to happen. By all means use whatever software suits you, but deliver it in a format the rest of the production team can use/edit.

I apologise to the makers of CELTX if there was a simple way of exporting their files to something editable on other other software; but if there was I couldn’t find it. I fully accept this may be my failing, not theirs.

Still made my life needlessly more complicated though.

 

3. SCRIPT GURU TERMINOLOGY

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I come from a movie background, I think in three acts. Or rather, I talk in three acts. I actually think in four. The point is, three acts is an industry shorthand most people understand. Specific TV shows might have more or less acts and that’s great – you have to be able to use the terminology of the show. Myself and the producer/directors of PERSONA spoke in terms of three acts … so when I’d get replies to my notes from writers who talked in terms of whatever script book they’d read that week – it was difficult to translate.

I wasn’t just dealing with that one writer, I was dealing with up to nine at any one time. And when those nine are variously talking about 5 acts, 22 steps, 8 sequences or 16 keystone moments … I can’t keep up. I can’t really be expected to read every theory going and translate the prodcution team’s opinions into a different script language every fucking time. If those things help you write, then great – use them; but when you’re dealing with a note-giver who’s also dealing with eight other writers and a production team … just learn the common language.

Also, if you’re going to buy into your favourite script guru’s terminology, then please …

 

4. LEARN WHAT THE TERMINOLOGY MEANS

you keep using that wordAn inciting incident is an incident which incites. It should be both inciting and an incident. Two people talking about a third person’s shoes isn’t really either. Telling me it is because it comes on page x and your favourite script guru says that’s where the inciting incident always is doesn’t make it more inciting or incident-y. You can’t just point at random bits of script and declare that they’re inciting incidents in the same way you can’t point at a car tyre and declare it’s a carburettor.

Well you can, but it won’t make building a car any easier.

 

5. FINAL DRAFT

3u75m8Writing FINAL DRAFT on the title page of your script because you think you’ve done enough … yeah, don’t do that. I’ll tell you when it’s the final draft. It’s the final draft when it’s right, not when you get bored.

 

6. THE UNDERLYING CAUSE

Missing-the-PointOne script we had generated only one note – the protagonist wasn’t really in it. The main character didn’t appear in well over fifty percent of the appisodes – that’s not good. The writer disagreed and drew up a chart illustrating that the protagonist was actually in at least 75% of the appisodes.

Bear in mind here, some of these appisodes are a week apart. If your protagonist isn’t in two in a row, they won’t be seen for over a week. Also, there are four stories running consecutively, all mixed together in a different order on different days – if your protagonist isn’t in the appisode, the audience may not know which story this piece belongs to.

I rechecked the script and the writer was completely right – the protagonist was actually in 75% of the scenes. In the background, not speaking. The wallpaper was also in the background, that doesn’t make it a protagonist.

If someone can read your script and NOT NOTICE WHETHER THE PROTAGONIST IS PRESENT OR NOT, then you have a problem. It doesn’t actually matter if the reader is wrong – the problem is still there. The difference between an absent protagonist and one we didn’t notice is exactly the same.

Because, and here’s the thing, people have to film this. Cast members have to be scheduled – if the three of us didn’t notice her; maybe no one else will. Maybe no one will notice until the day of the shoot … and then we find the actor is in Tahiti.

Or something.

A lot of people have to read and UNDERSTAND your script in order to film it. If it’s important, make it stand out – make if noticable. If the note-giver is accusing you of not including the vital information you know is there, then don’t argue – just go back and make it stand out. Put it in bold if you have to.

 

7. UNDERSTAND WHAT CONSTITUTES A SCENE

where-the-fuck-am-i-lets-ask-that-statueEach new location is a new scene. This is fairly basic stuff. The reason each new location is a new scene is because the entire crew have to move to a new place. That’s a lot of people. Okay, so you can have a continuous move from one room to the next, assuming the location has a kitchen next to a lounge (or whatever); but if the lounge is on the first floor and the kitchen is in the basement then a continuous scene is going to involve a lot of stairs. In a 30 second episode … there’s no fucking time for stairs!

There isn’t really time to move from one room to another unless they’re talking while they’re walking.

We had quite a few occurrences of:

She enters through the front door, walks up the stairs and into the bedroom.

That’s your entire appisode, right there.

It gets even worse when people write things like:

He follows her across the bridge, along the street, past the shops and watches 
her climb the steps to her front door.

What the fuck?

Unless this is a really small bridge, with shops on it, which are also really small and the flat is above the shop which is less than four feet away from the place the character started … then it’s at least three scenes. At least.

But, hey, you know … everyone has to learn. Most of these writers had never had anything produced, so we have to be kind and make allowances. So in this case, I did. I reformated it to separate scenes and explained, politely, all about camera set ups and what constitutes a new location.

HINT: AN ENTIRE CITY IS NOT A LOCATION AND THEREFORE NOT SUITABLE FOR A SCENE HEADING

But here’s the key thing – when you’ve written something unfilmable, had it pointed out and explained to you and had it properly reformatted at great time-expense by the script-editor … don’t submit the next draft WITH THE SAME FUCKING MISTAKES IN IT.

That’s quite annoying, that is.

 

8. PAGE COUNT

the-countOne page equals one minute of screen time.

Roughly.

Not always, but roughly.

The only way to know for sure is to read the script out loud and act out all the parts.

Even then, you will be wrong because actors love dramatic pauses and directors love slow panning shots. But, in general, one page equals one minute.

So if, for example, the show you’re writing for has at that point expanded it’s appisodes to a minute and a half … you need to submit a page and a half of script.

Roughly.

A page … maybe. Two pages … yeah, if it’s all fast paced banter.

6 pages?

No.

Really, no.

Most importantly, and this is really, really important, after having been told the appisode is only a minute and a half long and then having submitted 6 pages of script … don’t claim it’s a directorial issue.

It really fucking isn’t.

Also, when the script editor asks you to cut it down, saying “I don’t want to because it will lose intensity” just isn’t going to fly. I guaran-fucking-tee it will lose more intensity if it’s filmed as is and the editor randomly chops four and a half minutes off the end.

 

9. DEVELOPMENT HELL

think-before-you-tweet

If you’re the same person who did both of the above, don’t fucking go on Twitter and claim you’re “Stuck in development hell” because you don’t know what a scene is or how page count translates into screen time.

You’re not stuck in development hell, you’re just a fucking twat.

This is draft two. Draft fucking two! Draft 200 is development hell. Not draft 2, especially when it’s your fucking fault for not knowing how to write a fucking script.

And guess what, we know what Twitter is! And we can read. You just said that to our faces.

If it’s that bad, just give up. Say you don’t agree that one page equals one minute or that a bridge, a street, a shop and a flat is more than one scene. Tell us that, call us names and just fuck off. Or convince us we’re wrong.

Either would be fine … complaining about it on Twitter is just …

Well, it’s a mite annoying.

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I could go on. I have gone on. And on. But I think that’s enough, don’t you?

The essence of these last three posts, in case you hadn’t guessed, is I didn’t really like being a script editor; but (briefly, sort of) being one gave me a much better understanding of what it’s like to be giving notes on a script which is going into production. Not just an opinion on a friend’s spec script, which is a different thing; but on something which is actually going to be filmed very soon.

Essentially, what I learnt is: it’s really fucking hard, frequently frustrating and mostly unrewarding … but completely necessary. Those of you who do it on a regular basis as your profession – I salute you. It’s a hard job, congratulations on being good at it.

I’m not and I’m not doing it again.

Probably.

—————————————————————————————-

+Very unlikely, I’m not one of life’s huggers.

^Quite likely.

Categories: My Way, Persona, Rants, Software, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 7 Comments

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