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September 9th 2019
Readers of this page will be familiar with my '40 by 40' list, comprising some of the things I'd like to achieve before my fortieth birthday rolls around in 2025, ranging from the incredibly easy (learn how to scramble eggs) to the basically impossible (persuade someone to name their child Colin). One of the items on the list, falling somewhere between those extremes, is to write a play. I thought I'd give you an update on how that's going.
I have always enjoyed writing, whether it's newspaper-style articles, blog posts or sketches, and the natural extension of that was to write some longer fiction. Writing a novel sounds really hard; I'm not much of a poetry guy; a play, therefore, seemed the obvious thing to aim for, and so I added it to my list without really thinking too hard about what that might entail. I didn't have any ideas at all, in fact. Nothing about story, nothing about characters - only that I knew it would be a comedy, because I know my limitations, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to write a drama. Well, not a good one, anyhow.
And, in fact, in some ways 'write a play' is one of the easiest things on my list, because anyone can write a play. Just write enough words and you've done it. On the other hand, it was one of the hardest things on my list, because I had no idea if I could actually write a play that would be any good; something that people might actually want to be in, or see. I've written plenty of sketches, but this was a whole different kettle of fish: a (half-decent) play needs to have structure, and character development, and an interesting plot. Well, unless you're Samuel Beckett (gottim!), which I am not. My point is, a sketch is just five minutes of gags with as many laughs as you can fit into the time; a play is somewhat more than a 90 minute sketch.
Anyways, having added it to the list sometime about two and half years ago, I didn't really do anything with it for a while, until somewhere along the way an idea struck me. You might recall the story of policemen who went undercover in a group of green activists and, under assumed identities, had long-term relationships with some of the people involved (it even has its own Wikipedia page) - a distressing story, in many ways, but it put the idea of undercover agents and anti-government groups into my mind, and the basis of the play grew from there. I had a few thoughts running around my brain, but nothing firm, so I decided I needed to dedicate a bit of time to it to focus on it properly.
So it was that, in about February 2018, I booked a day off work in order to get my ideas in order. It so happened that this was, if I remember rightly, precisely the day before I was put at risk of redundancy, meaning that almost no one believed my story - I'm taking the day off to begin sketching out play ideas - and mostly assumed I'd been secretly going to a job interview. Anyway, on that day I sketched out the characters and a very, very rough outline of the story, as well as a number of other notes - events, locations, arcs, etc. - that I might use. I think I might even have started writing the first scene, because I got tired of trying to create a logical structure and just wanted to get some words down on the page.
Throughout that day, and more or less every other writing session I've had, it's struck me that I don't really know how to write a play. I must admit I have not attempted to remedy this by, you know, trying to find out. I've just gone for it. Friends of mine who had more experience of this than I had (i.e. more than zero) told me that there was no 'correct' way, and I take some comfort in that: what's 'correct' is what works, I guess. Still, I couldn't quite shake the idea that I should have a more structured plan in place (just look at Joseph Heller's plan for Catch-22, and that book makes no sense at all). Instead, my process settled down into figuring out what I wanted to happen in a particular scene, typically broken down into which characters were interacting and what would happen between them, and then writing that scene. That done, I'd move onto the next scene, with only a very loose outline to guide me in the bigger picture.
One of the problems with this approach is that, not knowing exactly where I was heading, I'd leave clues / red herrings that would be entirely ignored later on - for example, one of the characters kept using Latin phrases. Why? No idea, really. I figured it would go somewhere. It didn't, and I cut all those lines, but in the first draft (where I am now) there are still traits, references and perhaps even whole characters that turn out to serve minimal purpose and should probably either be given some purpose or be removed altogether.
Part of the problem, of course, is that it is difficult to find time to write, particularly as a generally felt I needed quite a long stretch in one go in order to get into the rhythm of the thing (my friend Ed writes for 15 minutes or so at a time; it wasn't uncommon for me to spend an hour or more going over what I'd previously written before I even added a single new word). I would go for months without looking at the play at all, not least when I needed to switch my focus to revising for my Analytic Number Theory exam. The times that really helped were when I could take a period of time off work - I think I took four days, three days and two days respectively where I'd devote myself to writing - or where I could fill a weekend with nothing else. As the first draft neared its conclusion I managed to spend more time on it, excited by the prospect of getting to the end without the need for any further planning.
It was a couple of months ago that I finished that first draft, and I sent it to Ed for his thoughts, which he has provided and which have been very useful. My friend James has similarly agreed to give me his views. Many thanks to both of them, if they happen to come across this, and thanks too to my friend Mills, as it was her suggestion that I gather some of our mutual improv friends to do a read-through of the play. Actually, Ed (and others) suggested a read-through as well, but it was Mills who specifically suggested the improv crowd, and so it was that I put out a request on the improv WhatsApp for anyone willing to gather and read. To my surprise, loads of people were. So we did.

Let's take a short diversion so I can rhapsodise about improv again. Of course, doing an improv course was on my 40 by 40 list as well, and I'm so glad it was: everyone you see in the photo above is someone I've met through an improv course (unless it's me, of course. I already knew me) - Emma, Rachel, Tim, James, Fernando, Richard, Ed, Nigel, Mills & Jonathan - and I should also give mention to Tina, who came later, and to Nathan, Katie & Ollie, who had hoped to be there but couldn't make it. I won't publicly shame Ollie by telling you that the rason he couldn't make it was that he fell asleep. I'm very grateful to everyone for being willing to get involved and making it a fun evening, as well as incredibly useful, and not too terrifying. Actually, it was a bit terrifying, because I'd never heard any of these words spoken out loud: they'd all gone from my head to the page. Would it make any sense? Would people care about the plotline at all? Would the dialogue sound believable? Would the jokes land?
The answer to all those questions, I think, is "mostly". Hearing it - I only read stage directions, rather than reading a part - it was clear that some sections were too long and expositional; some dialogue needed brushing up; some subplots were unnecessary; some running jokes ran out of steam long before I finished using them. There is a lot of work to do. But, on the other hand, a lot of it did work: the plot seemed engrossing; characters were distinct; there was plenty of laughter (I'll come back to that); some scenes that I thought would need more explanation were fine as they stood. All in all it was a positive experience, and gives me hope that I can get a finished product I'm proud of. I'm not going to tear it up and pretend it never happened.
Remember how I said about two lines ago that I'd come back to the point about laughter? Well, it's happening right now. Probably didn't need all this signposting back and forth. Anyway. I must admit that, of the things that were worrying me about whether or not I could actually write a functioning play, comedy wasn't high up the list. As I mentioned, I've written several sketches in my time, and I was relevatively confident in my ability to make things funny - particularly if I'm writing something that I find funny, rather than trying to second guess what an audience might enjoy - so I was more focused on structure, plot and character (sometimes, in fact, at the expense of comedy, which I'll need to address in the second draft). But I was still glad that there was plenty of laughter in the read-through, with some of my favourite jokes getting good responses, and one fairly farcical scene going better than I had hoped. I was also glad that my attempts to make the comedy character-specific were more or less successful, as one of my fears had been that I'd just write nine versions of myself who all make the kind of jokes I would. And, to a certain extent, that is of course inevitable, but by and large each character was distinctive enough in their style of humour as well as their (admittedly fairly broad) traits.
Enough back-patting for myself, because there were also several points where I noted the almost complete lack of a smile after a punchline. There are a number of reasons for this, I think. Firstly, and most obviously, the joke just wasn't funny. No excuses or devious reasoning, just not amusing enough. If I can figure out which ones those are, I can change them or cut them. Secondly, the joke was out of character - there are one or two of those, where the joke itself might work for someone else, but not for the character I gave it to. Thirdly, the joke was dependent on the delivery. No criticism at all intended of the wonderful people reading, but they were basically all cold-reading (i.e. none except Ed had seen a word of it before), so they didn't have any opportunity to decide how they would read a line in advance, or even if it was supposed to be funny. There were definitely one or two gags that I think got lost without anyone realising they were gags, and could still work with the right performance (hopefully I'm not just kidding myself). Fourthly, the joke might work on a different night. This is the most curious and frustrating one, which I have some experience of from acting: a joke that gets nothing in one performance will completely kill in another; or, of course vice versa.
On top of that, there's the laughs that I wasn't expecting: lines that were not intended to be comedic but were greeted with gales of laughter. Or chuckles, at least. Some of that is in the performance, and the credit lies entirely with the reader rather than with me. Some of it... I have no idea. Hey, so long as they're not laughing at how bad it is, I'll take any laughs I can get.
So... next steps. I'm gonna be redrafting. Again, I have no idea how you're supposed to do that, so I guess I'll just dive in again. Some of it is relatively easy - removing lines that are superfluous, changing jokes that aren't funny, making dialogue less stilted - and some of it looks like it will be pretty difficult. For example, I'm giving serious thought to removing one character altogether (painful, because one of his lines got perhaps the biggest laugh of the night), completely redoing the ending of the play, and rewriting most of the second (and maybe third) scene to create more dramatic impetus. Oh, and I might also change the name of the play. And the main character.
All being well I'll have a final version by the end of the year. It's been a fun ride so far, really exciting, and a delight to share it with my improv buddies at this latest stage. And hopefully, someday, I'll get to share it with all of you.

September 15th 2019
Simon recently pointed me in the direction of the Grauniad's 100 best films since 2000. It's fair to say that I didn't agree with a lot of the list. But, since I finished the church accounts today much sooner than expected, I thought I'd knock together my own list. An impossible task, and likely to change dramatically if I tried it again tomorrow, but here you go:

100. WALL·E
99. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
98. The Departed
97. Toy Story 4
96. Adrift
95. The Beaver
94. Senna
93. Kingsman: The Secret Service
92. The Hunger Games
91. Lady Bird
90. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
89. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
88. Silver Linings Playbook
87. The Grand Budapest Hotel
86. Unbreakable
85. The Greatest Showman
84. Logan
83. Safety Not Guaranteed
82. Easy A
81. 21 Jump Street
80. (500) Days of Summer
79. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
78. The Disaster Artist
77. Sherlock Holmes
76. Avengers: Endgame
75. The Importance of Being Earnest
74. I Capture the Castle
73. Source Code
72. Gangster Squad
71. Ex Machina
70. Captain America: Civil War
69. Thor: Ragnarok
68. Mission: Impossible III
67. Molly's Game
66. Bad Times at the El Royale
65. Guardians of the Galaxy
64. Thor
63. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
62. Nightcrawler
61. Iron Man 3
60. X-Men: First Class
59. Crazy Stupid Love
58. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
57. Stardust
56. Mission: Impossible - Fallout
55. Argo
54. X-Men 2
53. X-Men
52. Avengers: Infinity War
51. Spider-Man
50. Serenity
49. The Passion of the Christ
48. Rocky Balboa
47. Bridget Jones's Diary
46. Birdman
45. Green Book
44. Juno
43. Steve Jobs
42. Avengers: Age of Ultron
41. X-Men: Days of Future Past
40. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
39. A Beautiful Mind
38. La La Land
37. Creed
36. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
35. 50/50
34. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist
33. The Dark Knight
32. Rocketman
31. Cast Away
30. Amazing Grace
29. 13 Going on 30
28. Short Term 12
27. Chronicle
26. Collateral
25. Garden State
24. Spotlight
23. The Edge of Seventeen
22. Casino Royale
21. Batman Begins
20. Les Misérables
19. Inception
18. Just Like Heaven
17. About Time
16. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
15. The Spectacular Now
14. The Social Network
13. Shaun of the Dead
12. Edge of Tomorrow
11. Memento
10. Whiplash
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
8. Spider-Man 2
7. I, Tonya
6. Catch Me if You Can
5. Her
4. Walk the Line
3. Crazy/Beautiful
2. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
1. Avengers Assemble


September 22nd 2019
I follow Alan Sugar on Twitter, where he uses his lordly title (unlike Lord Adonis, who goes by Andrew and is - since I mention him in passing - gone completely off the reservation). Sugar is not always as polite with the public as you might expect him to be. While he is not the most belligerent and idiotic tweeter who's hosted The Apprentice, he almost certainly ranks second (Arnold Schwarzenegger is a paragon of virtue on the site). Anyhow, give or take the odd racist tweet about the Senegal football team, he's not doing anyone any harm. The reason I bring him up is that he likes to show pictures of his various watches, typically costing more than Big Ben, and when someone pointed out the dangers of wearing such an expensive thing on your wrist he responded: "oh don't be silly they are not for wearing or telling the time they are collecting".
Tame stuff by Alan Sugar's standards (and involving none of his penchant for replacing random letters in mild swearwords with fullstops: usually "pi.. off" but, memorably a couple of weeks ago, "you total wank..". Forgive me). It got me thinking, though, about the nature of collecting. I have far too many Funko Pops, but I don't really regard myself as a proper "collector", because I have no real interest in their value. I like them; they amuse me; I buy the ones of characters and franchises that I enjoy. They're certainly not an investment, and with that in mind I wouldn't consider keeping them in their boxes, as proper collectors do. First thing I do, in fact, is pop the box open - immediately slashing the value. But, to me, the whole point of them is to look good (if you like that kind of thing) and they can't really do that from inside a box.
Similarly, the point of a watch is to tell you the time. I can understand wanting a nice watch - or several; I sit next to a chap at work who has a sizeable watch collection and takes great pleasure in choosing the appropriate timepiece for the day ahead - but only because they look nice in addition to performing a function. I don't understand the idea of buying them up and not using them. That's not what they're for.
Simon has recently written about book collecting with the same conclusion. He has a lot of books, and sometimes buys them because they look pretty, but always (I think) with the intention of reading them. That, after all, is what books are for, and the idea of people buying up first editions in order to sit on shelves is quite alien to him.
Or, to take another example that doesn't particularly chime with me, there's wine collecting. People who spend vast amounts on wine with no intention of ever drinking it... what's the point? Wine is for drinking or, in my case, pouring down the sink; it's not for storing in a cellar and occasionally looking at.
Anyways, do what you want. If you want a big old collection of egg cups even though you're a vegan, be my guest. I just don't really understand it.

what was I listening to?
Definitive Collection - Foreigner
what was I reading?
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
what was I watching?
Casablanca
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