Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer
Tuesday 6th January 2004
A new year. Not a great start. A stinking cold and still no sign of my next commission from EastEnders. Now over five weeks since my third episode was signed off. Even filming of it has almost finished. Beginning to think series editor’s assurance I’d be given an episode in the next block was merely to make me feel good after the nine drafts I had to produce in November.
Enforced holiday has been only partly welcome. Sure I’m not the only writer who feels nervous at the prospect of free time. It’s difficult enough summoning up the courage to put words on paper even when a deadline looms. Without one it’s well nigh impossible. All sorts of useless activities beckon. When my father was confronted with an unexpected period of leisure, he would play patience at the kitchen table, dealing out cards hour after hour until it drove the rest of the family mad.
No such thing as free time for a writer. If he isn’t actually sitting in front of a sheet of paper he feels guilty, over-compensating by filling his head with desperate solutions to the latest plot problems in which his characters have become enmeshed. If not that, he’s busy calculating how much money he’s losing. No wonder writers are such lousy company.
Wednesday 7th January 2004
A welcome email from the executive producer of EE. A big thank you to all us writers for our contribution in 2003. Allow warm glow to spread. She also reminds us we’re welcome any time to drop in and watch filming. What’s more, she’s inviting us all to a party with the editors and cast – at which we will have a team photo taken on Albert Square. At last: visual evidence of what I do.Well, some people still don’t believe me.
Thursday 8th January 2004
Decide to take exec producer at her word. Go to Elstree to watch a morning’s filming of my episode. Actually it’s my third or fourth experience of seeing my lines mangled – sorry, interpreted – by the cast, but it doesn’t get any easier. For the most part everyone’s in a good mood and everything goes swimmingly. Then a ridiculous technical problem arises with a sticking door lock and tempers begin to fray. Both the director and assistant director have colds, but remain calm in the face of an actor describing a scene as ‘crap’ and another querying the sense of a perfectly innocent line. I hide away in the producer’s box and hope no one decides to consult me.
Afterwards visit script editors to have my ego restored. Also take opportunity to remind series editor have been available for next commission for almost six weeks now. He takes it on board but doesn’t offer me a slot there and then. Ego takes another dive.
Luckily find exec producer in encouraging and chatty mood. Flatteringly she remembers me from when we met briefly on the shadow scheme. I tell her what the actor said about my script. ‘Oh that’s nothing,’ she laughs. ‘You ought to hear what some of the others say.’ She tells me how even the best writers on EE had to find their feet with their first few episodes. Maybe I’m reading too much into her words, but doesn’t that imply she expects me eventually to be among them?
Perhaps 2004 is starting well, after all.
Friday 16th January 2004
Panic over. Phone call from my new script editor. Planning document for next EastEnders episode has just been emailed to me. Phew. Was beginning to think I’d been put in the ‘only use in desperation’ pile. Quickly scan email to see when my episode is going out – early June – and what day of the week. Friday. Know this is dangerous hubris on my part, but can’t help thinking a Friday is a definite step up the ladder. The climax of the week: the big cliff-hanger.
Have few drinks to celebrate. So am in very good mood when it occurs to me better check the writing schedule. Panic returns. First draft due on Monday. Monday!? Shurely shome mishtake.
Monday 19th January 2004
Panic over. Well, almost. First draft actually not due till 29th, i.e. one week after commissioning meeting. Still awfully tight. After enforced idleness of last seven weeks, brain stuck almost permanently in neutral. Can I get it in gear again?
Tuesday 20th January 2004
Take break from the various unhappinesses gripping the residents of Albert Square to scan next week’s Radio Times for any new drama I should take a look at. Notice a teaser photo for No Angels, a forthcoming drama series about four nurses. ‘They’re rude, they’re raunchy and they’re likely to send blood pressures soaring.’ Just a minute. Four rude and raunchy nurses?
To prove am not imagining things, check my 2001 diary. As I thought. March: ‘Complete pilot episode of a sitcom about four nurses who work in intensive care.’
Plagiarism! Call my lawyer!
Wednesday 21st January 2004
Alright, my pilot was for a sitcom, so realise it was unlikely to be the inspiration for No Angels. Cancel appointment with lawyer. On other hand, think I, if I send producers my pilot, maybe they’ll see how alike our minds work and give me an episode to write…
Friday 23rd January 2004
An item on Radio 4’s Today grabs my attention – in the half-asleep way things do at that time of the morning. It’s in the ‘be very scared’ or ‘we’re all doomed’ category, along with stories about drugs, mysterious epidemics from the Far East and anything to do with Muslims. Apparently we – that is, a few sad souls who play computer games all day – are in danger of becoming sucked into a world of virtual reality, shutting ourselves off from interaction with the real world around us. And if you want evidence of how bad it’s become, declares Dr Susan Greenfield, plainly angling for a new research grant, ‘you only have to look at people in the street when they’re on their mobile phones; they’re in another world.’
John Humphreys innocently suggests losing oneself in a book is pretty much the same thing, but Greenfield is having none of it. ‘Reading exercises the imagination; playing a computer game over the Internet doesn’t.’
Am almost inclined to switch off my own mind at this point, but a thought occurs to me. Suspect when the first popular books were run off the early printing presses, there were Dr Greenfields prophesying doom. ‘People’s minds are being corrupted. They’re losing themselves in another world.’ And so with every step that brought entertainment and knowledge to us all, instead of to just a privileged few: the translation of the Bible into English, newspapers, radio, paperbacks, films, TV, the Internet.
I, for one, am glad people want to lose themselves in other worlds. If they didn’t, I'd be out of a job.
Thursday 29th January 2004
Thanks to working over weekend, manage to finish first draft of latest EE episode on time. To relax, flick through Radio Times. In an interview with E Jane Dickson Melvyn Bragg has a lot of flattering things to say about TV drama today, which strike me as entirely true albeit dangerously unfashionable. He recalls that when he left university about the same time as Dennis Potter, John McGrath, David Mercer, Alan Plater, etc., far from having their sights set on the theatre, they all wanted to work in TV: that huge potential audience beckoned irresistibly.
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’."
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 lives."
Resolve to treat this as inspiration for my own humble efforts. Epic lives? In Albert Square? Yes. Exactly that.
Friday 30th January 2004
Long time ago made a vow with myself not to write a single word about the Hutton Report when it came out, mainly because it seemed so obviously a storm in a teacup – hack accuses politicians of lying; well, hold the front page – and a diversion from more pressing problems, namely, whether or not I would finish my first draft on time.
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 appealing’.
All his lordship had to do was come to me.
Monday 16th February 2004
Watch with more confidence my third episode of EastEnders. June Brown delivers my lines so perfectly I could kiss her. Even the deliberate attempt to recreate the charged erotic atmosphere of A Streetcar Named Desire in mid-February Walford almost comes off - despite not being allowed to have Dennis in a vest. There's rather too much looking at photographs, but Letitia Dean looks at photos very convincingly, so I can't complain. Most importantly, the episode isn't as frantic as my previous two; less action, less dialogue, more significant silences, more meaningful looks.
At end, partner states it's my best so far. On phone seconds after the final credit, brother says the same. Who am I to argue?
Tuesday 17th February 2004
See that No Angels, the forthcoming rip-off of my 2001 rejected sitcom about four nurses, has been slammed by the Royal College of Nursing. "It just doesn't represent professional nursing at all," complains the general secretary. That'll teach those plagiarisers. Of course, what with drug-taking, dangerously over-zealous cleanliness, two brain transplants and an extremely unpleasant use of leeches, my Intensive Care isn't exactly a fair representation either. But at least it's funny.
Friday 20th February 2004
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.
Saturday 21st February 2004
To theatre to see Pinter's The Dumb Waiter (and other pieces). Seem to be seeing quite a lot of Pinter lately. Is he going through a revival? Some of the short pieces feel a bit like Two Ronnies sketches in need of a decent punchline, but one or two (Last to Go, The Black and White) are so spot-on they make me want to weep with envy. Victoria Station must be one of the most genuinely creepy things I've ever seen on stage.
Bizarrely what keeps striking me while watching The Dumb Waiter's two hitmen worrying about what food they can deliver to the unseen restaurant above is the similarity with Quentin Tarantino's two hitmen talking about how the French refer to a hot-dog. A possible thesis subject for a drama scholar's Ph D? It reminds me that in the 60s, when one could hardly move for Pinter productions, one of the main compliments showered on him was that he captured so well the patterns of ordinary speech - along with all the endless pauses, the unspoken understandings and misunderstandings, the needless repetitions. As in,
"Y'know, George whatsisname."
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.
So that's the quantity sorted out. Now all I have to match is his quality.
Tuesday 24th February 2004
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?
It provokes another to announce she’s now on her second Casualty and her third Doctors. The first replies he’s also writing his second Casualty, which for some reason he seems less proud of than his sitcom, and as a result he’s going part-time on his day job. We all agree that’s a big step. I contribute my own state of play vis-à-vis EastEnders. Is this becoming a competition?
A third joins in with more sobering news: his agent has just dumped him. I imagine us all feeling a little guilty boasting of our successes, but offer consolation: I seem to be doing OK without one.
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.
Wednesday 25th February 2004
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.
Thursday 26th February 2004
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.
By end of day have written 5000 words. All rubbish, of course, but feel absurd sense of achievement.
Friday 27th February 2004
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 two-page synopsis.
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 for yourself):
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 future.
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, post-modern minimalism…
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 one.
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 the writers.
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 Jackie Collins.
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 evhr width= advises friend. eryone 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, isn’t it?’
‘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 it?).
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 brains out.
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 Lawrence Sterne.
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 Coronation St.
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 necessary.
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 minor characters.
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 music hall?
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 it.
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.
Tuesday 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 weather: implacable.
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 bsuppose 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 EastEnders.
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 chapter…
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 the vacuuming.
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 competition.
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 I like.
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 person.
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 door.
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 episode.
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 a train.
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 decent story.
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 high.
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 off-the-wall ideas.
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 pile-ups.
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 railway train!’
© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007