My marriage was weathering the first storm of many which would ultimately consume it. For the next 18 months I barely had the strength to keep myself upright, let alone write another draft of a movie script. The life I thought I had the measure of turned out to be something very different, and the only things which kept me afloat were my children and Digitiser. Things I could rely on that would, surely, always be there.
When I finally started to pull myself out of the nosedive, I launched my first website - Bubblegun - with my old schoolfriend, and fellow Teletext graphics guru, Steve Horsley. In fact, it was probably Bubblegun which got me back on my feet. I threw myself into it body and soul - an all-consuming attitude towards work, which would help paper over the cracks of some harsh realities for the next few years.
My mornings would be taken up with Digitiser. Afternoons were for Bubblegun. I wrote an astonishing amount of material. Even more than I do for Digitiser2000. Not to mention graphics and cartoons. I worked myself back into some loose semblance of a functioning human being. Not necessarily a healthy strategy, but my family had never encouraged wallowing.
We started Bubblegun with a view to selling it. There was a lot of that happening at the time - it was the height of the dotcom boom. It became an incredibly popular site, not least because I was able to plug it on Digitiser, but possibly also because there wasn't anything else like it at the time. Buzzfeed kind of became what we wanted Bubblegun to be... albeit more irritating, fatuous, and without the comic strips.
Much as I loved Digi, there was nowhere to go with it. There was no prospect of promotion, or selling it, or ever making any money out of it. Plus, ultimately, I was slave to the whims of the Teletext bosses. I tried to ignore the voice which told me they could pull the plug at any moment, but they were still there, dripping fear into my ear.
Bubblegun even had a business manager - a friend of Steve's - and generated some interest, but that all came to an abrupt halt as the dotcom boom became an implosion. It was pretty apparent that there wasn't going to be any money made from websites in the immediate future.
With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn't have stopped when I did, but really... I didn't have a strategy for Bubblegun. I never paused to take stock and consider what it was, or could be. I just kept writing and writing. Running and running, from the fissure that was splintering the ground behind me, always threatening to consume me - before I'd veer onto the next work-based distraction.
Bubblgun did - quite unexpectedly - lead to other work. XFM's Christian O'Connell was a fan of the site, and contacted me with a view to writing for his breakfast show.
I worked with Christian and his on-air sidekick Chris Smith for several years. We even won some awards, though I only found out about these afterwards. Despite my name being on them.
As a firm believer of giving credit where it's due, it's reasonable to assume that this influenced my decision to stop writing for XFM.
Also, in the latter days of Bubblegun, I was approached by Granada Kids - essentially the in-house children's department of ITV - with a view to pitching for a show they were working on with the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. Unfortunately, it fell on the same day as my driving test. I don't get nervous often, but the double whammy of driving examiner scrutiny, coupled to intimidating dub poet scrutiny, pretty much floored me with nerves.
The show was called Websta, and was about a Rastafarian spider. I knew nothing about Rastafari, so did some research beforehand, not wanting to appear as out of my depth as I felt.
When I arrived - frustratingly late, due to both my driving exam (I passed) and traffic - I was the final meeting of what had clearly been a very long day. I doubt I made very much sense to anyone in the room, but I was confident in my Internet research. When I mentioned this, Zephaniah scoffed, and took my printed-out notes from me. He felt the need to tell me that they were profoundly patronising.
I didn't get the job. Indeed, Websta, as far as I know, didn't get a commission either.
What a shame. He was such a nice man...
Fortunately, there had been another person in the room who at least saw some potential in me. His name was Connal Orton, and he was particularly taken with Digitiser's Snakes, which he knew from Bubblegun.
Connal invited me to pitch other ideas, and for a while we worked together on an animation concept called Space Junk. Again, it didn't go anywhere, but it was the start of a working relationship which endures to this day. I credit Connal, along with Robert Popper, for really kickstarting my career.
Granada Kids invited me to their Christmas party later that year. I struggle with the self-serving falseness and narcissism of networking at the best of times, and felt thoroughly out of my depth. I was surrounded by proper TV people. People who had real experience making TV shows. People who had careers in TV. Who was I next to this gilded elite? What was I even doing there?
A few beers in, I got talking to one of these Olympians. His name was Andy Watts, and he was the creator of My Parents Are Aliens. At the time, Andy was about as big a deal in kids TV as it was possible to get. An hysterically funny Liverpudlian, I wasn't to know it then, but I'd end up working very closely with him in the years to come.
As I usually do whenever I appear in public, I dropped a full bottle of beer on the floor, and it shattered - silencing the entire room, and drawing attention to this young and desperately-out-of-his-depth wannabe.
With all eyes on me, Andy leaned over and whispered: "I'm so glad that wasn't me."
Then everything changed, very suddenly.
Robert Popper had moved from Planet 24, and ended up as a commissioning editor for Channel 4. He called me in for a meeting, and asked me to pitch ideas for the channel's Comedy Lab strand.
It just so happened that I'd written a script based upon one of my Bubblegun cartoon strips - Knife & Wife (which was based upon silly cartoons I drew as a teenager). Robert was finally in a position to get things made, and thought the characters could work if retooled as a Simpsons-esque family.
I tried to write something which remained faithful to the comic strips, but Robert was appalled. Knife was just too edgy and acerbic, veering into uncomfortably dark territory - snarling and spitting venom at his spouse.
With hindsight, it was a reflection of how I was feeling at the time. My parents and sister had pressured me into sticking with the marriage, but this meant swallowing a lot of resentment, and bottling things up "for the sake of the kids". I'm only realising it now, but that poisonous stew had started to bleed into my work.
After that first draft was knocked back, I lost my nerve completely. I went entirely in a different direction. As requested, I tried to write The Simpsons, and failed horribly.
Somehow, though, Robert got the script to Monty Python's Terry Jones. Despite reservations from his agent, Terry really liked it, and wanted to voice Knife. Probably as a result of getting Terry, we then were able to put together a cast which included Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes), Kevin Eldon, and Paul Putner. We also had George & Mildred's Brian Murphy, who wasn't there at the main voice recording session. Surreally, I went out for lunch with him after he dropped in to record his lines. Lovely man.
In fact, Knife & Wife was a surreal experience from top to bottom - the first thing I ever had made for TV, and it had an actual Python in it! And not one of the rubbish ones: but the one who directed the films! And he was every bit as gracious and sweet as I could've hoped for!
Nonetheless, it's hard to look back on Knife & Wife now. I can't fault the work of the animators, any of the voice cast, or anyone on the production team. Its problems stemmed from the script. And those problems stemmed from the writer. And those problems stemmed from a pot of insecurity, which had been given a big old stir.
I didn't know who I was aiming it at, and I was wracked with self-doubt throughout. Part of me wanted to please Digitiser fans. But another part of me wanted it to please as many people as possible. Really, I should've attempted to silence those voices, and tried to write for myself - but, again, at that time I thought I was rubbish, so ultimately I wrote something a bit rubbish.
The worst part was people trying to say nice things about it, when I knew in my heart that it didn't deserve them. Well, not everyone tried. My mate Giles and his wife literally said nothing when I showed it to them.
Knife & Wife may have been the first thing I wrote for TV which got made, but it wasn't the first thing I wrote for TV which got shown.
That was Sooty...