Thursday, January 31, 2008

Questions for Agent Matt

One thing I want to do more of in the blog in 2008 is interviews, because I used to do loads when I was running Events at Waterstone's, and I rather miss them. Consequently, I'll be getting Agent Matt in to answer a few questions fairly soon. I've got a few pertinent queries lined up (matron), but I thought this might be a good opportunity to see if anyone has anything they'd like to ask..

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Something that really annoys me about Paddington station.

Every time I get the 10.05 Penzance train from London, I have to join the throng of two hundred or so people hovering anxiously in the concourse (do I mean concourse?) waiting for the platform number to be flashed up, something that rarely happens more than three seconds or so before the train is due to leave.

And don't try and predict it either: they're wise to that. If more than three people start whistling innocently while edging to platform eight, they'll just resticker the train at platform one, leading to a lot of annoyed Welsh people.

Eventually though, they'll pick a number, and all those two hundred or so Cornish passengers, already bothered and bewildered by That London's black soot, and noise and really really shit free newspapers, will try to fit through the ticket barriers.

Now I used to make the data recording heads for ticket barriers, in a small shed in Cornwall. It was an alright job in its way: we were allowed to listen to our little personal stereos, and every now and then the engineers would get into a fight with one of the burlier line workers in the soundproofed, but glass-walled grinding room, as though some kind of holographic, but utterly silent slapstick experience was playing out for our entertainment.

I did learn one thing from my year and a half working for Phi Magnetronics however: ticket barriers are only designed to take the standard, credit-card size of ticket. Most of the tickets used for this particular journey are a completely different shape, which means that instead of filing neatly through the six or so gates, most people have to queue up at one, which is opened and closed one person at a time, by a bored looking railway worker with a single, blue (clearly blue is the colour of Rail Magic) ticket, which he inserts into the side of the barrier, plucks from the top and reinserts in an endless loop, as tired and grumpy Cornish people shuffle past. To make it more fun, every third passenger catches their luggage in the barrier as it closes behind them, leading to an additional swipe of the blue magic card. Then you get on the train, and what's the first thing that happens? Someone checks your ticket.

If aliens (the small curious kind, not the large Cloverfield kind) wanted a useful illustration for their families back home for the grinding stupidity and general pointlessness of those Earth-based twats, a little thirty second video of this process, played over and over again until their eyestalks bled, would do it nicely.

But then today, I remembered something Matt had told me, and my gaze lifted from the hundred and fifty or so sighing, thrusting, blinking stumbling passengers before me, to the open stairway at the far end of the platform.

'The stupid thing is,' Matt had said, 'If you go to the far platform on the right, which doesn't have a ticket barrier, go up the stairs at the end, down the overhead walkway a bit and down the stairs again, you come out at the far end of that platform and can just get on the train. You don't even have to go through the ticket barrier in the first place

I look at the stairs at the end of the platform, then over at the far, ticket-barrier-less platform over at the right. I calculate it will save me about ten seconds if I walk over there, down the platform, over the walkway, down the stairs and get onto the train. On the other hand, I'm already in the queue for the ticket barrier.

I decide to go through the ticket barrier. Somewhere, an alien sighs.

Friday, January 25, 2008

mushrooms update

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat
An update for Jane.

The photo may look like the surface of an alien planet, but is in fact the contents of my mushroom tray after two weeks.

Which is annoying, because according to the instructions:

'Mist the surface of the peat to keep moist until tiny white 'pinheads' appear after about a week, then stop spraying water until the mushrooms are about the size of a pea. Once the mushrooms are about 3cm in diameter they are ready to harvest"

It's all going rather more slowly than anticipated, and although there are definite white specks of proto-mushroom visible, they seem to be outnumbered by a more ominous grey mould across the surface.

Although possibly the tub/tray/thing was too high up in the airing cupboard so I've moved it down a bit, closer to the radiator at the bottom. But not right at the bottom, as that's where the cat sleeps, and there's a very real concern she might view it as a new and interesting place to poo.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

James Moran's 'Torchwood' episode then.

Cor, Jimmy doesn't mess about, does he?

'That', said Patroclus, 'is actual dialogue. Not just lines that are supposed to move it all forward. Actual dialogue.'

'He did some proper quips as well,' I said proudly.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Developing Shaun

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat
The best bit of going to Aardman is peeking round the back of the studios afterwards, looking at all the random bits and pieces either set up for filming or packed away in bubblewrap.

And the best bit of that is having time to look at all the tiny details that whizz past in the film without you really having time to take them in: the tiny diagram of 'Plan M' to escape from the chicken hut from Chicken Run, the stack of miniature magazines next to Wallace's chair (I'm sure there was mock 'Hello' called 'Ey-up', but the phone on my camera isn't great, and possibly I imagined it'. Some test sets from possible upcoming movies from Aardman as well, but if I post those, all the ninjas I wasn't allowed to use in my Shaun script will come round and totally get me.


I was there to work though, it turned out, the next phase in my script being to run the story past the series producers, and the director. This is where you find out all the little limitations of stop-motion animation puppets. Bob the Builder, for example, had magnets in the bottom of his boots to keep him in position on set, which meant that for a long time, he could neither ice-skate, or climb up ladders. The first not a huge problem for a builder, the second more so, although they forked out for lessons and he's fine now.

Reading out my three page story outline, we quickly got to the main problem: there's just too much story for a six minute episode. Or there will be if I don't keep the story moving along as quickly and clearly as possible - and remember there's no dialogue on Shaun, so you can't cheat and have a character explain what's going on to another character (the 'what are we going to do today, Bob?' getout clause).

I'm reasonably confident I can keep it all cracking along however - I think pretty visually, so stuff that sounds complex on the page should actually crack along quite simply on screen. And if I plan it all out and there's still too much story, I can just jump in a little later. The first act finishes on quite a big sight gag though, and I'd like to keep that in if possible.

While we're discussing this, all the other writers pitch in with little visual jokes (there's one with a toaster I really like), and I try and write it all down. The ending needs a bit of work too, as at that point my episode accidently turns into one of the more disreputable Fellini films, which isn't totally what Aardman is after, bearing in mind they've already had to digitally wipe out some of the sheep poo for the American market. Finally we crack it without causing too much overtime for the prop-makers (one of the producers is sitting in the meeting specifically to wrestle to the ground any writer who make casual demands for things like 'zepplins, or a thousand moles, or Shaun's new holodeck').

Next stage is to go back to the outline, have another look at the structure to make sure I really can fit in everything I say I can, then break down the story into eighty separate 'beats' (one-line descriptions of what we'll be seeing onscreen). This second draft goes off to the BBC lawyers (I suspect the ninjas would have gone at this stage anyway), then, after some (hopefully) minor rewrites, the episode goes into the queue to film.

Which isn't to say it definitely will be filmed at this stage - sometimes they realize two episodes that seemed totally different are in fact eerily similar, or the schedule overruns, or it turns out it just plain isn't working. But there we go.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


Last night, the other Green Wing types and I went for a drink/catch up in London's fashionable Brick Lane, which always strikes me as being like a very weird cross between Nathan Barley and the last fifteen minutes of Children Of Men.

After sitting in a quiet bar for an hour or so, we left the building to find a couple of thousand very excited young people accompanied by television crews, all peering in excitedly. Naturally, I assumed it was blog fans*, and pushed Stephen Mangan to one side to allow them greater access to me, but it turned out Radiohead were playing a secret gig at that very venue.

We pause for a second, considering whether we should go back in and see THE GREATEST BRITISH BAND THAT HAS EVER BEEN.

GW WRITERS: I need my tea.
GW ACTOR: Should probably get back to the baby.
C4 EXEC: I need to catch the train.
ME: Ooh, they'll have finished cleaning my hotel room by now.

So we didn't see them in the end. This is a rubbish post, apologies.

* The monstrous, only-semi-ironic egotism of that bit is made almost viable by the folowing bit of phone dialogue:

ME: Hello, is that Channel Four rights department? I just need to chase up a couple of things.
NICE PERSON: What's your name?
ME: James Henry
NICE PERSON: Blue cat?

Channel Four rights department are ace and on their behalf I demand pay rises and all the holiday they want, starting now.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach

I've currently got a teen drama series, set in Cornwall, in development with the BBC, and am waiting to hear if a series is going to be commissioned or not. Last night, ITV premiered 'Moving Wallpaper' and 'Echo Beach', their double comedy/drama thing set behind the scenes/in front of the camera of a teen drama series set in Cornwall. Obviously I sat, quivering with worry, a notebook on my lap poised to make notes on every detail.

No I didn't, I forgot, and was playing Warcraft while trying to stop the cat eating my Tate St. Ives carrier bag (the sort of local colour and detail that only someone who actually grew up in Cornwall would think to add, please note BBC) until Agent Matt texted me halfway through Echo Beach, the rest of which I watched exchanging texts with aforementioned agent, which might be the most showbiz thing I've ever done in my life, it was brilliant. Anyway, it turns out the only thing it has in common with my pilot script was:

a) it has teens in it, and

b) it's set in Cornwall.

So I think it's okay, although who knows how the minds of senior commissioners at the BBC work?*

(if I'd remembered, I would of course have watched via the guardian liveblog, sorry Anna)

ALSO: I do have one small note for 'Echo Beach', which is that having been to a number of Cornish beach parties in my teenage years, I can say with full confidence: they don't start until dark, no-one dances, and people tend to wear more layers. In fact, standard procedure is to wrap up in big holey jumpers and sit glumly round a beach fire made from burning tyres, swigging Thunderbird, while a tinny stereo plays the whole of The Cure's 'Kiss me Kiss me Kiss me' album in the background. But perhaps things have moved on.

ALSO: when I arranged events and interviews and stuff at Waterstone's in Canterbury, I tried to warn Dennis Waterman about Martine McCutcheon. I'd done a Q&A with him about his new autobiography, and at the end, asked him what he was going to do next.

'I'm going to be in a musical with that Martine McCutcheon', Dennis said.
'Ooooh', I said, worriedly.
'I'm very much looking forward to it', said Dennis.
'Hmmm', I said.

And aficionados of musical theatre will know that I was Quite Right. Although these days I'm sure she's a delight to work with, allegedly, etc etc. Maybe that was the most showbiz thing I've ever done in my life? Oh, I can't keep track

* The answer, if they're reading this is 'with great insight and professionalism at all times actually, creep creep'.

UPDATE: ooh, five million viewers! Not too shabby.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Storm Maker

Originally uploaded by jamesandthebluecat
My Cornwall-based chum Alex Williams' second book The Storm Maker, illustrated by David Roberts, has just been published, just as he finishes writing his third. Film rights to his first, 'The Talent Thief' sold last year, with a script now in development over there in Hollywood. By all rights I should HATE HIM SO MUCH, but he's actually a very lovely chap.

I've always been interested in writers who make the leap from screen to page (and often back again), so I thought I'd ask him a few (not entirely un-selfish) questions.

Hello You.


Before becoming a children's author, you'd already had some success in children's television-  what had you written, and why did you move from telly to page?

Yes, I'd been lead writer on a couple of animation series and then lead writer on a live-action Pythonesque series called 'Sir Gadabout' which was critically well-received and for which I won a best writer children's BAFTA. And then it all went a bit quiet. The industry was starting to change and I could see that I'd need to adapt to continue as a professional writer. Also I was feeling creatively stagnant and wanted to rediscover the joy of being truly imaginative again. I'd had a good idea for a book, a little cash in the bank, so I took the leap...

Do you find yourself getting pigeon-holed as a children's writer? Is it harder to get work out of the field once you've had some success there?

I think there is that unspoken prejudice against children's writers - how they're somehow not quite as good as 'proper' grown-up writers. I remember attending a wedding and one of the guests was a sitcom writer who avoided me all day and then at the end grudgingly turned to me and said, 'if you need any help then get in touch,' like a lifeguard reaching out to some gasping flapper in rubber armbands. The hierarchical 'ladder' is very much there - I usually try to take the escalator.

But things are changing. There's a growing acceptance of fantasy as a legitimate form of entertainment for adults and it's the 'tall tales' that really interest me so I don't really feel hemmed in. If I can make a leap from children's TV in the UK to books, TV and movies universally while bypassing grown-up TV in the UK then that's fine by me.

You sold the film rights to your first book! How did that come about, and can I now assume you live in an enormous castle with a jacuzzi filled with champagne?

My Film and TV agent in London has connections with a good agent in LA and he liked the book and sent it to all the studios and promptly got nowhere. But then he had the great idea of 'packaging' it with a hot screenwriting team, Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay, and a big director, Shawn Levy, and producer Tom McNulty. They then pitched their take on it around town and Universal made an offer. The option money meant I could continue writing my second book with the luxury of a roof over my head but I think the champagne jacuzzi comes later down the line! 

One thing I really liked about The Talent Thief was the slightly parallel universe it was set in: a sort of Thirties pulp-style world. Was that inspired by anything in particular?

Not really. I love the 1930s for its crazy mix of style and emerging technology. I figured it would make for some nice imagery and keep me inspired when I got bogged down which happened a lot! Plus a terrifying creature hanging onto the side of an old Bugatti is cooler than the same creature clambering over a Ford Focus.

How's the shift from writing scripts to writing books? What can you bring over from one medium to another? And if you go back to writing scripts again, do you think you learned anything from the books you can feed back into writing for screen?

Writing scripts, as you know, James, is drawing up an invitation to a party. You hope your invitation is gold and shiny and the subsequent party worth attending but books are a kind of finished thing in themselves so they have to be more polished, finite, wrapped up, satisfying. The upside is you get to fully explore a story and call it your own. The downside is you're kind of in it on your own. Though I do have a brilliant editor! 
Funnily enough I've learned more about pace from writing the books. I'm aware that a reader or viewer has only so much patience so I think future scripts would be leaner. And I've learned yet again that structure is everything.

Something I always wondered: do you get any say over the covers?

Not a great deal. I do get sent roughs or preview versions of both the covers and inside illustrations to comment on however. On The Storm Maker a mistake was made and there are a few 'old man' proof copies floating around whereas the man on the correct cover is now significantly rejuvenated!

Any nice fan letters?

The nicest thing was hearing about a boy whose mother could never get him to read anything and for some reason he tore through The Talent Thief and found it very exciting. It's tough competing with games consoles (books are so much quieter) so that was a nice victory for the written word!

Dull technical question: did your dramatic agent get involved with pitching the book, or did you have to find a whole new agency? Is it like starting all over again?

I'm with quite a big literary agency and as luck would have it down the hall from my Film and TV agent is a really wonderful book agent. Because they all know each other it felt more like branching out than starting over again. She thought my book had promise (though I did have to rework it to her notes) and took it to one of the big trade fairs and I guess nagged everyone until Macmillan gave in.

Which is more spiritually rewarding: books or telly? Which pays better?

Ha! Are you leading me down a thorny path, James? In short, books are more creatively rewarding. But TV can be more exciting. TV pays (much) better in the short term but I guess if you can build a readership...


Three books now - do you fancy a change, or is authoring where it is now?

Films are why I got into writing in the first place so I hope there's mileage down that road in one form or another. I find working on books quite isolating yet the freedom is nice. Heck, we're all making this up as we go along, right? If you get paid for coming up with outlandish tales then that's pretty good going...

Thanks Alex.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Fair enough

I'm finally starting my script for Shaun The Sheep. This stage will only be about three or four pages long - there's no dialogue, so it's really just description at this stage. Later this month I'll be attending a Writer's Day at Aardman, where all the scripts will be looked at together, and writers and producers will work together to flesh out the stories with background jokes, storyboard some of the sequences and so on. In the meantime, I need to look over Aardman's notes on the one-page outline I sent them before Christmas.

Favourite note so far:

"There are practical problems in re-dressing various members of the flock as Ninjas."


Oli asks:

Sight gags in scripts have always intrigued me; the appeal in practice is that they're blink and you'll miss 'em, but surely they must require a lot of description in script, which blunts the comedy for the reader... how do you make sight gags funny in a script?

Good question. I try to write them as simply as possible, leaving the joke to the reader. After all, if someone's reading a script (rather than seeing the final product) they're already visualising the action in their head. You certainly don't want to over-explain it.

From the 'Rejected Sketches' file, here's a thematically-appropriate example. It doesn't really matter if the viewer doesn't see the stuff on the flipchart at the end, but a bonus if they can:



Various smartly-suited people sitting round a table. MAN 1 is standing before a flip chart, pointing at a rather dull looking map with a few red pins.

…looking to get these shops to ISO 9000 standard by next month. So you can see why we’re looking for real ‘out of the box’ thinking on this one. We’re open to any-

One of the seated Men raises his hand.



Ninjas can do it. Ninjas can do anything.

The other seated business people murmur and nod amongst themselves.

Especially if they have katanas.

Is that a kind of horse?

No, it’s a sword. They fold the steel hundreds of times in the forging process, rendering the blade almost unbreakable.

Well that sounds good to me. All in favour of-

Actually, I know you’ll shoot me down on this one, but I think pirates-

They all moan – clearly this isn’t the first time MAN 3 has mentioned pirates.

No, hear me out – if you look at the map, you’ll see a number of waterfront properties in the southern region…

They all look at the map, and start muttering amongst themselves – clearly the idea has some merit.

MAN 1 stares at them all, then at the map, then back at them again. Finally:

So you’re thinking a mixed portfolio? Pirates and ninjas?

(concerned) Mmm, what if they fight?

(excited) Ooh, who’d win?

Ah, now actually, we have some studies on that…

He turns over the flipchart. On the next page are two stickmen drawings, labelled ‘ninja’ and ‘pirate’ respectively. A piechart is beneath them, with various arrows coming off it, linked to boxes labelled with things like ‘cutlass vs katana’, ‘pirates versus ninjas (ninjae?)’ and ‘The Blowdart: an appraisal’.

They all applaud respectfully.

(to self) I like meetings.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New and random things

Danny Stack has some interesting things to say on writing comedy feature specs.

Dept. of Amusing Blogs: corporate-casual. I particularly liked the
Christmas on Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”.

Also this.