Thursday, 3 May 2012

My Favourite Episodes of "Friends"

the one where everyone's teeth all fall out
the one where every independently secretly adopts and murders a horse
the one where ross and joey take turns bumming janice
the one where chandler is hunted by ring wraiths in yemen
the one where joey has a cardboard car under a sheet but it's made of spiders
the one where nicholas lyndhurst proposes to phoebe at an MK dons match
the one where that girl shaves her head at the beach and does a satanic incantation and disappears into a swirling vortex of terrifying screams and red light
the one where monica gets stang off a jellyfish and has to drink everyone's piss
the one where they sacrifice ugly naked man to a fictional moon god
the one where joey kills a greyhound, stuffs it, paints it white and lives with it
the one where joey gets his penis caught in a beehive
the one where ross finds out it was phoebe who forced him to eat a rotting crow carcass when he was a kid
the one where rachel fists tag and he wakes up and is like wtf
the one where chandler's trapped in a box and everyone shits through the hole
the one where ross brings a monkey back off holiday to fuck and eat
the one where ross and monica find loads of polaroids of naked kids in their parents' garage
the one where there's just rats everywhere
the one where monica wants phoebe to stop busking outside her classy restaurant and smashes her fingers with a hammer

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Read some lengthy and interesting answers to dull, bland questions I asked media personality Andrew Collins about his short-lived but fantastic sitcom Grass many years ago in the past. Found trawling through the ceaselessly entertaining - home of the internet of the past. I think I was about 18 when I done this.

Grass was co-written with and starred Simon Day as his Fast Show character Billy Bleach.

How did you get involved with writing Grass?

Grass came about, as these things so often rather unromantically do, after a call to my agent. Alex Walsh-Taylor, a young, keen freelance producer at the BBC had worked on the last ever Fast Show – the one where they played talking heads remembering the Fast Show (Stuart Baloney was my favourite). Talking to Simon Day he learned that a pilot script for a Billy Bleach sitcom existed in head of comedy Geoffrey Perkins’ in-tray, where, by all accounts, it sat, unloved. Having seen it, I can see why. Though Billy was, to me, a full-blooded, quite subtle comic creation (one of my favourites from the Fast Show), in this script, co-written with another writer who I won’t name as it’s his business really, Billy was just a series of monologues trapped in an old-school sitcom. There was a pub landlord who used to be a dentist, that kind of thing, lots of set-up and punchline gags. Simon knew it wasn’t right, and so, clearly, did Perkins, but Alex saw the potential and effectively rescued it from development hell. They needed a new co-writer. Simon had the character – Billy had grown into the lead character in Simon’s stand-up show, edging Tommy Cockles into second place, and it’s no secret that Billy is as close to Simon as any of his creations – but he needed a co-writer to place Billy in a workable context. Alex called my agent, having dealt with her many times in the world of radio comedy, and asked after a number of her comedy writers. Being the longsighted genius that she is, understanding what was required, she suggested me. Yes, I had done some comedy, mostly self-scripted radio and TV with Stuart Maconie on Radio 1 and ITV, but I was known chiefly, if at all, as the ex-music journalist who wrote for EastEnders. That was the key. Perhaps I could bring some of my TV drama experience to bear upon a comedy? It was a harebrained scheme, but it might just work. A meeting was set up, first with Alex, then with Simon. He gave me the reticent thumbs-up. We set to work.

How did it compare to writing Eastenders?

I used exactly the same rules I had learnt there. I had been working for EastEnders since the beginning of 1999 (my first episode went out in January 2000 – it takes about six months from first meeting to transmission). This was now the beginning of 2001. I had a number of episodes under my belt and had learned a lot. Simple TV drama stuff like coming in to a scene late and getting out early rather than write “Hello” as your first line and “See you later” as your last. How to do stage directions. Format. Story arcs. Don’t put in a scene that doesn’t advance the story. That kind of stuff. Plus, a soap’s half an hour and so’s a sitcom and all the finest sitcoms are brilliantly plotted. I suppose my only weakness as the potential writer of a sitcom is that I was used to ending on a cliffhanger. Sitcoms don’t end of cliffhangers. The main differences between EastEnders and Grass (which wasn’t at this early stage called Grass, it was called Billy Bleach) were collaborating, obviously, and not knowing. With EastEnders, once you have your episode commission, unless you really screw it up, it’s going to get made into half an hour of primetime BBC television with your name on it. It’s a long process, up to six drafts, working closely with a script editor at every stage, and that’s good training. I didn’t expect Grass to be a walkover – plus, we knew our pilot script might never see the light of day or feel the breath of an actor’s voice. I was ready for some hard work and was certainly not scared of rewrites. EastEnders – which I gave up in 2002 when I got my daily show on 6 Music – was the best paid training a writer could wish for. It was, as I always say, the hardest job I’ve ever had. But hugely satisfying. I’d always wanted to write a sitcom though. Simon has no computer skills, he writes his jokes on a pad, long-hand, so we were well matched in that he strode around the room improvising lines and I sat at the PC and got it all down, ordering it and editing as I went. If at times I felt like Simon Day’s secretary, it was always more complicated than that, plus the most vital tool I brought from EastEnders was the detailed scene breakdown, the grid in which we would write dialogue. I spent ages, on my own, working out the structure of the first episode. Once we were agreed on it, the writing began in earnest. It was a 60-40 split between Simon and I, but we both needed each other. Without me he had no structure, without him, I had no character. (Also, having toiled on umpteen fruitless development-hell projects at the BBC and elsewhere, this was the first time I had worked on a star vehicle – and we all know how much more attractive they are to commissioning editors!)

Did you and Simon Day have any major disagreements over the writing?

No major disagreements. We seemed to be thinking on the same wavelength throughout, which is why it was such a breeze to work on and why we’d happily do it again, even though we were thrown together in a blind date. Heartbeat, Billy’s yokel copper sidekick, existed in the original script, but we expanded him into a surrogate brother and made the pair of them the heart of the story, not just Billy. Simon had always visualised two Met coppers homo-erotically wrestling in the garden, so that went into episode two, but their actual homosexual relationship was something that grew as we wrote. Also we had a more complicated episode planned where Billy’s Mum and her fancyman Arthur were going to find Billy at the cottage, but this was rejected. It sounds unlikely, but we really didn’t know how it would end until we wrote episode eight either. We toyed with a payoff that saw Billy in Florida, behind a bar, surrounded by his family, but Dundee occurred to us and felt less like a finite ending. Producers always have one eye on the second series before the first is finished, and Alex, God bless him, was no different, which is why nobody got killed at the end. 

The seed of the show – Billy witnessing a crime and being put in the witness protection programme except not in Florida but the English countryside – was sown in the first, rejected pilot. That was all there. But the original script had the crime dealt with in a pre-credits sequence and involved gangster Harry Taylor killing a dog. I felt this was thrown away, and also killing dogs does not endear you to an audience. I felt we should make the set-up the entire first episode. If we were going to care that Billy was displaced, we had to find out what he was leaving behind, meet his mum, his brother, his mates. Basic drama stuff, but it really opened up the story. Also, by changing a dog to a person, we upped the dramatic ante. This would be a “sitcom” in which a man is shot in the head in episode one. Simon and I got really excited about this dose of reality and began to harbour premature fantasies about having no audience laughtrack. Ridiculous, but it meant that the pair of us were thinking big, and why not. The first episode we wrote survived pretty much intact to the screen, although some scenes went for timing including a nice one in Billy’s local and a scene in his local minimart. We also had Harry Taylor going to court and then prison in a little montage at the end, which we changed, so that he could be locked up but awaiting trial throughout the series. In order to convince the BBC to commission us off the back of one script we had to provide a breakdown of the other five episodes, one of which never saw the light of day: Billy is wandering through the woods and chances upon a rundown mansion, wherein, Sunset Boulevard style, he meets a washed up old soap actress. We were keen on this – it was Simon’s idea – but it never made the final draft, even though they commissioned us to make eight not six episodes! One day . . .

Simon’s weakness was to write too much. For the episode with the poetry competition, he went off on holiday to Biarritz, by himself, and wrote a lot of stuff longhand. The poems he came back with were epic, and it took a lot of gradual editing to get them down to a workable length. It pained him every time we took a line out. He invested too much into them, which is why they are so good I suppose.

Oh, and the director Martin Dennis, who was hired late in the writing process, asked the question, “Does Heartbeat have to be male?” About six episodes in, we said yes he fucking well does. I think Martin was just free-forming off the top of his head. And wishing there were more female characters in it! 

How has the lengthy period between its BBC3 and BBC2 showings helped or hindered it's chances of success, in your opinion?

It all depends how well it’s promoted by BBC2 in either January or March depending on which slot they go for. The very fact that it was commissioned by both 3 and 2 was a boon, because we had more money (it’s well known that Stuart Murphy at BBC3 has a huge pot of money for original programming, and when that nurtures a Little Britain or a 3 Non Blondes for BBC2 then it’s a worthwhile investment). Compare and contrast to Swiss Toni, the other Fast Show spin-off (co-starring, ahem, Simon Day): that was a BBC3-only commission, and it’s been recommissioned for a longer second series, but hasn’t been picked up by BBC2. That’s fine, but we knew that Grass would be shown on 2, so even in those dark first days when it felt like nobody was watching it, because they weren’t, and it wasn’t getting reviewed, because it wasn’t, we could reassure ourselves that it would be on proper telly in the new year. We got something paltry but typical like 50,000 viewers on 3, and that’s at 11pm with no cross-channel promotion whatsoever (unlike, say, Burn It, which was forever being pushed on 1 and 2). That’s a shit figure in broader TV terms, and depressing when you’ve made what you believe to be a worthwhile piece of television, but that’s all you can expect on a digi-channel. What makes Grass “difficult” for certain channel controllers is that it’s a series. It can’t be shown out of sequence. Swiss Toni can be chopped up and dropped in whenever they need to fill half an hour. Grass can’t. Why BBC3 dropped our repeat after a couple of weeks remains a mystery to me. I emailed Stuart Murphy about it and he ignored my email. It lives or dies on the BBC2 showing. It’s not just ratings, although those help, it’s the general reaction from critics. If Jane Root feels that it’s generally liked, she may grant us a second series. Here’s hoping. We held back from doing too much promotion when it started on BBC3, so I only hope that people like Jonathan Ross will have Simon on when it starts on BBC2, to get it into people’s minds. Then it’s up to the people whether it’s a hit or not. It’s unlikely to make as big a splash as Little Britain – it’s not as easy to like and repeat in the common room – but we have faith that those who give it a chance over a couple of episodes will be rewarded. My brother absolutely loves it!

What did you think of the critical response to the BBC3 showing?

TV critics rarely review non-terrestrial programmes. Just as it’s tough to get newspapers to list 6 Music, you’re on a hiding to nothing as they follow the line of “Well, it not everybody can see/hear it, it would be non-inclusive to cover it in any detail.” Maybe they’re right. The Radio Time, who I work for, a much less conservative than the broadsheets. They devoted two and a half pages to Grass when it started on 3, which was rare going on unique. There was almost no critical response in the newspapers. A couple of nice previews, one in the Guardian Guide, some lukewarm ones too, not least the one in Radio Times. (No nepotism there! Bring me the head of Quentin Cooper!) The whole thing, I’ll be honest, was a massive anticlimax. We were all so excited about the programme and then . . . whimper. Nobody was talking about it, to adapt the old EastEnders line. I was so chuffed with some of the positive comments we got on the Comedy Forum. They meant a lot to me, as kid gloves are rarely worn there. If hardcore comedy fans are liking it, I’m happy. 

Do you think that in its digital output, the BBC is tending to the needs of elitist fans a bit better?

As a beneficiary of BBC’s digitopia, I can only support it. 6 Music really does fill a gap that needed filling in terms of intelligent, grown-up, non-fuddy-duddy music radio. BBC4 is an excellent channel, whose documentaries and foreign films I watch often. BBC3 has given us some good stuff, not least Little Britain, and as long as it’s used as a try-out zone that can only be good for comedy writers and performers who can’t get a foot in BBC2 or Channel 4’s door. The fact that The Office gets more viewers on BBC1 than 2 just proves that people do make value judgments about the channel they are watching: 1 is their first choice, 2 is there for when there’s nothing on 1. This is insane but obviously true. Thus, languishing on 3 or 4 (or in radio terms 6 or 7) can be good for fans and programme-makers. There is less pressure in the backwaters. Because we share a controller, many see 6 Music as a stepping stone to Radio 2, but deep down, I’d rather be on 6 I think. All the free choice we get in terms of what we play and how we present ourselves – you’d lose much of that freedom on 2. Of course, if Lesley Douglas offers me a job on 2, all those reasons will be conveniently forgotten.

What were your influences in the writing of Grass?

How Do You Want Me was an influence in terms of city folk going to the country. The Comic Strip film Supergrass, also, plotwise. I was a big fan of Happiness (first series anyway) and admired its non-deployment of laughter-track. It seemed awfully brave for a dramatic comedy (obviously The Office and People Like Us eschew laughter, but that’s to maintain the mockumentary style). Simon and I wanted Grass to look like one of those location dramas, like All Creatures Great And Small, or something even more dramatic. Simon kept picturing himself walking in a field, alone, with a stick. Martin Dennis realised that for us brilliantly. I still love that shot in the credits where the camera pans up to reveal Billy in a huge field. You don’t get that in My Family. Because Simon made Swiss Toni during the writing of Grass, we knew exactly what we didn’t want it to be: studiobound.

Were you tempted to link the series with The Fast Show more strongly?

In an early scene in episode one, when Billy gets on the coach (it was a train originally), we had him going up to a student and saying, “There’s someone sitting there, mate.” We got rid of this line by the second draft. It was our only crutch and we cast it aside! Although we really wanted Mark Williams as the landlord (not a major part, but one that only Mark could have played so well – basically it’s the “Which was nice” character from the Fast Show), we ummed and ahhed over it, feeling it might make Grass look like The Fast Show 2. But, being a mate of Simon’s, he agreed to do it for a modest fee (he’s in Harry Potter for fuck’s sake!) and, I think, raised the quality just by turning up. It’s funny – people don’t even know that Billy Bleach is called that anyway. He’s not like Dave Angel or Carl Hooper or Gideon Soames – his name is never uttered in the Fast Show. So I’m forever having to explain that he’s the curly haired bloke in the pub. As such, The Fast Show link is quite subtle.

After the scripts were finished, did you retain any creative control over Grass - were you satisfied with the end result?

Simon and I were pretty much allowed to get on with the writing, as Alex was looking at our scene breakdowns as we went and signing them off, plus he would process individual episodes as and when we finished them. It was a constant process of refinement, but there was no friction between the three of us. Jon Plowman, as exec producer, saw the scripts when they were finished and supplied constructive criticism. Otherwise he let us get on with it too. Grass came out pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it – better in fact, in terms of the way it looked (hats off to Martin Dennis). With one of the writers also the star, it’s easier to keep control. In effect, the script was never out of our hands. All changes were made with Simon’s blessing. He went to the edit too. I was too busy so was glad to relinquish responsibility.

Did you find it odd going from top dog in one job (editing Q) to bottom of the ladder at another (writing for Eastenders), and relinquishing an amount of creative control?

I was exhausted at Q. Physically fucked. It’s a high-powered job getting that magazine out every month and fend off the suits upstairs about circulation figures and marketing spend and picture budgets and pay rises, and two years was enough for me. I was eating very badly and living something of the rock’n’roll life and still getting into the office at 8.30 every morning. So . . . I almost  had no choice but leave. My body told me to. Luckily I’d been given the chance to do my first ever TV scriptwriting (for Family Affairs on the new Channel 5) at that time, so I felt confident that I wouldn’t be destitute if I gave up all my security and my company car and share options etc. It felt like a huge weight off my back when I finally left Q to go freelance. Two years passed before I managed to get a foot in the EastEnders door, by which time I had 20 episodes of Family Affairs behind me. I also wrote Billy Bragg’s biography in that time, which was a happy experience. So it wasn’t a case of going from the top to the bottom, as romantic as you make it sound. I loved not being the boss any more. I’d never wanted to work out people’s pay rises and interview people for jobs. That wasn’t why I yearned to write for the NME in the 80s. I’m not a natural boss, I like to everybody’s friend! 

Is it hard both juggling multiple projects like Grass, your radio show and your book, and working in so many different fields?

It’s always hard as I refuse to specialise. Or even focus. Usually one finger is taken out of a pie to make way for another. For instance, I gave up EastEnders to do my daily radio show on 6 Music. Then I gave up presenting Back Row on Radio 4 in order to find time to write Grass. I write my books in the gaps. I had a week off 6 Music and writing Grass in order to go out and promote Where Did It All Go Right? Grass was written almost exclusively in the mornings, as I had to go to 6 Music every day at about 2pm. But it meant we never got bored. We used to get loads done in the hours we had – the cut-off point probably made us focus on the job. I really enjoyed doing The Day the Music Died on Radio 2 at the end of 2003 and we have been granted a second series in the summer of 2004, which I am looking forward to. I love doing banter, and Jon Holmes and Robin Ince were tremendous folk to have round the radio table. Although much of it was written, the banter was more like my live radio show. The sequel to WDIAGR? is out in July and I should be writing it right now. It’s nearly finished, and it’s called Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. The student years. I wanted to be an artist when I was growing up, then became one (I went to art school and was a freelance illustrator for a year), so I decided I wanted to be a music journalist instead. Then I fancied being a comedian on the radio etc. I’m not saying I get everything I want, as wanting one thing would probably make me better at it, but I do tend to get bored easily. Plus, once you’re in the media, you find that it’s all interlinked. You work with one producer on the radio and the next thing you know they’re in telly and they give you a call. I have made it my business to be nice to EVERYONE I HAVE EVER WORKED WITH. It hasn’t failed me so far. I wish I could decide whether to be a writer or broadcaster, that’s the main schism. I don’t dream of writing a screenplay like most writers do. Too much room for crushing disappointment. I’d like to write another sitcom in the vein of Grass, whether it’s Grass 2 or not is up to the people and Jane Root. I’d actually like to work with Stuart Maconie again – we did most of our formative stuff as a double act (Radio 1, Radio 5, a Writers Guild nomination for Fantastic Voyage which we wrote and performed together, a Sony for Hit Parade, and the 18 months ITV let us review films at 1.40am were a blast). Since Lloyd Cole, which was a fairly difficult thing to give birth to, we have barely crossed paths. No fall-out, he’s just so busy on one thing and I’m so busy on another. I genuinely think we have chemistry, which ought to be used on telly or the radio.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Monday, 25 October 2010


In my protracted absence from the internets I've been working on an old fashioned ink and paper magazine called Trifle, collecting bits of short fiction like the ones I put up here with some drawings and that. I dunno what to do with it yet really but I'm entertaining the idea of expanding it with contributions from other writers. So if you would like to contribute anything, and bear in mind I'm incredibly badly organised and it could take anywhere up to five years for me to get this sorted out, please read the following guidelines and then drop an e-mail to

Trifle is to contain NO TRUTH WHATSOEVER. It is just piles of fiction. No spoof news articles or opinion pieces or diary entries or travelogues or any modern journalism of that nature. All of that stuff is RUBBISH. Just FICTION and possibly recipes or graphs / bar charts etc. And ideally only content which skews towards the macabre. I will pretty much definitely reject any artistic contributions, especially those in colour.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Big Terrible Collage

I’m not sure what to do with this or why I made it in the first place. It’s fucking huge, too. I might set it on fire.