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Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Oktober Unseen

Back in '97 I blagged my way into directing an ITV miniseries based on my novel Oktober. I say blagged, because that's pretty much how it happened; at an opportune point I inserted myself into the process in such a way that everyone assumed everyone else had signed off on it. To quote producer Lynda Obst, if you make it a game of "Mother, May I?" the answer is always going to be no.

By then I'd written a certain amount of TV but I'd never been to film school, no BBC training course, didn't have a showreel that would stand professional scrutiny. In one big step I was at the helm of a three-country shoot with a budget over two and a half million. It was challenging, terrifying, exhilarating. Fortunately I was surrounded by some terrific professionals, and even those who'd formed a low opinion of my abilities gave 110% to the work.

For my part, I learned as I went. I overthought my shot lists and gave too little attention to the actors. Some stuff worked out better than I'd dared hope. Other stuff, I really wish I could go back and do right over. But there it is.

Our cinematographer was the late Bruce McGowan. Liverpool-born, his previous credits included Letter to Brezhnev and female boxing movie Blonde Fist. Bruce had a gentle, subtle touch with lighting and, I'll be honest, he sometimes drove everyone up the wall with the time he took to get it just right. Every day he showed up convinced that he was going to be fired. All through the day, the 'sparks' would grumble. Every night he sent magic off to the lab.

Oktober was filmed in 16x9 widescreen on Super-16 negative stock, from which two versions were transferred. The show was broadcast in the old 'fullscreen' format - then already well on its way out, but that's ITV for you - while the widescreen master tapes went into storage, never to be seen until now. The distributor wouldn't wear the expense of technical checks for foreign sales or DVD licensing.

But my involvement with Stan Lee's Lucky Man has meant working with Carnival again, and it's been an opportunity to pursue this old obsession. Here, for the first time - albeit at YouTube quality - is a short sample of Bruce's work as it was meant to be seen.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Flowers for Algernon, Japanese Style

Book cover art by Chris Moore
Before Christmas I bought a new Smart TV and only then discovered, as you do, that while the internet sees agreement on almost nothing, it's united in the opinion that the wifi on Samsung Smart TVs is pants.

So I finally got around to creating a wired network using the house mains. Last night I investigated some of the free programming out there, most of which is terrible but wow, there's so much of it... YouTube alone is an indiscriminate and infinite warehouse of curiosities, not just the usual clips and memes but entire shows and movies from yesteryear, some legit, some questionable. Among them was, uploaded in its entirety, the 1969 Chicago-shot movie based on Keith Laumer's novel The Monitors. I'll venture to say it was not great. I didn't watch it all, but I find that a meal rarely gets better after a first bad mouthful.

The evening's unexpected discovery was Algernon ni Hanataba wo, a 10-part Japanese serial based on Flowers for Algernon. It felt like a challenge but I did watch the entire first episode, more out of curiosity than anything else, and found myself being won over by its eccentric charm (I'd had wine).

If you don't know the short story by Daniel Keyes, seek it out. You won't be sorry.

The Charlie Gordon figure is called Sakuto and is played by former boy band star Tomohisa Yamashita. The character set and situations have been massively expanded, obviously, but allowing for cultural shift and different approaches to style it seems to be honouring the spirit of the original. Simpleminded Sakuto works for a floral delivery company which employs young ex-offenders. For him they're a surrogate family, their banter more that of brothers than the edgier mockery of the source story. The first hour is spent mostly in his world, counterpointed with the lives of the staff at the lab whose director is angling to seek a human subject to take the Algernon experiment to the next level. There's knockabout comedy, romantic misunderstandings, flashbacks to Sakuto's childhood rejection by his disappointed mother. It's beautifully shot and is often overwhelmed by excessively sentimental music.

Will it sustain for an entire series? I doubt that I'll go the full course but the core of Keyes' idea, the innocent who grows into awareness only to foresee his own decline, is a robust one. I can imagine it developing along the lines of Limitless, perhaps. But if you'd asked me which well-known short story might generate 10 hours of Japanese TV, this wouldn't have been the first to spring to mind.

Monday, 25 January 2016

European TV Drama Lab interview

Here's an interview I did in Berlin in 2012. At the time I was about to head over to the US for the pitching season with a pilot based on my novel White Bizango. That script's currently in turnaround from NBC.

Since working on US series I've sold half a dozen network pilots, most of it being work off the IMDB radar. Such is the job.

Incidentally, most of the cutaway clips they put in aren't from my stuff. I think the appropriate phrase here is, "for illustration only".

Saturday, 16 January 2016

An Award Winning Author Writes:

  To those who scoff at my lack of official recognition, here is my riposte.

"The Effect of Alcohol upon The Human Body". Foreshadowing a lifetime of serious study.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Stan Lee's Lucky Man

There's a trailer now:

And these mega-sized billboards - I drove into Liverpool over the weekend and counted six of them along the way.

New for 2016 from @Sky1, from January 22nd. Created by Stan Lee, developed by Neil Biswas. Episode Seven by me.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Females in Fiction and The Free Books Weekender

The backlist has been selling surprisingly well this past year, with no particular effort on my part. You'd think that would be enough of a reason just to let things be. But it's New Year's Day and in this idle, slightly worse-for-wear moment I've been inspired to risk rocking the boat with a gratuitous ebook promotion.

It's that, or do some work. And I fear that this is the only inspiration I'm likely to get today.

So if you gave or received an e-reader or a tablet for Christmas, or just happen to own one, for this coming weekend only you can download Red, Red Robin and The Painted Bride for free. Free. Zilch. Nada.

And then from Monday to Friday of the following week you can pick up Nightmare, with Angel at a heavily discounted price.

Red, Red Robin is set in Philadelphia and Lousiana. It's a big manhunt/revenge novel, featuring British expat Ruth Lasseter and her need to end the campaign of the young man who once came close to taking her life.

The Painted Bride is a lower-key piece, set in the English marshlands and concerning ex-junkie Molly Gideon's fears for the safety of her dead sister's children at the hands of their father.  

Nightmare, with Angel plays out against the fall of the Berlin wall as German-born Marianne Cadogan enlists the help of an inappropriate outsider to search for the mother who abandoned her.

Only now does it strike me that all three novels feature female protagonists. That's not by design. These were just the stories that I wanted to tell, in the best form I could think of to give them. My 2015 Twitter feed has been a lively one, from Mad Max: Fury Road to The Force Awakens, with calls for affirmative action to promote strong female characters opposed by cries from those unwilling to share their clubhouse with a bunch of girls.

But for my part, I've no agenda. With me it's just logic. The thrillers I grew up reading came almost exclusively from Men Who Couldn't Write Women. Their default female characters were the grateful virgin or the hardbitten femme fatale, each required to melt into the hero's arms at the end. There was even a name for them, the 'love interest'.

(It was true of even the best of the bunch. I'm sure that a study of John D MacDonald's maternal libertines -  women of experience to be bedded, repaired, and waved goodbye to - would give any psychotherapist a shot at a Plumsock Prize.)

How best to put this? The dodgy sexual politics of earlier decades have left us with an opportunity. There are entire areas of previously male-dominated fiction where the complex female lead has been underused. You can talk about gender balance or social engineering, and that's fine. I empathise. But, professionally, what I see to fire me up is a source of fresh material. I am, above all else, a self-interested opportunist.

So am I right, or am I wrong? For this weekend only, you can find out for nothing.

UK links

US links

Thursday, 24 December 2015

10 Books about Movies, Part 2

Here's the second tranche of favourite movie books from my bookshelf. It was supposed to stop at ten, but... well, what can I tell you? Maths O level grade 4.

You may notice that there are no books on screenwriting here. I've read a few but the only one I ever recommend is Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, which isn't a how-to and may now seem dated to someone who's only just starting out.

If you want to write for the screen, I'd recommend you study screenplays for layout (production scripts, not published versions) and finished product for structure. See how minimalist and on-point screen dialogue actually is, how stripped the descriptive prose. Then put that together with a sense of how the big, broad strokes of a narrative usher you toward closure. All else, as they say, is housekeeping.

There was a loose network connecting many of the British novelists marketed as horror writers in the '90s. We knew each other through fandom, through Fantasycon, or through each others' publisher events, whether a panel at the ICA or a reading at Runcorn Shopping City. If we went to each others' homes I reckon there was a 90% chance of spotting Denis Gifford's Pictorial History of Horror Movies on the bookshelf. That distinctive Tom Chantrell wraparound cover (its influence perhaps surfacing in this) was immediately recognisable. Gifford was a fan of old-school horror cinema, his compendium a treasure trove for initiates. I reckon it hit a generation at just the right moment. We'd move on to David Pirie's Heritage of Horror and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, but this was our foundation document.

I had the privilege of conducting an onstage interview with Val Guest at Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films, and it's a landmark memory for me. He was 91 at the time, hale and dapper and sharp as a tack. He'd started out as a gag writer on Will Hay films and worked solidly through the decades until his swansong with episodes of Hammer House of Horror. Along the way, The Quatermass Xperiment, Hell is a City, The Day the Earth Caught Fire... classy jobs on tight budgets, interspersed with the kind of journeyman work I referred to in Part 1. Our conversation made for a fascinating, detail-packed hour, and when I subsequently picked up the autobiography I imagined it would be a recap covering the same ground. In fact, all that we'd talked about was dealt with in the first half-dozen pages of Guest's introduction. Everything else was new. I've a number of such British director autobiographies, many of them from niche-interest small presses, and I've found them all fascinating. Ken Annakin, Lewis Gilbert, Bryan Forbes, Roy Ward Baker, Jack Cardiff... theirs is the work that ran on television throughout my childhood, and their accounts feel like my personal cultural history. It's as if the child in me finally got to step through the TV.

A recent addition. David Hughes writes for Empire magazine and brings this fascinating set of film-industry narratives to life with journalistic skill. It's insider material made accessible by the clarity of Hughes' style and the fact that most of the properties, from Superman to Star Trek, will already be engaging to the target readership. Some of the projects have since made it to the screen; this book concerns itself with the versions that didn't. You'd think that with so much trouble, so much money, and so many talented people involved, the most likely outcome of each extended movie development process must surely be a well-honed masterpiece. Except that the quest for perfection mostly plays out like a series of train wrecks. One dumped script after another, one supplanted creative team after another, rewrites piled upon rewrites... and often, somewhere along the way, a fleeting glimpse of a superior version that quickly got stamped on. In so many cases the movie we get is not what they ultimately achieve, but what they finally settle for.

Time and technology have rendered the book largely obsolete, but throughout my 20s this volume rarely left my side and its attitudes and philosophy ("Dust is a part of life, and will not harm your film,"*) stay with me to this day. Where the likes of Movie Maker magazine were for the amateur enthusiast, Independent Filmmaking, born out of San Francisco's underground film scene, treated you as a pro with no money. Through Lipton I learned how to handle a 16mm camera, to cut and mark up a workprint, to lay and mix multiple soundtracks, and to deal with the laboratory process from raw stock to answer print. I still maintain that cutting film taught me more about writing film than anything else, and nothing's been wasted - when I made the switch to video cutting, the program's workstation was recognisable as a virtual version of the editing bench. Trained as a physicist, Lipton holds patents in stereoscopy and wrote the lyrics to Puff, the Magic Dragon.

*Not a recommended philosophy if your job is that of a negative cutter

Maybe it's not for everyone, given that it's more a business book than one for film fans, but if you've an interest in the dynamics of the entertainment industry then Hello, He Lied is an indispensible read. Hollywood regimes come and go and the movie/TV quality balance has changed in the last decade, but Obst's account is a lesson in how to rise, survive, and keep going without losing one's perspective or sense of humour. At the time of writing she'd been involved with big-screen successes including Contact and The Fisher King, along with disappointments that she charts with with open honesty. Her credits since then include Hot in Cleveland, Helix and Interstellar. Perhaps I should recommend it as a companion piece to The Last Tycoon, for its more up-to-date insight into what film company executives - so often the philistine cartoon villains of creatives' more self-serving narratives - actually do.

The BBC4 documentary based on Matthew Sweet's book was a semi-surreal piece, a fever dream narrated by the voice of a creepy uncle from a wax cylinder (OK, it was Charlie Higson, but check out this short clip and tell me I'm wrong). The book itself is as thorough and absorbing a 'secret history' of the British film industry as one could wish, featuring many familiar names while resurrecting shadows of our forgotten ancestors. Sweet followed the Brownlow method of collecting first-hand reminiscences from old-timers who probably thought their stories held no interest for the modern world. It's the period Britishness of the enterprise that makes it unique; I'd devised a rather painful closing gag about Sex and Drugs and Henry Hall, but I think perhaps I'll spare you that.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

10 Books about Movies, and another 2 (and 2 more)

Well, it was going to be ten, but it's so hard to narrow down the choices. Last week I browsed through a similar list online and immediately leaped to order Kirk Douglas' I Am Spartacus, which had somehow slipped by me before. It's exactly my kind of thing, a personal memoir mixing craft and business in the context of films that I have reason to love.

At least, I hope it will be. Right now it's sitting unread under the Christmas tree.

Douglas apart, my interest is less in the megastars and A-listers than in the journeymen and women who've travelled far and have more interesting tales to tell. I'm still kicking myself for passing up on a nice old John Paddy Carstairs memoir spotted in Keswick's second-hand bookshop a few years ago; by the time I'd relented and returned, someone less tight-fisted had swooped.

What follows is an entirely personal selection, not a ten best (with a couple more added to the dozen since I wrote the header), or a list of essential books, so don't go arguing with my picks. They're all from my own shelf, all part of my personal journey, each one an eye-opener for me in its way.
Agel's Making of Kubrick's 2001 is the first book of its kind that I bought, a dense scrapbook of information, essays, interviews and insights, all crammed into a thick Signet paperback with an extensive low-res photo section in the middle. There's something a little bit hippy-trippy Whole Earth Catalog about the book which makes a great match for both its subject and its era. Editor Agel collaborated on projects with Buckminster Fuller, with Marshall MacLuhan, and with Carl Sagan, but he gets sole credit here. I own at least three other books on the making of 2001, but this one gets all the love.

I picked up John Baxter's Stunt around the same time as John Brosnan's analog-era fx study Movie Magic, which is why I tend to think of them as companion pieces even though they aren't. It was published in '73 and so predates the modern blockbuster, but it's strong on the silent era and later B-movies and charts the development of the stunt performer from nerveless daredevil to careful technician. I guess the true companion piece would be Stephen Farber & Marc Green's Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case, where the conflict between safe practice and the pressure to deliver onscreen danger has never been more thoroughly explored.

I wouldn't say I'm a fan of The Emerald Forest, though I do consider it a well-made and good-looking movie. Of the Boorman ouevre it's Point Blank and Deliverance that I most relate to, but this real-time diary of the setting-up, shooting, and post-production of a specific project gives you a genuine insight into the hustle, graft, and shoeleather involved in the making of a feature.

Boorman provides the afterword to Karl Brown's autobiographical memoir, described by Kevin Brownlow as "the most exciting, the most vivid, and the most perceptive volume of reminiscence ever published on the cinema (it is also one of the few that bears no trace of a ghost writer)." Later a distinguished cinematographer in his own right, as a teenager Brown wangled a job as assistant to Griffith's cameraman Billy Bitzer and so was a first-hand witness and hands-on participant in the making of Birth of a Nation, and later Intolerance. Brownlow's correct in his description. It's a great book. Brown is a natural storyteller with warmth, wit, and a deceptively easy command of detail.

Brownlow again, and this one's the monster. My Desert Island Book. The chapter on the 1926 Ramon Navarro/Francis X Bushman Ben Hur alone would be worthy of inclusion here, but there's so much more. Fascinated by silent cinema at a time when it was an unfashionable interest, aware that so much material had been lost and that the living memories were about to follow, Kevin Brownlow set out to interview as many participants and practitioners from the early industry as he could track down. The result is a bittersweet panorama, impressive in its depth and range. The chapter on Abel Gance would eventually lead to the reconstruction and revival of Gance's Napoleon, and the book as a whole is counterpointed by Thames TV's somewhat awesome documentary series Hollywood, produced by Brownlow and David Gill.

I've had Charles Davy's Footnotes to the Film for so long that I can't remember a time when I didn't own it. I think I unearthed it on a market stall when I was a teenager. Published in 1938 (long before I was a teenager, thank you very much), it's a selection of fairly lightweight essays aimed at the general reader. Which may not sound too promising until you see the list of contributors - Alfred Hitchcock on direction, Robert Donat on film acting, Graham Greene on subjects and stories, John Grierson on realism... along with Alexander Korda, John Betjeman and Sidney Bernstein (then an exhibitor, later the founder of Granada Television). Also - and this is important - it's a nice old book.

I've come late to Fitzgerald, and I'm catching up. For a while I avoided The Last Tycoon, knowing it to be incomplete and unrevised. But even without revision it's an accomplished piece, and in lieu of an ending we get the author's working notes - for a writer it's like an anatomy lesson from a master. Though it's a work of fiction, I'm including it here because, in my opinion, its observations on the dynamics of Hollywood, status and power circa 1940 continue to resonate to this day.

The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler... looking at Richard Fleischer's extensive and eclectic filmography it's clear that the studios regarded him as a safe pair of hands for their more expensive, if not always their most adventurous, projects. More crowd-pleaser than auteur, Fleischer nevertheless brought style and craft to his assignments. From Soylent Green to 10 Rillington Place, his was the guiding hand behind many a well-remembered movie. The book is mainly anecdotal, but what anecdotes... he tells of learning the best way to handle Kirk Douglas. When Douglas would find something to be unhappy about in every scene, Fleischer realised that if he staged it to put Kirk at the centre of the frame then his concerns would magically disappear. In terms of tone and sheer enjoyment I'd put this alongside Don Siegel's A Siegel Film.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Coming Attractions

A note from the Management...
Remember those horror portmanteau movies of the past, such as Tales from the Crypt, From Beyond The Grave and Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors? They’re back and now on stage! 

Five passengers meet on a train and agree to tell each other monstrous stories of possession, hauntings, devilry and science gone wrong. Each tale is inspired by a classic monster - vampire, ghost, Frankenstein, the Devil, mummy, ventriloquist’s doll. Each actor plays multiple roles within the tales, and as is traditional in the form, the framing story builds to a suitably macabre climax.

The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More is a follow-up to The Hallowe’en Sessions, which played at the Leicester Square Theatre Lounge in October 2012, selling out its run and garnering great reviews. Now we’ve gathered a fresh group of genre writers to craft a deliciously dark all-new tribute to the portmanteau movies, madder, badder and scarier than ever. 
Given the continued popularity of horror theatre such as Ghost Stories and The Woman in Black, we’re confident that there’s an eager audience for productions such as this. After positive response to our last show we expect a healthy return attendance, and this time around we’re targeting a wider crowd with a longer run and heavier PR. We’re looking forward to scaring the wits out of our audiences all over again…

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle, K9 Killer

Looking through some old stuff I found this short piece that I wrote on request for Starburst magazine in 2005. Even if you read it back then, I'm sure you'll have forgotten it by now.

I know I had...
Somewhere in the cuttings files they've got me tagged as "the man who killed K9", and it's a handle that resurfaces every now and again. For the record, I didn't do it. The character – or whatever you'd call him – didn't even die. When I got the commission for Warriors' Gate, Chris Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner gave me certain continuity baggage that I had to include. The story had to start in E-Space and end with the Doctor getting out of it. Romana had to leave the show at the end of the story. And, one way or another, K9 had to go.

It didn't feel right to kill him. That would have been like taking a bazooka to Tinkerbell. Not that I felt much attachment to K9 – I thought he was a juvenile inclusion in a show that had earned success by serving young viewers with the values of grown-up drama. I believe I stole my solution from a favourite comic of my childhood. Just as Superboy saved his faux-brother Mon-El by sending him into the Phantom Zone at the point of death, I had the Doctor give up K9 to a place where damage wrought by the Time Winds would be reversed.

Will I welcome him back? For the sake of the delightful John Leeson, who went out of his way to make me feel at ease on the set all those years ago, yes. But with the proviso that some pretty heavyweight re-imagining goes on. The last thing we want to see is the revamped show brought down by a toe-curling cute sidekick. What next? The return of Muffy the Daggit to Battlestar Galactica? Ye gods.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stan Lee's Lucky Man

They're doing publicity now - mostly tied to interviews with Stan Lee around the release of his graphic novel-style memoir - so it's probably OK for me to say that I worked on this.

Stan Lee's Lucky Man will air on Sky in 2016. The series was developed by Neil Biswas from a concept by Stan Lee, and made for Sky by Carnival Films.

Filming on the first episodes was already under way when I was brought on board. The production team had found themselves a script short, and Carnival head Gareth Neame suggested they give me a call. I'd worked with Gareth on Life Line, but my association with Carnival goes all the way back to Bugs.

The show stars James Nesbitt along with Amara Karan, Eve Best, Sienna Guillory, Darren Boyd, and Omid Djalili.

It's not my concept and my story had to encompass the running series arc, so it was an unusual gig for me. But it was fun to write, and a welcome distraction. At the beginning of the year I had an American network show fall through at the very last moment - bags packed, clock ticking, as close as that - so this came up at just the right time.

I'll tell the American story another day. My Lucky Man episode will be hour seven in the running order and was directed by Jon East.