Saturday, 21 July 2018

Worthy Winners

Okay, so A Murder To Die For and I didn't win at the Dead Good Readers Awards in Harrogate last night. But it was always going to be a toughie (a) because I was up against some big hitters and (b) because getting people to vote for you is like getting them to leave reviews - blood from a stone. So, if you voted for me, thanks!

Oh, and please leave reviews on Amazon, Goodreads etc.

There's a little part of me that wants to know how many votes I got compared to the others. But I'm glad I don't know. After all, it would be frustrating to discover that I was within a few votes of winning ... and soul-destroying to find that I wasn't anywhere near the others! So I'll take the fact that I was shortlisted and celebrate that instead - it's going in all of my blurbs from now on to be sure.

And, of course, it's all useful publicity for the book and for its sequel, The Diabolical Club, which you can help make happen by pre-ordering it here.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Comedy Writes - QI Part 2

Following on from my last blog post regarding my years with QI and The Museum of Curiosity, we now come to writing for the show. What makes a good QI question? And how are they written?

(Me, making a cameo on the episode Location, Location, Location)

You probably won't be surprised to hear that it's not enough just to have found an interesting fact. They are the backbone of QI, to be sure, but some facts simply don't lend themselves to the format. Before I give you a good example of this, a little background.

Every episode of QI is a collaborative effort. Shortly after the Christmas break, the 'elves' (or as many as can be gathered together) meet at the QI offices in Covent Garden to discuss the new series, which will be themed around a letter of the alphabet. Inventors John Lloyd and John Mitchinson showed remarkable optimism when they decided to kick the show off with Series A, rather than Series 1 but it was justified. The show is now on Series P, which will arrive on your screens in the Autumn. Will it get to Series Z? Who knows? And, if it does, then what? Stephen Fry once jokingly suggested that, 'Then we start on the numbers'. But it's not just the series that's letter-themed; every episode is themed around a subject beginning with the series letter and so are the individual questions.  So ...

Let's say that the series being discussed is Series L. An initial brainstorming session will throw up some topics for shows e.g. Love, Locations, Lies, Loss, Literature, Ladies etc. We then starburst and try to find as many L-related facts as we can. Then, week by week, the stack of facts gets bigger and bigger. Then, sometime around late Feb/eraly March, the scriptwriters start to consider what themes they'd like for their shows and begin sifting through the facts to find ones they'd like in their shows. Then comes the task of writing questions about them.

One show that I wrote for Series L was called Little and Large and, while snuffling around for quite interesting facts, I found this:

This is a depiction of Argentavis magnificens, the largest ever flying bird (that was known at the time but see below). Pretty impressive, I'm sure you'll agree. I loved the visuals. I felt that it had sufficient 'wow' factor. But what question could I ask about it on a show like QI? 

Although QI is a smart show and people learn from it, it is first and foremost a panel show featuring the cream of comedians. We rely on the talent to provide the comedy so the job of the scriptwriter is essentially to be the straight man/woman; to provide the set-up by creating questions that give the panellists something to riff on. It's fine for a good QI question to cause a small giggle; one of my favourites was Stephen looking doe-eyed at Alan and asking, 'Alan, when will you eat my noodles?' It led to some interesting stuff about idioms from different cultures. But it mustn't steal the comedians' thunder and it must, ultimately, lead them to a fact that makes them (and the audience in the studio and at home) say 'Wow.' 

The problem with Argentavis was that the only thing I could find to say about it was that it was very very big. The size of its eggs was unremarkable. We don't even know what it looked like as it died out millions of years before humans evolved. There was nothing else to say about it. And it wasn't enough to simply ask: 'What was the biggest flying bird?' That's a pub quiz question, not a QI question. So I wrangled with it for ages ... but was then forced to pass it over for more show-friendly topics (I will just mention that, since Series L, a fossil bird called Pelagornis has been found which was possibly even bigger. That's one of the problems with QI; because older series are on constant repeat on channels like Dave, many facts have changed since broadcast. That doesn't stop the emails coming in though: 'Dear QI, you got this fact wrong on your show ...'). Oh, and here's Pelagornis for you. Big, wasn't it? 

But, by way of a contrast, here's an example of where things went right.

One of the elves discovered that ostriches invented the air-cooled radiator before car manufacturers did. By that I mean that they can keep their brain (engine) from overheating by passing air over/through water. What they do is take a mouthful of water and hold it in their crop (a pouch between bill and throat). Then, when running, they pant rapidly over the surface of the water which cools their breath and, consequently, the roof of their mouth (the brain is positioned above it). There was immediate potential in this fact as (a) the answer is quite interesting and (b) there are double meanings for words like pants, cool and wet. Therefore, what I came up with was the question: 'When is it cool to wet your pants?' Now you have a question that encourages gags and funny anecdotes but which will lead you to an interesting fact at the end. 

That's what QI is all about.


Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Comedy Writes - QI Part 1

I've been listening to the always excellent Rule of Three podcast the last few weeks and loving every minute. Hosted by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris - the chaps who gave you Philomena Cunk and those spoof Ladybird books, among many other good things - the show is all about writing comedy. Every episode they invite a guest - a comedy writer or writer/performer - to come in to talk about the craft and, in particular, something they hold up as an excellent example. They then deconstruct it in an engaging and fascinating way. So far we've had people waxing lyrical on things like Bottom, Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album, Time Bandits and the wonderful cartoonist Leo Baxendale.

I've met Joel and Jason before and they are wonderfully funny and intelligent guys. And, listening to the shows, it's made me think a lot about how I go about writing funny stuff. So I thought I'd plonk some thoughts down on my blog. I'll start by talking about my association with the BBC TV series QI.

I was involved with the show (and its sister show on BBC R4, The Museum of Curiosity) for 11 years, starting off with some illustration contributions to the QI annuals back in 2006. My break into writing for the show came in 2010 with the 'H' Series annual. A fellow 'elf' - the historian Justin Pollard, had come up with the idea of a double page spread with the instructions for building Stonehenge as if it was an IKEA product. Now, this wasn't a new idea; there had been IKEA spoofs before. In fact, just a year before, in 2009, a good friend of mine - an advertiser called Huw Williams - was given the job of designing a paper-based promo for the British gangster thriller 44 Inch Chest. What he came up with was an A5-sized leaflet that opened up just like a sheet of instructions that gave the reader a giggle and an insight into the plot of the film. The spoof Swedish product name was, of course, inspired by the film's colourful dialogue. I've also seen the same format used for everything from lightsabres to the Large Hadron Collider. The idea was tried, trusted and funny. If done right.

So, I began drawing up the Stonehenge pages. But it soon became clear to me that it was a bit of a one trick pony. Once you got past the 'Oh I see, it's Stonehenge but as an IKEA product' gag, it was all over. I was sure we could make more of it. I wanted to stuff it with gags. Justin agreed but he was extraordinarily busy at the time, not only as a QI scriptwriter (I hadn't reached those heady heights yet) but also as an historical adviser to TV and film companies. He's a brilliant writer and very funny and you'll see his name in the credits of everything from Pirates of the Caribbean to Atonement to Mary Poppins 2. And his book on the Vikings was the starting point for the epic TV series. Sadly, however, he didn't have the time to devote to it so I had a think and started to play with the idea.

The first thing that I noticed from Justin's original sketches was a doodled wizard/shaman character. I also noted that his builders seemed too tall, so it wasn't a big jump to construct a narrative involving a wizard summoning up a brace of giants to build Stonehenge for him (and, being a Cornishman and having grown up with tales of giants building big stuff, it was kind-of in my blood). So I drew the whole thing out and it looked okay. But it was still lacking something. And then it hit me; we could turn an IKEA-style set of instructions into a comic strip, using the numbering sequence of the assembly as panels. 

So, one evening, I drove over to John Lloyd's house to talk it through. John is the big boss of QI. He's also something of a comedy genius, having created and produced such shows as The News Quiz, Spitting Image, Not The Nine O Clock News, Blackadder and many more. John knows good comedy. And he lives about half an hour away from me in Oxfordshire. So, we sat around his kitchen table - the same table, incidentally, where he and Rowan Atkinson discussed the creation of Mr Bean, and we bounced ideas around.

The 'story' as I saw it needed to play on people's experience of buying flat-packed furniture. John suggested that maybe we could have the giants having trouble with the instructions. Flat pack angst is something that many can identify with. I also wondered if we could add a cowboy builders element to cover the fact that Stonehenge, as we know it today, looks only partially built. As the tea flowed and the evening wore on, we toyed with ideas like mislaid allen keys and missing components. I then suggested that we have our 'customer' employ a wizard to build him a henge. The wizard then sub-contracts two giants to do the work. But the giants (who, as myth would have us believe, weren't the smartest of races) can't figure out the instructions and get increasingly more frustrated in each panel. Eventually they start drinking and swearing and getting angry. Finally, they give up, kick half of the henge down in frustration and go off down the pub (we've all been there), leaving Stonehenge looking like it does today. I sketched the idea and John loved it, so I drew it up the next day. And here it is:

There are some lovely little touches in there that I'm very proud of. Like the image of a handful of workers and the figure 'x 10,000'. And the guy who's been crushed as he's tried to lift a giant stone on his own. And even replacing the IKEA logo with an image of a flint hand-axe. But my favourite thing is the two little figures at the very end of the story and the safety disclaimer blurb which reads:

Small parts are not included. I was so pleased with that line.

I will say that the finished piece didn't meet with the approval of everyone initially and I totally understand why. QI prides itself on its accuracy; it's very rare that the show gets something wrong. And the QI annuals reflected that ethos; they were jam-packed with funny stuff but the funnies were always built upon facts. For example, in the same annual, Justin and I had created a two page history of the world using mocked-up Health and Safety signage. The facts were there under the silly images:

But, in the end, John decided to run with HENJ on the grounds that QI is a comedy show as well as a font of knowledge and it was okay for us to let our hair down now and again. And I'm glad that he did. HENJ was a big hit and is easily the most copied and circulated thing that QI has ever published. Just do a Google image search and see how many websites it's been featured on.

It's nice to see that we are credited on a lot of pages now.

HENJ was a turning point for me. Not long afterwards, I was taken on as a researcher/writer for the TV and radio shows and I eventually became one of the main scriptwriters.

But that's an entirely different writing story. 

And one for another blog post.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Murder She Wrote ... Badly

I'm a fan of Jessica Fletcher and I don't mind admitting it. I've seen every episode of Murder She Wrote several times (including the four TV movies) and I love it. It's cosy, silly nonsense. Pure entertainment.

The shows are constantly on repeat on TV and, just recently, one of the ITV channels has started showing the later series; you can tell that they're later because the opening titles feature Angela Lansbury using a PC rather than a typewriter. We also get a glimpse of her writing. And, frankly, for a bestselling author, it isn't that great ...

Back in her typewriter days, all we ever got from the titles was a fleeting glimpse of the enigmatic sentence 'Arnold raced out of the door ...' but now, in the computer age, we get to see much more. Here's a photo I took of the TV (click on it to make it larger):

'Meeting the bag and him upon arrival'? 

'As sson (sic) as they arrived they departed'?

'With a lark and a heart beat our hero Arnold jumped into a yellow cab and chose to follow his voyeur mind while his broken heart looked for the courage to find Michelle''?? 

It's terrible! All I can say is that J B Fletcher must have had bloody good editors. And who is 'our hero Arnold' anyway. Is he the same Arnold who raced out of the door? Could he be the Inspector Jellicoe mentioned in the TV series as Fletcher's fictional detective?

We may never know.

Still, if someone writes this badly and becomes a bestselling author, it proves that there's hope for us all!


Don't forget that you can vote for A Murder To Die For in the Dead Good Readers' Awards - in the appropriately-named 'Cabot Cove Award') until the 18th July. Click here or on the image below.

And the sequel, The Diabolical Club is now 55% funded and rising. Please consider supporting it and get your name printed in the book as a patron. Click here or on the image. Ta!