Conventional wisdom has it that the golden age of TV drama they brought
about is now long gone, but Bragg will have none of that. "We’re going
through a good period now, across the board." He even praises the soaps,
comparing their mass appeal with that of Dickens’s. Even if we don’t
identify with the characters, we all share their emotional space.
"There’s a preoccupation with private life that has entered mass living in
the postwar period, partly because people have…less patience with the idea
that ‘I’m manacled for life to this situation and I’ve got to stick with
It reminds me of something Timothy Spall recently said in praise of Mike
Leigh’s films. "What Mike does is let the smallest characters have epic
Resolve to treat this as inspiration for my own humble efforts. Epic
lives? In Albert Square? Yes. Exactly that.
But then, among all the pages and pages of comments about the report, not
to mention the pages and pages of comments commenting on the comments about
the report, I find the extraordinary admission from Lord Hutton that he
had difficulty understanding the precise meaning of the verb ‘to sex up’.
Since the term is at the heart of the issue he was asked to pass judgment
on, I’d have thought that was effectively an admission he wasn’t the man for
the job. And while the sight of politicians gunning for journalists merely
reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on fox-hunting – the unspeakable in hot
pursuit of the inedible – when the issue becomes one of language, well,
that’s something I do care about.
I suspect Gilligan’s is a relatively new use of the word ‘sex’, so
doesn’t appear in my edition of the OED – though no doubt its entry
for the next edition is being honed by the editors down the road at OUP as I
write – but a definition does exist for the informal use of the adjective
‘sexy’. I quote: "exciting; appealing", as in: "I’ve climbed most of the
really sexy west coast mountains." Most of us don’t need the education of
an ex-lord chief justice of Northern Ireland to deduce that ‘to sex up’
therefore means ‘to make more sexy’, i.e. ‘to make more exciting or
All his lordship had to do was come to me.
Finish and deliver what is euphemistically called final
draft. Actually, almost certain to be four or five more, but am getting used
to that now. Wonder if main reason other writers drop out of EE is
because they can't take the rewriting, not to mention the very tight
schedules - what one might in industrial terms refer to as the high
productivity. Know film scripts often go to 20 or more drafts, but know no
other TV series that even approaches the EE figure.
Even his screenplays, six of which I've just finished
reading, are similarly sparely written, containing such shot descriptions
as, "Doorway. Legs over the arm of the chair. He advances." In the programme
notes I read he has written 29 plays and directed 27. In the introduction to
the screenplays I learn he's written 24 in total, 17 of which have actually
been filmed. He may be 15 years older than me, even so it's a depressing
comparison with my own meagre output. Three broadcast episodes of EastEnders,
one to come.
Alright, there are all the other efforts gathering
dust: countless radio plays, dozen short stories, couple of unfinished
novels, three or four TV plays, three unfinished film scripts. But if I burn
them all as they deserve, no one will ever know about them.
On other hand, try to console myself, maybe his
productivity isn't so impressive. What with the endless pauses, single-word
exchanges, repetitions, sparse action, etc., his actual word count is
probably quite low. And when you take into account all the rewrites I
have to do, well, our work rates are probably very similar.
The day brings a sudden unexpected flurry of emails from a few old BBC
Talent co-finalists. As one puts it, ‘they’re like London buses; you wait
for ages then…’ Someone kicks off by mentioning he’s got a pilot sitcom
going out on BBC Radio Wales: would we please listen to it, then vote for
him so they commission a series?
We suggest a reunion. April is proposed but who knows if it’ll happen.
Will we all sit round jealously guarding the names of our series producers
so as to prevent the others muscling in on our patch? Maybe that’s why
writers don’t much like socialising.
Deliver draft five of latest episode. Fully expect more comments to come
almost by return, but instead get call from script editor. She has nothing
to say. She loves it. It’ll go to the exec producer on Friday just as it is.
I celebrate by doing absolutely nothing for the rest of the day.
Faced with at least three working days of idleness before I have to start
on draft six, decide to embark on a short story, something I’ve not done for
two or three years. Pick an idea out of my ‘shoe box’ file – a rather silly
fantasy about a wealthy international businessman who sets out to own
everything – and start writing. Surprisingly inspiration comes easily and
the words flow. Maybe it’s because I have no intention of ever offering it
for publication. No agonising over every comma.
Read yesterday’s 5000 words. I was right. They are rubbish. Delete the
lot. A press of a key and they’re gone. As if they never were.
It occurs to me literary biographers will have their work cut out in
future. Soon those days will be gone for ever when authors produced paper
manuscripts scribbled in their own handwriting or bashed out on an old
Remington, complete with mistakes, corrections, deletions, rewrites, endless
fodder for PHDs. Soon the only evidence of a writer’s work will be what
he chooses to leave for posterity on his laptop: in my case nothing but
perfect final drafts.
Seem to remember in the film Amadeus Salieri complaining Mozart
never crossed anything out; his compositions appeared on paper needing no
improvement. Thanks to computers, every writer can now claim the same.
Start new story about a struggling literary biographer.
Sunday 7th March 2004
It’s not often an article in a Sunday paper renders me speechless,
but a piece in today’s Independent on Sunday comes close. The
headline runs “’Lit Idol’ rival writers vie for first book deal”. Maybe I’ve
been thinking too much about C4’s No Angels bearing an uncanny
resemblance to my 2001 pilot Intensive Care, or maybe it’s just my
usual paranoia. The article goes on:
‘Five wannabe novelists … are vying for the
title of Lit Idol 2004, the publishing world’s equivalent of Pop Idol. To
win, the aspiring authors will have to read extracts from their books in
front of a panel of judges ... Lit Idol 2004 was launched last year and aims
to find the nation’s most promising new novelists … [T]he writers submitted
10,000 words from the opening chapters of their novels, along with a
Is it my imagination, or do I recall coming up with a very similar idea
myself? I find it in my diary entry for 11 February 2002
(check it out
Manage to pass entire weekend without watching a single
second of Pop Idol ... Try to think of a story to exploit these pop
star competitions. Ben Elton’s done Big Brother. Maybe I can be the
first to do Pop Idol. Then it comes to me … Never mind the novel of
Pop Idol. What about the Pop Idol of the novel? … Writer
Star! A nationwide search for Britain’s next literary sensation.
Live. On prime-time TV. Watch the nation’s Ian McEwan and Joanna Trollope
wannabes parade their fictional efforts before a stony-faced panel of
literary eminences. Feel the heartbreak. See the tears. Share the laughter.
The highs. The lows.
… Each contestant has to impress the judges with the first
paragraph of a short story, or a pithy poem … The best fifty go to
London for further rounds of gruelling examination. In only five days they
must write a convincing fictional exploration of one of the major literary
themes of the day: love, betrayal, redemption, football, post-modern
minimalism. Eventually ten are selected to go on to the final … Which is
when it gets personal. Yes, they can all write, but do they have what it
takes to be writers? Did they have lonely, miserable, violent
childhoods? How many times have they been deserted by feckless spouses? Have
they had a lifelong battle with drug abuse? Not only that, but what do
they look like? Are the men ruggedly wasted, as if they’ve just spent a
year with alcoholic Siberian oilworkers researching their latest novel? Do
the women look intelligent yet as sexy as Minette Waters? Who, to coin a
phrase, has the write stuff?
Am I bitter? No. Honestly, no. I suppose the possibility of plagiarism
must be a fact of life for any writer foolish enough to publish a diary on
the Internet. But I think I’ll be a bit more coy about my ideas in
Monday 15th March 2004
Saw Barbarian Invasions a week ago. Very moving, more so for also
being very rude and funny. Still find myself haunted by scene near the end
in which the dead hero’s city whizz-kid son hands over the keys of his
father’s book-lined apartment to a recovering drug addict. She looks at the
hundreds of books surrounding her. We see close ups of titles and authors,
mostly famous intellectuals from the last fifty years, though I can’t
remember who. The implication seems to be that from the half-dead state in
which she has been living under the influence of cocaine, she can now begin
to enjoy a whole new world of thought and ideas.
If only. After a lifetime of reading books and living in the world of
ideas, I have now become almost pathologically terrified of them. The few
books I read, I seem to read only for information. My current favourite
is Chambers Biographical Dictionary. If I pick up a novel, within ten
pages I find I’m mentally proofreading it as I go along – either that or
trying to work out if it would make a decent movie, or wondering why I’m
reading yet another story about love, betrayal, redemption, football,
Now got so bad I find it almost impossible to go into bookshops (what’s the
word for that: literaphobia?). The sight of all those thousands of unread
books brings me out in a cold sweat. All those words. All that effort. Each
one the result of a year’s struggle, late nights, agony. For what? Sales of
a few hundred and the congratulations of family and friends. Within a couple
of years 99% of them will be pulp. Why do we do it?
Tuesday 16th March 2004
Latest EastEnders episode very close to final sign-off, so have a few
days unaccustomed leisure in which to proceed with other writing projects.
Play around with structure of TV drama about a man arrested as a terrorist
suspect, but have trouble with key central section so decide to put aside
for a while. Then have brilliant idea for a novel.
I know, another novel. But this one’s good. Believe me.
What’s it about? You must be joking. You don’t think I’m going to tell
you, do you?
Saturday 27th March 2004
Friend lends me DVD of Pirates of the Caribbean. Which turns out
to be very enjoyable in a low-critical-threshold Saturday-night sort of way.
It’s a cross between Night of the Living Dead and Swallows and
Amazons, from the latter of which it borrows the nice English accents.
"You must watch the out-takes," advises friend. "They’re even more fun."
True enough: Johnny Depp stumbling over his lines – "Where’s the damn
writer? I want to strangle him" – and Orlando Bloom falling down. Being
a two-CD set, there’s even more stuff: a commentary, enhanced computer
features, a behind the scenes tour, how the fights were staged, etc, etc. We
see thirty stunt men recreate an attack on a town: blown up into the air,
tumbling from balconies onto strategically placed mattresses, knocked out by
fists that never come within a foot of their faces.
All very interesting, but can’t help thinking we could be losing a bit
of the magic with all this inside information. I can’t be the only
viewer who increasingly finds himself in the middle of movies idly wondering
how many takes it took to get a scene right, thinking about the crew
standing round just out of shot drinking cups of coffee, or deciding, oh
yes, that’s the moment when they switched from the real sword to the fake
There’s been so much coverage of the making of films – especially Lord
of the Rings – they’re proving almost as popular as the films
themselves, and let’s be honest, often a lot more entertaining. Recall when
Hitchcock’s The Birds first came out, it was revealed Tippi
Hedren had fainted twice during the filming of a bird attack. A critic
commented, "I can’t wait to see the film of the film."
It’s a good job no one’s worked out a way of doing the same to the
writing of a novel. ‘Jane Eyre – how Charlotte Bronte came up
with the fire idea!’ ‘War and Peace – the battle scenes that
didn’t make the final draft!’ ‘Crime and Punishment – how Dostoevsky
fought the publishers over his downbeat ending!’
It could happen. Why are programmes like The Book Club so popular?
Why are we always so fascinated by writers’ private lives? Why do
people always want to ask them, "Where do you get your ideas from?" Luckily
the writing of novels, unlike films, remains a complete mystery. No one’s
yet worked out how any of them ever comes to see the light of day. Not even
Thursday 1st April 2004
Surprised but pleased to receive an email in response to my recent
confession about fear of books and bookshops. It seems my literaphobia is
a recognised medical condition, though it goes under the name bibliophobia
(from the Greek biblion ‘book’ and phobos ‘fear’).
Examples of extreme bibliophobia aren’t hard to find. The burning of the
great library of Alexandria was probably the work of a bibliophobe. The
Nazis were of course the most famous book-burning bibliophobes and the wife
of the famous nineteenth-century explorer Richard Burton was probably a
bibliophobe, guilty as she was of burning most of her husband’s work after
his death, though it’s possible her condition was brought about solely
because of the – as she saw it – pornographic nature of much of his writing.
Less well-known bibliophobes include Samuel Johnson, who cast his entire
library of books into the Thames on at least two occasions. In the US the
condition is widespread. A conference of psychiatrists specialising in its
treatment is held every year in Las Vegas, and many members of the current
administration are believed to be sufferers.
As with most psychiatric illnesses, treatments are lengthy, expensive and
frequently of only limited effect. The behavioural approach is apparently
the most popular: over a number of weeks sufferers are slowly
re-introduced to comics, graphic novels, picture books, then newspapers.
Only when they are able to stomach those are they then encouraged to move
onto celebrity biographies, self-help books, gardening and cookery books.
Novels – particularly bestsellers by writers such as Tom Clancy and Lord
Jeffrey Archer – invariably remain forever outside their reach, bringing on
inevitable attacks of uncontrollable nausea.
Tuesday 13th April 2004
Staying with friends in the Lake District, home of Wordsworth, birthplace
of Stan Laurel. Intrigued to find their choice of books (my friends’
choice, that is, not Wordsworth’s or Stan Laurel’s) very similar to my own
– before I suffered a recent attack of bibliophobia and threw most of
them out. Is this, I wonder (the similarity, not the bibliophobia), a result
of our friendship (we recommend books to each other), a cause of our
friendship (we like each other because we like the same books), a function
of our education (university graduates like the same books) or merely a sign
of our similar age (we like the kind of books we liked when we were young)?
For all I know, could be all of the above. The presence of a new
acquaintance suggests another alternative. He’s a geologist. When we set out
for a walk in the teeth of a hailstorm to trace one of Wordsworth’s walks,
instead of consulting the usual detailed Ordnance Survey, he takes along a
geological map. At first glance it bears no resemblance to the landscape we
are walking through, but gradually familiar features begin to appear and I
realise it is simply another way of looking at things. A conventional map
looks at the surface, a geological map looks under the surface.
For some reason the two things (choice of books, maps) insist on coming
together in my head. The creative mind never sleeps. It’s a burden, I
know. Books, maps, friendship…
Then it comes to me. Literary maps!
People who like walking have maps to show them where to find the walks
that will best suit them; people who like looking at country houses can pick
from any number of guides. Result: walkers and country-house fans know where
they can mingle with like-minded people and indulge their passions. What do
book-lovers have? Nothing. Planning a trip in the expectation of meeting
people with similar reading habits is an impossible task. How dispiriting it
is to visit a part of the country in the hope of bumping into a few Saul
Bellow fans, only to find instead a population buried in A S Byatt. We’ve
all been there.
What we need is a nationwide literary mapping programme to pinpoint
bookshops, libraries and landmarks of literary interest: authors’
birthplaces, resting places, literary museums, and so on. At a more detailed
level, area maps will show where books were written, the location of
buildings and geographical features used in well-known novels, the homes of
famous characters, etc.
But in addition – and here’s the really original, most useful feature –
sophisticated colour-coding techniques will indicate the literary tastes of
the nation. Based on book sales and library withdrawals, a picture will be
built up of who reads what, where. Norwich? Full of Joanna Trollope readers.
A few miles out of town and you’re in Graham Swift territory. Is the Dorset
coast still the place to find John Fowles fans? No, there’s been a defection
to John Grisham. Imagine the usefulness of such a readily accessible source
of information. No more fruitless trips to genteel Perth in the hope of
running into an Irvine Welsh discussion group. Try Hampstead. The tea-shops
of Harrogate? You can hardly hear yourself think for the chatter about
Remember, you read it here first.
Monday 19th April 2004
To Elstree to watch filming of some of my latest EastEnders
episode. I must be developing a thick skin, because I don’t even flinch when
an actress changes my climactic speech and ad libs her way through about ten
lines of dialogue. When I mention this to one of the editors, he says,
‘Don’t worry. If it turns out well, everyone will assume you wrote it; if it
turns out badly you can tell everyone she did.’
Still no sign of my next commission, but nevertheless feel buoyed,
especially when one of the actors tells me he only agreed to do my episode
because he enjoyed the script so much. Isn’t that nice?
Walking out the main gate, I exchange a few words with the loyal fans
standing outside in the drizzle. ‘Bit miserable standing out here in this,
‘We don’t mind,’ they answer cheerfully, their damp smiles barely dimmed
by the realisation I’m not at all famous.
They’re mad, of course. But only about as mad as me standing on a
hail-swept hillside in Cumbria thinking about Wordsworth.
Sunday 25th April 2004
9.30 am. Dozing in that A La Recherche du Temps Perdu state
that is neither sleep nor wakefulness, I gradually become aware of an
argument raging about the correct plural of ‘referendum’. Try hard to return
to satisfying dream in which I am delivering Oscar acceptance speech, but to
no avail. The presenter of Radio 4’s Broadcasting House keeps insisting I
make up my mind: ‘referendums’ or ‘referenda’?
Given that Mr Blair has only promised one referendum, not sure why we
even have to consider its plural, but I can tell by the increasing ferocity
of the emails that the nation will not rest until the question is
settled. It is a typically British approach to questions of national and
international importance. Here we are about to have a referendum on the
first written constitution the country has ever had, and R4 listeners
just want to make sure we get the plural right.
Thankfully, before the end of the programme, a senior OED editor
puts us all out of our misery: ‘referendum’ comes from a Latin gerund
(‘referring’) which has no plural, so the normal English way of pluralising
by sticking an ‘s’ on the end seems most sensible. "’Referenda’ is still OK,
though," he quickly adds. Another typically British response: compromise.
Later, read in one of the Sunday paper doorstops an article full of
amazement at the popularity of Ms Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
Doesn’t amaze me. We may not know what to write, but we can certainly make
sure we know how to punctuate it when we do. And we may not know what we
think about this referendum but, by God, we know its plural.
Thursday 29th April 2004
Gap between EastEnders episodes becoming worryingly long, but at
least gives me opportunity to get thoroughly immersed in my TV drama about a
man arrested as a terrorist suspect. Main problem with it – indeed, main
problem with any topical fiction – is that real life keeps threatening to
catch up. So far though, despite all the recent arrests, events haven’t
actually overtaken me. Life is not, as it were, yet imitating my art.
Also rather worried am becoming surrounded by increasing number of
unfinished projects: TV drama, crime novel, film… Are other writers as
unfocussed? Then read in Geoff Dyer’s Yoga For People Who Can’t Be
bothered To Do It he suffers from same problem. He introduces at least
three places he visited in order to write or research a book, then admits he
never in fact got round to writing it. So it’s not just me.
Friday 30th April 2004
Spend pleasant couple of hours with two fellow BBC Talent finalists, both
of whom have also started being commissioned. We congratulate each other on
our good fortune, but apart from a few cursory remarks about the episodes
we’ve done, we never discuss what we’re actually working on, what we’re
writing, our ideas. Almost by unspoken agreement, we talk about
everything but: money (the lack of it), deadlines (their impossibility),
script editors (where would we be without them?) and drink (whose round is
Are we writers so paranoid we can’t tell other writers our ideas for
fear of them being stolen? Of course we are.
Sunday 2nd May 2004
As usual scan Sundays to check for any terrorist suspect stories that may
duplicate my own. Eyes nervously alight on piece about the 10 people
arrested recently in Manchester, thought to have been plotting an attack on
Old Trafford. It seems, however, the Man U tickets found in their homes
which led to this suspicion were for a game already played. They’d been kept
merely as souvenirs.
No, it’s not one of my ideas. But I may steal it.
Wednesday 12th May 2004
Phone call from Elstree. Am I available for another episode of
EastEnders? "Am I?" just manage to stop myself shouting in joy and relief.
Instead coolly ask for a moment while I check my schedule.
No, I don’t. Just say, "Of course I am." Care little if sound as if
I’ve been waiting by phone for last six weeks.
Thursday 13th May 2004
A new generation of DVD players is apparently on its way. Equipped with
technology from a company based in Salt Lake City, the players will be
programmed to spare viewers’ moral sensibilities by muting out or skipping
over offensive language, excessive violence or sex. 14 different levels of
moral ‘filtering’ – oh, let’s call a spade a spade – censorship will be
available. A journalist wonders how little may be left of a typical shoot-em-up
Schwarzenegger feature if a viewer should chose the highest level: two
minutes? Actually, I suspect censorship will be exercised little over such
movies. Who was it said violence is as American as apple-pie? The
self-appointed moral guardians who will buy this rubbish are probably more
incensed by bad language than by the sight of people shooting one another’s
In that respect little has changed since 1900, when my father’s copy of
Tristram Shandy was printed. Needing to read Sterne’s masterpiece for
my degree many years later, I thought I’d save myself the expense of buying
my own copy and use his instead. Unfortunately, when I opened it at the
first page, I discovered it started at Chapter 4. The editor – an Oxford
don who clearly would have felt at home in the Mormon capital of the world –
had decided for the sake of his readers’ moral welfare to remove the book’s
more ‘unseemly’ passages.
What was particularly staggering was his assertion that not only was
he doing his readers a great service, but that he was also doing one for
Saturday 15th May 2004
To Stratford to see Macbeth. Excellent production. Straight
through without an interval, the way I like it. Can’t help comparing it with
a performance I saw many years ago in the same theatre, with Nicol
Williamson in the title role and Helen Mirren as his ambitious wife, but
resist the temptation to say one was better than the other. How can I judge
after thirty years?
With my head half-full of new EastEnders story lines, also can’t
help comparing the play with TV drama. Sacrilege, I know, even to utter the
name of our greatest playwright in the same breath as a soap, but there are
some interesting similarities. With 27 scenes it uses almost the same
pace of cutting, and the plot fairly whistles along in the way TV viewers
have come to expect, so much so I can hardly keep track of the bodies
mounting up. And while many RSC-goers may regard attending a William
Shakespeare performance as a more superior experience than watching
television, actors are certainly not ashamed of their TV credits. From the
programme biogs I learn that Lady Macbeth was in Morse, Banquo was in
Ab Fab, Ross was in Casualty, Duncan was in Kavanagh QC,
and Malcolm, even after this RSC season had started, could still be seen in
Tuesday 18th May 2004
To Elstree for EE commissioning meeting. 11 of us sit round a
table to thrash out the episodes in our week. Meet two writers from the
shadow scheme I attended. They work as a team. I ask how they do it, do they
write alternate lines of dialogue or what? "No," they reply. "It just
depends on who’s looking after the baby." Also meet a writer from last
year’s story seminar, who tells me the sobering tale of how he was taken off
one of his episodes. "Everything was going well till about the third draft,
then I just lost my way." After a few weeks of increasingly fruitless
tinkering, "everything went ominously quiet. Then they told me it was
going to be finished by another writer." Gulp.
Back home, partner tells me she’s just heard on the radio a theory that
Shakespeare could have been more than one person, that his plays could have
been the result of collaboration between a number of writers. I’ve no idea
if it’s true or not, but in all modesty I have to say the idea has occurred
to me too. Maybe, like conspiracies and governments, we get the
Shakespeare theory we deserve. In an age of TV it’s therefore hardly
surprising we can believe that 400 years ago his plays were written in much
the same way as EastEnders is written today.
Wednesday 19th May 2004
Email my episode’s amended story beats to my script editor. Seems the
EE team now want to try and nail down the way we writers are going to tell
our stories before we dream up one line of dialogue. Suspect this may be
result of bitter experience. Can envisage finely honed first draft turning
up after three weeks hard creative slog on part of writer, only for editor
to gasp in horror: oh no, why’s he telling the stories like that?
Theory is that now we’ll all be singing off same hymn sheet from the off.
Thursday 20th May 2004
Receive few more comments on story beats, but also go-ahead to start
actual draft. Immediately embark on own personal method of summoning
creative muse – namely, staring out the window for rest of day until a
decent idea pops into my head.
Friday 28th May 2004
Deliver draft one. One of the hardest tricks for any writer is knowing
when to stop tinkering. Was it Wilde who said he always knew it was time
to stop when he was putting the commas back in the afternoon he’d taken out
in the morning? Luckily, EE writers have delivery deadlines to
tell them when to stop. Bit like five-day long exams: put your pens down
now. Look forward to an entire bank holiday weekend during which to
indulge usual pathetic fantasy of being told draft so brilliant no rewrites
Monday 31st May 2004
To local arthouse cinema to see Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and
Spring. Expect deep transcendental experience about meaning of life,
death, etc. Instead get rather trite coming-of-age story accompanied by
banal Korean pop music and stunningly beautiful cinematography. Learn from
programme that Ki-duk Kim is one of the fastest film makers in the world.
Perhaps something significant to be said about an entire life being
represented by the passage of one year in a film that may have taken only a
week to make – but can’t be bothered to work out what.
Wednesday 2nd June 2004
Notes on first draft arrive. Depressingly lengthy. But nearly all sound,
as usual. First task is to make the main subplot more convincing.
Essentially it revolves around a character’s dilemma – like all good drama –
problem is I don’t really know the reasons for his dilemma. Spend a long
time on phone with script editor trying to thrash them out.
Thursday 3rd June 2004
Another day staring out the window.
Friday 4th June 2004
Wake at 4.30am in panic. Plainly subconscious knows draft two must be
delivered on Monday, even if conscious has forgotten. Lie in bed staring at
ceiling. Suppress panic. By 7.00am first four scenes have been rewritten –
if only in my head. Know I’ve said it before, but a deadline certainly
concentrates the mind.
Monday 7th June 2004
EE Writers Day dawns hot and sunny. By dint of working through
weekend, manage to email draft two only five minutes after I should have
been on my way to Elstree in person. But still arrive in time to get free
parking place, free lunch, free drinks and inspiring speech from exec
producer. ‘According to one of the tabloids,’ she starts, ‘I am a dead woman
walking.’ She goes on to tell us that though EE ratings may be very
slightly down, Corrie’s are down by more. Crisis? What crisis? She
tells us how pleased she is with us and how we must do this on a regular
basis and we must always feel free to come and see her. We glow with
self-satisfaction. She shows us video clips of ‘best bits of the year’,
by the end of which we firmly believe – if we didn’t already – we really are
writing for the best drama series on the telly.
At afternoon seminars the top writers talk about how they go about the
writing process. They – and most of the others who chip in – seem very
organised and methodical, one even claiming to write 30-page outlines before
starting on the first draft. I sense it’d be wise to keep quiet about my
method: there doesn't seem anything very organised or methodical about
staring out of the window waiting for ideas to strike.
Relaxing with more free drink in the evening sun afterwards, we’re joined
by those of the cast who’ve stuck around after filming specifically to meet
us – most for the first time. It’s unnerving being surrounded by faces
with whom I’ve become as familiar as my own family. It’s as much as I
can do to stop myself slapping them on the back and going, ‘How’re you
doing, mate?’ After a few drinks I tell Shane Richie we’re probably related.
Surprisingly he doesn’t edge away.
I meet one of the writers from the shadow scheme. She’s still holding
down a full-time job as well as knocking out scripts. I’m lost in
admiration. How does she do it? As people drift off home, the writer of
tonight’s episode taps me on the shoulder – Lucy, that’s you – ‘I’ve read
your diary on the internet. Very good.’
After I recover from the initial embarrassment, drink-fuelled musing
takes over. I write a diary about trying to be a writer…I become a
writer…then another writer reads my diary… I feel a transcendental
moment coming on. Maybe life is like Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and
Spring after all. Life is a circle…
Thursday 10th June 2004
While awaiting notes on draft 2 of latest EE episode, work on
ideas for next week’s long-term story conference. Hold little hope of any
being taken up, but work on theory of scatter-gun. The more I send, the more
chance I have of hitting the target. Suspect major storylines have already
been worked out anyway, taking into account actors’ holidays, their other
commitments, etc., to which am not privy. Never mind, not very good at
dreaming up reasons for people to die – nor even reasons for people not
to die – not to mention excuses for them to fall in and out of love, the
other staple of soaps, so concentrate on light ‘filler’ stories involving
In the evening indulge my other passion: singing in a local choir. Only
one or two of my fellow choristers know of my late-start career as an
EastEnders scriptwriter; up to now have been reluctant to let it
be widely known among people who make no secret of their preference for high
culture. Some even boast of still not owning a television. However, with an
episode being transmitted tomorrow, decide to come clean. The shock on
their faces is delicious to behold. I am seen in a new light. It is as
if it is now clear to them that hidden beneath my ability to master a Bach
bass line lies addiction to some hideous vice: coke sniffing, or serial
killing, or splitting infinitives.
Friday 11th June 2004
Wake with draft 3 deadline hanging over me. But can’t get going.
Have breakfast. Read paper. Walk round park to kid myself fresh air in lungs
will stimulate brain. Lie on sofa and stare at the ceiling worrying.
Nothing. Lunchtime arrives. Anxiety grows.
Afternoon pretty much the same. Know from experience anxiety feeds on
itself – the less I do the more I worry, the more I worry the less I can do
– despite also knowing from experience that as soon as I get started,
anxiety gradually disappears and I end up not wanting to stop.
By early evening almost in grip of full-blown panic attack. So much so,
nearly forget to watch own episode.
Wednesday 16th June 2004
Despite receiving last-minute notes from script editor yesterday,
manage to meet draft 3 deadline. Panic? What panic?
Thursday 17th June 2004
Choir rehearsal. To immense surprise, receive many warm
congratulations on Friday’s episode. A woman who abhors all popular
culture tells me in tones of gleeful naughtiness how she sat down with her
entire family and watched it all the way through. And enjoyed it. A fellow
bass takes my hand in both of his and shakes his head in wonder. "I’m lost
in admiration." A soprano wonders how on earth I manage to interweave all
the story lines so cleverly.
Modestly try to convey the impression of fiendish difficulty. Yes,
there are only a few of us who can do it.
Friday 18th June 2004
To theatre to see 84 Charing Cross Rd, the story of – as Shaw
almost said – two people divided by a common language. Not unlike, I realise
about halfway through, my fellow choir members and me. Ms Hanff wrote
Ellery Queen episodes for American TV; as much of a mystery to her
secondhand-bookseller correspondent as EastEnders probably is to
lovers of Handel. Yet, just as Ms Hanff persuaded one dusty old reader of
Hazlitt that America isn’t necessarily a land of illiterates, so maybe I, in
my own small way, have persuaded one or two people that just because
characters shout ‘Oy!’ rather than ‘I say!’ doesn’t mean the TV drama in
which they appear is a less worthy part of our culture than The Messiah.
Monday 28th June 2004
In that limbo state between handing in final draft of latest EE
episode to exec producer and receiving her comments. Always a nerve-wracking
time. Is this going to be the end of my short-lived career as a TV
scriptwriter? I’ll know some time today, so difficult to get down to
anything solid. Toy with The Englishman, my spec TV drama about a man
arrested as a terrorist suspect, but can’t get properly into it with a
possible episode rewrite hanging over my head – or possible redundancy.
Resist temptation to turn on tennis, instead pick up current leisure
reading, Richard Powers The Time of our Singing.
Praise is huge for this book. Seems no superlative suffices. Surprising,
if only for the fact that, as know only too well, novels with a musical
theme tend, if they get published at all, to sink without trace. After only
a few pages my expectations seem to be going in the same direction. It is
written in a strangely old-fashioned style, full of florid imagery,
sentences containing ten words where one will do, determined but doomed
attempts to create the abstract rhythm and texture of music out of the
all-too-real bricks and mortar of words. As Count Orsini-Rosenberg says
of Mozart’s Idomeneo in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, ‘Too
much spice. Too many notes.’
And yet. And yet. Just as I am beginning to tire of all the flowery
verbalising about Bach’s motets and Schubert’s lieder, a passage stubs my
toe like an upturned kerbstone. When the middle-class mixed-race children
travel by car with their parents, their black mother chooses to sit in the
back as if she were their maid, otherwise the police keep pulling them over.
When they arrive at music schools for auditions, the places they were
assured were available mysteriously become filled. While they study
‘white’ music, a 14-year old black boy is beaten, shot dead and dumped in a
river by two redknecks, just for calling a white shop assistant ‘cute’.
Friday 2nd July 2004
Thanks to rising at 5.30 am, manage to incorporate exec producer’s
comments on final draft and get it back to script ed in time for another
read over weekend. Seems I am not for the chop after all. In weakened state
due to lack of sleep, spend afternoon on sofa in front of the tennis.
Saturday 3rd July 2004
To theatre to see Amajuba – sub-title Like Doves We
Rise, ‘amajuba’ meaning ‘dove’ – a mixture of song and speech telling
the stories of how the cast of five grew up in apartheid South Africa. In
many ways the events could happen anywhere: missing a departed father,
trying to fit in at school, dealing with puberty. But others are specific to
South Africa: hunger, forced removal hundreds of miles away, rapings,
burnings. It amazes me: how did these children make it into adulthood?
The answer comes at the end. On the grit-strewn stage the cast stand in a
line, arms outstretched, sand slipping through their fingers. Then they
crouch, each in turn, in a large zinc bath of water and douse themselves – a
cleansing, a baptism. From the dust, like doves they rise. Without doubt the
most moving experience have ever had in the theatre. Am not alone in
thinking so either. At the curtain the entire audience is on its feet, those
not too busy wiping tears from their eyes screaming for more.
Begin to understand why I like Richard Powers’ book after all.
Thursday 8th July 2004
After a morning of making final final tweaks, receive welcome news.
Latest script is approved. Yessss! And only four days late. Not bad
considering we started a good three weeks after the intended start date. Not
only that, but the running time comes out at exactly 29 minutes – so no
last-minute cuts. Unlike previous episode.
Decide to capitalise on no doubt excellent reputation by offering
myself up for another. Series editor overjoyed at prospect. She mentions
the name of my next script editor, surprisingly someone I’ve already met. My
sixth episode already. Can’t help feeling rather pleased with myself. Am
I becoming one of the regulars?
Monday 12th July 2004
Following unexpectedly speedy approval of latest EastEnders
episode, decide to fill in the free time by doing some proofreading for
local publisher. For some reason can’t concentrate on spec TV drama The
Englishman. Need something relatively untaxing, something that doesn’t
require any original thinking. Never realised till starting on EE how
exhausting merely sitting in front of a keyboard trying to think of original
dialogue actually is.
Unfortunately discover even when proofreading a rather dull academic
tome, brain never stops working. Checking the index I come across two
entries next to one another, the first for ‘van Dyke, Dick’, the second for
‘van Gogh, Vincent’. By this stage almost forgotten what the actual book is
about, so momentarily thrown by appearance of references to the
nineteenth-century creator of the world’s most expensive painting and the
twentieth-century creator of the world’s most execrable cockney accent. What
are these two figures doing in the same book? Is Dick van Dyke a secret
fan of impressionism? Was van Gogh a popular song and dance act at the Arles
Suddenly occurs to me I might have hit upon a new way of generating
original ideas – a problem area for all writers. Decide to test it out by
taking half a dozen books at random from my bookshelves and opening them at
the index. Within five minutes I have ‘army, the’ and ‘art’ (a
possible plot for Redcap, perhaps); ‘baths, public’ and ‘Beatles,
The’ (John Lennon would have appreciated it; sure I’ve still got my copy of
In his own write somewhere); and ‘body, human’ and ‘bomb, atom’ (no,
maybe a bit too ironic, even for me).
Decide to offer this aid to creative writing to any who cares to use
Friday 16th July 2004
Week of relative idleness comes to abrupt close with email containing
storylines for next block of EE episodes. Disconcerted to discover my
episode is the very first of the block, which means shall have least time of
anybody in which to write it. And before manage to digest even first
page, script editor phones with news the meeting in which I’ll be expected
to outline how I intend to tell my stories is on Monday. Help!
Monday 19th July 2004
By dint of working most of weekend, complete story beats and email them
to script editor by 9am. Immediately set out for M25 and Elstree.
Only to discover I’ve got the day wrong. The meeting’s tomorrow. Good
job I don’t live in Scotland.
Tuesday 20th July 2004
9am set out again for M25 and Elstree. Meet two of the other writers
doing my week: Jo, who I met last year at the story seminar with Tony
Jordan, and Ann, who’s on only her second episode. As the first one up, I
bear the full brunt of the early-morning critical sharpness of the editors
and producer. Discussion of my episode occupies one hour and ten minutes of
the meeting, that of Jo’s and Ann’s twenty minutes each. Tell myself
having my brilliantly original ideas chewed to pieces is all part of the
collective process of creating a good script.
Afterwards, we three walk down the corridor licking our wounds. Jo
confesses she became a writer partly so she would never have to speak in
public again. Ann says she found the experience absolutely terrifying. More
to offer comfort than anything, I assure her it gets better.
It’s only when we’ve parted company and I find I have no wounds,
neither to my body nor my ego, I realise it’s actually true.
27th July 2004
Sixth episode of EastEnders going so well, looks as if I’ll finish
first draft comfortably before end of day – ready to deliver to Elstree
before spending next five days on holiday in Rouen with a clear conscience.
One of the advantages of a Monday episode is the stories are usually not at
their climactic stages, so one’s writing can be a little more adventurous.
When finally dot the last i and cross the last t, find I have managed to
work in references to the Old Testament, Reservoir Dogs, Star Wars, the
England football team and a Tom Cruise movie whose name I forget. Try to
enjoy them while I can. By final draft they’ll all be gone.
Wednesday 28th July 2004
To Rouen and a complete change of literary landscape: Flaubert country.
Our tour guide points out places where Madame Bovary may have had her
fictional trysts with her fictional lover, a village that may have inspired
the fictional village where she lived her frustrated life. During an idle
promenade among the quaint half-timbered buildings of the old town centre I
wonder what my equivalent of Flaubert’s parrot might be. Conjure up a mental
picture of my rather decrepit dusty office, also quaintly half-timbered.
Ritchie’s woodlouse, perhaps.
Tuesday 3rd August 2004
To Elstree to discuss first draft with script ed. Heavy storm clouds
threaten as I brave the M25. Hope the weather isn’t getting metaphorical.
Heart sinks when script editor unveils flipchart. This looks serious.
Four hours later we have almost completely rewritten four stories. The
Tom Cruise movie and Star Wars have gone; the Old Testament hangs by
a thread. Not for first time wonder if I should spend so much effort on
first draft. Recall remarks of one of the more experienced writers at recent
EE Writers Day. She claimed to write her first draft as a sort of
much-extended outline; 30 pages of notes, description, snatches of dialogue,
reminders to herself. Only when that’s approved does she start the
actual writing. Right now, it sounds tempting – but suspect in practice her
subsequent drafts get the same level of comments as everyone else’s.
Wednesday 4th August 2004
Wake to find half the country under water. Rain lashes my office window
as I set about the second draft. When I come to a scene in which a character
has to rant and rave in a guilty hysteria of self-hatred, thunder cracks and
lightning rips across the sky. All very inspirational.
During a brief lull – in both the weather and my writing – I muse on the
relationship between the weather and the act of writing. Of course, novels
and dramas use the weather all the time, no doubt because in England at
least, we have an awful lot of it. Is it Tess who has to survive a
terrifying storm on some blasted heath, or some other Hardy heroine?
Prospero conjures up a tempest to lure his victims to his island. "Blow,
winds, and crack your cheeks!" Lear rages at the elements. My own favourite
is the climactic fight scenes in The Seven Samurai, which all take
place in driving rain and thick mud.
Yes, writers are certainly fond of using the weather creatively. Very
little, however, has been written on the subject of using the weather as
inspiration. In my usual spirit of creative generosity I offer it as a
possible PhD thesis.
Sunday 8th August 2004
In Cornwall with old family friends. A very Cornish day, i.e. nothing but
rain. Seems to be the theme of the week. Unlike Hardy’s heroine or King
Lear, most of us are unwilling to brave the damp of the moor, so are forced
indoors to enjoy the pleasures of our own company. Briefly the talk turns to
EE. I am beginning to learn the two main directions such
conversations take. On the one hand there are those who declare ‘I never
watch it’, then dare me to convince them to do otherwise. I do no such
thing, of course.
On the other hand there are those who try to wheedle out of me what’s
going to happen next. Unfortunately for them I have learnt to be like the
Monday 9th August 2004
Disaster! Panic! 7.30am call from Elstree. Have I heard that one
of EE’s lead actresses has suddenly left the show? No. Mentally scan
the episode I’m writing. She doesn’t appear in it anyway. Phew.
Unfortunately I’m soon put straight. It’s not the current episode they’re
worried about. It’s the one they’re in the middle of filming, the one I
finished writing a month ago. Six scenes have to be rewritten. Now. This
morning. To be approved, or if necessary re-rewritten, to be given to the
cast by lunchtime.
Tuesday 10th August 2004
Panic over. Well, at least as far as my episode’s concerned. Suspect
other writers may still be tearing their hair out over how to eliminate one
of EastEnders’ main female characters from their scripts, but thanks
to a hard-working and dedicated editor, my amended script was approved
yesterday and is now back on schedule, filming-wise. Spend day willing the
phone not to ring.
In the evening to the cinema to see King Arthur, described as a
‘realistic take’ on the era. Sadly, putting aside the fact there is no hard
evidence he actually existed, this Arthur is anything but realistic. Instead
the sixth-century hero comes across as a sort of Abraham Lincoln 1300 years
ahead of his time, crying ‘government of the people, by the people and for
the people’ while rescuing woad-painted Britons from Roman enslavement and
slaughtering fur-clad, long-haired Saxon invaders.
He is, of course, in keeping with the times, a reluctant hero, very like
Blair chooses to portray himself with regard to Iraq. Actually Arthur is
more of a Bush figure, with Lancelot as Blair, continually trying to
persuade Arthur of the folly of his ‘crusades’, but in the end going along
as a loyal and stout comrade-in-arms.
Wonder why we crave heroes. Prose fiction seems to have abandoned
them – or at least those without flaws. Even that ubiquitous hero of our age
– the detective – is, at the very least, troubled by a failing marriage,
alcoholism, over-eating or an obsessive passion for opera. In this I suppose
we are merely reinforcing Emerson’s opinion that ‘every hero becomes a bore
at last’. Perhaps we should celebrate our maturity. As Brecht said,
‘Unhappy the land that needs heroes.’ Maybe that’s why there are none in
Monday 16th August 2004
Complete third draft. The Reservoir Dogs reference still
survives. It’s now become a bit of an obsession, have to admit.
Wednesday 18th August 2004
Start reading Silvertown, a history of the last century as seen
through the eyes of a poor East End family. After the first few pages
tempted to see it as a Frank McCourt imitation, but a few pages further on
and I decide it’s far better. Reading books like this I feel cynicism
wash from me like a skin of dried mud. I also rediscover something I
was taught by my father and have known most of my life, but of which I have
always to keep reminding myself. Yes, we do have heroes. But not King
Arthur. These people are heroes. In fact, we are all heroes and we all
deserve to have our stories told.
But can’t help feeling miffed at not having been given inside
information in advance. I am, after all, one of the writers.
Friday 17th September 2004
To the cinema to see Code 46, a forbidden-love story set in a
future in which most of the world has been turned to desert and individuals
can only fly from their designated cities with special permission. The
over-regulated atmosphere has a faint air of 1984 about it, but
nothing too terrible happens to the two principals when they’re found out,
so I remain largely unmoved. Instead, as so often happens with sci-fi,
attention wanders away from the story and onto the details.
Note with interest one of the minor characters is played by Tariq from
EastEnders, another by the Pakistani father from East is East.
Always refreshing to see non-white actors in roles that have nothing to
do with colour. In fact the director seems to envisage a bit of a
melting-pot future all round, setting the story in a Shanghai in which the
entire population speaks English mixed with the odd idiom from Spanish,
Italian and French. When the hero tells the heroine he has a child, she
asks, "Chico or chica?"
Heart sinks a little at this. Reminds me of Anthony Burgess suggesting in
A Clockwork Orange that slang of the future will borrow words from
Russian. In general, feel we writers should steer clear of slang
altogether, even the contemporary kind, let alone that of the future.
Even if a writer gets it right – like Jack Kerouac in On The Road,
say – all it does is date the book for ever.
Fortunately most writers have little hope of discovering today’s
street-speak, let alone tomorrow’s. We work alone. We rarely go out. We
hardly speak to anyone from one day to the next. Whenever any new word
slips into the spoken language, we’ll be the last people to hear about it.
Wednesday 22nd September 2004
Reminded by recent conversation with family friend who wants to write
about an Austrian skiing season that I once attempted to write a travel
book. But quick check through what remains of past writing projects after
recent ruthless clear-out reveals no hard copy, so don’t have to embarrass
myself by reading it.
Maybe everyone has – like a need to be loved – at least one travel
book inside them. If so, then it’s a blessing most keep it to
themselves. Believe, despite plethora of travel writers, there are only two
kinds of travel book: the ‘aren’t foreigners funny?’ kind and the ‘I found
myself’ kind, the vast majority the former. Most travel writers do not
write in order to reveal their innermost selves, they write in order to
express their opinions about everyone else. After all, what is the point
of foreigners if not to make wild generalisations about them?
Naïve hope that my book was a brilliant exception tempts me to check
files on laptop, though fairly sure I wrote it too long ago for it to be in
digital form. But oh dear. There it is. Business or Pleasure. All 241
pages of it.
I read the opening quotations, the first from a Japanese hotel brochure:
"An elegant setting, a convenient location. Only a three-minute walk north
of Hamamatsu station, the Meitetsu Hotel is most convient for business or
pleasure"; the second from Malcolm Bradbury’s Rates of Exchange:
"He is away again, in the state of foreignness, which is a universal
country, simply the opposite to home and domesticity".
Well, not such a bad start. Oh, alright then, I’ll just read the first
Thursday 23rd September 2004
Last chapter of Business or Pleasure interrupted by phone text
from daughter: did I know the exec producer of EastEnders has
resigned? What!? Before can confirm or deny, partner calls from her office:
did I know the exec producer of EastEnders has resigned? Forced to
admit I didn’t. While I hang on, partner consults BBC website. It’s true.
Louise has gone. To be replaced by someone from Holby City.
Staggered. Horrified. Even a little angry. Not at the news itself, of
course. Producers come, producers go. No idea what, if any, impact it will
have on me in any case. But can’t help feeling miffed at not having been
given inside information in advance. I am, after all, one of the writers.
Still, suppose shouldn’t be surprised. Like new slang. Writers are always
the last to know.
Monday 27th September 2004
Bookshelves in new spare-room office finally complete. Admittedly after
great many trips to local DIY superstore to wander like lost soul down dark
aisles looking for essential items I’d forgotten previous time; great many
life-threatening moments, most involving sawing wood balanced precariously
on two chairs; and great many imaginative swear words and firm promises to
long-suffering partner to seek professional help next time.
But as stand back to admire rows of impressive tomes ranged on only
slightly sagging planks, can’t help feeling bit like proud Uncle Podger in
Three Men in a Boat after he’s nearly wrecked the house to hang a
picture. "Why, some people would have had a man in to do a little thing
like that." Partner agrees with comparison. She feels just like Aunt
Maria: the next time I want to hammer a nail into the wall, she hopes I’ll
let her know in time, so she can make arrangements to go and spend a week
with her mother while it’s being done.
Wednesday 29th September 2004
Despite completion of bookshelves two days ago and therefore having no
excuse for not getting down to work, have found it easy to be distracted.
After aforesaid visits to DIY superstore, garden shed was in total chaos.
That took a whole morning. And of course washing has mounted up. And there’s
always been some bit of shopping to do. And lunch to prepare – and eat. And
cupboards to reorganise. If Virginia Woolf claimed all she needed in
order to write was a room of her own, I can only assume she had a maid to do
Thursday 30th September 2004
To Elstree to say farewell to Lou, EE’s departing exec producer,
along with eighty other well-wishers. Congratulate fellow writer on his
latest episode. "How did you know it was mine?" he demands, looking round
nervously for eavesdroppers. Seems he writes under a pseudonym, for what
reason he wouldn’t say. Maybe he writes under his real name for the
Replacement exec producer is yet to start, but I introduce myself to her
new second-in-command, who seems to be running on adrenalin. Hardly
surprising, given she’s probably been working 15-hour days since she arrived
a couple of weeks ago. Within a few seconds we’re deep in a discussion
about a problem relationship between two key characters. I thought this was
supposed to be a party.
Later meet Gary Beadle, one of my favourite actors on the cast. Tell
him – hope not too sycophantically – how much I like writing for his
character. He grins from ear to ear. After ten minutes we’re chatting
away like old mates. He even asks me my name.
Manage to squeeze into the crowd surrounding Lou to express sadness at
her departure – which after all is one of the main reasons for my being
there. Also manage to remind her who I am – which is the other reason. Tony
Jordan makes a speech and mentions he’s seen eight exec producers come and
go since he’s been on the show. I think this is intended to make her feel
better. Mal Young stands up and gives the lie to all the stories in the
press. Finally Lou herself speaks so movingly about how sad she is
knowing she won’t be coming to her office as usual tomorrow morning. I for
one am near tears.
Monday 4th October 2004
To head office of large telecoms company with an ex-EE script ed
to offer ourselves as a writing team for a 7-minute inspirational movie to
be shown at a conference for top staff. Bit of a departure from TV drama,
but at least the money should be good.
Fully expect attack of nausea the moment we step inside reception, but
surprisingly it doesn’t come. Ugly memories of first 35 years of working
life obviously fading. Or maybe it’s just that I know, unlike all the staff
streaming back to their desks after their lunch break, I can leave whenever
Thursday 7th October 2004
After three days of frantic creativity and ruthless criticism of each
other’s ideas, script ed and I email our two suggested outlines to large
telecoms company. Hold little hope we’ll get the work – we are after all
up against Saatchi & Saatchi, among others – but both agree it’s been fun.
And at least it’s kept me away from the ironing.
Friday 15th October 2004
After the bloodletting of the previous few weeks it is now all quiet
on the EastEnders front. One or two bodies lie unclaimed in no-man’s
land. A few staff have gone AWOL. Some have gone over to the other side.
Most – like me – are simply keeping their heads down.
Spend the evening catching up on events and opinions over the internet.
Tony Jordan’s going to develop a soap set in blue-collar Chicago. Not sure
what firsthand knowledge he has of working-class Illinois, but perhaps the
basic principles of continuing TV drama series (as Mal Young prefers to call
them) are the same the world over. Mal himself is off to develop a drama
division for the company behind Pop Idol. Feel a déjà vu moment
coming on. Maybe now’s the time to resurrect my Writer Star idea –
but with a new wrinkle.
Instead of having writers compete for survival, let the viewers vote
on the characters. Of course, they do so already at events like the Soap
Awards, but that’s just once a year. And there’s no real edge to it: a
character’s life doesn’t hang in the balance. Most media pundits agree some
EE characters are past their sell-by date, but suggest
unconvincing methods of despatch: a sarin gas attack, serial killer, etc
etc. I would leave it to the viewer to decide. Every week two least-liked
characters would be up for the chop, together with a choice of method:
murder, suicide, fatal illness, horrible accident or moving to Leicester.
Remember, you read it here first.
Saturday 16th October 2004
A day of two halves. (Forgive the sporting metaphor, but – as call-centre
operatives like to say – bear with me.) Morning to the city library to renew
membership lapsed since last time I lived within city boundary.
Find nothing much has changed except the books, glad to say. The same
snoring, slightly smelly bodies in the corners, the same desperate souls
searching for jobs in the newspaper section, the same bored children whining
to go home, the same teenagers borrowing CDs to copy illegally, the same
bloodthirsty pensioners slipping out with Stephen King and Anne Rice.
To my pleasure, discover drama section is now three or four times larger
than before and that I can borrow up to twenty books at a time instead of
the previous five. I load up with the kind of volumes I can’t afford to buy,
ie. art monographs and, because we’ve just moved house, full-colour guides
to interior decoration. On the way home, the carrier bag kindly loaned me by
the librarian splits under the weight.
In the evening a total contrast: to Balliol College to sup at high table
and attend a Chopin recital given by Andrew Wilde. Stepping through the
gate from Broad Street I enter a truly different world. The noise of the
city centre vanishes, the beauty of the ancient stone walls is immediately
calming. If I lived here I just know I would be an altogether better
In the Senior Common Room find myself standing next to Chris Patten.
Enough past the stage of sobriety not to feel intimidated by rank I mention
he’s been in the news (over his remarks about the govt’s efforts to
encourage Oxford to admit more state-school students amounting to ‘social
engineering’). He says something to the effect he was caught on the hop by
the journalist. Am about to make a debate of it by saying that since it
began, education has been about social engineering, the real question is
what kind of society we want to engineer, when he turns away and starts
talking to someone else.
Later, seated in the wood-panelled hall with a few dons and the students
who have fought their way to the top of the educational pyramid, I ponder
these two great British institutions, the college that produces politicians
and the rather grubby lending library down the road. Which, I wonder, has
contributed most to the well-being of the nation? Which could we least do
without? Which, if it came to it, would I choose to keep?
The library, without hesitation. Sleeping dossers, whining kids, OAP
horror fans and all.
Monday 17th October 2004
Partner and I acquire an allotment, another great British institution,
and I discover another use for free lending libraries: gardening books. Of
which there is an enormous choice. Who was it said if you want to make
serious money out of writing, write gardening books? Alan Titchmarsh,
perhaps. Or was it Voltaire?
On close inspection our 5-pole plot proves depressingly weed-bound. I’m
tempted by the sentiments of Walt Whitman: ‘I believe a leaf of grass is no
less than the journey-work of the stars/…/And the running blackberry would
adorn the parlors of heaven.’ But can find no gardening expert who agrees.
I wonder if neighbouring plots are tended by any Balliol alumni.
Doubtful. While I am reading my gardening books, they are studying Latin and
Greek. Or as Oscar Wilde put it in The Importance of Being Earnest:
‘Cecily: "When I see a spade I call it a spade." Gwendolen: "I am
glad to say that I have never seen a spade."’
Monday 25th October 2004
Decide it’s time to remind new people in charge of EastEnders am
still available to play part in rescue of show from ratings oblivion.
Carefully craft email so as not to sound too desperate.
Spend rest of day trying to get back into TV thriller about terrorist
suspect. What with moving house, digging allotment and rubbing shoulders
with Chris Patten, have written far too little in last two months. Graham
Greene set himself a target of 400-odd words a day, which seems few enough
to aspire to, even for a scriptwriter. Jack London wrote 1000, even when he
was completely trolleyed or in the depths of one of his frequent bouts of
depression. If he didn’t manage it one day, he made up for it the next.
Reminder of the author of People of the Abyss casts me into a
gloom of my own. Probably another attack of bibliophobia: the thought of all
that effort, and now his books are read by no one. London was at one time
the most popular author in the world, the Stephen King of his day, but
that’s obviously not enough to guarantee longevity. Suspect this is
probably because no one wants to be reminded that the rats in the Edwardian
East End lived better lives than the people. We’d rather watch films of E M
Forster novels in which one or two characters may be a bit horrid, but at
least everybody is polite.
Even London’s stories about untamed nature no longer strike a chord,
despite our professed love affair with all things natural. But again, no one
wants to be reminded that life in the wild was by and large nasty, brutish
and short; we’d rather watch Michael Palin strolling amiably through the
Himalayas with a film crew.
Try hard to shake off this unwelcome attack of misanthropism by getting
down to work, but subject of thriller hardly helps. I even decide to make my
hero more un-heroic than he already is, despite nagging voice in my head
telling me no one will want to watch that. Petulant child in me counters by
stating this is what I write, like it or lump it.
Then, as if mood could hardly get any worse, email arrives from EE.
‘Thanks Bob. We’ll contact you if appropriate.’
Despite odd choice of word, I get the message. I’m sacked.
Tuesday 26th October 2004
Wake surprisingly bright-eyed and cheerful. Leap out of bed with
unaccustomed spring in step. Hardly dare admit it to partner over breakfast,
but being ‘let go’ by EE feels more like huge burden lifting from
shoulders than the kick in crutch I’ve been half expecting for the last two
months. Maybe because I’ve been half-expecting it. Six episodes
over a period of 17 months – they were never exactly beating a path to my
Partner looks at me closely to check I’m not, as psychobabble puts it, in
denial. No, I assure her, now I can concentrate on my own ideas. Clincher
comes when I realise – with pleasure – I won’t have to watch another
Coincidentally email arrives from old BBC Talent friend: what’s
happening? I tell him the news, hinting at dark reasons connecting me too
closely with the old regime. Well, who knows? Maybe it was a mistake going
to Lou Berridge’s leaving-do. Another Talent friend joins in: he’s
been sacked from Casualty. ‘Not that anyone told me,’ he adds, ‘I
just stopped getting invited to the parties.’
Wednesday 3rd November 2004
Partner is dined by local publisher at new QI club. Publisher wants her
to edit book they’re planning for medical series. Feel fate is attempting to
grind heel little too hard in face with this, but even after close
examination of self, honestly find no spark of resentment. On contrary,
enjoying new burst of creative energy; terrorist thriller going
exceptionally well. In any case, partner turns down offer.
Thursday 4th November 2004
The Independent’s suggestions of future vocabulary provides some
light relief (but not enough) after the depressing news from across the
pond. Particularly like: testiculate vb: to wave your hands about in
wild but vague manner because you suspect you are talking bollocks. Modestly
add a couple of my own. dubya vb: to free a people from tyranny by
killing them all, as in ‘We’re gonna dubya them Brits.’ blairite
adj: right despite all evidence to the contrary, the trump card in any
argument, as in ‘I don’t care if all the experts say the world is round, I’m
blairite.’ Predict that by 2015 these words will be in common usage by
both Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.
Visit QI bookshop to cheer myself up. Possibly the smallest bookshop in
the world, it eschews the usual categories (crime, travel,
biography, fiction, etc), instead organising the books on shelves
labelled what happens next, going east, going west,
addiction (where I find – hooray – Jack London’s John Barleycorn).
Under desperation there’s Anna Karenina, which seems
particularly apposite. While voters for Bush – if their churches permit the
reading of nineteenth-century Russian novelists – no doubt recognise a
kindred spirit in the principled, hypocritical and unforgiving Count Karenin,
the rest of us can always follow Anna's example and throw ourselves under
Monday 8th November 2004
After assuring everyone being kicked off EastEnders is no great
disaster, reality starts to kick in. Fans commiserate – and try not to
complain how they’ll miss having the second-hand fame to boast about.
Non-fans, on the other hand, now feel free to tell me what they really think
about the show. Despite having similar sentiments myself less than a couple
of weeks ago, I spring to its defence. I did, after all, write for it.
Sunday 14th November 2004
In absence of any other TV series snapping me up, forced to accept
academic publisher’s offer of proofreading work. Have now spent three days
rewriting 70-page index for a book on something called organizational
management (is there any other kind? I ask myself), and still, I estimate,
at least another day to go. Even my last episode of EE wasn’t as much
of a struggle as this.
Tuesday 16th November 2004
Deliver rewritten organizational management index. Mind feels oddly
numb, full of terms like ‘attribution theory’ and ‘group decision-making’,
‘the five factor model of personality’ (only five?) and something rather
alarmingly called ‘learned helplessness’. But should I now bump into an
organizational manager in the pub, he would no doubt be impressed by my easy
familiarity with his world. Only last week I astounded a soil scientist by
knowing that ‘varving’ is a technical term for ‘layering’. Maybe I should
volunteer for Mastermind.
Unfortunately, for all the time I spend on these volumes what little
knowledge I pick up I soon drop. I remain as ignorant as the next man. A
victim of learned helplessness, I shouldn’t wonder.
Wednesday 17th November 2004
Wake determined to resume work on TV thriller. Sadly, brain even more
determinedly still in uncreative mood, so in desperation turn to Ms Truss’s
tirade against misusers of the apostrophe – a book I vowed I would never
consult because it would probably remind me too much of school and almost
certainly raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels – on the principle
that when a writer can think of nothing to write about, he can always fall
back on writing about how it should be written.
As expected, hackles rise even on flipping the book over to read the
cautionary tale on the back cover. A panda walks into a café, orders a
sandwich, eats it, draws a gun, fires two shots in the air, then walks to
the exit, pausing only to explain to the waiter that he does so because a
badly-punctuated wildlife manual describes a panda as a bear-like mammal
that ‘eats, shoots and leaves.’ "So," adds Ms Truss (or, to be charitable,
the publisher’s marketing person), "punctuation really does matter."
Well, no, on the basis of that sorry little tale, it doesn’t, much.
Now, if the panda had actually shot the waiter, and the waiter,
collapsing into the spreading pool of his own blood, had, with his dying
gasp, croaked out, "Why?" and the rest of the story had been a race against
time to find the careless editor so as to rush out a corrected second
edition before the enraged panda struck again…
Which only goes to show that while an understanding of punctuation might
help you copy-edit a wildlife manual, it certainly won’t help you write a
Thursday 18th November 2004
The phone rings in the middle of another index. "Hello Bob, I’m the
new series editor on EastEnders. I’m calling to introduce myself and ask if
you’re available to write another episode."
Friday 26th November 2004
A week later than promised, 100 pages of EastEnders story
documents arrive by email. Though actually, despite daunting prospect of so
much background reading, find this one of the most enjoyable parts of
writing a new episode: discovering what calamities are in store for the
nation’s favourite TV characters.
Learn my episode comes about 10 days after the big 20th
anniversary week – a week of which even I am not allowed a sneak preview.
Nevertheless, gain pretty good idea of who’s for the chop simply by checking
who’s missing afterwards. A female character who hasn’t had a decent
storyline for ages: good. A male character I’ve been dying to see the back
of since he appeared: excellent. Another male about whom I have no strong
feelings either way. And finally a character for whom I’ve grown to love
writing. Shame. Quickly scan future episodes to see if there’s any chance of
a miraculous resurrection, but forced to conclude none. A formal
identification and a burial seem pretty final.
After reading story synopses through without a break, also forced to
conclude recently diminishing audience has been right to switch off. Show
has definitely been going through a bad patch; new storylines are
undoubtedly better. One in particular is so moving, it alone would have
persuaded me I was right to accept another commission. I still have
confused feelings – should I be concentrating on my own ideas instead? – but
am honest enough to acknowledge I’m flattered to be asked.
Not to mention the money.
Sunday 28th November 2004
Midnight. Finally put the last full stop to my pitch for tomorrow’s
commissioning meeting. I’d forgotten what hard work this is.
Monday 29th November 2004
To Elstree for commissioning meeting. Feels as if I’ve been away a long
time, but the men on the gate recognise me so I stride down corridor lined
with black and white pictures of past British film stars with head held
Meeting goes well. Episode before mine is being written by a new writer,
so most of time is spent putting him straight about what he can and can’t
do. Like to think he’s feeling as terrified as I was at my first
commissioning, but given he’s spent last few years on Holby and
Emmerdale admit this unlikely. Our producer is also new, but already
has strong views about how our episodes should go. Mentally scrub my more
There are three new characters to get to know, so we skip through a
just-filmed episode in which they play major roles. The characters are well
drawn and excellently cast. More to the point, they’re close to my
generation. The characters I still have the most difficulty with are the
young ones. No matter how many colourful memories of my own youth I
resurrect, I still find it difficult to add colour to the youth of today.
Cross-questioning my daughter gives me some inkling of their lives, but I’m
reluctant to go too far down that route. There are some things of which I’d
rather remain in ignorance.
Then write about what you know, goes the old adage. Rubbish, of
course. If writers wrote only about what they know, writing would be a very
dull occupation. Not to mention reading.
No, research goes with the job. And as far as I’m concerned never stops.
Driving home on the M25 I hear on a Radio 4 science quiz that someone has
designed a baseball cap which enables the wearer to stencil a customized tan
across their forehead, in the form of their name, say, or their
girlfriend’s. Excitedly realise have stumbled on a new youth fashion, rather
like the fashion for putting his ‘n hers names across the windscreens of old
bangers. Mentally file it before quickly switching attention back to the
avoidance of traffic cones, thundering juggernauts and multi-vehicle
Or as Robert Louis Stevenson put it at the beginning of The Wrong Box,
‘How very little does the amateur, dwelling at home at ease, comprehend the
labours and perils of the author, and, when he smilingly skims the surface
of a work of fiction, how little does he consider the hours of toil,
consultation of authorities, researches in the Bodleian, correspondence with
learned and illegible Germans – in one word, the vast scaffolding that
was first built up and then knocked down, to while away an hour for him in a
03 pages 02 pages
© Bob G Ritchie 2004