Category Archives: Writing

Good advice for performers going to the Edinburgh Fringe this – or any – year

Performers will expose themselves at the Edinburgh Fringe (Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph via unSplash)

After yesterday’s blog, I got an email from a comedy performer I know. It read:


I am finally getting on with the job of writing my show after making reams of notes for months. Hopefully two months gives me enough time to write and learn it, though I intend the thing to be shaped up in Edinburgh more than here in isolation.


The Edinburgh Fringe is in August.

This was my advice to him, her or them.

Who knows what the correct PC form of address is any more?

Not me.


Don’t repeat any of that to Kate Copstick, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers.

She gets annoyed at PRs or managers asking her not to review an act in the first few days of the Fringe because the performance needs time to ‘bed in’.

She says if the show isn’t perfect on Day One, it shouldn’t be brought to Edinburgh. 

Edinburgh is not part of an ongoing process. It is the aim.

If you do one bad gig at the Fringe, the word may well get round and, if a reviewer is in that day, the review will be online for as long as your career survives (which may not be long if you perform half-prepared shows) and beyond. 

In two – five – seven years time – it will say in print that you are a half-cocked performer – unreliable – or shit. Doing one bad Work in Progress gig to thirty people in a pub in Scunthorpe is arguably throwaway. Doing one bad gig to five people in Edinburgh could be a disaster because they will go home and badmouth you in totally different, widespread parts of the country.

And one or two or three of those unknown five punters in Edinburgh may well be reviewers or TV researchers or comedy bookers who will remember your half-prepared act forever.

If they are just ordinary punters, you are still up shit creek because you have an audience who are such comedy fans they came to the Fringe and now they will be badmouthing you to other comedy fans in Norwich or Plymouth or London or wherever.

The other bad news is you must never ever cancel any show in Edinburgh. If there is only one person in the audience, play full-throttle to that one person because they may change your life. If you perform a half-ready show, it may damage your prospects; if you cancel, it may destroy your prospects.

Charlie Chuck, unknown, at his first Edinburgh Fringe run was not getting audiences and was thinking of going home in mid-run. I advised him not to.

He stayed.

One night after that, he had an audience of only three. 

Unknown to him, two of them were on the production team of a forthcoming, not-yet-made Reeves & Mortimer TV show. As a result, he became a regular on two of their series.

Once, when I was a TV researcher looking for acts, I turned up at a (free) show. I had seen the act before and it was interesting, but I had never seen them do a full show. I was the only punter to turn up. The act cancelled the show because, she said, “it won’t be worth you watching me with only you in the audience”. I would never ever risk using that act who has – inevitably – now faded away.

Anyway…

Edinburgh is not somewhere to hone an act. It is the real thing from Day One.


This morning, I checked with Copstick that it was OK to paraphrase her view in a blog. This is her reply and expanded view.


Ignore her opinion at your professional peril

I think if you are taking stand-up to Edinburgh you have no place mumbling about previews and looking for wriggle-room from audiences or critics on the basis that it is your first show of the run. You are a person in a space talking to other people in the same space. for money (either from ticket sales or from money in a bucket). 

It is not Phantom of the Fucking Opera on Ice. If the mic fails, you talk a little louder. Spot fails, turn on the overheads. Sound spill – be funnier than the sound spill.

If you purport to be a professional and are happy to take money from people then – SPOILER ALERT – you will have many ‘first nights’. 

It is up to you (as a professional which means you do it for money) that you learn to cope with the horror and terror of it all without making the audience feel that it is up to them to make sure it goes well.

First Night should just be a statement of fact, not a cover-all excuse.

And don’t get me started on ‘Work In Progress’ shows performed to 2,000 people at a time in the Edinburgh International Conference Centre for the same money for which you could see five comics who might do something that might surprise you. Even if it is not as polished as it might be on a first night.

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Peculiar – Comic Jo Burke disappeared for 3 years, found true love and a show

The last time performer/writer Jo Burke appeared in this blog was in September 2015. There is a reason for that gap of over three years.


Three years absent and three books published

JOHN: So you have three children’s books here which you wrote. There is Standing on Custard

JO: That’s the first one. It’s a book of funny verse – for up to 10 year olds – and it’s really good for small ones because it’s rhyming. Then A Squirrel’s Tail is a whole story rather than verse. A really lovely story about inclusivity and diversity about a squirrel born without his tail. And then Molly, Chip and The Chair is for slightly older children: when they’re moving on to reading adult-style books.

JOHN: Why’s it called Standing on Custard?

JO: The book has lots of useful facts. So one interesting fact is that you can actually stand on custard.

JOHN: Eh?

JO: You get two tins of Ambrosia, you put them on the floor and you stand on them. (LAUGHS) No… It’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. You have to make it with cornflour and lots of it. What a non-Newtonian fluid does is, instead of like most fluids and liquids, it becomes harder the more pressure, the more weight you put on it.

JOHN: The books are beautifully illustrated.

JO: My talented husband Philip Price.

JOHN: You gave up comedy for three years.

JO: I didn’t intend to. My last show – the last time we had a chat – was 2015 and that was my I Scream show and I’d written a book about that as well. It was about online dating. 

“Most successful show… I was quite annoyed”

That was my most successful show so far and it was me as me. Before that, I had been doing character-based comedy. I was delighted that the one with me as me was the most successful. But also quite annoyed, because I had trained for many many years to be an actress. And the show I did as me was the most successful. 

I think I just felt like I’d plateaued a bit: that I didn’t have much else to say. I had sort of fallen… not out of love with it because it was fantastic… but I felt that, if I were to come back with something else, it would have to be as good and I didn’t want to rush into the next thing. I had kind of had enough of the whole Edinburgh Fringe thing. I had done about six Edinburghs in a row by that point. Six shows up to 2015 and, in two of those years, I did two shows each year, which was ridiculous.

Initially, I thought I might take a year off. But, I got back to London from Edinburgh in the September and, in the October I met the man who is now my husband. It was ironic that whole I Scream book and show had been about my disastrous love life. Then, lo and behold…!

JOHN: So you were only doing comedy to cover gaps in your acting.

JO: I had always done acting and ads and whatever and, up until that point as well, I also had a  mortgage-paying job which most performers have – a horrible office job three days a week which was not playing to any of my strengths and just to pay the bills. I had started to feel quite unhappy there and I thought: You know what? It’s time to move on. So I did. 

What I needed then was a revenue stream. So I thought: Actually, now I’ve met Phil, who is an artist… I had already written this book years and years ago for a friend’s daughter. And I said to Phil: “Do you think you’d be interested in doing the artwork for this book?” 

So that was our first project. We have released a book a year, basically; we are just finishing off a new one.

JOHN: You said you needed a revenue stream – to make money – so you started writing books… That is not a way to make money!

JO: The books are really popular in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, America. I sell them online and at a stall in Greenwich Market and I sell hundreds of them a month and we sell prints and artwork as well. I do a maximum of about three days there and it’s great because I can work it round castings – I just shot a commercial for IKEA in Italy for four days.

JOHN: And next Saturday (6th April), you are back on stage at the Museum of Comedy in London with a new show called Peculiar. Is it you as yourself or is it character comedy?

JO: It’s me again.

Jo Burke no longer screaming; just as creative

JOHN: A follow-up to I Scream?

JO: No, that’s why to have the space of three years between the two shows was good. I don’t really feel like that person I was any more. Straight after I Scream, I met Phil. I feel so far removed from that (previous) person and all of that angst and heartache and stuff. Everything changed. It was like a cathartic thing. I released the I Scream book and did that show then, all-of-a-sudden, the love of my life walked in the door.

JOHN: Is happiness good creatively, though? I heard Charles Aznavour interviewed and he was asked why he sang sad songs. He said they were more interesting because, when people are happy, there’s not a lot you can say. People are happy in the same way but, when people are sad, they are sad for all sorts of different. specific reasons.

JO: Yeah. Also happy people can be a bit annoying to be around sometimes. I spent a huge chunk of my life being single and being around happy couples and I know the annoyance of it. (LAUGHS) Nobody’s interested in you if you’re happy and I don’t really write when I’m happy. I have always written when I’m annoyed. When you are happy, it’s quite dull creatively, I think.

JOHN: So when you got happy it must have screwed-up your creativity for the last three years?

JO: No. I never stopped writing. I made notes all the time in those three years and I did the children’s books. The children’s books are a gentler… they’re still funny, but it’s a gentler humour and a different audience. But I still always had dark, evil thoughts that I would set aside for future shows.

So when I decided to do this new show, Peculiar, I started looking back through all my notes and maybe I had written the equivalent of a show a year anyway, so Peculiar is really the best of all of that.

“It’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd”

JOHN: What’s the elevator pitch for Peculiar? Is it angry?

JO: No, but it’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd from nail varnishes to medication to marriage to eBay.

JOHN: So observational comedy.

JO: Yes, but not really. It’s… Jo Burke calls out the absurdity surrounding our every day life. She shoots down the lazy marketing we are perpetually bombarded with, ridiculous products and Amazon reviews plus a fair few things in between.

JOHN: Last time we talked, you wanted to do a show about working class life.

JO: Well, that’s always a bugbear of mine. I’m always slightly peeved at the fact there are fewer and fewer working class voices. There are sketches I’ve written just for bizarre funny’s sake, but a good 90% of what I do is with a reason, a message behind it. 

JOHN: To get your message out? But you’re not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

JO: Part of the reason I’m doing Peculiar at the Brighton Fringe in May but I am not doing Edinburgh is that I priced it all out and I would love to go to Edinburgh – I absolutely love it – but, you know, I am still paying for the seven years I did before!

Why would I go to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because I love it. But that is not a good enough reason. It has not been a stepping stone for me so far and I can’t really afford to keep trying. I’m taking another tack now. I’m not really doing stand-up spots on other people’s gigs. It’s time-consuming and means travelling all around and I prefer doing my own shows. 

I did consider doing a children’s show in Edinburgh. Standing on Custard would make an amazing children’s show but… Well, it’s all very well signing books and making children laugh but it’s a whole different ball game when you can make a whole room of adults laugh.

JOHN: The lure of the applause?

JO: I was missing the feel-good. Also, because everything is so politically dark and horrible at the moment, I think if you have a skill – to make kids or adults laugh – now is definitely the time to be doing it.

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How to write almost anything – The basic story structure of the classic plot.

Painting of The Damsel of The Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1874)

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Robert Thirkell at Elstree Film Studios. He describes himself as “a TV repair man”.

He is said to be the first ‘go-to’ person if your TV script or factual TV series is not working and needs re-structuring – “arguably the world’s leading story consultant for television and factual features”.

He is worth listening to and part of his basic structural theory is the same as in Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book (which I have not read) famously analyses the structure of fairy tales and myths to come up with ‘the one’ universal story structure to rule them all; the one story structure to find them, the one universal story to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

It is much-lauded in Hollywood and, as well as being the basis of Star Wars et al, has influenced the whole Movie Brat generation of film-makers.

Campbell’s story structure is for works of fiction, but Thirkell uses it as a structure to grab and hold the attention of the viewers of factual TV shows.

The Campbell structure is basically this:

A hero leaves his castle on a quest… overcomes obstacles along the way… and, at the end, succeeds in his quest. That quest may be to find an object – the Lord of the Rings or the Holy Grail or the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible III – or to rescue a damsel in distress as in John Ford’s The Searchers.

But The Quest it is basically the same, it is said, in any classic and effective work of fiction… and can be used in factual narratives.

You set up an unresolved problem at the very start of the story – the classic movie ‘hook’ to grab the audience’s attention. The development of the plot involves a series of attempts to uncover a way to resolve the problem and overcome the multiple obstacles encountered. And the climax involves the resolution of the problem.

That holds for books, movies, plays, even narrative comedy routines.

Any successful American movie or TV show has traditionally had a tendency to set up the ‘problem’ – the ‘hook’ – and to introduce the main characters within the first 2-5 minutes of the narrative. To hook the audience from the very outset.

I have sat through endless dull movies which do NOT do this. They are endless because they are startless.

They start by setting up atmosphere, place and time and even characters aplenty, but no plot. My internal reaction is always: “What the fuck is this story actually going to be about?” Watching atmosphere bereft of plot is like watching weatherproof paint dry. You have to have it, but you need to build the bloody shed first.

Another of the classic structural underpinnings of the universal story is that the hero starts a boy and ends a man because, under pressure of the problems surmounted in the course of the plot, there is a transformation in his character. He ends a wiser, braver and transformed character.

(NB ‘he’ can be ‘she’…! But, in traditional fairy tales and myths it tends to have been ‘he’ and the Campbell book is about Heroes. I did not invent the English language. Don’t give me unnecessary PC grief.)

Robert Thirkell has a theory that the hero has to lose some of his battles in the middle, retreat, re-think, try again and then win on the re-attempt. Because that makes the character more sympathetic and more admirable. If the hero constantly surmounts problems effortlessly, the reader/viewer finds it difficult to empathise with him.

Personally, the best opening to a movie I have ever seen – and all the better because it is not noticeable – is the opening credit sequence of the first Die Hard movie because all the central characters, their backgrounds, relationships and the basic starting ‘hooks’ of the plot are set up before the film actually starts for real. 

(I should, at this point, mention that I wrote a similar but different blog about story structure in January 2011, titled How to write the perfect film script: “Die Hard” meets Pixar animated feature “The Incredibles”. But – hey – if something is worth saying…)

Rule 2 of writing anything…

Don’t be silly. Nothing is truly 100% original.

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John Dowie on Bowie, Bolan, bicycles, drinking, drugs, poetry, prose and book

John Dowie is not an easy man to describe even without a hat

I worked on the children’s TV series Tiswas with John Dowie’s sister Helga.

His other sister is writer/director/actor Claire Dowie.

John wrote an original short story for the Sit-Down Comedy book which I compiled/edited with late comedian Malcolm Hardee.

But John Dowie is not an easy man to describe. 

He is a man of many hats.

Wikipedia currently describes him as a “humourist” and says:

“Dowie was among the inaugural acts on Tony Wilson’s Factory Records label. In 1978 he contributed three comedic songs to the first Factory music release, A Factory Sample, along with Joy Division, The Durutti Column, and Cabaret Voltaire… As a director, he worked on Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation and Falling for a Dolphin, as well as directing shows by, among others, Neil Innes, Arthur Smith, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Munnery and the late Pete McCarthy… His children’s show Dogman, directed by Victor Spinetti, was described by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker as the best show he had seen in Edinburgh that year. Dowie went on to write and perform Jesus – My Boy which was performed in London’s West End by Tom Conti.”

Basically, John Dowie has been about a bit and is unclassifiable but wildly creative. 

We had this blog chat to talk about his new book, The Freewheeling John Dowie, the Stewart Lee blurb quote for which reads:

“Great cycle of life and love and death”

“In the ‘70s, John Dowie invented Alternative Comedy. At the end of the ‘80s, he abandoned it. In the ‘90s, he sold all his possessions and set off to cycle around Europe indefinitely, meaning Dowie’s love of Landscapes and Life is matched only by his hilarious hatred of himself and others.”

Author Alan Moore adds: “This appallingly funny and delightfully miserable man delivers hard-won insights into the great cycle of life and love and death from the vantage point of a great cycle… I genuinely cannot recommend this cornucopia of middle-England majesty too highly.”

Alas, in our chat, I started off with good intentions, but, as I tend to, meandered…


DOWIE: This book my first prose work.

FLEMING: You did wonderful prose for the Sit-Down Comedy book.

DOWIE: That was a short story. This is my first full-length prose work aimed for the page rather than the stage.

FLEMING: So why now?

DOWIE: When you’re riding your bike in a quiet place – pootling along a country lane or whatever – your mind wanders and you enter strange thought patterns you don’t expect to enter and I like that and I thought: This would be a nice way to tell stories, just gently ambling along with twists and turns.

FLEMING: Picaresque?

DOWIE: Is that the word?

FLEMING: I dunno.

DOWIE: Picking a risk, I think, is what you’re saying.

FLEMING: How has the book done?

An early John Dowie Virgin album by the young tearaway

DOWIE: Hard to tell, but I think it’s doing OK. It only came out in April. I check the Amazon sales figures approximately every 47 seconds. It started at around 45, then Julian Clary Tweeted about it and it went straight up to Number 3. It’s doing OK now. There has never been a massive demand for my work. The world has never beaten a path to my particular door. As long as it sells slowly but consistently, that’s fine.

FLEMING: Did you find it difficult to write?

DOWIE: It was for me. What I was more used to in writing verse or jokes was getting feedback from an audience. When you write prose for the page, you have not got that, so it is very difficult to judge.

FLEMING: What’s the difference between writing for poetry and prose?

DOWIE: No idea. I would not say I write poetry – I write verse.

FLEMING: What’s the difference between poetry and verse?

DOWIE: I think poetry takes more time to understand or is more difficult to understand.

FLEMING: So writing verse it dead easy, then.

DOWIE: Well, comparatively easy for me, because my stuff always rhymes. Use a rhyming pattern and you’ve got a way of telling a story.

FLEMING: So you see yourself as a writer of verse and…

DOWIE: Well, I only wrote it when the kids were little.

FLEMING: To distract them?

DOWIE: As a way of punishing them if they were not behaving well.

“Do you want me to read you one of my poems?”

“No! No! Please don’t do that to me, daddy!”

“You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time…”

It was just a thing to do for a while. You don’t have to stick to the same thing all the time. Luckily, for me, this has never included doing mime. I did do a couple of mime sketches in my youth, but they weren’t real mime.

FLEMING: What sort of mime were they?

DOWIE: Well, it WAS doing things without words, but it wasn’t being a ‘mime artist’ and being balletic about it.

FLEMING: Mime artists seem to have disappeared. They call themselves ‘clowns’ now and go to Paris and come back and stare at people. I only ever saw David Bowie perform once…

DOWIE: … doing mime… Supporting Tyrannosaurus Rex… I saw that too.

FLEMING: I loved Tyrannosaurus Rex; not so keen on T Rex.

DOWIE: I’m a big Tyrannosaurus Rex fan.

FLEMING: Whatever happened to Steve Peregrin Took? (The other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan.)

DOWIE: He choked on a cherry stone and died in a flat in Ladbroke Grove.

FLEMING: A great name, though.

DOWIE: He nicked it from Lord of the Rings. Peregrine Took (Pippin) is a character in Lord of the Rings. Steve was his own name.

FLEMING: Steve Jameson – Sol Bernstein – was very matey with Marc Bolan.

DOWIE: They went to the same school. Up Hackney/Stoke Newington way… Marc Bolan was a William Blake man.

FLEMING: Eh?

Warlock of Love: “It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written”

DOWIE: Well, I’ve got Marc Bolan’s book of poetry: The Warlock of Love. It’s very unlike anything else anyone’s ever written. That may be a good or a bad thing.

FLEMING: You have an affinity with William Blake?

DOWIE: Not a massive affinity other than he was a one-off.

FLEMING: He was a hallucinating drug addict.

DOWIE: Well, we’ve all been there. And we don’t necessarily know he was hallucinating. He might have been supernaturally gifted.

FLEMING: Now he has a plaque on a tower block in the middle of Soho.

DOWIE: Well, that’s what happens to poets, isn’t it? Plaques on buildings. I like his painting of the soul of a flea.

FLEMING: I don’t know that one.

DOWIE: There was a girl standing next to him and she said: “What are you doing William?” and he said: “I’m just sketching the ghost of that flea.”

FLEMING: Does it look like the soul or ghost of a flea?

William Blake’s soulful Ghost of a Flea

DOWIE: A big, tall, Devilish type figure.

FLEMING: Are you going back to comedy in any way?

DOWIE: Well, it hasn’t gone away. There’s lots of comedy in the book.

FLEMING: On stage, though?

DOWIE: What I don’t like about actual performances is that they hang over you all day. You are waiting for this bloody thing to happen in the evening and you can’t do anything until it’s over but then, when it’s over, all you wanna do is drink.

FLEMING: I think that might just be you.

DOWIE: No, it’s not just me.

FLEMING: Performing interrupts your drinking?

DOWIE: (LAUGHS) Most days I can start drinking when I get up. I don’t have to wait till half past bloody nine in the bloody evening.

FLEMING: Have you stopped drinking?

DOWIE: I drink a bit, but I try to keep it outside of working hours which is why (LAUGH) I’m not so keen on gigging.

FLEMING: You going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?

John will be in North Berwick, near Edinburgh, during August

DOWIE: No. But I’m doing Fringe By The Sea at North Berwick.

FLEMING: Ah! Claire Smith is organising that – It’s been going ten years but she’s been brought in to revitalise it this year. What are you doing? A one-off in a Spiegeltent?

DOWIE: Yeah. A 40-minute reading from my book and then a Question & Answer section.

FLEMING: What next for creative Dowie?

DOWIE: I’m waiting to see what happens with the book.

FLEMING: It’s autobiographical. Will there be a sequel?

DOWIE: Depends how long I live.

FLEMING: At your age, you’ll die soon.

DOWIE: I’m not going to die soon!

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This $15 million woman can teach you to punctuate English sentences correctly

Susan Feehan has written a book about punctuation.

Called Make Punctuation Your Bitch: Punctuation Wrangling Without The Fuss.

The paperback is already on Amazon and the e-book comes out on Friday.

I talked to her. This is what happened.

Any punctuation mistakes are mine, not her’s… erm… hers.


JOHN: So you won’t be a fan of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses… Does punctuation matter? I don’t think spelling was uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary, was it? Before that, all that mattered was that other people understood what you meant. Same with punctuation, isn’t it?

“Not a book for GrammerNazis. They would take offence”

SUSAN: It’s not a book for GrammarNazis. They would take offence at the levity. I’ve done a couple of opening sections about Tribe 1 and Tribe 2. Tribe 1 are the GrammarNazis and Tribe 2 are the rest of us.

JOHN: So who is going to buy the book? The GrammarNazis are not going to buy it because they think they know everything and the illiterates won’t buy it because they can’t read.

SUSAN: It’s for people who just need a quick answer. I wrote it because, as a tutor, doing training courses, I have always wanted to look for examples.

JOHN: Examples of… ?

SUSAN: Say, for instance, brackets. You don’t want to wade through a whole load which has everything you DON’T want to know about brackets but one thing you do. So I have split everything into sections. It is quick and easy.

If it takes two minutes to look something up, you will do it.

If it takes ten minutes, you will blag your way through.

JOHN: You are a tutor. Whom do you tute?

SUSAN: I did have a stint at university mentoring students in newspaper production and, well, there’s publishers’ staff. People who just need a bit of a refresher. When they’re editing. Grammar, punctuation, whatever.

JOHN: Surely sub-editors should not need tutoring? If they don’t know it, they shouldn’t be employed.

SUSAN: Well, the thing is, sub-editing is now an entry job. When I was first training on newspapers, you started as an editorial assistant or a junior reporter – you started as a junior writer in any form, served your time – your apprenticeship, so to speak, of about three years – and then they considered you expert enough to be paid full wage. After that, you could segue into subbing.

But, once it all became digital, the software became the prerequisite – It became Must be Quark friendly or, now, it’s Must be InDesign friendly. The software became the reason you were getting employed and the language skills became secondary.

Often, now, people are taking or are given a job as a sub-editor so they can do a hop-over into the writing side. It doesn’t make any sense to me – or anyone else I know. You’ve got juniors put in the position of changing the work of writers who are presumably more experienced. And they now do need to know more than they once would have done. In the past, the sub-editors would have been much more experienced.

JOHN: So we have all these illiterate sub-editors?

SUSAN: I wouldn’t call them illiterate.

JOHN: Different publications have different house styles, so punctuation rules don’t really mean anything, do they? For example… Single quotation marks or double quotation marks?

SUSAN: Well, some of that is house style but often, in the UK, we would generally use single quotes first, then doubles within singles. The Americans would do singles within doubles.

JOHN: Oh… I always do the American way, alas.

SUSAN: And how do you introduce a quote? With a colon or a comma? A colon is very journalistic.

JOHN: I do whatever looks better in a particular sentence.

SUSAN: Ah…

JOHN: You started off as a…?

SUSAN: A lowly junior reporter on a magazine called Display International and another one called Do It Yourself Retailing.

JOHN: You did that because you wanted to be a great writer?

SUSAN: Well, I found out very quickly that I wanted to be a sub-editor. On a newspaper or magazine, if you find a subject you are prepared to write about for the next 30 years – medical, cinema, crime, whatever – then you are fixed. If you can’t find that subject, then you are better off being a sub-editor, because there your joy is in the process and the language not the subject. You can do your job on any subject and still love the process of writing.

JOHN: You wanted to be a sub for the rest of your life?

SUSAN: I certainly did for a hefty while. Then I thought: Aaah! Perhaps I should write something myself. And that’s when I started doing the screenplay thing. There was The Kiss, a romantic comedy.

JOHN: Was that filmed?

SUSAN: We raised the money for it about four years ago – all $15 million of it – but the trouble was it all came from one investor and the trouble comes when one investor thinks he’s been hanging around too long and he takes the money elsewhere.

JOHN: You have written five screenplays.

SUSAN: I have, but I am turning them into novels. One I am going to do as a play.

JOHN: Three are already award-winning and they have not even been made.

SUSAN: You can win lots of screenplay awards without them getting made.

JOHN: Make Punctuation Your Bitch is not your first book.

“Canadians in particular loved it…”

SUSAN: No. There was How To Write Well When You Don’t Know Where To Start. That was three years ago. For some reason the Canadians in particular loved it. It was in the Top Ten in the entire Kindle Store in Canada, not just in its niche.

JOHN: Is it on Amazon?

SUSAN: It was, but I’ve taken it down because I’m going to update it.

JOHN: Are there punctuation differences between the British and Americans?

SUSAN: Yes. And there are Canadian and Australian differences as well. Sometimes they side with the Americans and sometimes they follow us. I have some in the book. The Americans put time at 3:30 with a colon and we do 3.30 with a dot; but now we are starting to take on the colon.

JOHN: In lists, I was always taught that, if you have A, B, C and D, you should never have a comma between the last two – A, B, C, and D – because the commas are standing-in for the word ‘and’. So, by adding a comma, you are actually saying “A and B and C and and D”

SUSAN: That’s not quite true, because it’s ‘The Oxford Comma’… Called that because it was created by Oxford University Press.

The example given in my book is: “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela”. That actually means – without the second comma – that his parents are the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela.

But, if you put a comma after the Dalai Lama – “Tom dedicated the book to his parents, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela” – you have differentiated between them.

JOHN: But one comma isn’t worth losing sleep over, is it?

SUSAN: I have a story at the front of my book about the Five Million Dollar Oxford Comma.

There was a dairy in Maine where they had a contract that did not have an Oxford Comma in it. Their drivers sued them about what the contract actually meant and the drivers won $5 million in back-overtime.

There was another case between two telephone companies where there was a comma in dispute and, again it cost one company $2 million.

JOHN: So correct punctuation is here to stay.

SUSAN: I think, in 30 years time, apostrophes won’t exist.

JOHN: Oooh!

SUSAN: But I think the smart money is on semi-colons dying out first.

JOHN: You will have to constantly update your books. Your next one is…?

SUSAN: There might be a Make Structure Your Bitch book.

JOHN: What is structure?

SUSAN: Structure in writing. So the inverted pyramid thing will come in there. And structuring sentences and paragraphs and how to keep the reader hooked.

JOHN: What is the worst crime in punctuation?

SUSAN: Ultimately, it is inconsistency.

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Douglas Adams talks. Part 4: Science fiction, comedy, re-writes and ambitions

After Parts One, Two and Three, the final part of my 1980 interview with Douglas Adams

Concept by Jim Francis for a Vogon demolition ship in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


“…virtually impossible to read science fiction”

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no. I always thought I was interested until I discovered this enormous sub-culture and met people and found I knew nothing about it whatsoever. I always used to enjoy reading the odd science fiction book. Having done The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who for this length of time, I now find it virtually impossible to read science fiction, which is simply a measure of the extent of which I’ve been saturated with it. I’m a bit nervous, at the moment, of being pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, which I’m not. I’m a comedy writer who happens to be in science fiction.

JOHN: There’s the double problem that you’re thought of as a science fiction person and as a comedy writer. So, if you wanted to write a serious book…

DOUGLAS: I don’t think I could do a serious book anyway: jokes would start to creep in.

JOHN: You’re not like a stand-up comic who, deep down, wants to play Hamlet?

“I was being fairly flippant about it”

DOUGLAS: No, you see, I actually think comedy’s a serious business, although I may not give that impression. I was being interviewed the other day by a woman from the Telegraph Magazine who’d read the new book (The Restaurant at the End of The Universe) and was asking me all sorts of questions and I was being fairly flippant about it and I think she got rather disappointed, because she expected me to be much more serious about it than I was being.

I think that comes about because, when you’re actually working on something, you have to take it absolutely seriously; you have to be totally, passionately committed to it. But you can’t maintain that if you’re going to stay sane. So, on the whole, when I talk about  it to other people I tend then to be quite flippant about it. Because I’m just so glad to have got through it. (LAUGHS) You say: Ah well, it’s just that. It’s just jokes. She was saying she thought the second book was much weightier than the first, which surprised me. I wasn’t aware of that.

JOHN: Presumably the reason the first book didn’t include the last two episodes of the original radio series was that you hadn’t totally written them yourself and you weren’t totally happy with them.

DOUGLAS: Yes. I also wanted to keep those last two episodes for the end of the second book.

JOHN: Were you not totally happy with the second radio series?

BBC Radio 4’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Most of the second series was first draft…”

DOUGLAS: No. You see, the first series was written and re-written and re-written and worked on very, very heavily. The second series I had to do under immense pressure while I was doing other things as well. There was an element of desperation in writing it. Also, the first time round, it was my own, private little world which only I really knew about. Writing the sequel series was like running round the street naked because suddenly it’s become everyone else’s property as well. Most of the second series was first draft, as opposed to fourth draft. So about two-thirds of the second book actually comes from episodes 5 and 6 of the first series.

The first third of it was a re-structured plotting of aspects of the second series. I think it works out better like that, although it meant I had to write the book backwards, I couldn’t get the thing started and it held me up and held me up and held me up and eventually I wrote the last bit, then the bit before that and the bit before that – and the beginning was worked out, more or less, by a process of elimination.

Special Effects designer Jim Francis’ concept for BBC TV’s Alpha Centauri

JOHN: It’s all been very successful, though.

DOUGLAS: I now have a company and everything goes through the company. It’s called Serious Productions. I decided most people I know with companies had silly names for them, so I decided I wasn’t. I was going to have a Serious name.

JOHN: How do you get out of the trap of being forever ‘The man who wrote Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘?

DOUGLAS: Well, by doing something else, really. I think we’ll probably do a second TV series, although it’s by no means certain. I think it’s on the cards and, if we did, then it would be a totally new series written for television rather than adapted. And that, as far as I’m concerned, would be the end of Hitch-Hiker.

JOHN: And you would go on to .. .

DOUGLAS: I want to write a book from scratch to prove that I can do it. I’ve now written two books which are based on something I’d already written. That’s not quite kosher. And I would like to write a stage-play because that was the one failure Hitch-Hiker had. And I’d like to write a film. These are all fairly wishy-washy ideas at the moment, but that’s what I’d like to do… Oh, and I’d like to be a guitarist.

(DOUGLAS ADAMS, 11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001, R.I.P.)

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How to write, structure and maintain a TV soap opera like Coronation Street

Many moons ago, I used to work a lot for Granada TV in Manchester, home of Coronation Street which, since its birth in 1960, has been the UK’s regular ratings-topper.

I never worked in the Drama Department at Granada – mostly I was in Promotions with slight forays into Children’s/Light Entertainment.

But I remember having conversations with two Coronation Street producers at different times about the structure of the soap and they both, pretty much, ran it along similar lines.

The first, crucial pillar to build a soap on is a central location.

In Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and ITV’s Emmerdale this is a pub – the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic and The Woolpack.

River City in Scotland and Fair City in the Republic of Ireland have also taken the pub to their soapy hearts.

The pub allows you to have a central core cast – a small staff and ‘regulars’ who live locally – and a logical reason why new characters bringing new plots will enter and leave the ongoing storyline.

ATV’s ancient soap Crossroads used a variation of this by having the central setting as a motel.

In the case of Coronation Street, there was (certainly when I worked at Granada) a formula which went roughly like this…

DRAMATIC STORYLINES

  • one main storyline peaking
  • one main storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next main storyline
  • one subsidiary storyline peaking
  • one subsidiary storyline winding down
  • one storyline building to be next subsidiary storyline

COMIC STORYLINES (as with dramatic storylines)

  • one peaking
  • one winding down
  • one building

I have always thought that EastEnders fails in ignoring or vastly underplaying the possibility of comic storylines. When Coronation Street is on a roll, it can be one of the funniest shows on TV.

I confess shamefacedly that I have not actually watched Coronation Street lately (well, it HAS been going since 1960, now five times a week, and even I have a partial life).

But another interesting insight from one of the producers at Granada TV was that Coronation Street (certainly in its perceived golden era) was also slightly out-dated. It appeared to be a fairly socially-realistic tableau of life in a Northern English town, slightly dramatised. But it was always 10-20 years out-of-date. It showed what people (even people in the North) THOUGHT life was currently like, but it had an element of nostalgia.

This was in-built from the start. The initial ‘three old ladies in the snug’ of the 1960s – Era Sharples and her two cronies) is what people thought Northern life was like but, in fact, that was a vision from the early 1950s or 1940s or even 1930s. So modern storylines were being imposed on a slightly nostalgised (not quite romanticised!) vision of the North.

In other countries where pubs are not a tradition, of course, you have to find another central location.

But, in my opinion, if you lessen the humour and harden the gritty realism, you may maintain ratings figures in the short or medium term, but you are gambling. And if your spoken lines sound like written lines (as they often do in EastEnders) then you are a titanic success sailing close to an iceberg.

But what do I know?

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