It was hard to get excited about any new project, after so much disappointment. I felt, objectively, that Too Much Too Young, Now The Weather, and Biffovision all had the potential to become great shows. Not flawless, but that was the point of pilots, surely - to iron out the kinks?
Getting so close, and losing them, was hard. Admittedly, I never told myself it was hard, but I can look back now and recognise that every time I got a knock-back, I should've let myself grieve for what could've been. Instead of facing up to that, instead of embracing the grieving process, I did what I always did; I pushed it down, and told myself I was fine.
Same as I did when it came to Digitiser. Same as I did when it came to my marriage; instead of walking away when I ought to have done, I let myself be pushed back into it. The message I received from those around me was that my feelings didn't matter as much as other people's, that it didn't matter how hurt and broken I was... I had to suck it up and carry on.
I recognise that turning a blind eye was nothing but a misguided way to protect myself in the moment. It felt self-indulgent to wade through misery. I wasn't going to be one of those whinge-y victims. I had to be there for my kids... but there's a reason airlines tell you to affix your own oxygen mask before trying to help those around you.
Ignoring any such advice, I chose to put off those feelings for another day, like storing up chores that will need doing sooner or later. I was running away from all of it. Staying distracted. I needed to stay strong, be present, be a good father, and not give in to self-indulgent feelings of self-pity.
I'm not saying I phoned it in when it came to the pilot for Dani's House, but I considered it somebody else's show. I wasn't invested in it. If I'd thought there was even a slim chance of it happening, I wouldn't have thrown my lot in with a bunch of monster hunting lunatics.
I'd received an email after the release of my stupid book, Confessions of a Chatroom Freak, from one Jonathan Downes. He admitted it was shameless fan mail - only the second he'd ever written (the other went to Yoko Ono, of all people).
Jon had loved the book, and had loved Digitiser - despite not being a video games fan. He even owned a cat called Helios-7, which he'd named after a Digitiser April Fool's prank, when we'd announced that we were rebranding the section under that name.
At the bottom of Jon's email was his signature - which revealed him to be the director of the Centre For Fortean Zoology. Suffice to say, my curiosity was piqued, particularly by this bit of their website:
"At the beginning of the 21st Century monsters still roam the remote, and sometimes not so remote, corners of our planet. It is our job to search for them."
Cutting a long story short, it was piqued sufficiently that I sent Jon a reply, and ended up being invited to the base of the CFZ, down in Devon.
On a balmy summer's day, I met with Jon and other members of the organisation, including his second-in-command, Richard Freeman - a dragon expert, and proud goth - and Helios-7.
They did their best to get me drunk, and somewhere amid it all... I agreed to go with them on their next monster-hunting expedition. If nothing else, a few weeks spent eating meagre rations, in the middle of nowhere, would give me something else to think about other than all those tricky feelings that I already wasn't thinking about. Just another distraction - keep running, and never stand still.
By sheer coincidence, the 2007 CFZ expedition to Guyana was being sponsored by Capcom - whose Monster Hunter 2 game was to be released around the same time the CFZ had scheduled the expedition.
The sponsorship had nothing to do with my involvement in the trip, but for once the CFZ actually had the budget to pay for a guide. In this case, a guy called Damon Gerard Corrie - an Amerindian chieftain, who was descended from a giant eagle...
The group was to comprise of me, Richard Freeman, Lisa Malam - a former bouncer and trainee archeologist - Jon "Not the Sensible Software One" Hare, and Christopher Clark, who despite being 53, was fitter than any of us. He also happened to be a former employee of the sinister multinational corporation Halliburton, and had recently returned from a holiday in Iran.
Something about the CFZ's work appealed to the kid in me - who wouldn't want there to be monsters roaming the planet? At the same time, having met them, it was clear that they were - to a man - somewhat unique; Jonathan Downes himself was an ex-rockstar anarchist, who had once run the Chris De Burgh fan club.
Obviously, I wanted to know whether there might actually be monsters out there - I described myself to them as an optimistic sceptic. Secondly, I wanted to know what it was about each of them which made them think there might be. Or, at least, want to believe there might be. There was a story in this. There could even be, I thought cynically, a book.
Like most people, upon first contact I was all ready to mock the CFZ, but in the months between that trip to Devon, and leaving for our Guyana expedition, I'd grown to like them. Jon would ring me up frequently, and I looked forward to our hour-long chats.
Richard could be intense - as you would expect from somebody who used to be a gravedigger - but he nevertheless was fascinating to talk to. His theories about dragons were borne from a love of Doctor Who, and it helped me understand what it was he wanted from being a member of the CFZ.
I think he wanted to believe there was more to the world than it had ever offered him. All of us on that expedition, on some level, were running away from the real world.
The Guyana trip was to last just over two weeks.
We landed in Georgetown - one of the most crime-ridden cities on earth - following a 16-hour flight, with multiple changes. Then we had an 18 hour coach journey, through the unpaved road that connected one side of Guyana to the other.
The coach broke down several hours into the journey, in the rain forest, in the middle of the night, and we had to wait while they sent a replacement out to us. There was no air conditioning on the Mad Max-like vehicle, so the windows remained open. By the time we arrived in Lethem - a Wild West-style town on the border with Brazil, in the Upper Takutu-Essequibo Region - we were coated with red dust.
Almost immediately, the trip proved to be the most punishing any of the CFZ had been on. The heat was incredible, and none of us - with the exception, perhaps, of Chris Clark - had done sufficient training to cope with it. Richard, certainly, suffered more than the rest of us. On our first hike, he succumbed multiple times to the heat.
Our goal was to reach the village of Taushida, as a staging post for finding evidence of a local hominid called the Dai-Dai, an aquatic big cat called the Water Tiger, and the giant anaconda that was rumoured to exist in the area.
From there we were meant to trek another 60 miles - over mountains - to a "remote pond". Given that six miles across relatively flat savannah had nearly killed some of us - and destroyed Jon Hare's hiking boots, which were now held together with duct tape - I had doubts we'd make it.
Mercifully, we decided to stay in Taushida for at least a day - exhaustion ensuring we got a good night's sleep, despite the bush fire approaching on the horizon - and explore some of the local sights. These included the burial chamber of a former chief and his family, which happened to be at the top of a mountain... which Lisa fell off, breaking her hand.
We also took an evening hike to one of Taushida's most holy places - Tebang's Stone, a massive monolith of rock, sticking vertically out of the savannah.
One of our guides, Kenard, told us of a local legend about Tebang - a funny little man who snuck into the village, and touched each of the children on the head, giving them a sickness which claimed their life. After each child died, Tebang would sit atop the stone, and villagers could hear a rattling noise - the sound of Tebang juggling the bones of their dead children.
It was a hair-raising moment, spoiled only slightly by Chris Clark somewhat undermining the sacred nature of the place by urinating up it. Our equivalent would be someone having a poo in the font, while on a guided tour of Westminster Abbey.
The trip continued in this chaotic vein for more than a week.
I'd managed to convince Damon to discourage Richard from taking the 60-mile hike to the remote pond, fearing it might've killed him.
Instead, we decided to hike back the way we came, then drive to another part of the area, where normal-sized anacondas had been spotted.
We pitched our tents on exposed savannah, which offered no shade, barring a small body of water with a few trees surrounding it.
Richard used it as respite from the hellish temperatures - and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. He later showed me his arse. There wasn't space to fit my little finger between the bites. Not that I'd have wanted to.
We hiked from that spot - after Kenard caught us dinner of caiman, using his bow and arrow - to Cashew Pond, so named for the piranhas who inhabited it (they were the same colour as the fruit of the cashew tree). I'd already been bitten by fish during our a dip in the river at Lethem, so that night I washed with the emergency moist bum-wipes I'd brought with me.
During the walk, I finally succumbed to heatstroke, the bottom of Lisa's foot fell off, and Richard lost his temper, because we hadn't held back for her. Which was fair enough, but had I stopped or slowed down, I doubt I'd have ever gotten started again.
Not being a hardened cryptozoologist, I reached a point where I wanted to throw in the towel. That morning, we'd met a man who had apparently seen the water tiger. We'd also been told that this man was a cannibal, but had been advised not to bring this up, as he was slightly embarrassed by it.
"Tell them about that time you ate someone," said Damon, as he introduced us.
As the best tracker in his village, the man had been sent to the top of a nearby mountain to find the chief's son, after his plane had come down. Upon arrival, he found the wreckage of the plane, and the badly burnt and decapitated corpse of the son.
He'd wrapped the body in polythene, and headed back down the mountain with it. Unfortunately, he'd become disorientated, and got lost. After several days wandering around the rainforest, fearing that he'd starve to death, he turned to the nearest available food source - and decided to eat the chief's son's arm.
"Well, it was already cooked," he said, matter-of-factly.
I think it was the final straw of insanity. While we were recuperating at a homestead called Point Ranch, I told the group that I was ready to go home. I was exhausted, hungry, and scared for our lives. All of them begged me to stay. Their support alone gave me the strength to continue.
I still buggered off a couple of days before them, though. The insanity didn't stop, and we all reached a point where we'd had enough. It might've been when we collapsed in the shadow of a boulder, as vultures circled our heads. Or it might've been when I realised that the unspecified meat we'd been eating came from the same strip of dried flesh I'd seen hanging in a tree in Taushida - one side of which had been a writhing carpet of flies.
Or perhaps it was the tale we were told by a shape-shifting shaman, about how when they'd cleared the land for the runway at Lethem airport - although, airport was pushing the definition of what constitutes an airport - they'd demolished a number of termite mounds, and found human skeletons inside.
Upon arrival in Georgetown we decided to ask whether there were any seats on the next available flight out of the godforsaken country. We thought we'd spend a couple of days in Barbados. There were - but I was the only one desperate enough to pay the extortionate fee.
However, that meant I had to spend the night in Georgetown, while the others headed back to Damon's home village, Pakuri.
Guyana wasn't done with me yet.
I spent the most terrifying night of my life in Georgetown with the family of Damon's cousin.
He was a taxi driver.
Taxis in Guyana aren't like the taxis we know. They're minibuses, which drive around the city, stopping to pick up passengers as they threw themselves into the path of the cab. I had chosen to go with him to pick up his night time fares.
Driving into the central market square of Georgetown felt like being in an armoured police van driving into the midst of a riot. Although without the armour, and acutely aware of being the only white face in the entire city. What felt like 5,000 locals fought to get a seat in the minibus that night.
Later, we ate fish and chips on the Amerindian side of the street, while black locals stood opposite, glowering at us. It felt as if Guyana's racial tensions - which had become all too apparent from talking to Damon - would boil over at any moment.
Trying to push away what I felt certain was my imminent death, I took the opportunity to ask my host about the creatures we'd travelled to Guyana to find. We'd not encountered a single one of them. Or seemingly even come close to finding a single one of them. By this point, I'd pretty much concluded that the Water Tiger, Dai-Dai and 50ft-long anaconda were nothing more than myths.
However, a lot of locals had told us stories about a race of red-faced pygmies, who lived in the area. Kenard told me that as a kid he'd get a lift to school on the back of his brother's motorbike, and every day one of these little red-faced men would jump out of a bush, and hitch a ride. I took it to be a story, which he'd embellished over the ensuing decades. Nevertheless, person after person mentioned the red-faced people. Everyone we spoke to had a story.
We'd travelled into the rainforest to visit a Dai-Dai eyewitness, who ran a fish farm. He told us that he'd often hear Dai-Dai at night, either walking through the foliage, or making their distinct vocalisations. I'd put it down to the howler monkeys, who lived in the area. It was as we made our way back that Damon told me something which made my blood run cold.
By this point, I'd started to see Damon - eagle-ancestry or not - as the sanest member of our party. His favourite TV show was the BBC sitcom Sorry, and he was a big fan of Coldplay and Pink Floyd. He was raised and lived in Barbados, and was - despite his heritage - more Westernised than anyone else we met. He never commented on the monsters - he was just happy to lead Richard and the others wherever they wanted to go.
But as we left the fish farm he said, quietly: "I've seen the red-faced people too."
He revealed he'd been camping as a teenager, when he'd been woken in the night by a noise. He sat up to see one of the red-faced people looking at him through his tent flaps. He'd clearly been terrified.
In Georgetown, over racially-charged fish and chips, I asked Damon's cousin about the Water Tiger, the giant anaconda, and the Dai-Dai - and he'd rolled his eyes at all of them, dismissing them as "just stories". Oddly relieved by this, I continued in that spirit.
"Yeah, and then everyone was telling us about these red-faced people!" I scoffed.
"Oh no. No, they're real," he replied...
Before I left for Guyana, I'd had a meeting with a publisher in London. My agent had also spoken with another. Both had offered me a book deal.
Neither publisher was offering a fortune in terms of the advance - certainly not enough to cover everything I'd wanted to do.
Guyana was intended as just a chapter; I also set up a trip into the New York sewers to look for giant alligators, made contact with a vampire in North London, managed to gain the trust of a bunch of paranoid Bigfoot hunters - after months of email correspondence - and planned a big cat safari in darkest Wiltshire.
It would've been an amazing adventure, but also would've left me significantly out of pocket - with no promise of recouping the costs.
I even had a couple of meetings with documentary makers, who considered piggy-backing a TV show off the back of the book - potentially tagging along on the CFZ's next big expedition, to look for the Almasty (a sort of Russian Bigfoot). At one of these I was ambushed into doing a successful screen-test, which I hadn't banked on. For one brief moment, I thought I was going to be the next David Attenborough.
I looked at scaling back my plans - certainly, there was enough material from Guyana alone for a book, but I knew that the expedition had only lasted two weeks. Plus I'd spent the last couple of days alone in Barbados, eating and laying on a beach. It wasn't exactly Homer's The Odyssey.
Fortunately, the decision on whether to pursue the book was made for me, when Dani's House was commissioned for a full series. Looking back, obviously it was always going to happen. It was intended as a showcase for the actor Dani Harmer, at that point the biggest star on the channel. CBBC wanted something new following her departure from the long-running Tracy Beaker, and this was the only potential project she was attached to.
Before that, though, everything I'd bottled up - the grief, the guilt, the feelings of failure, and isolation - would rise to the surface.
More or less since I'd quit Digitiser I'd written a blog.
It gave me an outlet that I didn't get from scripts. It also gave me a message board. And frankly - for a while - that made me feel a bit less alone in the world.
I liked the sense of community. In fact, I liked the message board more than I liked the blog.
Indeed, I was forever considering shutting the blog down, but every time I nearly did something would happen - such as my agent encouraging me to try and "Build the Biffo brand", or my book publishers would encourage me to use it to publicise the book, or we'd want to use it to try and give Biffovision a boost. However, the blog just heightened my feelings of vulnerability. Given the ups and downs that were going on in my private life, I didn't like the spotlight it shone on me.
I guess, on some level, I knew I wasn't the person I wanted to be. I didn't like myself much. In my distorted, messed-up state, I wasn't acting in a way that felt was true to me. I didn't recognise myself, and I didn't want that spotlight shone on somebody who I was fast growing to loathe.
The Board of Biffo, however much I needed it in the early days, became a chore. The first few years were great. Lots of us from the board would meet up. Everyone seemed lovely.
At some point, the board started getting unruly. People would complain to me about their accounts being hacked, or that stuff was being posted about them on other boards. Frankly, I didn't need that hassle. I already had enough going on in my life without having to sort out other people's problems online. The board became another leech on my energy and time. And one day, in a fit of pique, I deleted it. And that was when the problems really started online for me.
ALL MY FAULT
I'm not for a second saying that I hadn't brought some of it on myself, by being brusque and rude to people online. I'd convinced myself that I was just another member of the Board of Biffo, that we were a gang of mates.
That was dumb, obviously; though day to day, I don't walk around thinking "I'm Mr Biffo! I'm special!", it doesn't stop other people thinking "He's Mr Biffo! He wrote that thing I loved!".
That set me apart, but I desperately didn't want to feel apart. Everything - my relationships, my job - felt like it was isolating me from other people, and from myself.
I realise now that, as a consequence of being Mr Biffo, my words must've carried more weight. When I was a dick... it wasn't just some guy being a dick. It was Mr Biffo being a dick. I'd rather some members of the Board of Biffo hadn't taken it upon themselves to punish me for this, and exploit what they must've sensed - even if it wasn't consciously - how vulnerable I was at the time, but I can understand it.
Throw into that a stalker - potentially more than one stalker - people impersonating me on message boards, malicious rumours, things getting posted to my home, my address being put online... I felt as if I was constantly putting out fires. I became hyper-aware, over-sensitive, paranoid.
Y'know; asking the moderator on the Edge forum to remove a post alleging that I'd been arrested for paedophilia, for example. That sort of thing became a daily occurrence for more than six months. It was the tipping point I'd been heading to for a while, and as I tumbled off the cliff, everything came spilling out. The genie was out of the bottle, and there was no easy way of putting it back in.
I'd lost the security of my marriage, I'd lost the security of Digitiser, the security of my screenwriting job, I'd lost sight of the person I'd been, and now being known as Mr Biffo had turned on me too.
I finally deleted my blog, I deleted my Facebook, changed my email, quit my Edge column, and swore I'd never write again as Mr Biffo.
I remember reading my sudden disappearance being discussed on a message board, and somebody speculating that "He'll be back within two weeks," as if I'd just thrown a hissy fit for attention.
"You don't have a clue," I thought.
And then I swore off going online too. I couldn't control what people said or thought about me, and trying to do so was killing me. So I chose to ignore it instead.
After I went dark, I received support from places and people I never expected.
I remember my oldest friend Jon being incredibly kind - we've known each other since we were four, but I think it was the first time either of us had "done feelings" in front of the other. My friend Alex, Stuart Campbell... Jonathan Downes from the CFZ was lovely, and I've never forgotten it. Some of the Board of Biffo guys extended olive branches.
Other friends couldn't help, because they didn't know. I was still trying to contain the fallout, still trying to keep things partitioned off, and pretend - to much of the wider world - that things were ok. At that point, I still had an aversion to letting myself appear vulnerable. Not least because I felt I'd brought a lot of this on myself.
However, realising that people did care gave me a foundation to build upon.
Still, finally letting it out - admitting to myself, at least, that things needed to change - was a line in the sand. I wouldn't get there overnight, but it was the start of my crawl back to being me.
There would be ups and downs, and bumps on the road, but from here... everything would slowly start to get better.
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
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART EIGHT: IS THIS IT - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART NINE: TOO MUCH TOO YOUNG - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART TEN: NOW THE WEATHER - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART ELEVEN: BIFFOVISION - BY MR BIFFO
SCRIPTS OF MY YEARS PART TWELVE: LA LA LAND - BY MR BIFFO