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Friday, 3 July 2015

Showreel

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Rain That Never Fell

"The first time that he saw her was across the parking lot of a motorway service area. It was about a quarter to midnight, and it had been raining. He could see that she was tired and cold and that she'd probably been on her feet for some time. She didn't look much more than sixteen, although he knew that she was older. She shifted from one foot to the other, waiting with her awkward bundle of papers under her arm like some census-taker worn down by a few too many rebuffs. He saw her walk up and down under the forecourt's dripping canopy, watching her for about fifteen minutes as she killed time and waited for new arrivals; and then, after she'd covered the same piece of ground more often than he could count, he saw her turn and go back inside."
It was in the early 90s that Zenith Productions, the company behind (among many others) Sid & Nancy, Inspector Morse, and Byker Grove, took an option on my London-set novel Rain. It was part of a slate of material that we were developing in the wake of Chimera, made by Zenith for ITV.

Rain is the story of North-country teenager Lucy Ashdown, late-night haunter of truck stops and motorway services. She risks her safety in the hope of picking up information on her older sister Christine, who was murdered while hitching home from the capital a couple of years before. When a lead sends Lucy heading down to pick up the traces of her sister's life, her father enlists the unofficial help of local police detective Joe Lucas to find her and bring her home. Joe's a friend of the family, a contemporary of Christine's. He's determined, but Lucy's tricky. She's always dodging one step ahead of him, convinced that her sister is somehow guiding her course. The closer she gets to learning the truth, the more Joe can see that she's courting Christine's fate.

Director of Production Scott Meek and EP Archie Tait pitched my script as a writer-director piece to Richard Broke. Richard was the in overall charge of Screen One, the BBC's main-channel showcase for single dramas. I'd be a first-time director but Zenith were backing me all the way.

Richard liked it. He didn't commit, but we were high on his list of contenders for the next season. British TV commissioners are the same to this day - keeping their options open as long as they can, because they can.

But if you sit on your hands all the way to the green light, it leaves you insufficiently prepared for the speed of what has to follow. The signals were strong enough for some necessary prep to be set in motion. David Lascelles (Morse, Moll Flanders, Richard III) came on board to handle production, and I pitched my choice of main cast.


At the time Jane Horrocks was starring in the West End run of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. I'd seen her in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet and I'd seen her in a radically different role in Red Dwarf, and I reckoned she could probably handle anything in between. Peter Capaldi hadn't yet made The Crow Road but I reckon whoever went on to cast him as Rory McHoan was picking up on the same qualities that I had in mind for Joe. He was growing out of those gawky early roles into the projection of a genuine, complex  authority. Look where that led.

David arranged a lunch with Jane. She read the script and the three of us met. She was sharp and funny and, though she was in her mid-twenties, it was clear that she could easily play a convincing teen. And since the story required the teenaged character to pass as her own older sister... well, you couldn't ask for better casting. I don't know if we got as far as sending out to anyone else. I do know that David was now breaking the scenes down and had prepared a draft schedule and a budget.

Then we got word. Richard Broke was leaving Screen One before the new season was locked down. It's the nightmare of every project in mid-development. New commissioning executive, new broom. Which the New Guy then goes about using to sweep the desk of his predecessor's projects. If I remember correctly, the word that came back via Archie was, "I have three thrillers in front of me, all of them better than Rain." (Which would prompt Archie to ask, when the season had come and gone, "So where were they?")

So that was that. Everyone stood down, everyone moved on. I'm sure I dealt with it by turning my attention to the next thing, whatever that was. Probably something else that tanked and didn't happen, until something finally did. Because that's how it goes.
"The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling." Lucretius
Archie went on to produce several new series and multiple seasons of Heartbeat, and to teach at the LFS. Scott Meek went off to be Head of Drama at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. David Lascelles is now the 8th Earl of Harewood, and runs the estate.

So I guess we all survived the experience, one way or another.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Peter Diamond

You won't know the face, I can almost guarantee it, although you'll probably have seen it a hundred times. More, possibly, as with a change of hat and or facial hair he'd often take several action roles in a single movie. Such is the work of the jobbing stunt performer, submerging his identity for the sake of the project; but it was behind the camera as stunt coordinator, fight arranger and swordmaster that Peter Diamond rose to A-list status. It was a career that covered five decades and the spectrum of screen work from domestic TV to international features. Highlander, The Princess Bride, the Star Wars movies... I can't begin to list them, we'd be here all day.

In 1997, by means that were devious, roundabout, or fortuitous, depending on how you're inclined to interpret them, I landed a project at ITV to which I'd attached myself as director. Didn't think I'd get away with that, but I did. The project was Oktober, an action-chase three-parter based on my novel of the same title.

Producer Brian Eastman surrounded me with some solid industry veterans that included Production Manager Ted Morley and First AD Roger Simons. But the choice of Peter for stunt coordinator was my own.

I'm so glad I got him. I count working with him as a highlight of my career. He was around the same age as my Dad, and I think I related to him in much the same way. Being a first-timer directing a big-budget show means being constantly on the brink of a terror to which you can never afford to give in. That was my experience, anyway. But if someone was trying to shake my faith in one of my choices, or if my confidence was being undercut in any way, a glance over at Peter would get me a nod or a shake of the head that no one else would see.

A week or so back, while I was preparing some clips for the Stories About Science  event, I noticed that Peter's credit was missing from Oktober's Internet Movie Database entry. Fixed that. Submitting a correction to the IMDB used to be a daunting undertaking, but the process is much smoother now. I hadn't looked at the show in years but I was prompted to recall the work with Peter on one of our biggest action sequences, the third-act confrontation between Stephen Tompkinson and Richard Leaf.

The fight was scripted in the way I've described elsewhere using Crusoe as an example, and with that as his template Peter choreographed the action with two of his stunt team. He didn't attempt to take over the direction, as I'd been warned that some of the younger stunt coordinators might. Stephen and Richard followed closely as the stunt players walked it through. While they were getting the moves, I was working out coverage with the operator. When we came to shoot it was 100% the actors, giving it their all. There's an insert of the huskies tugging at Richard's sleeve that was picked up later by a second unit, otherwise it's all as staged.



Peter died in 2004, on his way home from the set of Heartbeat - working to the end. His son Frazer is assembling a tribute site  on which he's hoping to pull together all of Peter's film and TV credits. No mean feat, given that there's somewhere around a thousand of them.

After Oktober, I didn't go all-out to direct again. Don't get me wrong, I'd loved the experience. But as a writer I had no new work ready, so had no money coming in for a year or more.

Also, when I put what I achieved next to what I'd imagined achieving, I thought I maybe wasn't as good at this lark as I'd hoped to be. After revisiting the clip, I have to wonder if I was being too hard on myself. I've seen worse.

(With a special shout-out here to editor Andrew McLelland, who I see is now cutting the Sherlock Christmas special)

Monday, 8 June 2015

Richard Johnson

Sad to hear of the death of the great Richard Johnson at the age of 87. Mainly because of The Haunting, but also because... well, Richard Johnson.

"He also has many small-screen credits to his name, in such TV series as Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead, Silent Witness and Doc Martin, where his charismatic presence won over many viewers."
The Silent Witness was mine, The Legacy, a two-parter that aired in 2013.  I was buzzed to learn that Johnson had been cast and hoped I'd get to meet him, but his scheduled days didn't coincide with the times I could get down to visit the shoot.

So they sent me the above image from the set. It came with the proviso that it wasn't for publicity use, which is why I didn't feature it on the blog. Now I see that the BBC are using it to head up the obituary on their own website. So there you go.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Stories about Science (2)


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Stories about Science

If you're heading for this, I'll be your keynote speaker tomorrow... don't say you haven't been warned.

Stories about science: exploring science communication and entertainment media
A research symposium at the University of Manchester

Thursday 4 and Friday 5 June 2015

From the web page:
We are now in a golden age for science in entertainment. Academy Award winning films such as Gravity and The Theory of Everything, and television ratings titans like The Big Bang Theory, have proved that science–based entertainment products can be both critically acclaimed and financially successful. In fact, many high profile scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences and the Wellcome Trust in the UK now believe that science communication can, and perhaps should, be both informative and entertaining.

These groups have embraced movies and television as legitimate vehicles for science communication by developing initiatives to facilitate scientific involvement in the production of films and television programs. Science communication scholarship on entertainment media has been slow to catch up with the enthusiasm shown by these scientific organizations, as science communication studies of science in mass media still predominantly focus on news media and factual documentaries.

This Wellcome Trust-funded two-day symposium brings together scholars from across disciplines to explore the communication of science through entertainment media in order to uncover new ways of approaching, understanding, and theorizing about this topic. Our exciting range of speakers will explore science communication and entertainment media from a variety of disciplinary and global perspectives as it is practised and experienced by a diverse array of publics.

The event will run from Thursday 4 to Friday 5 June 2015 and is organized by the Science and Entertainment Lab research group within CHSTM, comprised of David A. Kirby, William R. Macauley, and Amy C. Chambers. There is no cost for attending the symposium, but spaces are limited.

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

Peff

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.