Jonah Nolan1, guesting on the podcast Scriptnotes, Episode #352:
“…I’ve done broadcast TV, and I’d very gotten very used to the sort of endless churn. I liken broadcast TV to getting a tie caught in a shredder. You’re just fucking all in. The prevailing rule of broadcast television for decades was once you’ve got that magic formula, that franchise of cast and characters and the story of the week, you just keep doing that. And I never had any interest in that whatsoever.
I think with Westworld much more explicitly we set out not using the rules of television, because TV has now expanded to fit so many different formats, it’s kind of the Wild West. We looked more at the rules for franchise filmmaking.”
Me? I love the churn. The churn is responsible for some of the best moments of television ever.
* * *
The churn gets you the angriest episode of Frasier ever made. The churn gets you Coronation Street‘s widely-praised storyline about Aidan’s suicide. The churn gets you endless fun on CBBC live links; tons of material, written fast, rehearsed minutes before transmission. The very definition of churn, and stuff which has had me hooting so loudly you could hear me three streets away.
And the churn gets you moments like the Star Trek: Voyager episode Course: Oblivion. Oh, I could have cheated here, and dug up a widely-acknowledged Next Generation classic: Yesterday’s Enterprise, for instance, which was done in such a ridiculous time crunch five people worked on the teleplay just to get the damn thing finished. Course: Oblivion is a divisive episode at the very least, and is rarely considered one of the best Trek episodes ever made.
But it’s a fascinating example of what the churn of television can create. The story of an entirely duplicate Voyager crew, which would never exist if Voyager was a carefully-plotted, 10 episodes a year kind of show. It’s a sideshow – the kind of episode which has many people asking “Who cares – they’re not our characters.”
Or put another way, it’s Voyager having the freedom to say: “What the hell, we’ve got 25 other episodes this year – let’s just do something weird and see what happens”. An episode so nihilistic it barely feels like a Trek episode at times, as our duplicate crew go unremittingly towards their destruction, through no fault of their own. And yet the episode is far from pointless; it’s about the need to be remembered, for your life to mean something. As co-writer Nick Sagan puts it: “it’s about loss and remembering, death and grief.”
I love it to bits. And we owe its existence to the churn of weekly television.
* * *
The churn is “Shit, what the fuck do we do this week?” – and coming up with an answer. Sometimes, the answer is crap. Sometimes, it’s merely fine.
But sometimes, it’s amazing. And you can end up in places it’s difficult to get to with your 10-episodes-a-year, we’re-really-just-one-long-movie-style plotting. Not necessarily superior places, not always. But places we may never otherwise have gone.
As ever: let’s embrace all the different ways we can make television.
Recently I read an interesting piece by design advocate Chappell Ellison: How to Take Criticism.1 I found it a slightly bizarre experience, in that while I kept wanting to agree with it – I’m not a fan of merely “insults as review” approach either – I ended up disagreeing at nearly every turn instead. Any piece which reduces Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s contribution to film criticism to merely their thumbs up or thumbs down is simplifying their work a little too much for me.2 That’s my problem with the piece as a whole: I think it’s coming from a good place, but lacks nuance.
But of all the parts of the article I’m not sure about, it’s Chappell’s approach to comedy in criticism which I found hardest to swallow. And there’s one particular example given as a bad example of criticism which I want to dissect a little. Let’s take a look at the logo for the University of California, and then a criticism of it posted by some random person to social media:
“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.”
Chappell Ellison thinks this review is worthless:
“These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.
They are jokes.
They only benefit the joker.”
And I just don’t think that is true in the slightest. Surely that’s only true if you think that jokes can’t be meaningful – and if you think that, I’ve got a shelf of comedy DVDs which prove otherwise.
Moreover, the actual point which the above joke makes is fairly obvious. Let’s rewrite it with the joke removed:
“The new logo for the University of California looks too much like one for a Children’s network.”
Now, you may agree with that criticism, or you may not. (I can see both sides.) But either way, the criticism of the logo is certainly not meaningless; the idea that a logo might take some incorrect visual cues and not properly reflect the organisation it was designed for is a good, solid piece of crit. Sure, it’s not the most in-depth piece of criticism ever written. But as Chappell herself says in the article: “To be a good critic, you don’t have to start a blog or write essays.”
The only reason a person might think the above doesn’t work as criticism is if you think framing the point in terms of a joke renders it meaningless. And this endlessly seems to be a problem with comedy. Over here is someone who thinks criticism expressed comedically doesn’t work. And over there is someone else, who dismisses sitcoms in favour of “serious, meaningful” drama. It’s all part of the same thing.
Criticism framed comedically is meaningless? That’s some of the worst criticism I’ve ever read.
Kate Lee, “Introducing The Message”, 22nd April 2014:
“One of the tenets underpinning Medium is that people write better together – or, as Ev has written, “Don’t write alone.”
In that spirit, The Message is a new collection for collaborative writing. We’ve gathered twelve writers and thinkers across technology, media, culture, and academia to publish together in one place—and demonstrate that the sum is greater than its parts. Think of it as a modern version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table, whose members, in the course of conversing on a constant basis, collaborated on creative projects. We hope that, like the Round Table, The Message will allow for a flowering of ideas, robust debate, and thoughtful discourse.”
And so it did. Over the next year and a half, The Message published such things as the story of Tilde.Club, forcing your child to play old videogames, or how to scale Kim Kardashian’s backend. And while it never became a must-visit publication for me, I often found myself on there without even realising it.
And then, in 2016, it spluttered to a halt. Three articles about the Berenstain Bears in January, a piece about Zuckerberg and India in February, and then finally a piece about some fellow called Alexander Heffner on May 22nd. That was two years ago to the very day.
Since then: nothing. Not a single article published. Crucially: not a “we’re closing, goodbye, but there’s loads of other cool stuff on Medium”. Absolutely sod all. The Twitter feed is silent too. The project just… stopped.
OK, so it’s not exactly hard to find out exactly what happened, at least in vague terms. See this article on Business Insider, from June 2015:
“Two weeks ago, publishing platform Medium — which has become known for tech and culture blogs like Matter, Backchannel, The Nib, and The Message — announced a change in its direction.
Medium now wants to become more of a social network rather than a publishing platform. But this comes at a great cost to its full-time and freelance staff, people familiar with the matter told Business Insider.”
And although the article goes on to state that The Message was undergoing some “reshuffling”, rather than shutting down entirely… clearly plans changed. And the mention of budget cuts probably tell you all you need to know.
* * *
Medium itself is still going strong, of course. Here’s a blog about their latest developments. Which – and let me be absolutely clear about this – I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.
Because I can’t forget how they dealt with the death of The Message. How they didn’t have respect for the publication’s readers, how they didn’t bother to do an official goodbye post. How they just abandoned it, and moved on to whatever the company set its eyes upon next.
How frankly, they couldn’t be bothered to do something like this. Wind up the project respectfully, and move on.
And why do I care so much? Because communication with your readers is everything when it comes to ending projects like this. I can deal with it on a personal blog, which is often just one person with far too much going on in their life. It’s not ideal, but it’s at least understandable. But Medium is a commercial company, and there are simply higher expectations. If you have an audience who is bothering to read what you’re putting out there, you owe it to them to actually tell them your publication is closing. As far as I can tell, Medium has made absolutely no official statement about The Message whatsoever. As much as anything else: it’s just rude.
There’s also some rather unpleasant implications which come from not shutting down The Message correctly: it gives the distinct impression that the company never cared about this set of writing in the first place, despite the words quoted at the top of this article. Because if they cared, they’d want to give it a dignified end. So if they didn’t care about this, how do I know they actually give a stuff about what they say they care about now?
Finally, and perhaps worst of all: it gives me absolutely no confidence that Medium will treat its current readers and writers with any respect whatsoever. If the company wants to change tack, they’ll change tack, perhaps silently, and damn everything else.
That’s their right, of course, and good luck to them. But I don’t trust a company like that with my words.
Dan Nosowitz, “I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore”:
“The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn’t really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.
But… I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.
(It’s worth reading the whole article; it’s short, and I’m not about to quote every relevant piece of the article here.)
Here’s my own experience: when I first got proper access to the net at university back in 2001, I ended up with tab after tab after tab open, as I got lost in a spiral of links. These days… I end up with tab after tab after tab open, as I get lost in a spiral of links. The above from Dan isn’t something I can relate to at all; I can still find loads of things to do. A quick glance through the Trivia section on TV Tropes is all I need to end up reading endless fascinating stuff on obscure blogs. I can get stuck in much the same way on Wikipedia’s list of hoaxes, or spend hours lazing about on The Cutting Room Floor. And a visit to The Digital Antiquarian always lasts rather more time than I can officially spare to it. That’s just four examples out of hundreds.
Now, do I think that people spend too much time on social media these days in lieu of other stuff? Yes, I do, myself included.1 And there are many, many abandoned blogs that I wish were still updated. But that doesn’t mean the web is suddenly a wasteground. There’s always something for me to read or do online.
To be fair, Dan does go deeper than the above quote from his piece suggests:
“There is an argument that this my fault. I followed the wrong people; I am too nostalgic about bad blogs; I am in my 30s and what I used to think was fun time-killing is now deadly. But I don’t think so. What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.”
Maybe I’m lucky in that my work life barely involves the internet, except to check a few TV listings here and there. The net has never been about work for me. But then, I spend my work hours watching television for up to 12 hours a day… and then go back home and keep watching it while I have my tea. I’m not sure my work being online would affect me having fun on it too.
Anecdotally, however, here’s something which might be worth discussing. Because it’s true that I spend a great deal of time clicking around websites in a spiral of hot web action: but how many other people actually do that these days?
It used to be that when people visited one of my sites, they would have a look around and see what else was there. These days, that rarely seems to happen, according to my logs. People might come to Dirty Feed to read something that was linked to on Twitter… but they won’t click through to anything else and see what other things I’ve written.
Now, this could obviously be because people think what they’ve just read is complete shit, and they sure don’t need any more of that, thank you very much indeed. But I’ve talked to people about other websites, and this seems to be a common thing. Many people just don’t seem to click around like they used to. They’re far keener to go back to their Twitter or Facebook feeds rather than hanging around on a website, even if they found what they read interesting.
And this is something I find odd… because if I like something somebody has written, I’ll always look and see what else they’ve done. I might not read their entire oeuvre. But I’ll have a click around and see what else is on offer. A quick scroll through their archives to see if something catches me eye is the least I’ll do. And I’ll often end up with my aforementioned endless steam of open tabs.
Of course, the web has changed a lot in the last fifteen years. But I’m not sure it’s changed so much that it’s impossible for people to find fun things to read or do. I think some people are just getting out of the habit of clicking on a link and seeing where it will take them. And that’s a bit of a shame.
* * *
One final thought. If the above doesn’t resonate with you, and if you really do feel you can’t find enough fun stuff online like you used to, the beautiful thing about the web is that you can do something about that.
More to the point, the web makes doing that very easy. For instance, a lot of TV made these days isn’t quite to my taste, shall we say. But there’s not much I can do about that. I can’t make the audience sitcom of my dreams, and blast it out to the nation. But I can write silly things online for free, and publish them.
Take my recent set of articles about Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton plays. They didn’t set the world on fire; in fact, relatively few people read them at all. I got a bit grumpy about that at first, slightly embarrassingly, but then decided to take my own advice: numbers aren’t everything.2
The point is: those articles are something I wanted to exist in the world… so I went out there and wrote them. And we can all do this, or at least all of us who are in a position to write pontificating articles about the state of the web. If you’re not happy about the web as it is, you can go out there and do something about it.
So if the internet’s not fun for you any more… go out there and help make it fun again. None of us can change the world. But we can bend it, just a little. And if enough of us bend it, we might just get somewhere.
Of all the striking things about Dennis Potter’s 1965 play Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, one thing in particular stands out: its use of real news footage, of Nye Bevan’s speech on the Suez crisis, and an “interview” with Oswald Mosley1 on unemployment. Clips which aren’t included into the play in a diegetic fashion, but are merely thrown into the mix when a character mentions them.
This is the tale of how such unusual method of storytelling may have preserved a little piece of history. And although the world probably doesn’t need any more Oswald Mosley2, Nigel Barton nonetheless provides exactly that.
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Previously on Dirty Feed, I took a look at the differences between the script taken into rehearsals for Dennis Potter’s 1965 play Stand Up, Nigel Barton, and what was finally broadcast. (Please read that first piece if you haven’t already; it contains a lot of background necessary for understanding this one.) This time, we take a look at Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, broadcast the following week on the 15th December 1965. Fittingly enough, Vote – Potter’s cry of desperation about the state of politics – got bogged down in behind-the-scenes politics of its own, and ended up with a rather chequered production history. So first of all, it’s important to define what this article isn’t.
Unlike the relative peacefulness of Stand Up‘s production, Vote not only had a major rewrite, but that major rewrite was after the whole thing had been shot. Potter details in his introduction to the Penguin scriptbook The Nigel Barton Plays that the play was originally ready for broadcast on the 23rd June 1965, but that executives started to get cold feet and pulled the play seven hours before transmission.
Between June and the play’s eventual December broadcast, several scenes were rewritten and reshot. Needless to say, Potter wasn’t very happy about it.
“The result disfigures the play in a few important ways. Firstly, some of the savagery of Jack Hay’s cynicism had to be muted. It was argued that, in the original, the agent was ‘almost psychotic’. After much edgy negotiation, I was able to settle for what is now in the text – but I hope it will be clear […] that any further diminution in the bite or the fury of the part would have ruined the play.”
The crucial bit for us in terms of analysing the changes made to the text is the following:
“Like the new Jack Hay I, too, have my own ‘private grief’ and nothing will now induce me to publish the original Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton (nor the original of my Cinderella). These published texts are to be related to what was actually shown on the screen.”
Which means we have a somewhat different situation here compared to that with Stand Up, Nigel Barton. There, we could be certain that the text as published in The Nigel Barton Plays was what was taken into the rehearsal rooms. Here, Potter admits that the script published for Vote is not his original intention. These certainly aren’t transcripts, as there are plenty of differences between this script and what made it onto the screen – so they are presumably an amalgamation of his original script, and the specific scenes featuring Jack Hay which he delivered as rewrites.
So, what this article can’t detail is Potter’s original vision. You don’t get the old, even more twisted Jack Hay here, I’m afraid. We only have what is published in The Nigel Barton Plays to go on. We will, however, analyse the sections of the script which Potter admits were rewritten… and in at least a couple of instances, we can tell that the enforced rewrite on his character has entirely been ignored when it came to actually shooting the thing.
Enough background. Let’s get going. Material from the book is styled like this, and dialogue from the show as broadcast is styled like this. Note that I haven’t detailed every single change in wording between the script and the screen – only the stuff where there seemed to be an interesting point to make, or where there have been clear censorship issues.
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Khoi Vinh, “Movies Watched, 2017”, 5th January 2018:
“That beats my 2016 total by five and averages out to just under sixteen a month, a pace I credit to my continued adherence to a largely television-free diet. I’m going into my third year doing this now and I don’t miss TV much at all, especially as eschewing it has afforded me the time to watch and re-watch so many great or obscure or fondly remembered movies that I’d never be able to otherwise. Television is a waste of time, people.”
Khoi Vinh, “Movies Watched, February 2018”, 8th March 2018:
“Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle” Also hilarious.
Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle is not a movie, but a television programme, originally made and broadcast by Sky in 2016. And not only is it a television programme, but it’s a parody which makes fun of the conventions of a certain kind of television documentary. It only fully works in the context of it being a television programme.
If you’re going to dismiss an entire artform, by all means do so. But it’s probably best to be consistent about it, rather than pretending the bits you like are actually movies instead.
BRIAN: Dear Mr. Vernon. We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us to write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions. You see us as a Brain, an Athlete, a Basketcase, Princess, and a Criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at 7 o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.
– Opening monologue, The Breakfast Club (1985)
Above is one of the most famous monologues in film history. This is the tale of how it almost never was… or, at least, how it was almost never famous.
Floating around online is an early draft of The Breakfast Club script (PDF link). There is no date attached, nor does it specify exactly which draft it is: the front page is entirely missing. It is, however, significantly different to the film which made it to the screen. Detailing even the major changes is a task for another day, and would involve comparing the script not only with the final film, but also the deleted scenes on the recent brand new Blu-ray release.
But I thought comparing that opening monologue to the one in this unspecified draft might be fun. Let’s take a look at it…
…what’s that? It isn’t present in the film’s opening at all?
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Recently, I took a holiday across Europe from the UK to Sicily, taking in Rome along the way. Hey, anyone want to see my holiday pictures? Here’s the Colosseum in Rome:
OK, I’m no good at travelogues. Check out this post from my consort Tanya Jones if you want something a little more sensible in that regard.
* * *
We spent a lot of time on the train on this holiday, and part of our journey involved an 11 hour train ride from Rome to Sicily. And as excited as I was to be travelling along the Italian coast, something else was at the back of my mind. I had a laptop. I had a power socket. And I had 11 hours to fill. I could walk onto that train with my mind totally empty, and walk off it with a whole article written on something cool.
And I’m sure that would be perfect for some people. The kind of people who conjure up magical words purely out of their magical brain, and need nothing else.
Me? It really made me realise how pretty much everything I write builds on the work of others.1 When I’m writing, I need constant access to articles online, to my DVD shelf, to my 40″ television, to books I suddenly discover I have to buy, and to help from random people on Twitter. Travelling with just a laptop and a brain – and spotty data coverage – isn’t enough for me to be able to do anything useful.
The romantic ideal didn’t work.
* * *
And yet, wandering around Syracuse, full of calamari, something strange started to happen. Looking out at the beautiful sea, an idea popped into my head for an article. And another one. And another one. And another one. My head felt full of ideas for the first time in ages.
None of those article ideas were about the beauty of Sicily, of course. It was all about old sitcoms, as per. But they were ideas, some of them vaguely swirling around my head for ages, which suddenly popped into sharp focus.
It’s standard advice, of course. Go somewhere new, change your surroundings, and your brain will find it easier to do things. But that’s the thing: it’s such standard advice, it’s sometimes easy just to ignore it. But it really did work for me. If you have trouble getting your brain in gear, going somewhere else really is a useful thing to do. A cliche it may be, but it did me the absolute world of good.
The romantic ideal worked.
Every so often, a tweet makes you stop, think, and re-evaluate your life. This is one such tweet.
For the record: yes, I’ve done my research and listened to the podcast, rather than trusting a quote picked out by someone else. That is indeed exactly what someone on the podcast says: specifically, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates.
OK, I admit, I’m immediately suspicious of one-sentence platitudes on how to live your life. But the above really gave me pause. Sure, there are things I look back on where I think yeah, I was bloody stupid. (Let’s be generous and assume that by “stupid”, Ray simply means “had more to learn”.) I work in playout on a major TV channel; I like to think I can deal with channel breakdowns better now than at any point in my career.1 I know I’m a more considerate person when it comes to relationships than I used to be. And I used to be the kind of person who sneered a little at trigger warnings, privately if not publicly; I’m not perfect these days by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m certainly more aware of social issues now than I ever used to be.
But I think back to how I used to be in other areas… and I don’t feel I was stupid at all. In fact, I was better at some things than I am now. When I was writing news stories for Ganymede & Titan daily, I got a knack for how to write an entertaining news story very quickly, which I have all but completely lost now. Sure, maybe I’m happier these days writing more longform, personal stuff: but there are times when having the old skill would be extremely useful, and I just can’t do it like I used to be able to.
Oh, and I used to be able to write headlines.
Or take my current job. Am I happier directing a TV channel now than I was working as a shelf stacker in a cash and carry? Of course I am. But I’d be a fool not to recognise there were certain things about that job which made me a better person in some ways than now, if only because I was fitter and more physically dextrous. Sitting on your arse for 12 hours a day is not the way to improve yourself in this regard. Being on your feet all day scooting up and down the aisles lifting heavy boxes is, no matter how little I enjoyed it.
We are all complex creatures. Yes, we learn and improve on some things as we get older… but we lose things, too. I don’t look back on my older self and see just stupidity; I see parts of myself which I have lost, and wish that I hadn’t. The hours I used to spend swimming or cycling; my interest in programming; the articles I used to write which I’d never dare to now because of self-doubt. As we choose to improve some areas of our lives, other things fall by the wayside. That’s only natural: but to pretend no matter how hard we try that our lives consist of constant improvement is a fallacy.
If you only look back on yourself and see stupidity, maybe you’re just not giving your past self a fair chance. And more importantly: maybe you’re not giving your future self a chance to put at least some of that right.