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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Emma to M

I've long held the theory that Judi Dench's M is actually Emma Peel in later life, after something awful happened to Steed.

It works. Nobody argue.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Pan and Scan

Okay, it's a leap, but talking about Pan Books in the Sam Peffer post reminded me of something that's all but disappeared with the advent of widescreen TVs; the 'panning and scanning' of movie prints for TV broadcast.

We've reached the point where the 4x3 Academy Ratio TV set is only ever seen as a prop in period dramas, but for over fifty years it was the standard. All programming was made in that almost-square format; anything that wasn't had to be fiddled to fit.

In the early days of widescreen cinema, studios saw TV as the enemy. Going bigger, wider, and more spectacular was the response, and it's said that some would even go out of their way to ensure that their images would play badly on the small screen. It was a shortsighted view; TV was to extend the earning potential of any feature way beyond its original release window.

Regular readers of the blog will know that one of my earliest jobs was in the Presentation Department of a commercial TV company. On the rare occasions when we broadcast a print in full widescreen with 'black bars' above and below the image (aka 'letterboxing'), the Duty Officer's phone would ring off the hook with viewers' complaints. Even when our Telecine engineers attempted a compromise, zooming slightly to lose the edges of the image and minimise the letterboxing, viewers were unhappy. It was like they wanted their screens completely filled up with picture on principle.

Letterboxing of films was rare on ITV. You'd find it more often on BBC2 or Channel 4, in the arthouse slots. Mostly we'd be provided by distributors with special TV prints of studio features, already adjusted for the shape of the screen by the process known as panning and scanning. The prints came with every scene reframed and optimised for TV. This involved losing anything up to one-third of the picture detail, along with all original sense of composition.

Panning and scanning could go way beyond the cranking of a frame to the left or right to squeeze the action in - a small section of a scene could be selected and enlarged to make a closeup from a medium shot, for example. I recall a scene which, in the original, was a single long take of two people talking. The telecine operator had reframed each person in a separate, enlarged closeup and then cut back and forth between them, playing editor. Didn't match, didn't work, looked appalling. But it used to be quite common.

Those calls of complaint seemed to persuade my bosses that no one out there really cared about quality. Or at least that they only cared for a Philistine's version of it - fill up my screen, crank up the colour until every face is orange, and nothing in Black & White, thanks very much. It was an assumption that persisted well into the Home Entertainment revolution, despite the fact that the revolution was driven - as all revolutions are - by a desire for something better. One of the great annoyances of being an early adopter of widescreen TV was that of finding that the DVD you'd just paid top dollar for had been mastered from one of those 4x3 television prints.

(Ipcress File, I'm looking at you. A crappy Carlton release which I've since upgraded to Network DVD's superior issue.)

Now all TVs are 16x9 and while that ratio doesn't correspond exactly to any theatrical format, it lends itself to less noticeable compromises. When I began shooting my own stuff the viewfinder on the film camera included an element with the 'safety zones' of the different viewing formats etched into the glass, so that the operator could ensure that whatever the composition, the essential information would fall within the frame and the shot would always make some kind of sense. Now such information's more commonly found on the video assist monitor. If you see a movie where you can make out the edges of the sets, or the microphone dips into shot, then it's probably not being shown in the ratio for which the operator framed it.

In Presentation now, everything's been turned on its head. It's old ('vintage') 4x3 material that causes the negative audience reaction. People shy away from 4x3 the way they shy away from Black & White.

In this case the choice is between seeing vertical black bars to either side of the image (pillarboxing) or zooming to fill the frame, losing the top and bottom of the picture and, once again, bolloxing the composition. The results are just as ugly as Pan and Scan - uglier, if anything, with exaggerated grain, noise, and visual clutter in images that were low-resolution to begin with.

Then there are those directors who shoot a digital frame, then add letterboxing to mimic a Panavision effect on a 16x9 screen.

To which one can only say, Dream on.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Glen Orbik

I'm saddened to hear of the early death of artist and illustrator Glen Orbik. This is the piece, one of many retro-pulp covers that he painted for Hard Case Crime, that first blew me away.

Free Stuff

I've two promo codes left for the Mean Streets StoryBundle (see below). While the book bundle's offered on a pay-what-you-like basis, the cost with a promo code is zilch.

Drop an email with STORYBUNDLE in the header to storybundle@brooligan.co.uk for a shot at one of the vouchers. We're in the bundle's last hours, so don't hang around.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

StoryBundle Sale - The Final Hours

The StoryBundle crime sale has just two days left to run. Somewhere along the way it's picked up two extra bonus titles, making a total of thirteen books that include Clive Barker's Cabal, Savile and Lockley's Jack Stone, and David Morrell's The Brotherhood of the Rose.

There's a countdown counter clicking away on the site - it's here - and it's pretty hypnotic.

When the offer's gone, it's gone.

This has been my first involvement in this kind of deal, and it's been a terrific experience.  You can download the bundle as DRM-free files or have it delivered straight to your Kindle or other device in the usual way.

The weird part is, there's no set price. You pay whatever you think the bundle's worth. There's a low minimum (which is, frankly, chump change) and a threshold beyond which the bonus books are released, but it's the buyer's choice. It's counter-intuitive, but it works. Sales have certainly exceeded my expectations. The people running this know far more about online marketing than I ever will.

And three charities benefit. Everybody wins.

Plus Jack Stone by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley, and The Crazy Case of Foreman James by David Niall Wilson.

Friday, 8 May 2015


A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Peffer at one of the annual UK Vintage Paperback and Pulp Fairs held in a hotel in London's Victoria. Peffer, who signed his work Peff, was one of the UK's foremost paperback cover illustrators of the 50s and 60s. Later on he'd turn to film poster and video sleeve design but it's his hyper-realist, melodramatic cover paintings, many of them for Pan Books, that define an era and appeal to modern collectors in this relatively low-cost hobby.  It was Peff's cover art that graced the early paperback runs of Ian Fleming's novels, before the ad-land minimalism of Raymond Hawkey took their design onward into another era. Between 1956 and '68 he produced 168 covers for Pan alone.

(This is one that I picked up just a few weeks ago, by a writer who deserves to be better-remembered. Mackenzie was a former criminal who wrote character-driven thrillers. The more of his stuff I read, the more I tend to think of him as a British Charles Williams.)

Sam Peffer died in 2014, at the age of 92. You rarely see his original work on sale and when it does hit the market, I imagine it's at one of those pulp art sales by one of the major auction houses where bidders are international and prices climb through the roof.

Let me say right out, I'm not one of those high-roller collectors. Not even a collector, as such. I've just got a few pieces and posters, all of them with some personal meaning, all picked up at bargain prices. A Jim Mooney Spider Man page that I found in a Manchester comic book shop in the 70s, and for which I paid seven quid. Ron Embleton's cover art for the first Robin Hood annual I owned, spotted on eBay. An American circus poster that I stole from a notice board in Wyoming, the day after the circus left town.

When I saw this piece in the listings of The Illustration Art Gallery for around the price of a modest bookcase (just to keep it in perspective), I dithered a bit and then I fell. I thought I recognised it from the Mackenzie book, then realised I didn't.

It's a completely-finished gouache, not a rough. And while concept and composition closely resemble those of the Moment of Danger cover, the individual details differ. The large portrait head is more 'finished' on the cover; the foreground woman more detailed and accomplished in the artwork. Different model, different pose. A moorland chase in one, a gothic mansion in the other.

The gouache isn't signed, and my guess is that it's either a demonstration piece or an unpublished or rejected commission that Peffer did over for a different job. Having recycled such a close take on the idea, he couldn't use the actual painting again.

But take a look at this cover, for Edgar Wallace's The Valley of Ghosts. Peff worked from photographic reference, sometimes using models, often family members or even himself to get poses and lighting right. In this one he clearly used another shot from that original studio session - same model, same coat, same belt, and a variation on the pose. That creepy house in the background is looking familiar, too.

The look is more commercial, the level of finish not so high. The art director who rejected the original in my imagined scenario was probably right. The woman in the painting is a palpably real person in a way that the women on the published covers aren't... they're visibly fictional, one a femme fatale, the other a fleeing victim.

It's a context where too much honesty would jar. So for more than fifty years the painting has languished... somewhere, I don't know where.

But Peff, wherever you are, let me assure you... it's being appreciated now.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Lonely Undertaker

He wanders through the covers of historical novels, forlornly seeking his missing hearse...

Serious point. Nothing makes an author's heart sink faster than the realisation that the work they sweated to make original is to be marketed as an also-ran to someone else's. In this case I believe the imitation stems from The Alienist, but I'm willing to be corrected.

Here are a couple more designs that I admired on sight, whose less-fresh offspring I'm now seeing everywhere:

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Mean Streets Bundle

You know about StoryBundles, right? From their web page faq:

We take a handful of books—anywhere from six to nine—and group them together to offer as a bundle. Then you, the reader, can take a look at the titles we've chosen and decide how much you'd like to pay. Think of us like a friend that scours independent books for undiscovered gems, then bundles these titles together for one low price that you decide. Yeah, we mean it; you get to set the price that you want to pay!

Each bundle is available only for a limited time. If you miss out on the bundle, you'll have to buy the books individually from each author. We feature each bundle only once. Once it's gone, it's gone. 

Having the reader set the price is a pretty radical idea, but it seems to work. The proceeds also benefit three charities: SpecialEffect, Girls Write Now, and Mighty Writers. Which helps to mitigate the embarrassment I ought to feel in presenting Steven Savile's blog posting for today's launch of the Mean Streets crime fiction bundle.
Curated by Steven Savile

Steven Savile writes: When we were first mulling over the name of this bundle, Mean Streets, I had a very focused vision on what I thought it was going to be. I'd just finished working on the collaboration with Prodigy (the hip-hop artist from Mobb Deep's The Infamous fame, not the Firestarter) HNIC and was thinking very much edgy and dark stuff, hardcore, maybe not the poets of our generation but certainly a voice for a slice of society that's been disenfranchised by the system of living. It was a great starting place, the back alleys of Brooklyn Heights or Across Hundred and Tenth Street into Harlem, but they aren't the only mean streets. What we've got here, we're talking the pheromones of the city, the detritus of a nation. We're talking about the criminal elements that move and shake just below the surface, unseen but everyone is aware they're there… We're talking seminal TV shows like The Wire and The Shield. We're talking about outcasts forced to live hard or die harder. We're talking about the Lone Ranger or Shane riding into town and fix that shit even as it explodes all around them. We're talking primarily about heroes and villains where the cities they do battle in are as important as any character.
The first book I picked for this bundle, Stephen Gallagher's Down River, is one of those books that made me want to be a writer. Hell, I think I emulated if not outright copied elements of it for a dozen (unpublished and never to be published) stories. I make no bones about it, I adore this man's work. On any list of favourite authors I've written down from the age of 19 (when I first discovered his novel Rain) right up until today, Steve would be one of the first names down. You might not be familiar with his stuff. I could embarrass him by saying he wrote the Warrior's Gate and Terminus episodes of the classic Doctor Who era (Staring Tom Baker and Peter Davison respectively), or talk about the pure excitement in the Savile household reading copies of FEAR MAGAZINE in preparation for the release of his first creator-driven show Chimera, which was something of an event for a fanboy like me… I could mention The Eleventh Hour TV show with Captain Picard at the helm in the UK and Rufus Sewell playing Hood in the US, or the reimagining of Robinson Crusoe from a few years back, or that short lived Christian Slater vehicle, The Forgotten. If you're an anglophile I could mention some pretty devastating episodes of Silent Witness…

But instead, I'll tell you a little story about the first time I met Steve. It was at a dealer table at a convention, and I'd got a copy of a signed limited edition of his short story collection in my hand. We'd talked a lot before this, even exchanged old fashioned letters, and he'd been in my anthology Redbrick Eden which raised money for homelessness in the UK, but this was the first time we'd seen each other face-to-face… and what sentence preceded that auspicious event? Me saying 'Jesus Christ, thirty five fucking quid for a book, that's ridiculous!' and a voice behind me saying 'I know… it's rather embarrassing, but I didn't set the price…' as you can imagine… I did a very good impression of the Incredible Shrinking Man at that point. Suffice it to say, Steve is top man, and a terrific writer. I read Down River, the story of Johnny Mays, back in 1989 and I have never forgotten it. That should tell you something very important about just how good this guy is.


The second book I picked for the bundle was an easy choice, Ed Gorman. I've never had the pleasure of meeting Ed, but I consider him right there with John D. McDonald, Robert B. Parker and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer when it comes to crime fiction. Ed is the very definition of a writer's writer. He's nothing short of brilliant READ MORE

There you have it. Pick up the bundle and look what you get. Clive Barker, Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini, Steven Savile, Maynard & Sims, Tony Black, Sean Black, Dennis Niall Wilson, Tom Piccirilli, David Morrell. Heavy hitters, all.

A downside of seismic changes in the book market has been the lack of reliable guidance to the good stuff. Big sales and fan noise are just as likely to lead to disappointment as to discovery. There have been a number of experiments in curation, and StoryBundle seems to be one of the more successful. Their organisation and professionalism has certainly been impressive. It's a pleasure and an honour to be included.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

If You Can Get To Camden

There's this:

From tomorrow, Thursday April 16th, for three nights at Camden's Etcetera Theatre. I didn't have a hand in the show but there's some DNA in there somewhere.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Nightmare to the Max

Hey look, the kid's all growed up.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Meet the Tiger

A happy find in Keswick today - Meet the Tiger was the first novel to feature Simon Templar, aka The Saint, and it's been out of print for some time.

Charteris was unhappy with his tyro work viewed in the context of his mature prose, and withdrew the book. His widow continues to respect his wishes; the title isn't included in the recent reissue of the otherwise complete Saint canon.

Two years ago I shelled out for a hardcover first edition, and I can report that LC had very little to worry about. The plot has flaws but the writing style and characterisation are well up to par with the later works. For a writer barely out of his teens, it's an impressive debut. 

And I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for a great old low-rent pulpy cover.

UPDATE: In the last available reprint of the novel published by Charter, New York, in September 1980, there's an introduction written by Leslie Charteris himself and dated 21st March 1980.

In it he says "(Meet the Tiger) has been out of print for more years than I can guess at, and with no complaints from me. Personally, I would have been very happy to leave it quietly in limbo; I was still under 21 when I wrote it, more than 50 years ago, and am no more anxious to parade it than any other youthful indiscretion".

He goes on to confirm his dissatisfaction with the contents, and follows this with: "However, I can’t deny writing it, its existence is a historical fact, and I suppose that anyone who is interested enough in backtracking into Simon Templar’s and my own adolescent beginnings has a right to access to the awful truths."

This is the edition mentioned in the title's Wikipedia entry as the last to see print. I don't know whether it means that LC blew hot and cold over the book's availability throughout his career, or if it was only after 1980 that the rights were returned to his control and he could put his wishes into action.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Doll Collection

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