There were many (and for a while I was one of them) who thought we would never, ever, get a TV network running again after the Bad Business. Radio was back relatively quickly – it never really went away – but TV was another matter. It was hardly seen as a priority when people were scavenging, and cities lay in ruins, and fields were laid barren. And just the practical side of it seemed impossible. But in the tenth year after the Bad Business, we went on air. Yes, I was part of the team. So Yah Boo Sucks to anyone who said a Media Studies Degree was useless. Actually I don’t recall anyone asking me about that, but that’s not the point. In general it’s still seen as bad form to boast about anything BBB – Before the Bad Business – which doesn’t mean people don’t.
Talking of abbreviations, we settled on New Era Television, with the apt, if uninspiring acronym of NET. The original idea was the rather more grandiose (if not necessarily accurate) New Era World Television, but then someone pointed out the unfortunate amphibian acronym. There was still a faction, and I was sympathetic to it, that there was an argument for keeping it, with a newt logo, but now they’re on the verge of extinction, that was deemed to be in bad taste.
At first the whole thing was very modest. John Logie Baird himself would probably have found it primitive and basic, even though we did have colour of a sort, though with a strange tinge that was either pink or green depending on how the wind was blowing. We started off more or less as a news channel, only broadcasting a couple of hours a day, mainly to public screens. Of course there were mutters saying –with some justification – that it was basically just radio with pictures that didn’t do much to enhance it, and it was a waste of money. But most people could remember BBB and though they might not necessarily care to admit it, had been missing television. Yet they were probably amongst the most disappointed and underwhelmed. In their heart of hearts they must have known that there was not the faintest whiff of a whisper of a chance of any kind of big budget costume drama or wildlife spectacular. But gradually, we did expand. There were some old recordings that had survived the Bad Business intact, or intact enough to be restored by Danny, our Expert in such matters. Even scratchy and blurred repeats of Downton Abbey or Blue Planet were better than nothing. True, they got repeated over and over, but as Danny said, probably not much more than they had on certain Freeview channels before.
But, bit by bit, we started to add original items to our output. I was the one responsible – I had the grandiose title of Head of Arts Programming – for securing a broadcast of a concert. True, some said that concerts were just as good on the radio, but I bet they still tuned in. We introduced a twice weekly consumer programme, that had a very broad remit, anything from twenty new ways to cook a rat, to how to deal with your own ingrowing toenail, to tending to your nettle patch. There were people who reckoned they had survived the Bad Business entirely due to foraging and boiling up nettles, but that was debatable. Still, they had finally come into their own, and I can’t see that changing any time soon.
It was Lindy, the Commissioner for New Programmes (to her credit, even she couldn’t say it without a wry smile though she was not lacking in regard for her own importance) who said, as we pretended we loved the taste of acorn coffee, “Louisa, I think it’s time we had a comedy. An original one,” Well, that took me aback. It wouldn’t have struck me as her first priority, and I wasn’t sure it was mine either. Anyway, there was still comedy on the radio, though admittedly none of it was new. We had broadcast a couple of episodes of old tapes, but whether it was because the quality was just too poor, or because it just didn’t seem at all relevant or funny any more, I don’t know. Still, experience had taught me that for all Lindy could have her irritating ways, like all of us, so far, her decisions when it came to NET had proved sound. Even though some thought it slightly inappropriate, the quiz show Who Wants to Win a £10 Food Voucher had done well, and we’d already had the first jackpot winner. But apart from the dubious profligate nature of the programme, sending out the wrong message and all that, that had been relatively easy. One of NET’s own producers, Clive Marsden, proved an able quizmaster, though I couldn’t wholly disagree with those who said he came over as a bit smarmy, which was odd, as in “real life” he was charming and likeable. Enough preserved books and even some limited wind up Internet Access (and some had said that would never be possible) and viewer input provided the questions, and I don’t need to say that folk queued up to participate. True, the set was a pale and rickety shadow of the sets of game shows BBB, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I swear people use that expression now more than they ever used to, maybe as a gesture of defiance.
But a comedy was another matter. A comedy needed a set, even a domestic sitcom, and it needed actors and it needed a script. And perhaps that last item was the most problematic of all. As Who Wants to Win a £10 Food Voucher had proved, though a comedy wasn’t quite the same as a quiz show, folk could live with a pared down set. There were still trained actors around, and schools had even started to teach drama again. But the script might be another matter. Lindy was giving me what I privately termed one of her long looks. It wasn’t really an old-fashioned look, or a searching look, and looked at objectively it probably didn’t last that much longer than most looks. But it signalled that she was serious and she meant business. Not necessarily anything unpleasant or onerous, but something that she intended being heard. “About the script, Louise – well, how about you taking it on? You’ve had stories published and you did that media studies degree – and don’t tell me we’re not supposed to talk about BBB, surely it’s time we grew out of that, as long as there are still people left who can!”
“I’ve never written any drama!” I protested.
“But you’ve written dialogue”
Well, before we parted company, my mouth still filled with the tinge of acorn coffee that I would never get used to, I had found myself agreeing to at least – was it “think about it” or “have a go”? Possibly both.
Still, I’d be lying if I said the idea was wholly unappealing. I had never really stopped writing, well, fair enough, for a few weeks after the Bad Business, when all that mattered to any of us was survival. I kept a journal, and had even contributed a few funny vignettes to the consumer programme.
The writing itself, either in putting words down on paper, or on the dilapidated but precious old word processor that someone had found, miraculously still repairable, and capable of working on a battery, after the Bad Business, wasn’t the problem. My time for writing has always been the early morning, even, at least sometimes, in winter, before the power goes on and squandering one of my precious candles. It was easy to add on another, different task to it, and producing a thousand words or more was no problem whatsoever. But I always ended up knowing that it wouldn’t work. It wasn’t even that it was bad, though I’m not claiming it was brilliant, but it just wouldn’t work. None of the old tropes (isn’t it odd how odd words from student days linger, even when most of the course has gone into cold storage) would work. They were, somehow, okay on the radio, okay as only sound, or when accepted as vintage, and also they were old enough, and even the ones nominally rooted in reality had an air of fantasy about them. But new things, written for the television were another matter. Comedies set in the office or the home, when people either still had neither, or cherished them, were plain wrong. Oh, it wasn’t that we’d all turned into a back of sourpusses, and the tough love solace of gallows humour had been there from the start. But it came from life itself, not from something made-up, with folk acting, no matter how well they acted. The same applied to hospitals, or schools. It wasn’t that they’d have been banned – there was still some censorship, but now a light hand and blind eyes were generally applied. But – that phrase kept pounding and whispering. It wouldn’t work. Even writing it down I knew it. I knew I had written dialogue that was, at least usually, natural enough – or as near to natural as you ever get in drama. I knew I had created characters who, at least sometimes, started to have a life of their own, which was always a good sign. But it still wouldn’t work. It was the challenge of finding something funny for our times. And sometimes there’s nothing more complicated or serious in life than trying to find something funny.
I toyed with something historical. I’d seen a couple of scratchy, blurred (and probably bootleg) episodes of Blackadder and though I didn’t delude myself I could produce anything even approaching its wit and imagination, it might solve the problem – and brush up my BBB history, which would be no bad side-effect. The idea withered even as it blossomed. If it would be an issue coming up with sets and costumes for something set in a domestic or workplace setting, it would be an even greater one – in fact, an impossibility – coming up with historical costumes and sets.
Some kind of sketch show may have had legs, but one had only recently started on the radio – and I was one of its greatest fans.
Lindy, not naturally a patient person, was laudably patient with me, but I knew she was beginning to wonder if she would ever have something approaching a script on her desk, and I didn’t blame her. I never told her a lie. She had an inbuilt lie detector better than any you saw making wavy lines on an old detective movie, and anyway, she deserved better than that from me. But I did stall and prevaricate a bit – realising even as I did that she could probably see through that at a mile, blindfolded, too. With that long look of hers.
I found myself half-hoping that I wished she’d say that perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all, or at least not yet.
Yes, I found myself believing I half-hoped that, and then realised that it just wasn’t the case. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but I would feel deflated and unhappy if I missed this chance. I had started regarding myself, once more, as a writer. Not as someone who kept a rather navel-gazing journal (though it touched, sometimes, on major events, it was never going to be one of those chronicles of social history that fascinate people for centuries still to come) and who sometimes wrote fillers about the versatility of vinegar and how to recycle ropes for the consumer show. I was taken back to that time when I’d first had a short story published BBB. Yes, I loved writing for writings’ sake, and no, it wasn’t all about the money (let’s be honest, an odd magazine story doesn’t make you give up the day job, and Lindy had been realistic and honest from the start, saying I would probably get a pay rise if it proved popular, but that was as far as it went) but well, some kind of public recognition of your writing does feel good. Maybe not for everyone, but for more folk than would admit it.
And as I sat brooding over the flickering green screen, I suddenly remembered the old adage write about what you know. Now I had never taken that as an absolute command, and don’t now. After all, did CS Lewis really pass through a wardrobe to a magic land, and did Agatha Christie ever really commit murders (though I believe she knew her stuff on toxicology to a somewhat thought-provoking degree)? But just because you don’t think something’s always right, doesn’t mean it always has to be wrong.
I sat tapping away, and was so engrossed that I didn’t even notice that dawn had broken and I was wasting my candle. Hurriedly, I blew it out, and flexed my shoulders and neck as I walked round the room. This just might work, I thought. Oh, it still needed a lot of work, and despite my losing track of time, I hadn’t even done half of a first draft of one episode. But it just might work. There was the risk it might come across as an insider joke and be a lamentable failure. But somehow, I didn’t think it would. And at least if it were a failure, it would be a relatively inexpensive failure because there would be hardly any need for a set.
It would be set around a TV network, trying to get off the ground, after something called the Terrible Thing.
And I hoped there was at least a chance of people finding it funny!