Friday, 15 June 2007
The F Word
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good idea must be in want of a pen. Another truth which has been universally acknowledged is that today’s aspiring scriptwriters no longer use pens, but instead spend most of their time worrying about electronic fonts, often to the point of brain implosion; and when it’s not the fonts they are worrying about, it’s the format in which the fonts should appear on the page, and the software with which the format should be created. It is therefore staggering to think that any of these writers ever manage to produce a script at all.
During my period as ‘script honcho’ in the BBC Comedy Development Unit, I perhaps received as many letters requesting details about the science of Fontology as I did actual scripts. And any scripts I did receive usually included a covering letter from the writers asking me to please excuse their choice of font, but it wasn’t specified in the Writers Guidelines or in my response to their subsequent enquiry, but thank you anyway for the additional copy of the guidelines. Writers Guidelines are so called because of the ingenious clue in the title, though it is obvious that a vast percentage of aspiring writers would prefer the more apt title of Writers Blueprints. I’m not sure if anyone ever got my in-joke of the document being photocopied on blue paper, but there are probably thousands of architects working on their first sitcom script who are positively thriving on it.
This evil colour-coded trick of the mind came back to haunt me one day when I opened a large brown envelope containing a pile of paper which looked like remnants from the set of Noel and the Amazing Technicolored Swap Shop. I accept that formatting a script correctly can be challenging for the uninitiated, but to type it entirely in uppercase letters, with no visible punctuation or paragraph spacing, and delineating the elements of the script with multiple brightly-coloured fonts, really does take the biscuit first thing on a Monday morning. I was glad to find a ‘key’ on the title page – I think character names were in red and dialogue was in blue; I know parenthetical instructions were in yellow.
When the kaleidoscopic spots had cleared from my eyes, I returned the script to the gentlemen in question with a copy of the Writers Guidelines and a polite request to avoid submitting multi-coloured scripts in future. Within 48 hours I received a snotty six-page reply stating that if it wasn’t for people like him the BBC would be out of business. I debated this at some length, and finally concluded that it would’ve been more accurate to say that if it was for people like him the BBC would be out of business – certainly in the area of sitcoms. After several more business analogies, the success of which all hinged on his creative skills and personality, Technicolored Writer signed off by demanding to know why I hadn’t remembered sending him the Writers Guidelines six months previously, and ordered me to revise them as nowhere did they say a script had to be ‘typed in black and white’.
Such is the life of a script honcho when one has a public service remit to read the unsolicited works of madmen.
Thus, it was a natural progression that my tutoring at various writing workshops took more of an angle on how to present and submit scripts, rather than how to write them – the theory being that an unknown scriptwriter must avoid giving an unknown script reader an easy excuse for returning their unknown script unread. Moral: Type the script in black and white. Naturally, I became renowned within ‘new writer’ circles on the subjects of fonts and formats, and for providing them with tools to become experts like myself. This lead to various appreciative feedback from past students with comments ranging from the straightforward: ‘Thank you’, to the more in depth: ‘I feel my writing has improved as a result of your workshops’, via the plainly bizarre: ‘Now there’s a guy who really knows where his fonts are.’
The person who came up with this phrase is a man called Dave Dillon. Dave Dillon – or ‘The D-Man’ as he insists on calling himself – is legendary amongst script honchos as being the aspiring writer who has been aspiring for the most number of years without actually coming up with an original idea. Being a cult television fanatic, he instead tries to ‘reimagine’ old television series, and prides himself on his complete collection of Chopper Squad episodes on black-market VHS tapes – which is primarily the reason he refuses to invest in a DVD player. Dave Dillon is also the only person I know who can argue endlessly the evils of the Courier New font and why its line spacing ‘cocks with the one-page-to-a-minute rule’ when typing in traditional screenplay format. He has yet to receive a verdict from Bill Gates after lobbying him for the full abolition of Courier New in Microsoft products and the reinstatement of the standard Courier font.
I came to ‘know’ Dave Dillon through his multiple script rejections, the reasons for which he always felt the need to discuss. The best-kept secret amongst script honchos when one can find nothing constructive to say about the ninety-sixth script one has received from the same writer is to send a letter which includes the stock phrase: ‘Unfortunately, the idea you have presented is too close to something we already have in development’ – along with a copy of the Writers Guidelines. This is the equivalent of being called into your Personnel department ‘for a little chat’ without an appointment when the company you work for is ‘downsizing’, and leaving with your P45. In writing terms, receiving this stock letter means that one more bad submission can leave you looking forward to receiving the other stock letter advising you to ‘rethink your approach’ before writing another script or, better still, refrain from writing another script ever again.
It had been some months since I’d sent such a letter to Dave Dillon, so I naturally assumed that he was either rethinking his approach or, preferably, had died. I was therefore most distressed to encounter him in person at a sitcom workshop one Wednesday evening where he proceeded to pitch a variety of new ideas at me, all ‘reimaginations’ of old television series from the past. His latest idea was a ‘sitcom spin-off’ of Chopper Squad, because it was a ‘unique idea never attempted before.’ When I explained that there were good reasons why it had never been attempted before, he reimagined a sitcom version of Whirlybirds instead, which would be ‘a sure winner’. And so it went on for the best part of two hours, leaving me little time for the Fontologists in the group, and wishing that Dave Dillon would reimagine himself into oblivion.
One piece of advice I remember offering at this particular workshop was that, in the event that a writer finds a script honcho who is willing to read their work personally, thus managing to avoid the standard ‘slush pile’, they should keep a relationship going with their new contact and follow them wherever they go, such as if they change jobs or join a new production company. Unfortunately, there are people out there like Dave Dillon who misinterpret advice such as this, and he proceeded to follow me home after the workshop and wherever I went thereafter, including constantly phoning me at the office ‘to keep the relationship going’. Luckily, when one is working for a large organisation such as the BBC, one has many resources at one’s disposal to dispense with one’s enemies, and a visit to Dave Dillon from the Internal Investigation Squad put an impromptu end to our ‘relationship’.
Many months later, a submission arrived with an ‘H.M. Prison’ emblem on the envelope. Inside was the most immaculately presented script you have ever seen - pages fastened, the correct font, perfectly formatted. It was written by someone called ‘Dez Dallas’ who suggested that it was high time the world had a ‘reimagined’ version of Porridge, a famous prison sitcom starring the late Ronnie Barker. Without hesitation, repetition or deviation, I stuffed the script in the enclosed return envelope and grabbed a copy of the emergency stock letter that all script honchos resort to when all is lost: ‘Thank you for sending me your script which has been duly considered. I am now returning it to you as, unfortunately, the idea you have presented is too close to something I don’t find interesting.’