So this post is sort of the last in a trilogy of posts about one pagers. The first post talked through my method, the second was the BBC opportunity (closed now! It’s closed, you missed it. Unless you didn’t.) and here’s my final thoughts on how to write a one pager, possibly the most vital part:
Preferably peer, but anyone who can articulate honestly how they felt reading it, why they did or didn’t like something or what they didn’t understand.
In this respect I got lucky since I had (coincidentally) arranged to meet a few of my writer chums for drinks. Those of you keeping track of these things may notice the meetPhill numbers aren’t quite sequential – this is because there was someone else that day whose identity I may or may not reveal in a future post.
Not to create any mystery or tension, but because I might get sidetracked. I only mention it so he doesn’t think he’s less important than these three or any less of a chum.
So forearmed in the knowledge I was meeting up with Paul, Piers and Shel a few days before the BBC deadline, I figured I might as well print out a few copies of my entry and see if I could t̶r̶i̶c̶k̶ persuade them into giving me some feedback.
Which they happily did.
Or at least, they didn’t complain too much.
And in return I read their entries and in fact it all set off a cascade whereby we all read each other’s.
If you haven’t got writer chums, it’s a really good idea to find some. It’s nowhere near as hard as it might seem since there’s probably a local Shooting People meet or maybe a writers’ group. If not, there’s always the LSWF which is chock-full of potential chums desperate to make friends with you.
Or at least they should be desperate to make friends with you, because peers are the most valuable asset we have in this otherwise solitary industry.*
Obviously getting people to read a full script is a big ask, one not to be thrown away on a first draft unless you’re reciprocating in someway. All reads should be reciprocal. No, strike that. You should be happy to read your friends’ work and offer an opinion because it’s a nice thing to do. If they do the same for you, great. If not … that’s fine.
Unless they’re taking the piss, I suppose …
Oh, you know what? You’re all adults (probably?) you can figure out the rules for yourself. Suffice it to say I rocked up for drinks and dinner with friends who gave me an invaluable insight into how my one-pager came across to them.
Not whether it’s good or bad, but which bits they didn’t understand, which bits confused them or made them reread or even slowed them down a little. The benefit of something short in person is the conversation afterwards, because that way you can find out how they imagine the story and see if it matches the story in your head.
On this occasion all three of them offered comments which vastly improved the one-pager. They didn’t add anything to the concept or the characters, but rather helped me present the idea in a clearer, more succinct way.
Which was awfully nice of them.
Hopefully they got some mileage out of my comments on their work in return.
It’s difficult to know exactly how something will be perceived. In my case a mention of a character in her early sixties got misread three times as the series being set in the early sixties.
Okay, so I could have argued that they just didn’t read it properly … but they did. They read it as quickly and as thoroughly as anyone at the BBC will. People make mistakes and if even one person can misinterpret something they how do you know the person reading a judging your work won’t?
In this case (I think?) all three made the same mistake … so the mistake is actually mine. It needs to be crystal clear or the meaning is lost.
This is the sort of feedback I couldn’t give myself because it was perfectly clear to me … or I wouldn’t have written it down.
So hooray for writing chums! And hooray for those who are willing to be honest and supportive because they really are (or should be) an invaluable part of the process.
*Supposedly solitary. I have the slightly skewed experience of writing nearly everything for someone. It’s very rare I write a spec script with no input, it’s been years in fact. Maybe even a decade. Every time I try, someone either options it before I’m finished or commissions me for something.
That probably sounds like bragging, it’s not meant to. Sorry. I’m not bragging and have nothing to brag about … it’s just the way my career seems to work.
Update! Good news! We can confirm the deadline for the the TV Drama Writers’ Programme, 2017 has been extended until midnight on Monday, 10th October 2016. And to clarify application criteria, your produced writing credit must be for a script of at least 30 minutes in duration and your original spec script must be at least 50 pages in length and a minimum of 30 mins in duration.
The BBC shall be commissioning 8 writers to write an original series or serial script for BBC One, BBC Two or BBC Three Online. To apply you must have at least one production credit (a drama, at least 30 mins in duration) to your name.
You can have written for theatre, television, radio or film but must not already be in development (beyond treatment stage) with BBC Television Drama. This is not a scheme for new, untested writers or those with significant original television drama credits. It is an opportunity for writers with striking and unusual stories to tell, to take part in a bespoke scheme with input from top television writers and BBC editorial and production staff, as well as a dedicated Script Editor and Exec Producer. We encourage writers from underrepresented groups to apply. The Scheme will last for a year.
We are asking for a CV highlighting produced credit or credits, an original drama script (which could be stage, radio, film or TV – produced or unproduced) and up to one side of A4 outlining a potential series or serial idea for BBC One, BBC Two or BBC Three Online.
There are 8 places and we shall be shortlisting 20 writers for the scheme. Those 20 will discuss their pitches with the BBC Writersroom Team and Drama Execs representing all of the drama hubs, nations and regions. We’ll then select the writers based on these interviews, the quality of the writer’s work and the viability of their pitch.
Writers who have been selected to participate in the Programme will be expected to write three drafts of a script, with dedicated Script Editor and Executive support. In addition, there will be a series of screenwriting lectures, workshops and events throughout the course culminating in a reading and presentation of extracts from the writers’ scripts.
Writers will be paid a minimum script fee as agreed by the WGGB/PMA and the BBC on a favoured nations basis (currently £11,520 for 60 minutes). Expenses will also be paid.
NB: For this opportunity only if you don’t have an agent, when applying, you may tick the box to indicate that you’ve been recommended by the BBC Writersroom staff. You must, however, fulfil the criteria outlined above.
Sounds like a great opportunity to me. I know not everyone will be qualified to enter, but then I’m apparently too qualified to enter most of these things so it’s all swings and roundabouts. If you meet the criteria, it’s got to be worth having a go.
I haven’t done a #PhonePhill since July because of school holidays and actual holidays and deadlines and spending most of my free time swapping my daughter’s bedroom and my office around*. It’s not that there’s a shortage of lovely people in the world I want to talk to (although the list is open if anyone fancies a natter), it’s more that I temporarily ran out of nattering time.
But I’m back. With a bang.
Well, maybe not a bang. More of a continuous exchange of reasonably volumed telecommunication signals. This week’s #PhonePhill is William Gallagher and he was …
Lovely. Super double-plus extra lovely, in fact.
To be honest, I’m not sure why I led with that quote or why I felt the need to quote myself. I’m fairly certain only an imbecile would quote me.
William Gallagher is a scriptwriter, author, journalist and tea drinker. You can learn lots about him on his Wikipedia page here or on his excellent blog here.
We were on the phone for a mammoth two and a half hours, nattering on about … well, pretty much everything really. The first half an hour or so was me trying to convince him I was being honest about the nature of the Secret Writing Island and how it works. For some reason William demanded a lot of detail before accepting I wasn’t spinning a yarn … considering the context (which I’m not going into here) I consider that a compliment.
After that we covered Doctor Who (he’s written some, I haven’t), Blake’s 7 (he has a teleport bracelet, I don’t), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (neither of us are particularly fussed about it), the Midlands (we’ve both lived there, he still does), New York vs. London (we both prefer New York but aren’t really sure why), fuel economy vs. train tickets (it’s complicated and depressing), technology (he prefers iOS, I prefer Android … both are amazing and frustrating in different ways at different times and for different reasons) and how an actor’s delivery of a line can make or break a scene.
This one I find endlessly fascinating. My favourite example is from this scene:
“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.”
Terrible, terrible line which almost completely derails the entire film (which I think is otherwise fantastic).
Except … is it a terrible line? Or is it just delivered wrong? I’m certain I’ve read somewhere† that line was meant to be sarcastic. Run it back through your mind, imagine it not as a breathless, yet cheesy, declaration of love … imagine it as a being actually quite funny. How much better is that scene?
Now think about Queenie:
Miranda Richardson’s delivery is extraordinary. Continuously. In a exceptionally well-written sitcom performed by a uniformly amazing cast, she stands out as an absolute genius. A genius among geniuses, I guess … but her performance lifts that role to incredible heights.
As much as we like to think good writing makes good drama, it’s nothing unless it’s performed well.
Or at least I think so anyway. I am frequently wrong about such things.
William, for example, asserts I’m completely and utterly wrong about my dislike for one of the four modern Doctor Who actors. I’m just wrong, apparently.
Adding to that, William also thinks I’m wrong about believing only an imbecile would quote me (because he has and he clearly isn’t one). He’s so convinced of my wrongness in this regard that he’s written an entire book just about me:
Okay, so it’s not just about me. Other bloggers are available and quoted/interviewed at great length … but surely the likes of Jason Arnopp, Katherine D’Souza or Diane Leigh can’t possibly hold a candle to my magnificence?
Oh … apparently they can.
Well, that’s a blow.
Presumably they can also spell magnificence without resorting to spell-check.
This is the official blurb for William’s book:
Everybody tells you that you must have a website and you must have a blog but nobody tells you how – or why. In this book you will learn the key steps to creating your blog but, more importantly, what you can use one for and how it will become an important part of your creative work.
BBC writer William Gallagher shows you how to write a blog that people will read – and then how to keep on writing new entries. See how to write fast blogs and more considered ones. How to make a blog that works for you because it works for your readers.
The good news is it’s available right now on Amazon.
The better news is there’s a far cheaper PDF version here.
The bestest news is you can get a whopping 40% discount off the PDF version if you use the code: JAMAISVU
£3 for a book which features me? How can you not want that? Go on, treat yourself.
And while you’re treating yourself, why not treat me to the sound of your voice? I’d love to hear from you, no matter who you are or what you do. You don’t have to be a writer or even in the entertainment industry. You could be a plumber or a mystery shopper or a retrophrenologist …. I really don’t care, I just want to have a bit of a chat.
If you’re at a loose end and not sure what to do, buy William Gallagher’s book. If you’re still at a loose end after that, why not email me and arrange a time to #PhonePhill?
Come on, let’s have a chat.
* My office is now much smaller … but much cooler. I’ll show it off properly when it’s finished.
The essence of my argument was it would be a shame if HMV went bust because the immediate next wave of filmmakers would never know the elation of walking into a shop and buying a copy of your own DVD. HMV is one of the last outlets who stock pretty much any low budget films. If they went, the only shelf space would be in supermarkets and they are a bit funny about what films they’ll sell.
Now, okay, DVDs (or Blu-Rays, if you prefer) will ultimately go away and people will feel giddy and excited about something else.
But a year later, DVDs are still here (as is HMV) and they’re still exciting. I don’t know about you, but I have a hierarchy of film-love. Only my absolute favourites get bought on DVD. Films I really enjoy … I probably won’t bother to buy. I might watch it several times on TV or pay to stream something … but only my absolute bestest films get bought.
Having a film produced is exciting. Attending the première is more exciting. Seeing it in released in the cinemas is even more exciting still. But holding a physical copy in your hand, one you can put on the shelf or lend to people or just look at and smile … that’s the best bit.
Because that, in a small way, puts the thing I wrote on a similar footing to all the other films I love. Even when I fucking hate the actual film itself.
Was that it? Hmm … didn’t blog much in February, did I? Probably because I gave up chocolate, biscuits, sweets, crisps and cake in a vague effort to stop looking like a fucking hippo. That kind of thing is bound to make someone less bloggy.
I began March by explaining, politely, that they don’t fucking love your script in Cannes – no matter what they may have said. If they loved it, they would have bought it. Did they buy it?
No. Then they didn’t love it.
Yes, you can still pay me to re-write it.
I also blogged about exercise, P90X and biscuits – somehow finding it appropriate to insert myself into Death in Paradise wielding a spoon.
No, I have no idea why either.
That was a weird thing to do. Although, the good news is I still have that spoon. In a lovely bit of serendipity, I stole it from the Jamaican hotel which initially inspired Death in Paradise. It’s now my emergency back up spoon.
Then I wrote a blog about Other People’s Ideas and how hard they are to write. For some reason I equated it to making a human being and having too many ears.
Seriously, never give up biscuits. It’s just not worth it.
Wait … what the fuck? THERE WAS NO APRIL! I fucking knew we hadn’t had a full year! Here’s the proof …
Or rather, here isn’t the proof because April never fucking existed. It can’t have existed or I would have blogged about it.
What was exceptionally exciting about that is a writer friend of mine later told me she’d applied and been accepted onto the course – something she never would have known existed if I hadn’t mentioned it.
That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I love being vaguely useful occasionally.
Buoyed on by that, I promoted some free stuff. Which probably isn’t free any more, so … don’t bother clicking that link.
Assuming anyone’s still reading and is even clicking anything. Are you?
Why? Go do something more fun.
Oh, no, wait! This next post was my most popular post of the year. Still is.
I’m really bored with this now. I’ve no idea why I do this every year, I mean what is the fucking point? Does anyone read this far? I will send a five pound note to the first person who quotes these three words in the comments:
That’s a serious offer. I’ll send you a proper five pound note through the proper mail and everything if you’re the first person to copy and paste those three words into a comment.
And 12p to the first person who can use them in a sentence.
And now that I’ve (hopefully) successfully proved no one’s reading any more … on with November.
First up, Part Three of the Notes from the Other Side trilogy. I broke boundaries here by calling the third part Part Three. I also got a bit ranty about it all.
Especially to the person I referred to as a fucking twat; but to be fair. You were.
Or I was.
One of the two.
Then I talked about tailoring. It was in relation to an upcoming meeting … at which everyone behaved in almost exactly the way I hoped they wouldn’t.
No, seriously. I can only assume I was heavily medicated at the time.
And I finished the month by gushing about my love for a man. Well, eleven men. Twelve, as it turned out. Thirteen now.
If you’re feeling particularly geeky, you can spot seven differences between this photo and the one uploaded in November. Although, I warn you now imaginary person who’s never going to fucking bother doing this … number four is almost impossible to spot.
Behind the scenes, this was an interesting year. It’s the first year for nearly a decade I haven’t had anything produced or released … and yet I probably earnt more this year than any previous year to date.
Apparently a writer can earn more money by not getting films made than by actually getting involved in all that icky and annoying shooting business.
At the beginning of the year, I made a conscious decision to write something for myself. Something I really, really wanted to write which I would then try to sell.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, I worked almost continuously on other people’s ideas with varying degrees of success.
I had some lovely meetings with some lovely people and at least one of them I didn’t completely screw up.
I got paid to write stuff I enjoyed writing for people who actually cared about the script and wanted to get it right … as opposed to caring about the shooting date (tomorrow) and wanting to get it finished … even if ‘finished’ means ‘nobody fucking cares how good it is, we just need some words’.
As an added extra bonus, a producer sent one of my scripts to a director whose work I really, really admire. I’ve no idea if that guy actually liked the script or not. Probably not, but he wanted to read it and therefore at least now knows who I am.
I’m the guy who’s script he (probably) didn’t like.
Unless he hasn’t read it yet. Which is entirely possible and extremely likely.
2014 already has some super cool awesome stuff lined up with a couple of projects lining up on the starting blocks and even a few lumbering asthmatically towards the final set of hurdles.
Beyond which are another set of even higher hurdles, because that’s what the whole writing gig’s about.
This post is a follow up to last post’s self-indulgent Doctor Who love fest. It’s been a couple of weeks, is that long enough? I don’t want to risk spoilering anyone, but I feel like adding my thoughts about the celebration now it’s all over.
Yeah, okay so that’s an excuse for just being busy and failing to find time to write this down until now. It would have been better at least a week ago; but it didn’t happen. I’m sure we’ve all been coping without it though.
SPOILER ALERT FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T SEEN EITHER THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR OR AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME YET.
(SERIOUSLY, THOUGH? WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING?)
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Well … I fucking loved it.
All of it.
I saw The Day of the Doctor in the cinema, in a packed auditorium of fans and the experience was amazing. First off there were the odd costume here and there, a smattering of fezes. Then there was the extra Doctor Who-themed adverts and trailers like the Anchorman 2 bit:
The Strax “turn off your phones” lecture and the 3D Zygon-detector introduction by Doctors 10 and 11 (or 11 and 12, as I guess they are now?) really helped build up the atmosphere …
But most of all there was the silence.
An awed, respectful, eagerly-anticipating-awesomeness type of silence. When the BBFC rating came up, the whole auditorium fell silent – an event so rare and unusual I found myself looking around to find out what catastrophic event had befallen the audience … but it was just an entire roomful of fans staring excitedly at the screen.
That used to happen all the time in cinemas^. Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when people went there to watch films (or for a variety of back row activities which ranged from holding hands to fucking) instead of checking Twitter, making phone calls or discussing what they did last weekend.*
The silence was unnerving … and beautiful.
The episode itself … well, I just loved it. Seeing it in that environment probably helped. Sitting in a room full of adulation is the best way to see something you’re excited about. It is for me, at any rate. I can honestly say my critical faculties just disconnected for the entire length and I loved every second of it.
Well … okay, there were a few niggles – what were those handles for on the bottom of the TARDIS? Why couldn’t they have got people the same body shape as the past Doctors to play the past Doctors in that last shot? Who did that head replacement? Was it a child with some cut out photos and a PrittStick?
But who fucking cares? I, like everyone else in the cinema, laughed at all the right bits, cried at all the right bits and sat on the edge of my seat for most of the bits in between. I honestly can’t remember ever being in a screening where the entire audience punched the air at the same time over a two second glimpse of someone’s eyes.
And as for the revisiting the favourite faces bit (I can’t bring myself to spoiler that, even over two weeks later – just in case) … I couldn’t have been happier about that, even if the favourite face in question dropped round my house for a cuppa. In costume. Which he then let me keep.
Overall, I just loved it. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. Which is amazing, because I’m a fussy bastard.
The fact it made to number three in the box office top ten is just the cherry on the cake. This is the show I loved as a kid. The thing I loved when everyone else had forsaken it and the thing I still loved when everyone else thought it was dead and buried.
For a programme which was available for free on the TV!
AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME was similarly superb. Initially I felt like I wanted a little more detail about things like how they decided on a Police Box and a bit more insight into the original committee meeting where they worked out what the show should be before they had the idea … but that was before I realised the story was actually about William Hartnell.
For the first few minutes I thought I was watching a docu-drama about the making of Doctor Who; but (as I saw it) that was actually a secondary story which ran alongside Hartnell’s emotional journey.
And what a journey it was. Again, I have nothing but effusive praise for the programme. I thought it was absolutely amazing and really made my heart soar and weep throughout. The “I don’t want to go” line and that appearance in the TARDIS at the end in particular had me blubbing.
I was so pleased with the result I even resisted the temptation to ring up the two friends I’d mentioned the exact same idea to last year at the BBC Leeds thing ( the guys who LAUGHED IN MY FACE AND TOLD ME IT WAS A STUPID IDEA) and tell them I FUCKING TOLD YOU SO.
I resisted that temptation. This is me still resisting it.
Despite, you know, the fact I did.
Tell them so.
Those two programmes and the assorted other bits and bobs scheduled around them were a magnificent and fitting tribute to a very special part of my childhood. Oh fuck, who am I kidding? My life, not my childhood. I’ve never outgrown Doctor Who and I’ve no intention of starting now.
So a huge thank you to everyone involved. You did yourselves and The Doctor proud.
Last post, I went through (nearly) every Doctor Who related moment in my life.
There were two I forgot to mention.
One was because … I just forgot. Sorry. The second has effectively been completed wiped from history (or at least the internet).
The first was this postcard, sent to me by Tom Baker.
Out of the blue. For no reason. Without me asking or knowing anything about it.
What the fuck?
“Dear Phil, we talked of you at 30,000 feet and now down to Earth, I send best wishes to you from old Doctor Who IV, Tom Baker.”
Seriously … what?
First off, is that really from him? It’s postmarked from France, which was where he lived at the time. It’s his signature. or a very good copy; but … how does he know who I am? How does he know where I live? How does he know I’m a fan?
Turns out, my good lady wife met him on a flight to Toulouse (for she is an air-hostess, don’t you know?). She asked him for an autograph (for me). He apologised for not having one of these postcards to sign (even though she would have been happy for him to sign a scrap of paper) and asked for my address so he could send one.
That is lovely.
What’s more lovely though, is he actually did. He actually put a stamp on this and went to the Post Office to post it.
At least, I’m assuming he did. Maybe he didn’t Maybe he has a specially trained postcard monkey who does all this sort of thing for him? I don’t know. I choose to believe he did it himself because it’s such a lovely thing to do.
Generally, I don’t give a fuck about autographs and would never ask for or keep one. But this … well, it’s special.
Someone else told me (possibly on a comment on this blog, I think I’ve mentioned this story before) he’d done the same for them, so maybe he does this all the time. Which is even lovelier or lends credence to the trained monkey theory. Again, I choose to come down on the side of lovely because it makes the world more magical.
The second was when I actually wrote for Doctor Who.
Wrote for an ex-Doctor Who in a non-Doctor Who movie, if you must know; but it still fucking counts.
The film itself was abandoned three-quarters of the way through due to personal politics, incompetence, spite, quality or general muppetry depending on whose story you believe. I have my own opinion, but it’s not worth going into here. Regardless of the actual quality of the film itself, the fact remains Sylvester McCoy once recorded scenes I’d written. He spoke dialogue I’d invented, spouted facts I’d researched and mutilated golf balls in a manner I’d specified with these here very fingers.
That is probably as close to writing for Doctor Who as I’ll ever get.
And no one will ever see it.
The production was shut down, the raw footage (for reasons which escape me) was thrown into a canal. All mention of it on the Internet was expunged and everyone tried to forget it ever happened.
It truly is a lost film. Only about ten people in the world have ever seen the footage and that’s it. No one else will ever see it.
Unless I do something like this:
Turns out, I’ve still got a rough edit on an old hard drive. Out of context, it makes no sense. The footage isn’t graded, there are no sound effects and whatever music cues are on there, like the actual edits themselves, are just temporary. But you know what … I once wrote for Doctor Who and now seems like the right time to share it. Hopefully, posting that video won’t offend any of the people involved.
So there you go. My thoughts on the fiftieth celebration and a little bit of hitherto unseen (sort of) Doctor Who (not really) related footage.
^To be fair, some of the flea-pit cinemas back in the day were far worse than the modern multiplex.
*Seriously? What the fuck? My daughter is five and she knows how to shut the fuck up when a film is on. A child asking questions about the story I can tolerate; but why the fuck would an adult pay to go and see a film and then chat about how the skirt Tiffany was wearing made her earlobes look fat? Why? Not even when the film is boring, but all the fucking way through. What is wrong with people? Shut up! Show some fucking respect! For your own time/investment if nothing else.
Doctor 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
And just like that I was back in love.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Except for that little notebook I used to scribble story ideas in.
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.
I reckon it was probably more like this:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Last year I went to the BBC Drama Writers’ Festival in Leeds and had a merry old time. On my return, I wrote this post about it.
You can read the whole post again if you like, but it’s not really relevant. The relevant bit is this description of a session:
Non-Linear Storytelling with Linda Aronson was a complete and utter head-fuck.
There was days’ worth of information squashed into 50 minutes.
Most of it seemed pretty decent, but I’d need to re-watch a lot of the examples used in order to agree or disagree. A lot of it seemed quite obvious, but was stuff I hadn’t really given names to before.
There were one or two things I think are obvious which seemed to be missing … but I may be wrong because I zoned out more than once. When I get information like this, I like to mull it over and apply it to as many films as possible; but there just wasn’t really enough time.
I think maybe you’d need to read her book or attend a longer seminar to figure out if any of it was useful.
Which is not to say it wasn’t useful, just a bit compressed.
Which, frankly, I think could be interrupted as being a bit rude. It wasn’t meant to be, but I am severely socially inept and tend to say the wrong thing more often than not. The fact I wasn’t saying this, but typing it is even worse.
Linda later got in touch with me and asked, very politely, what information I felt was obvious, but missing?
And I duly replied in a hastily thrown together email which I’ve since lost. In fact, I seem to have lost all emails from 2009 until May this year.
This is annoying.
The lost emails, not the communication with Linda.
To be honest, I can’t really remember what I wrote in that email. I remember being on the secret writing island, so I would have been in a different time zone to my brain; but beyond that … I know there were random witterings about WHEN to begin a story with a flashforward and … some other stuff.
Nope, it’s all gone.
I can only assume it was long, badly worded and burbled quite a bit; but Linda replied with another polite thank you and stated her intention to think about my opinions.
Which she did.
For fourteen months.
And now she’s replied with a fantastically in-depth, well thought out essay. Luckily, Linda had a copy of the email I sent her and quoted some of it, so I’ve at least been able to glean this snippet of my witterings:
It seems to me a lot of films adopt that structure [preview flashback] primarily because they otherwise wouldn’t open with a genre scene. Comedies start with a joke, musicals start with a song, action films start with action … but sometimes the stories need to start in a different place. If it’s an action film, for example, then the easiest way to get round this is to pinch 3/4 of an action sequence from later on and stick at the beginning.
To my mind, that buys you about 20 – 30 mins of scenes which aren’t action (or whatever the genre is) because you’ve shown the audience it’s coming and hopefully whetted their appetite enough to sit through the essential, often non-genre, character scenes. Although I only think this works if the scene you flashback to is completely opposite from the initial scene and you can’t see how the protagonist goes from A to B. If it’s too similar or you can easily imagine the journey, then it doesn’t work.
Opening with a genre scene and flashing back is frequently done because otherwise the first act of the script is non genre and therefore not what the audience has paid to see.If the following scene is too similar in tone or it’s too obvious how the character will get from there to the opening scene, then it just feels like a gimmick instead of a natural story structure.
If you want to read Linda Aronson’s response and her thoughts on the matter, then you can find them here:
You need to scroll down the homepage to the subscription form, fill it in, and hit the ‘view previous campaign’ button.
You’ll be subscribing to Linda’s Newsletter about screenplay structure and parallel narratives and the like; but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Linda’s made an incredibly in-depth study of alternative screenplay structures which makes for an interesting read.
So thank you to Linda for (hopefully) not taking offence at a badly worded review of her session and for taking the time and effort to really think about and codify the kinds of things I should pay more attention to.
I’ve always said format is the suit your script wears to its interview.
Well, not always. Sometimes I’ve said other things like “Please” and “Thank you” and “Where the fuck’s the remote gone now?”. Perhaps consistently said format is the suit your script wears to its interview is more apt?
And whereas I believe that, I’ve also always believed what we wear as writers is largely irrelevant.
So long as it’s not a suit and tie. For some reason, people don’t seem to trust a creative person in a suit and tie. Businessmen wear suits and ties, creative people wear berets. That’s a fucking fact.
Okay, maybe not a beret; but you get the idea. As (someone whose name I’ve forgotten) put it “dress like a slob to get that job”. And he should know, he wrote (a really good film I can’t remember) and (another really good film I can’t remember. Possibly something by Pixar). People who write stuff like that know stuff like this.
Although, recently … I’m not so sure.
About the slob bit. I’m still convinced (the person whose name I’ve forgotten$) is awesome, that’s probably not going to change.
At the BBC TV Drama writers Festival last year, I couldn’t help noticing most of the really successful people were smartly dressed. Not suit and tie smartly dressed; but … just smart. Smart/casual, if you prefer.
Okay, so maybe they’re dressing up just for the festival. Maybe they normally attend meetings barefoot and dressed in rags. I don’t know … but I doubt it.
A few years back, a friend of mine was a session musician and he told me the really well paid session musicians, the true artists and recognised genii of their fields tended to turn up early, be exceptionally well dressed and very polite.
As opposed to the charting teens they were recording over, who tended to be drunk, abusive and fashionably scruffy – the media’s portrayal of rock and roll, in other words.
The moral I took from that is the people who are currently in vogue and making money can dress/behave however the hell the want; but the people who make a career out of it, the ones with longevity, tend to dress/behave in a manner which is much more acceptable to the money people.
And I think scriptwriting is the same, because here’s the thing – the people who have money, the people who invest in films, tend to wear suits. They tend to trust people who also make a similar effort to look smart. Producers tend to be well dressed because investors may well be reluctant to hand over millions of pounds to someone who dresses like a junkie.
Producers want writers to be creative, but manageable. No one wants to deal with a tortured artiste who rends his clothes in twain when the wrong kind of biscuit is served with elevenses.
Unless their last ten films have all made millions – then people will deal with them no matter how difficult/awkward/bastshit insane they are.
People want to work with professionals – people who will get the job done on time, on budget with the minimum of fuss. People who are creative enough to be good, but grounded enough to be pleasant to work with.
And I think that creative/professional balance needs to come across in your clothing. In the past, I’ve experimented with different types of clothing when meeting people for prospective script work (although I never quite got round to turning up in my Batman costume, just to see what would happen) and I, incredibly unscientifically, came to the conclusion that slightly smart got me more jobs than ripped and dirty.
Ultimately, it’s your ability which counts – but a lot of us are on the same level when it comes to ability. Very few of us are towering geniuses. Very few of us can roll in pissed, call the producer a cunt, vomit on his desk and walk away with twice our normal fee because we’re so damned awesome we’re worth it.
So if there are plenty of people who can do the job, then the job tends to go to the one who makes the best impression as a person. Just like any job. And if the people who are handing over large sums of money tend to hang around with people who are dressed smartly, then maybe they feel more comfortable hiring you if you’re dressed just a teensy bit smartly too?
Or maybe not.
Maybe I’m talking shit.
But I keep thinking back on the BBC Drama Festival and how everyone whose work I admired looked … neat. Tidy. Professional.
Maybe this is obvious? Maybe everyone except me has always known this?
Possibly. But there you go, no one else seems to talk about this kind of shit (probably because it’s fucking inane) and I do like to ruminate on the minutae.
Next week – what kind of panties to wear on the first day of principal photography.*
Right, so I’ve been thinking about this too. That ‘24% of the UK population have a disability’ figure shocked me. I too came away thinking I’d put a wheelchair user in each script … but now I’m not sure that’s the right approach.
Hopefully none of the rest of this is offensive to anyone. These are my thoughts on the topic, I’ve tried to be honest and any offence will be caused by ignorance on my behalf. I don’t like being ignorant (despite frequently finding myself so) and would genuinely love to have my ignorance pointed out in the comments.
There were two main opinions on stage that day, one from Lisa Hammond and Ben Owen-Jones (two actors who used wheelchairs) who felt there weren’t enough roles for actors in wheelchairs and one from Lucy Gannon who felt writers should give people with disabilities a voice.
They both had different attitudes towards the problem – the actors felt you should just write a character as normal and then put them in a wheelchair, because they don’t want to only play characters who are defined by their disability and, primarily, because they just want more work.
For example, Ben felt like he could easily be cast as anyone sitting behind a desk because sitting in wheelchair is exactly like sitting in a normal chair.
Lucy, on the other hand, felt that a disability informs everything a character says and does, the very way they interact with the world and therefore putting a character in a wheelchair afterwards wouldn’t ring true.
I kind of understand both points of view (whilst accepting I may have misunderstood both points of view and be interpreting them incorrectly). I mean, if you transfer any line of dialogue from one character to another, you have to rewrite it, because each character talks and acts differently; so putting someone in a wheelchair must change at least one or two lines or actions, surely?
Part of the problem is how a wheelchair in a script translates into what you actually see on screen. If you just slap a random character into a wheelchair, then someone (producer, director or casting) will immediately ask you if they HAVE to be in a wheelchair, because it narrows the casting range/makes the shoot more difficult logistically and visually/scares the hell out of the narrow-minded.
In a low budget production, where the wrong choice of sandwich filling on the catering truck can cause the budget to implode, the first two are legitimate concerns. Anything which extends the shoot by even a minute can have a huge effect on whether or not the film actually gets made. Or even finished. If you have to ensure wheelchair access to every location then it makes things complicated. But is ‘complicated’ a good reason to ‘not do’?
Similarly, if you have to shoot multiple scenes with one person’s head three feet off the floor and another person’s head six feet off the floor, it’s a headache. The reason short actors end up standing on a box when standing next to a tall actor isn’t always the actor’s vanity, but is usually more to do with being able to see both people at the same time.
So if you put an actor in a wheelchair for no story reason beyond wanting to represent disability on screen then the response is likely to be “That’s lovely and noble, but would you mind doing that in your next film?”
The only way to ensure a character in a wheelchair in a script stays in a wheelchair by the time the story makes it to screen is to make the wheelchair an integral part of their character or the plot. Which leads into Lisa Holdsworth’s fear of getting it wrong, a fear I share and one which terrifies film makers.
I’ve worked with a director who felt female characters MUST be pure and innocent at all times because women weren’t like normal human beings. I’ve been shouted at for making a black character gay, because apparently that was racist (as opposed to the inherent homophobia in that statement). The film industry is full of people who completely misunderstand the point of political correctness and live in fear of causing controversy.
If I write one stupid character into a film and someone casts a black guy or a gay guy or a guy with a disability in the part – I fear I’d be pilloried for being racist, homophobic or … um … whatever the word is for being anti-disabled people. I read an Internet rant recently about how outrageous it was that Joss Whedon wrote a black, female character into Firefly who called a white man ‘captain’ – apparently that’s both racist and sexist.
Some people are actively looking for things to be upset about and those loons make life really awkward for everyone involved. Stupidly, I would tie myself up in knots agonising about whether or not a character in a wheelchair had any negative characteristics which the able-bodied characters didn’t have. Even though I know from actually talking to wheelchair-using actors that playing a complete moron or a complete cunt is exactly the sort of role they would love to be offered.
The smaller casting pool for actors with a disability is an issue too, because most actors can’t act. This is much the same as most writers can’t write and most directors can’t direct and most producers are incapable of being reasonable human beings. These are difficult professions and there really isn’t enough talent to go around, hence you end up with the mediocre filling up all the spaces left vacant by the lack of real talent.
Yes, this is why I have a career.
Less actors means less good actors, means a higher chance of not being able to find an even mediocre actor to fill that role, means more chance of a well-meaning casting director coming back to you and asking if there’s any chance of crossing out the word ‘wheelchair’ and perhaps writing ‘walking-stick’ instead.
As an aside and as an example of this, I was once part of a project with a very limited budget where we (the writers) had specified one of the actors was to be a black woman in her early twenties. I sat in on much of the casting and we couldn’t find any black women in that age range who could act.
Undoubtedly, part of the problem was the expenses-only, deferred nature of the project. It’s not that there aren’t any good black female actors, but the proportion who are prepared to work for peanuts is as close to zero as makes no odds. The great are snapped up very quickly, because they stand out. The new are harder to find because they are few and far between. I’ve never sat in on casting for a character with a disability, but (rightly or wrongly) I assume the same is true.
Obviously this is a cyclical problem: the less roles written for certain types of actors means less of those types of actors can get work, which means less of them enter into the profession or more of them give up faster, which means the casting pool gets smaller, which means less roles written for them … and so on …
Actually, to be honest, if I wrote a wheelchair user into a script, the chances are they’d cast an able-bodied actor and put them in a wheelchair. This would fulfil the ‘represent more disabilities on screen’ side of the argument, but not the ‘give actors with disabilities more work’ side.
I was thinking all this through last night when I realised what I was doing. I was using the wheelchair to represent disability. Most people with disabilities don’t use wheelchairs.
In fact, whereas 24% of the population have a disability, less than 2% of the population use wheelchairs.
Adding wheelchairs to a script doesn’t help redress the balance and represent people with disabilities, it represents wheelchair users.
And here’s an odd problem – we lump all the people of the UK who have a disability under the heading ‘disabled’ and then talk about representing them on screen; but what does that actually mean?
Where does this 24% figure come from? Or rather, who are the people who make up that statistic?
Does that include people with impaired vision? If so, how do you represent them on screen? Do they feel they need representing? I’m not just talking about blind people here, what about people who have limited vision or can only see out of one eye? I found out recently my barber has a glass eye. I’ve spoken to him for years without noticing. I even wrote him into a script because I thought he was interesting; but at that point I didn’t know he had a vision impairment, so neither did the character. If I’d known, it wouldn’t have made any difference – I’d still have written him the same way.
Does that 24% include people with hearing difficulties? Or are they not classed as disabled?
What about the sizeable percentage of people who have an invisible disability? Jack Thorne was on that panel, he has Cholinergic Urticaria – there’s no way you could know that unless he told you. It’s a very specific condition to portray on screen, you couldn’t just give it to a character as an afterthought, you’d have to incorporate it into scenes properly.
Would a person who has Cholinergic Urticaria feel ‘represented’ if they saw a drama with an actor in a wheelchair? Or an actor with learning difficulties? Or impaired vision?
My point is, whereas you can easily represent a race or a gender or a sexuality, it’s much harder to represent ‘disability’ when taken as a blanket term. The obvious mental equation is disability=wheelchair; but, as is so often the case, the obvious is wrong.
I understand the point of representing disability on screen. I understand the ‘normalising’ power of TV and film – “Oh look, they’re just like us. In fact, there’s no them, there’s just a bigger ‘us’ than I previously thought.”
If all you ever see are stories about people leading tricky lives because of their disability then it gives everyone an insight into someone else’s life … but does it do anything to reduce prejudice beyond the initial ripple of sympathy? If random people in scripts have a disability and it’s not dwelt on as anything other than something some people have, is that better at slowly changing public opinion?
I can’t help but feel casting directors have more power when it comes to representing people with disabilities than writers and that disability-blind casting is the way to go. I’m fairly certain I can include at least one form of disability in every script from now on … but I’m equally certain that character will either be ‘cured’ during production or end up being played by an able-bodied actor.
Personally, I don’t really know how to approach this. It’s a matter I intend to think more about from now on; but I don’t have any definitive or clear thoughts on the best way forward.
A couple of interesting sites for further reading:
If I haven’t been answering my emails for the last few days, it’s either because I don’t like you or because I’ve been enveloped in the welcoming arms of Leeds for the BBC Writersroom’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Hence the title of this post which, let’s face it, would be an odd title if I hadn’t actually been. Unless it was a rant about how unfair the world is and how the BBC won’t let me play with any of their millions of pounds.
But it isn’t!
The BBC did let me go and said they would be happy to let me (or indeed anyone else who wandered past) play with all their money … so long as I (or you. Yes, you!) could write a script good enough to make their pants froth with excitement.
So that’s lovely.
If you’ve not been to the festival before (which I hadn’t) then know this:
The TV Drama Writers’ Festival is the festival for professional television writers. Providing a unique opportunity to mix with BBC drama commissioners and producers, and writers who are at the top of their field, the festival is a mix of masterclasses, conversation and debate – led by writers for writers. It is an opportunity to be inspired, challenged, and to have your say.
The estimable (he used to be inestimable but … oh wait, I’ve done that gag before and it wasn’t funny the first time) Piers Beckley and I trundled up on the train the day before so he could get drunk in a pub with some other lovely people while I drank tea and mumbled stuff about The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard.
I feel like I should list the other lovely people; but at the same time I’m wary of just listing people I’ve met in a weird sideways name-dropping thing. If anyone really wants to know a complete list of everyone I spoke to, email me and I’ll send it to you.
If, on the other hand, you just fancy seeing your name on my blog then say so in the comments and I’ll list you here:
That’s a space there, for anyone who wants their name in pixels on an obscure writer’s obscure blog.
But enough of this nonsense. What happened at the festival itself?
Lots, is the simple answer.
These are the bits I can remember:
Peter Bowker gave the keynote speech on ambition. It was very funny and witty and insightful … but I was a bit befuddled by … reality, I guess, at that point and failed to take most of it in. I think the general point was:
Or at least, that’s what it said on my eticket. Turns out it was actually called Putting the Comedy in Long Runners, which makes much more sense.
This was a bit of an odd session for me, almost totally because of my own ignorance. I didn’t know ‘Long Runners’ meant ‘Soaps’ (which I don’t really watch*) nor did I know that putting comedy into them was even a debatable point. I mean, surely everything has the odd funny line in here and there? Why would anyone think this was a bad thing?
So the message there was – you should.
Then there were some clips shown to illustrate how funny bits make drama bits more dramatic.
This session and most of the schedule for the first day highlighted a bit of a problem for me, should I ever get round to making a concerted effort to work in TV; namely, I don’t really enjoy cop shows, medical shows or soaps. There are a bunch of different reasons for this, none of which are entirely relevant here. Let’s just suffice it to say I’d rather watch a bunch of beautiful inbred hillbillies driving in circles than anything which reflects real life.
Next up was a discussion about REV with James Wood, hosted by Alice Nutter. The essence of which was, Rev is a fantastic show, James Wood seems like a really nice guy, Alice Nutter asks interesting questions, reverends are only too happy to talk to anyone about their vocations and research throws up far funnier things than any writer can possibly imagine.
Then I had a cup of tea. I almost didn’t. For a heart-stopping moment, I thought Michelle Lipton had used the last of the hot water in the urn … put judicious tipping proved she hadn’t and the day was saved.
Next up: The Art of Pitching with Ashley Pharoah who comes across as an inordinately lovely bloke (no doubt he was responsible for the gnawed kitten-skeletons the staff were smuggling out of the Green Room; but in public – really nice guy).
I was a little afraid a session on pitching would be all dynamic and forceful …
but that’s not really Ashley’s style. He mumbled and apologised his way through the session, explaining he tended to mumble and apologise his way through pitching. The result is so endearing I wanted to give him some money there and then … but, you know, I haven’t got any.
The salient points were:
Be passionate about your project and know why you want to write it. If you get a no and can immediately pull out five more ideas … how passionate were you about the original idea in the first place?
Know exactly what it is you’re pitching. Know the idea inside out so you can answer questions.
Don’t rehearse the pitch too much, you’ll sound like a robotic dick (my words, not his)
Know why only you can write that story and why it’s important to you.
If in doubt, lie – pretend it happened to someone you know so the commissioner/producer will believe only you can write the story.
Be Ashley Pharaoh, because being awesome and having an awesome track record means you get to wander into rooms and pitch random, mumbled ideas to people in the knowledge they’ll have enough faith in you to give you the benefit of the doubt.
Even if you are Ashley Pharaoh, you still get more nos than yeses.
Non-Linear Storytelling with Linda Aronson was a complete and utter head-fuck.
There was days’ worth of information squashed into 50 minutes.
Most of it seemed pretty decent, but I’d need to re-watch a lot of the examples used in order to agree or disagree. A lot of it seemed quite obvious, but was stuff I hadn’t really given names to before.
There were one or two things I think are obvious which seemed to be missing … but I may be wrong because I zoned out more than once. When I get information like this, I like to mull it over and apply it to as many films as possible; but there just wasn’t really enough time.
I think maybe you’d need to read her book or attend a longer seminar to figure out if any of it was useful.
Which is not to say it wasn’t useful, just a bit compressed.
The last session of the day was a debate about Disability in drama … actually, it wasn’t a debate. It was an articulate and well reasoned case for writing more disabled parts into scripts.
Lucy feels writers are extremely privileged because they have a voice and can affect change. To not use it is a gross dereliction of that power.
Jack agreed and puts his pen where his mouth is by either writing disabled characters into scripts or holding disability-blind castings so the person gets hired irrespective of their physical ability.
Lisa mentioned and knocked down every objection to hiring disabled people and pointed out able-bodied actors get an average of 25 auditions a year. Disabled actors get an average of 2. That’s just fucking shocking.
Ben (a wheelchair user) doesn’t understand why he can’t audition for roles which involve sitting behind a desk or anything which doesn’t specifically involve a character using their legs.
The consensus was that most disabled actors don’t want to only get offered roles which centre on their disabilities, they want to play a variety or roles where they can be perceived as human beings first and not just people coping with a disability.
In an ideal world, we’d just write scripts and those parts would be open to anyone to audition for them regardless of disability, skin colour or gender … but we don’t live in that world.
If you don’t mention someone’s in a wheelchair – casting departments won’t cast a wheelchair user. It just doesn’t occur to them; so even if doesn’t matter whether a character is disabled or not, specify some of them are and help to redress the imbalance.Just don’t make that character defined by their disability.
Write the person first – slap ’em in a wheelchair afterwards.
Lisa recommended watching this short:
And that was pretty much day one.
Interspersed was lunch, booze and mingling.
And stupid fucking questions.
And questions which weren’t actually questions, but statements.
Or just pointless rambling which derails the session, takes the focus off the person we’ve all come to listen to and puts it on someone who can”t string a coherent sentence together and leaves the poor person at the front trying to unpick a random stream of consciousness in case there was actually a question buried in the middle of it.
Just to confuse matters, when I got back to the hotel – the sign had been removed from the front, leaving me uncertain if it actually was my hotel or whether I’d been the victim of an elaborate Leverage-style con to swindle me out of my £18 a night.
I hadn’t been, they’d just decided to confuse the fuck out of everyone. Or maybe just me..
The day kicked off nice and early (too early for some drunken layabouts) with a John Yorke Masterclass on Storytelling Physics.
This one was really interesting; John Yorke’s a great speaker with some fantastic ideas about the Ego and the Id and the facade we put up versus our internal desires.
I still need to process a lot of this information and work out how I can apply it to my work; but the main thing I got from it was the realisation that a lot of bad writers misuse his ideas to defend their appalling grasp of story.
Through arguments I’ve had with writers who insist their rambling, nonsensical, structureless work adheres to John Yorke’s five act structure, I’d come to the conclusion he didn’t know what he was talking about.
After hearing him speak and seeing him briefly sketch those acts on a board, I’ve now come to the conclusion said writers didn’t pay enough fucking attention and completely misunderstood what he was saying.
I’d love to hear more of his thoughts first hand.
Plot versus Character with Toby Whithousewas a great session – a discussion about how he creates characters first and uses them to create a plot generator. I didn’t realise Being Human started off as (essentially) Game On before the idea of making one of them a Werewolf got chucked into the mix.
I’d still argue the premise came before the characters (even if the premise changed when the characters didn’t) but it was a great lesson in character building – followed up by an exercise in creating a character, which was fun until we ran out of time.
Meet the Commissioners was pretty much exactly what it said and gave us all the chance to listen to what Ben Stephenson (BBC), Laurie Mackie (ITV), Sophie Gardiner (Channel Four/E4) and Huw Kennair-Jones. (Sky) wanted in a script.
They want it to be fucking awesome and right for their channels.
That’s pretty much it.
Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve written before, just make it amazing and make sure it’s the right match for their channel.
And that’s kind of all that matters. Stop whining, write something better and it’ll get commissioned.
If it doesn’t, keep trying. They’re always on the look out for amazing work, there are no barriers to entry … it’s just you and your talent, kid.
Last up: The Language and Rules of Reinventing the World which was a hilarious session with Toby Whithouse and Jack Thorne about creating fantasy worlds on a budget, making it up as you go along versus plotting out several series’ worth of mythology and wanking whilst crying.
At this point, I felt the sudden and overwhelming need to turn into one of the people who annoyed me so much and share my knowledge of The Dukes of Hazzard with the room.
If you were in that session, sorry. I’m not even convinced that information was entirely accurate. I really don’t know what came over me beyond a desperate need to join in.
And that was pretty much that.
All in all, a fun and informative few days with friends old and new, information useful (them) and pointless (me) and a bit of a wander around a city I hadn’t been to before thrown in for good measure.
If you haven’t been, I strongly recommend you go next year. It’s cheap, it’s interesting and it’s fun. If you have been … well, then you already know this and are probably wasting your time reading this post.
* This isn’t a judgement on quality, it’s more my inability to grapple with tiny pieces in the middle of a year long story without falling asleep. I’m fairly certain if I watched any soap for a few weeks I’d love it as much as everyone else does.