Writing Life

 

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Here you will find my blogs about writing and life.

By pauldodgson, Jul 8 2016 11:03AM

It happened on a train somewhere between Swindon and Chippenham early in the year 2000. I was returning from London and eavesdropping on a gang of well-groomed teenagers communicating in faux street talk. I had an idea.


At the time I was a producer for BBC Radio 4 and to survive meant selling your bodyweight in ideas for new shows so I was always waiting for light-bulb moments. They occurred very rarely, but that afternoon I had a vision for a whole series. Why not, I thought, get load of old people to rip the piss out of youth culture in a comedy show? Even the title came to me in the moment. Fogies. There would be two teams interrogating and interpreting ghetto talk, pop music and so forth. It would be hilarious. It would be cult listening. Old people would think it was funny and young people would think it was funny in an ironic way.


Then I had another idea. Why not get young Fogie-in-Chief, Boris Johnson to be the chair. It would be even more hilarious.


At the time Boris was the editor of The Spectator magazine and was making a spectacle of himself on numerous TV shows. His shambolic appearances on Have I Got New For You were so bad they were thought to be good.


Radio 4 decided Fogies was a good idea and commissioned the series. They even gave me broadcast dates, which is unheard of in the prestigious 18:30 comedy slot without lengthy negotiations and a pilot episode being made first.


At this point I hadn’t even asked Boris if he wanted to do it, so I wrote him a polite letter, describing a ‘new satirical comedy project,’ but leaving out the name of the programme.


A few days later I received a call from Ann Sindall, Boris’s formidable secretary and gatekeeper, summoning me to a meeting at The Spectator offices in SW1. I sat outside his office feeling like a schoolboy about to see the headmaster. When I was ushered in Boris stayed behind his desk under a portrait of himself. Maybe the desk was small, but Boris seemed larger than expected. Usually it’s the other way round with people you know off the TV, but Boris seemed bigger, blonder and even more bumbling. I felt as though he was standing at a fork in the road. When he looked one way he could see himself as Nicholas Parsons and the other way Winston Churchill. We didn’t exactly have a conversation, but I sort of told him the idea (pitch is perhaps too strong a word) and Boris sort of said yes.


So I booked the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House for a string of recording dates. Then I turned on the radio one morning to discover Boris had been selected as the prospective candidate for Henley, replacing Michael Heseltine in the next election. My bosses at the BBC made it quite clear that I needed to get up to London pronto and make sure his parliamentary aspirations didn’t get in the way of our comedy show.


So first thing next morning I was back in front of the desk. I could tell right away Boris wanted out. He didn’t look me in the eye and had a sort of mumbled conversation with himself while I did the hard sell. But he couldn’t actually say no, so like a doorstep conservatory salesman I carried on talking. Eventually I said, ‘So, we’re still on then. Great.’ Boris didn’t disagree.


But without actually saying he didn’t want to do it anymore, Boris slowly withdrew from Fogies. First he told me he didn’t have time to travel to Broadcasting House for the recordings. No problem, I responded, we can do it upstairs in The Spectator dining room. Next, he didn’t have time to write a script. No problem, I said, I will write a draft and you can put it into your own words. Calls were not returned and messages went unanswered.


I felt like a captain steering his ship towards the rocks. I knew there was no way that this lack of engagement would sustain a whole series. I began to worry so much that I started losing sleep. Then one afternoon I was staring at my computer screen trying to write to my bosses admitting that Fogies was going to be a mighty cock-up when the most extraordinary thing happened. An email arrived from Radio 4 telling me that a new comedy series like this is never ever commissioned without a pilot being made first and that is what must happen. The transmission dates were cancelled. Just make a pilot episode they told me. I made prayer hands, looked up to the sky and said thank you.


On the day of the recording the team assembled in the garden of The Spectator. Among the participants were Grahame Garden, Edward Enfield and representing young people, Marcus Brigstocke. There was no sign of Boris. Eventually he lumbered into view clutching the script that he hadn’t yet read. Then he looked through it and decided it was fine as it was.


We all trooped upstairs to where a BBC engineer had set up recording equipment. It was supposed to be recorded in front of an audience made up from staff and friends of The Spectator. It became clear that wasn’t going to happen because nobody had been told the recording was going on. A colleague from the BBC was with me and I instructed the sound engineer to laugh out loud whenever possible. So there were three of us in the audience.


All things considered the show wasn’t too bad. Marcus was funny at undermining Boris and Grahame Garden knew exactly when to chip in with a witticism. But Boris dissociated himself from the script by reading it badly and saying, ‘it says here,’ when it came to a joke. There were only two of us laughing as the engineer, trained not to laugh out loud when the tape was rolling, couldn’t change the habit of a lifetime. It was never going to be a winner.


So it was no surprise when, a few weeks later, the news trickled down from Radio 4 HQ to say Fogies would not be going ahead as a series.


Eventually a letter arrived in the post from The Spectator. It looked as if it had been written on an old fashioned typewriter and consisted of one sentence. ‘I am sorry I was completely…’ At this point the typing stopped and the last word, ‘hopeless,’ was written by hand.


By pauldodgson, Nov 4 2014 12:30PM

I am sitting in the café at Bristol Central library. I have just come down from the reference section to discover there has been a run on sandwiches and soup, so lunch is a flapjack and a cup of tea. I am wearing headphones and listening to BBC Radio 4 via my iPhone. There is a big row on The Archers as David and Ruth explain to the family the possibility of selling Brookfield farm. That’s appropriate, explains the announcer afterwards, as the Afternoon Drama is about home and what it means when you might lose it. Then the play begins and I hear my own words and my own voice in my ears while watching people smearing butter on teacakes. Then I close my eyes. This drama is very personal, telling the story of my childhood home and my mother getting older. I am in it too, playing myself in scenes and narrating the whole thing. It is better with my eyes closed.


I have had a lot of plays on the radio, but hearing them going out on air still gives me a thrill. I am listening to words I know intimately, words I have lingered over late at night, changed and changed back again. Then there was the recording; two days at the BBC in Cardiff with actors pretending to be my mum and dad. Right now, in my head, I am absolutely the centre of attention, but no-one else here knows or cares, which is much like being an only child, one of the themes of the play. Audience research tells me there are more than 800,000 listeners to the Afternoon Drama. That’s everyone at Glastonbury Festival nearly seven times over. Imagine all those people in one place. Yet in a country of over 64 million inhabitants, listeners are spread thinly among the population.


When my last play was broadcast I sat in the car by the Chew Valley Lake in North Somerset. I had my daughter with me and we both sat looking over the reed beds to the water and the Mendip Hills beyond. It felt like an occasion, something important, but I have another two theatre plays to deliver on Friday, which is why I am here, alone. I am certain that I am the only person listening to this play in the building right now. Everyone else is having meetings, reading books, drinking tea or keeping out of the rain. But here, between my ears, it feels like a first night as the play gathers pace and I know that there will be listeners spaced between the Scottish Highlands and The Scilly Isles. There might even be someone listening on the Internet in a far-flung corner of the world.


Then, forty-five minutes later it is over. There is no round of applause at the end, no standing ovation, not even the sensation of knowing you haven’t got it quite right as you observe a muted audience leaving a theatre. Instead, Moneybox begins on Radio 4. So I open my laptop, look at my phone and wait. At first there is nothing. Then I get a couple of jokey texts. Then friends start posting messages on Facebook. Then the emails start to arrive. There is something wonderful about this. Strangers so moved by what they have heard they look me up on the web, find an email address and actually write to say thank you. I have told an intimate story about myself and I get some lovely stories in return from listeners reminded of their own childhoods and homes. And the emails keep arriving, all evening and though the night too. And I know now there is at least one listener overseas. A lady thanked me for the play but said she had to listen to the end and that had made her very late for work… In New York City.


Home is available on iPlayer until 25th November.


http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04l10j7


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