Sunday, November 4, 2012

Don't Quit While You're Behind

Some say the secret of true success is to quit while you’re behind. Sadly it’s not something I’m very good at. 

Take my tomato plants, for example.
The seeds only cost a few pence, the compost a few more, yet they are probably the most expensive tomatoes in the world. I’ve nurtured, watered and fed them as carefully as my dogs. I speak to them every day, urging them on. But love and attention isn’t enough. In Northumberland you need heat, and that’s why my greenhouse heater has been whirring away for three whole seasons. 

Every day I bring in a pile of ripe red ones – so many that Jo and I have long ceased being excited by home-grown tomato soup. But sadly we’ve had nothing from the one plant I really want to grow. It remains, in prime position, at the front of the pack, a single, rare heritage plant - the Americans called it "heirloom". 

By now this plant should be bearing giant rosy-pink fruits. As large as beefsteaks, these splendid Victorian specimens should have that wonderful lopsided idiosyncratic shape that marks them out from the hundreds of little red cherries surrounding them. Yet, to my annoyance, although it does have three fruits which have grown as big as my fist, they have remained stubbornly green since September.  Every morning I see them hanging from their stems in mocking derision. 

Meanwhile our electricity bill continues to grow. I doubt Kew Gardens pays more for its biggest hothouse. But I’m determined to see those three spectacular giants reach maturity. Last night the temperature outside fell to minus 3° and the garden disappeared under a sheet of frozen white. Across the lawn the greenhouse was steaming. And still those wretched, enormous, green tomatoes refused to blush. 

So what should I do? Give up on them? Of course I should. As W.C. Fields said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” 

Or, as any psychologist will tell you: “Scale back your goal, take joy in what you have, re-evaluate your priorities, and switch off the darned heater.” 

But I won’t. I’m hanging on in there, just like my green fruits. Because I’m convinced they’ll ripen in the end. I am, as Mr Fields would say, a damn fool. 

This isn’t the only thing in my life waiting to ripen. Back in 2008 I had an idea. It was in the middle of the night, around 3am. I suddenly sat up in bed and said out loud: “Brilliant”. 

“Go back to sleep,” said Jo. 

Instead I got out of bed and wrote it down. It was a fantastic, great big stonking hit of an idea. It was a revolutionary new game show that was going to make us a fortune. I took it to London and showed it to one of the bosses of ITV. 

“It’s a fantastic idea,” he said. He was a man of great judgment; he wanted 20 episodes straightaway. A seven-figure order for a single 3am idea. But then the head of the network, a small, weasely man with neither vision nor talent, overruled him. It was too risky, too ambitious, too – big. So, like my giant green tomatoes, it sat on the shelf, waiting for its moment to ripen. 

In television, that moment only comes around every few years. Very few ideas become hits that travel the world. My show Robot Wars was one, and that single idea made us millions. It took four years from creation to commission. 

Our television screens are full of tiny red tomatoes, many of which are rotten or utterly devoid of flavour: only a very few big juicy ones make the cut. After years of rejection, I could have given up on Robot Wars, but thank goodness I didn’t. It ran for seven years. 

That’s why I’ve never given up on my 3am idea. And, guess what? A few days ago I got an email from a network. They love it. Not ‘like’, but ‘love’. Could we please pilot it for them? Could we ever. 

So now the electricity is back on in our development office and we are warming up our format again. Of course, the idea might never ripen. But, like the damn stubborn fool that I am, I’m never going to give up trying.

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