Sunday, 30 November 2008


Between ten and fifteen years ago, something terrible happened.

(I'm talking about the UK here - the US has specialised in terrible things for a great deal longer than that.)

What happened was unnecessary. Worse than that, it was completely counter-productive.

It was a power battle between producers and writers.

This was a pretty one-sided battle, and it was initiated by the producers. And it was a BIG mistake.

Let's start with a basic fact. A screenwriter without a producer is like a novelist without a publisher. You can spend all your time creating wonderful stuff, but if you're not paired with a producer, it's just paper with scribbles on.

At the same time, of course, a producer without a screenwriter is a mere wannabe.

It's a symbiotic relationship. Writers need producers to turn their brilliant ideas into a kind of reality. Producers need writers to give them those brilliant ideas.

They're the Yin and the Yang of the industry. As such, they're inseparable.

Except that producers forgot that fact. A new breed entered the industry. They were ambitious, they were keen to get on. And they didn't want any lowdown writers stealing their glory. They wanted complete control.

Nowadays, it's almost impossible to consider writers and producers as equals. We're programmed to see producers as god-like individuals with the power of life and death.

But let's remember what a producer without a script looks like. A bit naked, really.

Traditionally, a producer would seek out a writer whose work he or she admired. There would then be a meeting - possibly even an agreeable lunch - and ideas might be batted to and fro.

Between them, the writer and the producer would agree on a plan, a story they wanted to develop. And the producer would say, 'Right, then, off you go, write that script; we'll stay off your back, but if you want us you know where we are. See you in a few weeks.'

That's how scripts happened. Basically, the producer accepted that writing a script is what scriptwriters do. That's why they hired them.

But then came the Cult of Management, along with a trickier environment (commissioning editors were scared, knowing that if they made a mistake they'd be laughed at, and somebody younger with a smarter suit would possibly take their place). The industry ground to a halt. Decisions weren't being taken.

Enter the new producers. The new bunch saw the writer as a problem. These damned writers were, unfortunately, necessary. So to stop them getting ideas above their stations, the producers decided to mess with their scripts and their heads. The idea, I guess, was that the producer would be able to say, 'Well, realistically, I wrote that script: the writer was really just a glorified typist.'

Inevitably, perhaps, there was a massive cull of writers. Projects were damaged because producers who knew nothing about scripts had started interfering, and then some.

Producers began to believe that actors were more important. After all, if you're trying to impress somebody, isn't it better to say 'I'm working with so-and-so, the famous actor', than, 'I'm doing this thing with a writer you've probably never heard of.'

As more and more writers were forced out of the industry, a new crisis arose. No writers! Of course, this meant there were opportunities for newcomers. And these newbies, being young and innocent, had to be steered through the script process by producers. They didn't realise that it's the Writer's Job to Write the Script and it's the Producer's Job to Produce the Damn Thing.

Which is why writers these days are expected to write draft after draft, revising and revising, until the producer accidentally stumbles across whatever it was they were after in the first place.

This is a most unhappy state of affairs, and it will not improve until two things happen.

First - producers have to realise that the relationship between the writer and the producer is not one of hired hand and demanding client. It's more equitable than that. It is, in fact, one expert going into business with another.

Second - writers have to remember that they are the gifted children. Yes: they need producers, because otherwise they may not eat. But they must never forget that producers need them.

It's time for writers to hold their heads up high. The Writers' Guild has been working on a Writers' Manifesto. That in itself is proof of the fact that the relationship between writers and producers has deteriorated - and it is all the fault of the producers.

So - writers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but drafts 4 to 11 of your wonderful script.

Let's remind producers of where they'd be without us, the ungrateful bastards.

Friday, 28 November 2008


I think it was Francis Bacon who effectively said that there's no such thing as learning - only remembering.

I'm reminded of that idea time and again when I read screenplays. The reason being that the basic laws of screenwriting should be embedded in practically all of us.

There are, if you will, two aspects to screenplays. There's the stuff that does need to be learnt. Formatting, for example - that takes some learning. And then there's the stuff that really we just need to remember.

Like how a story works.

Unfortunately, just as many writers stumble over the problems of format (really should address that one, some time), so the basics of story elude them. We should all be masters of story. It should be second nature - like remembering to breathe. After all, it's not as if we've never come across stories before, is it?

What happens, in my experience, is that the essential elements of story make it into the script, but in a muted, unconscious sort of way. This in itself is revealing. The fact is, we know how to write stories. We just don't know that we know.

So I'm going to look today at one of the first thing that happens in any story: the Call.

Okay, so a story has to start somewhere. And where that story starts is a place we can call the Ordinary World. The writer sets up a situation, showing us what life is like for our main character (or characters).

The 'Ordinary World' is just that. It's our starting point. We need to see what everyday life is like for our hero, before the adventure starts.

One thing we can be pretty sure of is that the Ordinary World is lacking in something. It's not ideal. The hero is bored, restless.

Then comes the Call.

It can come in many forms. A chance encounter, a summons to the boss's office, an incident witnessed on the street ...

This Call represents an invitation, from the World of Adventure, for the hero to make a move. On the one hand, it's an intrusion. Life had been trundling along, as per normal, in the Ordinary World - and now this. Something has happened, and life may never be the same again.

A good script sorts this out pretty early on. The sooner, the better.

In previous postings I've banged on and on about the three Acts of a script. The Ordinary World and the Call are (quite bleedin' obviously) elements of the first Act. And we need to get them out of the way for the first Act to work towards its conclusion, so that we can then get on with the fun stuff, otherwise known as Act Two or 'The Story'.

So we've met the hero and the hero has received the Call. Then what?

Let me ask you: have you ever been asked to do something quite out of the ordinary and found that you had doubts about the whole thing?

Isn't it easier to stay in your comfort zone?

I mean, after all, life in the Ordinary World might not be everything, but it's a damn sight safer than wandering off into the unknown, yeah?

So what does the hero do?

He, she or it REFUSES the Call.

Adventure comes calling, and the hero tries to avoid it.

(There are, of course, circumstances wherein the hero is not really in a position to refuse the Call. It would be unseemly of James Bond to tell M, no thanks, I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing, send somebody else. In such circumstances, the Refusal of the Call takes another form. Sometimes, he won't head straight off on the assignment because there's some woman for him to dally with. At least Moneypenny will give him a wistful look when she says goodbye, which indicates that, although Bond can't refuse the Call, somebody else might wish that he would.

(Alternatively, there's the 'Where Eagles Dare' option. Richard Burton can't refuse a Call. But one of his (shortlived) fellow soldiers can, by questioning the point of the exercise.

(One way or another, the Call must be refused.)

Often enough, at this point, screenwriting mirrors life. I've read many a screenplay in which - usually unknowingly - the writer has got the Call in there. At which point, it's not their hero who refuses the Call - it's the writer themselves. A lot of writers, I've found, are happier fiddling around in Act One than actually committing to the story of the script. Result - the script never gets on with it. Which is bad, bad, bad.

After the hero has refused the Call, usually by finding reasons not to go off on some madcap adventure, something else then has to happen.

The decision has to be taken out of the hero's hands.

Some kind of enemy action or divine intervention is needed to give our reluctant hero a kick up the arse. Because, for there to be a story at all, the hero must cross that threshold into the World of Adventure (the Story).

So - in the simplest terms:

1) The hero is bored in the Ordinary World;
2) Adventure calls;
3) The hero tries to avoid going on the adventure;
4) Something else happens - now the hero has no choice;
5) And we're off ...

These are the bare bones of any Act One. This is how pretty well every story ever told begins. It's a tried and trusted formula. It's practically unavoidable.

So why fight it? Make sure that your story, after a quick set-up of the Ordinary World, has a Call. A moment when the riskier World of Adventure irrupts into your hero's settled existence.

Then make sure that your hero has doubts, second thoughts, or simply appreciates that adventures can be scary things.

And then give them such a boot up the arse that they're left with no choice in the matter. Adventure, here we come.

And for heaven's sake, get all this over with before your script starts dragging on and going nowhere. Both heroes and writers need that lightning bolt which propels them into the story, somewhere towards the end of Act One (and Act One, please remember, should be a quarter of the script - no more).

This isn't learning - it's remembering. We all know this.

But so many writers spend so long refusing the Call themselves that they end up with a script without a story.

Which is a shame, to say the least.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


What's the sexiest moment in movie history?

That's a tough call, but for my money it just might be in Hitchcock's 'Rear Window'. Grace Kelly holds up a nightdress and tells Jimmy Stewart (who has broken his leg), 'Preview of coming attractions.'

There. Not a nipple on show. Not a glimpse of buttock. But it worked for me when I first saw it.

But why? I mean, okay, Grace Kelly was moderately attractive, and the thought of her wearing a negligee could drive a man to distraction. In fact, that's just it. Sure, I'd like to have seen her wearing it. But the THOUGHT of her wearing it - the IDEA that, when they got married, lucky Jimmy Stewart would get to see her wearing it EVERY NIGHT - well, wow, there's a thought.

Like they say, it's the thought that counts.

Now, say what you like about Alfred Hitchcock, I think he was a genius. There's a lot we can learn from his movies. Beyond the camera trickery and the odd quirks, Hitch really understood cinema. And so what if most of his movies turn on the same plot (male victim of mistaken identity goes on the run and encounters a cool blonde)? He knew his audience.

And one of the things he knew is that sometimes it's better not to show things.

Now, there's a conundrum. The screen is a visual medium, and now I'm suggesting we shouldn't show things. Hmmnnn ...

The imagination is an exceptional tool. As screenwriters, we're supposed to go where our imaginations lead us. And we live in an age when, if we're lucky to have an indulgent producer with unlimited funds, we can show whatever our imagination comes up with.

This is largely thanks to a process known as CGI or 'Computer Generated Idiocy'. When it first appeared (think back to 'Jurassic Park' and 'Terminator 2') it was amazing. Now, I think it's a bit tired. But it seems to appeal to the juvenile among us. That's why movies and TV are obsessed with it. It's expensive, it's not convincing, but the kids love it.

(I suspect that the kids love it because they've grown up in a virtual world.)

However, just because we can show giant monsters destroying New York City, or flying dragons attacking a castle, or people having their skulls blown apart, the real question is - should we show these things? This is the great moral quandary - call it the problem of science: just because we CAN do something doesn't mean that we SHOULD do it.

How many werewolf movies have you seen which completely fall apart the moment you see the monster?

Maybe the real problem is that while screenwriters indulge their own imaginations and budgets go through the roof, what about the audience's imagination?

If the audience has to imagine the monster, the horror, the ghastly injuries, they'll often do a better job of it than our special effects experts can. It's called 'fear of the dark', or 'fear of the unknown'.

One of the scariest films I ever saw was a black-and-white adaptation of Henry James's 'Turn of the Screw'. It's called 'The Innocents', and I've been lucky enough to work with the cinematographer (the legendary Freddie Francis) and to befriend the first AD. Not much happens in the movie. There's no gore. There are no giant monsters. They only just manage to show us a ghost. But it's chilling, terrifying, and absolutely brilliant.

A well-known British producer (Tony Garnett) had something of a catchphrase, as I remember. It went 'There's nothing less sexy that a shot of heaving buttocks'. I suppose much would depend on whose buttocks were doing the heaving, but in fact I think he's right.

The juvenile, 'I want' part of the audience maybe only wants to see shots of heaving buttocks, between computer generated images of mass destruction. The most juvenile culture in the world is that of the United States, which means that America produces metric tonnes of this shit every week.

And while the BBC keeps trying to attract younger viewers, we'll have to put up with more of this expensive, unimaginative toss on our small screens.

But let's remember that, if you want to reach a mature audience, or an audience that might actually read books, or an audience that doesn't feel the need to stuff its face with junk while whooping at the screen, we need to use our imagination.

Which also means letting the audience use theirs.

'Preview of coming attractions.' I'd take Grace Kelly saying that over a load of CGI nonsense anyday.

Saturday, 15 November 2008


The range of characters available to the screenwriter is unlimited. But, as with anything to do with screenwriting, in practice it's pretty simple.

I'm not going to talk about background characters, here. If anything, I'm going to talk about character function.

Characters exist for a reason - and, if they don't, they shouldn't be there in the script. They must be doing things, fulfilling a purpose, adding to the brew. Always ask yourself: is this character important? Vital? Really adding to the script? Or have I simply found a character I like, but who may not belong in this story?

Certain character types are indispensable. They keep cropping up. There are four of them, and while it isn't necessary to have all four in a script, it's difficult to avoid having at least two of them.

These four more-or-less essential characters are:-


So - looking at them in turn ...

1. THE HERO. Try telling a story without this one.

Now, first of all, the HERO and the PROTAGONIST are not always one and the same. Usually, but not always.

The word PROTAGONIST comes from the Greek: it means 'first actor' or 'first contestant' (a memory of the time when drama was a competitive sport, as well as the struggle that lies at the heart of drama). The PROTAGONIST is simply the main player or lead character.

There are certain rules governing heroes, however. First, the word HERO. It again derives from the Greek and means, essentially, one who protects and serves. A PROTAGONIST does not need to engage in self-sacrifice; a HERO does.

In fact, the story of the HERO is universal. There is often something unusual or miraculous about their birth. They are often raised apart from their parents. They answer a certain 'call'. They make the journey into the World of Adventure for the good of their society. They struggle, they suffer, they bring back the magical key, the secret, the vital clue. They make their world a better place and, as a result of their endeavours, they GROW. They CHANGE. Their personality becomes stronger, fuller, more complete, as a direct result of the journey they've undertaken and the struggles they have undergone along the way.

2. SHADOW. Or, if you prefer, the VILLAIN, NEMESIS, RIVAL or BADDIE. But I prefer SHADOW. Thanks to Dr Carl Jung we know that every individual personality has a Shadow, which is composed of those elements of our psychological make-up that we don't like. We project them onto other people, or even other races.

When somebody takes an instant dislike to somebody else, that's usually the Shadow at work. For example, I don't want to think of myself as a conceited show-off, so when I meet someone who seems to be a conceited show-off I don't like that person. Why? Because, deep down, they remind me too much of my darker self.

As we know from 'Star Wars' (in fact, 'The Empire Strikes Back'), the SHADOW is not necessarily the polar opposite of the HERO. Psychologically, the SHADOW consists of those elements in the HERO's personality which have not been integrated. Thus, when we discover that Lord Vader is Luke's father (shock! horror! hold the front page!) what we're really learning is that the Dark Side has been present in Luke all along. He can resist it or he can assimilate it. Luke is a goodie (boringly so) because he opposes the evil forces. But the SHADOW is a function of the HERO's personality. Fighting it is not always the answer. Turning the negative aspects of the SHADOW into positive ones (making a friend of the SHADOW) creates psychological completeness.

But, of course, that seldom happens. In our shoot-'em-up world, the SHADOW must be destroyed. (What a better world it would be if our stories taught us to integrate the SHADOW side of ourselves, rather than projecting it onto others and then destroying them: the War On Terror is, in many ways, a war between the West and its Shadow, and wars like that can never be won).

So, the SHADOW is the HERO's 'opposite', the Yin to the HERO's Yang.

3. SIDEKICK. Sometimes called REFLECTION or ECHO. But SIDEKICK is better, because we all know what that means.

A SIDEKICK is usually the HERO's friend. They exist to make the HERO look better at what they do. Think of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson: Watson is a clever guy, but Holmes is miles ahead of him.

In many movies, the SIDEKICK doesn't make it to the end. This, again, is part of demonstrating how amazing the HERO is. The HERO survives, the SIDEKICK doesn't. Ergo, the HERO is better than the SIDEKICK.

The SIDEKICK can be thought of as a representative of the audience. They get us closer to the HERO, and show us how much better/braver/cleverer the HERO is than we are. Because of their friendship, the SIDEKICK can have conversations with the HERO that others can't. So the SIDEKICK sheds a new light on the HERO.

(The lighting image is quite a good one. The standard lighting set-up involves three light sources. Imagine the HERO as the subject. The HERO's confrontation with the SHADOW, the struggle between them, acts like the key light, thrusting our HERO into the spotlight and casting a large shadow. The SIDEKICK provides the backlight, lighting up the HERO from another angle. The LOVE INTEREST acts like the fill light, removing much of the shadow and giving us a somewhat softer, more rounded image of the HERO. Technical stuff, but a good mental image to hold in your head: the three satellite characters exist to 'light' the main character beautifully.)

4. LOVE INTEREST. Or ROMANCE. If the SHADOW is the enemy, the rival, and the SIDEKICK is a friend, the LOVE INTEREST is the lover, the prize, the object of desire. Attaining the love of the LOVE INTEREST is often the HERO's reward for having successfully undertaken the adventure.

So, we can picture our HERO in the centre of a space. The SHADOW stands before them in apparent confrontation (remembering, of course, that the SHADOW is composed of those elements of the HERO's psychology that the HERO doesn't like or want to know about). The SIDEKICK stands behind the HERO, making the HERO look braver, more romantic. The LOVE INTEREST stands to the side of the HERO, and slightly in front, showing us the HERO's softer side.

As I said, all four are not compulsory. Sherlock Holmes was seldom bothered by love interests. What is more - and here's the fun part - in the weird World of Adventure where the story happens, a character can switch from one function to another:

A SIDEKICK can become the LOVE INTEREST, or the SHADOW. The SHADOW might turn out to be the LOVE INTEREST (I think Jung would have loved that). In some stories, the main character is merely a Protagonist, and it is the LOVE INTEREST, or the SIDEKICK, or even the SHADOW, who turns out to be the HERO (undergoing tests and trials and emerging as a new, improved person).

So there's plenty of fun to be had with these four. You may not need them all in your story, but it's not a bad idea to have all four.

Remembering, of course, that the HERO, the SHADOW, the SIDEKICK and the LOVE INTEREST all have their own stories. Each of them has OBJECTIVES and OBSTACLES (yes, and INNER and OUTER ones).

Create four interesting major characters. Make sure they each have their own story (OBJECTIVE and OBSTACLE). Be prepared for them to change their function during the script. And ensure that the satellite characters exist to reveal the HERO, giving us three different angles on the HERO's character.

And then, you should have a pretty solid constellation of characters at the heart if your script.

Monday, 10 November 2008


Why write CUT TO: at the end of a scene? Why do it?

I mean, how else is the editor to get from one scene to another? They don't need us to tell them to cut from one scene to the next.

And what the hell, exactly, does QUICK CUT TO: mean?

Not so long ago, it was common practice to have loads of neat CUT TO:s lining the right-hand margin of the screenplay. But, little by little, we began to realise a couple of things.

1) the producer knows that we're going to be cutting - it's not as if an experienced script reader will get to the end of a scene and then stop, wondering 'But how do we get to the next scene? How?'

2) how much space is taken up by writing CUT TO: after every scene?

It is a paradox of screenwriting that, while 100 to 120 pages feels like a great wilderness of space to be filled, on each page of script the space is severely limited.

One page of script = one minute of time. The script has to keep moving. Every time we stop to write CUT TO: we are depriving ourselves of script space. We are wasting a precious commodity.

There ARE occasions when it can be useful, if not indeed necessary, to give the reader a break and drop in a CUT TO:. But they can be few and far between.

Let's think of a script not as a succession of scenes but as a number of sequences. To be honest, I'm not a great fan of scenes. Of course they're the building blocks of drama. But they can often be short and stumpy. In television (that great monster) they can also be clumpy. The format in which TV scripts tend to be written (not the same as screenplay format) tends towards scenes which function as blocks of action. One block of action comes to an end, and everything stops. CUT TO: And we're off into another block.

I always like interweaving my scenes. It creates a sense of pace. It allows the boring parts of scenes to be politely dropped. It makes separate actions seem concurrent. It can build tension.

But this means that the concept of the scene dwindles. The scene can cease to be a discrete block of action and become something more fluid. Which means that each scene is really just an integral part of a sequence.

At the end of a sequence of scenes it can be beneficial to write CUT TO: almost as a punctuation mark. It's as good as saying 'End of Sequence; take a breath'. This way, instead of breaking the script up into literally dozens of tiny bits (scenes) we get a handful of more substantial sequences.

The script moves quicker. We're not wasting space. And each scene, instead of being a lump of action, becomes a thread in the overall tapestry.

But we still have to move from one scene to another.

Dropping all those CUT TO:s allows us to focus on the art of screenwriting.

Because if there is one thing which can distinguish a professionally-written screenplay from an amateur one, it is the quality of the transitions between scenes.

Thinking more in terms of sequences than scenes tends to help the forward momentum of the script. And a screenplay is all about forward momentum. We can break at the end of a sequence in order to acknowledge that a new sequence is about to start, but during each sequence the emphasis is on keeping things moving. Seamlessly.

One of the smartest ways of moving from one scene to another is the question-and-answer approach. This is particularly appropriate because, one way or another, all scripts rely on questions and answers.

The audience starts posing questions in their minds from the very outset. The screenwriter's job is to prompt those questions and to answer them as and when. For the script to work, the reader must be asking questions constantly (if unconsciously) and the writer must provide only enough information to keep the reader glued to the script and the unconscious questioning to develop. Only by the end of the script should all the questions be answered.

(A lot of producers and script editors, reading scripts in offices, question EVERYTHING in the script. They lose sight of the fact that, on screen, the forward momentum of the story should negate a whole lot of questions. The problem comes from being too picky, and leads to the kind of drama in which every question is answered without the story maintaining momentum - result: dull drama.)

Question and answer. This goes to the heart of drama. It's a kind of 'will they, won't they'? Will they find the secret? Will they survive? Will the cavalry arrive in the nick of time?

One way of getting from a scene to the next is to pose a question, which is immediately answered at the start of the next scene.

This links the two scenes. In TV drama, cutting from one scene to another often slows the momentum. But stitching the scenes together using the Q-and-A technique keeps the thing moving.

There's another form of transition I like. It's a bit tricksy, but it can work beautifully. Technically speaking, it involves cutting the picture and the dialogue at different moments. So that the dialogue from the first scene continues, briefly, over the start of the second scene, or the other way round. The dialogue from the top of the second scene can start while the image of the first scene is still being played on the screen.

Again, just like the Q-and-A technique, this approach knits scenes together. The act of cutting between scenes does not then create a 'jump', as it might otherwise. Instead, one scene flows relatively smoothly into the next. If you will, the reader or viewer is carried over the transition, either because the two scenes are linked by an idea (or question/answer) or because the break between scenes has been staggered.

Obviously, one must exercise caution. Too many fancy transitions between scenes could make for a script which is just too darn clever-clever for its own good.

But surely devising innovative and satisfying transitions between scenes is better than cluttering up a script with loads of redundant CUT TO:s.

And besides - it makes the script feel more professional. So what's not to like?

P.S.: All those 'jargon' terms for interesting cuts - QUICK CUT, JUMP CUT, TIME CUT, DISSOLVE, FADE, MIX, etc. - are kinda pointless. You can embed brilliant transitions in your script without scattering this kind of rubbish throughout. As with all 'tricks', like flashback or voice-over, try it without them, and then only put them in if there really is no better way.

P.P.S.: Hi Ted!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


At four o'clock this morning, British time, I found myself laughing. Others cried. Some danced. I laughed.

The forty-fourth president of the United States of America had just been elected. A historic moment.

I laughed for sheer joy. I speak as a man who managed to smuggle the words 'Vote Barack Obama' into a rendition of 'Sweet Home Alabama' this summer, sadly to a bunch of Brits who were not eligible to vote in the US election, but hey - I did my bit. The whole world wanted Obama. Thank you, America. Thank you.

The past eight years have been characterised by everything that is wrong with human nature and, in particular, with right-wing politics. It has been a period of lies and misrepresentations. Of obscene wealth and escalating despair. Of cynicism and mistrust. Let's face it, the twenty-first century has not started well.

Obama's victory sends out a signal. America and the world wanted change.

But what has this got to do with screenwriting? Possibly, everything. Change is now in the wind. And, as screenwriters, change is what we need.

There are signs of good news. The BBC is assessing how much it pays, not only to its top 'celebrities' but also to its overpaid, overpromoted executives. That's good. The truth is that between one half and three quarters of BBC management could disappear tomorrow and nobody would notice - except that, a year or so down the line, the quality of programming would show a phenomenal improvement.

He wasn't solely responsible - he was more of a figurehead, a poster-boy for the self-centred opportunists - but there is no doubt that George W. Bush poisoned everything. His adminstration gave out a simple message: if you're rich, get richer; if you're poor, fuck off. And don't, for a single moment, imagine that the truth means anything. There is no truth anymore. Just verbiage. Soundbites and lies.

All that has now changed, thank Goddess.

A shift is taking place. American voters have rejected the lies, the arrogance, the plain old stupidity and cupidity of the Bush years. The world now wants genuine leadership. Change. Hope.

This cannot be ignored, not even by those who have ridden the gravy train of the past decade, acquiring bullshit job titles and rolling in money while simultaneously demonstrating their uselessness. The tide is turning. I truly hope that the end of the Bush nightmare will also spell the end of the cult of managerialism, the end of the contempt those at the top have been showing for those at the bottom, the end of a culture based on spin, gloss, and the celebrity freakshow. I truly hope that we may now begin to get back to what really matters. Systems that work. Management that is there to facilitate, rather than to obstruct (and to pay itself vast dividends as it does so). The acknowledgement that we are all in this together.

Not so long ago, I came across an article which asked: 'Why didn't popular culture warn us about what was about to happen in the global economy? Where were the Gordon Ghekkos of the noughties? Why was this obscenity allowed to run riot without writers - the conscience of their societies - bringing such excesses to our attention? Where were the siren voices?'

The fact is that, during the past decade or so, those who control broadcasting have preferred to pump out meaningless nonsense, asinine froth, rather than tackle serious subjects. I said that writers are the conscience of their societies. We are the Cassandras who warn of dire consequences. But if the powers that be deny us the chance to serve our true calling, if they fuck up our scripts and prevent us from reaching our audience, if they force us to write soapy pap rather than genuine drama, then they are colluding in the Great Lie that has characterised the Bush years.

That Great Lie is now in its death throes, and the world is looking towards a new era.

It may not last. Bush and his cronies might have damaged the US and world economies beyond repair. Some right-wing nut might assassinate Obama. Things might be about to get a whole lot worse.

But the tide has turned. The worst kind of censorship is the kind which doesn't announce itself, which pretends that it doesn't exist. There has been censorship of an extraordinary kind at work over the past decade. It has been necessary to protect the interests of those who have made their fortunes, mostly by raiding the public purse and/or inventing phoney finances. Censorship of the kind that calls itself 'responding to market forces' is what has allowed a non-stop stream of empty-headed drivel to replace true culture, true drama, true debate. That kind of censorship has sold us all short. Dumbing down was its way of hiding what was really going on, of drawing a veil over boardroom greed and managerial incompetence.

Now the people have spoken. A grassroots movement has rejected the politics of greed and slander. America has voted for change and the rest of the world is cheering.

Soon, let us hope, we may get on with the task of telling it like it is, without fear or intimidation. Yesterday's vote may be the best news we writers have had in years.

Monday, 3 November 2008


Hi, folks! Welcome to November!

Today's thought for the day concerns the market. Perhaps that should be The Market. What is it? And how do we work with it?

For whom do we write our scripts and screenplays? Generally, we write them for ourselves. Nothing wrong with that - if you're not enjoying what you're doing, why do it? At some level or other we have to write for our own satisfaction, otherwise writing anything at all is difficult. This is why our era of multiple rewrites is such a curse on writers. We lose our own investment in the script as we try repeatedly to satisfy a gormless producer and their team of marketing idiots.

But - apart from ourselves - who do we write for?

For the people, of course. For the consumers, the great unwashed, the masses out there who are crying out for quality entertainment.


Actually, no. The market - in the UK, at least - amounts to about five people. If we're sticking with TV, for now, the 'market' might amount to one person.

That one person is to be found somewhere at the top of the TV tree. Their word is law. They say yea or nay.

Forget about the multitudes out there. Yes, I know it's with them in mind that we toil at our work stations. In an ideal world, a writer would write directly for the audience, for the consumer, but ours is not an ideal world. In the real world, we write in order to satisfy an executive. One person.

That person might have started their new job that week. They might be scared shitless by the sudden responsibility of their post. They might be having a bad day. They may not be in the ideal position to make a sensible judgement.

Worse than that. They might well be caught up in the media buzz.

In London, the media world is surprisingly small. There are certain places where media people hang out. Some of these places should be bombed. The Groucho Club, for instance, is an example of everything that's wrong with today's media. Rather than spending time out there, amongst their people, their audience, the consumers who pay their wages, our successful media types lock themselves away in an ivory tower with others of their calling and do all they can to avoid the people they really work for. Which is bad.

The 'media', as we think of them, have demonstrated sheep-like instincts in recent years. They all bleat the same message. They're all looking for the same thing. What that is, exactly, changes on a more-or-less daily basis.

I had a film script once. This was what we call a 'spec' script. I had taken it upon myself to write it without bothering to get it commissioned first.

It had taken me two-and-a-half years to find the subject and a further twelve months to complete the script. It was based on one of the world's greatest love stories - one that, as far as I could tell, had never been turned into a movie before.

I put everything I'd got into it. Everything I'd learnt over a decade or so of working in the industry.

My agent practically combusted spontaneously when he read it. The film department at my agency got involved. It was all looking very good.

But then, things went rather quiet. I started asking what was happening. Little by little, I began to hear a rather familiar refrain:

'It's not what people are looking for.'

This struck me as odd. I thought, 'So what you're saying is that nobody out there is really interested in an epic based on one of the world's greatest love stories?'

Still, the same message kept coming back. 'It's a great script, but nobody's looking for this sort of thing.'

The screenplay was entitled 'Tristan and Isolde'. Four years or so after I'd written my script I began to hear about a major production, with Ridley Scott as executive producer, that went by the title 'Tristan and Isolde'.

There was no plagiarism, here. Examples of producers and companies running off with your ideas and making them without crediting or paying you for them are legion. But in this instance I was to learn that Ridley Scott had spent something like twenty years looking for a 'Tristan and Isolde' script.

So. The script that 'nobody' was looking for could have been sold. Had anybody decided not to listen to the herd but to just get out there are sell it.

I had been told, in no uncertain terms, that there simply wasn't a market for my script. I had refused to believe that. And I had been right. But by then it was too late.

This situation creates enormous problems for the scriptwriter. What it means is that The Market, so called, has nothing whatever to do with what people want. It means that The Market is whatever the media sheep think it might be today. Tomorrow, it'll be different. However, if your script was rejected on a day when 'Nobody's looking for that sort of thing', who's to say that it will be revived when, suddenly, everybody's looking for that sort of thing?

Who are we writing for? For the viewers and listeners? For the executives who have the power of life or death over a script? For the media herd (most of whom have no ideas of their own, which is why they swill around listening out for somebody else's idea, until today's consensus has been agreed on)?

What is The Market?

A good writer will always know, instinctively, what the public will be looking for - not now, but in two or three years time, when, with a fair wind, the project might just about be ready to hit the screens.

Sadly, the people he or she will be relying on in the media to advance the project can only reference what they saw on the box last night.

This is a real conundrum. I suspect it will continue to be a nasty Catch-22 for the earnest writer until the media industry sorts itself out. When the media realise that the writer's creativity and natural instinct for what people want, what stories they want to hear, matter more than the moronic received wisdom of several hundred hangers-on whose purpose, in life and in the media, is obscure. It will not change until the decision makers stop surrounding themselves with people whose judgement is risible but whose sole purpose is to keep the media mogul isolated, away from the clamour of creatives.

Till then, we find ourselves in an awkward and often unworkable position. We spend months - possibly even years - developing and reworking our material, content, deep down inside, that there is a market for this sort of thing. Sometimes, it turns out we were right. But the boat has been missed, because too many people without ideas of their own have convinced themselves that they know what The Market is and what it wants.

Till then, we will continue writing, not for the majority of citizens, but for a tiny handful of people - those who hold the power, and those who cluster round them trying to look like they know what they're doing.

All the time, the gap between the writer and the true market (the audience) widens dramatically.

This is not a good thing.