Thursday, 31 December 2009

Marking Time

It seems inevitable now, that after three years decently holding back we're going to start calling the next decade the Teenies or Teens.
I don't like it but I imagine people who lived through the Roaring Twenties and Swinging Sixties and didn't do much of either have similar feelings about those labels. I can't control it so I'll just have to deal with it, perhaps pointlessly moaning on a 'blog about it.

Obviously, we need labels because names are simpler than things, you know, what with things being so big and full of stuff (even the very small things). It's akin to our desire to find patterns behind events. Heads MUST come up next, it's been tails three times, two things have gone wrong for me, I'm going to have a BAD day. Actually, that last one often works because people end up wandering around with their bad day filters on, seeking out things to be negative about and often generating them by dealing with them like that.

So, when we come to the end of the packages of time we give weight to, months, years, decades we need some labels to pack them up with. A few good things happened to me this year and a few bad ones too. I've had a good year, and a good decade, and I'm going to get up tomorrow and have another.
I hope you do too.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Christmas Gift For You

Thanks to Stuart at Obverse Books for hosting.

There's now an mp3 doodah you can get at from here by all sorts of means. Click on the title if, like me, you don't understand most of them.

Do humour me in the serial- there's some bits need sorting out in the slapped together sound design. I have vague thoughts that come the serial end I might do a stand alone version with some of the dodgier bits reworked. We shall see.

It's half an hour of advertisement funded prattle! Enjoy to the limit of your abilities, oh and buy Obverse books obviously...

Merry Eczema!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Perfect Christmas Gifts for them as likes those kind of things...

... and won't mind that there's little chance of getting them before Christmas now.

The rather lovely Doctor Who short story collections I had stories in (and the ones I didn't for that matter) are on sale now at a never to repeated knock down price of a fiver a time, as the company that produced them's fiction license runs out. There's also a huge bumper book featuring the editors' choices of best stories available for a tenner (It's a huuuuuge book), but the crucial point is- you have to buy them before midnight on the 31st of December (when we celebrate ten years of the planet being inside out).
These be the volumes-
A Christmas Treasury,
and the big bumper best of book Re:Collections which features my story from Companions.

Also available now, new writing by me, from Obverse Books in
The Panda Book of Horror which I hear has already made it
through the post to some parts of the country!

And thanks to the kindness of those fools at Obverse Books I should also be able to offer you a silly little free gift here soon.

Ho blumming ho.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Montezuma's Revenge

We went to see the Moctezuma show at the British Museum this weekend, and pop in on the Staffordshire Hoard upstairs (which hopefully will find a better permanent home in the Midlands before too long), and highly enjoyable it was too. I was surprised how much came back from our honeymoon in Mexico a decade ago, and there was a pleasing combination of big artefacts, interesting details and thoughtful scripting, unafraid to flag up up areas of uncertainty and possible problems with some of the source texts for its story.

The Christianisation of Aztec artefacts brought back very clearly the sight of a young girl from a shanty town stealthily begarlanding a stone at the Mayan ruins of Coba while a Catholic Mass was performed in a nearby shack- the same fusing of traditions that gives us shrines to the Virgin Mary, and Christian holidays exactly where strangely similar pagan alternatives existed.

One particularly interesting detail that slowly emerged going around the show was the Aztecs' offering of images to the Chthonic gods (it's a lovely looking word isn't it? It just means underground but is worth learning for Scrabble) on the underside of things- on boundary markers, beneath sculptures, on the bottom of incense burners etc.
It shows a deep attachment to the power of the Earth and opens up an imaginative world we don't often engage with – it's easy for us to imagine people drawing patterns on a plain for Sky Gods to look at, but we rarely flip the idea over.

Do go if you get the chance.

One nerdy criticism I'd have is that the big AV projections didn't really do much for me- and I became suspicious of the sound design for them with constant repetition. There was a single plaintive trumpet note repeated which I became more and more convinced was actually from the famous old recording of King Tutankhamun's trumpet, and thus, while evocative and historical and all that, was somehow cheating.

You've probably heard Tutankhamun's trumpet yourself, possibly here, maybe on an old BBC Chronicle documentary, or perhaps more likely (given my readers) being used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Delia Derbyshire built a piece around it, it stood in for the Atlantean trumpets in Doctor Who The Time Monster and was also used for the Magrathean answer machine in the radio version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I admire you for already knowing all that and am backing away slowly.

November Spawned A Monster

The obligatory Doctor Who review. Look away now.

The ancient, wise and astonishingly rarely morally conflicted alien hero, Doctor Who is on Mars where an all-conquering force of nature now threatens to break loose of its home world and remake a whole planet in its image. Can the Doctor save the Flood from the threat of Humanity?
Only kidding. That's one step too far and while I suspect the subtext may have been there in the script of The Waters of Mars at some point (co-author Phil Ford has after all written for Captain Scarlet, another family friendly science fiction tale of aliens fighting back against human invaders where you can't really blame them) the Doctor is excused moral relativism this time because Time and History have capital letters to be maintained.
Man must win and these specific people must die to make sure they do because... they must.

The Waters of Mars
is of course a companion piece to last year's The Fires of Pompeii (the echoing of the titles quite possibly deliberate) and finally makes explicit on screen what some of us more dull and earnest fans have been wittering about away from the the telly for some decades- the rules the Doctor claims bind his actions in history apply in the future too, it's just you'd never know it normally and he never seems to mention it.

In fact pretty much the only implausible rule of Doctor Who now left unexposed and rationalised by the Russell T Davies series is why no one ever immediately shoots our hero when he arrives inexplicably at their high security base in the middle of a crisis.
No one's smile is that winning, though the take on the traditional
'Hello, I'm the Doctor, just breezing in.'
'We wave guns but don't shoot you on this space station.'
sequence here is rather engaging.

Once the Doomedness of everyone is established the mood darkens somewhat, and the Doctor spends far longer than you'd expect, or screen-writing guides would recommend, Refusing the Call to Action.
Normally he'll just want to go fishing, or nose around and it'll take him being captured, losing the Ship, being piqued by some mystery or, every now and then, seeing some terrible injustice to force him into being a hero. That's usually sorted within 10 minutes. Here he spends a very long time not quite walking away or getting involved, which leads to a bit of a sag in the tale. If the colonists' suspicion of him had led to him being incarcerated and having to prove himself as Wet Heck broke out that might have been avoided but I guess the key here was to impress on us the inherent decency of the crew, which meant keeping them on the Doctor's side.
It's perhaps a shame that that opportunity was lost because it'd have offered the Doctor a selfish reason to want to walk away, an obstacle to overcome before he could and a relationship with the base commander to build in the process, that might have made his final decision to rip up the rule book we'd just found out about slightly better earned.

The problem is that balancing that with the required family friendly thrills of an hour long TV slot is trickier, and it appears the last talky, psychologically honest Doctor Who story, Midnight, performed rather better with the oldies than it did with the younger audience the programme requires.
This is the show which the 'audience of 8 to 80' cliché was made for after all, and, for all dullards like me might want a touch more grounding here and there to sell some of the fantasy elements better, a lot of the audience is quite happy with the fantasy as it stands and could easily get fractious waiting for the next fire-breathing dragon to fly by, while someone explained the species' evolutionary biology for me. It mainly seems to be about dissolving rocks in their stomachs to produce a great deal of hydrogen which they can then either ignite or use as an aid to flight.

Of course, once the Doctor has made his decision, we fogies get something rather interesting in the last act. The Doctor is suddenly 'heroically' doing everything we think he shouldn't, and we get more of those cold arrogant flashes in Tennant's portrayal of the character that seem to make cynical chaps cheer and ladies swoon.
It's a fabulous finale (albeit featuring slightly fumbled visual grammar in the Countdown to Doom sequence – there are some rules of Time you don't break and chief among them is giving just enough time for the escape to be plausibly imagined before cutting away to the big Foooom), and the coda to it is better again. The arrogant Masterly Doctor is marvellously put in his place by Commander Adelaide, and the moment at which your belief she's about to shoot the Doctor gives way to realising she's doing something a bit more extraordinary is a great one, reminding me of the heart-breaking domestic sacrifices of Russell T Davies' The Second Coming.
It's the bleakest Doctor Who death for the greater good since... well, since the similarly handled one in Torchwood earlier in the year, a world away emotionally from the odd Thal nobly cutting a safety rope or Pex jumping through a doorway clutching Richard Briers' reputation.
I honestly think that's as grim as this show can go though- this is the edge of family viewing for me. Further moody introspection, for all long term fans might embrace it (or indeed rejoice at a show with fewer cute robots and more scary zombies) spells ratings doom (quite possibly with a Capital).
The one time the TV show forget that in the past, it ended up a niche cult programme scheduled against British TV's other great '8 to 80' war horse Coronation Street mopping up a few die-hard fans and soap refuseniks.
It has to be a ride first and an examination of how roller coasters work second.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Wiping away the dust

Just a quick post because I haven't done one in a while and my parents were beginning to think I was dead and make arrangements.
I seem to have little to report for November.
More soon.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Archive on 4: Capering With Ken Campbell

From the Radio 4 website-

"Saturday, 20:00 on BBC Radio 4

Ian McMillan explores the world of the actor and director Ken Campbell, who died in 2008.

Campbell's acting credits included Fawlty Towers, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Brookside, Law and Order and In Sickness and In Health, as well as performing one-man shows. He also directed theatrical events, including the nine-hour Illuminatus trilogy, a 22-hour production of The Warp and Macbeth in pidgin English.

His daughter, Daisy, gives Ian McMillan a tour of Ken's home in Essex, where he didn't have a bedroom and had a parrot run in every room. He also talks to Campbell's manager Colin Watkeys, theatre director Richard Eyre, fan and collaborator Ian Potter and fellow actors Julia McKenzie and Jim Broadbent."

I'm inordinately proud that some of my fannery seems to have made the edit. I don't know if any of the gig Ken did for me will be in there, I do hope so.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Panda Book of Horror

I've another short story coming out!

It's in the Iris Wildthyme collection The Panda Book of Horror.
If you don't know Iris she's a sort of chaotic bag lady who travels through time and space barging into other people's stories and messing them up. A comedy, magic realist, science fantasy, label rejecting force of nature. She's sort of a Doctor Who spin-off character but actually she spun into Doctor Who from earlier novels and has spun back out.
She's created by the very clever Paul Magrs who has co-edited this collection with the extraordinarily svelte Stuart Douglas, who you may have seen around the internet arguing passionately with people about Doctor Who as if either his or their opinions actually mattered.
It was largely to meet Paul and Stuart that I went to Manchester the other week.

Here's their press-release:

Ding Ding! All aboard! Room for a little 'un at the back!

Iris, Panda and their transtemporal double decker Routemaster bus are just about ready to leave the terminus and set out on their most terrifying adventures yet!

Yes, The Panda Book of Horror will soon be on its way to the printers, with a publication date in mid November 2009!

Along for the ride this time are...

Paul Magrs
Mark Clapham
Mark Michalowski
Simon Guerrier
Ian Potter
Dale Smith
Phil Craggs
Eddie Robson
Nicholas Nada
Blair Bidmead
Matt Kimpton
Mark Morris
Jac Rayner & Orna Petit

Many of these names will be known to Who book fans from the Virgin, BBC, Telos and Big Finish ranges, but new to Who fiction are Nix Nada and Blair Bidmead, both of whom submitted stories via the Obverse website, and Phil Craggs, fiction editor of blankpages magazine. As for Orna Petit, who can say? All we know is Jac insisted and who are we to argue...

With cover art by Paul Magrs and a pretty damn nifty pastiche of the original Pan Books of Horror design by Cody Schell, we think you'll enjoy The Panda Book of Horror...though perhaps enjoy is the wrong word...

Available for pre-order soon from Obverse Books - why not buy a copy of the Celestial Omnibus while you're waiting

I've read work by a lot of these writers and really rate them, and I've been lucky enough to read the two stories by Matt Kimpton and Jacqueline Rayner and Orna Petit in this collection (Matt and Jac are good pretend e-friends), both of which I thought were really funny.
I was disappointed not to bump into Orna at Manchester, I thought she was going to be there but no-one I know saw her. I think she knows Jac from some kind of weird Prisoner Cell Block H thing that I've decided not to ask about. Anyway, I rather like her writing style and thought you could tell she was French writing in English somehow from some of it, though Stuart now tells me she's actually Flemish.

Anyway- buy the book, the bits I've seen by others are a hoot!

Can you Ken Ken?

So, the back end of September and the majority of October- they weren't very eventful were they?


They're certainly not deserving of a rambling "What I did on my holidays" style travelogue...

September, I can't really remember my excuses for not posting here, except I did another draft on my sitcom idea which I think may have taken the thing off in another direction (largely by not quite being right in the direction it was actually going) we shall see what the next draft brings.
Then there was some fiddling around sorting out the Ken Campbell event in Sheffield on October the 10th, which I really enjoyed doing.
Audience wasn't massive and the cinema will have made a loss on it, but the enthusiasm of those who came was marvellous, including a few people who hadn't really known Ken's work but left with an understanding of why those who love it do so. I count that as a victory. I was also blown away by how good Peter Hall's Aquarius interview with Ken was from 1977, a real archive gem.
It was a particular bonus that Jeff Merrifield a collaborator, chum and chronicler of Ken of long standing was there to add his thoughts to mine, film-maker Sheridan Thayer's and critic Michael Coveney's, and we press-ganged him into joining the discussions. Michael and Jeff are both writing books on Ken which I think together will produce an illuminating portrait of this enantiodromatic figure.
Jeff has some great Ken stuff for sale here, and copies of Sheridan's documentary on Ken which is full of wonders are currently up for sale on Ebay.

Sunday the 11th saw me in Manchester for a Doctor Who book event, which I attended mainly to meet a couple of people who've been generous enough to pay me for silly words lately (more on this later). Met loads of nice folk and Ken reared his head again here. When I explained what I'd being doing the day before Andrew Cartmel, the Doctor Who script editor for the final years of the original series, and I was pleased to discover a lovely guy, fondly recalled Ken's legendary Doctor Who audition. I told Andrew how Steve Roberts at the BBC had thought they had it on tape last year only discover it wasn't on transferring the recording (this seems to date back to Doctor Who Magazine producer John Freeman misidentifying another auditionee on a VHS some years ago). Andrew then wondered if Ken's take had actually being recorded at all, saying he remembered him coming into the office and doing his piece but wasn't sure if it'd been caught on camera, so this mythical scary bull-like performance may have never captured at all, save in the memories of those who were there.

Monday the 12th involved more Ken because I went down to the National Theatre for Beyond Our Ken, the tribute to him staged at the Olivier.
I was there a bit early and accidentally messed up writer Robert Shearman's working day (which can involve a degree of pacing around the South Bank thinking and mumbling sometimes) by greeting him warmly and then remembering we've only really met a couple of times and there's no earthly reason for him to recall me while he was pinning the Muse down. The cures of email and Facebook contact. It isn't like real friendship at all, you can live in a book with a chap and your short stories never even talk! Unfortunately, my failed socialising meant the actor Steven Elder (who was caffeinating himself nearby) also spotted Rob, and Rob being polite put down his Muse chasing for a while to be nice at us in turn.
I later heard Steven on the 'phone excitedly telling someone what Rob was working on but I shan't pass it on, mainly because I only heard some of it.
Rob told me he's writing about Russia at the moment so that's clearly a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. One for the theatricals there.

The actual Ken tribute that evening was an incredible show, allegedly 2 and a bit hours long but stretching to the correctly ridiculous Ken lengths in the performance. John Sessions compered with great wit and charm, Toby Jones, Alan Cox and Chris Fairbank presented extracts from Pigspurt that gave a spine to the show and from which hung sketches from Pilk's Madhouse, Ken Campbell's Roadshow, archive extracts, scenes from The Warp, Illuminatus!, Clowns on a School Outing, Skungpoomery, Makbed, and Nina Conti's riffing on The History of Comedy Part 1. The event culminated in Richard Eyre's announcement of a Ken Campbell bursary for deranged theatre practitioners, a moving tribute from Warren Mitchell and improvisation from Ken's last troupe The School of Night. There was much hilarity and a fair amount of weeping too. Lovely.
Three pathetically personal tear jerks came from rediscovering the two National Theatre booklets Ken gave me credits in and seeing a Ken clip on the big screen with him wearing the T-shirt I made him. Clearly it'd been a regular in the wardrobe around the time of the Hyphenator! show.
I had a lovely talk afterwards with Sylvester McCoy, discussing a project Andrew Cartmel had mentioned the day before, telling him how great I thought his clowning was in Big Jim and the Figaro Club, and chatting about our mutual friend Polly who I was off to see a few days later.
It was 1am as I passed under Big Ben to the sound of people saying "You mean St Stephen's Tower". Luckily, I was passing under the chiming bell Big Ben and couldn't hear the wrong pedants.
This stupidly overstuffed weekend which culminated in a hang around at Victoria Coach Station 'til 8am took a little recuperating from.

The next weekend I was in Bristol to do some improv with a mate (Simon- the other half of the aforementioned Polly) at the Bristol Old Vic as part of their improv festival (no Ken connections here, unless you count his School of Night and Showstopper people playing there in the same festival). It went surprisingly well, if leaving me a bit skinted with the whole getting a train to Bristol from Sheffield nonsense (London you can do ridiculously cheapily if you're prepared to stand around for four or five hours in the middle of the night waiting for Victoria Coach station to reopen). Simon has an account of the event here, which is accurate except for claiming I leaped into performing, when I was in fact dragged up when my actor refused to read the phonetic Glaswegian I'd written for her. I was astonished by how easy I found the comedy song impro- rhymes, sense and everything, and I feel my Glaswegian went well too. The idiot children seemed impressed anyway.
We may well do similar things again.

Rounding off the major events of the last few days I was back at the Sheffield Showroom on Wednesday introducing Southern Softies a film by Graham Fellows in the guise of John Shuttleworth and hosting a Q&A session with Mr Fellows afterwards. He's a very thoughtful, and warm guy with a perfectionism and attention to detail that's clear from his work, and I felt gave really interesting answers to everyone's questions. Sometimes performers can be a bit glib or mechanical in these sessions but he showed a remarkable candour and freshness, I thought. Being funny helps, obviously.

Ken Campbell sneaked in here as well, Graham had worked for him in a Liverpool Everyman revival of his kids' play Old King Cole (playing the same part that one of my other favourite comedy performers Richard Herring did at one of his first Edinburgh Festivals- coincidence? Almost certainly.), but we mainly talked about Ken Worthington, the subject of the song that this post takes its name from.

Perhaps the best thing about the last few weeks is not having had the time to experience any Liverpool Football Club games as they actually happened.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Gold of Troy

Years ago, when I worked in Bradford I was excited to realise that my workplace briefly featured in one of the greatest pieces of TV drama ever.

There it is, hiding behind John Woodvine. The drama is of course Edge of Darkness.

I was privileged to speak to its author once. I was trying to persuade him to do an event with us. At the time he was reluctant to talk about anything but the film project he was then working on and eventually decided he didn't want to come up and discuss his past work with us.
Troy Kennedy Martin was always interested in moving forward, I think.

In the 1960s he brought a filmic pace and a new dash of psychological and procedural reality to police drama with Z Cars, worked with John McGrath and Ken Loach on the series Diary of A Young Man which strove to push the form of TV drama, and wrote an influential article 'Nats Go Home' about employing techniques beyond naturalism in television.

He worked widely through the 1970s, notably on his brother Ian's creation The Sweeney, one of a revolutionary series of dramas from Thames Television's Euston Films that took mainstream British TV out of the studios and on to the streets.

In the 1980s came the piece I think of as his masterpiece- Edge of Darkness, which combined nuclear paranoia, ecological awareness and an ambiguous mysticism to astonishing effect. It is a cold war thriller where the real villain isn't one side or the other, it's the military industrial complex as a whole and it's the whole planet they're opposed to. The series is currently being remade as a movie by its original director, but I can't imagine it will have anything like the same impact reduced down for cinema.

I suspect many popular obituaries, if and when they arrive, will major on the cinema films Troy Kennedy Martin wrote, primarily The Italian Job and Kelly's Heroes, but for me his legacy isn't what he put on the big screen, it's how he stretched the box.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

An Afternoon Without Ken Campbell

I'm pleased to finally announce a personal project that's been bubbling along for a little while.
On Saturday, October the 10th we'll be mounting an event celebrating the actor, writer and director Ken Campbell at the Showroom Cinema, Sheffield.

Ken who died suddenly in 2008 was one of the most inspiring, hilarious and mind-expanding figures in British theatre and his work from the 1970s on has influenced a whole generation of performers and creators.
We'll look back over his incredible career with our guests, the theatre critic Michael Coveney and the film-maker Sheridan Thayer and over three hours of film, much of it unseen in public for over 25 years.

The screenings will include-

'Firework Man', the 1977 feature on Ken for the ITV arts programme 'Aquarius',
'No Problem- The Theatre of Ken Campbell', a 1981 documentary going behind the scenes of Ken's famous theatre productions of 'The Warp' and 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' with input from the writers of both, Neil Oram and Douglas Adams,
'Antic Visionary'- The World of Ken Campbell', Sheridan Thayer's amazing 2003 feature length profile of Ken, featuring interviews with many of his friends, colleagues and fans. Sir Peter Hall, Robert McKee, Brian Aldiss, Sylvester McCoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Drummond, Bill Nighy and Nina Conti to name just a few all contribute to this superb portrait of the man and his work.

Come and be entertained, challenged and, hopefully, inspired by a legend!

Tickets are £10 (£6.50 concessions).

Two further tributes to Ken follow later in the month, an evening celebrating his work at the National Theatre on the 12th of October: 'Beyond Our Ken - The Multiverse of Ken Campbell'
and an hour long 'Archive on 4' feature for Radio 4 presented by poet Ian McMillan on the 31st of October.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Latest BBC Press Office Blurb

Hello. Radio promotion time again. So here's another programme you'd probably not know I'd had any involvement with if this didn't exist. The good news is this is the last of them for now.
It's stayed pretty close to my original proposal though sadly there are a few interesting strands that had to be dropped or really trimmed back on from what we recorded to fit the final time-slot.

A dragon at Barnsley train station.

A poet at Barnsley train station.

In Search Of The Wantley Dragon
Sunday 30 August
4.30-5.00pm BBC RADIO 4

Poet Ian McMillan is on a quest to find the "Dragon of Wantley". In his search, he uncovers long-forgotten, violent disputes, a knight clad in locally made armour, pantomimes, operettas and the dragon's den.

The Dragon Of Wantley is a 17th-century comic poem that was a literary sensation for more than 200 years. It's a bawdy tale, told in rhyming couplets, about a Sheffield knight who defeats a dragon that's devouring everything, even children.

In its day, the Yorkshire-based story was as famous as that of Robin Hood – but more than 100 years ago it vanished without trace.

Ian's pursuit of the Wantley Dragon leads him to discover a hero protected by local steel and a dragon that might actually be a dubious landowner. The trail takes him to meet the dragon's family and he also learns of vandalism and threats in the 1590s, and hears how the story reached Covent Garden, becoming not only an operetta, but also a circus performance and several pantomimes.

Ian's quest soon takes him out to the dragon's den – an eerily quiet cave hidden on a little-known Yorkshire hillside.

Please note: This programme was originally billed in BBC Week 34 Radio Programme Information on Sunday 23 August.

Presenter/Ian McMillan, Producer/Russell Crewe

A dragon in print.

The Dragon's Den, a cave on Wharncliffe Crags.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Feedback (sans Chris Dunkleyofthefinancialtimes or Roger BoltonofTVjournalismrelatingtotheIRA fame)

A little more feedback for the radio play has trickled forth, you know, beyond friends and relatives being polite- "it sounded like he had lovely shoes on," that kind of thing.

Firstly, a couple of days ago a comics artist and writer named David Baillie, who I must stress to regular readers was not Dask in 'The Robots of Death', got in touch with some extremely kind appreciative words. He's written for 2000AD for money and everything (I've merely made some of the noises of Judge Dredd's fists for money), so, actually, that's quite a thing in my world.
Then, if that wasn't excitement enough, yesterday I stumbled across (ed."vanity-googled up") a very nice review on a new weblog entirely devoted to radio drama reviews, written by radio writer Paul May.
I really hope he keeps doing these. There aren't many places on-line where people talk about radio plays at all, and it's rare to find other dramatists at it, so it's a joy to be at the start of what looks a really promising resource.

In other news, I have mainly spent the last three months putting on weight as a result of a gruelling sitting at desks and recovering from all that exhausting sitting with a glass of wine regime and am tentatively stepping back into the world of exercise. It has to be tentative to start with, I want to be sure I don't buckle.

"Third verse, same as the first."

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Afternoons and Coffeespoons

Well the Afternoon Play is on the iPlayer and there's been a little bit of feedback, one person on Twitter and another on the Radio 4 forum have both learned the derivation of the word antimacassar from the play.
The person on the forum also thinks the play's worth listening to if low on comedy (it's been billed and announced as a comedy all over the place), another listener agreed with the lack of comedy and felt the production just about held the play together.
On listening to the finished piece I'm inclined to agree. The production and playing is very good, the writing not so, and I desperately wish the piece wasn't being presented as a comedy. The bits of Charles Trenet inserted in the edit seem to make the gulf between the comic and tragic greater.

Truth is, when initially pitched the word 'comedy' was used,though sadness was obviously always in there, but when first written as a comedy it came in way too short, partly because a chunk of plot about Frank getting mixed up about two different sets of road work from my story breakdown had been dropped as too confusing, though that wouldn't have filled the gap alone.
The piece drifted further from humour after the absurd ending I was building to in which Frank is blissfully relieved of the burden of his history in a gas explosion was rejected as ridiculous by everyone but me (probably because I didn't do it well enough), and it became clear there wasn't a lot of narrative drive to what was essentially a small journey.
A lot of meandering banter went and a new plot was developed based on Nick and his threat to Frank, as a consequence everything ended up a hell of a lot less chucklesome.
I guess however it was still down on the Radio 4 system as a comedy despite us moving away from the genre through the rewrites.

Do give it a listen if you're so inclined. It's well produced and a lot of very good people worked on it, but don't expect many laughs.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Predictable Ideas

Do writers' ideas get nicked?

Yes, definitely, there are a few industry horror stories about this, none of which I'd be wise to repeat, but it's not going on half as often as you might think.

You might recall a few months back I sent in some radio sketches to the BBC which got me to a workshop with David Mitchell and Mitchell and Webb's producer Gareth Edwards. Today I watched a Mitchell and Webb sketch on the iPlayer which used the same basic idea as one of those sketches. Was it nicked?
When we went to the workshop the Mitchell and Webb series had finished recording. What had happened was that I and whoever wrote the TV sketch had both had a fairly obvious joke idea occur to us that hadn't been 'done' yet.
Predictive text on mobile phones makes predictions.
It's nothing amazing, it was an idea waiting to be had and used, it has probably occurred to hundreds and hundreds of people and the TV writer and I tackled it in different ways. That's how it is with ideas.

Similarly, this weekend Radio 4 begins a series I'm really looking forward to called Soho Stories covering some of the ground of my TV history book from last year, hosted by and featuring several of the people I interviewed for it. Did the series nick my idea?
The book wasn't my initial idea, a large part of the story of the period the series covers has been told before by Michael Darlow, the history is out there waiting to be used and the people I interviewed have more connection to that history than I do. They made it!

There are only so many ideas out there, you can use them to make something that's yours, but they're not yours themselves, they'll go around occurring to everyone.

Also on the radio next week is an Afternoon Play I wrote which is full of ideas from all over the place. All of them original, though I bet not all originally mine.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Things Club

Thing 1- Torchwood. I skipped about a third of series 2, and wish I'd skipped a further third to be honest, because I thought the show, always a bit uncertain in tone, had totally derailed. So, it's been an absolute delight that it's been so very good this week, to the point of not quite seeming to be Torchwood.
Two of the very naffest things in the show were summarily disposed of in episode 1 of this curtailed third series, and in its new remixed form the show treads a very nice line, playing with its enjoyable remaining absurdities and telling a story of real adult intensity. I wonder if this is a last glorious hoorah, or paves the way for a reformatted reinvention of the series.

Thing 2- My friendoid Matt Kimpton (who I like to claim I discovered as a writer and have attempted ever since to foist on others) has been invited to attend a writing masterclass for CBBC in a BBC Writersroom competition. This is particularly impressive because there were something like 700 entries and I know some other very successful and talented writers also entered the competition. See, everyone? He is good. I'm really glad I didn't enter it, it's lovely to still be able to imagine I'm better than him.

Thing 3- I was briefly perplexed this afternoon to find The British Comedy Guide has lots of mysterious details about my upcoming Radio 4 play I'd told no one, including transmission date, some of the plot and the always alarming claim that it's a 'comedy drama'. I then realised the details must be up at the BBC Press Office, and they are!
So here they are here too...

Afternoon Play –
Antimacassars And Ylang Ylang Conditioner
Monday 27 July
2.15-3.00pm BBC RADIO 4

Russell Dixon stars in this Afternoon Play offering by Ian Potter, a comedy about old age and loneliness.

Frank lives on his own and just about copes. He has an obsession with coffee and, one day, when he thinks he has run out, he goes to the shop to buy some more, but it becomes a real odyssey.

His glasses break when he tries to tie his shoelaces and two young "scallies" offer to help him.

Producer/Gary Brown

BBC Radio 4 Publicity

I'm not absolutely sure it is a comedy, it probably does have sufficient minutes and sufficiently few jokes to qualify as a comedy drama, though.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Radio Days

Hello again, more radio stuff I'm afraid, but we're coming to the end of it for a bit.

First of all I recorded my third week of Radio 7 Comedy Club links in London on Monday. Probably not quite as silly as some of my earlier ones but we still had some fun and I hope I've managed to continue the tradition of interacting awkwardly with the programmes with surprise starts and ends just like the creators intended Radio 4 announcers to do first time 'round.
We had one tiny edit made to a show this week. Interesting really- it was one of the lazy, unkind and not hugely controversial remarks it was alright to make about Michael Jackson when alive. Just a throwaway line, but it suddenly sounded slightly poor taste now he's dead.
Had you heard about that? It may not have made the news near you.

My personal preference would have been to try and contextualise the gag as exactly what everyone said when he was alive, but the danger with that is it requires your audience to be uniformly adult and sensible, which isn't something you can ever assume of audiences really. I'm sure the line will be reinstated by the time of the next repeat, anyway.

Tuesday saw me in Manchester for the first of two recording days on my Radio 4 Afternoon Play, and not telling anyone it was my birthday because that would just have made it even weirder.
Now, if I told you one of my cast had played Michael Murray in Bleasdale's GBH you'd be impressed wouldn't you?
You'd think, 'That's Robert Lindsay, Ian's got a fabulous actor there!'
You'd be only half right though, he was a fabulous actor but this was the chap who played Michael Murray as a child in GBH, he was a child himself at the time so it was slightly easier for him.
All my actors were fabulous actually, and I always think it's interesting seeing the different approaches different actors take, layering aspects of themselves and a variety of performance styles on a script.

None were one of the 'star names' that'd been talked about at times as I was writing the play, though truth be told that was quite a relief because I think real star presence like that could have unbalanced what's quite a small scale piece. One of the names mentioned did really help me develop the voice of the lead, so I'm glad the names were mentioned, not that you'll ever hear them here!

My lead was played by Russell Dixon, one of those actors you've seen in all sorts of supporting roles in TV drama, and who I've heard in an awful lot of radio over the years. I nearly worked with him once before, when he was the director's first thought to play an elderly fork in my ten minute radio monologue Made In Sheffield, but, as is so often the way, he was unavailable and it was great to finally work with him. He got all the comedy and emotion and energy I hoped for in the role and brought a tear to a few eyes in the control room turning in a beautifully judged performance I truthfully can't imagine bettered.
Stephen Hoyle had the second biggest role (it was he who was Michael Murray in an earlier life) and really did wonders vocally, giving so much to sell his role and bringing a real intelligence and sensitivity to it. He was playing younger than his age, though not as young as Michael Murray, and I bought it totally, he was far better than my words!
Reece Noi probably had the trickiest role, basically the third lead, playing a quite unsympathetic part without masses to latch on to, but I think he gave a really interestingly nuanced take on it, which I think adds something to the shifting power relationships in the play and I'm looking forward to hearing it in the finished version a lot.
Sue Ryding did wonders with quite a small role really, bringing a humanity to it to the point where I felt we needed to change her final credit. She was so nearly just 'The Dog Lady' but by the end I felt we needed to use her character's name because she'd made the role much more than the plot function that suggests.
Greg Wood, I wrote so little for that we only had him one day which I'm sad about because I loved what he brought to his couple of scenes, not least the way he used his voice to suggest quite a different physicality. He seemed to swell out from being a lean young feller into a kind of burly middle-aged Eddie Yeats type when he went behind the mike, which was spot on for the part.
We only had Balvinder Sopal for one recording day too, though she was also there for our first read through on Tuesday). Balvinder is one of the stars of the BBC Asian Network soap Silver Street, and I worked with her very briefly a few years ago when I had her bursting balloons and throwing gravel around in a short play that was more about stage effects than acting that we did at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and Bradford's Theatre in the Mill.
She plays a shopkeeper whose name sadly vanished in edits of the play, she still says it once actually, but it's blink and you miss it. When it was first suggested I make my shopkeeper Asian, I'd been nervous about writing the cliché and keen to avoid terrible faux pas in what's a very small role, so I was really happy to have Bal there reassuring me that I'd done okay with the tiny little bit of Punglish I sneaked in for her, and giving this cameo part such life.
In the play's two smallest roles was Matt McGuirk doubling up, hilariously as one virtually monosyllabic character and really scarily in a second, far more voluble, one. He was another really superb actor and possesses a real vocal flexibility and a brilliant sense for rhythm and pace.

So, in short, I was pleased!

Listening at home you probably won't be aware of the work of Eloise Whitmore (though you'll hear her), Paul Cargill, Carrie Rooney or Gary Brown who made the recording go so smoothly, but they were all hugely impressive, fiendishly efficient but really good fun to be around. I'd been lucky enough to have Paul there for No Tomatoes which we recorded in the same studio, but it was my first time watching the others at work. I may talk about some of what they did at a later date but right now I think it runs the risk of spoiling a few moments in the play. Ideally, I reckon you should always experience the trick at least once before you know how it's done!

Anyway, the play is called Anti-Macassars and Ylang-Ylang Conditioner, honestly there's a reason, and it goes out on, I think, Monday the 27th of July at 2.15pm in Radio 4's coveted 'Torchwood on the wireless in the afternoons' slot.
It's not a perfect play, the writing's not all that I'd want, I found it tough to do, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how very much better it was made by the team who worked on it with me. There are all sorts of laughs and moments of tension and sadness that had so much more power than I expected, and I'm very proud to have been involved in the production. It was a great birthday treat.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Radio Radio

Just a few quickies- the Bill Mitchell programme also got a nice review in The Stage and Television Today, was an iPlayer pick in the Telegraph and was featured on Radio 4's Pick of the Week (marvellous, incorruptible Pick of the Week). It makes me very happy to have Gillian Reynolds (radio critic of the Telegraph) praise something I've been involved in, I imagine working on a TV show that Nancy Bank-Smith enjoyed brings a similar warm glow.

I met Gillian Reynolds once, years ago in my TV curator incarnation, and she was great fun. We had a good old chin-wag about everything from Peter Hawkins (the then recently departed voice of British Childhood) to the legendary TSW opening night show, the full astonishing wonder of which I thought only nerdy gents of my age knew. She knows her stuff!

Tonight sees the beginning of my stint as stand-in presenter for Alex Riley in the Comedy Club slot on BBC Radio 7, this now runs to three weeks rather than two by the way. I've greatly enjoyed acting up for this, it's ten 'til midnight Monday to Friday and gets giddier as it goes on.

If you want to listen to all my links you're scary and I thank you. You'll need to either listen live or get savvy using realplayer links though (check out the Beebotron site if you need help) as the opening half hour doesn't go on iPlayer with my bits attached for arcane and dull reasons related to not wasting precious resources.

I'll be mainly watching The Wire.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Cat Fight

Bill Mitchell - The Man Who Wrestled Pumas... Probably went out on Radio 4 on Thursday and seems to have gone down quite well, you can catch it still on the iPlayer for the next 5 days. Use this link with realplayer if you're outside the UK. Yesterday it spent a little time as the most popular BBC radio factual show on there, which says something or other- possibly that people like factual shows but not so much the ones about big important world changing facts.

The show garnered quite a bit of publicity. There were a couple of nice trailers that were played out regularly, and I'm told promotion by Steve Wright on Radio 2. In print there was a little article in the Radio Times featuring Bill looking across the page towards the I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue article and preview pieces in The Guardian, Observer, Times and Telegraph. All were terrifyingly positive, bar The Times wishing as an aside that there could have been more archive in the show. Those of us involved wished that as well, with there being a couple of pieces it was frustrating not to be able to feature in the end.

Response seems to have been pretty positive too. Googling around, people on messageboards, Twitter and so on seems to reveal general enthusiasm and The Guardian ran a glowing review of the show on Friday.

Amazingly, the one question I've been dreading (bar where's your writers credit- answer, mainly right here- Radio 4 isn't obliged to offer them on these kind of shows) has only come up once, when a friend asked 'Wrestled pumas? In what sense wrestled pumas?'
Ah. Well, lovely title isn't it? In this sense...

Initially, the documentary was pitched as someone, possibly even me unless Radio 4 felt a star narrator was needed, learning about Bill.
To accompany my initial pitch I'd located an audio interview with him, a good obituary and a few CDs with some lovely DJ sound bytes and out-takes that we were sadly unable to clear for broadcast but best of all was a tantalising entry on Bill in an old book on advertising The Tuppenny Punch and Judy Show, under his photo the caption claimed-
"Once he wrestled pumas now he caresses words"

Because it was clear that Bill had told a number of tall and colourful tales about his life as he developed his hard man persona, this seemed a good hook. Was this true, or just Bill making extravagant claims?
One of the ideas was we'd ask interviewees if they knew anything about this. The result could be a montage telling us 'Definitely, in Madrid in 1962' or something, 'I've no idea', 'rings a vague bell', 'wouldn't be surprised' or 'no'. Except it didn't really work out that way, and once it was decided a proper celebrity narrator who'd known Bill was needed, the journey of discovery idea gave way to straight biography and I wrote the script to serve Bill's life story, the archive we knew we could use and the interviews producer Paul Hardy had put together. The cliffhanger of whether Bill had wrestled pumas or not was left, well not so much hanging as unraised beyond the title... I did suggest that we might retitle the show Bill Mitchell- the Man Who Didn't Have to Try... Too Hard but hang it all- 'Wrestled Pumas' that's brilliant isn't it?

If you do want a definite answer on whether Bill puma-wrestled or not, I can tell you that in the course of making the programme we came to firmly believe that he did.


Friday, 19 June 2009

Fallen through a time warp- it's a fragment of June

This looks like a draft of an entry embarked on and forgotten about in mid June, (while waiting for a bus I suspect). I think I repeat some of the things said here but I'm publishing it anyway (after my rediscovering it in August), in the interests of not chucking away a half thought through feeble joke, a couple of observations and a stray opinion. Enjoy.

I've been in TV's glamorous London the last two days, though I was mainly working in wireless's ugly London myself.

Blimey, for a boy fron the sticks London is glamorous. I took the 'wrong' train to Lewisham by mistake on Wednesday, what a good idea that was- tourist boom town London all on one line, Gherkin, Cutty Sark, Canary Wharf... it was like being in Cardiff with iconic cutaways. Fab.
It was a smashing pair of days, I stayed over with a lovely couple, briefly sitting on Nicola Bryant's old cushions I'm told (insert gag at will), and also met up with the famous Robert Davy from not in Coupling, a gestalt entity which makes me laugh so much I can't believe it hasn't had a fabulously entertaining wedding day for me to enjoy yet, each to their own.

While not being social this week I was mainly recording links for BBC Radio 7's Comedy Club, the only downer being having to chuck a lot of 'it's my last Wednesday' type links when I was offered a third fill in week presenting. I can handle those kind of rewrites.

In other rewrite news my Radio 4 play is now done and willl record soon. If it ends up any good at all then praise is definitely owed to producer Gary Brown for nurturing it, developing it and nudging it along on the way.

Oh and by the way, as someone who's spent a bit of time reading up on the various daft, ideologically suspect and ill-thought through bits of broadcasting legislation of the last half century I find myself very disappointed by the Digital Britain report. If ITV and Channel 4 can no wonder work as commercially funded public service organisations despite having massively diluted their public service remit I personally believe they should be allowed to go to the wall and have their popular properties sold on.
Unbelievably the BBC works... and better than most.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

An Unsatisfyingly Incomplete Pot Pourri of Teasers

I'm now into the final draft of my radio play, there may be some polishing after this, but beyond that, this is it- more later.

I have recently said 'yes' to writing a short story- more later.

There were two exciting and different trailers for the Bill Mitchell documentary on Radio 4 today (at midday and 6.30pm if you're interested)- more later.

I had an absolute hoot yesterday recording my first week of links for BBC Radio 7's Comedy Club (very different in tone from the Sunday Drama and Comedy Catch Up slot I did the other week which I feel struggled to get a handle on). I'll be hosting it 10 'til Midnight, Monday to Friday from 23rd of June to the 3rd of July- more later.

Deferred gratification was today decreed worse than obviously flagged subversion of form for comic effect- tough. Sue me.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

At a wireless near you from a week on Thursday...

BBC RADIO 4 Thursday 18 June 2009

Bill Mitchell – The Man Who Wrestled Pumas...Probably

Thursday 18 June
11.30am-12.00noon BBC RADIO 4

Miriam Margolyes profiles the life of the late Bill Mitchell, the gravelly baritone who informed people that the latest blockbusters would be "at cinemas near you from Sunday"; that a certain brand of lager was probably the best in the world; and that a type of aftershave was for men who didn't have to try too hard.
Born in Canada, Mitchell apparently developed his trademark voice either as a result of suffering mumps as a child or by falling from a tree and damaging his windpipe. He admitted that the heavy drinking and smoking which began in his teens helped preserve his voice and drove his excessive lifestyle.
Mitchell's voiceover career began in the late Sixties with a recommendation by Patrick Allen, the then undisputed voiceover king, and a Pan Am advert showcasing Mitchell's Orson Welles impression. This impression ultimately mutated into his trademark sound.
Mitchell died in August 1997 but his name remains ranked as one of the greats within the advertising industry, with his voice still impersonated by other artists today.
The programme features contributions from: musicians Zoot Money and Kenny Clayton; fellow voiceover and creative Chris Sandford; industry moguls Nick Angell and Rob Townsend; and Bill's daughter, Amanda McAllister.
Presenter/Miriam Margolyes, Producer/Paul Hardy
BBC Radio 4 Publicity

See also pages 7, 119 & 131 of the new RadioTimes.

It's coming, it's Zor-tastic and it doesn't mention Frontier on Space. Blame me, I came up with the idea and wrote the script.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


It's a funny old life isn't it? Well really it's largely miserable but it does have enough funny bits in it to make it manageable I'd say.

I've been working fairly hard the last few weeks and feeling a little glum after the recent death of a relative. Not unexpected sadly and not someone we'd been close with for some years, but no matter how inevitable the loss you're still never emotionally ready and I surprised myself by how raw and sharp my grief felt when I had to explain my flatness to someone. Oddly, I've studiously avoided telling friends about the loss, trying to jolly along as usual. You think they don't need to hear it, it's not worth mentioning and, you know, after a few days like that you say to yourself 'Well, why would you bring it up now?'
And of course now here I am writing about it publicly to strangers rather than mentioning it more privately to mates. There's some kind of ridiculous compartmentalism going on here, isn't there- like having the first class bit on trains to Leeds which are only better than standard class to the extent of having plug sockets and being much less full.

I'm still deep in play rewrites (original peculiar title is staying, by the way. It has the advantage of being quirky and zingy which none of my not great replacement ideas were) and my God, I'm getting good notes, pushing me sharply and intelligently towards getting something together which I simply couldn't do on my own. I think I've learn more on this play than on any other piece of writing I've done, and that's come from the rewriting process which I've not really experienced properly before.
Previously, things I've done have tended to either be good enough to use or not good enough- the end, but, with this play, commissioned from a precis and then gradually worked up, I've finally had the experience of trying to get something from 'not good enough' but paid for up to 'good enough' through reworking. Hopefully I'll manage to do that.

In the meantime, I've just done another little job, one I never really expected to have and didn't go out hunting for, and have rather enjoyed it.
I've become a radio announcer. Now, I'm not the world's best speaker, I don't have a voice that says 'this is the BBC' to me but here I am anyway, doing some stand in slots for BBC Radio 7, mainly introducing comedy shows and, even better, mainly introducing ones I like.
This all came about after I nipped down to do my No Tomatoes chunner last month and I guess ended up talking with a bit of passion and knowledge about radio and comedy while we chatted.
Anyway, the upshot is I'll be presenting two 4 hour Sunday afternoon slots this weekend and next, introducing some lovely old comedy shows. Even better the second slot also contains one of my absolute favourite radio plays ever- Odysseus on an Iceberg by Alick Rowe from 1985 which I taped off Radio 4 on its original broadcast all those years ago and have on cassette to this day (it's the only survivor of my home taping from that era to still be with me, 24 years on).

I've tried to bring a tiny little bit of my broadcast history knowledge in lightly to leaven the effect of my droning on, it is, after all, the thing I've got going for me.
Do listen if you can bear it. I start a bit earnest I think but hopefully I loosen up. If BBC Radio 7 can bear it once they've listened back to me, I may be doing a little bit more of the same kind of thing later this month, but I'll only tell you about that if they don't mysteriously change their minds nearer the time...

Truly I am a Jack of All Trades and Master of None, all hyphens and little of worth to connect with them. Author cum comedy writer slash drama writer cum sound designer slash performer cum researcher slash broadcaster,
I'm utterly cum-slashed aren't I?

Friday, 8 May 2009


Draft three of the radio play is underway which is good. Helpful notes and more tantalising blue-sky casting suggestions having emerged from draft two in which I both got slightly lost and thankfully slightly found again.
It does need a new title now though. It's been labouring under one that was given it at commission which didn't really apply even then, and does even less now, it currently has a slightly blah one I gave it so I didn't have to look at the other one in all the page headers, but it requires something a little better.
I suspect a disproportionate amount of time will be spent sorting those few words at the end of this draft. They are after all the play's first calling card, mind if the title was followed by "starring blue-sky casting suggestion" that would be draw enough in my book.

I'm also pleased that the first draft of my telly sitcom idea went down pretty well with the producer I sent it to. It was really an experiment to see if what I wanted to do worked and get a handle on the characters and situation and we both think we buy it. A chat with the producer today suggested a couple of things to tweak, which I absolutely agreed on, and I shared an idea I'd had to give one of the characters more of an individual voice which also seemed to go down well.
I'll get on to draft two of that after play draft three and we'll see how we go from there.
Baby steps still, lots of falls still between here and anywhere, and indeed nowhere. Looking forward to it.
The sitcom does has a title, though whether that will need to change too, who knows.
It's called Skill or in my head the slightly more grand "Ian Potter's Skill", entirely in tribute to "Terry Nation's Blake's 7" which always used to be written on Blake's 7 stuff, and not at all because it sounds like someone praising me.
I wonder if the proposed Sky Blake's 7 will end up being called Sky One's Terry Nation's Blake's 7? If it happens it will be in my house.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Great wobbling nebulae!

And suddenly it's May...

Busy little time of late- documentary one is in the bag for broadcast in October, which will be on us all too soon at this rate. Documentary two is coming along. I've written a draft script for our presenter (excellent choice again) but things will obviously need to change not least because there are a few bits of archive to finalise, and the absence or presence of them will obviously affect the shape of the piece.

The interview with Dick Mills at Sensoria was good fun, he was virtually self-propelled in the end. After a good chat beforehand and prodding at various areas that interested me in our discussion, it was pretty much a case of give him and the audience a couple of nudges and away they went together. He's a very young 74.

The last few days have seen me writing a pilot sitcom script which I'd had ideas bubbling for but no time to write since probably September. Clearly, I'd thought a lot more about the thing than I reckoned because a fairly workable first draft came out without much pain over four days writing and the script is finally on the desk of the producer I proposed it to, pleading needily for love.

Today sees the beginning of work on draft three of my radio play, as my producer on that and I discuss his notes on draft two and plan the way forward. Hooray!

After that there are thoughts for future documentaries, a few possibilities emerging to talk about things I love passionately for very little money (an emerging career speciality of mine) and a pile of nebulous 'who knows'. Can you pile nebulous things? Not easily I wouldn't think.

The very best thing I've done lately was make an asparagus, leek and onion quiche. Caramelise the onion, add a bit of garlic and a spoon of mustard, and stack your nebulae carefully, those are my life tips.

You'll be pleased to know I'm not on Twitter.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Day Tripper

Long old day yesterday- I'd forgotten how much the National Express coach from Sheffield to London and back in one day saps you- it's about 7 hours on the coach for around 8 hours in the capital. It is however very, very cheap (and inexplicably even cheaper if you buy two singles rather than a return for the same times).
I was down plugging No Tomatoes- doing a little interview with BBC Radio 7 presenter Penny Haslam that will be chopped up in teensy usable slices and scattered thinly over the airwaves in the next few weeks. Six or eight minutes maximum I'd imagine.
Now, that seems a short time to justify a trip to London doesn't it?
It is, which was why I'd also arranged another appointment at Broadcasting House, talking to one of the arts producers I've previously done items for on Front Row, offering up a bit of archive material for a currently unannounced Radio 4 programme and chatting in the studio about the background to it.
Interestingly, I find it much easier to talk about other people and their work than I do about me and mine. Not what you'd expect eh, long suffering reader?

While I was in London I had a little free time and discovered two interesting things.
The first was that No Tomatoes episode 2 was at that point the most listened to entertainment programme on BBC Radio 7's iPlayer page (and something like fourth or fifth most listened to on the station overall) and as a consequence was on the very front page of the iPlayer representing 7 and claiming to be a radio highlight! It's certainly better than episode 1 by my reckoning.

It's also definitely getting much better publicity this time, with really well crafted on-air trailers, and nice little images on the Radio 7 homepage, and all this before Penny's interrogation of me is cast piecemeal into the ether.
The fact I've started getting email from strangers about it again suggests a heightened awareness too.

The second thing I learned was the full contents listing for the final Big Finish published Doctor Who Short Trips story collection, a lovely fiction range that's now coming to an end. It's a best of retrospective cunningly titled Re:Collections.

< Geeky Who bit >
I'm in it, as are several friends- virtual, actual and bothual. In particular I recommend you Matt Kimpton's Life After Queth- he should have got a slew of Doctor Who gigs on the basis of this debut, funny, moving, tricksy with time and beautifully written. The story features Doctor Who's very best giant telekinetic alien woodlouse and introduces a whole new race of space armadilloids.
Truth be told I'm there under slightly false pretenses because the very best entry in the volume my story came from is definitely Paul Magrs' Kept Safe and Sound. However, I believe the rules for the collection were one story per author and Paul had already been ear-marked for inclusion for a story from another volume, allowing me to sneak in in his place.
I'd also recommend Jonathan Morris' story The Thief of Sherwood even though it is NOT CANON and contains a very unlikely fictional edit occurring in an early 1960s BBC videotape show, and Steve Lyons' All Our Christmasses, a lovely satirical fable which was so prescient of 'Pirate Planet' episode 4 Spannergate and the evil that scandalous interference released into the world.
< /Geeky Who bit >

Great cover, isn't it?
I came back from London with horrible dandruff, which I'm going to blame the coach air-conditioning for, while being glad I didn't wear headphones during the radio interviews just in case I'm wrong.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Different Days

Yesterday, I went out, as you do, to a train station, as you do, and met a poet there, which I don't often. We then went off to a colossal steelworks, visited a local history archive, listened to an academic sing folk, popped into an old vicarage for tea with aristocracy, then travelled through a field of gambolling lambs to enter a dragon's cave.
I got all my drinks paid for all day. How brill was that?
By the time I returned home I had two reasons to visit Broadcasting House next week.
The only things that went wrong with the day were that I ate some jalapeno peppers that evening which unsettled my night and that, despite my confident assertion that Liverpool were capable of beating Chelsea 4-2, they didn't. They could have though so my assertion stands and they tried heroically in an astonishing game.
Usually humdrummery really.

Today was harder. The usual horror of the Hillsborough anniversary took me right back to 20 years ago when three of my relatives were in that ground and I was manning the 'phone in Sheffield to many more, waiting to see if they came home. They did, others were not so lucky.
When they eventually managed to return the police were still claiming fans had broken in through the gate that they'd opened to crisis manage the crush which poorly planned crowd management had caused. They just moved the crush, creating a deadly bottle neck and treated those trying to escape it as criminals.
My father, who'd seen the gates opened, 'phoned the local radio when he got back and told them the police were misleading the media.
Because he was well-spoken, articulate and corroborating other testimony the person he was speaking to simply called out “We've got comformation. Run with it!” and did, without even checking his name.

Today, I saw a policeman on the news defending the actions of an un-numbered officer attacking a female demonstrator in London with a baton, explaining that we didn't necessarily know what provocation he'd received and whether he was hitting this woman to fend off others nearby who were 'demonstrating against him'.
The lessons of 20 years ago have not been fully learned. The public en-masse are not necessarily the enemy of the police.

Saturday, 4 April 2009


Apologies for recent radio silence- I've been busy juggling hot knives and metaphors.
I'm deep in radio play re-writes and late too. I've found it hard. It's been a bit like like picking at a scab or a simile, you start with one little bit and the whole thing slowly unravels on you in a way scabs don't as a consequence.

Other than that the recording date looms for In Search of the Wantley Dragon and I'm doing a location recce and a pre-interview with one of the key contributers over the next couple of days and also developing a few things with the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield- you remember, where I saw most of Control (and all of Pandora's Box).
Too early to talk about those but before/if they happen I'll definitely be interviewing Dick Mills of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop there on the 27th of April, a boyhood hero for a nerd like me obviously- the man who did Major Bloodnok's Stomach, The Penargilon Kangaroo Relocation Drive and of course Atomic Reactor Runs Wild.
I will ask him about glow-pots and wobbulators until people flee.

Also from 11pm on Sunday the 12th BBC Radio 7 is re-running No Tomatoes. I expect this will be the last time they run it. They've paid the actors for three plays only, so unless they renegotiate to bring the performance rights in line with the script rights (they're allowed another two airings of those) that's probably that. So if by some freak of chance you've missed it up to now this may well be your 'last chance to miss'.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Oddly moving...

I had a look at the fan page for Ken Campbell this afternoon. As I've come to expect one of my photos of Ken performing for my stag do in 1997 was there. He's wearing a T-shirt I made for him as a silly thank you. I then scrolled through a few more photos and found him wearing the same T-shirt in the last run of photos there about 10 years later.
Still a hero. Still barging unbidden into dreams. Still moving me to laughter and tears.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Going for the Jocular

A very interesting day today, if a long one. Up at 6am, out the house at 7, not home 'til just before midnight, a train, a taxi and 9 hours on National Express coaches entirely populated by bronchial tributes to Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy in the middle. The reason for all this being that there comedy writing masterclass with David Mitchell at Broadcasting House in the afternoon.

There were 15 of us there, selected from 900 or so applicants apparently, and I was pleased to find myself sitting by another of Gill Isles' protégées quite by chance,
The afternoon, which focused on sketch writing, broke down into an illustrated talk on types of funny from Gareth Edwards, the BBC's head of radio comedy, a discussion between Gareth and David (resplendent in a range of complementary browns from the Colour Me Autumnal range and quite as nice a chap as you'd hope) followed by questions from the group, a mock writer's meeting for a topical sketch show involving us all, and a little ever so slightly stilted socialising at the end.

All pretty good fun and useful too, though I'm not sure the mock meeting was an entirely comfortable part of proceedings for most of us, because a) we hadn't known it was happening in advance and were thus unprepared, and b) we seemed to be mainly shy solo writers rather than habitual team writers with shared history that would have allowed us to bounce ideas around more easily. Possibly the slightly stilted socialising should have happened first,
I was gobbier than I needed to be in this part of proceedings to compensate for finding it awkward, for which I apologise if you were one of the others present. It was either that or clam up entirely.
I got homework from this bit for my pains, so that'll teach me, and have had to buy a copy of OK magazine for research on the way home. I felt soiled.
I concealed it as best I could in a copy of the new Doctor Who Magazine which I perversely feel is a more acceptable public purchase and then read that on the way home instead. There's a piece by Andrew Pixley on the 60s Dalek series that nearly was in there, which is great if you like that kind of thing, and I definitely do.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

A Tale of Two Mitchells

A good day.

Firstly, I ran further, faster and longer than I did on Monday. I'm inching slowly back towards the fitness level I was at a year ago, before I piled on a depressingly large amount of weight in a hilarious typing at great length and drinking to get to sleep afterwards experiment.

Secondly, documentary producer Paul (who I'm meeting in sunny Bradford tomorrow) has made an exciting little breakthrough on the Bill Mitchell documentary.

Thirdly, I've been invited to a comedy writing masterclass with David Mitchell next week.

I'm particularly pleased about the third because it came from sending off three sketches written on spec to the BBC Writersroom in a day or two in February. No attached rubric, no CV, just the sketches.

Comedy is incredibly easy to fail at, all it requires to be bad comedy is someone not being amused. A drama can actually get by quite well and be considered a moderate success without extracting any noises from the audience, jokes don't survive so well on rapt silence (so if you're ever amused in a comedy audience please remember a hundred wry knowing smiles sounds like death but a giggle's a victory).

So it's a genuine comfort to get even slight approval from strangers and know someone somewhere in the BBC finds me moderately amusing and I might even be allowed a go at jokes on the radio again one day.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Chevron and Fanfare

So farewell then the Yorkshire TV studios on the Kirkstall Road, Leeds.
My inlaws saw Countdown there, it did make them happy.
I spent a few happy times there myself. Oh the sights I saw- the scene dock doors from which Dusty Bin still beamed down like the residing Numen of the place, the monthly update of the caption at the end of the Catherine Cookson obituary, mechanical advert cart carousels, grumpy continuity announcers, the empty studios graced by Rag Dolly Anna, Hadleigh, those two ladies off Farmhouse Kitchen, Miriam Stoppard, Rob Buckley and Magnus Pyke and the one truly great ITV sitcom Rising Damp, the URSA telecine suite, the archive full of unseen extra Whicker in Haiti and Yellowthread Street, wonders unimaginable.
Here it was that Whiteley was bitten by a ferret and made for life. Here there was once a village called Beckinsdale. Here Jess Yates stole chunks of sets from The Main Chance to make Stars on Sunday look better. Here Rory told the Kwackers his stories. Here Junior Showtime troubled camera crews more than it should. Here Les Dawson and John Cleese bridged the Oxbridge/Clubland divide.
Yorkshire was never quite the ITV company Baverstock dreamed of, but it deserves our respect for what it was.

Message in a Bottle

Dear Pughs,

Hi, hope you're well. In about 1992 you lived in the Bowden Court halls in central Manchester. You may recall we went to the Ozric Tentacles gig at the International II which Google suggests was probably on the 23rd of November 1991 (when the Universe was less than half its present size and Doctor Who was only 33 years old). After the gig I seem to recall you talked a fair amount about Tom Lehrer, Professor Colin Blakemore, the Liberal Democrat Party, and played us some Scott Walker, 13th Floor Elevators and quite possibly some KLF or Orb related ambient bits and pieces all rather nicely mixed on the fly in your flat.

Obviously, at that time we both hung out a bit at the Grot bar, and I believe it was there that I lent you my copy of the collected Watchmen, signed by Alan Moore and David Gibbons.
Not signed to me, just signed. I didn't know them so it seemed silly somehow, sillier even than queuing at Odyssey 7 book shop for the book to be signed anonymously. I didn't really get the idea of autographs then, as you can tell. I just wanted to see the men who'd done it and be grateful in front of them.

Anyhow, I know I said when I lent it you that I was in no rush for its return, but I do quite fancy another look at it now if you've finished reading it.
How have the last seventeen and a bit years treated you?

All the best


Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Writing Exercise

I’m running again, which is almost exactly like writing in a number of respects:

It doesn’t need half the specialist equipment some people make on.

You spend ages putting off doing it.

You spend a lot of time warming up beforehand and warming down afterwards, some of this is actually slightly different to the whole putting off thing.

It’s actually a little unpleasant to do and particularly unenjoyable at the beginning.

Even though it hurts it does begin to be fun in a perverse way while you’re doing it.

You get more from if you’ve got targets in mind, and can measure your achievements against those.

It’s often easier to do if there’s someone observing you from a little way off making you feel guilty if you stop.

You do get better with practise but it never stops being particularly unenjoyable at the start.

You often feel a pleasant sense of achievement when you stop and look back at what you’ve done, although quite soon you’ll be beginning to pick away at yourself, analysing how exactly you’ve been deficient in your performance.

It always takes longer to do than you think.

The main difference is that running doesn’t seem to make you quite as fat as writing.

And on we jog.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Chasing the Dragon

Just a quick note (blown on my own trumpet) to say I had my first meeting with regard to my second Radio 4 documentary on Friday the 13th, no triskaidekaphobia on this production, and that in the light of that I can say two things I wasn't certain I could before.

It's called In Search of the Wantley Dragon it'll be in Radio 4's poetry slot (so airing twice in one week, it's like those Week Ending glory days all over again, and not at all like having No Tomatoes air sometime around both 11pm and 4am, oh no) and our presenter is the very marvellous Ian McMillan- a man so affable, he's ended up with most of Northern England's aff. That's how affed he's been.

Broadcast is in August I believe if you'd like to plan your holidays accordingly.

Other tedious writers' weblogs detailing professional minutiae but little of real interest beyond that are available.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Snowed Under

Well, February's gathering a bit of speed.
I've got a handful of sketches to write in the next couple of weeks, a treatment to work up for a thing I'd accidentally forgotten about for a few days until I started a things to do list a couple of mins back (whoops), meetings to sort for my documentaries and play, and a draft of a script idea that I've had festering a while to write, to see if I can make work.

So what do I do? Update this thing.

Good feedback on the first draft of my play today, except one thing. I've monstrously underwritten. What I thought was a nice tight 45 mins with some nice mysterious lacunae, isn't. It's probably more like a busy half hour. We'll be meeting to see where some more words might come from. There are some obvious candidates in the lacunae, but I suspect they're best unfilled and we'll be better off expanding on a couple of smaller characters and finding a handful of new moments. Whoops.
It'll sort.
It's so unlike me- I usually overwrite amd have to cut back.

In other news- London paralysed by freak fluffy rain. Ian gets about North of England as usual on undisrupted public transport. News media not so interested in the latter story.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Criminal Genius of Fritz Lang

The Testament of Doctor Mabuse is an odd film. It's like one of those Shakespeare 'problem plays' or REAL LIFE where you're not quite sure of the genre.
So, first off it's a sequel to two early Fritz Lang films- Doctor Mabuse, the Gambler and M, the one a story of an evil criminal mastermind with a supernatural talent for mesmerism, the other a thriller following the hunt for a psychologically disturbed child killer. You can see immediately where the problem might be.

It's got suspense, big explosions, a couple of great action set pieces, redemption, comedy crooks, a grumpy copper who gets results, bizarre Edgar Allan Poe/Sir Arthur Conan Doyle era forensics where a typewriter clue is disregarded as worthless but there's a lot of messing around with messages on scratched glass and ballistics analysis is an astonishingly exact science.
Then there's an amazingly creepy scene with a man being possessed by a ghost (a ghost later seen to open doors in a manner which denies convenient psychological rationalisation).
It's basically got everything chucked in that you might fancy in an exciting ride, but it doesn't all quite hang together satisfactorily.

It's not helped that the villain's behaviour, hiding in the shadows transmitting messages to his underground network of hoods by radio, setting elaborate bomb traps with stupidly long countdowns and rigging his door knob to a recording of his voice saying “Go away!” have all been pinched by later far pulpier series and serials - King of the Rocket Men, that ghastly Demons episode last week and of course Doctor Who and Tanni in an exciting adventure with a Powerful Enemy.
The bomb bit is actually slightly stupider than the bit in Demons, if you can believe that, though it combines the rising waters and ticking timer threats far more interestingly and has the advantage of resolving its stupid fantasy peril in a sensible way.

What M and The Testament of Doctor Mabuse share beyond Lohmann, their endearing Police Commissar lead, is a sense of a country in which criminality flourishes and is highly organised- in an era of mass unemployment (when even Labour Exchange clerks are short on funds) it's suggested turning to crime is the only way out for some.
Real or imagined this powerful underground black economy seems to turn up time and again in the little German film and literature between the Wars I know. Certainly, the hyper-inflation of Weimar Germany appears to hang heavily on the film, a large part of Mabuse's plan to destabilise the State is built on circulating counterfeit money, he just has to spoil it all with artsy jewel thievery and mass poison gas attacks.
Top tip for any modern terrorists reading- destroying the banking system from within might just be more effective that some of that old fashioned bomb stuff. You probably know this and have been doing it for a while, of course.

Mabuse defeats himself in the end, which is handy because being essentially an idea, an idea that anyone might house, makes him rather hard to defeat otherwise. Quite why he chooses to give up, when all that's really gone wrong is that he's lost a few of his more rubbish henchmen isn't entirely clear, perhaps he's only really interested in destruction and doesn't really know what to follow his schemes up with, perhaps he's retreated to draw up fresh plans to replace those we see him tearing up at the end, perhaps his high profile but failed attack on the public will bring more anarchy than a successful attack would.
Lang was keen after fleeing Germany to say the film, suppressed by the Nazis, was a coded attack on Hitler, and yes it does feature an incarcerated mad man drawing up a plan for revenge on the world, which at a squint might be writing Mein Kampf in jail, and there is a moment at which Mabuse is reported to have said “I am the State!”, but it's a bit of a push.

Admittedly, coded attacks do have to be a bit obscure, but I suspect the film was genuinely banned for its exciting depiction of acts of terrorism against the State rather than for hinting the State and its violent opponents might be cut from similar cloth.