“That’s Why TV’s the Most Powerful Medium We Have”

Graham Kibble-White interviews Jim Sangster

First published October 2002

Jim Sangster’s first book was The Press Gang Programme Guide which he wrote with the help of a group of enthusiastic Press Gang fans. His first professional writing commission was for the ill-fated E-TV magazine, before he co-authored the unofficial Friends guide, Friends Like Us. Jim then went on to co-write The Complete Hitchcock and, earlier this year, his first solo book, Scorsese, was released. Whilst his day job is as an assistant content producer for, earlier this year Contender published Jim’s Unofficial 24 Guide.

OTT caught up with Jim as he was putting the finishing touches to his contribution to an upcoming Doctor Who anthology. We asked him about the Unofficial 24 Guide and his impressions of the series.

OTT: How did you come to write the 24 book?

JIM SANGSTER: When 24 started I had the best of intentions, but because I’d promised a mate that I’d help her raise money for the Canine Protection League, I kind of forgot it was on, and then didn’t want to start watching it if I’d missed the beginning. Thanks to a) Lee Binding at Contender for asking me, and b) Mark Wright (who was Lee’s first choice but was way too busy writing Doctor Who) recommending me, I got the chance to write the 24 book and then quickly begged a friend to lend me his tapes … which I’ve just remembered I still have. Sorry, Scott.

OTT: What was your brief? Was it simply to produce an episode guide or was it broader than that?

JIM SANGSTER: The brief was to write a guide to the first series, episode by episode. That was it. We knew that, being an unofficial guide, we were unlikely to get any interviews with the cast, so I knew I’d have free-reign to shape it the way I wanted it. In the end, in addition to the standard plot summaries and bits of trivia (death count, who’s who, that kind of thing) I came up with the idea of doing 24 separate mini-essays on tangentially related topics – one for each episode – such as the basis of the American electoral system, a tourist’s guide to LA, comparisons between Sherry Palmer and Lady Macbeth. Luckily, Contender were 100% behind me and trusted my judgement on this (I suspect lee Binding was doing a sterling PR job for me).

OTT: What had you heard about 24 beforehand, and was it a programme you were looking forward to seeing?

JIM SANGSTER: Annoyingly, I had really been looking forward to the series. My co-author on the Hitchcock book, Paul Condon, came back from Gallifrey (the annual LA-based Doctor Who Convention) in February raving about this “mad show where every episode is an hour of real-time drama” and it sounded right up my street. So I was actually gutted to have missed its debut in the UK. But from another perspective, I got to watch the first eight episodes in one big batch.

OTT: What do think made 24 distinctive, and what differentiated it from other “big” US dramas like The West Wing, Murder One etc?

JIM SANGSTER: Maybe I’m misjudging them, but I think the writers on 24 have got a good sense of fun. Some of the plot lines must have had them laughing over their keyboards hysterically. Because the writers have come from soap, I suspect they’ve got the sense not to be quite so serious and po-faced about it all. But then the first series was written in unusual circumstances, so maybe the second will prove me wrong.

OTT: Was the “real time” device really that important to the series?

JIM SANGSTER: I think it was important for two reasons. Firstly, it was a good gimmick to keep people watching and secondly it gave the production team a sense of structure and discipline that most shows don’t seem to have.

OTT: There’s a school of thought that says that the last 12 episodes weren’t as good – and as cohesive – as the first, and it’s been claimed that these were only written once the programme was well into production. What’s your take? Did it suffer?

JIM SANGSTER: Suffer? Not at all! it was different, granted, and because – I believe – they were winging it a little and making things up on the hoof, much more than they’d done in the first half, some of the choices they made might have appeared a little odd. But I felt it added to the enjoyment of it.

OTT: Do the continuity errors in 24 detract at all from the programme or do you think it doesn’t really suffer as a result?

JIM SANGSTER: Part of me – the part that spent years trying to rationalize the continuity errors in Doctor Who – is struggling to reconcile some of that, but then life does that sometimes. You learn new information that doesn’t tally with what you know. The other half of me just sees it as a by-product of the old serial plays like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers – we know that the hero must escape that burning car, and if they have to cheat to achieve that, well we’ll boo, but actually we like to boo. It’s all part of the fun.

OTT: Is there something especially “American” about 24? Is quality drama something the Americans have got sussed?

JIM SANGSTER: At the moment it’s something the Americans have got sussed because they’re not afraid to have a show run for more than six weeks. One of the biggest mistakes the Beeb and ITV ever made was losing their bottle over long-running shows. If a show runs for a long time – and 24 has proven this on BBC2 – the viewers will tune in week after week. It becomes habit in exactly the same way Big Brother or Pop Idol does. So what they have to do is replace a long-running show with another so they get the viewers used to tuning in at 9pm or 10pm every night. Channel 4 have latched onto this, which is why they now own Friday nights. It’s purely this thinking which is the reason why, arguably for the first time in history, American TV is seen as of a higher quality than anything British TV is doing. Where’s our Buffy? 24? West Wing? Sopranos? For every one decent BBC show (which, let’s face it, is Spooks and nothing else), there are 10, 15, 20 American shows that are bigger and better. It’s not even down to budget. It’s good honest confidence in yourself.

OTT: I’d maintain that Terri’s loss of memory was actually an acceptable twist in the plot, bearing in mind everything she’d gone through. What’s your view?

JIM SANGSTER: I was cheering all the way through it. Teri is a successful business woman. She’s been a single parent for a while and dealt with her husband going off to work and not knowing if he’s coming back, and we’ve seen her be impressively clear-thinking enough to pickpocket a man who is raping her at gunpoint. For her to park her car on the edge of a cliff was such an unbelievably dumb thing to do that I was glad she’d lost her memory. It made her make that transition from boringly noble to fascinatingly stupid in the space of one hour of the character’s life.

Oh, and it kept her and Jack apart for the rest of the show, which was the real point of it all.

OTT: Defining moments?

JIM SANGSTER: The thing that made me relieved I’d signed on to write about something worthwhile was the explosion of the plane. In the light of 9/11 it was a very brave thing to do. They could have simply refilmed that to show the plane landing and then the guy getting kidnapped or something, but they went ahead anyway. Defining moment number one. Defining moment number two was “Alan York” and the murder of his daughter. I knew it was going to happen and even I got chills watching that. Moment number three was the reveal of who was playing Victor Drazen – cheesy, but well done, and of course that ending – so anti-American (if you believe that one hysterical woman on the fan mailing list calling them all a bunch of “damn Canadians” and screeching “DON’T YOU THINK WE’VE SUFFERED ENOUGH?”) and so much more effective than the “happy” ending you’d expect.

OTT: OTT’s review of the last episode asserts that casting Dennis Hopper was an unimaginative and disappointing decision. What did you make of it, and his performance?

JIM SANGSTER: Oh, dear Dennis. That accent was wonderfully bad, wasn’t it? The thing is, I think, with a cast of virtual unknowns (apart from Kiefer) they needed a star name so that we get instant audience recognition with the bad guy. We need to feel we know he’s bad from the beginning and I think, Christopher Walken aside, no-one has that kind of baggage. It was very savvy casting.

I think, as film and TV fans, we forget just how different a viewing experience this kind of show is for your average viewer. Most people don’t even watch the end credits, never mind knowing who the director was. The production team at EastEnders and Casualty might as well not exist, as all the complains are directed at “the writers” or, on rare occasions, “the producer”. Most viewers don’t realize how they’re being manipulated to think a certain way just because it’s Dennis Hopper’s face on the screen. That’s why TV’s the most powerful medium we have.

OTT: The DVD release of 24 shows an alternate ending where everyone is left alive. Do you know if this was ever actually considered for the programme – or was it just a red herring? And how do you think it would have gone over if it had been used?

JIM SANGSTER: I don’t know for certain, but I suspect they made it to prove a point. If you watch the “happy” ending, you can see from the start it’s a bad idea. It makes the show just like every other. It’s like when David Fincher told that studio executives that they could make se7en into a film like any other, or they could be the ones who put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box. Too few people want to take chances, and I for one felt that the ending of 24 excuses any other bad choice they might have made in the creation of the show.

Having said that, the really brave ending was scripted but not recorded – where Palmer was the mole all along. But then that would have negated the need for series two, I expect. Maybe I’ve just spoiled the big shock of next year. Oops!

OTT: What do you know about series two? What would your recommendations be to the programme-makers?

JIM SANGSTER: All I’ve heard is: Jack and his daughter are estranged. She blames him for her mother’s death and is now working as a nanny for a family that must be shady or into something dodgy. Palmer is now president and Nina’s in prison. I said this on the BBC Choice show after the last episode – I want to see a remake of Manhunter, where Kiefer’s now living by the sea and George Mason or Palmer himself has to call him back in for one more job … but to crack the case he has to consult with Nina. Bwaaah!!! That’d be brilliant.

OTT: In comparison to your other books, this one is getting loads of publicity. How’s that feel?

JIM SANGSTER: Great! Y’know, my mum always asks me how the books are doing and I can never tell her because I never ask. I don’t want to know if they’re going to be filling a remainder bin outside a shop in Greenwich in two months. But at least this time I can say “HMV have got it right next to the videos” or “There’s a full-page advert in What DVD”. She loves it. But Lydia, the PR woman at Contender, is so enthusiastic and I think that comes across in the PR we’ve had for this one.

OTT: What was it like appearing on BBC Choice after the last episode went out?

JIM SANGSTER: Hehe. I’m a natural bighead I’m afraid, and it’s great to be able to talk to friends and relatives about this kind of thing – y’know, a safe audience – but the idea of being on live TV fills me with dread. I get Tourette’s (or whatever we can call spontaneous swearing without upsetting politically correct people nowadays)! This time round, after it had finished, I got a text message from a mate saying “I CANT BELIEVE YOU DID SPAZ-FACE ON LIVE TV … TWICE!” OOPS

But Claudia Winkleman was just brilliant – she’s a fantastic live presenter, really quick and intelligent. She got a lot of stick from the fans online because she mispronounced a few of the character names, but firstly, although she’d been watching it, she wasn’t a (capital F) Fan, and she’d had to catch up with the show, like any other presenter, in just a week. And secondly, her earpiece broke halfway through the show and it’s a credit to her that the show finished exactly on time with her winging it. I think her professionalism also showed in the way she spoke to the audience before the final episode and gauged which of them had something to contribute and which would be fazed by the cameras.

There were 24 invited fans in the audience, y’know. Clever, eh?

OTT: And finally – is there a 24 fandom? What is it like?

JIM SANGSTER: Like most new fandoms, the 24 fans are a mixed bunch. Some of them just like the show, some of them are looking for someone to blame for their own problems and go online to rant about how wrong it all was, and some of them are completely thick and can’t remember what happened half an hour ago. They’re just like every other member of the audience, but they’re online … which probably says a lot more about them than I’m going to say, because I work with online communities, and already, by phrasing it like that it sounds like I’m saying “I work with disadvantaged and abandoned handicapped kids” so I’d better shut up. Can I go home now please?