Miles Kington: Think of a clever, snappy title. Then junk it

'Macbeth'? There's no pizazz, no excitement. It's about as flat as 'Henry IV Part Two'
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The Independent Online

Oddly, it wasn't the title it now bears.

Originally I wanted to call it "Been There, Done That, Written This".

I thought this was snappy and clever and eye-catching. But unfortunately publishers and agents and friends and relations all sighed when they heard the suggestion, explaining that the cleverest title is not necessarily the best.

I should have known this from my own experience. Back in the days when I first started writing a column, for The Times, the editor, Harold Evans, said he had room for it only on the Obituary page. He thought it might seem odd for a humorous piece to be put next to all the obituaries, but people might accept it when it became regular.

"Well, it might help if we choose the right title for the column," I said. "And I think I've got the right title all right. How about 'Over My Dead Body'!"

He sighed too.

"It's quite a funny idea," he said," but it's not a good idea."

Eventually the column ended up being called "Moreover", which I thought was a really dreary name for it. But they were right and I was wrong. If you use an eye-catching, witty, snappy title for a regular column (or a group, or a novel, or a company, or anything) it's going to get pretty tiresome after a while. What you need is a bland, unassuming, demure title with no sex appeal. "Moreover" was about right.

When Michael Frayn had a column, it was, I think, called "Miscellany." Peter Simple's column is still called "Way of the World". Paul Jennings's generic title, "Oddly Enough", was almost but not quite interesting. These titles all worked because they are boring coat hooks on which all sorts of colourful garments can be hung. The worst kind of coat hook is a coat hook which draws attention to itself.

All the best novels have boring titles. War and Peace ... Pride and Prejudice ... Oliver Twist ... Decline and Fall ... Scoop ...

The best plays, too. I cannot think of a single Shakespeare title which is not drab or trite. Wise man. But I wonder what sort of pressure he came under from the producers ...?

Producer: Will, we like the play a lot. But we wonder if you might think of changing the title ?

Shakespeare: What's wrong with Macbeth?

Producer: Well, it's a bit flat, that's all. Nobody's ever heard of Macbeth, for a start, and it gives no idea what it's about. And there's no pizazz, no feeling of excitement. It's about as flat as, well, Henry IV Part Two.

Shakespeare: What was wrong with that? It certainly let the public know what it was about !

Producer: Yes, but you know that sequels never do as well, and ... well, anyway, that's all water under the bridge.

Shakespeare: So, what do you want to call Macbeth?

Producer: How about "The Scottish Tragedy"?

Shakespeare: No.

Producer: How about just "The Scottish Play".

Shakespeare: No.

Producer: Please, Will.

Shakespeare: No! Calling it "The Scottish Play" will lead to the most awful bad luck, I just feel it in my bones ...

Way back in the early 1960s when I was nobbut a kid, I went into NEMS record store in Liverpool to buy some jazz records and became gradually aware that they were playing the same pop record over and over again. It was called "Love Me, Do".

"Who's this?" I asked the assistant.

"It's a new local group called the Beatles," she said, showing me the record.

I listened for a moment.

"I can't see them getting very far," I told her, "especially with a corny name like that."

How wrong I was about their progress. But I still think I was right about the name. You'd have to be a very very good group to get away with a name like that.