Wednesday 11 August 2010

In Praise of Bad Telly

I watch a lot of telly. I mean, a lot.

I love television. I’ve always loved telly. One of my earliest memories is driving home from my Grandparent’s house and crying hysterically because I misheard my parents discussing getting rid of a sofa. I thought they were talking about selling our television. They had to pull over my dad’s blue Volvo to calm me down.

And then there was the time they caught me playing with matches and I was sent to bed early. That night I missed an episode of Fame. Now, remember – this was in the days before videos and BBC3 repeats. If you missed a show, it stayed missed. I sat at the top of our stairs sobbing as I heard Coco singing about how she was going to live forever.

I still feel that there is a hole in my soul where that lost episode of Fame should be, but I never played with matches again.

Etched on my heart is a list of the shows that should be filed under “Reasons Lisa Became A Writer”. That list includes Cracker, Cagney & Lacey, Press Gang, Party of Five, Band of Gold, Sharpe, Rockliffe’s Babies, Bread, The Cannon and Ball Show… I could go on. And on and on.

Etched on my spleen is another list. It’s a list of TV shows that made me feel betrayed, disappointed, heartsick and incandescent with rage. This is my shit list of shows that were so poorly written, ill-conceived, indifferently directed and populated with half-arsed actors that they came close to causing me rage-induced internal haemorrhaging.

The latter list is not only longer but also far more important than the former.

Let me explain.

There have been quite a few additions to the shit list of late. I won’t name names; that’s not fair to the talentless hacks and boss-eyed commissioners that had such contempt for their audience that they churned them out. In fact, there is rarely month when I don’t add something to the list. Barely a week goes by when I don’t find myself throwing my hands up in despair and shouting at the television.

The thing is, nobody sets out to write bad TV. No writer sits down and thinks “that’ll do”. There are a myriad of reasons why bad telly ends up on screen. Constraints of time and budget. Crappy, conflicting notes from production companies and broadcasters.

And… whisper it… some people are just not as talented as they should be. They’re doing the best writing they can and it’s just not very good. They might have had a great initial idea and a lack the skills to bring it to life. Or it might have been a terrible idea and nobody had the intelligence or experience to see that. And there it is; the reason why the shit list is so important. People make mistakes and we can learn from them.

TV writers should always watch shit TV. If its ratings are plunging and the reviews are scathing then you should have that show on series link. But don’t just sit there and rage. Analyse. Ask yourself questions. Why is it making you angry? Why is it boring? Why does it seem so implausible? Does it lack internal logic? Or is it too slow? Is the dialogue stilted and unreal? Are the characters unlikeable? And most importantly, what would you do to make it better?

Play imaginary show-runner with yourself. Visualise being called in by the production company to save the show. You can get rid of any character, axe any storyline, change the setting, introduce any story.

Can you stop the show from ending up on the shit list?

Play this game and maybe when you get your chance you won’t make the mistakes that other writers have. But play fair; don’t dismiss a show because you don’t like the genre or the lead actor. And remember that some shows are not for you. The BBC has a responsibility to provide drama that everyone can enjoy – just not all in the same programme. I’m sure there are some sick individuals out there who don’t like New Tricks. Not many, judging by our ratings. But some people just don’t like cop shows or Dennis Waterman singing. Fine, but you should still be able to analyse the components that make up the show; dialogue, structure, story, characters.

So, the next time you think a show is a dead loss – do an autopsy.


  1. Lisa, found your blog via a David Bishop tweet. Added you to my Blogroll at Best of luck with your blog!

  2. Thanks, Scott. I'll have a nosey at your blog too!

  3. Is it possible that watching too much shit TV may affect your own writing?
    In the same way that listening to too much N Dubz can lead to brain's forcing their way out of teenagers heads and running away. May your creative side become infected and your talent desert you?

  4. Sorry for the protracted metaphor

  5. I suppose it could sap your will to do better. You could end up thinking, "If they fcan get away with that bollocks, why should I put the effort in?". Especially with continuing drams in which the quality of writing and direction can vary so very wildly.

    I think that's why some writers think the soaps and super-soaps are an easy gig. Let me disabuse anyone of that notion forthwith! They're hard and unrelenting; that's why the quality sometimes suffers.

    But like I said,I don't think anybody sets out to write somnething crappy. I think it happens for a myriad of reasons. We've all watched something by a writer we love and thought "OMG, they've lost". Good writers accept they've fucked up and come back stronger and better. But only if they've got someone telling them they are losing it. I could name writers who think they are beyond taking a script edit these days and that they always know better. Their writing has been consistently poor since they adopted that attitude.

  6. By the way, I have written some shit telly. I'm not telling you which episodes I think I did a bad job on. I am on my own shit list, just in case anyone thinks I am being a bit holier than thou.

  7. I can think of a few who I think have that attitude but nothing to back it up, just judging the quality of their work. Resisting the urge to be bitchy. Keep up the blog, i'm liking it.

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