Ructions at the Beeb

I've never understood quite what it is about Jonathan Ross that merits 18 million pounds of licence payers money, but I always assumed I wasn't 'getting it' - whatever it was he had. In the current interesting difficulties, it's hard not to indulge in a measure of schadenfreude.
I've a softer spot for Brand's irreverent idiocy than Ross's carefully calculated performances. Davina McCall called them 'silly boys' today. Well Brand may be but it's a very long time since Ross could be called a boy. And beside them both, the incomparably funny Ricky Gervais, emphatically NOT commenting on it all last night, looked like a model of wit and wisdom.
What did surprise me, just at first, was that - as I know from bitter experience - even the word 'Christ' when used in a radio play, has to be 'referred up' as the expression goes, for permission to use it. So how in God's name did they get away with it? And then it struck me that the whole BBC structure allows certain people to become so powerful that nobody in immediate authority dares to question them .
Still, I suspect the furore isn't so much shock as a kind of generalised outrage that public cash should be draining down this particular black hole, cash which, moreover, is so frequently collected with menaces from a cross section of increasingly hard up souls. And I do mean menaces. I am the frequent recipient of communications from the TV licensing authority sent to a television-free holiday house which I look after for some friends. And they are outrageous. If I were to pursue somebody for money - especially somebody who didn't actually OWE me that money - in the inflammatory terms employed by the television licensing authority, I reckon I'd have been taken to court long ago.

Another Small Radio Grumble

Yesterday, my play the Price of a Fish Supper was repeated on BBC Radio 4. And a couple of unsolicited appreciative emails from complete strangers came my way immediately afterwards. Which was nice. Unfortunately, on the same day, the producer to whom I had sent a couple of ideas, also emailed me to say that they had been comprehensively turned down. She had decided (rightly I think) to send a round robin email on this occasion, just so that we could all see that we were not alone in our misery! The Beeb had turned down a whole tranche of submissions from a group of experienced writers.
With more than 200 hours of radio drama to my name, and a couple of major awards for plays, I cannot get a radio commission for love nor money these days. I've said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again. I've moved on, do plenty of other things. And yes, it was probably time anyway. But I can't pretend it isn't hurtful and irritating, because it is. Especially when the odd piece that does somehow manage to squeeze under the wire is so well received. I'm convinced that Fish Supper only managed to be made because the reviews of the stage play had been so wonderful that it would have looked very odd if they had turned it down.
Actually, I believe the key word here is money. The way the fee structure works at the Beeb is that they pay more, quite a lot more, for experienced writers. As a playwright, I can see how this works, since producer/directors have to do a considerable amount of work with new writers. As an aside here, I should also mention that I can see no reason why the same tiered fee structure should apply to short stories. Either a story is good enough to be broadcast or it isn't. The editing involved is minimal and there's no reason - except one of economy - why a beginning writer should receive less than an experienced writer for a story.
Many years ago, when John Birt introduced 'producer choice' (which meant exactly the opposite) and the internal market, a great many experienced producers left the BBC and went independent, since so many dramas were being commissioned from outside the Beeb. The workings of that internal market were so crazy that I can remember being called up by continuity announcers asking how to pronounce my name. The Pronunciation Unit used to deal with such matters, but during Birt's reign, all such enquiries were charged to programme budgets, and it was easier and cheaper to phone me.
Then the whole climate changed again and the indies were left high and dry. Which perhaps serves to explain why so many of the dramas you will currently hear are barely dramatic at all. They are stories with bits of additional dialogue, and nobody in the building appears to know how to remedy it.
I keep thinking I'll give up entirely on radio, and I probably have. But just occasionally an idea comes along that seems to be wholly suitable for radio, (and I should know!) So I'm tempted to waste my time trying all over again. From the evidence of the round robin email - and that's only one producer - there are a lot of us out there.

Still Living LIfe Backwards

Recently, a friend presented me with an old copy of a book called Identities, an anthology of West of Scotland poetry, prose and drama, edited by Geddes Thomson and published by Heinemann in 1981. She had been flicking through it and my name had jumped out at her, three times to be precise. There were two longish prose extracts and a poem. The book is in front of me now and when I read the extracts, the prose in particular, I'm reasonably impressed with my own style, not least because the extracts were from contributions to another book and I wrote them when I was in my early twenties.
As so often now, I read things that I wrote way back when and remember the person I was way back then, so full of hopes and ambitions and interests - and wonder what happened to me?
Well I'm still full of hopes and ambitions and interests . But more and more these days I get the impression that I was a better and far more honest writer then, when all my thoughts were focussed on the writing itself and not on the business of trying to make a living out of it.
I think I fell into a trap of trying to please too many people, and not pleasing myself enough. In fact 'please yourself' has become something of a mantra for me. Not, 'please yourself' in the selfish sense, ie satisfying yourself at the expense of others - but making sure that whatever you do in a creative sense pleases you first and foremost and that you don't waste too much time trying to conform to the demands of a dozen other people who have all kinds of ideas as to what you should be writing about and how you should be writing it.
And if it was a problem for me, how much worse now when the internet has spawned a thousand websites where the blind can lead the blind in the shape of a million opinionated amateurs presuming to give advice to their fellow writers? Me too, but at least I'm speaking from a certain baseline of experience. And I'm a member of a wonderful online group (you know who you are!) which contains many writers of all kinds who are generous with time and support, but equally cautious about giving direct advice, knowing that it can be tricky, only offering it where it is requested. Experience makes you wise, makes you very reluctant indeed to offer hard and fast advice. Rather, you tend to go along with William Goldman's dictum that 'Nobody knows anything'. You find yourself asking questions, trying to tease out of people the way they really want to go but never never telling them what they ought to do.
Meanwhile, reading things I wrote years ago fills me with a retrospective sadness because I seem to have come all round the houses and found myself back where I started. Only seeing it through more experienced eyes of course. And maybe that's the trick. Maybe it's what we all have to do: trying to find a way of avoiding cynicism, of fusing the getting of wisdom with the freshness we once had, when everything was exciting and full of potential, of pleasing ourselves as much as we possibly can.

Short Stories

I seem to be leading my professional life backwards these days. Having gone back to writing poetry, I now seem to want to go back to writing short stories as well. But it isn't so very strange because I do think that poems and short stories seem to come from the same source of inspiration. Occasionally something will present itself as an idea for a poem but then you find that you need considerably more elbow room and it somehow turns itself into a short story. I reviewed William Trevor's recent volume of short stories, Cheating at Canasta, for the FT last year and it seemed to me as though his stories had the quality of poems - so densely layered that although they were a wonderful read they were a somewhat uncomfortable read as well. It was like throwing a pebble into a still pool, watching the ever widening rings and uneasily wondering exactly what has been stirred up there.
Then last week I went to a reading by Bernard MacLaverty who reminds me of Trevor, and not because both are Irish writers. Bernard's stories are quite different from Trevor's and very much in his own voice, but there is a quality of observation, of wisdom, of a deceptive simplicity with profound depths beneath, that is shared by both writers and which makes them both wonderfully readable.
Somebody in the audience asked him for advice about writing and he said 'Yes. Don't trust anybody who gives you advice about writing.' But he also suggested that - in pursuing your own unique voice - it is no bad thing to imitate those writers whose work you love. I agree. Too much prescriptive criticism from people who don't actually know that much about writing themselves can be very destructive to the creative impulses. But that's quite a different matter from using a fine writer like a pair of stabilisers on a bike - before you know it, you're off, peddling furiously all on your own.