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Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer

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Bob's 2002 Journal

Bob's 2001 Journal

Journal of a Virtually Unpublished Writer


by Bob G Ritchie



Thursday 10 January 2002

First rejection of the year: I didn't win the BBC Animation competition. Well, of course not. Whatever made me think I was any good at animation? Animation is all about caricature and exaggeration, and I'm trying to cure myself of all that - especially after the lurid sexual and medical excesses of The Novel and my intensive care sitcom. The drama of everyday life, that's what I have to concentrate on.

Which reminds me,


  • Still not heard anything from Doctors about my story ideas, despite phone calls and emails. Also note with slight alarm that it is no longer being broadcast. Is this just the winter break, or is there something I'm not being told? Continue to scribble down new ideas, nevertheless.


Find the tabloids the richest source of material - like the 70-year old man who was told by his local hospital that his forthcoming operation was being postponed because of his 'pregnancy'.


  • Neither have I heard from EastEnders, but that doesn't surprise me. I imagine postmen daily wheeling barrowloads of unsolicited scripts through Albert Square and straight onto the allotment compost heaps.


Even if they like it, it will probably be months before I'm asked to write anything. William Smethurst in 'Writing for Television' states that Corrie and EastEnders are the two soaps - 'naturally enough' - most difficult to get onto, so I suppose I should be pleased that I've made it past at least one assistant script editor.

Friday 11 January 2002

Decide to approach Family Affairs while I'm waiting for Doctors and EastEnders. Having been brought up in a London suburb identical to Charnham - and let's face it, all London suburbs are identical - I feel a close affinity. In fact, I'm sure the railway viaduct in the opening credits is just down the road from my old school. Spooky.

Briefly I consider the competition, but for various reasons it's no contest.


  • Corrie? Too full of pithy Northern humour.
  • Emmerdale? Too many storylines about tractors.
  • Brookside? It's a foreign country (as Liverpudlians would be the first to agree).
  • Hollyoaks? Too young.


What worries me more is the fact that Affairs is on Channel 5, which always seems to be preceded by the two words 'Who watches...?' On the other hand, it is still going, unlike Eldorado and Triangle.

All right, I know soap operas aren't exactly Shakespeare, but name me something on TV that is. Apart from TV versions of Shakespeare. With the uninformed superiority of youth I used to dismiss them, but now - with a little more experience of life under my belt - I realise their value. 'They have inherited the mantle of the minstrel and the teller of folk tales,' writes Smethurst, 'the mantle worn by Trollope and Dickens... At their best they are as good as any drama on television.'



Wednesday 16 January 2002

Italy. Bologna. Snow. Fog. Temperatures below freezing.

So cold can only write short sentences.

Which is Ideal.


  • For sketching scenes.
  • For sample episode.
  • Of new TV series idea.


Thursday 17 January

Milan. Duomo. Gruesome statue of S Bartolomeo carrying his own flayed skin. More terrible than a shelf full of Hannibal Lecter novels. Climb to Duomo roof. 135 spires, each topped by a statue. Extraordinary. Look down on bizarre scene of 20-30 teenagers screaming at TV cameraman on hotel balcony. Try to imagine story behind it, but cold freezes brain.

Saturday 19 January

Venice. Guide book states 'Most of Venice's many churches are either artistically important or else simply beautiful.' Feel entire cultural theory encapsulated somewhere in this. Take chilly vaporetto ride down Grand Canal. Byron lived in Palazzi Mocenigo. Hemingway set a novel in Pal Griti-Pisani. Browning lived in Pal Brandolin-Rota and died in Ca' Rezzonico. Henry James wrote Wings of the Dove somewhere.

Are beautiful surroundings prerequisite for literary creativity? Decide to move at earliest opportunity anyway, just in case. Venice obviously the place for writers.

Wednesday 23 January

Office. Heat small compensation for no longer being in most wonderful country in world. Receive cheering email from editor of Writer's Handbook confirming commission for next edition's article. Which is to be given 'prominent coverage'. Imagine large billboard by Hammersmith flyover, full-page advert in Times Lit Supp, discussion with Germaine Greer on Late Review.

Friday 25 January

Helena emails from EastEnders: My script has reached the top of her pile. 'Bear with me and you will get a response.' When, though? When?

Finish outline of sample episode for new series idea. 90 scenes. Too long for an hour, but much better to have to cut than pad. Start to write first draft and immediately have doubts about very first scene. Is a woman lying motionless under a sheet on a kitchen table enough of a hook to stop viewers reaching for their remotes? Or should I put a man there too?

Friday 1 February

Second rejection of the year: On the strength of the script I sent them, Family Affairs don't think it's worth giving me a trial. Furthermore, they don't think it's worth giving me any reasons. Try to think of something witty to say about it, but frankly too depressed.

What the hell. I'm moving to Venice.



Friday 8 February 2002

Email from: BBC, Script Editor, Doctors.

'Dear Bob, Just to let you know that I have now left Doctors and moved on to Casualty. Sorry we didn't get the opportunity to work together and that it's taken so long for us to come back to you. Doctors takes it's responsibility to our Talent writers very seriously and has been given the go-ahead for a 4th series. So do keep in touch. I'm sure you'll crack it this series and I'll be watching out for your credit.'

Saturday 9 February 2002

Finish first draft of pilot for new series - provisional title 'Alternative Therapy'. Have celebratory drink then with great effort of will put draft aside and resolve not to start rewrites for at least two weeks, as recommended in all the screenwriting books.

Email new script editors at Doctors just to let them know who I am. Still not sure whether to laugh or cry at departure of previous script editor. At least it explains deafening silence.

Monday 11 February 2002

Manage to pass entire weekend without watching a single second of Pop Idol (sour grapes: my money was on Gareth). I gather half the country's population voted and the other half thought it was the end of civilisation as we know it. 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. That little spark of lateral thinking that separates us quality writers from the common herd. Never mind the novel of Pop Idol.

What about the Pop Idol for the novel? (remember, you read it here first)


  • Forget the meagre hour devoted to the announcement of the Booker Prize winner. This is Writer Star - The Series!
  • 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 stoney-faced panel of literary eminences.
  • Feel the heartbreak. See the tears. Share the laughter. The highs. The lows.


I see it all. 


  • Full-page ads in the Times Lit Supp and the London Review of Books attract thousands of young (and not-so-young) hopefuls to regional eliminators.
  • No time for full-length novels here. Each contestant has to impress the judges with the first paragraph of a short story, or a pithy poem.
  • Will it get a mauling from Germaine 'the Gorilla' Greer? Will it move Melvyn? Will it fascinate Fay?


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, conducted live on TV on consecutive Saturday nights.

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 oilfield workers researching their last novel? Do the women look intelligent yet as sexy as Minette Waters?


Who, to coin a phrase, has the write stuff?

The nation will decide.



Monday 25 February 2002

Working on an idea for a film. A robbery performed by OAPs. Sort of Ocean's Eleven meets Last Orders. Very pleased with the structure, so decide to run it past Vogler's The Hero's Journey, the template many claim to be behind every successful movie.

Of course, this kind of thing is in every book on writing. In his Poetics, Aristotle claimed there were only four types of story, depending on complexity and whether or not they had happy endings: simple tragic, simple fortunate, complex tragic, complex fortunate.


  • Kipling defined sixty-nine,
  • Goethe seven,
  • Polti thirty-six 'dramatic situations',
  • Ronald B Tobias twenty 'masterplots'.
  • In his endless book Story, Robert McKee defines twenty-five 'genres',
  • while Raymond Frensham in Teach Yourself Screenwriting states there are only eight - Achilles, Candide, Cinderella, Circe, Faust, Orpheus, Romeo and Juliet, and Tristan - out of which all others can be generated.


But Christopher Vogler, in a now famous seven-page memo to Disney executives, reduces them all to one. Always suspected that about Disney films. Still, for an easy life his template is the one I shall start with.


Let's see now, there are twelve stages in the hero's journey: ordinary world; call to adventure; refusal of the call; meeting the mentor; crossing the first threshold; tests, allies, enemies; approach to the inmost cave; supreme ordeal; seizing the sword; road back; resurrection; and finally, return with elixir. My goodness, it fits! Perfectly!


Tuesday 26 February 2002


Email from Ros, new script editor at Doctors: story ideas for the new series are being considered over next two to three weeks, so I should hear if any of mine are getting the go-ahead by mid-March.


In a moment of panic open the file on the laptop and give the ones I sent a quick re-read. Breathe sigh of relief when I realise they're not that bad. Particularly the one that compares the sympathetic treatment of a stray dog with the brutal treatment of a family of political refugees, and the one about the over-anxious mother who thinks her teenage daughter is starving herself to death for love of a pop singer.


One of the other Talent finalists emails to complain his ideas have already been rejected. Know I should express sympathy, but actually can't help feeling a glow of schadenfreude. All the more room for me.


No news from EastEnders, of course.


Friday 1 March 2002


Very disappointed no one has contacted me about taking up Writer Star!, my brilliant idea for a nationwide primetime TV search for the next Maeve Binchy or Terry Pratchett. With its start in the drab ordinary world and its subsequent trials, hope, despair and ultimate return with the elixir of fame and fortune, it is, I now realise, another perfect example of Vogler's hero's journey.


Does no one recognise a winning formula when they see it?





Wednesday 6 March February 2002


Email from Ros at Doctors: all my brilliant ideas rejected. Obviously divine retribution for allowing myself to feel pleased at failure of other Talent writers. Resolve to treat this as a learning experience, however. New series started Monday and already set VCR. Will analyse in detail all episodes: plot, characters, medical theme, turning points, conflicts, resolution, etc. Feel if I can't crack relatively straightforward daily half-hour drama, what hope Hollywood?


Sunday 10 March 2002


Unbidden and definitely unwanted idea for a novel comes into my head. Now, what have I said about writing a novel? Stop it, just stop it.


Monday 11 March 2002


Muse on John Thaw tribute weekend. Surprised no one mentioned one of my favourite roles of his: as the hero in a now forgotten film called 'Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition', the sort of cheap and cheerful agitprop movie everyone seemed to be making at the end of the 60s. Remember little about it, except a scene in which Thaw attempts to extract a confession from another character with the aid of an electric cattle-prod. All right, not exactly Inspector Morse, but plainly seeds were being sown. Definitely.


Thursday 14 March 2002


Working steadily through Doctors episodes. Watch with finger on pause button and write out stories. Interesting exercise. Typical plot runs something like this: Doctor A diagnoses illness of patient X, who mysteriously refuses to accept treatment. Patient X's relative/friend Y argues with X but gets nowhere, so asks A to be firmer. Doctor A then has blazing row with doctor B, who sides with X. Doctor A finally persuades X to divulge truth, which amazingly reconciles him/her to Y, and A and B conclude that they both meant the same thing anyway.


A dozen or so of these and my mind inevitably returns to recent ruminations about story archetypes. Reach startlingly new and original conclusion. Never mind Kipling's sixty-nine plots or McKee's twenty-five genres or Goethe's over-generous seven. All drama hinges on only one essential element: dilemma.


Should diabetic woman risk surrogacy for her adored older sister, or look after no. 1? Should adored sister admit she lied about having a hysterectomy, or keep quiet? Should doctor tell diabetic woman the truth and face nasty patient confidentiality case, or take the easy option? Even Shakespeare bears me out. Should Cordelia tell Lear the truth about himself and risk losing her inheritance, or suck up to him like her sisters? Should Macbeth listen to his wife or to his conscience? Should Othello obey the voice of jealousy or the voice of love? It is even in the most famous line in all English drama: to be or not to be.


It is even at the heart of the very small drama of my own life: to write or not to write. And, unfortunately, of Ros's at the BBC: to buy or not to buy.


Sunday 17 March February 2002


Watch South Bank Show essay on the novel by Howard Jacobson. Enjoy his writing so expect great things - well, a couple of decent jokes at least. Couched in the extraordinarily elliptical wordiness that seems to charactise every conversation in NW1, his thesis is that the novel is no less than the main defence of civilisation against barbarism. Like DH Lawrence, he believes that while scientists, philosophers, historians, etc. are undoubtedly experts at interpreting the world, they do so from only one perspective. For true understanding, ask a novelist.


Not sure that sitting slumped in a sofa listening to a bunch of middle-aged women enthuse about the latest babies-and-shopping saga, or joining a group of tourists gaping at literary landmarks in Bath does much to advance his argument, but willing to suspend disbelief for an hour in hope a little bit of this great ambition rubs off on me.


Unfortunately programme threatens to descend into farce when he interviews two grandes-dames of the Hampstead Eng Lit scene, Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens. Despite increasingly desperate prompting, poor Beryl never seems quite to understand what Howard is getting at, while Bernice defiantly declares she couldn't care less about the importance of novels in the scheme of things, she writes only for herself.


Which doesn't surprise me. Many years ago I met Ms Rubens at a party - OK, I'm name-dropping, I know, but she's the sister of the brother-in-law of my then flatmate and I really did meet her, honestly - during which she told me that I would never be a writer 'until I learnt to hate'. Not the kind of thing I expected to hear over a glass of Hungarian red and a cube of cheddar on a toothpick, but it was obviously that kind of party. She could have been right. In the thirty years since then I still haven't learnt to hate and I still haven't become a writer.


Friday 22 March 2002


After yet another polite reminder, finally receive email from Helena at EastEnders: 'I've read your Casualty script and wrote this about it (just so you know I really have read it). "Stories are clear and engaging. Male characters more rounded and sympathetic than female - particularly Ginny and Margaret. Nice blend of drama with comedy and some very subtle shifts in tone with Denny and Alan. Tendency to tie things off a little too quickly and neatly (Denny's back story, Margaret's summing up, Ginny's reconciliation with Brenda) as if writer has run out of room in which to finish more organically; occasionally 'charity' theme feels a little too foreground but overall strong and confidently written episode. Worth considering." And apparently I'm now on a 'long short list'. However, the new writer scheme is on hold while they review how it works, so I have another wait in front of me.


Read this through ten times, until finally decide it's good news rather than bad. Can hardly expect to be offered an episode after one sample script, can I? So. Back to Doctors. Must think of more ideas. What if the wheelchair-bound member of a women's reading group is found to be pregnant? Or better still, what if...


Thursday 28 March 2002


For some reason still thinking about H Jacobson. Recall that a year or two ago he recounted in an article how the then hugely popular Chris Evans once asked his Radio 1 audience to phone in with differences between men and women. A listener duly called: 'women can't write their name in the snow.' Evans chortled, 'that's a classic.' To which Jacobson's response was, 'it's the end of civilisation.'


He's right. Writers are our main defence against barbarism.





Monday 15 April 2002


Spend most of the day editing the manuscript of an A-level Physics textbook. Not quite what I'd planned for my birthday, but beggars, etc. Then things start to look up. A call from a publisher: how would I like to contribute a 'getting started' chapter to a forthcoming guide to writing for stage and screen? Takes me all of half a second to decide.


Of course, in some people's eyes I may not be exactly the best qualified person, given my singular lack of success so far, but can't let that stand in my way. Tell myself it's what writers do all the time: describe things they haven't experienced.


A flurry of emails later and a working lunch in Covent Garden is fixed. Excellent. Now that's what being a writer is all about. In fact, must make a note of it for the chapter: the importance of working lunches.


Tuesday 16 April 2002


Mulling over possible approaches to my commission (what a lovely word, commission, such a comfortingly financial ring to it) while trying to ignore continuing silence from Doctors script editor re my latest ideas. Should I base the chapter purely on my own experience, or on those who have actually broken through? What's more useful: the story of how Michael Billington saying nice things about one of my stage plays in 1972 led to thirty years of struggle and disappointment, or the story of how Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was put on by OUDS and the rest, as they say, is history?


Should I fill it with anecdotes, or stick to useful names and addresses and lots of tick boxes? Should I be lighthearted or serious? Encouraging or discouraging? One authority says that the urge to write TV drama is at its strongest among the socially maladjusted, those who find it difficult to cope with real life. Maybe I should just write a list of reliable sources of psychiatric help.

Doubt that anyone would notice. I have a sneaking suspicion very few aspiring writers actually read the numerous 'how to' books already on the market. Or if they do, they take no notice. I should know. Been there, done that, got the rejection slips.


Thirty years ago, with Michael Billington's encouraging words ringing in my ears, I dashed off no less than ten radio plays to the BBC - all written without my reading a single word of advice, or even, as I recall to my shame, listening to that much radio. I was like nearly every other wannabe writer: I thought there was nothing to learn. A bizarre belief, but plainly shared by thousands. How else explain that 90% of scripts submitted to the BBC New Writing Initiative are so awful they aren't read beyond page 10?

Friday 19 April 2002


More confident about my ability to write the chapter now. Feel sure I can offer just that right combination of encouragement tempered by realism. Getting started? I know all about getting started. I've been getting started for the last thirty years.





Monday 29 April 2002


To Covent Garden for session organised by The Writers Guild (oh dear, where does the apostrophe go?). Walk into pub full of lager enthusiasts watching Sky football and realise I'm in the wrong venue. Just easing myself back out the door when a bloke at the bar looks me up and down. 'Just a wild guess, but are you looking for the writers' meeting?' I nod. 'Through the bar, turn right, past the Gents, upstairs.' Halfway up the stairs I take in my all-black outfit and indignantly turn to another lost soul, a middle-aged woman with a shawl over her shoulders and a battered leather briefcase under her arm. 'What did he mean, "just a wild guess"?'


Upstairs, eyes eventually adjust to gloom and smoke, only to find room looks just like the business seminars I spent the last 30 years trying to avoid: same top table, same rows of chairs facing it. Actually I lie about the smoke. Even writers, it seems, have started thinking about their health. Except maybe the stars of the evening: Alan Plater, David Nobbs and Andrew Davies all sport comfortable middle-age spreads.


Takes me a moment to realise I'm actually in the same room as some of my lifelong heroes. Remember writing pathetic imitation of Plater radio play when I was only 22. And isn't that Sue Townsend over by the bar? And Bonnie Greer sandwiched between Plater and Nobbs? Feel overawed already. Know I shan't utter a word in such company, despite having scribbled a dozen brilliant questions in the bus.


Theme of the evening ostensibly 'crossing boundaries', i.e. pros and cons of writing for different media - stage, TV, film, print - all of which my heroes have done. But actually it's just another excuse for writers to whinge. Davies confesses, 'I love writing novels, but I hate writing scripts, really hate it.' Greer says critics dislike anyone who writes for different media; 'They don't know what pigeon-hole to put you in.' And Plater recalls how one of his scripts was 'ruined' by a director's rewrite, 'and of course it bombed.'


Resentment homes in on a popular target: TV script editors. There's a sigh of familiarity from the assembled guild members: oh yes, they've all suffered at the hands of them. Davies blames short-term contracts. 'They're all so scared of losing their jobs, they spend their time trying to second-guess what their managers want.' 'And now they're even being sent on scriptwriting courses, so they know what to look out for,' complains another panelist, as if that were somehow cheating.


Interesting to note that when they speak about film or TV they tell funny anecdotes, but when they speak about writing novels, they use the word 'serious' a lot. Know there's pernicious snobbery in literary circles about TV and film, but didn't realise writers shared it. Feel there's a useful debate to be had about this, but it never happens, except when Plater declares TV isn't a visual medium and Davies disagrees. Plater says 'it's just people in a room talking.' Davies says the best scene in his Pride and Prejudice was primarily visual (no, it wasn't the wet shirt scene).


Feel beginnings of a mini-theory coming on. Suspect all these things - unadventurous script editors, snobbery about novels, emphasis on dialogue rather than image - symptoms of same disease. Namely, Eng Lit Syndrome. Publishing, broadsheet arts pages and the BBC undoubtedly stiff with Oxbridge graduates, all thoroughly steeped in the great tradition. Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, Eliot, etc, etc. Word, words, words. Not a decent picture among them. Even Ridley Scott felt the need to name the spaceship in Alien after a Joseph Conrad novel. (Or was that irony?)


Feel beginnings of another theory. Must be the stimulation of being among all these creative people. Best American TV (ER, West Wing, Frasier) is contemporary, while best British TV (Pride, Barchester, Way We Live Now) adaptations of classics. Why? Because if words are what it's all about, then that's when words were at their best: over 100 years ago for English English; now for American English. Resolve to explore this more, then maybe try it out on a few people. Could be an article in it.


Questions continue, anecdotes flow, the noise from the football fans below threatens to convince us all we could be having more fun elsewhere. Finally a rather balletic young woman, long hair scraped back in a ponytail, breathlessly urges us to join the Writers Guild, because it has a 'wonderful' pension scheme and is a 'wonderful' opportunity for writers to meet other writers and whinge. Because, she reminds us, writing is the loneliest profession 'except possibly lighthouse-keeping.' 'Even that,' she adds, plainly feeling she hasn't painted a bleak enough picture, 'is probably more sociable.'


About to point out there are no manned lighthouses in this country any more, but stop myself in time. One thing I've learnt about writers this evening: none of them likes criticism. But lonely? Come on. Working 8 hours a day in a room full of computer programmers; sitting at a supermarket checkout; sailing single-handed round the world; being a TV script editor - now that's lonely.







Thursday 9 May 2002


Woke in the early hours with more than the usual feeling of panic. What did I do yesterday? Oh yes. Like the ghastly grinding sound of the red-eye commuters changing gear on the hill outside my bedroom window it comes to me. Have agreed to write a chapter of another forthcoming writer's guide. Gulp.

Only myself to blame, of course. Always been a bit of an innocent at working lunches, especially when they take place in the middle of theatre-land. My host was a bit disappointed not to be able to introduce me to any famous thespians in Joe Allen's, but softened up by flattering words and a decent bottle of red, I found that like a lady of easy virtue I was in any case ready to agree to any proposition put to me.


So now I am to write not only advice on how to make a start as a dramatist, but also to provide a brief history of classic detective fiction - from the drug habits of Sherlock Holmes to the drinking habits of Inspector Rebus, as it were. As has been said a few million times before, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

(Pause while I look up Rebus in Brewer's. Have a suspicion Rankin didn't just pick the name out of Yellow Pages. Correct. I quote: "A hieroglyphic riddle, non verbis sed rebus. The origin of the word has, somewhat doubtfully, been traced to the lawyers of Paris, who, during the carnival, used to satirize the follies of the day in squibs called De rebus quae geruntur (on the current events), and, to avoid libel actions, employed hieroglyphics either wholly or in part." Well, what do you know?)


Unfortunately, when it comes to crime fiction I'm no expert. Or perhaps fortunately - at least I won't be burdened by knowing too much. And I do have one major problem with detective stories, those in which the puzzle is the main thing. It's this. Since, in order to maintain the mystery, most of the characters must be portrayed as equally likely to have stabbed the vicar in the library, after a while I find I couldn't care less. In fact, often tempted to use the words of the Marxist Eng Lit critic Dr Arnold Kettle as he dismissed the whole Virginia Woolf corpus: 'So what?'


Also recall the hour-long Minette Walters programme in which she admitted after having written over two-thirds of her new novel that she still hadn't decided who the murderer was. Well, if she hadn't worked it out how did she expect us to? Makes the recent Frances Fyfield TV adaptations a nice change. The villain is obviously villainous from the start. Means we can concentrate on the real mystery, namely why Ms West addresses her longstanding lover only by his surname.


Ns see now, there are twelve stages in the heroo doubt Ms Fyfield's novel sales will now go through the stratosphere, but I'm not hugely tempted to read one yet. May be unfashionable to say so, but in my experience TV often makes a better job of a novel than the novel does. Look no further than Morse. Early on in series decided to read Last Bus to Woodstock - for sentimental reasons as much as anything, since I live there - but found it dry and impenetrable, with far too many long sentences, just the sort of novel, in fact, you'd expect from a man who likes doing crosswords.


Drama seems to lend itself to mystery. Jeffrey Hatcher in his Art and Craft of Playwriting even goes so far as to claim that 'all plays are mystery plays'. Not sure why. But plainly some truth in it. Name almost any play. Hamlet - will he get the evidence to confirm Claudius's guilt? The Crucible - how many people will die before this madness stops? Looking for Godot - who the hell is Godot? Even our oldest dramas are called Mystery Plays.


Which should come as no surprise to present-day TV audiences. The trial of Jesus Christ? It's nothing less than the world's very first courtroom drama.


Tuesday 28 May 2002


Almost three weeks since my last entry. Very lax. Actually been too busy earning money, copy-editing another Physics textbook. Not sure why I'm getting this kind of work - only just scraped A level, but apparently that's good enough. Fortunately, still capable of being fascinated by subject, e.g. did you know that size of electron (things that whizz round inside every atom) compared with atom equivalent to size of ping-pong ball compared with distance to nearest cinema? In other words, all matter (that's you and me and the computer you're looking at) is 99.9% space.


Well, it fascinates me.


Thursday 30 May 2002


Finally put Physics t/b (to bed) - as we say in copy-editing circles - so now it's back to real work. Moment of panic. Surrounded by half-finished projects. First draft pilot episode of drama series waiting for rewrites. Rough plan of film script waiting for inspiration. Idea for novel about hell waiting for research - yes, I know I said I wasn't going to write another novel, but this one's going to be good, trust me. 'Getting started' chapter waiting for me to get started. Likewise chapter on famous fictional detectives. Ideas for Doctors waiting for final polish - no, draw a line, move on, no more ideas for Doctors. Not to mention murder mystery set in a conservation area, TV drama about a liberal turning into a racist, children's story inspired by a sign in a shop window, radio version of TV sitcom, thriller about a historian researching the Falklands, comedy about Russian politician...


Feel a bit dizzy. Everything whizzing round inside my head like electrons in an atom. Must lie down.


Friday 31 May 2002


Finally get started on 'getting started'. Consult Aristotle's Poetics. Not sure why, but it seems as good a place as any to, well, get started. Anything that's still being read after nearly two and a half thousand years must have something useful to say.


Aristotle defined six elements for drama: plot, character, ideas, language, music, spectacle. In that order. Interesting that most contemporary authorities on scriptwriting reverse the first two: define the characters and the plot will follow. Could be right. Remember Elmore Leonard once saying that he starts a novel by imagining a few weird people, then watches what happens when he throws them together; only on page 120 does he start to worry about how he's going to tie up the story.


Most TV dramas, on the other hand, seem obsessed with plot, especially soaps. Don't imagine EastEnders script conferences waste time with the finer points of Ian Beale's low self-esteem; they concentrate on dreaming up more tribulations to put him through. Which makes it all the more refreshing when they occasionally allow themselves the luxury of exploring a character in depth - Billie Mitchell's brutal boyhood, Little Mo's ambivalence towards nasty Trevor, Dot and Ethel talking about euthanasia.


Truth is, of course, plot and character inextricably entwined. Can't have a story without people to act it out; can't know what characters are like until they do something. Trouble is most TV drama stops there. As if to say first two of Aristotle's elements quite difficult enough, never mind other four. So, no ideas, no language (unless you count regional accents), no music, no spectacle.


Personally I miss the first the most. What's the point of telling any story unless it's about something? A story must illuminate something larger than itself, something the author feels passionate about. Best TV plays do this: David Mercer's in the 60s, most of Dennis Potter's, anything by Jimmy McGovern, even his Brookside episodes.


Feel myself warming to this. Think I may have the first bit of my 'getting started' chapter: the importance of writing what you feel passionate about. Poverty, injustice, heroism, loyalty, love, betrayal, loss, the triumph of the human spirit as embodied by the World Cup. If your writing has no theme, no ideas, it will be empty. Your dramatic world will be like - and I promise this is the last time I use this simile - an atom: characters whizzing round like electrons, but in 99.9% space.









Monday 10 June 2002


Still researching Getting Started chapter for upcoming Guide to Writing for Stage and Screen. Still struck rather speechless by being asked at all. Flattered, of course, but still surprised. As a writer who can't in all honesty use the adjective 'successful' yet - or even 'professional' or 'full-time' - I may not be the best person to give advice to others. On the other hand do have plenty of first-hand experience: been getting started for as long as I can remember.


Consult a few writer autobiographies in hope of inspiration. Very entertaining. Unfortunately unhelpful. Every writer's experience, it seems, is different. They have little in common except a burning desire to write. Some, judging by the extraordinary amount of whingeing they do about what a thankless, lonely and exhausting job it is, don't even have that. They came to writing by a variety of routes: divorce, redundancy, journalism, you name it. There is no single path to success. Unfortunately, perhaps, for those who think a couple of years as a shoplifter is only one step away from a writing credit on The Bill, or that a lifetime of visiting hair salons guarantees an automatic invitation to pen an episode of Cutting It.


The sad truth is that there is no 'right' background for becoming a writer. Being a doctor might be an advantage for an aspiring contributor to Holby City, but equally it could be a disadvantage. A doctor might find certain things perfectly acceptable that a prime-time TV audience would find utterly revolting. Some people believe, on the contrary, that a good long bout of sickness helps, preferably something highly contagious and romantic, even life-threatening - without being fatal, of course. Not sure how this theory arose. Sounds rather Victorian, akin to their habit of rubbing vinegar into their cheeks to make themselves appear more 'interesting'. In an earlier age Congreve claimed to have written his first play 'to amuse myself, in a slow recovery from a fit of sickness'. Perhaps the solitude and tedium of the sick-bed are supposed to stimulate creativity. In which case, if I truly desire for myself the life of a poet, I should immediately cease eating well, wrapping up warm and in all other respects mollycoddling myself, and instead start hanging around hospital wards and sewers in the hope that I may soon come down with scarlet fever or typhoid.


My early life was cruelly free of such advantages. Yes, I had the usual crop of childhood illnesses, but none lasted long enough for me to get started on my first script. Writing would have felt too much like school. Besides which, I was, after all, ill. However, I did have my first introduction to the world of drama when I was a child. Not the magical experience at the theatre which many playwrights claim to have had, nor the gaping fascination with the celluloid world of Saturday Morning Pictures. Apparently I cried during my first visit to the theatre, when some tin miners were trapped by a rock fall, and had nightmares for weeks after seeing a film of Romeo and Juliet - in which they actually showed Friar John being sealed up in a room with a plague victim.


(Interesting. Trapped. Claustrophobia. That explains one or two recurring themes...)


No, my first real introduction to drama was at home: as a very lowly ASM in my brother and sister's toy theatre productions. Apparently I share this experience with Michael Frayn, who built his own theatre, made all the characters, wrote all the scripts and acted all the parts. I, unfortunately - though I used all the emotional blackmail the youngest member of a family is permitted to use on these occasions - was restricted to raising and lowering the curtain and playing the part of Messenger.


Perhaps that is why Frayn has become a success and I - so far - have not.


Friday 14 June 2002


To Valhalla (i.e. Broadcasting House) to interview director of BBC New Writing for another chapter of upcoming writer's guide. Very nervous. With hour to go, collect borrowed tape recorder from porter's lodge at Garrick Club, only to discover it has no mike. Help!







Friday 14 June 2002 (cont'd)


Rush round to John Lewis in hope of buying missing mike for tape recorder, otherwise may have to start interview with director of BBC New Writing by asking to borrow one. Not that that should be a problem. If any outfit has a mike to spare, it should be the BBC.


Luckily helpful youth in hi-fi department comes up with the goods. And at only £8. I'm in business. Get to Broadcasting House with ten minutes to spare. Shown to cool sunlit office on first floor by pretty young woman. Idly wonder if she's the script reader who said I have 'a command of the good old-fashioned virtues of storytelling'. No. Probably the one who said my characters are 'dangerously close to stereotypes'.


Kate Rowland very charming and helpful, even shows me how to test for sound level. We sit facing each other on a sofa, the microphone between us. Feel a bit like Richard to her Judy. In answer to my prepared questions she tells me a lot I know already, but a lot I don't. Apparently one of the most common pits into which new writers fall is that of imitation. Her shelves are currently overflowing with feeble re-hashes of The Royle Family. Yes, it's brilliant. Yes, it's changed the face of TV sitcom. But unless a writer has something new and heartfelt to say about deadbeat families living their lives in front of the TV set, they shouldn't go there. She and her team of script readers can see a bandwagon coming before anyone's even thought of jumping on it.


Mentally search soul for signs of the same crime, but honestly fail to find any. Can hear no band, can see no wagon. Often feel, on contrary, like a man on a bike whistling in the middle of a desert.


Other major fault is simply weakness of story. 'I've just read four scripts,' she says, 'and on each of them I wrote the one word, "why?"' Again search soul: have recent stories been worth telling? Hero destroys best friend's new car after discovering he's raped hero's wife. Man finds God - literally. Woman foils bank robbery and in so doing discovers love of her life. Philandering man happily metamorphoses into randy tomcat only to suffer inevitable snip of vet's scissors. All right, maybe not all about the meaning of life. But remind myself one of Tom Stoppard's funniest plays about nothing more than a man being unable to pay his taxi fare.


At end of interview I ask to see the piles of unread scripts. Not sure why. Masochism, perhaps. She shows me a wall-full. 'Do you read them all?' I ask. 'We guarantee to read at least the first ten pages,' she assures me, 'but, frankly, we can usually tell from page one whether it's worth going on or not.' Apparently over 80% aren't.


With that sobering statistic ringing in my ears I hit the street. Almost enough to make me think seriously about taking up accountancy. Trudge towards Oxford Circus tube. Within a hundred yards that naive optimism without which no aspiring writer could get through the day takes over. Out with notebook: unstable writer plants bomb in Broadcasting House....


Wednesday 19 June 2002


To White City to interview Mal Young, the man whose name is always at the bottom of the scrolling credits at the end of BBC drama series - last seen sharing a pint with the Queen and the Duke of E in EastEnders' Queen Vic. He occupies a rather shabby office block opposite Television Centre - I don't know where the licence fee goes, but it's certainly not on accommodation. Reception packed with hopeful actors in for an audition. Schadenfreude at their pale, nervous faces helps to shake off that sinking feeling I get every time I walk into an office block. Further cheered by fact every room seems to have a huge TV pride of place. Very homely. Though bit unnerving conducting interview with Can't Cook, Won't Cook flickering silently at my elbow.


Doesn't start well. At the top of the questions I'd emailed him beforehand I'd called him the Head of Drama Series. He takes out his pen and firmly puts a line through the first word: 'Actually, I'm the Controller of Drama Series.' Whoops.


I briefly tell him why I'm there and what the book is about. 'Interesting,' he says. 'For some time I've had in mind a book about writing popular TV drama.'


'Great idea,' I say. 'The market could do with it.'


'Good,' he says. 'How would you like to write it?'


Don't remember too much of the interview after that. Good job I have the tape recorder going. Actually, he talks so much I can barely get my questions in. And he's such an enthusiast, hard to resist bursting out with brilliant new ideas there and then. Do remember one slightly worrying thing, though. Seems he's keen to move away from the freelance approach to scriptwriting and more to the US model of staff writers. Immediately suspect this will mean fewer opportunities, even when he claims they'll be on 'very generous salaries'. More encouragingly, he claims he doesn't like to use young writers fresh out of writing school: 'I like writers who've lived.' Fine. But still can't see him giving me a permanent job at my advanced age.


Eventually leave after an hour with the feeling I have nothing less than the future of BBC drama on tape. Not to mention an agreement to send him a plan for the upcoming book. 'Send me a CV,' he adds, 'it'll help me persuade BBC Publications you're the man for the job.' Ah, yes, well, that's where things might come unstuck.


Bump into one of the ladies from Talent in the lift. 'How's the writing going?' she asks. 'Had all my ideas rejected by Doctors,' I admit. 'Oh, everyone has their first ideas rejected,' she says cheerily. 'Keep trying. You'll crack it.' Forebear to mention feel no need for Doctors approval any more, not now I'm about to write a book with the Head - sorry, Controller - of Drama Series himself.









Monday 1 July 2002


To London's West End for another Writer's Guild jolly. This time a seminar on team writing for TV series. Not entirely convinced it'll be that useful, but persuaded by promised presence of three American writer/producers from 24, The Practice, Law & Order, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice, etc. Never know, something might rub off.


Evening starts feebly, with video clips from a couple of their shows, then becomes downright embarrassing when we're all shown a marketing promo for Bad Girls (or is it Footballers' Wives?), two of whose producers are also on the panel. At least they have the grace to apologise, but they then spend the rest of the evening giving John Yorke (head of BBC drama series) a hard time, complaining that the BBC is using its steady income to muscle in on ratings-driven popular drama when it should be concentrating on being innovative and risky. Yorke responds, reasonably enough, that license-payers would soon complain if he put on things they didn't want to watch.


The Yanks seem bemused by how little power British TV writers enjoy. Across the pond the lead writer is often a show's producer. Around me I feel Guild hackles rising. Another difference is how much less attention US writers pay to character. One of the Bad Girls duo reminds Yorke that a typical EastEnders character breakdown even specifies the O levels their mother has. Lucas Reiter (The Practice) says 'we just sketch the characters roughly, then let them emerge more fully through the plot.'


The chairman - something to do with The Scriptwriter magazine - asks every questioner to give their name and occupation. After the eighth person has declared their occupation to be 'writer', I have to fight a childish urge to describe myself as a 'viewer'. I want to know what the panel's own favourite programmes are, but my raised hand is ignored. Probably a good thing: if asked, I'm about to state, even more childishly, that mine is Big Brother.Audience evenly divided between those who think writing TV drama series is beneath them and those who would like to earn the kind of money US TV writers earn.


The Scriptwriter man is plainly one of the latter. He assures Jennifer Robinson, VP of the company that produces 24, that her show should carry a health warning: it moves so fast and contains so many shocks. Ms Robinson modestly lowers her eyes.


I decide it's time to leave.


Friday 12 July 2002


Finally finish my two chapters for the upcoming Writer's Handbook spinoff writer's guides. Wittily subtitle the Making a Start chapter '12 Simple Steps to Becoming a TV Scriptwriter'. Step 1: Be related to a producer. Seemed funny when I first thought of it - now not so sure.


More satisfied with chapter on legendary detectives. Had to cut over 3000 words, which is usually a good sign. Meant restricting my choice to Holmes, Brown, Wimsey, Marlow, Marple, Maigret, Ghote, Dalziel/Pascoe, Morse, Baskerville, Hopkins and Robicheaux, but impossible in a chapter to include everyone. Sure enough, almost by return receive mild complaint of omission - obscurely, a Swedish creation I've never even heard of.


Thursday 18 July 2002


Receive my transcribed and edited interview with Mal Young. Thankfully, the editor has broken up Mal's almost unbroken monologue with the questions I would have asked if only I could have got a word in edgeways. Actually, rather chuffed with it. Good punchy stuff from Mal; lots of useful advice for aspiring writers. It even makes me sound as if I know what I'm talking about.







Sunday 11 August 2002


Read the Observer News section to get my weekly update on world events, only to discover a surprising rash of stories about films and novels. Even in a piece consisting of various worthies' reflections on the fifth anniversary of Princess Di's demise, Carmen Callil confesses to being 'in the Minervois writing a book'.


On the Comment pages Cristina Odone muses on why the by all accounts rather detached record of a Parisienne art critic's numerous sexual pleasurings is such a hit on the continent, but - excuse the pun - such a flop in the UK. She comes to no useful conclusion, except to suggest that our culture prefers its sex 'either glimpsed in soft focus through a maelstrom of emotions, or enjoyed in secrecy.' Well, speak for yourself, Cristina.


Even the weekly Profile is of Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, presumably to help publicise his latest book, Porno. (Wonder what that's about, then?) Seems he's still his old excessive self and last week upset the great and good of Edinburgh, the city of his birth, by describing it as a 'shortbread Disneyland', a 'cultural desert'. 'Social problems go unchecked, and people don't get the opportunities they deserve simply because they are not deemed to exist in this paradise.' The Lord Provost, apparently, declared this 'arrant nonsense.'


In another article, millionaire Hollywood scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) whips himself over a professional life spent glamourising smoking: 'a cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star on screen is a gun aimed at a 12 or 14-year-old...The gun will go off when that kid is an adult.' 18 months ago he was diagnosed with throat cancer; much of his larynx has gone and he has difficulty speaking, so maybe he has a point.


On the facing page Martin Amis gets a hard time from just about everyone over his characterisation of Stalin's terror: 'There's something in Bolshevism that is painfully, unshirkably comic...It is not tragedy, like Lear...It is a black farce, like Titus Andronicus.' Not only does he commit the sin of attempting to provide a literary interpretation of the worst genocide in history, but he commits, for some, the even more reprehensible sin of including personal references, particularly about the death of his sister. A reviewer dismisses the book as 'the narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class litterateur who has never known the kind of real suffering Stalin's victims did.'


Realise both these last pieces are about censorship - self-censorship in Eszterhas's case. Amis shouldn't write about things of which he has no direct experience. A bizarre imposition. Wonder if same suggestion was ever made to Shakespeare. If so, he took no notice, fortunately for us. Otherwise we'd have no double suicide in Romeo and Juliet, no wife murder in Othello, no blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, etc. Eszterhas won't write cigarette smokers into any more of his scripts in case anyone copies them. By same token I assume he'll be omitting murderers, wife-beaters, drug-takers, drinkers, liars, procrastinators and men who don't put the seat down.


Monday 12 August 2002


Going through another writing crisis. After success in BBC Talent competition and brief flirtation with world of soaps, have gradually realised I don't like them very much. Of course, failure to get any ideas accepted may be contributory factor, but can no longer deny manifest lack of interest in Ian Beale's disastrous marriage, baby Louise's uncertain future or Doctor Mac's alcoholism. Have nothing but admiration for the writers: they obviously live and breathe the shows.

Monday 26 August 2002

Try hard not to read article in The Guardian about Ian Banks (Ian M Banks to his sci-fi fans). Know his success will depress me for rest of day. True enough. When willpower eventually fails, learn among other things he earns a basic £250,000 each year - 'more in a good year'. Gnash teeth. Knew his books were popular; didn't realise they were that popular. Seems it even troubled him, once upon a time. Used to ask himself the question: should he try to write 'good' books or simply entertainment? Now doesn't give a toss. Now realises books that get good reviews in the Sunday supplements are simply books that entertain Oxbridge graduates. Insane jealousy begins to fade. Obviously not such a bad bloke after all. Even decide to take a couple of his books on holiday with me. Can't be all as creepy as The Wasp Factory.


Tuesday 27 August 2002


Try to put finishing touches to new ideas for Doctors. Best one is about two thirty-something sisters, one worn down by poverty and four children, the other a single, successful, childless hi-flier. Irony (or is it paradox?) is that while careworn mother envies her sister's freedom almost to point of hatred, latter finds her own life cold and loveless and wants nothing more than children of her own. Story's symmetry appeals, but by time I've knocked up a plot that fits into one day, begin to have serious doubts. All feels a bit formulaic. And what to do with the husband...?


Second story may be better. Anxious woman in surgery to renew anti-depressant prescription shows unmistakable signs of physical abuse. Suspicion falls on brutish husband, but he's more amazed than anyone. The perp (as they say in US crime novels) eventually turns out to be 14-year old daughter. (And don't tell me it couldn't happen. I read it in a newspaper, so it must be true. Or is that too much irony for today?) Feel happy with story up to discovery. Not so happy with subsequent explanation why girl did it, nor why mother allowed her to. Conclude needs more work.


Third story bit outside Doctors format, so probably waste of time proceeding. Nothing happens in it. No unexpected plot twists, no emotional breakdowns. Just a patient talking to a doctor. Or rather, trying to talk. Because that's what it's all about - the importance of talking. I love it. Only problem is how to make my script editor feel the same way.


Friday 6 September 2002


Finish reading a stack of crime novels. (What is the collective noun? A suspicion? Suggestions by email.) Linda Barnes, Walter Mosley, Val McDermid, Nicci French, Ian Rankin, etc. After having temerity to contribute a chapter to a book about how to write them, decide to blow dust off a mystery novel I started three years ago. Time to put my money where my mouth is. But how do the experts do it?


Unfortunately no easy solutions. Everyone different. Linda Barnes in hardboiled Chandler/Hammett tradition, except her hero is female. Mosley more interested in African-American experience than the puzzle; McDermid procedural; French emotional; Rankin Edinburgh lowlife. Some go for atmosphere, others for strong characterisation. Some have plots more difficult to understand than quantum theory, others so simple even the police could have found the solution by page 10.


All have one thing in common, though. All have 'closure'. May be a few too many bodies along the way, but perp is always caught or killed - eventually. Good triumphs. Reason prevails. Normality returns. In that respect, at least, not so very different from an episode of Doctors.


Right away I see a problem.

Monday 9 September 2002

Feel decidedly low and sluggish, even for a Monday. No academic copy-editing or proofreading to do. Brain refuses to come up with any Doctors ideas - except one about a man feeling depressed on a Monday morning. Day gets any worse I might have to do my tax return.


Phone rings. Laura from the BBC. Instantly sit up straight. Pulse quickens. Gather she's calling from EastEnders. Pulse changes up another gear. I've moved from the long shortlist to the short shortlist. I'm one of only 24 they want to consider for the next shadow scheme. Pulse now at danger level. Take deep breaths. Relax steely grip on phone. Would I like to come and 'have a chat' next week?


Would I? Would I? Yes, I hear myself saying, yes, yes, yes.


Put phone down. Feel suffused with rosy glow. Or is it high blood pressure? Drift into reverie of scriptwriting fame and fortune, only to have it come to a speedy end when recall haven't actually watched a single episode for last three months. Also have embarrassing recollection of writing in this diary a few weeks ago that I couldn't care less about soaps any more.


Well, that was then.





Sunday 15 September 2002


Have become EastEnders bore. Have dutifully trawled through EastEnders website, catching up on storylines and downloading character profiles. Don't want to commit faux pas of suggesting exciting new developments for someone who was killed off four weeks ago. Have watched and re-watched latest episodes ad nauseam. Partner beginning to wonder aloud what life would be like without a TV.


Monday 16 September 2002


BBC Elstree somewhat disappointing. A seedy 60s office block surrounded by an industrial estate. And the EastEnders 'floor' is just a long corridor with offices. No sign of Albert Square or the Queen Vic. No hint of what makes 15 million viewers tune in four nights a week.


'Tell us about yourself,' suggests Helena, pen poised over a large A4 pad. The most predictable question but still the one I was most dreading. How to make 35 years of rejection slips sound like a well-planned learning curve? Concentrate on the competitions I've won and hope she doesn't ask point-blank if I've ever had anything broadcast. Have a gut feeling it wouldn't be a good idea to base our relationship on an outright lie.


Luckily we soon move onto EastEnders. Confess I don't watch it every night. Aamina (a script editor who I estimate is just approaching her 16th birthday) says that if I did they'd think I was a very sad person and that I should get out more. They fire the kind of questions I was expecting: which characters do I think need more development? what storylines do I like? what makes a great episode? And before I have much opportunity to feel nervous I realise we are actually 'having a chat'. Furthermore I realise I'm sounding enthusiastic. Not only that. I am enthusiastic. Yes, I want to write for this show. Yes, yes, yes.


Leave after 45 minutes on a bit of a high. They can take 12 writers on the shadow scheme, so I have a 50% chance. Come down to earth when I realise odds are probably much less favourable: I must be up against writers who've at least had stuff transmitted already, so what hope me?


Wednesday 18 September 2002


Trying to put EastEnders out of mind. Proofing 800-page textbook on sports medicine. Head full of MRI scans of twisted knees and the proper spelling of words like motoneuron. Phone rings.


'Hi, Bob. It's Aamina.'


Thursday 19 September 2002


After call from EastEnders yesterday, wake this morning with hangover. Go back to bed and wait for feeling to pass.


Friday 20 September 2002


Browse local bookshop and pick up Writing for Soaps by Chris Curry. Flick through it and almost put it down again. Find it's written in that faintly cynical, tongue-in-cheek style favoured by people who clearly would be writing great literary novels if only the public was ready for them. We, Ms Curry implies - that is, we serious writers - know soaps are rubbish, but if millions are stupid enough to watch them, well, why not take the money?


Getting very tired of this hypocrisy - particularly because until a couple of years ago I shared it.


Granted EastEnders isn't Shakespeare, as regular scriptwriter Andrew Collins is happy to admit. But that doesn't mean it's worthless. Fact, now I come to think of it, there are more than a few similarities. The Slater daughters cause at least as many problems as King Lear's; drippy Mark plainly afflicted by the same Oedipus complex as Hamlet's (with Lisa his Ophelia); Phil Mitchell and his bmegalomaniac mother - well, the Scottish couple, who else? While the jealousy and intrigue that drove Othello to murder are the very warp and weft of almost every episode.


Nevetheless still seem to spend every day justifying my pursuit of a job on EastEnders to friends who start by sniffily claiming never to watch it, then turn out to be unaccountably more familiar with the characters than I am. Reminds me of the Writer's Guild seminar a few weeks back: as far as Plater, Davies and Greer are concerned writing for TV is either torture or farce; real writing is about novels.


Plainly a view shared by most of my acquaintances, who 'hardly ever watch television'. I imagine them spending their evenings gathered round a crackling fire, reading passages from Jane Austen to each other, or discussing the merits of the latest Martin Amis over a fine claret. Strange then, to find they can all hum the signature tune to Ground Force and on closer inspection their bookshelves are overflowing with nothing more demanding than Maeve Binchy and Stephen King.


Thursday 26 September 2002


Letter arrives from Helena at EastEnders. It's official. I'm on the shadow scheme. Yesss!


A two-day seminar led by Tony Jordan (lead writer - i.e. God), after which I have a week to produce a scene breakdown for my episode, then only two weeks in which to produce a first draft. Gulp.


Finally, the official secrets act: 'information relating to EastEnders characters and storylines is entirely confidential and should not be discussed with anyone outside the programme.' So if anyone is reading this in the hope of finding out in advance what's finally going to happen to Lisa and baby Louise, sorry. From now on, my lips are sealed.


Tuesday 1 October 2002


My mother died this morning. She was 88. Born at the beginning of the first World War, survived the Blitz, brought up three children, unfailingly supportive and cheerful, despite suffering the death from leukaemia of her 23-year old daughter. She seemed to have hundreds of friends. At Christmas every room in her house overflowed with cards. When my father died, she began to write about her experiences during the war. She told good stories. As one might expect from someone who lived through most of the last century.


And she wasn't ashamed of admitting she loved EastEnders.





Monday 7 October 2002


First day of EastEnders shadow scheme. At main gate see two women young enough to be my daughters hug familiarly. They're on the shadow scheme too. Right away start to feel old yet at the same time hopelessly inexperienced. I'm right to. Over lunch discover that at least half the 12 hopefuls already have plenty of credits between them. One is helping relaunch Crossroads, another is storylining for Corrie, a third is writing a new Glasgow soap, a fourth Hollyoaks. Feel a distinct amateur among all these professionals. Mood only lifts when find myself next to a man who scripts The Sooty Show. Feel even better when he confesses a friend exclaimed, 'You mean they don't make that stuff up as they go along?'


Tony Jordan turns out to be a real London geezer - for 15 years he ran a stall on a street market. And even after over 200 episodes he still loves writing for EastEnders. Get distinct feeling he believes after his first script was accepted he died and went to heaven.


About scriptwriting he's refreshingly straightforward. Sweeps aside all theories - hero's journey, 3-act structure, 25 masterplots, all that bollocks - and instead presents us with a technique so simple even Barbara Cartland could have used it. Test it out on tonight's episode of EE and there it is. Glaringly obvious when you know.


Tuesday 8 October 2002


Spend morning working on a group exercise: structuring an old episode from scratch. We get a 1.5-page story document, which tells us the main event is a football match. But really the episode is about Arthur Fowler worrying about getting old. Bravely suggest covering the match in flashbacks from the post-match celebrations in the Vic. 'Great idea,' says Tony, 'I might have done the same.' Start to feel warm glow, when he adds, 'Course, it would never get past first draft stage - EastEnders doesn't have flashbacks.'


We're shown round the external set: the Lot. Someone asks why there's so much security. 'We had to put it in after a couple broke in with a photographer,' explains Tony. 'The next day the tabloids were full of photos of them bonking naked on various bits of the set.' Begin to realise am crossing into strange new world.


Wednesday 9 October 2002


Take all day to read three months-worth of story summaries to get to point where episode I'm to write starts. Thrilling but frustrating. Since my episode isn't scheduled for transmission till mid-Feb next year, head now full of exciting new stories I can't breathe a word about to anyone.


Thursday 10 October 2002


Watch tonight's EE with increasing sense of dislocation. Know at least three characters who will soon be dead. Bursting to tell partner but she reminds me of oath I have taken and ties gag round my mouth. Now understand why Tony Jordan confessed he can no longer watch it.


Wednesday 16 October 2002


Day of 'quartet meeting'. In which I and three of the shadow writers discuss our proposed scene breakdowns with a script editor and producer. Feel nervous but not unconfident, and figure I'm important enough now to drive through the main gate and use the BBC car park.


Since I have a Monday episode I'm the one who kicks the meeting off. Proudly pitch my ideas about how I see my episode being put together, where the focus is, the main story, the characters' journeys, the climaxes, the pivotal scenes... Getting quite carried away by my own brilliance when brought up short by producer. Surely my emphasis is on the wrong story? And don't I give the viewers a big let-down at the end of my second story? And shouldn't I be making more of...?


Four hours later, drive out of car park feeling distinctly as if been run over by a bus, to be greeted by half a dozen autograph hunters huddled on the street corner in a chill wind. Or maybe they're hoping to be picked as extras. They peer closely through the windscreen at me. Maybe in a certain light I could pass for Jamie Mitchell's grandfather, but they quickly decide I'm of no account and turn away.


After the drubbing I've just endured, I'm inclined to agree.





Sunday 27 October 2002


Extraordinary article in Observer by Gore Vidal about events of 9/11. His thesis is that the attack (or something like it) was anticipated - indeed, provoked - by the US. Not only that, but then deliberately allowed to happen in order to give Bush a pretext for replacing the Taliban by a pro-US Afghan regime - the reason being stalled negotiations over an oil pipeline. Now the Bush coalition is busily setting about provoking Iraq into doing something similar, so they can put a pro-US regime in there too.


Meanwhile bin Laden has been quietly sidelined - he doesn't control any oilfields - and Saddam is being cast as Public Enemy No. 1, only a short step away from attempting to destroy the entire Western world. Not sure how a fairly insignificant country like Iraq is supposed to achieve this, since even at their maddest the Soviets never attempted it, with a thousand times more firepower at their disposal. Granted Saddam is a vicious megalomaniac, but he's not stupid. And granted he's tried to wipe out his Kurdish population, but that just puts him on a par with Turkey. Oh, but Turkey is pro-US, so that doesn't count.


Sorry, slipping into sarcasm. Last resort of a cynic faced with the hypocrisy of the world.


Friday 1 November 2002


So farewell, Trevor.


Can't say I'm sorry to see him go. Me and a few million other EastEnders viewers. Vicious bully, rapist and wife-beater, he won't be missed. And of course, this being EastEnders and he being a baddie, he has to go out with a bang. Indeed, a veritable fireball. Now I know why the Slater house was boarded up when we were shown round the Lot three weeks ago.


Trevor never worked for me. Always been too much of a one-dimensional bastard. No end to his viciousness. Even when he showed some affection towards Little Mo, we all knew it was just some new twist to his devious nastiness. I kept wondering when we were going to see some other side to his character. Or at least an explanation. Maybe the storyliners felt the same. Over the last couple of weeks there's been some backtracking. Seems Trevor was a thug towards his women because he loved them and couldn't bear to lose them.


Sorry. Too little, too late. Don't believe you.


Even snake in the grass Steve Owen had his moments: a touching episode with his mother and selflessly saving Phil's baby from the burning car in which he was trapped. No such redemption for Trevor. Just a second or two of self-pity, then he's toast. And taking decent Tom with him. Double whammy. Still, at least now we know why Tom joined the cast as a fireman. Teach us to keep our ears pricked. No such thing as background information in EastEnders - everything is there for a reason.


Sunday 3 November 2002


Finish first draft of my episode. No redundant characters to get rid of, so no dramatic death scenes. Not even much heavy conflict, except within the Fowler household, but then that's the kind of family they are. Pauline's never happy unless she's miserable. My main task has been to take an almost entirely sympathetic character (sorry, can't say who he is) and put him through the wringer - thus showing a darker side to his persona. Realise it's the most enjoyable aspect of what I've been doing: showing different sides to people. Take a joke figure and make the audience feel sorry for him. Force an inveterate liar to say something honest. Make Pauline Fowler laugh.


Maybe that's why Trevor had to go - no one could make him laugh. Realise it's how Bush and Blair want us to think of Saddam. No one is allowed to imagine him laughing, except evilly as he orders the beginning of WWIII. Luckily, it's no big deal if EastEnders has the odd one-dimensional baddie. In real life, we have to recognise there's no such thing.


Otherwise the fireball he ends up in may consume us all.





Wednesday 6 November 2002


With great effort of will have not looked at my EastEnders draft since Sunday, in vain attempt to distance myself before attempting rewrites. Nervously read through it, but still sounds depressingly like my own work. Ideally would like to come upon it by surprise after gap of six months. Did I write this? Surely not.


Tricky things, rewrites. Difficult to be objective about something one has sweated blood over. But maybe am worrying unduly. Recall someone at EE saying scripts typically go through 7-9 drafts before they're signed off. Seems excessive. Imagine every Tom, Dick and Harry having their say, including the autograph hunters outside the Elstree main gate. 'Nah, Sharon wouldn't wear pink, not in a million years.'


However, if going to treat this as a job, must learn - as the professionals apparently say - to let my babies go. Like every other scribbler, writing appeals to the megalomaniac in me, making up for the desperate lack of control I have over my real life. This may be OK - even desirable - if I were writing a novel or a slim volume of finely wrought poems, but when it comes to scripting a long-running TV series, I'd better get used to the idea that it's a collaborative enterprise, or I won't last long.


The only place I should draw the line, apparently, is the actors. Recall possibly apocryphal Hollywood story. Self-obsessed star is becomingly increasingly concerned about less than 100% wonderfulness of part he's playing. Eventually complains to writer, 'My character wouldn't say that line.' 'That's very interesting,' replies writer, 'let's have a look at the script.' 'Thanks,' says grateful star. Writer picks up script and finds problem line. 'Oh no, look,' he says to star. 'Your character does say that line.'


Friday 8 November 2002


Email first draft to BBC. Say quiet prayer. Now in lap of Gods, i.e. Aamina, my script editor.


Sunday 10 November 2002


Distract myself from thinking about Aamina sighing despairingly over my wooden dialogue by watching Anthony Horovitz's latest Foyle's War. A reviewer has already tipped Foyle as the next Morse, but in fact he's far better. Morse lived in a cosy world of country pubs, senior common rooms and multiple body counts. The only believable things about him were his grouchiness and his hopelessness as a police detective. Foyle may be a bit liberal for a WWII copper, but at least the world he inhabits rings true: anti-semitism, chauvinism, mob violence, snobbery, corruption, police brutality. Particularly like the mysterious factory supposedly making munitions for the anticipated German invasion, but in fact making coffins - plainly more profitable than guns - in secret 'so as not to panic the population'. Excellent stuff.


Thursday 14 November 2002


10am, BBC Elstree. Meeting with Aamina to discuss my first draft. Driving round M25 feel more nervous than before any of previous meetings, including my initial interview. But starts well. Aamina smiles warmly as she greets me in Reception of the building that doubles as Holby City Hospital (bit disconcerting seeing a sign for Neptune House on the front and one for Accident and Emergency on the back, with a couple of ambulances parked nearby). The smile means good news, surely?


Spirits lift even further when she opens by saying my script is 'really, really' good and lots of other flattering things I instantly forget in the cloud of euphoria that quickly envelopes me. Then she spends four hours telling me all the things I have to change.


During a coffee break I realise that the voice I've been hearing from the next-door office is another EE script editor on the phone to one of the regular writers. Wall is so thin I can hear every word. I'm only having my first draft torn to shreds, but he/she is getting the same treatment on a fourth draft. 'No, that line's not working hard enough. You're going to have to rethink this whole Sonia/Anthony scene...' But whereas I, being a new boy, am meekly agreeing with every one of Aamina's comments, the unheard scriptwriter is plainly not taking things lying down.


I feel the new spirit of collaboration take hold of me. I want to pick up an extension and cry, 'We're all in this together. Let your babies go!'





Thursday 28 November 2002


Finish first draft of second draft of episode 317 of EastEnders. Aamina's been a bit slow emailing her comments to me from our meeting on 14/11, so I've been relying on my own notes. Even so, I've ended up rewriting almost every scene. Indeed, four scenes have gone altogether. Others have been cunningly merged so as to avoid too many 'two-handers' - death by ennui, apparently.


Much of the rewriting has been about getting to 'the emotional heart', in Aamina's words. She thinks I'm too timid. I think it's subtlety. But last couple of weeks have taught me a lot of this kind of writing is about solving purely practical problems. Like how much dialogue can two people squeeze in between No. 23 Albert Square and the Vic? (Answer: not much.) And if I want three characters who don't live together to have a conversation, how do I bring them together? (Answer: that's what the cafe, the market and the Vic are there for.) Actually, that's been one of the major problems with episode 317: the cafe's closed. And since it will be filmed in the middle of winter, there won't be many daylight hours for scenes in the market either. So in my script an awful lot goes on in the Vic.


Never mind, if there's one thing I do know plenty about, it's pubs.


Friday 29 November 2002


Quickly double-check Aamina's comments (actually, they arrived Wed, but haven't had courage to read them till today in case she's thought of lots of new ones) to make sure I've incorporated them, then decide to put draft aside till Sun. Two days isn't much of a gap to lend 'distance', but it'll have to do.


For relaxation watch Fame Academy. Still waiting for some perspicacious producer to pick up Writer Star, my idea for TV competition to find the next Ian McEwan or JK Rowling. Realise it's unlikely to happen though. Not a lot of visual interest in watching writers at work. Though BBC tried it recently with a doc about Minette Walters writing her latest blood-soaked murder mystery. Also vaguely recall a pair of would-be Hollywood screenwriters videoing progress on their surefire million-dollar script. One of them hit the comma key on their PC. The other turned to the camera. 'That's another $10.'


Real reason, of course, is that no one thinks writers are important enough. Piece in today's Guardian about My Big Fat Greek Wedding bears me out. Must be the only person in the western hemisphere who hasn't seen it yet - takes me a moment to realise the film isn't about the Queen's marriage to Prince Philip - because apparently it's become one of the most profitable films ever in terms of return on investment, up there with Star Wars and Gone with the Wind.


As I read on, become increasingly incensed. The journalist Gary Susman plainly finds it impossible to attribute the film's success mainly to the script by Nia Vardalos (well, what kind of lousy article would that make?), instead preferring to emphasize the parts played by Mrs Tom Hanks (who got hubby to set up the film with his company Playtone), Gold Circle (who put up half the production money), HBO (who put up the other half), Joel Zwick (the director) and John Corbett (the co-star), even congratulating Hollywood as a whole for not putting out any other romantic comedies as competition. When Nardalos is mentioned it's mainly to praise her sound business sense in travelling the country to promote the film by doorstepping Greek ex-pat communities and bridal shows.


Good script? Yeah, well, I guess that helped.


William Goldman illustrates the same forgetfulness with Hitchcock's North by Northwest. The film's crop-dusting sequence is justifiably famous. Who gets the praise for it? Hitchcock. The truth? The entire sequence was written by the screenwriter - whose name I have forgotten.


Which only goes to prove my point.





Monday 2 December 2002


By mid-afternoon realise, as has been said before, I'm putting back the commas I took out in the morning, so finally email second draft of EE episode 317 to Aamina at the BBC. Append pathetic declaration that I want nothing more than to write for EE till I drop, but manage to stop myself before the word 'please'.


Tuesday 3 December 2002


Long liquid lunch with ex-business partner to celebrate completion of EE 317 and discuss Pension Scheme, the idea I had in February for a comedy thriller about a robbery conducted by OAPs. Fact is, he's a better writer than I am and I think maybe we could collaborate.


'It's a sort of Ocean's 11 meets Last Orders,' I tell him.


'Haven't seen either of them,' he says, 'but I like the concept. Your round.'


Wed 4 December 2002


Stagger into office at 9.40. To find phone message from Helena, EE Shadow Scheme producer. Surely too soon for feedback. More likely criticism of my complicated six-hander around the Fowler's market stall or the red pencil through my throwaway line about Jim Branning's racism. Half-close ears in anticipation of bad news, so actual words go by in a bit of a blur. '...calling to congratulate you on your 2nd draft ... what a good job you've done ... now it'll be handed to the series editor ... well done ... really good job ... very much hoping it will take you somewhere.'


Call her immediately. We greet each other like old friends. She reiterates how much she likes my script, but cautions, 'Don't give up the day job just yet'. Liza - series editor - will have a whole slew of scripts to read before she decides who to commission. Though apparently she will almost certainly come back to Helena and ask her opinion, which Helena assures me in my case will be 'a very strong recommendation'. Yesss!


Sunday 8 December 2002


Early pre-Christmas drinks with a neighbour and her various friends and acquaintances. Take pity on chap trying to entertain a baby and an 18-month old. Engage him in conversation. Talk turns to EE, but frankly bit tired of hearing my own voice on the subject, so quickly change direction by asking him what he does.


'Funny you should mention TV,' he says, 'I recently had one of my novels on TV - In a Land of Plenty - perhaps you've heard of it?'


Had no idea I was in presence of genuine literary talent. Rapidly ask lots of questions to cover embarrassing memory lapse. Who the hell is he? Now know why celebrities are always being accosted by 'fans', only to be addressed by the wrong name. Have vague recollection of slow-moving post-war family epic. 'The hero was a photographer, wasn't he?' I tentatively suggest.


Tim Pears started out wanting to be a film director, but his first novel won a couple of literary prizes amid rave reviews - the kind that say 'I can't praise this novel highly enough' - which would make anyone change their mind. Briefly consider telling him of last year's abortive attempt to write The Novel, but wisely bite my lip. Instead ask him if he did his own adaptation. No. Apart from scripting the first drafts of the first two episodes just to have something the producers could show the BBC he willingly took no further part, happy to let the professionals get on with it. He particularly loved the camerawork.


Ah, yes. Now more of it comes back to me. Recall words of praise like 'unhurried' and 'elegiac'.


Monday 9 December 2002


Pop into bookshop and buy Tim's first novel. (Always try to buy first novel by any writer I haven't read: suspect that's when he's trying his hardest.) Have a quick glance at the publicity photo to make sure the man I was talking to wasn't an imposter. No. Rather good-looking, but in an ordinary, wouldn't-stand-out-in-a-crowd sort of way.


Makes me realise authors are indistinguishable from the mass, no matter how brilliant or deserving of fame. Let's face it, like the homeless, most of them are invisible: pale, shambling figures picking through the dustbins of everyone's lives for the odd crumb of an idea. Unlike actors, for example. When my wife worked in the theatre even the most minor spear-carrier had the ability to make a roomful of people turn in their direction. No mere writer could ever do that.


Whenever a writer walks into a room, most people think someone has just left.





Sunday 15 December 2002


Intriguing snippet from the Observer: US bookstores report sales of blockbusters down, while sales of more thoughtful, domestic, personal novels up. No explanation offered, so can't say whether this is significant change of taste in book-buying public, or merely short-lived fad. Crichton, Clancy, King, et al., have nothing much in common except a tendency to see everything in black and white and a capacity to make us think the end of the world is nigh. So maybe we are at last beginning to think in colour. Could also be we get quite enough in the way of vicarious bowel-loosening thrills from reading our daily newspapers these days, so desire something more homely when we pick up a novel.


Tuesday 24 December 2002


Escape temporarily from Jamie Mitchell's week-long deathbed scene in EastEnders to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens' '60s Hollywood version of the life of Jesus Christ. As a lifelong atheist feel I am disinterested enough to judge whether there's any truth in the title. A recent poll of leading authors voted Don Quixote the best novel ever, so plainly there are differences of opinion. (All right, I know The Bible isn't a novel, but you know what I mean.)


On the face of it, Christ's story is the classic hero's journey. With one major difference: no happy ending. Despite Christ's resurrection, his terrible crucifixion is the enduring image. Perhaps this explains why there have been no successful film versions of his life. We all know how they're going to end.


On the other hand there are some extraordinarily dramatic moments along the way: eleventh-hour flight from child-murderers; struggle to resist worldly temptation; betrayal by close friend; trial and conviction; self-doubt at the moment of execution. I don't have to believe Jesus is the son of God to see that this is a riveting story, a story that would touch anyone.


Wednesday 25 December 2002


To enter thoroughly into the spirit of Christmas accompany partner to candlelit midnight mass. Despite being a non-believer I love singing carols so throw myself wholeheartedly into God Rest you Merry Gentlemen, Ding Dong Merrily on High, O Little Town of Bethlehem, etc. And as I celebrate the birth of an undoubtedly good man, a man who preached pacifism, selflessness, tolerance and forgiveness, I'm reminded of another story, the first five verses of the first chapter of Genesis. A story that while not describing literally the creation of the earth, nevertheless remains a powerful metaphor.


Let there be light. Arguably the most inspiring words ever written. The desire for order over chaos, for knowledge over ignorance, for peace instead of war, for love instead of hate. Unfortunately as if the unparalleled barbarity of the last century were not bad enough, we are now preparing to save the population of yet another country by blasting them to kingdom come. So it will be some years yet before we can honestly give the response:


And there was light.


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© Bob G Ritchie 2000-2007