Imagine what it would have been like if this virus had hit 60 or 70 years ago. I could have said 70 or 80 years ago, but that time span would have included World War 11 and that, I think we can safely say, was shittier than this. We might have empty supermarket shelves, but they had rationing and at least we don’t have some mad man with the stupidest moustache ever, dropping bombs all over us. And we can also speak to people all over the world, I’ve literally just got off a Zoom call with South Africa. A short time ago I was in New Zealand setting up a TV series out there. I could speak to my wife every day, I could even see her and she could see me, for the extra cost of exactly … nothing. We FaceTimed each other a couple of times a day.
During the war my father who was in the navy and my mother who was in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) could only communicate through letters. They married during the war and even then didn’t have a phone until 1961. If this virus had happened in the 1950s then lockdown would have meant they couldn’t speak to anyone.
My grandfather, in his lifetime, he was born in 1894 and died 1972, saw the start of the petrol fuelled motor car to a man landing on the moon. Think about that … basically from horse drawn carriages to space travel. That’s some jump. Get your head round that. The biggest jump previously was when someone evented the wheel and overlooked having to patent it. I’m pretty sure it was man; a woman would have had in mass production by the end of the Bronze Age.
Even in my lifetime, technology has taken massive strides forward. Communications technology, especially, has come on leaps and bounds over the last 30 years. Maybe a bit too fast for some. Last winter, a freezing day, my wife sent me a text. “Can’t open windows, totally frozen”. I texted back: “Pour some warm water over them”. Half an hour later I got another text: “Computer now totally fucked”.
Of course my wife never did that, but somehow it wouldn’t be as funny if I’d have said my uncle, or my dad, or my civil partner … but that’s for another blog, this is about technology.
I’ve always said that all you need to be a writer is a pen and an imagination. Now it would be more correct to say all you need now is a computer and an imagination.
My first script was written in long hand probably on scraps of paper I managed to commandeer. Luckily enough my father had this portable typewriter. The top of the ‘a’ was missing, the ‘t’ was so faint you had to hit the key five times to make an impression and the ‘g’ just didn’t register at all. So ‘attempting’ just ended up being ‘sttemptin ‘. Not very good when you’re trying to sell a script with the title; ‘Attempting Fate.’ Then when my grandfather died, I inherited an Underwood typewriter, older that my dad’s portable, probably made around 1920, and this was what my all my first TV scripts were typed on. It had its problems, certain letters not functioning properly, but on the whole it worked okay and it was mine, I didn’t have to go borrow one. I still have it today.
First drafts were all done in long hand and to begin with I wrote quite a few scripts on old computer paper. This was paper that was specifically designed for computers spewing out data. This wasn’t word processing and the paper was some size of its own making and had perforated edges. But my sister worked in computers and it was free, so off I’d go. The biggest expense I had was the pen. When that ran out, I had no choice but to buy another.
When I received my first commission the first thing I did was go out and buy a Smith Corona (nothing to do with any virus) electric typewriter. Instead of a ribbon it had a tape it had a sort of cassette tape you inserted, then changed for an eraser taped when you needed to make a correction. The days of Tippex were gone, never again to re-surface. Those of you who have no idea what Tippex is, means you’re too young to have ever worked on a typewriter.
In those days when a script was commissioned, part of the deal was you delivered three copies, so you had to be sure of the location of the local photocopier shops and their opening times. On EastEnders, for some reason we were only required to deliver two copies, but many an early morning after working all night finishing off the draft, I would be found waiting outside some photocopying shop, willing the place to open. But the electric typewriter was like some god given miracle. It was amazing. And I seriously contemplated erecting a shrine to that eraser tape.
My first drafts were still being written in long hand, but by now I’d moved on from the computer paper – I was using exercise books, WH Smith exercise books and I wrote with a fine black felt tip pen. I wouldn’t class myself as a superstitious sort of guy, but I certainly became superstitious about exercise books and felt tip pens – they had to be WH Smith’s exercise books and a certain type of fine felt tip pen. I assume, though I don’t remember, that this was the way I’d written the thriller Dog In The Dark, the first script I had commissioned. And for some reason I’d got it into my head, that I had to always do scripts in long hand, with a certain type of felt tip pen in WH Smith exercise books. Other than satisfying a weird OCD need, it also served a practical purpose, I could tell the length of the script by the number of exercise books I used. A 30-minute EastEnders script was two and a quarter exercise books.
When I first started having to deliver scripts I either delivered them myself, or I would have to get a courier, depending how busy I was. Re-writes were delivered in the same way. Then came the proliferation of fax machines. You suddenly had to have a fax machine and if you were really up there, a separate fax number. This meant that the odd page re-writes were sent by fax – much easier. That is unless you’re in the Caribbean. We were out in Antigua, not just catching some sun, but also doing some work – an idea for a new cop show. I was under the impression that the two scripts I’d been working on just before going away, an EastEnders episode and a Silent Witness film, had been put to bed. Then came the inevitable, both scripts needed changes. The Silent Witness rewrites were minor, but the EastEnders script were extensive; the reason being one of the actors who featured heavily in the story had had an accident and was incapacitated. The whole thing needed rewriting and quick. To get these rewrites to the team back in the UK meant going into the hotel’s office each time, getting them to print out the changed pages and then faxing them back to England. I spent so much time in that office that one of the guests actually thought I worked there. Still faxes meant you could work abroad.
Then came computers. Well if I thought my Smith Corona was like a piece of gold this was like a whole fucking mine of the stuff. Talk about changing your life.
My first computer was an Apricot. If I remember correctly it cost somewhere around £3500.00 and I didn’t know how to work it, even though I’d been given lessons by the company we bought it from. Before I got au fait with this amazing piece of technology, a friend of my wife’s would come and type up the scripts for me, a job my wife then took over and did for years. This was a real bonus on two fronts, she was a far better and quicker typist than I was and it also meant I had a second eye on everything I wrote. Even though I now type the drafts myself, my typing has improved significantly, we still discuss all ideas together, before I even metaphorically put pen to paper and she still reads all the scripts, ideas, treatments … even blogs. What started out as an expediency, turned into something that is creative and has been invaluable to me over the years.
Now we enter into competition mode. Two technological break throughs that quite quickly became a ‘must have’ for anyone and everyone – the mobile phone and the internet. Which was the most significant, which rocked the foundations of my world the most? Impossible to say. My first mobile phone one was one of those that you could carry around, or slot into your car. In the car it looked like any car phone, but when you took it out of the car it was like carrying round a small suitcase with a brick in it. And the price – £1750, in the 1980s.
But now we have a generation that have never known anything else. They can’t imagine life without either a mobile phone or the internet. My sister-in-law, Judi, was trying to explain to our niece, Amy, that at her age we didn’t have mobile phones, some people didn’t even have a landline. Amy wondered how we went about meeting up with people. How did we know where and when to meet … then it hit her? “Of course,” she said, “you used Facebook.”
Technology has totally changed the way I work and the amount of work I can actually do. I love it. I love my MacBook, I love my iPhone and I love my iPad and I love that they all link together and you can store your world on them.
For a writer I can only see one downside, that is rewrites are now too easy to accomplish. Where before it was all Tippex and carbon paper, now huge changes can be made relatively easily, well, physically that is. Often there is a lack of understanding about how a change effects a script dramatically and structurally. That’s why I think a lot of the time scripts have the living shit kicked out of them, because it’s now easy physically to change things extensively.
Some editorial staff, not all, some – have no idea about what their job is and feel whatever they’re presented with they’re going to demand you change it, not realising or understanding the damage they’re inflicting on a script. Nine times out of ten it comes down to choices, I write red, they want it blue, I write up, they want it down, I write left, they want it right. You’re getting the idea. I swear to god, if I presented Romeo and Juliet some, not all, some script editors, would want to change it. I can hear them now, “Does the girl, what you called her, Juliet, I’m not sure about the name, does she have to die? It’s a bit of a bummer. He can die, what you called him, Romeo, that’s not a good name either, it makes me think of football for some reason, he can die, because I can’t see anyone empathising with him. He’s a bit pervy going after this young girl. What if she were to marry, Mercutio?” At which point I’d have to point out that Mercutio’s dead. “That’s easy … it’s just a flesh wound. That’s not a big change. Yeah, Juliet goes off with him, because no one will be expecting it and it gives us a nice up ending. Oh and one last thing, the Nurse, can you make her transgender, who is in the middle of transitioning.”
But apart from that one downside – I love the new crazy world of technology and thank god we have it now. Lockdown would be so much worse without it.