Sunday, May 31, 2009

Literal Video: "Total Eclipse Of The Heart"


Also, from a different guy same guy apparently, and slightly annoying at the start, but gets much better:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I should have said 'Titanic' crossed with 'High School Musical'

Here's a thing I have to sort out: I've been writing a couple of spec film treatments lately (which is to say, nobody asked me to write them, I was just footling around with some ideas, which turned into something quite filmy). Which is fine, but the minute you start passing them on to producers, you get asked the same question:

Q: So what sort of budget is this?

And apparently, the following answers are unacceptable:

1. I don't know, you work it out. Don't you have people for this?
2. Somewhere between a hundred thousand, and eighty million pounds.
3. I know, let's make up a number, then add another million and split that extra bit between us *wink wink*.
4. Does it matter? It'll never get made anyway, I just want some cash for doing the typing.
5. *rolls twelve sided dice* Nine! Is that too high? I can roll it again. One. Dammit! Best of three?

All of which reminds me of something I may have mentioned before, but it stands repeating. I had a meeting with a producer from quite a well-known British film production company (which narrows it down to two).

We talked about my concept for a while, but it became apparent the producer wasn't going to be happy until I'd described it in terms he could understand. As in 'It's Film A crossed with Film B'.

ME: Fine, it's like 'Unbreakable' crossed with 'Labyrinth'.

The producer's eyes light up, he goes to his computer, goes to and types in each film in turn, then goes to 'Box Office Figures'. He then swivels the screen round so I can see it.

ME: No?
ME: Fair enough.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Only putting this up because he figured in last week's INCARNATE blogposts, but look who Ori stumbled across while boozing up in the National Portrait Gallery:


Valerie asked:

'I publish a tiny literary magazine, and I got a furious response to a rejection slip last month -- very colorful really. I was half-amused and half-sad, because it really does pay to get past the agony of rejection and to realize how many things besides the quality of your work such responses represent. (That said, he was reacting to a single word in my canned response that he considered loaded, which I have changed for the future -- I'm not trying to make anyone miserable, after all!)

I got very lucky and had a high school teacher who actually instructed us in processing rejection slips. Subsequently, I garnered dozens of them myself, but have somewhere along the way published many poems and even sold a number of short stories.

But it seems to me that when your livelihood depends on your writing, there is more at stake. You've clearly learned not to take the outcome as a reflection on your writing skills -- but doesn't it affect your stress about daily bill-paying?'

Well, you simply have to have enough projects on the go that two or three of them at any one time have got to the commissioned treatment stage, and you're working on one actual scripted episode as well. Four full hour-long scripts in one year are certainly enough to pay the bills, but more usually I'm writing two or three in a year, and working on four or more outlines throughout the years as well, and writing comedy sketches and maybe a bit of animation as well.

It's when you suddenly have a three projects collapse from under you at once, with nothing else on the horizon that it gets a bit scary, as it can take about three months for a project to generate enough momentum that you're actually getting paid for it. So if you've been three months without work, and are only just starting to get hints of fresh work, you may have to go six months without earning any actual money. Which was sort of okay when I was single, in a rented flat, when I could back to bookselling at any time. But now I have a wife, baby, cat and mortgage, you can see how an actual proper work ethic has crept into my daily life....

Friday, May 15, 2009

Television Outlines: Incarnates Part Five

Newf asks

'James, I wanna 'would like' (see me) to know how close these kind of experiences are to this:'

Heh. Well, I didn't take my concept round to as many people as Charlie did his, so it didn't have the opportunity to get shat on to the extent the man in black with the word 'IDEA' (they should have added a 'D' at the end, I reckon) did.

My teen drama certainly got chopped and changed around before making it to the very last stage of commissioning (and being turned down), but I never felt I was making any great compromise with quality - just the way the format worked (changing the plot from being a ongoing thriller to a more story of the week basis, boosting the central cast of characters so instead of just following four locals, there were now four locals and four posh kids). I didn't mind any of these changes, because all I really had in my head going in was an idea of tone, and a way of referencing the very typical American genre of teen shows in a way that was emotionally more realistic, and certainly more representative of my own upbringing, than you were tending to get in UK shows at the time.

Had it been commissioned, yes, I may well have been asked to find a part for Lily Allen. Seriously, that was my number one concern were it to be commissioned, bearing in mind it was BBC3 doing the commisioning. But it wasn't, and I still have the perfect, unblemished series in my head, and a couple of scripts that went down very well inside BBC Drama, and are currently getting me plenty of work. And if you're finding your work being horribly taken away from you, and Lily Allen added, you can either a) tell them to feck orf and wash your hands of the project, or b) take the money but get your agent to have your name taken off the project. It happens all the time.

I don't know why I'm having a go at Lilly Allen, by the way, I really liked that 'The Fear' song, and the fact she was quite rude about her own chat show. Nuff respect Lils.

Lots of nice comments from people asking what I'm going to do with it next. Make it into a graphic novel? Or, as Dan suggested:

'.,. perhaps try Sky? They're having a push for original drama right now, and a lot of it has been genre stuff (Terry Pratchett's, Skellig). It may be out of their price-range, though, as you say. Could it be adjusted into a two-hour one-off for Christmas?'

Those two-part dramas are both adaptations of existing literary works, which seem to be what Sky is after these days. My agent put me up for a similar adaptation recently, but Sky turned me down because I wasn't A-list enough. And by 'enough', they meant 'at all'. Which is fair enough.

So, what's happening with INCARNATE now? Well, nothing really. Carnival own the rights to the treatment, so if another broadcaster becomes interested in the possibility of a superhero series (possible) and has the available budget (unlikely), then I'm sure Carnival will slide it under their noses. I don't think it's terribly likely, to be honest, and you might be surprised to find I don't mind that much.

Because this happens all the time. This is what a large part of my job is: coming up with a stream of outlines and treatments for television shows that are (if I'm honest) unlikely ever to be made. Currently I'm working on four treatments. The first is for Hotel Babylon series five, so not my show, but the episode should see the light of day unless something goes terribly wrong. The second is for a prospective sitcom, which is pretty unlikely to get made, but it's an idea that I'm excited about, so for the first time in a few years I'm prepared to dip a toe into the (DELETED) choppy (changed on the advice of attorney Patroclus) waters that is the current UK television comedy world. The third is for a six-part literary adaptation for BBC4 (prestige!) which I'm very excited about, and has a reasonable chance of a series commission. And the fourth is an original (as in I would own the format rights) cop show for BBC1. So this is possibly the most likely-to-be-productive bunch of treatments I've ever worked on, and there are still no guarantees.

The other reason I don't mind that much is because I learned a while ago not to take it too personally, because otherwise you could go completely mad. And way more successful writers than me get their ideas turned down all the time.

To illustrate this, a couple of years ago, I had the idea of adapting a sort-of-obscure, but very well-regarded Edwardian comic novel as a television drama series. The novel is sort of odd and surreal, which suits me, and has a surprising number of references to contemporary issues such as domestic terrorism, undercover police work and religion.

I finally got a meeting with a pretty big UK television production company, who had a good track record with comedy, but were looking to branch out into drama, so I thought this idea would be right up their street. As it was, it just wasn't for them. But the producer obviously saw the downcast look on my face and knew exactly what to say to cheer me up.

PRODUCER: If it makes you feel any better, Stephen Fry came in with this exact idea two weeks ago, and we turned him down too.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Television Outlines: 'Incarnate' Part Four

Forgot to answer Dan's question, which was:

Any idea on the budget? No Heroics was very low, but this sounds like it would need a Doctor Who-style commitment to me!

Well exactly. And really the only people who'd be able to do it properly, and let me keep the tone I want (satirical, sort-of-darkish, occasionally a bit rude), are the BBC. So I had effectively one egg, and only one basket in which to put it.

To recap:

Word had gone out from the BBC that they were in the market for something sort of like Heroes.

I had submitted a superhero concept amongst some other ideas I had sent in to the television production company Carnival.

This was just about to be commissioned as a treatment, when we found out a series called NO HEROICS (a superhero sitcom) was about to be made.

In a moment of what can only be described as pure blind heroism, Carnival's head of development decided to commission my outline as a treatment anyway, because she really liked the sound of it.

I then reworked the concept twice: the first time as practically a different series altogether, the second as closer to the core idea, but now with a buddy element, with the older, wiser hero to be played by Stephen Mangan. I then handed the treatment in to Carnival, who sent it off to the BBC's indie-commissioning department (nothing to do with baggy cardigans or The Smiths - they're the department who deal with all the various independent production companies).

Top funny actor and all-round nice man Stephen Mangan agreed to be attached to the project.

We then discovered that Paul Cornell (writer of some cracking Doctor Who episodes, as well as the current, and rather thrilling, Captain Britain series for Marvel Comics), and Joe Ahearne (creator of equally rather thrilling Ultraviolet, amongst others) also had a superhero series in development. Shiiiiiiiiiiiit.

(Btw -Paul's blog post on his prospective show is here, and there's a brief interview with Joe Aherne here. Both sound Quite Good)

The finest BBC script editors could not have found a way to ratchet up the tension any better. With everything at stake for our anxious hero, (in this case, me) who would win the gladiatorial fight for first place?

As far as I know, nobody. Because the response from the BBC was this (and I'm paraphrasing, because it was a phone call to Carnival, the contents of which were passed on to me in another phone call):

"We think that Heroes has covered the superhero territory sufficiently that there isn't really room for something in the same genre. However, please feel free to pass on other work by James, as we are always interested in new writers."


Tomorrow: the post-mortem.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Television outlines: 'INCARNATE' part three

So, there I was, stuck in the ancient Egyptian burial pit full of snakes, while French archaeologist Belloq - no, wait, that's Indiana Jones.

We're now up to about September last year. I'd done a two page outline for INCARNATE, and Carnival liked it, and were just about to commission a more detailed treatment, when we heard that ITV had commissioned a sitcom called NO HEROICS. Going by television logic, this was going to scupper my project. Which is when Head of Development Person said a beautiful thing. She said "You know what? I'm always having to cancel things mid-development because something that sounds vaguely similar has come along, and I always regret it. So I'm going to commission a treatment of INCARNATE regardless.'

Hurrah! There was also one small note, that maybe the show could have a buddy element, giving TROY someone to bounce off - which made me think I could maybe fit this new role around an actor I already knew, had worked with, was funny, and could, you know, act. So I emailed said actor, who, by the way I knew was insanely busy, but if I could attach his name to the project, even if only in theory, the whole thing would have a whole new level of momentum.

The reply from Stephen Mangan went something like: Superhero? Cool powers? A costume? Yes please.

I could now never be rude about production executives, or actors again. Frankly I was starting to wonder if it was worth it.


And then I did a thing I've only just realised I have a tendency to do. I wrote a treatment for what was practically a completely different series. Seriously. I know.

In fact, I did this just a couple of weeks ago. I'm in the fortunate position of starting to develop my own crime drama series for BBC drama. In an odd kind of way, it span out of the teen drama thing, which didn't get commissioned either. Don't think about it too hard, you'll go mad.

Anyway, I didn't quite have this conversation with BBC Drama, but on one level I kind of did:

BBC DRAMA: So, we commissioned you to write a series with the main character being a scrappy young London copper from a council estate.
ME: Yes.
BBC DRAMA: So what have you just done?
ME: (proudly) I've made him a thirtysomething copper who likes indie music and isn't all that scrappy. Or from London now.

Long silence.

ME: Shall I go back to doing it the other way?
BBC DRAMA: Yes please.

Which is kind of what I did with INCARNATE. I went a bit wibbly and mental and turned TROY into a mayoral assistant who gets magic powers and becomes THE NIGHT MAYOR, who has to deal with all the problems of the city the day mayor doesn't have to worry about, like vampires and stuff.


CARNIVAL PRODUCER: So, what have you just done?
ME: Oops
CARNIVAL PRODUCER: Yes, could you go and do a treatment for the show we actually commissioned you to write a treatment for, please?
ME: Righto!

Secretly, of course, I put THE NIGHT MAYOR in a folder marked 'Inevitable INCARNATE spin off series'. Your time will come, THE NIGHT MAYOR, ho yuss.

But then I realised I could have my cake, and then I could have my cake and eat my cake as well (never understood that). So here's the opening of the INCARNATE treatment which has TROY BENEDICT and Stephen Mangan. What's more, it had S. Mangan playing a rather different sort of role than he's used tom but one I thought he'd be really quite good at.


8x60min Action comedy/drama

‘What if Britain got its own celebrity superhero, and he was a complete prick?’

America has no shortage of superheroes. Barely a chemical factory explodes, or a radioactive spider escape its cage without generating dozens of brightly-costumed heroes, all too happy to put on spandex tights and fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Britain, of course, likes to do things differently; its superheroes working secretly, without fuss or fame. Apart, that is, at times of gravest threat, when it is said the land itself will select one of its inhabitants, and turn them into THE INCARNATE: a champion bestowed with all the powers of its most legendary heroes, more powerful that all the other superheroes put together. Which is particularly galling to the existing British superheroes when the brand new INCARNATE is TROY BENEDICT, a spoiled skinny-jean-wearing, North-London-living trustafarian with an ego the size of Brixton Academy.

When it quickly becomes apparent that TROY has absolutely no intention of staying undercover, the other heroes assign TROY a mentor: the hardworking, responsible PENDRAGON (played by Stephen Mangan). Unfortunately, while PENDRAGON has dedicated his life to service without reward, TROY has rather different ambitions: hold a press conference, sort out a reality television show, give all your off-loading mates jobs as sidekicks/support team/publicists and wait for the sponsorship deals to roll in, while PENDRAGON cleans up all the mess.

Of course, with TROY’s outing himself as Britain’s biggest superhero drawing every freak, villain and monster out of the woodwork, not to mention the attention of a skinhead superhero-turned-bad who plans to turn the entire country into a fascist paradise, he might just have dragged both of them into a deeper mess than anyone even knew existed…

Dark, sarky and with a certain amount of post-watershed action, INCARNATE is a twisted modern take on classic British mythology that shows what happens when all the wrong people get all the right powers. A strong comedic streak runs through INCARNATE, but this will always come from character – the powers themselves, and the world in which the heroes operate is deadly serious.


Important to note there are no lycra costumes or flowing capes in INCARNATES, although he heroes do dress in a stylized manner, with many of them retaining styles from the dates of their Incarnation, such as flying jackets, Edwardian frockcoats, and cavalry boots, a look that could perhaps best be described as ‘Arcade Fire meets Men In Black’.


A classic, old-school superhero who likes to get the work done with the minimum of publicity, SCOTT UNDERHILL has been covertly saving the inhabitants of Britain for nearly a hundred years now, since coming into his powers in the middle of the First World War. SCOTT’s superpowers are enhanced strength, a mild form of telekinesis that allows him to pull small objects towards himself (handy for snatching guns from terrorists and bank robbers) and a kind of powered leap that allows him to vault over tall buildings in a single bound, even if he can’t always control exactly where he lands.

None of which makes up for the fact that, being technically nearly a century old, all SCOTT’s family and friends are long-dead. Consequently, SCOTT is rather out of joint with contemporary culture, and increasingly bitter as his life of loyal servitude to a populace that will never understand his sacrifices looks increasingly irrelevant. What makes SCOTT despise TROY even more is the shameful flicker of jealousy, not just at the attention he gets, but that TROY’s powers already far exceed his own. SCOTT is also worrying that his powers are beginning to wane, a secret he is doing his best to keep from the other heroes around him.


London is in the grip of fear after a recent spate of bank robberies slash serial killings by a group already known as ‘The Tooth Fairies’, leaving vaults empty and employees dead (and toothless) all over the city. The police are mystified by the killers’ ability to strike at different points across the city at the same time, and their almost supernatural ability to evade pursuit.

Right in the middle of this, and after starting to glow with a brilliant white light at socially inconvenient times, spoiled rich kid TROY BENDICT discovers he’s become THE INCARNATE, an archetypal British hero who only manifests at time of great peril. TROY quickly learns that Britain already has a number of superheroes, although they act covertly – and that he is already more powerful than any of them – able to fly, use X-Ray vision, resist all mortal weapons, and use incredible superstrength. So naturally, TROY holds a press conference and launches himself as the UK’s first superhero ‘brand’. He also promises, rather incidentally, that he will track down the Tooth Fairy gang.

It quickly becomes apparent to the other heroes that TROY is a complete idiot, with no real concept of the responsibilities he has been given, although reluctantly, the other heroes INCARNATES decide that having an ‘out’ superhero might be useful in drawing all the crazies out of the woodwork, while the rest of them stay in the shadows. Much to his disgust, burnt out hero PENDRAGON is assigned to act as TROY’s mentor: keeping him out of trouble and hopefully teaching him the ways of true heroism.

As TROY settles in to his new role as celebrity superhero, hiring a focus group to decide on his costume and superhero name, SCOTT discovers the gang to be genuine tooth fairies – nasty goblinlike creatures, born from the nightmares of children, who use the teeth of their victims in strange rites that allow them to teleport from their lair in an abandoned tube station to banks all over London. At great personal risk, SCOTT manages to destroy the creatures (with a handily placed vending machine of sugary drinks).

TROY, of course, takes all the credit. SCOTT is infuriated, but also concerned to learn that the money stolen by the fairies appears to have vanished into a Swiss Account held by one Arthur Fisher, a British crimelord who appears to have odd powers of his own…

The treatment was about five pages in total, and after a couple of minor rewrites was deemed ready to go off to the BBC. BUT WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT?

Oh, and then I found out Paul Cornell and Joe Ahearne also had superhero tv series in the works. STILL, WHAT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Television outlines: 'INCARNATE' part two

Okay, so I've sent off a number of quick, one or two paragraph ideas to Carnival, and they like INCARNATE! They really really like it. But it's only a couple of lines of setup, and a list of possible characters, so I need to work it up into a proper two-page outline before there's even the vaguest hint of me getting my hands on some actual cash.

So, I now have to have a bit of a think about how a possible series would work, how you lead the viewers into this world, the sort of stories you could tell within it, and the sort of shape a series would have: self-contained stories of the week, one big slowly unfolding novelistic storyline, or maybe a mixture of both? My preference is usually for the slow, novelistic style, but the format here is really more suited to a mixture: lots of stories you can wrap up on a week-by-week basis, but with a background arc that can gradually rise into the foreground as the series goes on - with a nice cliffhanger ending.

But then I also start to think about the main character. I initially saw him as a bit of a nobody, a temp worker who suddenly gets offerered the greatest job in the world: being a superhero. But then I remember a quote from a BBC channel controller a while ago, referring to Lily Allen as 'the voice of her generation'. Obviously he didn't mean her actual voice, which is... a bit thin, frankly (but great production by The Bird And The Bee, go and buy their album 'Rayguns Are Not Just The Future' immediately). He meant everything about her: her background, attitude, accent - the whole ensemble. This man genuinely had Lily Allen up as some kind of Spirit of the Age. And my immediate reaction was, of course, 'jeezy chreezy, what if that were true?' Essentially, we would all be fucked, wouldn't we?

So, what if the hero wasn't an ordinary nobody? What if he was one of those ghastly fucking young people whose mum had to work really hard to pay for them to go to school actually, that seem to spawn fully formed from North London, sipping bottled water, big sunglasses pushed up on their heads, talking loudly about how everything's well random lol. The sort of person who would consider the sudden manifestation of superpowers not as some kind of amazing gift, to be held in awe and treated with the greatest respect, but as, frankly, their birthright? And thus TROY BENEDICT was born.


8x50min Fantasy action comedy/drama

‘What if Britain got its own superhero, and he was basically a complete prick?’

When skinny jean-wearing, Big Brother-watching, North London-living trustafarian TROY BENEDICT wakes up with superpowers, he knows exactly what to do. Hold a press conference, sort out a reality television show, give all your off-loading mates jobs as sidekicks/support team/publicists and wait for the cash to roll in.

Unfortunately, TROY quickly discovers he’s only one of a group of similarly-powered (but covertly-operating) individuals, none of whom are too happy at him blowing the gaffe. When he discovers a cult of Jack the Ripper descendents want him dead, and a skinhead superhero-turned-bad is planning to turn the entire country into a fascist paradise, TROY starts to realise he might just have inherited a whole heap of trouble…


After starting to glow with a brilliant white light at socially inconvenient times, TROY BENDICT discovers he’s become a modern-day manifestation of THE PENDRAGON, an archetypal British hero previously embodied by such characters as Beowulf, George the Dragon Slayer and Uther Pendragon (father of King Arthur himself). This gives TROY the powers of enormous stamina and strength, the ability to leap tremendous distances, and invulnerability to mortal weapons.

Sadly, TROY’s first impulse is not to help the helpless, learn great responsibilities, or strike fear into the hearts of criminals everywhere. He doesn’t even bother with a secret identify, but instead, decides to announce his powers to the world.

Unfortunately for TROY, it soon becomes apparent that other superheroes are out there, it’s just that they’ve been operating secretly, partly out of a sense of duty, and partly because all manner of nasties have been waging war against them for centuries. And TROY is now right in the middle of it…


As the series progresses, TROY becomes dissatisfied with stopping half-arsed bank raids and saving North London from rather piffling natural disasters, only to learn he’s just one of THE INCARNATES: updated versions of classic british heroes (and anti-heroes) given amazing powers to protect their land from the monsters created by the collective unconscious of its own inhabitants.

The good news: TROY is easily the most powerful of their number, and may well be in line to inherit the mantle of leadership. The bad news: the rest of THE INCARNATES clearly think he’s some kind of appalling tool, whilst in the growing darkness lurks an ancient and corrupted hero with his own ideas as to how exactly Britain should regain its former glories.



Nathan Barley in a cape, M*x G*garty* with superstrength – TROY BENEDICT surely isn’t anybody’s idea of a hero. Can TROY learn there’s more to being a hero than wearing a tight-fitting leather suit with cool sunglasses? Will his secret invulnerability turn out to be radiated fragments of his home world (Primrose Hill), his sponging mates, or just his colossal ego? And most staggering of all, is it possible that being given cool powers and being plunged into an aeon-old battle between light and darkness could turn TROY into a slightly nicer person?


ROBIN: Matrix-leather-clad chick with a longbow.
SPRINGHEEL JACK: Bouncing, flame-breathing Victorian weirdo.
BOUDICEA: Charismatic, tattooed, knife-wielding trouble-maker and general stirrer.
WHITTINGTON: The Night Mayor. Political fixer, pulls strings, calls in favours.
THE FINCHLEY ROAD GOLEM: Hulking creature born from clay and Jewish mysticism (won’t fight on the Sabbath).


It isn’t just Britain’s heroes who have become embodied in physical form – many of the nation’s darkest nightmares also walk the streets.

THE RIPPERS: dark rituals learned by the original Jack The Ripper enabled him to incarnate into multiple bodies at once, all of which are dedicated to slaughtering as many heroes as possible, in order to take their powers for themselves.
MISTER PUCK: a sinister and ambiguous Shakespearean crimelord, whose allegiances seem to shift on an hourly basis.
TOOTH FAIRIES: Hunchbacked, four-armed creatures with terrifying rusty iron implements, born from the nightmares of children.
ARTHUR: darkly nationalistic Incarnate of King Arthur himself, and the Big Bad of the series. Has already raised a small army of thuggish, nationalistic supporters, and has every intention of taking TROY’s powers for himself in order to rule Britannia and turn a third of the globe pink once more, even if he has to murder every other hero to do it.

INCARNATE creates a very British take on superheroes, as well as a satirical take on modern celebrity culture. Focusing less on standard superheroic deeds and more on the enormous egos of the people behind the masks (or in TROY’s case, aviator shades), INCARNATE will go boldly where no British fantasy action comedy/drama with superheroes has ever dared go before.

..... which Carnival seemed quite happy with, were about to commission a treatment (i.e. give me some money to develop the two-pager into a proper ten-ish page beast) and then, DISASTER!

ITV suddenly announced the commissioning of NO HEROICS, a sitcom "set in modern-day England, in a world similar to ours but "with one small difference: there are superheroes."

It was the dreaded 'Broadcaster C have just decided to commission a very similar project, I'm afraid' scenario. I pointed out that theirs was a sitcom, rather than a drama (admittedly with comedy elements), and that no-one ever said 'OMG Channel 4 are doing a series with a policeman in! We must cancel Inspector Morse immediately!', but things weren't looking good.

And then, the development person at Carnival said a wondrous, beautiful thing. What was it? TUNE IN TOMORROW OMG THIS IS SO EXCITING and so on.

* Asterisked, because I think he's probably had a tough enough time of already.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Television outlines: 'INCARNATE' part one

Around May last year, various television broadcasting companies started to realise HEROES was doing rather well. They realised this mainly because commissioning editors had started saying things like 'That Heroes thing is doing rather well. Why can't you come to us with something like that?' And I realised this because that's what a couple of different production companies had told me.

This chinese whispers way of commissioning rarely leads to anything good. Readers may remember the rash of sketch shows about thirtysomethings in relationships that suddenly appeared a couple of years ago, via much the same process. Of course, the commissioning editor, in this case the BBC, can only take one of them on, but the companies reckon that if sketchshows about thirtysomethings in relationships are the in thing, they just have to produce a pilot, and someone will commission it. So what you end up with is a whole raft of half-hearted series that have come about, not because anyone creative thought it was a good idea, but because of what Production Exec A overheard Broadcasting Exec B say they were looking for in Members Bar C.

So, May last year, it was 'ensemble dramas about superheroes, with a contemporary twist'. The assumption being that the superhero genre is inherently a bit embarrassing, and that something clever would have to be done to get ordinary people to like them, because ordinary people don't do things like read comics, or watch superhero movies. That would be ridiculous.

The first two production companies that suggested this to me, I decided to sort-of ignore, as neither of them had a good track record with handling genre television well. But then I had a meeting with Carnival, who didn't ask me to come up with anything in particular, but did convince me they they had a proper geekish enthusiasm for genre stuff, and had stong links to the Sci-Fi Channel, which was interesting. And because they'd read my HERO TRIP script, and liked it, they were up for me sending them in some quick ideas.

So, amongst a number of sketchy, half-page outlines I did for them, I chucked in a superhero ensemble drama, with a contemporary twist, because in between the first two meetings, and the one with Carnival, I'd finally thought of a way of doing proper British superheroes, that didn't just feel like pastiches of American characters.

Thusly, here is the very rough, one-paragraph and a quick list of possible characters mini-outline:


When Britain is in times of trouble, an ancient hero will appear once again. When it’s in real trouble, they all will.

A young man discovers that either he’s going mad, or he’s become a modern-day manifestation of an ancient british hero. Chased by monsters from legend, and stalked by mysterious figures with bizarre powers of their own, he soon realises he has become part of a strange twilight world, where updated versions of classic british heroes (and anti-heroes) fight to protect their land from the monsters created by the collective unconscious of its own inhabitants…


JACK: the Giant Killer? (previous versions: Beowulf, Saint George)

ROBIN: Matrix-esque-leather-clad chick with a longbow.

SPRINGHEEL JACK: Bouncing, flame-breathing Victorian weirdo.

BOUDICEA: Charismatic, tattooed, knife-wielding trouble-maker and general stirrer.

WHITTINGTON: The Night Mayor. Political fixer, pulls strings, calls in favours.

THE FINCHLEY ROAD GOLEM Hulking creature born from Kabbalah mysticism. Won’t fight on the Sabbath.

WAYLAND: Wheelchair bound smith

SECRET BASE: invisible flying steampunk cathedral, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, after a brief, and ill-advised experiment with absinthe.

MERLIN in a coma (I know, I know, it’s serious)
Map with at least twelve different Jack the Rippers.


EDIT: in the comments section, Boz asked the question "Are you not a-fearing that people will steal your ideas when you blog about them..?" I thought I may as well fold the answer in to the actual post, LIKE THIS:

Well, someone could try and nick it, I suppose, but they'd look a bit silly trying to copy exactly the same idea title and characters and all, and if they changed it... it would be a different idea anyway. A lot of what outlines do is just to suggest an interesting new way of combining Already Existing Idea A with Already Existing Idea B - what I'm hoping someone will do is pay me to go and develop those ideas in a way no-one else could. So, unless they're nicking actual chunks of an-existing script of mine, for which I would of course SUE THEIR ARSE OFF, there's not actually much for them to nick. Ultimately, there's no copyright on ideas.

Re the graphic novel - I could do this, but the time and effort an artist would need to put into this is considerable, and if I was going to write a comic, I'd rather come up with something original that could only ever work as a comic, rather than re-using something that failed in another medium.

I suppose what I'm trying to get across by following the outline across various stages this week, is that you have to come up with a LOT of ideas, on a more-or-less constant basis. Which means you can't get too precious about them, but also you have to invest enough of yourself in them that you actually want them to get to the next level. You could certainly assemble an outline made up of a load of checklists of 'things commissioners want', but would it be something you actually wanted to end up spending months of your life writing? It's a balance I'm only just starting to work out myself, to be honest.

Of course, the real trick is to come up with something you TOTALLY want to write, then work the outline so it ticks all the current buzzwords, thus tricking commissioners into paying you for something you would have done for free lol suckers.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Write us a thing

In the comments thread on the previous post, Newf asked:

"So, before #1, is there a bit when an important person phones you up and goes "heh, write us a thing", or are you sending out the outline in volleys?"

Kind of the former: whenever I go up to London, my agent likes to set me up for meetings with new producers and development people, so I can get an idea of the sort of thing they're looking for. So not a phone call specifically, but a chat about what various broadcasters are looking for, certainly. Then I either go and write something that fits, or (more likely) write all sorts of random ideas, then see if any of them fit what people are looking for at the moment. I might even have a look in my old concepts folder and see if I have anything lurking that could fit.

For example: I've been working with Carnival lately on Hotel Babylon, but they also have a good working relationship with the Sci Fi Channel (or SyFy as it is now, apparently), so it's handy to find out what new shows they're commissioning, so I know what they're after at the moment (which seems to be one-hour SF/Fantasy shows with a very simple, direct premise, offerent strong stories of the week). I've been thinking about a weird take on all the Eighties tv shows I used to love as a kid, like Knight Rider, Airwolf, Manimal, all that stuff, which I'd already worked up into an two page outline, but the 'story of the week' thing made me go back and tweak it a bit. So whereas before it was about a group of teens who discover their parents were all secretly cheesy crimefighters in the Eighties, and have to work out how to make the slightly dated (but still very cool) technology work in the present day, now it's about a mixed group of thirtysomethings who, essentially, stumble into the Batcave after it was shut down twenty five years previously.

Hmm, my British archetype superhero comedy/drama thing might be a good example of this - will maybe put that up in its various stages later on.

The other thing I should say is that I got the meetings with Carnival in the first place through my agent sending them my HERO TRIP spec movie script. So the head of development there knows a) my writing style, and b) the kind of subjects I'm interested in ('genre' stuff - i.e. SF/Fantasy, but with a strong comedy element, and probably a bit more characterisation than you often get in that kind of thing. So in this case, a two page outline makes sense, as they can kind of fill in the gaps themselves, whereas that's not to useful with a writer they don't know (i.e. haven't seen a writing sample of), because they have no indication of what that two page outline could end up looking like.

As to the 'volleys' thing, yeah, if the first person you send it to either doesn't like it, or has something too similar in development, you tend to have a list of people who you would send it to next. So if I had an SF/Fantasy/Comedy thing, it would probably go to Carnival first, then... Kudos, Hat Trick, Shine... maybe? Depending on who I have a personal relationship with, which will affect how quickly the outline gets read, whether it's read by someone who actually has to power to commission a proper treatment and so on.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Or 'The Wire, but they're all teenagers. In space'

The television writing process tends to go like this:

1. Outline - a rough, two page-ish breakdown of what the proposed series is about, the main characters, some brief episode ideas.

2. Treatment - assuming the outline gets commissioned, the treatment is around ten pages, with much more detail on the main characters, a proper breakdown of what the first episode will contain, almost on a scene by scene basis, and a good half page-ish on the other episodes. Treatments are actually much more work than might initially appear, because there's usually a lot of negotiation and back and forth with the producer/script editor, and often big chunks of time spent hanging around while you wait to hear if you've got the commission for the next stage. The next stage being...

3. First draft - the fun bit. Mainly because this is where you get to write dialogue, which writers like because it fills lots of space on the page. If you've done the treatment properly, you don't even have to worry about what scenes happen in what order, and who's in them, because you've already done all that! Hurrah! Now you can just have your characters say clever funny things to each other, with the occasional bit of action.

4. Rewrites. This usually involves taking out most of the clever funny things and putting in more action.

The best way to work is to have a number of projects on the go (well, duh) all at slightly different stages. Probably one thing at script level, where you're trying to write five pages or so a day, a couple of treatments when you can airily write 'and character A gets out of the scene by saying something pithy and amusing' without having to actually come up with something, you know, pithy and amusing, and then a few ideas that might just exist on the single paragraph level (or less), waiting to be turned into treatments. So you can jot down 'The OC, only with werewolves!!!!!' and feel like you've done a morning's work.

At the moment, however, I'm working on four different treatments. Which could bode well for the latter half of this year if all the things get commissioned, but is currently boding quite badly for my bank balance, because a treatment only tends to get you about ten per cent of what you'd get for the first draft, even though, for reasons described above, the first draft is actually much less intensive and more fun.

It's also hard keeping your mind fixed on one project and not drifting on to another, particularly when you're running actually quite an intense D&D campaign on Monday nights. Hence my current plan for Gino the barman from Hotel Babylon to be drafted in on an escort quest to take the body of a deceased gray dwarf astronomer on a perilous journey through the Underdark so the last rites can be given on a underground bridge above a portal to the Elemental Plane of Fire.

Would make a good episode though.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Note To Self

Although it's good to be enthusiastic about a project when discussing it with a producer, there is a certain point beyond which one should not go. Otherwise, while discussing the point in a particular 18th Century autobiography you're looking at adapting, where the protagonist 'takes a common prostitute against an alley wall' you might notice a momentary flicker of discomfort passing across the face of said (female, BBC, elegant) producer, only to realize on the way back on the train that what you'd done at that point was act out the motions, groinal thrusts and all, which will cause you to make a(nother) low moaning noise as you slump down in your seat, annoying the pinstriped man next to you, who's just trying to read a pamphlet about antique sports cars.