Miles Kington: Who would be struck dumb by a UK scriptwriters' strike?

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The Independent Online

It seems a bit odd to us here in Britain that when the American Writers' Guild goes on strike, as it just has, the TV talk show hosts have nothing left to say. Those verbose anchormen like David Letterman and Jay Leno do not, after all, make it up as they go along; all those monologues, jokes, sketches and introductions to guests, they're all made up for them by someone else! So without writers, talk shows go off the air...

Here in Britain, where we pride ourselves on self-sufficiency, and maybe a gift of the gab as well, it would be rather different. Or would it? I've been talking to a few behind-the-scenes writers who have to deal with British performers, and here is their view from behind.

Gordon Brown (Queen's speech-writing team): "I am sorry to dispel any illusions, but the Queen doesn't actually write any of her famous Queen's Speech at all. She tries making a few suggestions occasionally, but they are never suitable. All that great material about shrewd public investment, and her hilarious routines about blaming the Tories for all our mistakes – that's all done for her. By us. Sorry."

Paula (a TV news writer): "It always comes as a shock to the public to realise that news readers don't write their own stuff. They'd be even more shocked if they realised that news readers don't really understand it, either, or even listen to what they are saying very often. I asked a news reader the other day about the state of emergency in Pakistan, which he had just been reading about, and he hadn't a clue what was going on. What news readers are good at is knowing when to sound serious and when to lighten up a bit. That's it."

Ian (actor): "You'd be amazed how many people think I make it all up. Even Shakespeare. I always give Shakespeare the credit, but they'd rather it was me. They really think that Edith Evans thought of saying 'A HANDbag?' and that nobody before Olivier had ever told his dear friends to come once more into the breach.

"Think I'm joking? But just look at any dictionary of Hollywood quotes, and see who gets the credit. Look up 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn'. It's credited to Clark Gable. Who thought of 'Play it again...'? Bogart, of course. The poor bloody writer of the line never gets a look in."

Don (one of the 15-strong writing team doing Humphrey Lyttelton's lines on I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue): "In real life, Humph is as sharp as a tack. Listen to him on his jazz programmes. But on Sorry we have developed him as a slightly querulous and somewhat gaga chairman with a sardonic interest in local history, gradually fading into second childhood. That's the way we write him. On The Best of Jazz you'll hear Humph saying things like: 'Of all the solos he recorded on this 1946 session, this is easily the darkest and most uncomfortable'. On Sorry you'll hear him saying: 'I think I'm losing the will to live'. One is the real Humph, one is a writer's creation."

Anon (Gerald Ratner's ex-speechwriter): "It was not one of my brightest gags. Thank God Gerald took all the rap for it."

Gordon Brown "I should have mentioned that although we write all the Queen's stuff for her, Alastair Darling's material is all his own. We take no responsibility for that."



Rev Bernard (Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon-writer): "Well, it's no big deal writing Rowan's sermons, as nobody much listens to them. We once put a joke in to see if anyone noticed. But they didn't. What was the joke? Oh, something very traditional... Let's see, how did it go? I know... 'For Esau was a hairy man. Esau was a hairy man. He was the hairiest thing in the Old Testament. Blimey, even the Red Sea had a parting!...' Funny, eh? No? Well, have it your own way..."

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