Friday 29 July 2011

But I have learnt something: the plural of cheetah.

There will be a Rotterdam post, but I'm afraid probably not for a few days. These are busy times, for both good and bad reasons. In the meantime, here's a sign I saw in a zoo recently. You'll probably have to click it to read it. 

'A number of methods to find out where the cheetah live'. Impressive. Including method 1: Seeing where the cheetah are; and method 4: asking if anyone else have seen where the cheetah are.  

Friday 22 July 2011

I wish I could find the setting for 'Jelly Babies to Automatic'...

Ottery St Mary is now available here. I have to say, I do like this episode. It might be my favourite this series, or that might be St. Petersburg; but for very different reasons. This one I like because it's silly and cheerful and fun; and for most of it, everyone gets on rather well and enjoys one another's company. You can't do that often in a sitcom, or it gets dull, but it's nice once in a while.

In the first draft, it was designed to be the counterpart to Johannesburg, in which the cast are for half the episode split Douglas and Carolyn / Martin and Arthur. And of course there are several episodes where the split is Martin and Douglas / Carolyn and Arthur; so I thought I'd try the other possible pairing. The version I wrote worked fine, but it just seemed such a shame to do a 'Martin's van' episode without Martin in the van. So I took it apart, rewrote the road trip section to include Martin, and came up with a new plot for Carolyn. Then, at the recordings, this was the other episode recorded the week Benedict was ill. However, the cast all very kindly agreed to re-do the Martin scenes at the end of the third recording - and Tom very very kindly agreed to perform Martin on stage, even though he knew it wouldn't go out. Which meant I got to hear the script performed as if for real, in front of an audience... but with two weeks to improve it with rewrites and cuts, which was an incredible luxury.  So, this has had more rewriting time than any other episode, and not coincidentally it's one of my favourites. You just cannot rewrite too much. Even now I'd like another pass at it - why on earth did I make Herc's sports car green rather than yellow? Idiot. 

Another rewriting story - the design of the Herc / Carolyn story was always that they would alternate having the upper hand in their skirmishes, and first time round this meant when it got to the sheep scene, it needed to be Carolyn with the phobia, and Herc mocking her. Which didn't work at all - Carolyn seemed out-of-character, and Herc seemed bullying and unpleasant. But when I finally realised what the problem was, and restructured it so they could swap, it worked fine. Interesting that even with a female character you've spent two and a half series establishing as strong to the point of fearsome; 'woman is scared of sheep' just fundamentally isn't as funny as 'man is scared of sheep'.

When I was first creating the show, in 2005 (!), my working title for MJN Air was 'Icarus Airways'. Once Carolyn's character became more developed, I realised reluctantly she'd never be daft enough to call it that. But I know a man who would...

For the origin of the otter-imagining game, have a look at this blog post I wrote three years ago. I like that I titled it 'I am supposed to be writing a sitcom.' Little did I know I was bunking off writing Cabin Pressure series one to write a bit of Cabin Pressure series three.

I like that, although I know 99.9% of the audience wouldn't remember, Snoopadoop's name (and Carolyn's soppiness about her) is actually mentioned in the very first episode. Snoopadoop, by the way, is named after a poodle puppy I met at the Edinburgh festival in about 2004, and so whom is probably still around. So if you're here because you got bored and googled your dog's name, hello, and thank you! 

This week's 'deleted scene' is from near the end, when they're at Ottery St Mary's (non-existant, by the way) airfield, and realise the pub is a mile away:

DOUGLAS: ...yes, yes, alright. Let’s start pushing. 
MARTIN: Thank you so much! Except of course... I can’t really push. Because of my ankle?
DOUGLAS: Alright. Arthur and I will push. You can walk alongside
MARTIN: ...I don’t think I can. Not for a mile.  Again, the ankle.
DOUGLAS Then what do you suggest?
MARTIN Well… I thought perhaps, if I were to do this…
DOUGLAS: Ah. I see. ‘Hello Ottery St Mary. Please welcome Douglas Richardson and Arthur Shappey, and joining them, on the piano, Martin Crieff.’

Tuesday 19 July 2011


Just a quick-ish and late one on Newcastle (available here ), I'm afraid, because real life is still in the way a bit. 

Every series, it seems, one episode causes me more trouble and hair-tearing than any two and a half of the others combined. In series one it was Cremona - my God that plot took some wrestling to get down to twenty-eight minutes. In series two it was Kuala Lumpur, which if I'm honest I still don't think I ever got quite right. This series it was Newcastle. And it's always the same problem: way, way too much plot, resulting in a nine thousand word monster of a draft which I somehow have to boil down to about 5,600.  I didn't quite manage it with Newcastle, either, so there's a lot on the cutting room floor this week. What annoys me about it is that I realised when it was too late that actually, the problem was that there's the material for two perfectly good episodes in it - one based around flying Herc and Linda; and one based around Martin getting on the wrong side of an engineer. Apart from anything else, it's a shame to cram three such brilliant guest stars all into one episode, rather than giving them room to breathe. Oh well. I'll know better next time. (I won't.) This is all sounding very negative, isn't it - I still really like the episode. 

And then, of course, the morning before the recording, we got the call from Benedict's agent saying she was terribly sorry, but he simply had no voice left at all (you can hear he's suffering a bit in some of the other episodes). So hooray for the tremendous Tom Goodman-Hill, who I think does a terrific job of being a Martin that's not just a pale copy of Benedict's, but on the other hand doesn't feel like a jarring leap away from his. And hooray for Benedict, Roger and Stephanie for very decently agreeing to re-record Martin's scenes in the next episode, Ottery St. Mary, so that Ben-Martin could appear in five out of the six episodes. Isn't everyone great? Arthur's right: other people are brilliant. 

Speaking of Arthur, here's some more of his Monopoly game:

CAROLYN: He also once did a deal whereby he gave Martin Mayfair, so long as he was also allowed to give him the Electric Company.
ARTHUR: Well, I kept having to times things by four! That’s not fun, that’s maths! Anyway, I’m still playing!
CAROLYN: Of course you are. Indeed it’s your go.
ARTHUR: Twenty-forth go in jail. Are you sure I can’t just pay fifty pounds to get out, Herc?
HERC: You wanted to be the little dog.
ARTHUR: I’m always the little dog.
HERC: And everyone knows the little dog can’t pay to get out of prison. You just have to wait till you get a Get Out Of Jail Free card.
ARTHUR: But how can I get one when I’m in jail?
HERC: Well, that’s exactly why you should never be the little dog.

Friday 15 July 2011

Also, Allington Nursery and... what?

Hello. There will be a 'Newcastle' post, but not until Monday. Real life is in the way. In the meantime, though, and from the same cycle ride as the Salad Depot, the most English 'advert' imaginable.

I was going to crop it to just the top half, which is the bit that made me take the photo. But actually, I like the bottom half as well. 'Showroom'?

Thursday 14 July 2011

Ever wondered where salad comes from?

Well, now you know. 

(By the way, it's almost time for my sketch night again. 8pm. The Albany, Great Portland Street. Sketches, by me, in a show. Come!) 

Saturday 9 July 2011

Stage direction: [DING] Ding! [DING] Ding! [DING] Ding!

Paris, episode two of Cabin Pressure, is available here for the next six days.  Massive spoilers for this episode follow. Don't read on if you haven't heard the episode, and think you might want to. 

First, to give those guys time to leave, thank you so much for all the nice comments about my piece about the News of the World on The Now Show this week. I cannot think of anything I've ever written that's got quite such a reaction. Tomorrow, outrageously big-headed though it seems, I'll put a transcript of it up here, including some of the bits that didn't make the edit. 

But back in Paris, or at least on the way to Paris... did I fool you? I hope so. I love whodunnits, they are my trashy fiction of choice, especially the 'golden age' thirties and forties ones, and I've wanted to do a whodunnit episode of Cabin Pressure for ages - even before Captain Crieff took on his secret identity on BBC1. For a long time, this episode had a totally different plot and solution, and was all about Mr Alyakhin (from the Christmas special) and his party of rich yacht buyers losing some sort of priceless jewel on a trip to look at massive yachts in Palma. But the problem was, I always knew I wanted Douglas to be the culprit; and I couldn't quite believe in him actually stealing a valuable thing from a passenger, however unpleasant I made them. And then I remembered Birling Day, which meant I could also bring back Geoffrey Whitehead as a guest star, who is simply one of my favourite comedy actors. 

I decided early on there would be no mention of the S word, or indeed the H word, still less the 'E, MDW' phrase. But that didn't mean there couldn't be, maybe, a couple of sly references... Benedict was an incredibly good sport about it all, especially given the audience was full of Sherlock fans. Though he did give me quite a look at the first read-through when we got to 'Wow, Skip! You're just like Miss Marple!' 

A few people have asked me about Martin's money situation at the end - I did explain this in the script at one point, but as always I had to cut loads to fit it to 28 minutes. Anyway, yes, it's possible that Martin does not have to tell Carolyn that he lost the bet, given that Birling got the whisky in the end, and can claim his hundred pounds off her. However, personally, I think Martin's too decent; Douglas too boastful; and Arthur too incapable of lying for her not to find out the truth pretty quickly. However, Martin gets a thousand pound pearl off Birling, plus a fifty pound tip, so even if he pays up to Carolyn he comes out £950 ahead on the trip, which should buy him plenty of baked potatoes. So I think it's a happy ending for him. 

Somebody asked why Carolyn opened the bottle at the start - so that she (and we) could be absolutely certain it was the genuine whisky seconds before being put into Martin's hands. After that, only Martin and Arthur touch the bottle before it's poured. 

I'm very pleased a couple of people said they thought the guilty party was Mr Birling's wife. That's absolutely what she was there for. I hoped a lot of people trying to guess the solution would hit upon the Carolyn solution Douglas tries to sell Martin, and that others, if I introduced one other character early on, who was studiously never accused by anyone, would go for them. But really, of course, once Douglas has said he's going to steal a bottle of whisky... it always had to be Douglas. Hence this bit of dialogue which didn't make the edit:

MARTIN                          Stop doing that! I admit you have a sort of underhand sneakiness…
DOUGLAS                         A brilliant flair for strategy and subterfuge.
MARTIN                     your disposal, but what I have that you don’t, and which you always underestimate, is that I am meticulous and methodical. And it seems to me that so long as I make sure there is never even a moment on the trip when I’m not watching you, or the whisky, or both; then however clever you are, I can’t see how you’ll take it. 
DOUGLAS                       Of course you can’t ‘see how I’ll take it’! I’d hardly be a criminal mastermind if you could ‘see how I’ll take it’! But I will take it. 

Friday 8 July 2011

Happy Birling Day

Just a quick one, to say there's plenty of me on Radio Four today. Perhaps too much. New Cabin Pressure at 11:30, featuring the return of the mighty and hilarious Geoffrey Whitehead as Mr Birling; and then on the Now Show at 6:30 I get to express my important opinions about the News of the World hacking Milly Dowler's phone. Sneak preview: I'm broadly against it.

Family stuff to do today, so I'll put my 'Paris' post up tomorrow. Hope you enjoy it!

Monday 4 July 2011

He also invented the petard.

This is Sir Robert Watson-Watt, who described himself in his autobiography as:

'a sixth rate mathematician, a second rate physicist, a second rate engineer, and a bit of a meteorologist, something of a journalist, a plausible salesman of ideas, interested in politics, liking to believe there is some poetry in my physics, some physics in my politics.'

He may have been a little modest there. Watson-Watt is generally credited with the invention of radar; and certainly with the system of detecting aircraft with it, and the chain of radar stations on the south coast of England, which is often cited as the reason the British won the Battle of Britain; which in turn is often cited as the turning point of the war. Imagine what he might have achieved if he'd been a fifth rate mathematician...

Anyway, I bring him to your attention today because later in life he was stopped for speeding by a policeman, using a radar gun. I think it's safe to say the irony was not lost on him.

by Robert Watson-Watt.

Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
strange target of this radar plot
And thus, with others I can mention,
victim of his own invention.
His magical all-seeing eye
enabled cloud-bound planes to fly
but now by some ironic twist
it spots the speeding motorist
and bites, no doubt with legal wit,
the hand that once created it.
And so, all you courageous boffins
who may be nailing up your coffins,
(particularly those whose mission
is in the realm of nuclear fission)
pause and mull fate’s counter plot
and learn with us what’s Watson-Watt.

Friday 1 July 2011

'Ours Blanc'. Or 'Ours Polaire'

Qikiqtarjuaq, the first episode in the new series of Cabin Pressure, is available here for the next seven days.  

It wasn't written as the first episode, but unfortunately Benedict Cumberbatch lost his voice for the recording of the one that was meant to be first. And brilliant though Tom Goodman-Hill was in the part, it seemed odd to begin the series without one of the usual cast, so we tinkered with the episode order. It was between this one and Paris for episode one, but I think this is a more typical 'in the plane, taking some people to a place' story, which is a useful way to begin. Also, because Martin and Douglas fall out, their relationship in this episode is more like the prickly one they had in series one, rather than the increasingly friendly one in series two, which again I like as a way of introducing new listeners to what is supposed to be funny about the sit of this com. 

Martin's polar bear lecture is one of the very few times a whole piece has just come to me quite naturally and fluently. I usually find writing very difficult indeed - every sentence has to be dragged out of me, and then endlessly rewritten.  But this time I was out walking along the canal, trying to think of ideas for the speech to write up when I got home, and instead I ended up practically dictating it into my phone, comedy French accent and all. Even when I hear it now, I can picture where along the canal I was when I said that bit. Here's an extra couple of lines from it that we had to cut in the edit to fit:

DOUGLAS:            Remind me, who was it the French were fighting in Alaska?

MARTIN:                ... Ah'm afraid zis information is still classified. 

Oh, and doing the credits in the accent was entirely Benedict's idea! I love it, especially 'D'veed Tylar'