On this particularly cold morning recently I left the Ottermobile and was sitting at the bus stop, where I was joined by a lady wearing a woolly hat and a moustache.  She said I looked “starved to death” and I couldn’t deny it.  She then asked what I was doing and I replied, without irony, that I was waiting for a bus.  I couldn’t deny that either.  Nor could I deny that the pie I was eating contained pork.  The only truth I withheld is that it was stolen.

I was off to sign on.  It’s a fortnightly treat I dread, and even more so nowadays when they’re asking me to broaden my jobsearch and attend courses such as How to Write a CV.  I knew these days would come.  And I knew the days would come when I’d be applying for jobs not in my usual field.  Which is why I haven’t been blogging, because applying for a job is a full-time job.

But on a rare day off from applying for jobs and being turned down and learning how to write a CV, I thought I’d turn to this diary and write a little something there.

I’ve received quite a number of messages asking where I’ve been and if I’m OK.  The vast majority of these are from people who’re genuinely concerned, as opposed to the people wishing to knit at the guillotine.  I’m aware that my recent posts have been less than optimistic, and some caring readers have said I’ve moved them to tears so I should reassure them that despite all the hardship I’m doing alright.  As I said last time, I’m happy and I know it and I really want to show it.

I suppose in a way it’s like a soap opera, where I provide a “hook” that makes my readers desperate to know what happens next.  It’s vitally important that we keep our audience guessing and of course wanting to tune into the next episode, so the “hook” is something that makes soap opera story writers toss and turn at night.  I guess my “hook” is brilliant in that my readers wanted to know whether I survived the recent chill.

Well I did, which to some would be “false jeopardy”.  “False jeopardy”, another soap term, means that we have a character metaphorically dangling from a clifftop (hence the term “cliffhanger” which has now become the “hook”) at the end of an episode, then starting the next episode with his or her immediate rescue.  To “pay this off” so soon would be “false jeopardy” and therefore a let-down to the audience who prefer to see him or her suffer a little longer, or indeed if they don’t care at all, fall to his or her violent death.

The problem with this, I always argued, is that all dramatic jeopardy is false because it’s by definition a drama, a fiction, an episode of make-believe.  In other words, nobody truly believes it’s real, what they care about most is that it’s entertaining and they wouldn’t want story teams to toss and turn at night because they know damned well it’s all false anyway, jeopardy or otherwise.

Real life, of course, isn’t make-believe.  But it does provide all its characters with problems to overcome, wrongs to right and lives to save.  I recently needed saving and, thankfully, my saviour or saviours arrived and gave me shelter.  As I said before, most of my audience will be delighted and relieved to hear this, while others might grumble that it was all “false jeopardy.”  They’d much rather I’d perished because that’s a better story over which to knit a Christmas jumper or a woolly hat.

Anyway, to those who really do care I owe a massive thanks, and I will be writing a heartfelt tribute to them in my final post in the next few days, which is something I want to take my time over because I want to get it right.  I say final because the Ottermobile has been abandoned and it would therefore be “false” to call these writings Adventures from the Ottermobile.

Perversely I think it’s a pity because I’ve enjoyed writing this stuff; I’ve tried to be funny, entertaining, and sometimes I know it’s been silly but it’s always been the truth.  And I always have to write, because that’s what I do, or maybe I’ll get the hang of doing a CV and bag a job in a warehouse instead.  Who knows what’s around the corner?  That’s our “hook”.

But for the sake of my life I should call it a day, hold a gloved hand up and confess that 250 days on a van is quite enough and it’s time to look to my saviours and thaw my frozen bones.  Then next time I’m in the bus shelter and I meet the woman in the woolly hat and moustache, I’ll hopefully tell her I’m going to be OK.


Blogging and Television – a True Story

In my recent travels I met with a TV Producer in Bradford.  He’d been following my blog and liking it, and contacted me to discuss ways of dramatising it for TV.  We’d arranged to meet in the Brewhaus Bar near the Alhambra Theatre, where he bought me a pint and suggested a curry afterwards in Neal Street, which was just up my street.

We got chatting about all things drama and I embellished some tales of my nomadic experiences.  He’d read them all and whereas the blog is I think a mere stream of consciousness, he kindly said they were “more-ish.”  Along my desultory route I had naturally pondered televisual adaptations of my prose and I was happy to hear he was thinking similarly.  We were on the same hymn sheet, as they say in church and indeed everywhere else.

From the Brewhaus (which I liked very much) we strolled to the Karachi Curry House, which was apparently the first ever such eatery in Bradford, catering for millworkers.  Of course there are thousands now, but it was good to see this one had retained its identity and reputation for no-nonsense, unlicensed nosh; cheap, very tasty and served on formica tables minus cutlery (there were plates though).  Such is the charm and excellence of the place, there was a couple in their 60s who regularly travel from as far as the Black Country to have a sit-down meal here.

Anyway we had a good old catch-up the Producer and I, and something happened which was rather astonishing – he paid the bill.  Having lived in Yorkshire for five years or so when working on Emmerdale, I know this is worthy of note – to get as much as a pint of beer off a Yorkshireman is as rare a sight as a pile of teddy-bear shit.

But the point of this entry isn’t to make cheap jokes about the Yorkshireman’s parsimony (he’s actually a very kind bloke and a good sort), it’s to recount some of our dissertations on story, narrative arcs and the need for truth in drama.

When he asked what kind of story I like best in my travelogue, I said that very often it’s the simple tales of everyday folk.  Looking back over some of the entries, I picked out favourites including the one about Phil from Newcastle, who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night, and all he could worry about was what his lass would say.  And the tale of Steve, whose wife Tracy called him a useless twat because he forgot the Amber Solaire on their cathartic trip to Saltburn.  These were simple things happening to feckless men who happened to be shit-scared of their wife, or in Phil’s case wife-to-be.

But why also are they my favourites, the salient memories of my 140-day journey so far?  It’s because I think they’re resonant of the show I grew up with called Coronation Street.  Imagine Stan Ogden, a useless fat layabout nagged to death by Hilda, and Jack Duckworth quaking in his boots at the very thought of Vera’s bubble-perm and metaphorical rolling-pin.  These characters (and as I touched on in my eulogy to Liz Dawn the other week, they don’t make them like that any more) were so beautifully-observed out of real life and their stories were not in the main reliant on car-crashes, heists and kidnappings, they were tender, simple, familiar and heartwarming tales of struggling working-class couples trying to get through each day unscathed then go to bed and dream of waking up to something better – ie. a few more quid in the bank.

So when I think of story, this is how I think – a car crash doesn’t make a story, a kidnapping isn’t story either, these are happenings, events.  And when I think of truth, this is how I think – truth is what I know, what I relate to.  I can relate to the Oggies and the Duckworths, I’ve met them everywhere and I’ve met the modern equivalent in Phil from Newcastle and Steve and Tracy from Birmingham.

But in all my 53 years and all my travels both recent and in the distant past, I have never once met someone’s who’s been bundled into the boot of a car and driven into the woods to have his head chopped off, or locked in a cupboard and left to starve.  I’m not for a minute suggesting these things don’t happen (and pity the poor bastards they happen to) I’m just saying it’s not my world and it’s not for me what inherently makes drama or story.

I’m realistic enough to know that these days the audience wants bells and whistles and front covers that tell them everything’s going to be sensational.  But I can’t help wishing sometimes the front covers would say we’re going to be treated to a tender, moving, humorous love story between a feckless oaf and a battleaxe.  Or maybe I’m just too old-fashioned or just too old for this, or just my life isn’t remotely sensational!

Then again, when I consider that soaps and serial dramas pull in millions whereas my blog is read by one man and his dog, I might be talking out of my arse.  So if this blog ever does get televised I might find myself rewriting Steve as a serial killer who gets sick of Tracy’s nagging and takes to wacking her over the head with a monkey wrench, and Phil chained bollock-naked to the lamp-post and getting eaten alive by foxes.

But to be honest I’d struggle with that, because it didn’t happen, so it wouldn’t be the truth.


“Theatre of Dreams”


Manchester, 4th October 2017

I’ve just spent three days and three nights stealth-camping near Old Trafford in the city of Manchester, the city I love and have dreams of owning a place there again some day.

This was an important visit because I thought it would do my soul good, I wanted to catch up with some special friends and, most important of all, to be wined and dined by a literary agent who adores our TV play.

So there we were, Jayne and I, in The Rivals Restaurant of the Royal Exchange Theatre, meeting the man who was prepared to train it up from London, buy us a posh lunch and put faces to our names.  It was great to meet him and even better to hear his glowing praise of our labours – “I still don’t believe this is a first draft,” he kept saying.

It was all so upbeat, positive and cheery as he talked about where he’d pitch the script and the fact that we already have star-named actors on-board and eager to play roles, and other star-names were mooted too.  The agent was also keen to discuss our “impressive” track-records and indeed our unusual story – that we’re still married, separated, but very good friends.

“It’s good that you can still be friends,” he said.

“Only because we can’t afford to get divorced,” I quipped.

“Fuck off,” Jayne shot back.

But seriously this was a dream for both of us to finally feel some positivity and feel it’s worth writing something because it’s at least in with a shout of being made one day.  Also, of course, that day would mean a cheque.  No reason to see an end to my homelessness for some time yet, these things can take forever or never, but at least my life feels like it has some meaning and my future some hope.  This business is so tough and cruel at times, so to be told you have immense talent is of course refreshing, and a welcome shot in the arm when I’ve been down with the dog and losing self-belief.

It also felt great to be told he wants more work from us, so I’m putting the final touches on my stage play and will send to him forthwith.  And then on to our next joint project – or rather projects, because we’ve loads of ideas.

It was loads of fun too in Manchester and I’m sure I’ll write more on this anon.  But suffice it to say for now that my brief return to a beautiful city and my day in the “Theatre of Dreams” made stealth-camping that little more cheerful.

Liz Dawn

It’s with great sadness that I hear that Liz has died.  Perhaps portentously, I’d been scribbling notes in my diary about meeting with a TV director and our discussions on what makes a good character and what makes good story – then I wake to hear that one of the greatest soap opera characters of all time has passed away.  I say characters deliberately – of course it’s the actress who’s died, but in recalling moments that I was lucky enough to share with Liz, at work and at leisure, I’m bound to say that she was a character too.

At work she was hilarious company and extremely dedicated to the part of Vera Duckworth, whom she played brilliantly for many years.  At leisure, she was great fun to be with and if I may say so a terrific flirt – I’ll spare the detail but she once flirted with me in The Grapes in Manchester, and tried to pair me off with her daughter!  How often have I dined out on that story?!

But returning to the part of Vera, what a part to play and how wonderfully-storylined and written!  I have so many happy and laughter-filled memories of Jack and Vera, their sparring, their blazing rows and their tender moments that demonstrated the heart and truth of a couple the likes of which are found in terraced streets up and down the country.  The fact that Liz and Bill Tarmey played them with such brilliance made us nudge each other and say “they’re just like that couple across the road”… or indeed “they’re just like you and me.”

I’m often accused of being over-nostalgic in terms of Coronation Street, the show I was brought up on and lucky enough to serve for twenty years, but to my dying day I’ll adhere to the principle that the programme must thrive with characters like Jack and Vera at its very heart.

So while Liz has sadly passed, and will I like to think be joining Bill in heaven, I know in my heart that her legacy will live on, her voice will for ever echo down the cobbles, and the many rich stories will stay with those of us who remember, till we also shuffle off this mortal coil.

Liz Dawn, our Vera, ciao, Mark.

What’s it all about Alfie? (A Love Story)


Two old goats for neighbours on my travels – or L to R Alfie, Me

Bimble (v) walk or travel at a leisurely pace

Thanks to my old school pal Fred Parker, who gave me this word in response to my question in Five Go Off to Stealth-camp.

The eponymous Alfie (AKA Roger Hinde) is the very old friend I referred to yesterday and the story of our reunion is as follows:  I was in Nantwich Library trying to sign on (a soap opera in itself) when I heard this voice proclaim, “You’re not allowed in here!”

“Bollocks,” I said to myself, then turned to see Alfie, looking no different from when I last saw him some ten years ago as he visited my apartment in Castlefield Manchester.  At the time I was Coronation Street Story Editor and his visit was a welcome break from the very long hours of creative toil.

Now, at the grand old age of 66 (same age as my brother Podge – they went to the Grammar School together) there was still the boundless energy and twinkle in his eye.  In his younger days when he was treading the boards he would’ve passed for a David Essex lookalike with his cheeky grin and Romany ruddiness.  “The years have treated you well Alfie,” I said mid-manhug.  But how wrong I was, as he soon went on to tell me he’d had cancer for five years and nearly died.

I’ll go deeper on this later but first I’ll describe the buoyant reunion of us two old goats as I invited him aboard the Ottermobile for a brew.  Because with Alfie you never get to finish a story – much like a soap opera.  As conversation fizzles, you’re energised and carried away on the tide of wit and keenness.  You try to compete with his joie de vivre and the stories it offers.  Your anecdotes are wittily interrupted by his, and the chat crackles into creative avenues you didn’t realise were on the A to Z.  In a nutshell you’re inspired.

One of our reminiscences was about “bimbling” through the English and Welsh countryside, normally via river or canal, a pursuit we followed often, and often with fishing tackle on our backs.  As I touched on yesterday, we once fished at the Tern Mouth of the River Severn, where he knew barbel liked to chew Spam.  I’d never seen a barbel before, let alone catch one, so imagine my surprise and delight when I pulled out this beautiful huge fish, before of course putting it unharmed back in the water.  But as always with these things there has to be a cloud, in the form of Alfie’s sulking because my barbel was bigger than the tiddler he reeled in!  He will of course dispute this claim.

Back in the day, and I’m talking twenty-odd years ago, along with other arty projects we formed a theatre company called Grand Junction with a view to touring a series of playlets about the history of Crewe’s railways.  But we got bogged down in all the politics of Equity and the Independent Theatre Council so the project was back-burnered.  Also my 18-month work in Rwanda impeded matters somewhat.  This was the selfish pursuit of a career that I’ve referred to earlier, which meant leaving friends behind… and ultimately the disintegration of my first marriage.

Anyway amid these and other unfinished yarns, he had coffee, a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate from the Ottermobile larder; pretty much my weekly ration.  And I realised that despite his health scare he still had that ravenous appetite to eat seven more potatoes than a pig.  And he didn’t even bother to wash his cup, the fucker.  But I forgave him that omission as he described how close to death he’d been, which made crockery pale into insignificance.

But for me it also put things into perspective as he recounted that when it was “touch and go” he received many visitors genuinely offering help and favour, but then when he recovered these visits gradually abated – a story of fair-weather friends and their disappointment that Alfie didn’t die, that Alfie had this indomitable determination to pull through and prove to the bastards he wouldn’t shuffling off the coil without protest.  Hence I observed parallels between his story and mine, and the realisation of what’s really important, what life is really all about ie. its delivery of friends and loved-ones, which are more important through thick and thin than any politics or any wealth a career might afford.

Mine and Alfie’s bromance was a mini soap opera with its highs and lows.  We’d chew the fat, set the world to rights, deconstruct the arts of writing and acting and downright act the goat.  We’d fall out like lovers do, and rein each other in from our propensity to get carried away with an idea.  He’d be grumpy and truculent and I’d coax him into working that energy into script and performance.  I’d be down and he’d lift me with a well-timed pun or a “nosegay” of Pete and Dud or a snippet from Last of the Summer Wine.

And I’m happy that the bromance will now be rekindled.  We’ll probably write together again, free from the shackles of politics, unleashed from the need to please others.  We will have fresh adventures from the Ottermobile.  And we will undoubtedly bimble.  But above all, we will laugh and laugh.


Old goats at the cricket – L to R, Compo, Clegg, Foggy, supporting cast


A to Z of Soap Opera Cliches – (And you’re telling me this becoZ)

I’m proud to say I’ve made a living for over 20 years from soap operas, TV and Radio.  But I’ve always viewed fondly the cliches they contain.  At best they make me laugh and they’re partly the reason I love soaps.  At worst they make me angry because it’s just shockingly lazy writing, costing Producers dearly.  Nonetheless I hate it when people disparage soap operas as “populist nonsense” or even “shit”.  In its defence I’ve always said it’s very difficult to write decent “shit”.  Some of these examples are living proof, and I hereby offer the (less than definitive) A to Z of soap opera chiches.

A – “And you’re telling me this because?”  This has crept into most soaps, meant to be an aggressive version of why are you telling me this?  I’ve never in my life had someone say this to me.  There are many versions of this sentence-structure, including “And you’re still here why?”

B – Betty’s Hotpot.  Admittedly I struggled with this one, but offer Betty’s Hotpot because it’s a nostalgic slice of Coronation Street.  I worked with a producer who banned hotpot stories, and I understood why.  I’ve spent half my life in pubs and have never seen an offering on the menu named after a long-dead barmaid.

C – Cat ie “Look what the Cat’s dragged in”.  Lame and hackneyed.

D – Do, eg “he doesn’t DO happy.”  A mainstay of Eastenders and I hate it.

E – Tempted to just put Eastenders (see Q) but I’ll go for “End of”.  Ugh.

F – “Fess up”.  Probably found in all soaps.  Don’t like it.

G – “Grow a pair”.  Commonly found in Emmerdale and it offends me.  It obviously means grow a pair of bollocks, and it’s said even to women.  As a father I imagine my child asking what does this mean?  I’m broad-minded and certainly no prude, but I’d struggle with this one.  Needs to be outlawed.

H – Hedge, ie “he looks like he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards.”  Lazy.

I – “It’s family innit?”  Eastenders, and horrible.

J – “Just couldn’t find the right moment.”  Ubiquitous line, explaining the delay for one character telling another a stupendous plot development.  It’s unbelievable, and more to do with the storyliners finding the right moment.

K – This one was tricky but I’ll go for “Kicking off” ie one character starting a fight.  Travelled down from the football terraces.

L – “Loved-up”.  Horrid.  “Life’s not fair.”  True.  “Leave it!”

M – “My wife’s in there!”  There’s a burning building and a distraught husband tries to break through the police cordon, uttering this pointless line.  His wife will probably be OK, and in five episodes’ time he’ll be shagging her best mate or sister.  Also “My bad” which is a grotesque invader from the United States.

N – “None of your business.”  I’ll demonstrate this horrendous one with a passage of diaglogue:

Character 1 – “It’s probably none of my business but you should treat your daughter better.”

Character 2 – “You’re right.  It IS none of your business.”

O – Out, as in “I’ll see myself out”.  Normally when a character wants to leave on a parting shot.  Also because they don’t have the set for the hallway.

P – “Please tell me…”.  “Please tell me you haven’t been taking drugs.”  He or she probably has.

Q – Queen Vic.  A tricky one but I’ve gone for the pub itself, because there’s a cliche served with every pint of Churchill’s.  “Get outa my pub!”

R – Rocking, as in “You’re rocking the biker look.”  Yuk.

S – “Something smells good.”  Every single time a character cooks, another character comes in and says this pathetic line.

T – “Taxi for so-and-so.”  I wish this taxi service would go under.

U – Underworld.  Couldn’t think of a line, but have gone for the factory, which is brilliant and hilarious in its toy town portrayal.  The machines never work, the workers never work but complain about workers’ rights, the machine operators come to gossip with coiffured hair and dangerous acrylic nails and made up like they’re off to a wedding rather than a day’s piece-work in a sweatshop.  Also the writers think it’s hilariously witty and risque to mention the word “gusset”.  The toffee factory in Emmerdale is no realer.

V – Vera Duckworth.  No wordy cliche to offer, but I just wanted to say bring her back.  Characters like Vera and her perm, Hilda Ogden in her rollers, battle-axe Ena Sharples in her hairnet, are priceless.  Where are they now?  Gone is the backstreet reality and in is the skin-deep beautiful to grace the glossy soap magazines.

W – “What’s going on?”  Watched an episode of Eastenders once and I’m damned sure every scene began with that line.

X – A struggle but I’ve gone for “x-rated”.  “He’s an x-rated villain/philanderer…”.

Y – “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”  Fucking awful.

Z – Ideas welcome, but I’ll go for “zip it!” meaning shut the fuck up.  Which I probably should, because “I’ve told you this because?”