Writing Round the Twist

Paul Jennings, "Magpies", September 1990

I have finished the first drafts for all thirteen episodes of "Round The Twist". I have completed final drafts for seven. Shooting has started. Writing is continuing. I am producing seven drafts for each episode.

Writing to deadlines is creating enormous pressure. And there are many problems. The third director (Mark Lewis) doesn't like two of his four scripts. And I have been told that I can't let Nell die in the final episode. "It's too depressing after thirteen weeks," says script editor and director Esben Storm. "We can't finish a series by killing off a well loved character." I look him in the eye. "If we don't let her die, her ghost can't return. The episode is ruined." Esben shrugs. Patricia Edgar the executive producer agrees with him. I feel weak at the knees. I have to think of a new plot very quickly.

This comes on top of the earlier news that episode seven, "Frozen Stiff' has been cancelled. It is too expensive to freeze a horse and thirty other animals inside large iceblocks. I have rewritten this script three times but the axe has finally fallen. I don't have the faintest idea what I am going to replace it with. The cameras are rolling, gobbling up the minutes, days and weeks which are left.

Friday. The phone rings. Director number two, Steve Jodrell has a problem. The flying cow's skeleton has to go. Five thousand dollars is too expensive for one gag. Think up a new one by Monday when he is shooting this sequence.

The doorbell rings. It is the courier come to collect several more pages of"Santa Claws". They are sweating on the final draft because this episode has gone into preproduction and a new location is needed. The producer couldn't get a department store as required in the script. About half of the episode now has to be set in a school hall instead. I groan. There are scenes on the elevators and escalators, on the roof garden (where Santa Claws crashes), in the pet department, the make up section and the record bar. A school hall has none of these.

Mark Lewis and several others are inspecting Williamstown Primary School for possible scene locations. I have to go. I wander around the beautiful old blue stone building gloomily. There is nowhere for Claws to crash. The roof is too steep. The kids won't be able to walk on it. Finally I spot a gutter between two turrets. "Claws could crash there," I say. "His wind-up toys could totter to the edge and fall over. Pete could catch them as they fall." This is a new idea. Director Mark Lewis smiles. He likes it.

I rush back to my word processor. Claws will have to wait for the time being. Steve needs his flying cow replacement scene by Monday. I can't think of anything. A billy can no too old fashioned. A telephone box no, shades of Doctor Who. A dog kennel no, not funny enough. I can't think. My mind is in a whirr. What can fly through the air and land on an old lady, trapping her inside? Nothing comes to mind. I stay up all night. Just before dawn I think of a supermarket trolley. A flying supermarket trolley. The very thing.

I ring Steve at the studio. He likes the trolley. "It's cheap too," I say. He laughs loudly. I wonder if I can get a joke out of this for the script. No, it might be seen as condoning theft. This is a children's program.

Episode thirteen. Nell is not allowed to die everyone is firm about this. The story is ruined. And we have already seeded ghosts at the top of the lighthouse in all the earlier episodes. The story has to be about musical ghosts. And Nell can't die. I don't have the faintest idea what to write.

Then there is still the replacement episode for "Frozen Stiff". A whole new episode. There won't even be time to work up scene breakdowns. I will have to go straight from story outline to first draft. The courier arrives with Esben Storm's reactions to the twelfth episode, "Without My Pants." His red pen has gone through half the scenes. "Not funny enough." "Repetitious" "Too many new characters." "Scene twelve doesn't take the story anywhere."

Esben has been my teacher. Until I met him I had never even seen a television script. I learnt that scripts are written in the third person present perfect tense. I learnt that there is no room for simile and metaphor. The writing must be sparse. No directions to the actors or they will be insulted. Not a suggestion of what the camera is doing, this is the director's business.

Esben informed me that storylines, which are used to sell the show, must be literary masterpieces capable of hooking in the investors. Anything is allowed here as long as the writing is compelling. But I am talking about fourteen months ago. The storylines have long since become redundant. We have the investors. Otherwise the series would not have been proceeded with.

The phone rings. Rodney McLennan who plays the part of Bronson has used up all his night hours. Child actors are strictly regulated by law and Rodney can't work at night any more until he has rested. "Write him out of scenes 17-22," says Esben. I feel ill. Bronson is a central character. These scenes had some great jokes suitable for a little boy. Bronson is the only little kid in the show so I can't give them to someone else. What a waste.

There is another problem with Rodney. Esben is worried that he will get swept out to sea or catch a cold in the surf rescue scene. "Leave him on the shore shouting instructions to the others instead," suggests Esben. Oh no. More writing. What about episodes seven and thirteen? I haven't even started them and time is rushing by.

I decide to leave Melbourne and go to Warrnambool to camp in our empty house which has just been sold. There are no phones. I won't emerge until I have a first draft for episode seven. Esben gives me parting instructions. "Use the lighthouse, the set was expensive and it has to be used." I am really worried about this script. If Mark Lewis doesn't like it he won't direct it. In addition to this worry I have the pressure of the time deadline which is galloping towards me.

I set out for Warrnambool. I want to feature Linda (Tamsin West) in this episode. Tamsin is a good actress and Linda is an interesting character who has not featured as much as the boys. Linda and the lighthouse. Those are my parameters.

After two days I have a plot pinched from my short story "The Copy". Linda copies herself in a cloner in the top room of the lighthouse. The copy turns out to be obnoxious. Linda and the copy fight to push each other back in the machine and switch on "reverse". Each wants the other dead. The copy wins and is the survivor. This is the twist at the end of the story.

Deep in my heart I know it's not right. Linda is a nice character. Trying to reverse the copy is really attempted murder. She couldn't murder someone. It just won't work.

I start again. This time Linda likes the copy. She and her copy care about each other. The cloner blows up after a rabbit keeps doubling itself. The copy of Linda disappears and Linda cries over her lost twin. Great stuff.

I ring through to Esben. I am excited as I outline the plot to him over the phone. There is a long silence. At last he says, "There's no climax."

No climax. I am stunned. Why didn't I see it? What's wrong with me? I go back to the empty house. I think and think and think. I try again. Linda and the copy love each other. One of them has to be reversed or they will both die. All the copies of objects and their originals begin to melt. Linda and her double realise that this will be their fate unless one of them is reversed in the cloner. Each fights for the privilege of sacrificing their own life. A desperate battle at the door of the flashing cloner will be a great moment.

I have a climax. I know that this is a good story and I write the first draft. I fax it to Esben. The next day he rings back. He likes it. Patricia Edgar likes it. And...Mark Lewis likes it. He wants to direct it.

I return to Melbourne and work on the final episode. At the same time I am knocking out various drafts for another five episodes, writing the new scenes for "Santa Claws" and working on the last minute changes needed by the two directors. Mark Lewis doesn't like any of my drafts for "Without My Pants". Esben Storm loves them. He takes over as director for this episode. And for the last one which has yet to be written.

That week at rushes I see Steve Jodrell. "How did the flying supermarket trolley go?" I ask him. "Oh," he replies. "We ran out of light so I cut that scene out."

I write three different storylines for the final episode. Esben doesn't like any of them. I am exhausted. Seven days a week, writing into the night. Draft after draft. Joke after joke. I have been writing nothing but this series for eighteen months. And now I can't think of a plot for the last episode. It has so many restrictions. Three kids living in a lighthouse with their dad. Musical ghosts that have to be explained. A whole new plot. And a suitable end to the series. It has to be the best episode. I can't do it. Nothing I write works. Everyone is worried. After all this time we have two days to get a first draft. Other people are suggesting plots. This has never happened before. All of the other episodes had my name on the script. It looks as if someone else will have to be brought in to help. Millions of dollars are at stake. The film crew and actors have to have a script. They can't just stand there waiting while I fight for an idea.

My head spins. I'm cracking up. I don't think I can go on. I receive a phone call from Patricia Edgar who is in San Francisco. "Go for your gut feeling," she says. "I don't want anything unless you like it."

It is the little confidence booster I need. I gather all of the rejected scripts and some ideas suggested by Esben. I sit down and pick out the best. I add new elements. A story emerges. A fight to save the lighthouse from developers. A romance. A little girl ghost. At the very end of the episode she can kiss Bronson in front of a magnificent sunrise. All the main characters will witness it.

On a cold winter's morning I watch as Esben and Director of Photography (Jan Kenny) shoot this scene.

Then it is all over.

Three months later the finished tapes arrive by courier. I tear open the parcel and rush to my video player. I watch the last story first. My family gathers around the television set. It is a beautiful episode. In the final scene, the rising sun bursts out between the softly touching lips of Bronson and the little girl ghost.

I look around the lounge room. Everyone is crying