Monday, 18 January 2010

Olden but golden

Happy New Year - sorry it's been a looooong time since I posted, but... er... um... well... no excuse really. I'd like to say I've been Bookfacing or Teetering but I haven't really.

Anyhow, I was watching the Magic channel on Sky - by Magic, I don't mean a channel full of David Blaine suspended by his eyelashes above a pit of ravenous leopards, I mean Magic FM: The Easy Listening Radio Station: The TV Version of Aforementioned Thing*

I know this makes me officially An Old Man but as I was off with a bad back, was grumpy, cold and dying for a cup of tea, then it does make me an old man.

So Magic:TELRS:TTVOA was on and inbetween Curtis Stigers and Living in a Box there was 'One of Us is Lying', an Abba 'choon from the era where every song was about the various couples' marital angsts. And it took me back to a tv show I once worked on (yes, we're finally at the tv bit)

It was when I was a development producer, if not quite the head honcho supremo I eventually came. The guy who ran development came up with the idea, and a jolly fine one it was too, original and quirky. And it also had the benefit of selling to C4 instantly, who commissioned some pilot filming and a script. They even stumped up to shoot the pilot on film not tape, which in those pre-digital days meant a lot of money. I went to the shoot and there were dolly grips, camera cranes, best boys and lots of other things that my five years in telly had never exposed me to before.

The show was called 'One of Us is Lying', of course, and it built on a couple of other series my company had made. One was a teen problem page re-enactment series for the BBC, which did OK ratings-wise but wasn't that popular inside the Beeb for being a bit downmarket. They'd show teen issues (mainly sex) then have a discussion with Proper Adults after. The re-enactments were filmed on the cheap so it wasn't exactly dripping with production values. This show itself had come from a show from the dawn of C4 where stories were re-enacted with the simple question: True or False, which started off as a segment of ground-breaking Network 7 and was then spun off to a full series. I believe CBBC runs/ran a show called False or True which was very similar. Hey ho.

Anyhow, this show told an adult personal dilemma from three different points of view. So, say, Charlie and his girlfriend Magenta are having problems as Magenta has been having an affair with Sebastian but Charlie doesn't know until he walks in on them. You'd see it from Charlie's shocked, offended point-of-view. Then you'd see Magenta's opinion - Charlie's been neglecting her, nasty to her, Sebastian came on to her etc. And finally Sebastian's point of view - Charlie's told him he wants to dump Magenta but is worried she'll go off the deep end, Sebastian has always fancied her etc**

And only one of the stories is true, you have to work out which one. Like a whodunnit but without a dead body or a wise old lady asking pertinent questions.

So there it is, all shot on lovely film by a director who is now a Very Big Movie Person... well, I think, the filming day I went to was ferociously hot and I had been roped in to play an extra in the background so I was more concerned about not sweating in the wrong way or standing on the wires. So I didn't chat to the director at all as he was on the crane thing.

The pilot was just one of the stories as C4 had stumped up for a third of an ep. The other points of view were done as a voiceover on top of some stills, dulcet tones provided by Mr Development Head in his posh-but-camp teasing style.

C4 loved it and said let's get some storylines and budget a series. Yays all round.


Well, there were a few issues. Issue number one was that Mr Development Head left the company literally days after the pilot was delivered. It was a very acrimonious split involving legal disputes over %ages of shows that had been developed during his tenure and lots of other things I overheard in the corridors but wasn't officially supposed to know.

I was then made New Development Head, which I was delighted at... until issue two came along. I realised I'd get no more money (so was therefore a third of the price of my predecessor) and that the company's last commission was ending soon and boy did we need another one ASAP. Oh, and that our major client (not C4) was mightily pissed off as the boss had refused to make another series of the only hit show we produced as the money "was shit".

My first task was to rewrite 'Lying' to remove any story or wording done by Previous Development Head, something I was ethically unhappy with but was told in no uncertain terms I had to do.

Then I had to write some episodes.

Which is where issue three bit me on the arse. It's actually almost impossible to write a threeway story that can appear to be true from three different angles, yet isn't... well, try it. The one with Charlie, Magenta and Sebastian doesn't really work.

I took a week of working almost all hours to come up with a few stories but they weren't that good, so I went to see my boss and said I simply couldn't do it, feeling like a flop on my first assignment. She was uncharacteristically cheerful. "Ha!", she shouted, and sprinted out of her office down to the other side of the open-plan floor, to where her partner sat. It was always an odd sight, this six-foot high woman in heels and weirdo meeeeja clothes loping along like a cartoon character.

They returned slowly, her partner being more, er, ample and short. I often thought they looked like the number 10 when walking together.

They came in, shut the door and said they'd spent months trying to think up some stories themselves and failed, and they thought the only reason Mr Development Head had quit was because he'd sold an unmakeable show. Whether that was the case or not, I subsequently found out that the omens were hideous - C4 had backed away from a series when legal action was threatened by Mr Development Head, the director had quit before the final edit in a strop over something, the bills came in and the pilot was over budget by a factor of two... it was hideous.

But, luckily, a stupid idea for a prime time show I'd written six months before had just been green-lit by the BBC, so none of this seemed to matter. It was huge and ambitious and fantastic, and as it was my idea they didn't have to pay me a %age or go to court so they jumped with joy.

I was delighted too - I'd writ a show for the mainstream telly like! - slightly less delighted at their revelling in me not getting any money or 'owt.

I then spent six long months piloting various parts of the show, watching all the good ideas drift away, the slot change, the format alter beyond all recognition.

The show debuted in a shitty slot with a good-if-inappropriate presenter, seemingly tiny budget and did OK-ish. I watched that from afar as I left before it hit air.

So the moral is... um... er... mmm... well, don't write a show you can't actually make. It's suprisingly easy - I almost did a few times but just about pulled it off in the end.


* Just thought, it's hard to refer to TV channels of radio stations... do people think you've been staring at a DAB box if you say 'I was watching Magic'. An actual MAGIC channel would probably do quite well. From Paul Daniels to Derren Brown via Ali Bongo. Izzy whizzy let's get busy!

** The names of the characters in this pretend story are related to one of the tv shows mentioned within this blog. Can you guess which one? Ooh look, I'm being all interactive. Press your red button now!