Posts from August 2018

Posted Monday 20 August 2018


Having worked out that writing screenplays was something people actually did for a living, I watched an interview with Richard Curtis. I took three things from it. Firstly, that he didn’t seem to care what people thought of him and wrote with total confidence about the world he knew. Secondly, that he seemed to love what he did for a living and thirdly, that his living seemed to give him a house considerably larger than mine. That wasn’t altogether surprising as I didn’t actually have a house, or a flat, or a bedsit, and was staying in a mate’s flat sleeping on a makeshift bed made from cushions and table cloths (padded). With all the evidence stacked up, I decided if I wanted to be a scriptwriter and live in Richard Curtis’ house then I was pretty certain I’d have to write a script. So I did. (Little did I know that the films I would get made would all be low budget, which meant the only way I was ever getting in houses like his would be to give a quote for the painting and decorating.)

I knew that if I could just get to the end of one draft then no one could say I wasn’t a writer. They could say I was a bad one, but as my Dad always said, better to be bad at what you want to do than good at what you don’t. Something generations of men in my family had managed to pull off, while a select few of us had managed to just be bad at things we didn’t want to do. Anyway, armed with the mantra that ‘you need to write about what you know’, I set out to write a pilot for a show that I called The Stress Diet. While we’re on the subject of writing what you know, I later discovered that particular piece of writing advice is completely wrong. A writer I hugely admire set me straight, pointing out that you should not write about what you know, but about who you are. That said, back then I had no idea who I was so it wouldn’t have mattered either way.  

The Stress Diet was the true story of how I left a six-year relationship and in so doing became hugely anxious and lost a dramatic amount of weight. The person in question was a wonderful, funny, beautiful woman who absolutely adored me and wanted nothing more than to be with me and support me in whatever I wanted to do. Not my kind of thing at all. I was brought up to believe that being in love was about lazy contempt, a long and determined effort to undermine, humiliate and fundamentally destroy the person you’re with. So I left her, and it seemed to me that the tales surrounding that would make a funny TV show.

After several months of further procrastination that included going on a typing course, learning how to use a typewriter before eventually purchasing an old computer the size of a Fiat Panda, I wrote it. I had a script. It was okay, hugely naïve, not very good, but done. I had never read any books on structure or story. I had no idea about acts or inciting events or turning points, I couldn’t save the cat or build the story or get the monkey out of the tree, but what I did have was something that was quite heavy and stapled together and looked a bit like that thing that fell apart and flew away at the beginning of Murder She Wrote - a script. I was excited, but had no idea what to do with it. So for a few days I contented myself with forcing friends to hold it to see just how heavy it was, somehow equating its weight to my talent. They were fun days but the novelty wore off as you would suspect it might, mainly because people started saying thinks like ‘I thought it might be heavier than that’ or ‘it’s nowhere near as heavy as ‘This Life.’

It started to occur to me that the weight of a document might not be all that mattered, so I managed to read a couple of books on Story, one by Robert McKee and one by Sid Field. They were undoubtedly helpful and one of them really quite bulky, and while to this day I believe there is no replacement for actually writing scripts, I don’t subscribe to the view of some writers that you can’t learn the craft from a book. I think one of the things that makes being a screenwriter so soul destroying is that you absolutely can. It may not have a spark or character or a sense of dialogue, that stuff depends on life experience, awareness of the medium and a desire to share things about yourself and those close to you that ruin relationships, but you can absolutely learn to deliver a competent screenplay. It may even get made if the right bankable actor who doesn’t know good from bad decides he or she wants to do it. If you don’t believe me, turn on your television and open your film listings (or movie listings if you’re in LA, did I mention that you should be in LA? You should be in LA).

I was talking to a writer the other day who told me that he had never read any of those books, instead he had decided to read all of the plays of Ancient Greece. He said he’d rather sit through tome upon tome of miserable Greeks bemoaning their inability to affect their own destiny than half an hour of Robert McKee banging on about how he once wrote an episode of Columbo. Writers are snobby about that shit. Well the truth is he’d sold more than me, so that made him an expert.

The weighing done I decided I should try and get an agent. Yes, great idea, all the handbooks said you needed an agent, but it turns out that unsolicited scripts are hard to get read. I had no idea what unsolicited meant, I assumed it was something to do with paying for sex, but once someone explained to me that it just meant ‘unrequested’ I formulated a simple, absolutely flawless plan. Instead of writing dozens of letters and waiting for months for the inevitable rejection from those that could be bothered, I’d just give up. It was all too hard. The voice in my head that had been there for me my whole life delivered one more time –‘Quit. Drive a van.’ So I did that. After all, who the hell were they gonna cast as the man who loses fifty pounds over six hours of comedy drama? It was never gonna happen. I also knew that I was not the kind of guy who could walk into an agent’s office, brash and full of bravado and think of a funny trick to get someone to read it. I was never gonna be the Spice Girls walking into Smash Hits singing ‘Wannabe.’ I was Nick Drake, I’d rather have killed myself than get involved. Besides I’d finished a script, I could say I was a writer now. I’d been calling myself a teacher for five years and all I’d done was teach Chinese waiters to count to three, so this definitely made me a writer. By the way, I wasn’t Nick Drake, wow imagine comparing yourself to Nick Drake, what a twat.

However, after a couple of months delivering sausages to butchers in Kent, I had a realisation – delivering sausages to butchers in Kent, while good for the part of me that enjoyed free sausages, was bad for the part of me that still wanted to be a writer. I’d had ideas for more scripts, and I was also starting to write a few jokes. Maybe I could try and sell some of those jokes to actual comedians. The problem with that was the same as the agent thing. Comics don’t take unsolicited material, which is ironic as they are mainly using jokes to solicit sex. Actually is that ironic or just two words that sound the same? So if I couldn’t sell jokes then maybe I could tell them. I’d do some open spots and become a comedian, and if I was good enough I would happily use unsolicited material from anyone who cared to give it to me. After all, I had enough sausages to live off for a year, what’s the worse thing that could happen?

So, with one screenplay written and sitting proudly and heavily on my desk (by now I’d traded in the massive computer for a ten year old mini clubman) and with several others brewing in my mind, I did an open spot in a comedy club. There I was, six minutes of material, a lot of puns and a tiny bit of observation and I was a comic. It’s incredible how many careers you can have if you do something once, and not even that well, but I did it just about well enough to get myself an agent, albeit a comedy agent not a literary one, but an agent nevertheless. Until I got the agent I’d spend most of my time calling pubs to see if I could turn up and do a spot only to feel sick to the stomach when anyone said yes.

Being a comic is, in itself, one of life’s great paradoxes, at least it was for me - a constant battle between the pleasure of being able to communicate an idea and the terror of the approaching moment when you are supposed to do it. I once drank so much before a gig that when the time came for me to get up and deliver my six minutes of nonsense, a profound nausea overwhelmed me and no sooner had I walked onto the stage than I passed out and fell off it. The last thing I remember was a heckle from the audience which went something like ‘sit down, you’re going to pass out.’ A strange heckle I thought, but not as strange as waking up on the floor of the pub being stared at by a mime doing ‘sad face.’ I had seemingly left the stage head first and landed on my chin (at that point I still only had the one) and the next thing I remember I was in the A and E department of a London hospital receiving twelve stitches in my mouth and six in my face. The attending nurse asked whether it was true I had fallen off stage as the fifteen members of the audience waiting for me outside were claiming. The humiliation was extraordinary, but not enough to make me stop.

Another year of good, bad and mainly indifferent audience reactions would pass before I decided to make my jokes sitting down, in private, without an audience and on a computer (a slightly smaller one than before, no bigger than a Sinclair C5). I was about to enter the wonderful world of ‘Development.’

Posted Friday 10 August 2018


There’s a story told by someone brighter than me that being a screenwriter is like running the first three legs of a relay with the crowd cheering you on before handing the baton over to the Producer, who with five yards to run hands it over to the Director who, with a yard to run hands it over to the actor who breaks the tape and takes the lap of honour, and while he’s shagging the beautiful sponsor, you are bent double gasping for breath and sicking up on the side of the track. It’s a great story, my only criticism of it is that it’s not entirely accurate. The truth goes more like this: you run like fuck out of the blocks and no one is cheering you on, because you’re running around that section of the stadium that’s empty, that’s still having building work done, all the fans are in the home straight, and all you can hear as you run is the pounding of your competitors’ feet and the sound of your own breathing, an unsupported solitude that leaves you wondering whether anyone actually knows you’re running at all. What’s more, you don’t get to hand over the baton because half way round the final bend you forget why the hell you started running in the first place and drop the baton like that lanky uncoordinated kid at school whose legs gave way when someone shouted that he stank of meat. They pick up the baton, hating you for dropping the thing and from then on you’re left out of the medal ceremony and are blamed for the fact you came third and not first.

The first thing you have to know about being a screenwriter is this: if you can make a living, it’s a great way to make one. The second thing you have to know is that you’re probably not going to make a living. The third thing is that even if you do, the industry is not about you. It has never been about you and it never will be about you. The last thing you have to know is that they will tell you that it is. They’ll tell you it’s all about you. You will hear things like ‘you can make a great script into a bad movie but you can never make a bad script into a great movie.’ You’ll hear things like ‘film is about script, script and script, we would have nothing to say if it were not for the script.’ You will hear things like ‘I read the script and I knew immediately we had a story I wanted to tell.’ Great, it’s wonderful to know that as a screenwriter you are the foundation stone of the entire film and television industries. Unfortunately that’s not true. Film is about the Director, television is about the Producers, and both are all about the actors, and none of those are you. Remember that. Then once you have dealt with that, you can find ways to make the job a great one, or at least an interesting one. But you really need to remember that basic fact, say it after me, ‘this is not about me’. Remember, if it was about you then maybe the public could name more than one screenwriter, instead of none. Jesus I am one and I can only name three, and one of them is my writing partner…and one of them is me. Two, I can name two.

In case you were wondering, this blog is not about how to write a screenplay. There are thousands of those books and they know better than me, besides you just need to watch a load of movies (or a bunch if you’re in LA where incidentally you should be) and then write a load of scripts and one day you’ll find out whether you’re terrific, ordinary or shit. This is a blog about my experience in the screen trade, mainly in the UK, from television comedy, through television drama to low budget films (again movies if you’re in LA) to bigger budget films. I’m lucky enough to have had all of the above made, some with a degree of success and even some awards and others with no success at all and a good deal of abuse.

I first wanted to be a writer when I watched The Odd Couple, I was about eight. I had no idea how you could be a writer or even whether they existed, it just seemed to me that Walter Mathau and Jack Lemmon said really funny stuff and were so clever that they knew what order to say it in. It wasn’t until my father came into the room and told me that the film had originally been a play written by Neil Simon that something took root.

Mainly that my father thought it was funny and that meant that we could both laugh at the same thing, even though he was laughing at the layers of the human condition being so brilliantly expounded and I was laughing at Mathau’s hat. If comedy could allow me to be in the same room as my father, both of us laughing, that had to be a win.

Several years later, when I was somewhere between trying to read set texts for school and trying to meet girls and smoke Rothman’s, only the last of which I did with any success, I was introduced to Woody Allen (not literally which I’m glad about, I’ve since learned that meeting heroes especially comic ones is a deeply disappointing experience, they’re all depressed and they mostly hate you for loving them, but more of that later). I had been through Laurel and Hardy, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin and even Jacques Tatti (although my mother thought I meant Jacques Cousteau and made me sit through three hours of diving footage while inexplicably laughing all the way through it, looking back I think she was jealous of my relationship with my father), but nothing came close to the first time I saw Woody. Three scenes of Annie Hall and that was that. I was going to be a writer and probably a Jewish one from New York.

It was a few years before I worked out that I might actually try and be a writer rather than talk about it as something I would like to do at some point, although not writing and finding excuses for not writing is a huge part of being a writer. But in my defence, I truly think as a youngster you have nothing to write about. I know that we apparently write about the first sixteen years of our life over and over again, but the point is that until you’ve lived a bit you have no idea how to structure it, or what the themes are, indeed what themes are at all. I’m always very suspicious of writers under 30, they’re either geniuses or frauds but either way they’re irritating.

I was once asked by a young screenwriter what advice I would give him. It was simple, you do a load of different jobs, in my case teaching English to foreigners, farming, onion grading (yes it is a job and it does mean grading onions), sports journalism, several types of factory work, endless van driving, chauffering and pub work, as well as a job writing treatments for a low rent Production company who wanted to turn puns into shows (they had me pitch a show about people who have sex with animals purely because of a typo on a treatment that ended up reading Tails Of The Unexpected). Alongside the array of jobs, you need to have done some major work on your psyche, and I don’t mean for the better I mean for the worse. For example you can’t write either amusingly or movingly unless you have fallen horribly in love with someone utterly unattainable and had your heart wrought in two. If you have managed to pull that off you may be a half decent writer, but there’s more. You also really need to think you have fallen in love with someone who is in turn totally in love with you, before realising that their love for you is stifling and therefore you don’t love them after all and you’re gonna have to break their heart. Ideally then follow that by being the antagonist in that same equation. Finally, and I think most importantly, you must have a very complicated relationship with your family, if you’re male then especially your father, although a mother is fine, and both would be ideal. This is much easier to achieve than you might think. Just remember how much you want to make your father happy/laugh/feel better about his life and how little you can do about that and trust me, you’re nearly there.

I gave this advice and the kid wrote it all down studiously. Five years later, he wrote to me and told me that, having listened to my advice, he had decided not to become a screenwriter. He had thought about it but then realised that he quite liked his father and didn’t need to do a load of morale-sapping jobs as he was independently wealthy, which was presumably why he liked his father. In addition to which he found no difficulty in getting girls and felt that he wasn’t the falling in love type, so hearts could only really be broken one way, and that would never be his. In short, he was too wealthy, too cold and too cerebral to write. Instead he had decided to become a Producer. He then asked me if I had any projects he could option for a laughably tiny amount of cash, reminding me that it’s all about script, script, script. Oh good.

So anyway, how did I finally become a writer? I had the strange family background, a terrible flat full of bits of broken heart, mine and someone else’s, and I had done years of mind-numbing jobs that had left my morale somewhere around the stage of Terry Wait’s two years into his captivity when the guard walked in and said ‘good news we found another radiator shop.’ So surely all I needed to do was write. God no, instead I felt it best to spend some more time delaying and instead dedicated my time to reading about writing and writers; Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, Alan Bennett, David Nobbs, Woody Allen, Dennis Potter, William Goldman, all the American short story writers. This took me ages and once again I had successfully delayed the moment I was dreading, namely the moment when I would sit down and work out what the hell it was I wanted to write about. What really did happen in those first sixteen years of my life and was there anything funny or moving in it that I could nick? Christ. But in the meantime, reading about the lives of these writers was confirming for me that not only was this writing thing going to be great fun, but also relatively easy and extremely lucrative. In addition to which I would be undoubtedly sleeping with some exciting and sexy women, all of whom could see past my growing paunch and directly at my untamed wit. And then, after many years of waiting, I wrote something. I became a writer and it turned out it was all a bit harder than that. Everything was a bit harder than that.

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