Midway through the year I felt I'd started to claw back some degree of stability. For the time being, my marriage appeared whole again, but it wasn't going to last.
Nothing had really been addressed - the on-off-on-off-on madness of the previous 18 months had if anything made us more unstable. Nonetheless, a mixture of guilt, wanting to be there for the kids, and just needing a breather from the endless drama, was the mortar holding together the bricks of the family home. I wasn't to know it, but the second it rained, it was all going to wash away again.
Despite knowing this on some level, I kept myself distracted with work for the next couple of years. More My Parents Are Aliens, a couple of episodes of a new CITV show called Barking - about a talking dog, no less - and yet more development work that I knew would probably go nowhere.
I'd never really had a gameplan for my writing career. I'd entered into it as a way to keep working with Tim Moore, and had been feeling my way as I went. Consequently, this lack of focus had lead me to work on animations, kids TV, and soap operas. I'd also been developing adult dramas and sitcoms, and written topical jokes for a breakfast radio show.
I guess I didn't really know what it was that I was best at, or even what I enjoyed the most. I mean, if I could've done, I'd have carried on writing Digitiser with Tim forever. Often, it felt like I'd ended up as a TV scriptwriter almost by accident, and didn't really belong.
Not knowing what I should be doing, I would say yes to almost any job at that point. The upshot of this is that I always had plenty of work, and built up a lot of contacts, which led to more work. The downside was that it clouded whatever it was I was best at. What my true calling was. What I really needed to write. Instead of writing in the way that was most instinctive to me, I was often writing for others - giving them what I thought they wanted from me.
On some level I became frustrated. Writing wasn't the easy ride I'd expected it to be. It hadn't gone in the direction I'd predicted. Writing was - and is - a desperately insecure way to earn an income. Ideally, you do it from a place of stability, with the support of those around you.
Instead, I felt alone. My friends and family didn't really understand what it was that I now did for a living. It was so far beyond their own lives, and seemed so surreal to those on the outside, that nobody ever really talked to me about it. I suspect there may even have been a degree of resentment from some, who saw what I was doing as something they wanted to do, or as a threat of some kind.
I guess, to those on the other side of the fence, it must've seemed glamorous. Simply talking about my job the way everyone does was often met with an unpredictable or passive aggressive response, as if I'd been "showing off". Gradually, I just stopped talking about it with anyone outside of the industry. I began to downplay my career.
"Oh, it's basically like any job where you're freelance," I learned to say. "Y'know... like being a plumber or something."
Which is true to a point; it really isn't that glamorous, and you have to find the work the same as anyone who's self-employed. By the same token, I suppose not every plumber has to go for lunch with Jesse "Kat Slater" Wallace, because you want her to be in a TV show you're writing.
Ultimately, my job was just another thing I learned to bottle up. By this stage, I was becoming so proficient at doing so I could've opened my own bottling plant.
One project that did feel very true to where I was at was a show I'd called Is This It.
The title - sans question mark, in homage to The Strokes' debut album - was about a relationship in a constant state of decay.
They had gotten together young, and were kept together by the dramas and problems their friends were having, their own shared history, and a mortgage. For "friends" and "mortgage" read "my kids". However, it wasn't quite as bleak as that might imply, and had a lot of stuff that was very "me", for want of a better word.
I had sent it to Robert Popper, then still at Channel 4 as a commissioning editor. He liked the idea, but Robert wasn't in a place to commission shows in-house - most of what Channel 4 does is made by independent companies. Instead, he got me in touch with Hattrick - who put it in development.
What ensued were the inevitable rewrites, and endless audition sessions with a view to putting on a full-cast readthrough for Robert's bosses. Over the course of Is This It and the next show Hattrick and I would work on together, I sat in on castings - often taking on one or more roles in the script - with pretty much every comic actor in the UK, and beyond. They stretched on for months.
Russell Brand was one auditionee I remember clearly, because at the time he was fresh out of rehab and trying to rebuild his career. He spent a long time in the toilet before coming in to meet with us.
"He's probably shooting up," the producer suggested.
For the record, Russell Brand was very shy and unfailingly pleasant. Also, he wasn't dressed like a steampunk mental patient (I believe he was wearing a couple of those sweat-soaking wristbands and a sleeveless t-shirt).
As I've noted before, it's remarkable how quickly this kind of thing becomes normal. I don't know if other people have their heads turned by mixing in media circles, and become arrogant idiots (I'm sure some of them do... unless they've always been arrogant idiots), but I felt on the fringes of it - much as I did the games industry. It probably stems from feeling that way at school.
Those around me have always ensured I remained grounded. Also, I guess I really do see it as a job, and don't feel particularly impressed by people just because I've seen them on the telly.
Plus, I've never bought into that romantic ideal of writing. All that "Oh, I'm a writer! I simply have to write!" guff. To the best of my knowledge you don't get bus drivers who "Simply have to drive a bus", and become tortured and wracked with angst about it. It's a job. Get over yourself.
The Is This It auditions also put me off ever wanting to be an actor; people who I thought were a pretty big deal, and shouldn't have had to suffer the indignity of auditioning, would come in making sweet noises about the script.
That said, at least one fairly significant actor didn't think she should have had to audition either. She came in mistakenly believing she'd already been offered the part, and hadn't even read the script. "I don't do auditions," she snapped.
What a wretched, demeaning process for everyone.
I can't remember exactly who we finally cast for the This Is It read-through, but I think it included Adam Buxton, Matt Berry and Marc Wootton.
In particular, Marc and I got on extremely well. I'd remembered seeing him on some low-budget comedy show in the early hours of a Friday, many years before, and his unhinged performance had always stayed with me. Or maybe Marc wasn't in it, and I'm confusing it with the fact that we worked together again a few years later. Or maybe we did more than one readthrough, with different casts. It's so long ago.
Regardless, a readthrough took place one morning at Channel 4's HQ, attended by Kevin Lygo and other Channel 4 bigwigs. It was introduced by Hattrick's head of development Cheryl Taylor as "A show about a couple who are too busy sorting out their friends' problems to deal with their own."
"Oh god!" blurted Channel 4's then-head of comedy. "It's so bloody cliched!"
Not the most confidence-inspiring start, and I died a little inside. By the end, the rest of me would be requiring a shot of adrenaline.
Following a laughter-lacking readthrough, during which most of the jokes were up-ended by one cast member (not one of the ones mentioned above) who chose to forego the rhythm of the lines as written for his own improvised mumbling, Kevin Lygo got to his feet, said "Well that was a funny way to spend the morning," and left.
And then proceeded to turn down the show. Frankly, based upon what I witnessed, I didn't blame him.
It's safe to say that I was starting to learn how TV works.
In those early days, for every thing I had made, there were probably at least another three which didn't get made. Some of them got incredibly close to a TV screen. Others stumbled early on.
All that work - whether it got made or not - was at least helping me to improve as a writer.
All those different genres of TV, all the different people I was working for - they helped me hone my craft. I finally started to feel like I knew what I was doing. With that came a certain sense of inevitability that at some point my career was going to really skyrocket. It never did, of course - but it has at least rumbled along comfortably.
Still, it was an exciting time. After Is This It got turned down, Hattrick continued to want to work with me. I had grown to trust and respect the team - Hattrick boss Jimmy Mulville most of all. Those of a certain age will remember Jimmy as a big player in 80s comedy. He'd faced battles with addiction, and clearly come out the other side all the stronger for it. He has an energy about him, and you'll rarely finding him sitting still for longer than a couple of minutes.
Prior to my very first meeting with Jimmy, I'd had a shave, and somehow managed to slice through my septum. It wouldn't stop bleeding, and I had to get the train with a bloody tissue pressed against the bottom of my nose. I managed to stem the flow, but midway through my meeting with Jimmy the cut opened up again.
As I spoke, I was only dimly aware that Jimmy and the other people in the room were regarding me with a certain degree of horror, while watching blood trickle down my face, and drip off the bottom of my chin onto the script in front of me.
I flailed around trying to find an idea for a second show to write with Hattrick, and eventually they suggested something that had never previously occurred to me: that I should write what I know.
Something that was always a point of interest in my early career - producers are always open to writers who can bring some sort of unusual life experience to the table - was that I'd become a dad at 18. At the age of 33, I was already a dad to a 15 year-old daughter, a 12 year-old, and a 9 year-old. That became the basis for a show called Too Much Too Young.
Whereas Is This It had reflected the reality of my life in recent years, Too Much Too Young would be the idealistic fantasy of what I had wanted it to be: a sitcom about a couple who had been together since they were kids, and had a teenage daughter. They still loved one another, and had stuck together through it all. Theirs was a fundamentally happy life.
This would be the show that would take me the closest I'd ever got to primetime BBC1. This time, the obstacle in its way was somebody I never could've predicted: Her Majesty The Queen.
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART ONE: WE TWO VETS - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART TWO: HUSK & HORNBLOWER - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART THREE: NORTH OF WATFORD - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART FOUR: KNIFE & WIFE - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART FIVE: SOOTY - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART SIX: CROSSROADS - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART SEVEN: EASTENDERS - BY MR BIFFO