Monday, 25 June 2007

More weirdest telly moments...

Two weeks into my first job in tv I was stealing master tapes of the show I had just landed the glamorous position of junior-assistant-entry-level-deputy-researcher on.

Well, when I say 'steal', I mean 'save'. The edit company was going bust and, baptism of fire, the boss rang me at 6am and told me to "get my bony arse" into the West End double quick as I was the only one around who could help her 'save' the show. At 9am the doors would be bolted and the show, on air every Thursday, would be locked in there until the creditors got their money.

So me and her, in my tiny red rusting Fiat Uno, raced into London's glamorous Soho and got 15 episodes of our show (on around 200 tapes - that's telly for you) out and into the car. She said she'd drive to the new edit company (way out in North London), and flung my wee car all over the place, the tapes bouncing off my head and scattering everywhere as she cursed the 900cc engine for being gutless.

We got to the edit just on time and the posh director didn't even seem to notice me as him and the boss sat and watched the rushes of the show. Yours truly walking from edit to car to edit laden with tapes over and over again...

It hadn't occurred to me at the time, but maybe if the bill for 17 edits had been paid there wouldn't have been that crisis... still, the boss said I was "a star" and rewarded me with an extra hundred quid a month. On the condition I spent it on finance for a better car. "That Fiat", she said, spitting out latte as she enunciated, "is a disgrace. I've seen vibrators with more power!"

The room went a bit quiet as myself, the director and the editor caught each other's eye and all thought the same unseemly thing. My boss, bless, didn't notice as she was boiling with rage at something she spotted onscreen; the director had dubbed on some bizarre choir music over the opening shot, the music she'd specifically told him never to use again, and she went loopy.

I left to do my actual work as the screaming match began. My car, obviously, had been ticketed, haphazardly parked half on the pavement and half on the road by the boss. Evil Finance Lady back at work refused to pay that, despite my protestations.

I got a new car in the end too, some safe'n'stodgy Rover. I managed to sell the Fiat for twice what I paid for it, even though the body was dented and rusty and falling to bits, by covering the decrepid panels in hand-made mud (soil, water, errr.. that's it) and saying it was a wee bit dirty.

Great days...

Thursday, 21 June 2007

How and why really bad ideas end up on tv

tv secret:
Crap ideas aren't on tv because the people who work in tv are stupid.

People often sit in front of the telly and wonder how someone, somewhere thought it was a good idea to make the drivel they've stumbled across channel-hopping to avoid Piers Morgan (we've all done it, come on)

The reason shows that stink of cat crap get on air is because of the development 'process'. It's called a process but it's as random as hurling the aforementioned cat crap from a tall building and hoping it'll hit Piers Morgan. Although don't let me discourage you from that course of action.

Telly is full of veh veh intelligent people, often posh, skinny, over-educated, sickeningly trendy and with hair styles entirely made of 'product'. How come they thought that thing with Anthea Turner showing people how to clean an oven is a primetime treat for the nation?

Let's take a guided tour of the oh-so-odd art of developing a tv show. For me it starts in a pub. I say "wouldn't it be good to do a show called [insert rhyming title here: I like rhyming titles. They're good.]" My senior development staff (ie two blokes who want a free drink with me in the pub) laugh and scoff and suggest making a cartoon about a cow that's a king or a fruit machine full of real fruit (to use two actual genuine examples).

And then I write the show with the rhyming title anyway, pitch it, sell it and we all work on it for 18 months. And it's my turn to laugh, oh yes. HahahahHAHAHAHhahahah. Like that.

Errr, where was I?

So people 'brainstorm' ideas with other telly types. 'Mind drizzle' in our case. It's usually in some obscenely coloured meeting room with tins of Red Bull, empty A4 pads and bent paperclips. The people in question are Better Than Normal Telly Staff - to work in development you're sorta kinda given a job over and above Junior Pet Shit Scooper Upper on Celebrity Pet Pyschic Uncut. It's a promotion. And really good fun - you do get to say "wouldn't it be great to do a show about people with enormous growths in their anuses and show it at 8.30 on Channel 4 when the viewers might be eating? HahAHAHAHhahahah." (This show exists. I've seen it)

But then the telly types read the 'briefing notes' from the last time a Senior TV Commissioner deigned to talk to the companies about what sort of shows they want. They aren't too specific - they don't say they want shows featuring feline excrement bouncing off an ex-Mirror editor's fat balloon face, for example.

No, they say they want 'edgy', 'modern', 'pacy', 'sexy', 'punchy' and other meaningless things. A certain other blog of a pretend tv controller uses the word 'itchy' when he describes the kind of pretend shows he pretend wants. It can't, and doesn't, mean anything. So you haven't got any direction at all really. But that's inevitable - the channels can't say they want a show just like Britain's Got Talent because it would make it look like they just want to copy the latest hit format. And that won't do, it's wrong on so many reasons. They have to pretend they want something newer, better, innovative and fresh.

They don't, of course. They want a version of the biggest new hit currently on air. They all do. And God knows they'll be sent it by everyone pitching ideas anyway. But no-one lets on.

The broadcasters occasionally say they want 'less reality shows' or 'more formatted fact-ent' but then always add, 'but it's up to you guys, the thing we want the most is the thing we don't know we want!' and everyone laughs and goes to the pub and thinks up cartoons about aborted foetuses. Or maybe that's just my staff...

And so the poor, poor development types go slowly mad, writing up all kinds of shows on the whim of their bosses and the channels. The success rate is inevitably low so after six months you go mad, mixing together all kinds of formats and constantly thinking "there's a show in that!" even when there's patently not.

I once had to write a daytime show around a footballer and his lovely wife. We had no idea what to do with them, just the channel thought they might be the new Richard and Judy. We stuck 'em in the Cotswolds and filmed her making doillies and him watching lambs being born - well, they both said they loved the country and it is the kind of light pretty-to-look-at twaddle the channel said they wanted.

Making the pilot episode was a nightmare. The footballer started to, er, have conflicts with his Pritt-fingered missus, the lambs wouldn't come out when we wanted them to, and it pissed with rain all the time. The channel ended up turning down the idea for the bizarre reason it looked 'too pretty'. Now I've had some rejections in my time but that one took the biscuit.

So, although it's hard to do, have some sympathy for the poor dears who have to think up rubbish telly. You can simply press the channel up or down button and the show disappears. They could end up making hundreds of episodes of it, living and breathing it to earn a wage. Not nice when it's Piers Morgan's Swollen Bumhole Birdshit Cavalcade.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Children's tv


Hey, at least I'm honest about it.

I've waited a while before writing this as penning stuff when angry is surely A Bad Move. But, as Peter Finch put it in Network (one of the best movies about tv ever, check out how they got the hideous future of news spot on right back in the 70s) "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it any more".

So think of an industry where Britain leads the world. Something that we do better than anyone else. Ever. The motor industry? Nah, all our major car companies are owned by American or German companies. Computers? Tsh, when was the last time "Surallen" Sugar's Amstrad made a PC? 1988?

I can think of two. First the making of barometers. We have more barometer producers here than the rest of Europe combined, fact fans. Result!

And, secondly children's tv. More specifically pre-school telly, designed for the tiny ickle babies. Teletubbies' tenth anniversary has been all over the news recently. Mark Lawson (yes, artsy farsty Mark Lawson!) interviewed the creators on BBC Four (yes, high falutin' BBC Four!). As well as being inventive, superbly shot and incredibly well researched, the Tubbies went on to generate hundreds upon hundreds of millions of quid for this country, selling everywhere.

That's not the only one, the list is genuinely too long to type here. We do this stuff better than anyone else - less schmalzty than the Americans ("gee, you know, I shouldn't'a done that. I love you Mom") Someone I make shows for describes moments like that as "Canadian" moments as lots of kids' programming devised worldwide is made in Canada as their government subsidises it massively. As it's made by international co-pros of a huge variety of countries It means it tends to be bland and wholesome.

Our government decides to intervene in children's tv too. Do they give us stacks of cash to make luvvy-duvvy crud? No. Oh no. They ban ads for junk foods from children's telly so millions of quid goes out of the business. Now I know junk food is bad. Everyone does. Even if you're five years old, you kinda know a bright blue string of sugary goo isn't a health food. But I can't see how a 2-5 year old can actually buy it, ads or no ads. Their parents do. And if their parents are swayed by their kids bleating on about it, or by watching these ads themselves, then there's little hope for them as parents. Us children's tv producers aren't making their little darlings fat. Not the evil multinational junk food companies. It's the parents feeding their kids too much crap.

Still, through gritted teeth maybe, but I do understand the ad ban. But then what happens? One of the major funders of children's tv, ITV, decides it simply can't be arsed any more. They've lost all that dodgy phone-in money and need to make cuts. After thirty years of public service broadcasting to the next generation of Corrie viewers, they think they can save money and boost ratings by replacing their award-winning CiTV slot on ITV1 with new, original programming. Like repeats of Morse or Marple.


ITV apply to Ofcom to get the number of hours of kids' tv they must show down from 10 a week to 2. Boo. Ofcom reject this. Yay. ITV do it anyway, saying they'll make the hours up over Christmas and Easter - when the toy ad revenue is the highest, obviously. Boo. Ofcom then say that, actually, they can't really do anything anyway, it's up to ITV. Triple boo. So Ofcom are 'investigating the crisis in children's tv' and then there'll be some compromise and ITV will still spend bugger all on kids.

And just to make things worse, the BBC get a lower licence fee settlement than they wanted and identify (guess what) children's tv as an area to save money on. As they shunt their inhouse producers up to Salford. Not Manchester, Salford. Way to show you care, Aunty.

But there's more, he says with steam blowing from his ears. Some snooty scientists, authors and 'experts' whine on that watching tv is bad for kids. Blah blah inactive yadda yadda obesity rah rah vegetables. Rubbish. If you've ever watched a two year-old be entranced by Tweenies, a bunch of four year-olds making paintings along to Art Attack, see the incredible pro-activeness and charity on a Blue Peter appeal, then you know it can't be bad for kids. What will children do instead? Play outdoors - er, no, not allowed now. Too dangerous. Are they supposed to surf Myspace and Youtube? At three years old?

Five's Milkshake strand is the one bright spot, commissioning new shows and genuinely doing a public service - unlike ITV or C4 (remember Pob and The Hoobs - C4 dumped kids' stuff years ago). The digital channels (rightly) rely on their incredibly popular output from their US parent companies, with the occasional British show, and are trying to do more on ad money that has been cut significantly.

It really gets on my wick (another Northern expression there). People will rightly complain when there's no well-made, well-funded British children's tv; just a bunch of sickly sweet US imports and some cheapo studio shows. It'll be too late then. Do something now. Write to your MP telling them to support the Early Day Motion supporting children's tv. More details on

Rant over. Normal service will be resumed next time.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

My Oddest Telly Days

A chat with an old friend this morning has made me smile all day. We laughed about some of the really odd moments we had in tv together. It made me think about the absurd situations I've been in for the sake of the tellybox. So here's a random list of weirdities...

a children's show for CiTV
I sat in the corner of a smelly old warehouse past the crackdens and whore alleys in King's Cross. The centre of the huge rattly space had been made into a huge one-room set of a fancy posh hotel room. Well, a fancy posh hotel room (a) in the eyes of ten-year olds, and (b) with a very small budget. So lots of shiny fabrics stapled to the wall and red velveteen. Our children's sitcom-cum-magazine show was halfway through the run and it had been a total nightmare. My Big Boss wanted anarchic and dangerous, pushing the envelope of children's telly. My Immediate Boss wanted safe and fluffy, not to scare the wee'uns. The channel wanted... err, actually they never said. They were totally bemused by our show anyway.

So I'd been up since 6am, sitting with my mate The Fat Writer, feeding him cans of Super (8%) - very easily obtainable in King's Cross then - as we desperately rewrote what script we had to reflect the totally opposite requirements of Big Boss and Immediate Boss. The fact I was Titular Boss was neither here or there.

At around 4pm, me and Fat Writer were treated to the site of Dale Winton chasing Bob Holness around the set hitting him with a shoe, only interrupted by Ant and Dec leading a horse into the bathroom, as East 17 sat and played with a train set in the far corner. And just when it couldn't get any more surreal, the pet dog - who'd sadly gone blind inbetween filming episodes 1 and 2 - was dragged past on a skateboard. It was the only way we could get him to move. He was very lazy.

Me and FW sat and sniggered. Nothing we'd done before had been quite as weirdo as this. My favourite episode will always be this one - although Big Boss thought it was "too kidsy" and Immediate Boss thought it was "too unstructured". Other series' highlights included Boyzone singing a lullaby to the sleeping cast (our ancient Irish director listened to the whole song and as everyone applauded said "OK boys, now can you sing it in fecking tune?"), 2Unlimited talking in Dutch and swearing away as we sat by blissfully unaware, and a man making an ice sculpture for no apparent reason.

It starred Ronnie Ancona and Mark Heap, don'tcha know. Funny how they don't mention it on their CVs heheheh.

Next time, covering everything in tin foil to indicate The Future and watching lambs being born with Leslie Ash.

Friday, 8 June 2007

A final thought on comedy

To complete a week of me blethering on about comedy, I wanted to say something about The Simpsons. But, you know, it's incredibly difficult. This is my fifth attempt at trying to come up with an original and different take on the Best TV Show Ever. But when in New York I saw Borders in the US actually has a series of shelves in their comedy section simply labelled "SIMPSONS", so I kinda think maybe everything has been said.

That's never stopped me before.

So, yes, my view is The Simpsons is by far the most complete comedy show ever made. 400 episodes. That's 200 tv hours. Phenomenal. But the volume isn't the only impressive thing. If it was Jeremy Kyle would be up there with it, which is so wrong it makes me wretch.

Literally hundreds of characters, the richest cast list of any sitcom ever. At the core a simple totally stereotypical family. Well, that's what they initially seem - they're obviously more complex than that.

Technically, as a cartoon, it started off fairly crude and now is very nicely done. Watch one of the early series and it's not wonderful to look at - although that's probably 'cos the tapes are worn with being played out 9 times a day for decades on Sky One.

(PS, if anyone from Sky One is reading, you should basically just show The Simpsons on a loop 24 hours a day, in a random order. You'd get more viewers. You know it. I know it. But if you did that there'd be no need for Sky One to employ anyone. So it'll never happen)

The voices are superb, revelling in stereotypical accents. And the music/score, often an overlooked part of any show, is utterly brilliant. A Simpsons musical episode is always a total treat. Even if it is just padding for a clip show for the earlier seasons when they couldn't churn out 22 episodes a year.

The writing makes it though. Anyone who says it isn't as funny as it used to be... it grips my shit (a good Northern expression there) that people can say that. Yes it is as funny as it used to be. It has the odd episode that isn't great, the odd one that's just plain odd, but a single episode is usually crammed with more jokes and ideas than every British sitcom ever.

My favourite episode ever is one about cartoon violence. Here's a link to a far-too-detailed description of it:-

The basis is that Marge actually watches Itchy and Scratchy for the first time and says it's too violent, runs a campaign to get it off tv (falling in with a nasty censorious bunch) and the campaign succeeds. The kids get bored watching anything else and go out and play nicely in the streets, help old ladies across the road and an idyll settles on Springfield.

Until the nasty censorious bunch wants to ban a tour of the US of the statue of Michelangelo's David (OK, it's a cartoon, they can do whatever they like) because you can see his winkle. Marge denounces this as that's art and reluctantly admits she can't be in favour of one kind of censorship and against another. Itchy and Scratchy return to tv and the streets are deserted. The pay off is great - see the link for the last bit...

It has my favourite gag in it as well. Bart and Lisa tell Marge she shouldn't get so het up about I&S because cartoons are for kids not for adults, that if they were aimed at her they'd be on in primetime (this within a primetime cartoon series aimed at adults) and cartoons are just full of slapstick violence and cheap visual gags. Homer then walks in, arse hanging out of pants and burps.

Comedy perfection.

tv secret:
If I had a quid for the number of times a British tv comedy person has asked why we've never come up with a show as good as The Simpsons I'd have... around two hundred quid.

The reasons aren't secrets - not enough money is the uppermost one, no way would a British tv company give someone with a good idea the kind of leeway Fox gave Matt Groening (he has TOTAL creative freedom), the comedy writing talent here isn't as broad or deep as in the US, writers aren't valued enough, and, finally, no-one in British tv is brave enough to do it.

tv secrets:
I have had two actual encounters with Matt Groening. The first time I was writing a game based on Krusty the Klown in my pre-tv days.I was a video game programmer don'tcha know. He complained that Krusty's hair was the wrong shade of cyan. I pointed out the Nintendo NES I was writing the game on only had 55 colours in total, and that was the nearest. He grumbled (it was on a trans-Atlantic phone link and a terrible line) that he may as well cancel the whole project then. My boss went pale - millions of quid at stake. I improvised that I could 'stipple' the two blueish shades and that might work - stippling, video-game-fact-fans, is where you do a chequerboard of two similar colours hoping that together, through the miracle of bad television pictures, it might look like a totally new colour. Anyway, it worked, and Mr G said I was a "pixel pixie". I took that as a compliment. My boss gave me a bonus too.

The second time I had created a cartoon sitcom that was funded by a very odd person indeed. He tried to sell it at the Edinburgh TV Festival by ambushing famous people, or paying hotel staff to stick the document under said famous people's pillows. Matt Groening was one of them. I saw him at a function, the day after this had been done, and ran away in horror he'd blame me.

Oh, and I also like Family Guy. That's like Simpsons Lite. It'll always do. But not as good as the real thing...

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

S(h)itcoms part II

I've been stuck "working from home" a lot recently, waiting for deliveries and the like, and obviously it's not easy to motivate yourself when there's a lot of unwatched telly sitting on the Tivo and the Media Center (sic) PC. But watching tv is technically research so I can feel good about myself for doing it. Especially as BBC Three's website has streaming comedy I can put in a window in the corner of my PC and pretend to be doing the boring paperwork as I watch it.

So some random thoughts on new British comedy, to compare and contrast with the American comedy stuff I wrote earlier. It only seems to be on BBC Three but there you go.

I like The Karen Taylor Show. It's funny in an olde worlde way - she even sings a song at the end. And her spoof on those phone-in gameshow channels was spot on. And the laughing undertaker.

Lots of other pilots were on there. I really can't remember most of them so they can't be that good. There was one with two sixteen year-olds shagging. That wasn't funny. Although they must need a replacement for their yoof series Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps as (a) they've broadcast it so often the tapes must've worn out; (b) the actors are all 30 now; (c) they've made hundreds of episodes, and (d) it's not funny.

Gavin and Stacey is oddly gentle but none the worse for that. Yes ta.

I didn't like Biffovision, a show sadly unavailable on their website. I assume that's not because of legal or copyright issues but more for smelling-of-shite issues. Firstly, just in case anyone who worked on that show is reading this, I know how hard it is to make a comedy pilot show that's instantly funny. Comedies, especially sitcoms, take time to build, both for scriptwriters, performers and the audience.

But this is a spoof of children's tv. And spoofs (or is it spooves?) give you a great jump start on other genres, as the scenario, characters and format should be readily identifiable. They were here, to start with, but then it went from being sadly unfunny to a bit weird to tediously juvenile to plain crap.

It was written by the guy who used to do Digitiser on Teletext, and I loved that, but this simply didn't work. On any level. The cast weren't the best, the gags were obvious and poor, and it ended up having sketches about consultants pitching ideas to a telecoms company - er, forgive me if I'm confused, but as of when did that fit with a kids' tv show?

I kinda assume the BBC thought this too, as there were no trailers, PR or clips - and no interweb stream - and it seemed to turn up at midnight on a Monday and disappear.

I do have another axe to grind here as I sent a Saturday morning kids' tv spoof format into the Beeb a while back and they said no, they'd got enough media spoof shows (even though they liked it). It makes me slightly annoyed they meant this one. Ours had a man dressed up like an elephant who was drunk and vomited on children. Now that's class.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

The death of the sitcom

Am I the only one who loves a good ol' fashioned studio-based laugh-track sitcom? Well, American ones primarily, not My Family, that superhero one or the odd thing with Rodney from Only Fools and Horses that was on BBC 2 recently.

But the sitcom is dead. It must be, it said so in the Guardian. Look, a link! It's like the future but now!,,2094419,00.html

Maybe the world has moved on from twenty-two minutes of nicely crafted one-liners but I mourn the passing of the sitcom. Will and Grace was funny, despite many faults (ie not enough lines for Jack and Karen, the disappearance of Rosario for a season or two when the actress was caught shoplifting, Alex bloody Baldwin and Harry cocking Connick Jnr) The last episode was a bit odd - but, hey, I won't spoil it for you as the final season starts on C4 tomorrow night, non-Sky people!

It's come to something when the best hope for American comedy here was actually billed as a drama in the US (starting soon on C4 & E4, the cancelled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which I saw in the US and thought was very good)

And, yes, there are plenty of 'good' comedies both here and in the US. By 'good', of course, I mean squirming with embarrassment at the psuedo-real wibbly-single-camera no-laugh-track type stuff of The Office (up to episode 100 in the US soon) and that. And, uh-huh, The Simpsons and Family Guy are corkers - but they're cartoons and that's different. For my comedy I want six absurdly attractive people sitting around a ten million dollar NY apartment cracking jokes continuously...

tv secret:
the Friends cast, combined, weighed exactly the same at the end of the ten years or so of the series as they did at the start - all the men got fatter, all the women got anorexic.


The only comedy coming up I'm looking forward to is one with Kelsey Grammar being a grumpy newsreader. I know what I'm going to get there and I like it.