Monday, August 06, 2007

Writing About Television For Opportunity & Profit

This blogger has been rooting around in the archives over the weekend - that is to say he's actually been rooting around in a couple of PC files which he haven't opened for years - and found a couple of old articles which are probably worthy of a bit of re-evalution.

This one was written for a UK magazine, I believe, circa 2002 (judging by the then-contemporary references). Yer actual Keith Telly Topping had been asked to write something about 'writing about television,' Instead, he went for the 'how I - and some mates - changed the way books about TV are written, forever' route. It was a bit vainglorious, I willingly admit, but this blogger stands by the majority of the claims made in it. Hell, I've done little enough to justify my existence on this planet for forty three years, one claim to fame is - surely - not too much to ask?

A few years ago, when I was still employed by the Civil Service, it occasionally cropped up in a tearoom conversation with a new member of staff that I’d written a few books in my spare time. The usual questions followed: 'What sort of books?' 'Well, I’ve written some Doctor Who novels,' I'd say. Noses would wrinkle and there would be a hint of 'You hardly have to be Dickens for that,' in the air. Either that or, 'Oh, a trainspotter, I see. How's the Asperger's Syndrome coming along?' Fair comment, actually.'“And, I write books about television,' I'd usually continue ... feeling about three inches tall by this stage. 'You write for television?' someone would exclaim, looking suddenly very interested at the prospect of talking to someone on the Coronation Street scriptwriting staff. 'No, about television.' At this point, most colleagues would lose interest completely. Writing about television is a bit like writing about sex in many peoples minds - pointless and somewhat sad. Hey, what can I say: It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

Before myself and two colleagues - Paul Cornell and Martin Day - began writing TV guides (beginning with the first edition of The Guinness Book Of Classic British TV, in 1993, and then continuing through several programme guides for Virgin Publishing on series like The Avengers, Doctor Who and The X-Files) the format of books about television shows (or an entire genre of television for that matter) was well-established. Allan Asherman's The Star Trek Compendium, Jean Marc Lofficier's The Doctor Who Programme Guide or Dave Rogers' The Avengers, all published in the 1980s, highlighted what you could and couldn't say in such books. And, also, what the various authors - and their publishers - believed that fans of such programmes wanted from books about the shows. Original broadcast details, full cast lists, extensive plot synopses and a few bits of contemporary trivia. You might get the odd 'behind the scenes' nugget (the Asherman and Rogers books, for example, contains a few). Some off-camera photos if you were lucky. But basically, the idea was to provide fans with an aide d'memoire for, either, episodes that were half-remembered by childhood viewers grown considerably larger and with a bit of disposable income to spend, or not remembered at all.

When we wrote Classic British TV, Paul, Martin and I, wanted to, in Paul's words, 'celebrate the fans way of watching television'; which isn't, necessarily, how professional reviewers, or 'normal' viewers watch TV. We liked the 'close attention to detail' stuff because we're nerds and proud of it - spotting goofs, flaws and bits where somebody says the wrong thing. But we also wanted to celebrate television as a medium in and of itself. As an art-form, even. Television has never had a good press, particularly in relation to the cinema. You can get any number of film guides in your local WH Smiths, but try finding a decent generic TV encyclopaedia and your choice is likely to be limited and, usually, highly sporadic in its coverage. (If you like science fiction, chances are you’ll find something reasonably interesting; if your bag is cop shows, historical drama or sitcoms, good luck finding pretty much anything.)

When we started writing for Virgin a year or two later, we wanted to continue with these ideas. For example, the major Doctor Who resource at that time (1992) was Jean Marc Lofficier's guide, first published a decade earlier. It's a fine book as far as it goes; it gives you all of the information you could ever need about what happens in the episodes, who's in them and when they were first broadcast. But it doesn't actually tell you anything about why people watch the show and become fans of it. The funny lines, the silly clothes, the obsessive continuity (and, the bits where the production team get it wrong), the 'I know where they ripped-this-bit-off-from' moments. That's where the format for The Discontinuity Guide and The Avengers Programme Guide came from. We wanted to write books that said something like 'Okay, here’s an episode of an old TV series we like but that we realise that it's a bit ridiculous; something really funny happens ten minutes in. There's another bit where an obviously fake bit of scenery shakes. The actor playing third-monster-to-the-left later went on to be somebody quite famous. The plot's almost exactly the same as an episode of Department S that was broadcast a few months earlier. The whole thing is rather silly and illogical and we love it. Because we're children of the 1960s, brought up on an undiluted diet of camp SF-TV, Hammer horror films, guitar pop and the power of football and socialism.' All of the things, in other words that fans, themselves, say when they're watching an old episode with a couple of mates, a few beers and a Chinese takeaway on a Friday night.

Once those books, in particular, had showed that such fannish ideas - books written by fans for fans - could be published and, more importantly, could actually sell, this became the industry-standard within a remarkably short space of time. I've noticed recently, particularly in America, that almost all of the new unofficial (and in some cases official) series books are starting to use the idea of breaking episodes down into categories and including humour to slay a few sacred cows. These are all things that the Virgin programme guides first developed and championed through Paul, Martin and my own work and similar books by Andy Lane (The Babylon File), Jim Sangster and Dave Bailey (Friends Like Us) and Steve Lyons and Chris Howarth (The Red Dwarf Programme Guide). Indeed, one of the greatest compliment I've ever been paid was when Keith DeCandido, who co-wrote the official Buffy The Vampire Slayer Watcher's Guide, commented in an online interview that he'd been influenced by the work that Martin, Paul and I did in The Discontinuity Guide, The New Trek Programme Guide and X-Treme Possibilities all those years ago. Validation!

In 1999, I began writing on my own - an unofficial Buffy guide, Slayer, was my first solo work. I started to move away from purely concentrating on what happens on-screen (our raison d’être in, for instance, The Discontinuity Guide) to finding out a bit more about the people who make the shows that I write about, which I’d never much bothered with before. Again, that seems to have influenced the next wave of younger writers who are now doing similar books. Since then, in books on series as diverse as Angel, Roswell, The West Wing and, currently, Stargate SG-1, I’m using the same principals and, roughly, the same format. If it ain't broke, don’t fix it.

I'm often asked how I write such detailed guides. It must take forever, surely? Not really. The research angle is pretty much the same as if you were writing a novel - lots of reading and hunting for soundbites, lots of trawling the Internet looking for obscure quotes, lots of relying on friends and colleagues to find something in their own collection that you, yourself, missed. But the actual process of reviewing the episodes themselves remains beautifully simple. Stick on the video or DVD, remote control in one hand, laptop at the ready, and ... Go!

I'm currently working on two guides simultaneously, a book on Stargate called Beyond The Gate for my friends at Telos Publishing, and a new edition (the fourth) of Slayer for Virgin. There are odd moments when I momentarily forget if I'm going to an Egyptian-based alien world or modern day Gothica California today - but it's a nice problem to have.

Last year, having just completed my twenty second book (a West Wing guide called Inside Bartlet's White House) I finally achieved the dream of many writers in being able to give up the day-job and go full-time as a freelance. (And, as a consequence, not have to have any more of those embarrassing tearoom conversations). There are the odd days where it seemed like a bad move, but there are many other times when I'm asked what it is that I do for a living and I say: 'I watch TV, write about it and get paid for it' where it looks like what it is, the best job in the world.

A bit florid and self-aggrandising, that. But - essentially - a solid history of the development of the TV programme guide. 

1 comment:

deborah said...

And you can buy DVDS and claim them as expenses on tax

Best perk ever!

Hadn't seen that piece before and greatly enjoyed reading it. Thanks