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Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Doll Collection

Upcoming anthology from Tor Forge... I'm in it

Friday, 20 February 2015

The day I was offered THE PRISONER

It was back in the early 90's. I was at a meeting with Debra Allanson down in Soho Square. Her boss at the time was David Cunliffe, and he did a drop-by. He said they had access to The Prisoner TV rights and would I be interested in tackling a new version?

I didn't even hesitate. I said I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. I said that if ever there was a remake that you couldn't take on and win, this was the one.

It wasn't just a casual enquiry on their part. The drive to remake The Prisoner went on for decades. I heard they went on to have a discussion with the late Lelan Rogers, record producer and brother of the more famous Kenny, about an Americanised take on the show. But that foundered. Then in the mid-90s all the ITC rights went to Polygram and there was talk about a feature with a Patrick McGoohan screenplay. Mel Gibson was supposed to be attached at one point. Then there was the version with the Christopher McQuarrie script.

I thought about it afterwards, obviously, and played those head-games where you imagine what you might have done with it. The lead character's grown-up daughter contrives to get herself sent to the Village as part of a plan to liberate the father she's never met, and who hasn't bent an inch in all those years. He takes her appearance as yet another trick to break him. She starts to wonder if he's right, and whether her choices have actually been her own. And at the end of the day, true to the core value of the original: no straight answers.

But I've never been sorry that I turned down the chance. Talk about a poisoned chalice. Despite a stellar cast and a thoughtful script from Bill Gallagher (no relation), the choices that drove the 2009 ITV miniseries place it alongside the Fiennes/Thurman Avengers movie in the Gallery of the Misconceived. Listlessly shot in a threadbare Namibian Butlins', it's what you get when your producers haven't grasped what makes a property tick.

The Prisoner was a huge, flawed, sprawling, psychotic explosion centred on the personality of its producer/star. Take away the things that gave it unique life - McGoohan, the location, its 1960s psychedelic sensibility - and what you're left with is a story premise that, on its own, was good for one episode of Danger Man.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

"One of the Strangest Dramas in the Small Screen's History"

I was looking for something in the archives when I came across this little snippet, and thought I'd share. It fairly counts as contemporary, since the episode seems to air every other week on ITV3...

Of The Cup of Silence, December 23rd's feature-length Rosemary & Thyme Christmas Special, Victoria Segal wrote in The Sunday Times:
…Superficially it resembles Women’s Institute television, a comfortable shoe of a show, yet close inspection shows Rosemary & Thyme to be one of the strangest dramas in the small screen’s history… for all the intrigue you quickly believe this is written by people whose horticultural interests extend to high-end herbal exotics. Consider the evidence: gratuitous shots of mushrooms accompanied by sinister music; a group of B-movie fans re-creating Peter Cushing films in the hotel’s cellar; and best of all, a prog-rock reference so incongruous the writer must have had a bet. Forget Midsomer Murders and feed your head.
And I wrote:

"Much as I hate to disillusion a journalist, no exotic substances were involved. That's what my world looks like all the time."

Monday, 16 February 2015

Sebastian Blogger

I've put together a second blog in which I've pulled together all my material on the Sebastian Becker books and short stories. This is what it's currently looking like:

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Arthur and Sherlock

Most of my background knowledge on Arthur Conan Doyle comes from his autobiography Memories and Adventures, and from the 1949 biography by John Dickson Carr. I haven’t read the 1995 bio by Michael Coren but I understand that it goes further into the Doyle/Joseph Bell connection - the relationship that inspired the Murder Rooms BBC series - than most of the others. What I’ve read of the debate suggests that there are various camps arguing for a single model for Holmes (Bell, Doyle himself) when it’s perfectly obvious to any working writer that every character has multiple sources.

I read the Holmes short stories in my early teens and it was probably around then that I saw the Douglas Wilmer/Nigel Stock BBC adaptations. I reckon there's always a special place in your heart  for the actor who first introduces you to the character, much as Doctor Who fans divide along generational lines and four generations of adolescent boys lusted after whoever was wearing the catsuit (Gale, Peel, King or Lumley) in The Avengers when the hormones hit.

I can’t say I was ever the rabid kind of Holmes fan. I knew a boy who was, to the extent of taking up the violin because of it. If he's stayed true to form he’s probably a coke fiend by now. I liked a core of the shorts and none of the novels, which I felt lacked the tight structure and single focus that made the stories work. As for the rest of Doyle's output: I read Tales of Medical Life but I skipped Brigadier Gerard. I read some of the boxing stories. My big Conan Doyle book was The Lost World – loved it then, love it now. In fact I never thought about it until this moment, but now I count I’ve got at least five different editions of it scattered about the house, including a first. I even slogged my way through The Land of Mist because it had Professor Challenger in it, which is a serious test of affection.

The Holmes stories that have stayed with me all turned on some elegant and ingenious element, (the fire trick in A Scandal in Bohemia, the goose trick in The Blue Carbuncle) but I think I was never quite convinced by Holmes himself. I saw him as a group of eccentric attributes that never quite cohered into a believable personality. In retrospect I think the stories succeeded because Holmes and Watson together make a single character, divided for the purposes of narrative development. What I liked about Murder Rooms was that it dispensed with the fictional figureheads while occupying the same dramatic ground, effectively reinventing the whole thing. Bell and Doyle hit all the same buttons as Holmes and Watson, but with none of the limitations.

The first time that I felt the character of Holmes approached reality onscreen was in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – neither a slavish copy nor a spoof, more of a jazz riff on Doyle’s tune. Not the definitive big-screen Holmes but for my money the most satisfying. If Doyle had felt able to develop the character with the same kind of freedom, maybe he wouldn’t have grown to detest his own creation so.

At this time of writing we have two very different screen Holmeses to consider - three, if you count Robert Downey Jr's charismatic man of action, an interpretation that drew criticism but which for my money got further under the skin of the character than any of the pipe-and-deerstalker brigade. I mean, Roger Moore? Charlton Heston? No offence to those gentlemen but... FFS... it's like Holmes has always been fair game to any fast-moving wheeler-dealer producer with access to tax shelter money and cheap studio time.

TV offers us two radically different takes in the form of the BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary. Note to fans; it's OK to watch both. Benedict Cumberbatch's version is dazzling performance art, a fascinating and superhuman creation that you'd never expect to meet in life. Jonny Lee Miller's awkward, vulnerable and self-aware Sherlock is something else; tightly-wound and earnest, more human than superman, more psychological truth than fireworks.

Doyle was never what you’d call a psychological writer. His was a world of concrete certainties. His certainties were entirely his own and he owed them to nobody – he believed in fairies and Empire and you could hardly call such a combination the mark of a conventional thinker – but in all his life and deeds he seems to have been free of any element of self-doubt. Which is great for a crusader and a champion, both of which roles he played in later life, but something of a hindrance when sitting down to imagine characters of conflict and complexity.

My private theory on Doyle is that inside his head he was always twelve years old. He wrote stories. He dreamed of dinosaurs. He was idealistic in an old-fashioned, chivalric, Walter Scott kind of a way. He carried boxing gloves in his luggage and challenged other boys to fights. He started to learn the banjo in middle age. When he went to visit the trenches in 1916 he designed himself a uniform.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Chimera: the making of a TV Monster

Here's a follow-up to this post from a couple of weeks back, in which discovering the whereabouts of an old colleague inspired me to revisit one of my early projects.

During Chimera's pre-production and filming I hopped around with my then state-of-the-art camcorder and collected footage which then sat, unshown and unseen, until Revelation Films secured DVD rights to the show after long and patient effort.

I offered the footage for use as a possible extra feature - in fact it made three featurettes. I recorded the commentaries on a deceptively tiny digital recorder in my Los Angeles apartment, working around the distraction of hummingbirds outside the window and the noise from my landlord's leafblower on the drive, and emailed them back to the UK.

This is the first of the three. If you want to see the others, it won't ruin you to buy the disc. Which also includes a PDF of the earlier radio adaptation script, and the show's original Press Kit, and a couple of other things I don't even remember. "Contains moderate gore".

Incidentally, with so much nostalgia-driven stuff on the blog of late you might be forgiven for thinking I haven't been working on anything new.  Not so. I spent most of 2014 developing a network project and working between drafts on a new Becker novel that I delivered last month. Development happens off the radar, so there's nothing to say about that right now. And it's too soon to give you any news on the novel.

But if you'd rather imagine me idle, feel free.

Crusoe to UKTV

From C21 Media:
UKTV has picked up a trio of scripted series from UK-based producer and distributor Power, including NBC drama Crusoe... The 13-part adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel stars Sam Neil and Sean Bean and was originally commissioned by NBC in the US and produced by Power.
Crusoe was last shown on British terrestrial TV as a Christmas season special on (if I'm remembering correctly) Channel 5. The shows have been acquired for UKTV's Drama channel, which is free-to-air on Freeview.

More here.

Monday, 2 February 2015

From Chad to Cumberbatch

Dougie Mann (left), Little John (right), and Kettlewell (background)Back in 1990 I drove down to Pinewood Studios for the first of several visits to the workshops of Bob Keen's Image Animation, a special effects company that had supplied prosthetics and animatronics for Richard Stanley's Hardware and Clive Barker's Hellraiser movies.

It was all a bit of a scramble. The script of Chimera had been doing the rounds of UK TV companies for over a year. First it had been picked up by development producer Simon Moorhead, then Morse producers Zenith had thrown their weight behind it.

Each of the majors had turned us down and we'd all but given up hope when a foundering project created a sudden gap in Anglia TV's production schedule. That misfortune was our opportunity. We found ourselves with a four-hour monster show to make and not much time to make it in.

It was a great experience for me. I got to hang out everywhere, and it would be a long time before I'd again get to be so hands-on in a show. The design and building of the creature is covered in one of the featured extras on the Chimera DVD, which can now be had for less than a fiver if you shop in the right place.

Our project was handled for Image Animation by Simon Sayce and our creature designer was an FX artist introduced to me only as Little John. They're both in the documentary, and that's Little John in the picture above. Behind the Chad mask is movement specialist Douglas Mann.

In the years that followed, I often wondered what had become of some of our team. In Little John's case, Google was no help. He was even billed as Little John onscreen and on the IMDB, where his credits stopped soon after. When someone seems to vanish from the record, you fear the worst; it's a precarious business, even for the most talented.

Last week, a development; thanks to the combined research efforts of the Demonic Offspring and filmmaker Paul Campion, I learned that not only does Little John have a surname but that I failed to stop his career in its tracks.

John Cormican is now the senior sculptor for Madame Tussaud Studios, travelling the globe and handling many of their high-profile projects. In the video he takes us through the measuring and modelling of Benedict Cumberbatch's figure, much as he did for my camera in the Pinewood workshop all those years ago. Look at the work here and you'll see why he's reached the top of his profession.

(Or if you're one of those lured here by the Benedict factor, take whatever you need)

All this pleases me more than I can tell you.

UPDATE: Well, this is just a bit spooky; from the Time Celebrity Newsfeed, "Watch Benedict Cumberbatch Pretend his Name is Chad".

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Doll Collection

Starred review from Publishers Weekly for The Doll Collection, edited by the invincible Ellen Datlow and available next month from Tor.

PS I'm in it.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Paragraph Test

Last Summer I discovered a bookshop with a healthy haul of '60s paperbacks, many of them in great condition for their age and fairly priced at three quid a pop. So of course I kept going back.

I put my focus on popular fiction writers that are now forgotten, or had passed me by, or that I'd been aware of but never read. It was a chance to see if my affection for the literate 70,000 word thriller had altered or diminished over time. Also to appreciate the all-but-forgotten art of the British commercial illustrator, for whom the Photoshopped stock image has proved an inexpensive substitute.

(They say you can't judge a book by its cover. But don't people do that all the time? Given that it's the cover's purpose?)

Any book that caught my eye would be subjected to the usual test, which is to open a page at random and read any paragraph. You know within a few lines if the writer can write, just as you know after a few notes whether a person can sing. Maybe it's a tribute to old-style editing, but back then fewer published authors seemed to get away with just plonking it down.

I'm still working my way through the reading pile, and will be for some time... I don't read as much as I once did. I blame this partly on The Job, because I pay too much attention to technique and can't lose myself in story as easily as before, and on bad TV, because there's always something on.

What am I finding? A couple of things stand out. Readers are more educated in procedure now, and won't stand for investigations driven by intuition or an investigator's whim. And though there were notable female thriller writers active at the time - Helen MacInnes and Josephine Tey spring immediately to mind - the female characters in this male-dominated field are largely undercooked stereotypes. They fall into the rough categories of fantasy wife, virgin to be rescued, or bitch to be tamed.

As well as discoveries - Donald MacKenzie deserves to be better-remembered than he is - the paragraph test spawned a few surprises as well. The quality of some writing was so at odds with the author's lack of reputation that I was driven to Google to find out more. What I'd often find was a famous writer knocking out decent thrillers for money. E V Cunningham turned out to be a pseudonym for Freedom Road and Spartacus author Howard Fast. The witty and elegant Edgar Box proved to be none other than Gore Vidal.

There's a line in "Box's" Death Before Bedtime that maybe hasn't travelled as well as some. Camilla Pomeroy, wife of the prime suspect in a Senatorial murder case, has wangled her way into the narrator's bed. We skip tastefully over the gymnastics, and in the aftermath:
She sat up on one elbow and pushed her hair back out of her eyes. She was obviously proud of her body; she arranged it to look like the Duchess of Alba. "What on earth would my husband say."
The Duchess of Alba? I didn't get the reference, so I had to look it up. The educated reader of the time should have been thinking of the pose in this painting:

Those with Safe Search off can find the complete image here. Spain put it on a stamp, so it's hardly scurrilous. Its actual title is La Maja Desnuda and art historians argue over whether it represents the Duchess at all; but the face is recognisable from Goya's formal portraits of his subject, with whom he was said to be obsessed.


Having no idea of what Vidal was shooting for with the image, I searched for The Duchess of Alba.

Here's what came up...

Yes, that's the Duchess of Alba.

All I can say is, the culture's moved along.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Imitation of Life

In some of the awards-season discussions of The Imitation Game I've noticed a subtext in which anything other than support for the film is read as an act of disloyalty toward Alan Turing himself. Much as, once upon a time, thinking The Green Berets an awful movie branded you as anti-American, or finding 12 Years a Slave a grim duty-watch made you an apologist for its horrors.

Personally, I thought The Imitation Game a passable time-filler. But then I'm not a big fan of re-staged histories, which seem to me the least ambitious use of the drama toolkit. I must be in a minority because they come out in starry droves every awards season, an opulent parade of beards and wigs and rubber noses.

Like it or don't like it but don't conflate the film with the man who, more than a posthumous pardon or a memorial, deserves a time machine and an unqualified apology.

I was set thinking about Sebastian (1968). You probably won't know it. It's very much a 'Swinging 60s' movie in which Dirk Bogarde plays a charismatic Oxford academic overseeing a squad of female codebreakers. Given what was and wasn't public knowledge at the time, both about the Bletchley Park scene and Bogarde's sexuality, it now feels like one component in a dizzying meta-cocktail of movies and material.

For years Sebastian was just a remembered viewing from my teenaged years, but now someone's put it onto YouTube in its low-res entirety. It's a rarity with an impressive pedigree - Michael Powell producing, the Cinematographer was Gerry Fisher, score by Jerry Goldsmith. Based on a story by former wartime cryptographer (And Peeping Tom screenwriter) Leo Marks, which explains a lot.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Brian Clemens 1931-2015

They say you should never meet your heroes. I'm here to tell you that it isn't necessarily true. I've written elsewhere of my personal debt to The Avengers and little imagined, as a kid growing up with 60s TV, that I'd someday get to play in the telefantasy sandpit.

(Actually, that's a lie. I fantasized about it a lot.)

I first met Brian Clemens at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films, where I got to interview him onstage. I have to admit that I reverted to a fanboy mode that I've never really broken out of. In the '90s we were co-consultants on Carnival Films' action-adventure series Bugs. He subsequently wrote the intro for my first collection of short stories. Publisher Pete Crowther approached him for me; I was embarrassed to ask. But holy shit, did I glow when he said yes. And a couple of years ago we switched roles when I contributed the intro to Brian's own collection, titled Rabbit Pie & Other Tales of Intrigue. It was at a Brighton Fantasycon signing session that we last met up, starting in the bar and ending the evening in a Chinese restaurant while a bastard of a rainstorm raged outside. Brian seemed frail, but he was sharp. We last spoke a week before Christmas, when he phoned me out of the blue. He was bright, upbeat, just the same as ever. He invited us down to visit in the New Year.

I was out of the country when Brian guested at the 2009 Fantasycon, but I got to write the appreciation in the programme book. Here it is again.
It was one o'clock in the morning and I had stuff on my mind. I turned on the TV for distraction. In a '60s Geneva created from library footage and a crisply-photographed studio backlot, an international security agent who'd been missing for two days walked into his headquarters building and calmly shot one of his superiors. For the next hour, the stuff on my mind ceased to trouble me and the world was young again.

(Except, of course, when my world was young, there was no TV or much of anything else going on at one in the morning)

I hardly needed to look at the credits to know who'd written the episode. Brian Clemens was always the master of the arresting story hook, a Sensei among warriors in the screenwriting ranks. There's hardly a piece of classic British 'cult' TV that doesn't either have his fingerprints on it, or his DNA somewhere in it. Even The Prisoner, a show in which he had no actual hand, can be traced back to the Clemens-scripted Danger Man pilot in which both Patrick McGoohan's secret agent persona and the Portmeirion location made their first TV appearances.

For many people Brian Clemens will be, forever and above all else, the Avengers guy. But The Avengers is really just the most prominent peak in a career characterised by prodigious energy and inventiveness, coupled with an impeccable professionalism. In a field that can so easily be colonised by journeyman work, his writing always has a voice, an angle, an attitude.

Born in 1931, Clemens grew up in Croydon. After service in the army and work in advertising, he sold a single play to BBC Television which led to a stint as house screenwriter for the Danziger Brothers. Depending on your prejudice or your point of view, the Danzigers were low-rent exploitation producers or resourceful low-budget entertainment providers in the Roger Corman style. They supplied second features for British cinema bills and half-hour filmed series for UK and US television. While in their employ, Clemens developed a proficiency in writing to deadline around available resources, as the brothers seized opportunities to get some extra use out of sets, props and sometimes even paid-up performers from other, more expensive productions.

Those skills were widely used by Clemens in such series as Mark Saber and Richard the Lionheart for the Danzigers, while also moonlighting scripts for Sir Francis Drake, Ivanhoe and HG Wells' The Invisible Man. He once said, "At one time, all of British episodic television was written by about ten writers, and I was one of them." He credits the Danger Man pilot as his big break; renamed Secret Agent, the show was picked up for network screening in the US by CBS and blazed a trail for all of UK international production throughout the '60s.

Although Sidney Newman is often credited as the creative force behind The Avengers and other classic TV including Armchair Theatre and Doctor Who, his role was more accurately that of a godfather. Newman came up with the Avengers title, and the idea of doing something new with Ian Hendry's Police Surgeon character from an underperforming series. Clemens was again brought in at the pilot stage, and three seasons later took over full creative control of the series as it moved from electronic production to film. The mix that had been brewed up in the creaky and low-res live-action studio now exploded with the application of top-drawer production values. The result was unique and confident. It didn't so much mirror the swinging sixties, as play a major part in defining them.

Season four was the 1965 black-and-white season, with such classic episodes as The House that Jack Built, The Town of No Return, and the glorious and notorious A Touch of Brimstone. Season five went to colour and hit the same level of triumph with knobs on. But it's those episodes in 'sparkling black and white', as the American trailers described them, with their stark op-art world and King's Road sensibility, that made the first and deepest cut for me. There is a place forever in my heart where the door to Emma Peel's flat has a big eyeball on it.

Although Clemens freelanced scripts for just about every high-profile action show from Adam Adamant to The Persuaders, after The Avengers he was also a force as a producer. When he was making The New Avengers a TV Times profile made reference to "his sixth Ferrari" and "the exclusive privacy of his four acres in Bedfordshire". With the suspense anthology series Thriller he became that rare thing for a screenwriter, a marquee draw with his name linked to the title. The Professionals made as much of a mark on the '70s as The Avengers in the decade before it, and the sitcom My Wife Next Door brought him a BAFTA award.

When Brian Eastman's Carnival Films wanted a high-concept, pacy action show for BBC1 on Saturday evenings, they turned to Clemens for Bugs. The show ran for four series and gave me the opportunity to write the kind of TV I'd grown up on, and later to share the role of series consultant with one of my biggest professional heroes. Imagine that! Though we'd met at festivals by then, we never actually met on the show. I'm told that half the time our feedback was 100% in agreement, while the other half of the time our comments were in complete opposition. Which I suppose sounds kind of healthy.

But back to that late hour, a few nights ago. My one o'clock diversion did exactly as its author intended. It gave an hour's pleasure, and a valued respite from the ordinary. It was an episode of The Champions, the Heroes of its day. I understand that it was written during the brief period when Clemens was out of The Avengers (after Diana Rigg's last season, and before Linda Thorson's first) and before he had to go back in and sort out the mess they got into without him.

The Champions episode was typical of Clemens' contribution to other people's shows. It's as if he examined the underlying concept and set out to nail it just a little bit better than anyone else, in this case taking the main characters and setting them, Marvel-style, to use their powers against each other.

There's much I've missed out. I've said nothing about his sales to American TV and I've been skipping over feature work that includes See No Evil with Mia Farrow, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for Ray Harryhausen, an excursion into writer/director territory with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter for Hammer, The Watcher in the Woods for Disney. But check out his Internet Movie Database page; it lists over a hundred entries, many of them for multiple series writing credits, and it's still growing. The films are as eclectic a selection as the TV work, but all have the same stamp on them; Hitchcockian technique, with an irreverent light touch.

And if you were thinking of asking: no, he had nothing to do with that Avengers movie.