Monday 23 March 2020

The Five Stages

It feels like grief, doesn’t it? As we come to understand everything that we seem to have lost in the space of a week. The jobs that disappeared overnight. The cancellations of events we were looking forward to and had worked hard to put on. The places that we took for granted and now can’t visit. And the people that we saw when went there. The casual chats. The smiles. The catching up. The promises to be in touch.

I’ve definitely been going through the stages of that grief.

Denial. Well, the government did that for us with their ‘herd immunity’ bollocks. Still, I think we all had an idea that they viewed us as cattle. However, it does feel like we were all kidding ourselves. Holding off cancelling things, just in case it all blew over.

Bargaining: Again, the government did that for us – stupidly. They struck a bargain with the UK that we knew couldn’t be kept. They told cafes, theatres, cinemas and pubs that they could stay open on the understanding that no-one actually went there. They put business owners in an impossible position morally and financially. And what it worse they gave us false hope. A hope that maybe if everyone was just a bit sensible, we could keep calm and carry on.

I’m a cockeyed optimist but after the last few years, even I didn’t think we could rely on the entire Great British Public to be sensible. There was always going to be a hardcore minority of idiots who were going to ruin it for the rest of us.

Of course, the vast majority of people did and will do the right thing. Including many people who run venues in my beloved Leeds. My inbox filled with heartfelt apologies for inconvenience from theatre spaces, clubs, bars, restaurants and those who have been at the heart of a burgeoning and uplifting arts scene in my glorious hometown. People I personally know have given everything to provide a bit of joy and entertainment – time, energy, money, love, themselves.

And so, as I slipped into the depression stage, I cried for them. I cried for the fragile new businesses who were scrambling to salvage something. I cried for the stoics who were repurposing their premises and workforces to be kind and useful in this hour of need.

And then, via the blessing/curse that is social media, came another wave of sadness. Overnight, it really felt like everyone I knew and loved had lost their livelihoods. Actors, musicians, writers, directors, producers, stage technicians, camera-operators, radio presenters, comedians… The list goes on and on. And almost all of them are freelancers, like me.

Look, freelancers are used to things being a bit up and down. Things get cancelled, funding doesn’t materialise, people change their minds. And we try to mitigate that risk as much as we can. I think every freelancer has  a series of measures they can put in place to lower their overheads when money is tight. We’re a superstitious bunch who try not jinx contracts before they are signed by talking about them. We try not to spend any money that we haven’t invoiced for. We are cautious in our optimism.
However, NOBODY could have had an action plan in place to anticipate the havoc that Covid-19 is having on our industry. Nobody can be prepared for every booking to disappear from the diary with absolutely no guarantee of when and if they will reappear.

And so, when the government (quite rightly) guaranteed the incomes of the employed who had been effected by the pandemic but chose not to extend the same safety net to freelancers, I hit the next stage of grief. Burning, glowing, red, hot ANGER.

And that anger was not soothed by seeing government ministers claiming it was ‘too complex’ to offer any serious financial help to freelancers. It’s not at all complex. The government has all the information they need at their fingertips via HMRC. With three years of tax returns, they can calculate the average annual income of any freelancer and offer the same deal as has been offered to those who are PAYE. Subject to the same limits.

And what will happen if they do not offer that help? It is currently beyond the limits of my tiny mind to comprehend what we will lose if we do not support freelancers at this time. The work, the entertainment, the creativity that this country is lucky to have. But those are wishy-washy leftie ideals. So, let me appeal to the Tories in a language that they claim to understand - money.

The creative industries contributed £111.7 billion of value to the UK economy in 2018. That is £127 million per hour. (source)

With an estimated 2,040,000 jobs - 75 per cent of them outside London - the UK's creative industries are developing new jobs faster than other sectors despite record employment in the UK economy as a whole. (source)

The Office for National Statistics said that the Film & TV industry saved the UK economy from stagnating in amongst the Brexit bullshit in 2019. (source)

The Creative Industries rely on freelancers with their flexibility and specialised skill sets. We lose that at our peril. We already have skills gaps in our industry and that will be exacerbated if we lose people because their work becomes financially unsustainable – even for a short time.

And so, I will not be slipping into the final stage of grief; Acceptance.

I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that freelancers and the self-employed in this country are valued in the same way as other workers. I will use my platform to call out this iniquity and to pressure those in power to put it right. I will not accept that this is the way it has to be.

Because when this is all over – and it will be over – the UK’s best chance for recovery both financially and emotionally is the creative industries. But there is no creativity or industry without our freelancers.

Thursday 3 January 2019

Five New Year Resolutions Every TV Producer Should Make

Five years ago, I posted Ten New Years Resolutions That Every Writer Should Break. It was one of my most popular blogs and in the current Hollywood spirit of rehashing everything that anyone has ever watched/read/loved, I am revisiting the idea. However, this time I am suggesting 5 NY resolutions that TV producers should make some sort of effort to keep.

I’ve been an active member of the Writers’ Guild TV Committee for a few years now. And the cavalier and often cruel way that writers are treated on some of the UK’s favourite shows never ceases to horrify me. I am consistently disappointed and angered by the lack of response or action from producers when the WGGB confront them with bad practice. We are often told that is just the way things are.


It’s just that way because some people are too lazy or unimaginative to effect significant change or hold themselves to a better standard. It’s worth noting there was a very similar attitude to sexual harassment and bullying in the industry. Change was only promised (it remains to be seen whether it has been achieved) after the survivors of abuse bravely stood up and told their stories. Not a risk-free course of action. Indeed, they risked being disbelieved, discredited and ostracised by their industry.

The same is true for writers who speak out about bad practice in the UK TV industry. They are labelled difficult and unreliable. They are told they are thin-skinned and whiny. In my experience, those producers being confronted with their own shortcomings often turn out to be the ones with a wafer-thin epidermis. They are always so very hurt by any suggestion that they may not be the most benign, thoughtful and nurturing of producers. Even when we have multiple writers making multiple reports about shows that have succumbed to chaos and toxicity. Even when their staff turnover is so acute that there is a permanent ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ cake in the office kitchen.

By the way, I feel I should say at this point that my writing experiences in 2018 have been great. I’ve worked on well-run shows with talented, thoughtful and respectful producers. The sort of producers that inspire loyalty and hard work without demanding it. However, my good experiences have only served to make me more determined to improve the experiences of writers on some of the more toxic UK shows.

So, I have created these resolutions to help producers move beyond the knee-jerk denial and into acceptance. I’m sure they will be taken in the spirit in which it is intended.

*looks to camera*

1. I will pay writers.

We’ll start with something easy. If you are asking writers to produce written work for you; then you need to pay them: Free Is Not An Option. Writing is not a higher calling, it’s a job. We don’t do this for spiritual enlightenment. We do it to pay the mortgage, electric bill, council tax etc. So, if you are asking for anything beyond a few pages of a pitch, do not clutch your pearls at the mention of remuneration.

Actually, you should be the person to bring up the sticky subject of money. You’re the one who knows what budget is available. Basically, you shouldn’t be crossing your fingers under the desk and hoping nobody mentions the fee. And this applies to all written work including ‘shadow scripts’. Which brings us on to…

2. I will trust writers to write.

The rise of the shadow script is not a lost Harry Potter book. It is a divisive and inefficient way to find writers for long-running shows by asking prospective writers to write their own version of a script that is already being written by a commissioned writer.

It relies on prospective writers having the time and resources to produce a script that will never be made and cannot be used by them in any other context. Writers are expected to hit deadlines, take notes and produce multiple drafts of these scripts, often for free or a reduced fee.

So, producers are asking for full commitment from writers on these scripts in terms of time, energy and talent but are unwilling to pay. This means some writers need to write the scripts in amongst day jobs, other projects and childcare/family responsibilities. This impacts significantly of writers with children and writers under financial pressure. In other words, it limits diversity and equality.

And I would question the value of these scripts beyond proving that a writer knows how to follow a layout guide and can remember the names of the regular characters. It smacks of looking for biddable writers who can churn out a cookie-cutter script without any spark or a sense the writers’ voice. Shouldn’t long-running series be looking for originality and freshness? Shouldn’t there be enough time built into the schedule to allow new writers to learn how the show works as they work through the drafts?

Possibly the worst thing about many of the shadow scripts is the lack of feedback. Often writers wait weeks and even months after they have handed in their scripts to hear whether they have been successful. This needs to change…

3. I will improve my communication skills.

This is a problem across the industry. There is a particular UK show that often takes over 6 months to respond to the required episode pitches from their writing team.  This means writers are left in limbo, not knowing whether their pitches are good or bad and whether they are still a valued member of the writing team. That’s six months of self-doubt and self-recrimination. And most writers deal with enough of that without it being casually built into the job.

In 2018, the actors’ union Equity ran their extremely successful #YesOrNo campaign. It recognised that not letting actors know whether they have been successful after an audition is both disrespectful and damaging to actors’ mental health. Many theatres and casting directors signed up to a promise to let actors know within a reasonably short period of time whether they had got the part or not. Perhaps this basic courtesy could now be extended to writers?

For example, the development producer who went on maternity leave in the middle of working with me but promised to be in touch as soon as the baby was born to continue the project (a book adaptation). The next thing I heard about that project was when I saw a trailer for it. Apparently, they had dumped me in favour of another writer. At least that’s what I assume happened. No-one ever had the common courtesy to let me know.

And it’s not just about commissions. Please let us know when our script editors have been sacked/promoted. Suddenly hearing a new voice at the end of the line without warning is discombobulating to say the least. And if you’re thinking about major changes to a story, bring us into the discussion.

Make sure all the important dates are in our diaries as soon as possible. That includes delivery dates, script meetings, read throughs and first day of shooting. Don’t assume that writers are at your beck and call 24/7 for the rest of their natural lives once they sign a contract. We have lives and relationships that require time, energy and planning.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a decent work/life balance. And to that end…

4. I will no longer pretend that chaos = creativity.

Every time I think I’ve heard the worst horror story about unreasonable demands being made on writers, I hear another that is even more outrageous. 

I know of writers who were forced to write quick turnover drafts whilst their children were seriously ill, whilst they were seriously ill or whilst sitting by the hospital bed of their dying sister. I know a writer who was given script notes on the day of his mother’s funeral. All of these outrageous demands were made because of last minute story changes or the late intervention of a senior producer.

And that was the case when, on a primetime ITV show, I was asked to come down to London at short notice for a script meeting on a Monday morning. I didn’t get back to Leeds until Friday evening. The producer had to send a runner out to Marks and Sparks to get me clean knickers and a toothbrush.

Luckily the only thing I had to worry about at home was my milk going out of date and my plants not being watered. Had I been a parent or carer, it would have been an entirely different story. I would have been unable to drop everything and just walk away. Another example of bad practice impacting diversity and equality.

A year later, on the same show, it happened again. Only this time I knew to bring an overnight bag. Still, every morning I had to check out of my hotel and then check back in when I returned there in the evening. This was because the producers had no sense of how much work was required to implement their story changes. I’m a good and quick writer but I cannot restructure and rewrite a 90 minute script in two days.

The thing is, the first time you turn over a script in a truncated amount of time, you feel like a hero. You’re exhausted but you did it! You saved the show! Indeed, people will congratulate you for ‘taking one for the team’ and ‘going above and beyond’.

But it’s never just a one-off. Too many shows have a culture of huge last-minute story changes and a slow turnover on notes. Often one of the problems is senior/exec producers sweeping in at the last minute and demanding huge changes that force a writer into a page one rewrite just at the point when a script should be sent to the various Heads of Department.

No-one can properly do their job until the script is fit to be seen by the production team. That means the script editor and writer are then put under pressure to turn over new drafts too quickly. I call them ‘fast and nasty’ drafts. They are written in the fug of stress sweat amongst pizza delivery boxes. And they are simply not good drafts. The dialogue will be on the nose and over written, plot holes will slip by unnoticed and the structure will become shaky. But as long as the damn thing is delivered on time.

So, if you are the sort of producer who is buying clean knickers for your writers or giving them notes as they lay a parent to rest, you’re a ‘fast and nasty’ producer.

5. I will be honest with myself about diversity and equality.

In 2018, the WGGB released their Equality Writes report into gender equality in the UK Film and TV industry. The figures were shocking. Only 16% of working film writers in the UK are female, and only 14% of prime-time TV is written by women. The Guild had had to secure funding and commission the report after years of TV commissioners insisting that things were getting better for female writers. They said the same thing about BAME writers and writers with disabilities.

In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the reaction was initially on the defensive side. And when I say defensive, I mean Great Wall of China levels of defence. But we were ready for that and we had the statistics on our side. And slowly and surely, the big players are accepting that something must be done. We’ve a long way to go but there are some extremely positive things happening. And they are not just schemes and competitions.

But the most important thing that producers can do is be honest with themselves. If you are looking at an all-white writing team on your long-running series then something is very wrong. And it is down to you make changes. And it’s okay to admit that you don’t know what those changes should be. We know people who can help with that.

I hope that 2019 is a truly extraordinary year of TV and film production in the UK and that this is the year that we learn to respect and listen to each other. Rest assured that the Writers’ Guild will continue to push, cajole and generally kick down doors for writers. Do come and join in!

Monday 22 August 2016

We All Had To Start Somewhere.

About three weeks ago, I made a pledge to stop tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party leadership race. I still think it was the right decision and forms part of my attempted ‘light not heat’ social media policy (at which I often fail miserably). Still, the last thing the whole issue needs is another gob on a stick firing off half-thought through jokes and sleights.

For the record, I am neither a full blown-Corbynista nor a Smithite. I don’t think Jezza is a cross between Dumbledore and Gandalf sent to save us from the evil forces of VolderBlair and the Red Tories. Neither do I think he is the love-child of Fidel Castro and L. Ron Hubbard leading his mindless followers into some sort of anti-Semitic/misogynist Jonestown.

However, this morning, I came as close as I had to breaking my self-imposed embargo. At a rally last night, Corbyn is reported to have said “There is a poet, a painting, a novel, a play in all of us”. There was then a flurry of tweets that were the social media equivalent of a long eye roll and a deep sigh. Comments included “Don’t encourage them”, “There isn’t one in me, I went this morning” and suggestions that literary agents would be crying out in pain. Most of those comments were made in jest. Just cheap shots, the usual fast-fingered responses. Not particularly funny, but not the end of the world.

I will say this however. My mum left school at 14 and she paints, sews, cooks, writes poetry, embroiders, gardens and does marvellous things with a glue gun. It makes her happy and interesting and interested and skilled and means she has a way to show the world just how bloody brilliant she is. In fact, most of my family have some sort of creative outlet – we’re a very talented bunch. That’s probably why when I announced I wanted to be writer nobody rolled their eyes and told me to get a proper bloody job. Also, because they are not spiteful twats. I don’t think Mr Corbyn was suggesting that everyone should have their inner books published or their own wall at the Tate. I think he was saying that everyone should have a chance to express and enrich themselves through equal access to opportunity and education at all stages of life. It sort of feels like something that everyone in the Labour Party should be supporting.

Anyway, I digress…

So, then I saw a couple of writers respond in an equally dismissive manner to the quote. One suggested that it was annoying when people s/he meets casually find out s/he is a writer, the immediate response is to say “I’ve written a script”. The writer went on to say that s/he had no interest in some random person’s script and s/he wished they would keep them to themselves. There were other similar responses from some fellow writers.

Apologies for the clumsiness of that last paragraph. It’s deliberately vague and gender-neutral as I don’t want to unleash a mob on the writers in question. These are the times we live in.

Something about this response got my back up and pushed my buttons. I wanted to tweet back “Well, who did you ask to read your first script? And how much courage did that take?” Because one of the most formative moments in a writer’s life is the first time you ask someone who isn’t your mum/mate/hairdresser to read your script. The first time you seek out someone who has the career you would dearly love to pursue and clumsily hand over your precious word-baby. That fateful day when you take what feels like the biggest gamble of your life.

Because up until that moment, you’ve rather audaciously decided that you might have some talent. You’ve twatted about at your computer for weeks, months, maybe even years. You’ve actually managed to write something (already an achievement). And ever since then you’ve been oscillating between thinking it might be ‘alright’ or ‘absolute crap’ but now you need to find out. So, you’ve called in a favour, screwed up your courage, cyber-stalked a writer or you’ve happened across one and you are taking it as a sign. However you approach it, it’s pretty bloody scary.

My magic moment was finding out that a bloke I worked with was married to Kay Mellor’s daughter. It took me weeks to ask him if he would get his mother-in-law to read my script. He told me he would put it on the pile and she probably wouldn’t get around to it for months. Luckily for me (and to Kay’s absolute credit) she read it in a few weeks, told me everything that was wrong with it without dashing my hopes and six weeks later I was writing a trial for Playing The Field. I didn’t get it, but a year later I was a commissioned writer on Fat Friends. The gamble paid off and I will owe Kay a debt of gratitude for the rest of my career.

And I feel that the best way I can show that gratitude is to not pull the ladder up behind me now that I have had some success. So, when people take their shot with me and ask me to read their script, I always say yes. People have approached me on social media, via friends, at events and at even at weddings. And I salute them.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, approximately 90% of those scripts have been bloody awful. A couple have been so bad that I have really struggled to find something constructive to say about them. But some have been a delight. Some have been clearly written as therapy and are intensely personal. Some have been written after the writer has been on some expensive screenplay structure course and need to be a bit more personal. But they’ve all been written by a fellow human being. And that’s the important bit.

Reading other people’s scripts is a pain the arse and a huge responsibility but how else will we find new talent. If you have a no-read policy that is between you and your God, but I think you are a selfish prick. Someone has to find those rough diamonds. I appreciate that it’s not your paying job but if you establish a few boundaries it can do wonders for your karma. So, here are my rules for reading…

  1. I say yes to everyone who asks me to read their script. Especially now that I realise most people will never get round to sending me one.
  2. I warn them that all I can offer is feedback. I can’t further their careers, find them an agent or introduce them to Spielberg.
  3. I send all new writers to the BBC Writers Room site. It is an extraordinary resource.
  4. I don’t read to a deadline. I’m not providing a pre-delivery proof-reading service for Red Planet entries. It could take months for me to read it.
  5. I give honest feedback. No bullshit. But I NEVER tell anyone that they should give up. That’s not my call and, anyway, it would make me a prick.

 Equally, there are ways that new writers could make the task of reading a little less onerous.
  1. Ask nicely. Show an interest in my work, be polite and I’ll reciprocate.
  2. There is no excuse for a badly laid-out script. There are hundreds of layout guides online. Learn to Google. Same goes for poor punctuation and spelling. As I said, I’m not your proof-reader.
  3. I’m also not your script editor. Don’t send me first drafts. Or unfinished work. And don’t send me the whole series/novel. Send one script/three chapters – max.
  4. Be patient not pushy. It’s okay to follow-up after a few weeks, not a few hours.
  5. Be open to robust and constructive criticism. If you just want someone to read your script and tell you how brilliant you are then you are pursuing the wrong career. Being a writer is to be criticised. By the same token, don’t be a pushover. Be a passionate but polite advocate for your own work – that’s impressive.

 Obviously, now I’m leaving myself open to everyone with a knock-off copy of Final Draft asking me to read their opus. So be it. Someone did it for me.

Thank you, Kay.

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Bursting The Westminster Bubble

Westminster Palace, the home of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, is in a shocking state of repair. It is estimated that it will take £3.5 billion to sort the place out and stop it falling down around the ears of the MPs, but only if they move out for 6 years.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

However, I’m all about turning frowns upside down and looking on the bright side. This enforced exile from the hallowed halls of Westminster should be seen as an opportunity. And that is why I have started a petition requesting that whilst Westminster Palace has the builders in, parliament goes on tour.

I think the whole shebang should decamp to somewhere else. I don’t care where; Dorset, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bradford, Swansea, Inverness or the Isle of Man. I just think it’s time that the Westminster Bubble floated somewhere else.

I want our out-of-touch, self-obsessed, insular politicians to experience a city that is less well funded than London. I want them to go somewhere with a different infrastructure, cultural landscape and way of life. I want our politicians to try and understand the day to day lives the people living and working outside London.

My fantasy would be for the whole lot of them to spend 6 years in a Travelodge, halfway up the M1 whilst they hold their debates in a conference room with limited wifi. I want to take away their subsidised bars and restaurants and let them get their queue for their lunches in a mini-Tesco or Subway. I want them to get to work on a crowded Abello train or a steamy bus on a rainy day.

It’s not going to happen, but let’s make them at least talk about it.

Please sign the petition and share it with your like-minded friends HERE. 

Thursday 7 January 2016

It's Just Lunch? It's just a rip-off.

Public Service Announcement: I am about to use this blog to have a protracted but hopefully amusing rant about It’s Just Lunch or IJL: an American dating agency now operating in the UK, in the hopes of saving other single people from wasting their time, money and energy like I did. . There is a little bit about writing, but not much. Feel free to give it a swerve. Also, all names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I needn’t tell you what a solitary life being a jobbing writer can be. All those weeks on end at your desk talking only to imaginary people while just about managing to maintain the very basic levels of personal hygiene. It’s bloody brilliant.

However, there are times when a writer’s mind turns to away from literary pursuits and on to matters of the heart (and groin). After months of writing about human interaction, I have been known to feel the need for a little human interaction myself. But, after a self-imposed writing exile, it’s a bit like when they introduce a new penguin to the penguin enclosure at the zoo. It takes a little while for the other penguins to get used to my strange smell and share their fish, Or something. And so, over the years, I have found the whole dating/finding a significant other a little bit problematic. It’s not that I mind being single but at my age you do begin to wonder whether you are ever going to see another person’s genitals ever again. By the time you’ve thrown your third pack of expired condoms away, you start to panic. I mean, the safest sex is no sex but I’m not that risk-averse.

In these moments of panic I usually resolve to take the bull by the horns. In all honesty, that usually means updating my Guardian Soulmates profile or re-joining OK Cupid again. I do it with hope in my heart and a fire in my loins, but after the third month of fending off blokes who want to talk about their ex-wives I begin to lose hope. Maybe I’m not very good at dating. Maybe I’m too picky, too desperate, too political, too flippant, and too gobby; but a penguin can’t change her feathers. And so, usually around the fourth crappy date I give it up as a bad job, delete my profile and put my romantic future back into the lap of the gods. The thing is, whilst I’ve written plenty of meet-cutes, I’ve yet to have one.

About 8 years ago, during one of my flurries of romantic desperation, I joined a dating agency called It’s Just Lunch. They were an American company but they’d set up an office (sold a franchise as it turned out) in Leeds. The company supposedly does what it says on the tin. They arrange a lunch date for you with a suitable match. IJL book the table; make sure the restaurant know you are on a blind date and that you are treated well. At the end of the date, if you are interested in each other you are supposed to exchange business cards and arrange a second date. If there hasn’t been a spark, then you are supposed to speak your personal and highly-trained ‘dating director’ who will use your feedback to find you your next and better match.

Well, that’s how it is supposed to work in theory.

So, for £200 IJL promised that Helen, my dating director would find me three handpicked men to meet my exacting standards.  I now realise that Helen had probably just bought the IJL franchise after seeing an ad online. I also suspect she had no experience whatsoever.

Still, there I was in her posh new office telling her what I looked for in a man apart from a pulse. I told her that I wasn’t comfortable with massive age-gaps; five years either side of my own age seemed reasonable. Someone employed but they didn’t need to be rich. Someone with left-leaning politics, perhaps with an interest in the arts and popular culture. Looks? Well, perhaps someone a little taller than me but being no oil painting myself, I wasn’t setting the bar too high. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

And so I went on my first date with Rafiq. We were supposed to be meeting for lunch, but he arrived straight from having had a burger, so he didn’t want to eat. As a self-identifying fat girl, I was too self-conscious to eat in front of him. So, just a drink? He didn’t drink. He also didn’t talk about politics (with women). He didn’t go to the theatre or read novels or watch TV much. He did, however, still live with his parents and his Nan. And that was because he was about 12 years my junior.

Two days later, Helen, my Dating Director rang for the feedback session. She was like Cilla Black on Blind Date, convinced that she’d be buying a wedding hat before long. I quickly disabused her of that notion. She promised that she would use my feedback to find me a true Prince Charming and she would be in touch.

The next time I heard from her was when a cheque and a note scribbled on a compliment slip arrived in the post. Instead of Prince Charming I received a partial refund. Apparently there was not a bloke in the whole of Leeds that met my criteria. Or maybe I didn’t meet theirs? It’s not a great boost to the ego to be told by someone who claims to be a great matchmaker that there is no-one out there for you. To be honest, it sort of confirms your deepest, darkest fears about yourself. I can’t remember what I spent the refund on. I hope it was something nice.

Eight years or so later, I had all but forgotten about It’s Just Lunch. However, they had not forgotten about me. I was on a train to Manchester when they first tried to call me. I hate sales calls at the best of time, but someone trying to give you the hard sell when you’re saying “Look, I’m going into a tunnel now. There really is no point… Hello? Hello? Oh fuck”. The woman was also calling from Florida, which didn’t improve the standard of communication. When she called back after the third tunnel I didn’t answer.

But the woman from Florida was persistent. Over the next couple of weeks she rang me repeatedly until finally she caught me on a Friday night; the start of another weekend where I had nothing to do and no-one to do it with. So, when she assured me that IJL was now a more streamlined business I listened. My ears may have pricked up when she told me of their fantastic success rate, customer satisfaction and great risk-free introductory offer. They were offering me 12 dates in 18 months or I would get my money back. However, she assured me that I wouldn’t need 12 dates. Their personalised, pinpoint-accurate matchmaking service would probably find me the man of my wildest dreams within three dates.

Yes! I know it was utter bullshit now. Of course I do. But at the time, I so desperately wanted it to be the truth that I gave her my credit card number. And signed a contract. I want to be completely frank in this account of events, but I can’t bring myself to tell you what I paid to re-join It’s Just Lunch. I’m too ashamed.

I was a bit annoyed that my first date was in London, but Nicky my new Dating Director asked me how far was too far to travel for the love of your life. Hard to argue against that one. Over the years, my wish list for a potential mate had not really changed. So, whilst my lunch with James at a very expensive hotel restaurant (£20 for a tiny salad!) was very pleasant, he wasn’t a good match for me. I wasn’t for him. He was a corporate lawyer in his fifties with a public-school education and was clearly looking for the same. Still, he was very polite and spent the requisite hour chatting with me over lettuce that must have been picked by vestal virgins from the Elysium fields to justify the price.

You can take the girl out of Yorkshire…

In amongst the dull small talk, James said something that should have rung an alarm for me. He told me he had done a little digging into IJL and whilst they claimed to have offices in London, Leeds and Dublin, he was pretty sure that everything was run from the call centre in Florida. His first IJL date had been with a woman from London. IJL had booked them a restaurant table in Wimbledon. However, when they met they realised that they were both from North London and had both spent over an hour travelling to the restaurant when they could have met somewhere local. James commented that IJL’s lack of local knowledge could be a bit of an issue. He was right.

When I gave my feedback on my date with James, I mentioned that I would prefer to date someone a little more local. Not just in Leeds, but perhaps in Manchester, York or Newcastle. Of course, to Florida-based Nicky these place names meant absolutely nothing. I tried to explain that it took me about three hours to get from my front door to a restaurant in Central London, not to mention the cost of train tickets or an overnight hotel stay if it was an evening date. Nicky tried to give me the whole ‘no distance too far to travel for true love’ bullshit again. I told her it wasn’t just about the distance and money, it was also the time out of my working day. I asked again, weren’t there any men in the North? Nicky told me they would look for someone nearer to home, but in the interim I would have to keep travelling to London. We came to an agreement that I would let her know when I would be in London and she would find me a date for that night.

About five months later, she finally managed to do that. I was down in London for a friend’s birthday party, so Nicky set me up with David for a Sunday Lunch date at a restaurant in Covent Garden. A restaurant that it turned out was actually closed on Sundays. So, I ended up standing outside for 30 minutes smiling at random strangers hoping that they might be David (IJL dates are blind dates, remember).

And one of them might have been. He might have caught sight of me and thought ‘fuck that’. I don’t know. Because Nicky could not give me explanation for how she had managed to book a table at a closed restaurant or why David hadn’t bothered to turn up. She could barely apologise for the humiliation or inconvenience. Indeed she seemed quite hurt that I was holding her responsible. She assured me that she would find out what happened to David.

Two months later and I hadn’t heard a thing. I sent an email asking for my money back. That seemingly got someone’s attention. Suddenly I had a new Dating Director; Tom. He assured me that my non-date was an aberration not to be repeated. I told him that getting stood up was one thing, but getting stood up 250 miles from home was quite another. He said he understood, but told me that most of the men they had available were in London and I would either have to accept the dates offered or forfeit my money.

I should have told him to fuck off right there and then. But, as I said, it was a shameful amount of money and I wasn’t prepared to spunk it on one dull lunch and a no-show. I told him to recommence the search for Mr Holdsworth.

I didn’t hear anything for another three months. In that time it appeared that Tom had moved on and I had my third dating director; Anita. She also assured me that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated and told me how she was committed to finding me happiness come hell or high water.

However, she had something delicate to discuss with me. She noticed that I had said I wasn’t interested in men who were more than five years older or younger than me. I replied that I thought it was a decent window. She wondered if she might be frank with me. What I needed to understand was that men just are not interested in women who are the same age or older than them. In her experience, men were really only interested in women who were at least 10 years younger. So, if perhaps if I could be a bit more flexible… I pointed out that a company who had promised me a perfect, tailor-made match shouldn’t really ask for flexibility or compromise. And, more importantly, did they ask the men to be flexible when it came to the age of their matches? Apparently not.

So, six months after my non-date with David, Anita sent me on my next date with Brian. At least this time the restaurant, an expensive West End steakhouse, was open. It was also busy. So, me sitting at a table nursing a glass of wine and not ordering any food did not go down very well. After an hour, I gave in and ordered an overpriced steak and chips. The ladies on the table next to me realised that I had been stood up and gave me their carafe of red wine. It was an okay steak.

Anita was apparently absolutely horrified that I had been let down. Still, perhaps Brian was dead in a ditch or had been kidnapped by ISIS. She promised to get to the bottom of it. She never did. Instead, she arranged another date with someone called Robert for the first week in January. This time she didn’t call to discuss a time or whether Robert met my criteria. She just emailed me the restaurant reservation just before Christmas. I emailed back asking for some details. She did not respond. However, I was not prepared to treat Robert in the way I had been treated by previous dates. So, I booked a train and hotel room and made my way down to London.

At least this time Anita did actually call to tell me that my date had backed out. However, I was already in London by that time having travelled on a non-refundable ticket and booked a non-refundable room. It had cost me another £200 to be stood for a third time.

Not a complete bust. At short notice I was able to spend the evening eating pretty decent tapas with one of my oldest, bestest friends – Sisters before misters.

Still, when I got back to my unnecessary hotel room (which had no kettle, surely illegal in the UK) I did what I should have done the first time I was stood up. I wrote to IJL to tell them to keep their fucking money and to never get in touch with me again. In the space of 18 months that shitty company has cost me fortune, wasted my time and sapped what little dating confidence I actually had. Last night I was left feeling hurt, angry and utterly stupid. So, I am doing the one thing that I know I’m good at; I’m writing about it,

And if it stops someone else handing over their hard-earned cash and their fragile hearts to this set of utter fucking con artistes, then that’s all to the good. I suspect their true business plan is similar to a gym. They sign you up promising that you’ll have a personal trainer who will design a personal fitness regime and motivate you to feel the burn until you’re thin and fabulous. In reality they just take your joining fee, show you how the treadmills work and then forget about you.

So, my love life is back in the lap of the Gods. Maybe that meet-cute is just around the corner?

Monday 4 January 2016

Promises, promises, promises.

There are two things I struggle to do during the festive period; dieting and writing. And for much the same reasons. There all those parties and distractions and drinking Baileys for breakfast; it increases the waistline not the word count. I rationalise it by telling myself that even if I were to bash out a pitch for every window I open on my advent calendar, there’d be no-one sober enough around to read it anyway. And so, after downing tools for the festive period, I am back with a few new words for the new term.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog called  10 New Year Resolutions Every Writer Should Break . This year I’m giving you the 5 New Year Writing Resolutions that I’m personally going to try and keep. Of course, it’s entirely up to you whether you join me in my virtuous pursuit of the higher literary ground. I also realise that it might be inviting my fellow writers to police my habits for the next twelve months. I’m not.

However, if you see me on a branch of Greggs after the second of January, you do have my permission to drag me out before I can purchase a Steak Bake.

1. Get my priorities straight.

It’s been a weird old year with lots of distractions including voluntary work, family upheaval and binge watching six seasons of Parenthood. I tried to establish Monday as my admin day when I would clear my to-do list, my inbox and my head so that I could get cracking with the actual writing Tuesday through Friday. The truth is, it’s not working (in both senses of the word).

Admin begets more admin. You reply to fifteen emails and you get fifteen back. So Admin Monday becomes Follow-up Tuesday becomes What Now? Wednesday becomes Leave Me Alone Thursday becomes Oh Fuck It Friday.

And now I’m wondering if I’ve got my priorities skew-whiff. My job is writing. Everything else - the talks, the meetings, the event organising – are not. That’s not to say I’ll be giving it all up. There is nothing I love more than being in a room with other writers. However, there’s a point when you start to feel like a fraud. When it feels like being a writer is your job, not actually knuckling down and doing the bloody work.

So, Admin Mondays are no more.

2. I will differentiate between writing that is not to my taste and bad writing.

One of the new phrases I added to my vocabulary this year was ‘Hot Take’. Because, you know, I’m so down with the kids and that. Do you want to see me twerk?

2015 was the Year of Rushing To Judgement whether it was about election poll numbers, pictures of alleged jihadists in the bath or how deep you should bow at the cenotaph. And I have not been immune to it. I have watched first episodes of shows and decided that a series was bobbins. Even though I know that writing opening episodes is a Herculean task. Conversely I have been swayed by other people's opinions on social media. I’ve watched series to the bitter end despite not really enjoying or understanding the show because everyone on Twitter was calling it the best thing since Breaking Bad/The Wire/Crossroads. But worst of all, I have dismissed shows as terrible or badly-written just because they weren’t to my taste.

It has to stop and for a good reason. We have a battle on our hands at the moment to save the BBC. And one of the most prevalent and irritating arguments against Auntie Beeb seems to be; Why should I pay my licence fee when I don’t like Strictly Come Dancing/Top Gear/University Challenge/That Awful Bloody Pop Music They Insist On Playing Morning, Noon and Night On Radio One?

It so easy to get dragged into playing a game of fantasy channel controller where you decide what your £145.50 a year should and shouldn't pay for. It’s a dangerous game that has already put 6Music and the Asian Network under threat and led to BBC Three moving online. It chips away at vulnerable services and content. The fact is  it doesn’t matter if your televisual diet consists purely of Wolf Hall and BBC Four documentaries about canal boats. It’s irrelevant if you only turn on the box to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys and Eastenders. The Wolf Hall mob pay for Eastenders and vice versa. It is a beautifully balanced and unique system. No wonder the politicians loath it.

So, I’m going to strive not to play their game any longer. I will respect the writers, producers, techies etc who work hard to get stuff up on screen and I will give it a fair crack of the whip; at least two episodes. And if I still don’t like it, then I’ll turn off the damn TV.

However, I still reserve the right to unpick, discuss and analyse – respectfully. I consider it part of my job as a writer. And perhaps the powerful person who skulks around social media ‘calling out’ writers who discuss other writers’ work could respect that? Flipping heck, love. We all Google ourselves to see what folk are saying about us, but we don’t advertise the fact.

3I will learn to talk confidently about money.

The Writers’ Guild is currently running a campaign called Free Is Not An Option. We want to talk frankly about the increasing amount of work that writers are being to be asked to do for free. And we’ve all done it. A pitch turns into a treatment which turns into a series bible which turns into a pilot script. And the longer this goes on, the harder it gets to mention the money.

Although, sometimes remuneration is dangled in front of writer like a carrot on a stick. I’ve lost count of the number of times that a development producer has told me that s/he is ‘trying to find some money’ for me. In the words of someone wiser than me; Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Bottom line? A company should have a proper budget for development not some ad-hoc arrangement based on goodwill and crossed fingers.

However, I am going to take more responsibility for the financial aspects of my career from now. I will discuss money in the first meeting. I will tell development bods that whilst I am very excited about working with them, I am also excited about paying my mortgage.

This is my job, not my hobby.

4. I will no longer stand for workplace bullying and bad work practices.

It’s another thing that most writers will encounter during their careers; the late notes, sudden story changes, the quick turnover on yet another draft and the subsequent cancelled arrangements/life. And it’s getting out of hand.

Look, all writers joke about procrastination and working up to the last second of a deadline. However, the reality is that a lot of writers have no choice but to write into the wee hours, over the weekend and whilst supposedly on holiday. It’s become so prevalent that producers and script editors are not even apologising for it any longer. It’s just assumed that a writer will take the punishment of contradictory notes, too many drafts and tight turnovers. There is now no point trying to explain that you are exhausted or on the verge of divorce or you’ve eaten nothing but take away for a week. Because if you do complain? Well, you’re a nightmare. You’re unprofessional. You can’t hack it.

Bullshit. If you are running a show where it is consistently necessary for your writers to write through the night or for weeks without a decent break, then YOU are being unprofessional. You are running a production that is badly scheduled and managed. You need to do your job better. Actually, it’s probably not just you that needs to do your job better. It’s a probably a whole roomful of producers sticking their oar in and gumming up the works.

The thing is, it’s the law of diminishing returns. With each rushed draft, the writer gets further and further away from what s/he wants to see on the screen. As the time ticks away, the dialogue gets more on the nose, the plot becomes leakier and the characters start doing stupid things. More damaging, with each massive rewrite a writer's confidence is eroded and that shows in tentative, run of the mill, risk-free scripts.

When it comes to scripts, you can have it fast or you can have it right. You can’t have both.

So, how to remedy this? Well, this year I’m going to do the following:-

*  I’m going to listen out for the tell-tale signs of bad working practises. If a schedule is described as ‘a bit tight’ that means it is impossible.

* If there isn’t a script schedule with deadlines for first drafts, second drafts and shooting scripts, I’m going to ask for one. And I’m going to ask why the production is not sticking to the schedule as significant dates sail by without comment.

* I’m going to ask who will be giving me notes and when. If the big boss (executive or commissioning producer) isn’t reading my script until the day before it shoots, that’s a potential problem. Because they could ask for big changes and I’ll have no option but to take them on board. If they have to have an input, then it needs to be early and often.

Let’s reject the narrative of the great exec coming down from the mountain with the essential note that will save the episode. It never happens like that. More often they insist on a change that screws up the rest of the episode and negates months of work. But they pay the wages, so no-one can say anything.

* For my part, I will inform the production of any holidays, family responsibilities or days when I will not be available. In the past I’ve kept schtum and hoped that I could slip away, worried that my having an actual life would be misinterpreted as a lack of commitment to the production. But let’s stop pretending that shows get better when they are turned into a competition to see who can work the most unsociable hours. They don’t.

5. Diversity, diversity, diversity.

I’ve been trying to improve the diversity of the characters I write for a long time. I’ve realised it’s about so much more than just sticking someone called Mohammed in a scene or making the doctor female. It’s all about listening, reading and educating myself. In fact, it’s about shutting the fuck up and letting other people tell me their stories before I start trying to write mine. I expect to be working on this for the rest of my career. But then I love a learning curve. I will do better.

And so, I embark upon 2016 with hope in my heart, fire in my belly and dangerous levels of caffeine in my bloodstream. I hope I get to shoot the breeze with a decent number of you along the way. Here’s to the lead in your pencil!

Monday 2 February 2015

A Kick In The Teeth

Rejection. It’s the one thing you can be sure of in this job. It just comes with the territory. It’s part of the learning curve. It makes you a better writer in the long run. You just have to get used to it. That’s what everyone says.

And they’re right. Still, fifteen years into my writing career and it’s really not getting any easier. Every ‘no’ is still a hefty kick in the stomach. So, perhaps what we really learn from rejection is how to cover up how painful and demoralising a rejection can be. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s a coping mechanism. And if we wailed and gnashed our teeth every time we got a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ then we’d have no teeth left.
We’re all so good at putting on our brave faces, but I want to let mine slip just for a few minutes. I want to acknowledge how it feels to have something you’ve worked so hard on put in the round file.

It starts with the phone call or the email. Your heart leaps when the phone rings or the inbox pings. This is the news you’ve been waiting for, even though you’ve been pretending otherwise. You’ve played it cool, tried get on with other things, tried not to get your hopes up. But, no news is good news, right? Wrong. You know it’s not good news from the opening sentence, the tone of voice, the opening apology. “Sorry it’s not better news”. 

Often there is an explanation, a few cursory notes about tone, timing or depth. A phrase that is used a lot is “We just couldn’t see it”. The thing is, I could. I could see it glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound. But, obviously, I couldn’t get you to see it.
So, the first feeling that floods over you after you put the phone down is a sting of shame. Yes, shame.

I love being a writer but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a slightly ludicrous occupation. Partly because it is a bit crazy to spend your days getting imaginary people to talk to each other for a living. And partly because I can’t help feeling that waking up one morning and declaring myself a writer was an act of vainglorious self-delusion. Who the fuck did I think I was? And from the moment that you make that declaration you’re waiting to be found out. You’re waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and tell you to stop making such a damn fool of yourself and get a proper bloody job.
And that’s what every rejection feels like. Someone telling you to grow up and stop kidding yourself.

And then you have to compound the shame by telling other people about the rejection; your agent, your friends, your parents. You instantly regret telling them about having something in development. You wish you hadn’t told them that you ‘had a good feeling about this one’. Of course, you played it down and told everyone that the odds of getting it away were slim, but still… And they all smiled and did that little mime, the crossed fingers. And then they told you that it was ‘your turn’ and ‘about time’; except you know that it just does not work like that.
Still, after the shame comes the anger. Why can’t those bloody idiots see what’s under their noses? Don’t they know how much work you put into this? You listened to their notes, you did what they asked and it still wasn’t enough. That’s when you start coming up with the conspiracy theories.

 “They ruined my beautiful idea with their crap notes.” If they were so crap you should have said so. "They’re scared of my uncompromising tone and controversial subject matter.” Hmm, probably not. “They like the idea, they’re just going steal it and get someone else to write it.” Don’t be so bloody stupid. So, if you can’t blame the commissioners and development execs, who do you blame? Look in the mirror.
The truth is that it doesn’t just feel like your idea has been rejected, it’s feels like you’ve been rejected. My most recent knockback was a doozy. It unfortunately coincided with me attending a conference where lots of writers sat on panels talking about their big, successful shows. Usually, I find that sort of thing invigorating. Mostly writers love to hear about other writer’s successes. It means it’s possible. Every commissioning story is proof that if you build it, they will come.

But this time, it’s not how I felt. I looked at my colleagues and I felt jealous. Not the good, motivating kind of jealousy; the twisting, bitter kind. I started to list the things that were wrong with me. I was too fat to be taken seriously. I wear the wrong clothes. My haircut is wrong. My accent is too Northern, too coarse. I shoot my mouth off too easily.
By the time I went back to my hotel I had resolved to delete my blog. I was going to get liposuction, elocution lessons and a wig. I wanted to throw my jeans and baseball boots away and replace them with one of those great little black dresses that Nicola Shindler wears so well. I wanted sparkly, kick-ass boots like Hilary Martin was wearing.

I wanted to be someone else.
It’s not the first time I’ve felt that way, but it’s the first time that writing has made me feel that way. So, how did I get myself out of this shame spiral? I did what I should have done in the first place. I wrote my damn way out of it. I wrote this blog. I finished a pitch document that I’d been buggering about with for weeks and sent it off. I went to talk to a friend about us making a short film.

I cannot change who I am. And who I am is my writing. The moment I try to be something I am not, is the moment I should pack it in and call it a day.
And so, here I am coming out the other side. Like we all do, all the time. It’s fucking hard work. It knocks a bit of your stuffing out every time it happens. And I just wanted to acknowledge how hard it is for all of us. I missed out the most important stage of the rejection process, but it’s the most important one; telling other writers that you’ve had a knockback. Because other writers will be hurt for you, angry for you, they’ll tell you not to give up and they’ll mean every damn word. I know I do.