Friday, 30 March 2018

The smokes you can't buy

What links the feature films The World's End and Hitchcock's Psycho? And what links them to Dick Van Dyke, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files? No, this isn't an extract from either of my books Joined-Up Thinking or Connectoscope (though it could be).

The answer, surprisingly, is a packet of fags.

The cigarettes in question are Morleys. And you can't buy them in any shops although you may find the occasional packet turning up on ebay for prices in excess of $150. That's because Morley is a fictional brand used in film and TV to avoid problems with product placement or litigation. The packs you can buy are former props.

Morleys have a long and noble history. Here's a young William Shatner breaking open a packet in the classic 1963 The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

And here's Darrell finding a box of Morleys in an episode of The Walking Dead.

That's at least 50 years of media appearances. The first I've been able to find is in the psychiatrist's scene at the end of Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960. They then pop up on TV in an 1961 episode of The Naked City. The following year they appear in an early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show in January 1962 as chocolate cigarettes given to a child, bizarrely. From then on, they were everywhere.

The original pack featured just the name and a horse logo but they soon morphed into something resembling the well-know Marlborough brand (often called 'Marleys').

There are hundreds of films and TV shows that feature Morleys but they really came to public notice with The X-Files when they became the brand of choice for the mysterious 'Cigarette Smoking Man'. Then Spike smoked them in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Simon Pegg's character smoked them all the way through The World's End.

So there you go. Arguably the most ubiquitous prop in TV and movie history is a packet of tabs. And Morleys aren't the only fake brand to have popped up across a range of shows. Quentin Tarantino films feature Red Apple cigarettes, Heisler beer has appeared in shows like Weeds, My Name is Earl and many others, Oceanic Airlines has appeared in shows like Lost, JAG, Fringe, Chuck and goes all the way back to an episode of dolphin-based TV show Flipper in the 1960s.

But perhaps the most regularly used fake item is a phone number. The area code 555 was reserved by phone companies for books, movies and TV shows. It's a good solution to the problem of a fictitious number becoming real one day. Oh, and for all you British writers, there are equivalent phone numbers in the UK that you can use. Just click here for the list.

Oh, and if you like the whole 'surprising connections' thing, do consider getting hold of my first two books - Joined-Up Thinking and Constable Colgan's Connectoscope. Both contain chapters where every fact is connected to the one before it and the one after it. The facts also connect to facts in other chapters and even between the two books! Both books can be obtained from the usual online outlets (see links on the right of this page) and bookshops.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

An Englishman’s Home is his Cackle - Have we lost our love of a good literary laugh?

'Given that a lot of the fiction that people read is relatively new fiction, I think it’s striking that people’s choice of comic fiction is quite worn smooth by time.’ 
 - Extract from Open Book, January 12th 2012. BBC Radio 4. 

That was John Mullan, Professor of Literature at UCL, in 2012 commenting on the results of a listeners’ poll to create a list of the funniest books ever written. As he points out, it was a list dominated by older works penned by some of the late grand masters of comic fiction including the likes of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Jerome K Jerome and Nancy Mitford.

But then Tom Sharpe, who made it onto the list, died the following year aged 85, and Sue Townsend, whose book The Secret Life of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ topped the list, died in 2014. Another year later, we lost David Nobbs. Those three authors alone produced some of the funniest books I’ve ever read and they created a chorus of memorable characters - Eva Wilt, Popeye Scruton and Reginald Perrin among them - who would turn up time and time again in sequels, TV and films. And, in the past couple of decades we’ve sadly had to say goodbye to many more of the finest comic writers that Britain has ever produced: George MacDonald Fraser, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Carla Lane, Alan Simpson, John Mortimer, Victoria Wood and many more.

But to whom has David Nobbs passed the baton? Where are the new Tom Sharpes?

A quick glance at any fiction chart will show you that, for some reason, there is very little new comic fiction about. TV still has occasional glimmers of genius – I’m thinking here of series like Detectorists, Fleabag and Catastrophe to give just three fine recent examples – but comic novels are in short supply. There is, admittedly, a healthy groundswell of RomCom out there with the likes of Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding, Mary Jayne Baker and others, and you’ll also find a reasonable amount of funny SciFi, fantasy and horror too; we may have lost giants like Adams and Pratchett but we have Jasper Fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Christopher Moore, David Wong et al still in fine form. But in all of these instances, comedy plays second fiddle to the main genre (although, curiously, each genre only seems able to sustain just a couple of comedy superstars). But look in the comedy section of a bookshop these days and what do you find? It’s all comedians’ memoirs, TV panel show tie-ins, humorous travelogues, cartoons or collected newspaper columns by Clarkson. You won’t find many new novels. Modern comedy writers – people like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Michael Frayn for example – have become a rarity and a bestselling comedy - such as Jonas Jonasson's 2009 The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared is as rare as hen's teeth.

I’m extremely vexed and puzzled by this state of affairs. When did comedy become relegated to just a sub-genre? We may not make the best cars, or produce the best footballers, or have the finest education system in the world anymore but surely the British are damned good at comedy aren’t we? We have more stand-up comedians than nurses (or so it seems some days). And we are the nation that gave the world Monty Python and Cold Comfort Farm, Blandings Castle and Fawlty Towers, Morecambe and Wise, Kenneth Williams and Nigel Molesworth. Don’t we pride ourselves on being able to laugh at ourselves? Isn’t GSOH the most prized of all personality traits on dating sites and app profiles? There was a time, not so very long ago, in the days when people read books on the commute to work instead of watching birds get angry or candy getting crushed, when you would see comedy books in abundance. These were also the days, incidentally, when you could see what people were reading - you can tell nothing from the cover of a tablet, e-reader or smartphone – and quite often my interest was piqued enough to buy or borrow the book for myself. But I digress. Once, not so very long ago, people heading off to work would set themselves up with a smile. It was a joy to witness the occasional uncontrollable snigger among the grey and sad creatures that shared my carriage as some paragraph in the latest Leslie Thomas or Evelyn Waugh or H E Bates tickled someone’s funnybone.

For example, my personal introduction to Tom Sharpe came when sitting on board a ‘green goddess’ riot coach with 24 tired and scared police colleagues during the Brixton Uprising of the early 1980s. In between being pelted by bricks and petrol bombs, we snacked and played cards or read. It was there that a fellow rozzer loaned me Vintage Stuff and, suddenly, I wasn’t waiting for the next call to de-bus and to put my life in danger once again. I was in France in the 1970s, watching Glodstone, a Richard Hannay-obsessed public school teacher, being pelted by raw sewage as he attempted to rescue a countess who didn’t want to be rescued from international terrorists who didn’t exist. I can’t begin to tell you how cathartic it was to snort with laughter as I turned each page. It took me far away from the grim realities of the world outside.

All of which begs the question, where has all the funny gone? Surely in this depressing post-truth era of Brexit, Trump, fracking, climate change denial, North Korea and austerity, shouldn’t we be actively seeking some escape from all the horror and nastiness? Why aren’t we reaching for the tonic that is comic fiction? We love a bit of TV satire and we trip over ourselves to enjoy a little farce; like it or loathe it, Mrs Brown’s Boys was the most-watched show on TV last Christmas Day (barring the Queen) and it pulled in a clear half a million more viewers than the misery porn that is Eastenders. Sandwiched between those two extremes was the feel-good filling of Strictly and Call the Midwife, both of which have their share of laughter. It was also great to see three comedies among the Top 10 best shows of 2017 (Detectorists, Catastrophe, Peter Kay’s Car Share) as voted for by critics in a recent Radio Times poll. But the Top 10 books of 2017 show a dearth of humour except for children’s fiction with two David Walliams books and the latest in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise by Jeff Kinney. There’s a Jamie Oliver cook book, a Guinness Book of Records, a Dan Brown, a Phillip Pullman and a Lee Child. But there are no comic novels. And yet, in 2003 – just 15 years ago – when the BBC ran The Big Read and asked the British public to vote for the top 200 novels of all time, comedy was everywhere.

Douglas Adams came in at Number 4 with The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Joseph Heller (Catch 22) at 11, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm) at 88, Jerome K Jerome (Three Men in a Boat) at 100. Sue Townsend (The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾) came in at 112, and George and Weedon Grossmith (Diary of a Nobody) came in at 186. Terry Pratchett alone had no less than 13 entries in the Top 200, or 14 if you count Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, at 68. There was also a sprinkling of Dickens, such as The Pickwick Papers, some classic funny children’s books like Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh and a great many Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson books on the list. In 2003, at least, people were still enjoying a good laugh. Are we really so po-faced these days? Don’t we yearn for a good hard guffaw?

I started this extended whinge by quoting John Mullan and his suggestion that perhaps comic fiction is like a good single malt and needs to mature and accumulate some age before we look upon it kindly. That’s certainly borne out by the polls I’ve been wading through over the past week or so. But surely we can’t just draw a line in the sand under the Millennium and say that ‘all comic fiction ends here’ and expect the books written before that to be the ones that people hold up as the best. And yet, trying to get a new comedy published if you’re not a celeb and it’s not a TV tie-in is a nightmare. My agent, a chap of great skill and experience who works at one of the top five UK agencies has been pitching some of my comic novels for several years but with no success. ‘Well, maybe they’re not good enough’, I hear you say. I accept that’s a possibility but it’s not what I’m hearing from the rejections. What I’m hearing is that the books are well written, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and clever. One rejection even said that Tom Sharpe would have been proud to have written one of mine. But those rejections also say, ‘I’d have difficulty in placing it on our current list’ or ‘the market isn’t much interested in comedy right now’ or even ‘if you had a bigger public profile we might risk it.’ And that’s the reality; publishers are no longer producing books they like, they’re producing books that the market dictates and the market itself is driven by supermarkets and online giants like Amazon that discount everything and aim at selling to the lowest common denominator. Find a Will Self or a Salman Rushdie in Tesco and I’ll treat you to a literary lunch. And with so many bookshops shutting down, the only outlets in many towns now are the supermarkets and places like W H Smith that only seem to stock charting books.

Incidentally, it's not solely a British problem. In a recent article for Cracked, Daniel O'Brien pointed out five good reasons why comedy books are in the dumps in the USA too. Chief among them are that comedians seem to be content to write biographies but not novels (although I have no ida why he assumes that only comedians can write comic novels) and the fact that 'funny' is used indiscriminately on book covers. As he says, 'The government should honestly be able to step in and legislate the number of times publishing houses can advertise their books as "funny." The back of my copy of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections says "surprisingly funny," and I guess there are a few funny lines, but at the end of the day, it's a book about Parkinson's disease and an entire family that suffers from depression. I don't know what the criteria is for getting "funny" slapped onto the back of a book, but I have to assume it's "having a number of different words," because that's the only thing that The Great Gatsby (heartbreaking and brutal) has in common with Christopher Moore's Lamb (almost impossibly hilarious), both of which have the word "funny" printed on the back cover.'

It's a depressing picture, isn't it? And it's made all the worse by not having lots of rib-tickling new novels to read.

It's why I was so delighted to discover Unbound. They let readers decide what books they want to see published rather than some faceless accountant or supermarket chain. They're publishing books that otherwise might not have seen the light of day other than as self-published e-books. And I'm delighted to report that my first comic novel A Murder To Die For is now in shops the length and breadth of the UK. Despite having only been out for two months it already has 50+ Five Star reviews on Amazon and over 40 Five Star ratings on Goodreads. Not bad for a book aimed at a market that 'isn't much interested in comedy right now', eh?

And now I'm crowdfunding the sequel The Diabolical Club with Unbound. If you fancy an early special edition that's nicer than the trade copies that will go into the shops (though they are nice too), then please pledge now by clicking here. You'll get your name listed in the back of the book as a patron too; your name, forever, indelibly printed in every edition for as long as books exist. That's not bad for the price of a takeaway is it? And, more importantly, you'll be helping an author make a living, helping to birth a brand new book and, hopefully, giving those commuters something to giggle at.

A Murder To Die For is now available in bookshops everywhere and from online bookstores.



I read today in The Guardian that the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction is rolling over to 2018 because none of the 62 nominated books for 2017 made the judges laugh.

You couldn't make it up.

I bet they all had "funny" printed on the cover though.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Power of Nice

Niceness is a quality that programme makers overlook far too often. And they're missing a trick because people like nice shows.

I worked for the past seven years on a Radio 4 show called The Museum Of Curiosity. It's the sister show to QI and it's a kind of reverse Room 101; instead of having people on to bitch about the things that annoy them, we have people on to talk about things that make them feel inspired, happy or astonished. That's why the show regularly attracts people to appear on it (despite the pitiful radio appearance fees) like Sir Terry Pratchett, Kate Adie, Sir David Frost, Dr Alice Roberts, Buzz Aldrin, Helen Sharman, Neil Gaiman and many more. People like nice.

And look at some of the most popular shows on TV ... Strictly Come Dancing. QI. Pointless. George Clarke's Amazing Spaces. Call the Midwife. Would I Lie To You? Bake Off. They're all shows that make you smile from start to finish. There's no nastiness; even Craig Revel Horwood's pantomime histrionics have a knowing smile behind them and the public boo and cheer along with the joke. He is a world away from Simon Cowell's flat and emotionless put downs or Gordon Ramsay's sweary abuse.

It's interesting to look at the most watched TV programmes of the past few years; when Bake Off was on the BBC it regularly took more than half of the Top 10 slots of 'most watched episodes of TV shows' for that year. And what were the other shows that filled the remaining slots? Downton Abbey, Strictly, the finales of Britain's Got Talent and I'm a Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here!Call The Midwife and Broadchurch. You have to have a balance between light and dark or your TV viewing becomes too sacharin. But it's notable that the majority of the most popular shows are nice shows.

I'll admit that I'm a nice-oholic. My TV viewing invariably sways away from shows where people are rude, abusive, angry, combative or deliberately controversial. I can't watch soap operas any more because all of the warmth and humour has been replaced by 30 minutes of people shouting at each other. I can't watch 'misery porn' shows about bailiffs taking someone's furniture away or about beaches that kill, holiday nightmares or botched plastic surgery. I avidly avoid shows that focus on the negative and perpetuate the idea that life is shit - so no Grumpy Old Men for me. And no Can't Pay, We'll Take It Away and no Benefits Street either. I hate reality shows like The Apprentice that turn greed and arrogance into supposed entertainment (and it gave us Katie bloody Hopkins, don't forget).

I can't even watch Masterchef any more. Instead you'll find me watching Masterchef Australia where the judges are kind and supportive and, as the result, the contestants put up food that the British show would kill for. The show has a real Bake Off vibe to it. Even the guest judges join in the niceness.The hugely scary Marco Pierre White was guest judge for a whole week of the last series (MA is on five nights a week for three months - it's a marathon of a show that really allows you to become attached to the contestants) and, during a tough team challenge where the contestants had to run a real restaurant for an evening service, he asked them: 'Do you want me to go easy on you or make you sweat?' The contestants chose the latter and he put them through their paces. One or two were reduced to tears by the pressure. But were they mocked? No. Were they laughed at? No. Were they shouted at? No. Marco spoke to them, encouraged them, built up their confidence and they went back to work and they succeeded. And during Nigella Lawson' week as guest judge, when one of the contestants - a huge Nigella fan - did badly in front of her hero, the domestic goddess didn't say 'That's terrible' or 'You didn't do very well.' Instead, she pointed out that 'If you don't make mistakes you stop learning' at which point the other judges - all top chefs and food critics - chimed in that they had all made terrible mistakes at some point in their careers. And then Nigella hugged the contestant, which made her feel valued and she worked doubly hard in the next challenge. That's my kind of cookery show, not some top chef throwing a contestant's food in the bin and calling them 'a f*cking waste of space'. Maybe that's why Masterchef Australia attracts the cream of world chefs to appear on the show? Last year Heston Blumenthal set the challenge for the final episode and then employed the winner at his Fat Duck restaurant. He's appeared on the show for the past three years, I'm pleased to say. I wish that the British incarnation would follow the same model. If it did, I'd watch it again.

I was interested to read that Bake Off's cosy feelgood factor is largely down to former presenters Mel and Sue who flatly refused to make the show overly dramatic. They actually threatened to walk off the show in Series 1 if the producers insisted on them bringing out the human drama. "We felt uncomfortable with it and we said 'We don't think you've got the right presenters'", Sue told The Telegraph newspaper in a recent interview. "I'm proud that we did that, because what we were saying is 'Let's try this a different way' - and no one ever cried again. Maybe they cry because their souffle collapsed, but nobody's crying because someone's going 'Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?' Bringing up dead relatives at stressful times is a time-honoured technique for introducing tension into a television show, but it's no way to treat your family." And even when the contestants did have a breakdown, Mel and Sue made sure it didn't get to air by blocking the camera's view of the contestant and by swearing a lot so that the segment wouldn't make the final edit. And I'm delighted that Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding are just as kind and supportive, now that it's their show. It's just one of the many reasons why Bake Off works - kindness, consideration, niceness. People want to see nice shows.

Channel 4 paid £75 million to buy Bake Off - the nicest of the nice - so they, presumably, agree. Time will tell if their money was well spent; after all, a TV show isn't just a format - it's the sum of its parts: good scripts, good content, the right presenters, the right 'feel'. As Top Gear has learned to its cost, you have to have all four. I'll confess that I was sad about Bake Off's move to Channel 4 but I'm still watching because it's still nice. The minute it turns into the kind of mawkish slush that Mel and Sue fought so hard to keep out of the show, it will fail. It will also fail if the judges try to do a Gordon Ramsay or a Simon Cowell. Nastiness is old hat. The viewing figures say it all.

There's a well-known, and possible apocryphal, story about a teacher who writes out the Nine Times Table on the board in front of her class and gets the answer to 6 x 9 wrong. The class sniggers behind her back. So she asks them, 'What are you all laughing at?' And the class replies, 'You got 6 x 9 wrong'. The teacher then says, 'Yes I did. Deliberately. I wanted to teach you all something about life. Isn't it interesting that you all were keen to point out my one mistake and yet no one congratulated me on the eleven equations that I got right? I got far more right than I got wrong but all you focused on was my mistake. That, sadly, is how life works. Make a mistake and everyone will point it out. Do good and hardly anyone will say a word about it, let alone reward you. But the reality is that there's far more good than bad in the world - once you realise that you'll be happier people."

I'll end by quoting from my most recent non-fiction book One Step Ahead: Notes from the Problem Solving Unit (formerly published in hardback as Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road?)   

'I recently met Jimmy Wales, the founder and public face of Wikipedia. Here is a man whose aim is to ‘give every single person on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge’ which, as aims go, is pretty damned good. We talked about the ‘wiki’ philosophy, the fact that absolutely anyone can alter, add or delete information on Wikipedia and I asked him whether this was a worry. Wasn’t it possible that bad people could misuse that kind of free access to do bad things? ‘I don’t think so’, he said, ‘Wikipedia works on the radical assumption that mostly people are okay. If you read commentary in newspapers and on the internet, you weep for the future of the species as it seems there are so many horrible people out there. But if you really think about everyone around you, out of every 1000 people you meet, 990 of them will be perfectly nice, maybe another nine will be extremely annoying but there’s only maybe one in a thousand that is actually malicious or a troublemaker. And yet we go through life designing everything around the bad people, locking things down. We should be designing things around the majority of good people and then deal with the bad people when we need to.’

I couldn’t agree more.' I don't need TV shows that focus on the negative. The world is already full of people doing that. I want shows that make me feel good. Shows that I learn from. Shows that inspire me. I'm glad that Bake Off survived its transition. I'm glad that Masterchef Australia has just kicked off its 10th series. And I hope that programme makers make a lot more of the same.

That will be very nice indeed.