Thursday, 28 February 2008

Me as a tv journalist

In the long list of TIHDIT (Things I Have Done In Television), being an undercover tv journalist has to be the most unlikely. Consider the facts:-
  • I have no training in anything even remotely journalistic;
  • I'm a great big scaredy cat;
  • I've worked on many shows that had a factual side but to say they had a lot of sound journalistic content would be pushing things

I went undercover a couple of times. Once, inbetween series of the video game show, my boss kept me on over the summer. A few of the other researchers and producers remained, to 'develop' the next series. This involved lots of trips to the pub, a few meetings and ideas being generated, some more journeys to the pub, playing Championship Manager and going out to meet our video game contacts. In the pub.

But occasionally we had to do some work, and mine was to find out about pirated games. The boss was astonished that her son had bought pirated games from a market. I was astonished too. Why the fuck did he actually buy a game? His mum owned a company making shows about games. We got 'em for free. And then there was the fact that his mum was also loaded. Why was he at a market when he could send the butler down to Harrods to pick some up?

Anyhow, the boss's wheeze involved a trip up North to see my family. I'd mentioned I used to see my own games on sale in pirated form at markets, back when I writ games for a living. She said I must've been furious. I said I was, but the massive no-teeth-dog-on-string-tattooed stall holders probably wouldn't have given a hoot if I'd said anything.

But, no, I was to be a Journalist. I bought a crappy boxy shoulder bag, cut a hole in it for our little camcorder and gaffer-taped it in there. A bit of dark-coloured translucent plastic on the hole, and voila a sort-of hidden camera. The remote I worked in one hand, the wire up one arm and down the other, and stuck it under my watchstrap. The other wrist had a tiny mike taped to it, with wires running to the camera. It kinda worked if I waved my arm in the general direction of the person talking. I practised in the office much to my mates' hilarity. I practised down the pub, much to my mates' concern - what if the boss saw it?

Off I went up North (at least the company was paying my bus ticket... yes, bus ticket, we weren't made of money*). I went out to the blowy dodgy market in Seaton Sluice (lovely name), next to Whitley Bay. And there were rip-off copies of games. And, yes, there were big hard men with big hard dogs. Ulp.

I put on the bag, clicked record and went to it. "Why's this Nintendo game only a fiver?" I asked, in fearless journalistic stylee, pointing my arm at a squat twitching skinhead with many more tattoos than teeth. I could see why. I hope the camera could too. The box was a VHS sleeve with a photocopy of the actual game box on it. No, that was untrue. It was a photocopy of an ad for the game. Inside it was a ROM-board, not even a proper cartridge.

"Eh?", said the market trader, another tooth falling out. Probably.

"This isn't even a proper cartridge!", I stated indignantly, holding it oddly in front of my bag, "It's pirated!". Roger Cook had nowt on me.

"Yeh... and?", said the small businessman, scratching his pants.

"Um.. erm.. well, that's not, er, legal", I stammered.


"Sell lots of these?"



"Wannit hinny then?"

I then made my excuses and left, as The News of the Screws would say. I walked around and filmed many people doing this, including one stall that had games way before their release. The camera battery eventually failed and I had an hour's worth of material.

Back I went to London, not so much in triumph as folded up in a tiny seat next to a sweating fat lady.

But there were two problems. Firstly, the camera had fallen over in my shabbily-made camera bag. So there was a tiny semi-circle of picture at the top of the lens. It was enough to see some things, but not much. The microphone worked a bit, every other word was made out, but I was incredibly loud and the hardly-saying-much enormous brutes I was confronting were quiet and faint. It made me sound dictatorial and them sound effeminate, not exactly a crusading journalist, more a shouting lunatic.

And the stall with the pre-realised games? Well, they looked a lot like the ones we got sent at the show. As in exactly like them - I didn't realise but my mates did. Turned out one of the researchers who had left at the end of the series had been floggin' them off. We couldn't show this at all, we'd be in trouble with the games companies.

I put my camera bag in the bin and went back to working out what we'd call the new researchers-dressed-up-like-Gladiators-but-for-video-games for our thrice-weekly game show. My mate and me came up with a female character called Victoria Station, No Relation. Made no sense but made us larf.

*OK, they gave me the £75 for a rail ticket but I spent £25 on a bus one and spent the rest on a big shop at Kwiksave to stock my bare food cupboards. I was poor then.

Friday, 15 February 2008

My sitcom writing career part II


As a Junior Junior Researcher, I wrote a sitcom treatment and left it in my top drawer hoping my boss would find it when she was hunting for sweeties late at night. She did, loved it and dragged me to her office...


My boss, bless, was actually frothing with excitement for my odd idea mixing cartoons and reality (and this was many years ago, so it was dead original and that). She said she wanted to talk to writers, get them involved, I'd need to sign a deal, it could be a huge hit, I'd get an advance on sales as soon as I signed, Channel 4 would love it... my head was in a whirl as I ate an Executive Biscuit off the posh plates.

This was it, I was going to work in comedy. She wanted me to have a go at a script, just story ideas and constructs to start with. I said that I couldn't wait to get started... well, I'd have to, as I was editing tomorrow and then had to film a feature on Thurs and-

At that point, the boss leapt up (and as a six-foot-plus woman who was about four inches wide that wasn't an easy thing to do) and ran to the door of her glass-fronted office. She opened it, clapped her hands, looked at me then announced loudly

"Just to let you know, this man here has written a fucking GENIUS comedy idea and is to develop it for me and not do ANYTHING on your show for the foreseeable future, yes?"

And then folded her arms, smiled and told me to get to work on comedy.

I was in quite a good mood, as you can imagine. Sat at my desk and did some notes, thought a bit, looked like a GENIUS for a while. I hardly noticed my producer going in to see the boss.

Next day there was an envelope on my desk. It had a contract for the sitcom and a short note saying that due to the fact I was a "hard-working, dedicated and integral member of the team" I couldn't be spared from the show I worked on. However, I could have an afternoon a week to write comedy. Other writers would be found to work with me, as I "wasn't experienced in the scripting arena". I remember the last phrase particularly well. A scripting arena. Is that like the arena off of Gladiators, except with nerdy writers cracking one-liners to lions who pause and say as deadpan as possible "that's so funny...."

Anyhoo, I did some writing and the boss liked it. No other writers joined. The afternoon a week got eaten up with worky things, especially as I got promoted and started to write comedy links for the actual show on actual television I worked on.

It wasn't quite the end - six months in, the boss asked the gangly young presenter of the show I did to do some development work. Including on my sitcom. He went off and came back with many, many pages of neat, hand-written notes on the characters and scenarios. They were, in the main, really funny and clever, packed with visual gags. He hadn't actually written any script though, the point of his work, and then he got a new agent who was horrified he was writing a script for a sitcom for almost no money. He went off to do stand-up stuff, came back a few months later for series 2 of our silly games show, and my sitcom sat on the shelf, unfinished and unwanted.

I got the rights back after a year and have tried to sell it, or variations of it, for ten years, never succeeding (although getting meetings and great feedback about the idea). It's probably the right time to try again.

Oh, and that presenter? Regular readers will guess it was David Walliams. Bless. I have his scribblings in a box somewhere, must dig 'em out...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

My "career" as a sitcom writer

So when I worked making shows about video games I yearned to work on shows NOT about video games. Hey, I like dem games and that, especially back then when buckets of red wine and aeons of age hadn't addled my reactions, but I wanted to work on something proper.

I got it into my head to write a sitcom. Genius idea, eh?

Well, no it's not. It's The Stupidest Idea Ever. Sitcoms are not only hard to get right, they're damn near impossible. And there was me, a year or so into a tv career, thinking "Hey, I'll do the next Fawlty Towers. I can do that, me. Oh yes."

I wrote up an idea. It was - and still is - a good idea, and I wrote it up... well, in an OK style, this was well before I'd churned out a gabillion programme proposals so it was a bit rough. Although I did do stickman sketches of all the characters. Which was nice.

I put this idea, stickmen and all, in the one place my boss would find it. No, not her intray, her desk or as a free pullout in that day's Sun but in my top drawer. That's where I kept the chocolates and sweeties she would raid at 10pm in the evening when bashing out programme proposals.

I know, I've mentioned this before, but she'd leave 12p for a bit of Galaxy, or a pound and take the whole drawer away. She was a I-always-pay-my-way style lady. On the wages she paid me that was just as well.

She didn't hit the chocos for a couple of days; each morning I'd get to work and my sitcom idea was there. It got to Friday and I noticed a few chocolate buttons had gone and 10p was there, but the idea remained undisturbed. I reckon she'd looked at it and laughed at me. Not in a good oh-this-is-comedy-genius way, but in a it's-so-bad-he's-had-to-draw-stick-men stylee.

I went into the weekend with a heavy heart, and came into work on Saturday morning to pick up some games for filming first thing Monday, to avoid a 5am start.

And the shitcom scribblings were gone! Gulp! I was sooooo excited all weekend. The filming lasted all day Monday but I turned up to work early on Tuesday. My friend Hester said the boss had been pacing around, reading some document and hooting with laughter continuously, asking where I was and saying the phrase "He's a genius. A fucking comedy genius!" over and over again.

Me? A genius? I almost wet myself. I went to my desk and started the glamorous process of ringing up video game companies and begging for those deadly dull press-button-A-X-Y-B to skip a level cheats that made up a lot of my job.

And then she burst in. The boss. She came over and grabbed my shoulder.

"Come with me, young man, no more games' cheats for you, you're a fucking comedy genius", she bellowed, as everyone else looked on with their mouths hanging open.

And I went into her office, as she said to the PA to get us a pot of tea and some biscuits. I heard a small gasp from the office at the request for biscuits. They only ever came out when Channel 4 turned up. They were for celebrities or tv bigwigs, not the likes of a lowly Researcher Boy like me.

I could sense my career in telly was on the way up.

And... well, come back soon for the thrilling conclusion. I've got to write up this thing about a dog. Then this thing about a bird that's a doctor. That's a feathery bird not a sexist term for a ladywoman. And then this thing about- ok, ok, I'll go now.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Being on tv again

People have asked me what it takes to be 'good on the box'. Here's a random list of six things you'll need to Get Ahead On Television:-

To look good on tv you need to be a bit of a Thunderbird puppet, over generous in the noggin area and small of shoulder and limb. It sounds weird but it's true, and it holds for movies as well as telly. Tom Cruise, in the normal world, looks incredibly odd, about five feet tall and with a GINORMOUS bonce. But in movies he looks well proportioned. I met Keanu Reeves once and he looks like that square-headed robot off of Red Dwarf in reality, and a hunktastic dreamship on the screen.

No idea why but there you are.

Into a camera, at another person, into the distance whilst the music wells up, at an autocue without moving your eyes - you have to be able to look at things you really shouldn't look at for extended periods of time. Without a single flinch or glance sideways. One false move and you'll look edgy and untrustworthy.

This is for all tv jobs, from newsreader (staring at a blue wall that has someone's face dubbed on it only for the viewers) to actor (staring into the middle distance when another actor is blethering behind them so they're both facing camera, where every sinew in your body is shouting "turn around and look at him - he's talking to you!") to presenter (staring into camera as people talk on the phone - all you can see is a lens. A bloody lens. It's round and clear. It's not that person. But they think you are looking at them. It's just odd.)

A normal person tends to gabble on camera. They're nervous, unprepared, excited. A tv person talks very slowly. It sounds good. Calm. Smooth. Short sentences. If you gabble in your everyday life, you'll be constantly fighting that urge on telly. It's possible to train yourself but not easy.

Brummies tend not to read the national news. Scousers tend not to be cast in soaps as high-flying executives. Geordies tend to play nice characters ("aw, such a friendly voice!"), an Edinburgh accent is perfect for a newscaster, but a Glaswegian one isn't. And yer Irish just sound warm and classless. On account of being from a country with no major class divisions. The Irish Irish, not the Northern Irish. They sound knowledgeable and stern.

It's all a load of old ballcocks but it's how you're perceived. Telly is the same as call centres - there's loads in nice accented parts of the North-East and Scotland, and not many in the Midlands. Hey, don't blame me, blame the viewers.

An odd thing to say, you may think, but undoubtedly true. I've got a very fast metabolism. I eat and drink more calories than average yet have always been trim. I go to the gym, yes, and don't eat wads of transfat-stuffed fast foods, but I've always burned up my food quickly. This means I usually feel warmer than most people.

Sadly this also means I sweat when I get hot (ie when it's slightly above freezing and I've got more than one layer of clothes on). So I appear shifty and shiny on telly, not a good look at all. The combination of bright lights and warm studios is a killer. If you're David Letterman - he's a Person of Increased Temperature too - you can crank the aircon in the studio to the max to stay cool looking. But if you're second-presenter-on-the-left on Rotherham Tonight, you can't. And if you start to sweat you'll look like you're melting. See Broadcast News, that seminal tv film, for a perfect example.

This is for live presenters only, the dreaded earpiece, where the producer can yell "right, we've lost Michael Portillo next, we're doing the paragliding puppy instead. In five...", all while you're asking Westlife about their latest dirge. Not easy at all - even hardened veterans can be seen to flinch occasionally.

If you can tick all those six boxes you might be ok on tv. Might.