Ian McMillan: Tea and biscuits ease pain of great TV robbery

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Thirty years ago, I used to run writing workshops all over South Yorkshire in libraries and community centres and the upstairs rooms of pubs. I loved meeting the exhilarating mix of poets, novelists, playwrights and eccentrics who would come week after week for the chat and the coffee, the biscuits and the words.

One week, at a place I won’t name, a bloke turned up with a gleam in his eye. Over the decades I’ve since come to distrust gleaming eyes but in those days I was a bit of an eye-gleamer myself. To be honest, this chap had a gleam in both eyes, which should have been a warning to me. I also noticed that he wasn’t carrying any writing; usually people would turn up with folders or piles of paper or suitcases full of folders and piles of paper but this gleamer was bereft of any of that stuff. He just had his gleam.

He removed his flat cap, leaving a red ring round the top of his head. “Before you start,” he said, looking at me accusingly, “let me sing thi summat.” My heart sank, but I tried not to show it. He lurched into a dramatic rendition of the Bonanza theme tune, the classic that begins Dangdangerlangdangerlang and ends with a cry of “Bonanza!” The rest of the group were split: some were embarrassed and gazed at their sonnets with fierce concentration and others joined in enthusiastically, sometimes allowing themselves a sotto-voce Yeeha!

The stranger’s eyes gleamed like foglamps now. The cap-induced red ring round his head appeared to throb. “Aye,” he said, his breath a little short from years at the coal face, “Bonanza!” There was a silence I felt I needed to fill. “I like Bonanza” I said; “I was always a fan of Hoss.”

The man’s eyes appeared to almost gleam out of his head. “Well,” he said, “before you say owt else, let me tell thi summat. That Bonanza was my idea. My idea.” I sighed inside. He was a “pinched idea” man. You often got them at this kind of gathering; they reckoned they’d had an idea for a book or a film and that somehow it had got stolen by somebody and the person who nicked it made a lot of money and the victim never saw a penny.

This chap was different, though; he knew exactly when and where it had got stolen. “I had this idea for a series, a telly series set in the Wild West, on a ranch with a widower and his lads. I typed it out. I put it in a folder and I was going to London to show it to some folks at ITV and I got on the bus to go to the station and I sat there and put the script beside me and I must have nodded off because when the bus rolled into the bus station I noticed my words had gone. Pinched!”

Again, there was silence. Again, I felt like I had to fill it. “Which bus was it?” I asked. He paused, then intoned dramatically “the Rotherham one. The double decker and all. And I was sat upstairs!” He let his words hang in the air before he delivered his killer blow: “and then two weeks later I saw it on the telly. Bonanza. My idea. Pinched.”

What could I do? I decided we’d break early for tea and biscuits. Chocolate ones, to ease the pain.