So here we are, sitting at a pub bench under a large tree at the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival. Tony Jordan and I. Three pints lined up in front of each of us, so that conversation doesn’t need to be interrupted. We’re puffing on cigars the length and width of baseball bats.
“Look, Jase, you know me,” says Tony. “I get straight to the point. So here we go – I’d like to offer you carte blanche. You can pick one of the shows I run and write an episode.”
When I don't answer straight away, he glances over. Then he’s mirroring my frown.
“Unless you’re... too busy?”
I shake my head. “I’m never too busy for you, Tony. You know that. But... well, I am very busy at the moment.”
“What would you most like to do? C’mon. Just tell me. Have you, er...?”
He’s drinking beer from the glass while holding his cigar up and shaking it. The end no longer glows orange. I mull things over, while striking a match and re-lighting him.
“Well?” he says, coughing on smoke. “Am I wasting my time here? Are all my shows fucking crap or what?”
“No, not at all, sir,” I say, laughing. “How about this: I’ve always fancied a stab at a Hustle.”
“Cool. Let’s do it. To be honest, I was hoping you’d say that. Nice one. Can you do me an outline for an ep by this time next week?”
I nod and smile. Knowing that, somehow, it’ll get done. Sleep’s for the dead.
“Right, that’s the business stuff out of the way,” chuckles Tony Jordan. “Let’s get pissed.”
He raises his glass. I clunk mine against it. God, this is great.
Act One, in case you hadn’t guessed, doesn’t happen until the Cheltenham Screenwriters’ Festival 2009. Or 2010 at the latest. Yes. But one thing’s for sure – it’s hard not to dream of having this kind of working relationship with Tony Jordan. He was without doubt the most inspirational person at SWF 2008. Not just because he makes screenwriting seem achievable, but because he reminds you of how much damn fun it can and should be. How much soul and passion needs to be funnelled into it, in order to not just move people, but rock them hard.
Bit of time-travel again here, to The Screenwriters’ Festival, 2007. Tony Jordan and Danny Stack are about to announce the inaugural Red Planet Prize in a room which holds 50 or 60 people, max. Despite getting there early, I still fail to find a place in the room. So as the session begins, I stand outside the main door with a small group of similarly disappointed souls, but soon realise I can’t hear very well. At all. So I find a half-open side door and watch Tony explaining how he wants to give screenwriters an opportunity – everything they crave, in one bumper prize package. An agent, a commission and five grand. Sorted.
The half-open door closes with a terrible clunk. I’m gutted. Still, the session ends soon enough and Tony emerges, clutching his ever-present packet of fags, and says that he’ll go through everything again outside, for the benefit of people who couldn’t get into the room. So he sits on a bench as people crowd around, and smokes like a chimney as he tells us what it’s all about.
As an EastEnders legend and the co-creator of Life On Mars and Hustle, Tony Jordan really does not need to launch the Red Planet Prize at all. He certainly doesn’t need to waste another half an hour of his time on this planet telling SWF delegates about it for a second time. But you can sense that this is a competition that he wishes he could travel back in time to enter himself, when he was an aspiring scripter. No doubt, Tony remembers how it felt when other people made it up through the trap door of success, then selfishly hauled the ladder up after them. No doubt, he has decided to drop that ladder back down. And with such power comes great script siftage: the RPP 2007 goes on to attract over 2000 entries.
At SWF 2008, it’s a wise decision to hold the second Red Planet Prize launch in the main tent, where every single delegate can hear all about it, if they so desire. Despite the 9am start, there is indeed a good turnout as Tony, the 2007 competition winner Joanna Leigh and Danny (who originally proposed the concept of the RPP to Tony) sit down onstage.
While giving Joanna all the praise she deserves, and not wanting to take anything away from her victory (with a screenplay named Sam J, about the compiler of the first ever dictionary, which is now set to be filmed for BBC Four), Tony admits that the idea of having one grand prize winner, “was a bit of a red herring. I wasn’t necessarily looking for just one.”
He notes that, while there will again be only one outright winner of the RPP 2008, he might find more than one person that he wants to work with. “Maybe we'll find six winners, or ten. I want to find the next generation of writers,” he says. “Maybe it’s time to get rid of the old farts, like me, and find people with new ideas.”
This year, he says, there will be “parameters. We’ve stuck with the first-ten-pages thing, because it ticks two boxes. It makes the competition more manageable, and on the other side of the coin it’s that old cliché: I’ll know whether I like it within the first 10 pages.”
This time, though, RPP entrants must submit a pilot for a TV series. “Wouldn’t it be great to produce a BAFTA-winning series from it?” Tony enthuses.
Entrants will need to enclose the first ten pages of episode one, along with a printed-out application form (available here - "to protect against us being sued. I've never nicked anything in my life and I'm not out to steal anybody's idea - I'm trying to give people a helping hand") and a single-page outline of the series. Tony stresses that he doesn’t particularly want to see a blow-by-blow episode guide here – more a sense of “the heart of the series”. What’s it about? Why do we care?
He gives an example of the kind of thing he put into the pitch doc for Hustle: there were movie references and mention of “the Robin Hood tone. That was the thing with Hustle. People kept saying, ‘So if they’re criminals, why do we like them?’. So we had to make the ‘marks’ the worst of the worst. The people we all resent. Mickey was fighting back for the little man.”
While the RPP’s new parameters might seem strange to those who hold that up-and-coming writers are unlikely to deliver a fully-formed series, Tony doesn’t necessarily agree. “I’m not sure of the validity of that,” he considers. “If you’re a talented writer, I don’t know why you can’t create your own series now.”
You can almost feel screenwriting hearts skipping a beat as they hurry to catch up with themselves: Tony Jordan believes we’re potentially capable of creating our own series. We are loving that. Validation, validation, validation (Channel 4’s new script-evaluation show, presented by Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsopp).
There are further silent spasms of excitement as Tony matter-of-factly points out, “If you win and you’ve created this series, you’ll be executive producer and lead writer.” Someone then asks a question what a winner should expect, and how much money they're likely to earn. Everyone else rolls their eyes at such a crass query... then leans forward to make damn sure they hear the answer. And here most of it is, in shaky-cam video form:
Here’s Tony’s main advice for RPP entrants this year (deadline September 30): “Don’t look for gaps in the market. The huge hits that have made it cut across all rules. There was a whisper that medical shows were dead, and then Grey’s Anatomy pushed through. But don’t feel you should do vets in Norfolk. Don’t make corporate decisions.”
A lack of corporate decision-making seems to sum up Tony Jordan’s whole approach. A point which will be hammered home even further, later today.
Tony Jordan’s sitting at a table. Talking. Pint of lager, packet of fags. Around the edge of this table, there’s room for something like 12 people. Then around those 12 people are another 12, and another 12. This is one of the festival’s wonderfully intimate Scriptbites sessions (great affairs, in which you get to look speakers in the eye and feel as though you exist in the same universe), although Tony’s popularity has turned it into a bigger event. People crane to hear his words from well over 15 feet away. Luckily, his voice is fairly loud. He was, after all, once a market trader.
It’s an incredibly moving and inspirational talk. Funny, too. To get the full rush, which will remain with me almost a week later, you’d need to be here, seeing and hearing the way he speaks, like a write ‘n’ roll evangelist. In the following video, you can't hear a word he says, but might get the general feel...
Here are some of the things he tells us:
- Tony lost his mother to brain cancer when he was 16. Understandably, this made him feel angry – “an anger that I still have. But life experiences like that make you realise how real people talk.” He goes on to recall a woman on whom he cheated, who told him that she hoped he died of cancer, “just like your mum”. That, he pointed out, was a terrible thing to say, but it made him realise how hurt she must have been. And that’s how people really feel and speak.
- Tony is a great advocate for writing “with love and joy”. The words “love and joy” are used a lot. He tells us about the time he wrote the infamous, ultra-creative Dot’s Monologue episode for EastEnders, which featured June Brown’s character and no-one else. At 6pm, Tony ferried a bottle of Bacardi, a bottle of Coke and an ice bucket to his garden shed. He started drinking and played a few rounds of computer solitaire. Then at 8pm, he started to write. “By 3am, I was rat-arsed and sobbing like a child. The keyboard was covered in fag-ash, snot and God knows what else. It was the ultimate experience. Maybe it’s a masochistic thing, but I wanted the pain of being there at 3am, being miserable. There’s a purity to that.”
- Tony believes in the William Goldman maxim, “Nobody knows anything.” He recalls going to see renowned screenwriting guru Robert McKee lecturing for three days, and barely understanding a word of it. “I know nothing you don’t know,” he tells us. “If I had the secret, I’d get it photocopied and give it to you all. But there is no secret. And if you act like you know the secret, people will believe that you know something they don’t know!”
- Writers, he says, need to find their balls and stop acting like poor relations. “Don’t go up to people and timidly say, ‘I’ve got this idea. It’s probably not very good...’.”
- Tony once wrote an EastEnders scene in which Frank Butcher delivered a Queen Vic monologue starting, "The trouble with women, is...". The monologue was cut from the script, so Tony put it in his next. It got cut again, and he re-inserted it into another. This carried on for a while, before script editors rounded on him and voiced their displeasure. "Look," he told them, "It's going in, so the quickest way to end this is to let it through."
- Towards the end of his talk, Tony’s tickled to see one lady, sitting at the table with a blank notepad sitting in front of her. “You’ve been waiting for me to say something really clever and amazing, haven’t you,” he says, as much laughter ensues. He grabs the pad and tears that blank front page off. “I’m going to keep this page,” he declares, “to remind me how fucking clever I am.”
- To conclude, Tony sums up his philosophy: “No-one knows anything. Don’t listen when people tell you your ideas are shit. Just put ‘em in a drawer and do something else. Be extraordinary.”
Coming Soon: Barbara Machin, Jane Tranter and assorted SWF goodness.