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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Charlie Brooker Doesn't Like Hershey's

From his column on the Kraft takeover of Cadbury's in today's Guardian:
"As you may have noticed, the above suggestions work on the assumption that everything tastes nice when it's swaddled in Dairy Milk chocolate. Which it does. A bloated, over-ripe corpse dredged from a polluted canal would taste nice if it was ­encased in a Dairy Milk shell. If it was coated in Hershey's, you'd find yourself glumly picking the chocolate off to get at the sludgey grey flesh ­beneath. And that's a FACT."

Friday, 29 January 2010

Oh, Joy

Just as I finish catching up on the second season of the French cops'n'justice drama Engrenages (UK title: Spiral, screened on BBC4 with a credit for co-production), I see from the Canal Plus website that a third season has just wrapped filming in Paris.

Season Two was drug trafficking; in Season Three it's a serial killer, le boucher de la Villette. With any other crime show, mention of a serial killer plot would have me rolling my eyes. But Engrenages/Spiral isn't like any other crime show. No character panders for our favour; they're all genuinely complex, with genuine flaws. The people that we root for often do things we can't approve of and unlike, say, 24, the mishandling of suspects is without any suggested heroic quality.

Best of all, it's a show that doesn't feel like it's been pieced-together out of used-up TV.

Season Two was never going to be able to match the freshness and impact of the first, which I think I've watched three times now, but it still managed to build to a corker of a finale.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Dracula

In a post titled What I Learned in 2009 I promised I'd tell of my experience adapting Bram Stoker's classic novel for BBC Wales. Much as I'd like to say that I had a flood of emails urging me to go ahead, I haven't. But you're getting it anyway.

(Nope, that's not it in the picture - that's the milestone Gerald Savory-scripted version starring Louis Jourdain. This is not a Happy Ending story. Read on.)

I'd wanted to do a period macabre piece for some time. I had a project called Victorian Gothic which had been in development twice, once with Zenith and once with the BBC, and both times it had been polished up to production-readiness by the Drama department only to be passed-over by the Channel Controller.

The last time that happened, the word came back to me, No one will greenlight an original drama in a period setting. The writing was fine, they said. They loved the story, they said. But they'd only consider a period piece if it was an adaptation.

So I looked around for some seminal work in the genre that had never been adapted before, and that Christmas I spent the holiday period looking for the screen story in Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

I cracked it, too. Which to anyone who knows the book is the literary equivalent of unravelling the structure of DNA. But this time the word was, No adaptations that aren't already familiar to an audience.

The penny finally dropped. Our broadcasters were no longer in the adaptation business. They were in the remake business.

At which point Archie Tait (long-time friend and executive producer on Chimera, who knew of what I was trying to do) suggested I look at Dracula.

Dracula had been one of the texts underlying Victorian Gothic - Bram Stoker was a key character in that story, whose elements would eventually serve me in The Kingdom of Bones - so I'd absorbed it pretty well.

I took to the idea immediately. My argument was that nobody had 'done' the book properly since Gerald Savory's 1970s adaptation. Dracula is a work that's often plundered and rarely honoured. My proposal was to give the novel the full weight of a BBC classic adaptation, a reference-quality rendering of the book. All those great in-house BBC skills serving Stoker's vision, not just co-opting his work to serve a vision of one's own.

For some reason, Stoker never gets the respect that's automatically accorded to an Austen, an Eliot, or a Hardy, maybe because he wrote an instinctive classic rather than a cerebral one. Things would have to change in my proposal, as in adaptations they always do. But the guiding motivation would always be the question, What was Stoker getting at, here?

I won't insult you by explaining how the novel is a collage of second-hand perceptions, cast in the form of letters, journals, and dictated notes from the principal characters. This means that the character of Count Dracula is offstage for much of the novel, which adds to his mystery and enhances his credibility.

You don't get Count Dracula's version of the events. It's there in Stoker and you can work it out by a kind of literary triangulation, but I've never seen it done and still come out as Stoker. Dracula's role gets rewritten, as if his character somehow isn't integral, nor needs to be rendered with any fidelity to the author. What we mostly get is either a romantic rapist or, if the makers want to signal that they've seen Nosferatu, a hideous cockroach. Rarely has anyone made a serious attempt to show us Stoker's nasty-minded empty-hearted predator, who insists to his dissipated party-girl 'brides' that he's capable of love, and then goes on to prove at great length that he isn't.

I went straight to script and wrote the first hour. Didn't even make a plan, just saw the way and went for it. Archie took that to BBC Wales and we got a commission. I got stuck into the second hour, and somewhere along the way the contracts turned up and I signed them.

So far, so good. Then came the touchy stuff. I'm told that on the day I was set to deliver, a - now departed - drama exec in London heard of a proposed ITV version over lunch and cancelled our project that same afternoon. We had a completed script, we were way ahead. But the news took over a week to reach Archie and me, during which time the producers of the ITV project got out an announcement to the press, effectively 'bombing the BBC's boat'.

Archie had a call from BBC Business Affairs trying to get out of payment, on the basis that I'd signed my side of the contract but they hadn't signed theirs. My agent complained to the Drama department and the manoeuver was quickly scotched, but it left a nasty taste that remains with me to this day. It felt like the first sign of a form of 'attitude rot' that has surfaced in other ways since... that where writers are weak, that's to be taken advantage of. I was reminded of it when I heard that BBC Films are now inserting a non-union clause into some of their writer contracts.

It was a really unpleasant time in which a 'go' project got cut off at the knees. The script had to go through a complete resubmission process, at the end of which the Drama department felt that the competition had picked up too much of a lead.

ITV's version appeared to be a dead duck by the end of the summer - it had been conceived as a vehicle for one of their 'golden handcuffs' former soap stars, and I heard the actor in question pointedly distancing himself from it in a radio interview with Simon Mayo on BBC Five Live.

Schadenfreude, you may think. But there's a coda. About two years on, the BBC financed ITV's version and screened it as their own, with an all-new cast. I made a point of wishing it well (on my website, in those pre-blog days) and didn't watch. Since I never saw it I can't offer any opinion as to whether the production was worthy of the BBC, but you'll find the complete spectrum of viewer responses here.

I told you it wasn't a Happy Ending story. Unless you count the fact that I was asked my permission for the Dracula script to be used to teach structure on the BBC script editors' course. Which is more ironic than happy, I suppose.

My real disappointment didn't come from working hard and long for no reward, or from seeing yet another project shot down at such a late stage - both of those things have happened to me more often than I can count. It's par for the course.

But this was the BBC. You expect more.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Nuggets

Early last year I completed a questionnaire circulated by the editors of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. I was a member of the BSFA for a while, before I found that my changing tastes and inclinations meant that the British Fantasy Society was probably more for me; on moving over, I found myself consorting with most of the same crowd.

The BSFA was my big introduction to old-school fandom; global in reach, literary in its foundations, passionate in its concerns. For a solitary writer, it was a link to a welcoming subculture with a genuine identity and a sense of its own history. It was my way into friendships close and distant that have lasted to this day.

The questionnaire was a re-run of a survey first conducted twenty years ago for Mexicon III by Paul Kincaid. Can't remember how I responded back then but these are some of the answers I gave this time around:
On science fiction and fantasy
I think of myself as a mainstreamer with an sf/f background that tinges almost everything I do. Can't say it without sounding pretentious but I try for a sense of mythic resonance in the mundane.

Influences
When you start writing, you imitate what you love. I loved Wells, ERB, Bester, Clark, DC comics, the sf ballast mags of (to me) mysterious pedigree that somehow showed up at the local newsagents'. My major influences are probably everything I was blown away by between the ages of 12 and 25. Thereafter I began to separate my sense of what was mine from what I'd read.

On the use of British settings
My novels have tended to alternate between closely-observed British settings and closely-researched foreign landscapes, usually (but not always) with a British main character for point-of-view. Never planned it that way and it's not a very commercial way of thinking; the market likes you to find something that works and keep repeating it.

Do I detect a different response to my work from publishers in Britain and America?
Yeah. To UK publishers I'm a forgotten 90s horror writer. In the US I'm upmarket and literary.

The most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
Corporatisation of mainstream publishing houses has led to a massive loss of editorial know-how, and to the elimination of the specialised lines and imprints that were sustained by that know-how. The rot really set in when marketing people began directing editorial decisions, instead of serving them. It's great that the small and indie presses do so much to keep the flame alive but it's not the same.
And btw, 39 was Rob Hansen's convention membership number, not his age.

I believe.

Monday, 11 January 2010

WTF?

No, don't get excited. That isn't the cover of a genuine Eleventh Hour mass-market edition. It's the Chinese bootleg - at least, I'm assuming it's a bootleg, unless fractured English and a Showtime logo on the back of the sleeve are the mark of an official release.

A couple of days ago I got an email from Amazon to tell me that the Eleventh Hour DVD set - the official set, the Warner Bros one - was now available. Fine, I thought, a couple of months late, but better than never. I clicked on the link, and... "This item has been discontinued by the manufacturer".

You'd think I'd be in the loop on all this stuff, but I'm not. So I don't know why Amazon advertised and then pulled the product (it's still available from the Warner Bros online store), or why they've deleted about 20 five-star reviews.

Maybe Warners couldn't cope with the demand - the discs are DVD-R, and they burn them to order.

But the Chinese are having no such problem; wholesalers are stacking them high and shifting them for about ten US dollars a set, all regions.

I'm not recommending them - these are pirated copies, and along with the ethical issues you run the risk of getting poor goods. But I've always held that the most effective way to beat piracy is to outmarket the pirates.

By the look of it, we've some catching up to do.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Patient John

This kind of explains itself... every couple of weeks the Writers' Guild e-bulletin compiles a list called What Members Are Getting Up To and every time I get up to something, I forget to tell anyone until it's too late.
The Forgotten Season 1 Episode 11 Patient John – Press Release

A MAN’S MONEY-MAKING WAY AS A MEDICAL GUINEA PIG LEADS TO HIS MURDER, ON ABC’S “THE FORGOTTEN“

“Patient John” A John Doe found murdered and stuffed inside a seepage pit takes the team into the world of medical trials. The team learns that the Doe was a recently naturalized citizen who needed to supplement his income by becoming a medical guinea pig in order to bring his family to America. But did one of these trials end up killing the Doe? Who covered it up? And are there any other victims?, on “the forgotten,” TUESDAY, JANUARY 12 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on ABC.

Starring in “the forgotten” are Christian Slater as Alex Donovan, Michelle Borth as Candace Butler, Heather Stephens as Lindsey Drake, Bob Stephenson as Walter Bailey, Anthony Carrigan as Tyler Davies, and Rochelle Aytes as Grace Russell.

Guest Cast: Susan Ruttan as Horsemama, Alexis Delarosa as Andy Santiago/John Doe, Jesse John Head as Jamie Roscoe, Daniel Travis as Greg Beaudette, Keong Sim as Robert Chung.

“Patient John” is written by Stephen Gallagher and directed by Guy Ferland.
That's this Tuesday, at the risk of being obvious.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Movies of the Year

It's awards voting time again and although in previous years I've kept a strict silence over my preferences, I've noticed that I seem to be the only one doing it. I suppose it's hubris to imagine that anyone really cares... so in the interests of humility I'll tell you what I've liked this year.

I've been able to raise my movies-seen-in-a-cinema quotient this year, so now I'm using screeners to catch up on the contenders I've missed. On Wednesday I watched The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and the second of Vincent Cassell's Mesrine movies, both flawed-and-interesting, neither the best work of the people involved. Gilliam's a genius, but I'm beginning to wonder if he actually knows what a story is. Parnassus closely resembles his Baron Munchausen, replicating most of its pleasures and its faults.

It's interesting to compare the back-to-back Mesrine movies with Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Whereas Public Enemies follows the Hollywood model by elevating and mythologising its subject, there's never any doubt that Cassell's Jacques Mesrine is a genuinely nasty piece of work, and all the more fascinating for it. It's not necessary to romanticise in order to understand.

So far my favourite movies of the year have been Let the Right One In, Up, The Hurt Locker, District 9, Up in the Air, Star Trek... I enjoyed Me and Orson Welles despite the slightness of its coming-of-age story, mainly because of Christian McKay's spot-on turn as Welles. It goes beyond mimicry and into real character work. He's from Bury, Lancashire, and has mostly done theatre before this. His challenge now is to build a career that doesn't involve forever being 'the Orson Welles guy'.

A combination of travel, location, weather and workload make it unlikely that I'll get to see either of the late-released Avatar or Sherlock Holmes before voting closes. From what I'm hearing I suspect I'll find things to like in both of them, but since the rule is that you don't vote for anything you haven't seen, they'll probably have to struggle through without my support.

Guilty pleasure; the French '60s spy spoof OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus. Biggest disappointment; The Lovely Bones. I'd been hoping for another Heavenly Creatures - for me, Jackson's masterwork - but I found it about half as good as an average episode of Dead Like Me.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

John Wyndham and Me

I haven't seen the new adaptation of The Day of the Triffids yet - the parts are lined up on my hard drive, ready for when I've fought my way through all the BAFTA screeners in time for the next round of voting - but this review on the Blowing my Thought Wad blog inspired me to a response that outgrew the comments section.

A while back I wrote of how I once worked on a TV adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos with producer Marc Samuelson, who'd taken a block option on all the available Wyndham screen rights. The Day of the Triffids was excluded from the package, as the feature and TV rights had been signed away some years ago. The Midwich Cuckoos was available for TV only; MGM had owned the feature rights ever since The Village of the Damned and had exercised them again in the disappointing John Carpenter remake.

Marc had ambitious plans for the properties; when I came along he already had in hand Stephen Volk's script for The Chrysalids. He'd commissioned coverage on all the material as the first step in assessing how well each book or story might lend itself to adaptation, and he asked me to cast an eye over it and share any thoughts.

I passed on The Kraken Wakes, citing the main big insoluble problem; the audience will be expecting a Kraken, and they'll expect it to wake. The novel has neither.

Cuckoos was the one I most wanted to get my hands on, possibly because Village of the Damned had nailed it so well that I felt free to be as daring as was needed to make the concepts work in the here-and-now. I wrote a treatment. You know that feeling in your gut when the whole thing clicks and, like a solved equation, it works and it feels like music?

Marc was already in talks with the BBC and they seemed up for it. You'll no doubt be astonished to hear that months passed into years and nothing ever happened. Finally the whole proposal disappeared into litigation, as the producers of the Carpenter remake attempted to launch a TV spinoff that infringed on Marc's rights.

Triffids came up in a different context, further down the line; Life Line director Jamie Payne was pursuing an adaptation and asked if I'd be interested in scripting. I reread the novel and came to two conclusions; firstly, that the triffids played no central part in the story and were barely more than an added background threat, and secondly, that the book's spine narrative had been lifted almost intact and refashioned as 28 Days Later.

The latter point pretty much squashed my interest, as I felt it left me with nowhere to go. As for the triffids themselves... my thought there was, what if they could run? Okay, they're plants, but so was the creature in The Thing from Another World. What if they could uproot and move at speed for, say, thirty seconds, before having to smash open the ground beneath them and ram down the roots again for a recharge?

Never went any further than that. Perhaps just as well, you may say.

Monday, 4 January 2010

What I Learned in 2009

It's been in my mind to write a long post along the lines of "what I learned in 2009", but until I can set some time aside to think-through and process the whole experience of relocating from one country's industry to work in another, it'll have to wait.

It would be simplistic to say that I went from being a paid-off supplier, outside the process of production, to a position of empowered showmaker in a team of hands-on showmakers. The functioning of the American broadcaster/studio/prodco/writing-team system is way more complex and dynamic than that. And just because the American industry is robust and writer-centred, that doesn't mean that we in the UK don't have things they envy. The individual voice, the authored piece, the single play... all the things, I realise as I write them down, that are steadily vanishing from British screens.

A sobering moment for me in the course of the year came from a point made within this article by Peter Jukes - a simple observation, but a blindingly obvious one when you stop and think about it. He writes:
It’s a paradox of our public service broadcasting that soaps are primetime viewing here, while on US television they are a daytime interest.
And he's absolutely right. Where once we could legitimately claim to make the best TV in the world, we've regressed. Suddenly I was embarrassed for my country and my culture, and for our TV channels haunted by the faces of those same tired old clock-punching actors arguing endlessly about their relationships.

My embarrassment was tempered by the discovery that wherever I turned in Los Angeles, I found fellow-Brits in key positions throughout the Hollywood system. It's not just the accent (though I got plenty of mileage out of mine); over there, they like what we can do for them. We bring something to the table. Lead actors, line producers, executives and directors - all, without exception, happy with the thought of never working in the UK again (unless, in the case of the actors, you're talking about a feature or a West End run).

So it's not a talent thing. Our people can do the work at the highest levels, whether it's meeting the commercial needs of network primetime or crafting bespoke product for HBO. They just can't do it here. Not with the likes of Eastenders and Holby sucking up the lion's share of the drama hours, and the remaining time being programmed to reflect the tastes of a tiny handful of admin people. When the BBC Controller of Drama speaks of a 'limited pool of talent', he's describing his own horizons, not the world as it is.

If there is such a pool, I'm not in it; and nor is anyone I know. I thought maybe Tim Firth, whose excellent Flint Street Nativity got a Christmas repeat this year, but a check on his IMDB page and website suggests no new TV work in almost a decade. Dominic Minghella? Chris Chibnall? I'm sure they probably have their own stories of unprofessional treatment. I'll have to tell you the tale of my BBC Dracula sometime. I certainly can't imagine anyone from the Corporation flying across the Atlantic to engage with me in the way that Bruckheimer's people did.

Well, I said this post would have to wait, and then I went ahead and wrote it anyway. The main thing I learned in 2009 is a reinforcement of something I said at the beginning of the year. It's as much a rule of life as of work. Go where you're wanted. Don't hang around where you aren't.

I've no idea what 2010 will hold. All I know is that I've been given the opportunity to do what I do. It doesn't seem much to ask. But I won't kid myself - I'm lucky to be where I am.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Where Are They Now?

Congratulations to Sir Patrick Stewart on his knighthood and to Marley Shelton on the birth of her daughter.

Safe to say that I can claim no credit for either.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Daniel Defoe

Channel Five have been running Crusoe episodes every day throughout the holidays.

Despite any initial reservations, now that I've seen how they play I think it's been a good piece of scheduling. The show makes good, old-fashioned holiday fare.

The first hour of my 2-part finale went out today... one regret I have is that in amongst all the credits there's none for Crusoe's true begetter. Despite the expansions, additions and adjustments that we made - I used to joke that if we could only harness the energy, we could power the generators from Defoe spinning in his grave - he has a greater presence in the show than an observer might imagine. Most of the 're-imagined' details of Crusoe's backstory are, in fact, drawn directly from his creator's own life.

The final episode airs tomorrow, January 2nd. To conclude the series, I wrote a closing scene which ties the world of series to that of the novel. We shot it, but it didn't make the cut. But at least my conscience is clear.

INT. THIRD TAVERN ROOM. NIGHT.
Santana (the Spaniard who has sworn to return and rescue Crusoe, played by Joaquim de Almeida) is telling his usual tale to a man who is scribbling notes onto an array of handbills and scrap paper.

SANTANA
It is a tale of pirates, treasure and mutineers, and cannibals and heroes.

DEFOE
(scribbling away)
This is all wonderful.

SANTANA
And I give thanks that you can open your heart and believe it. For I’ve met no one else who will. How long will it take us to prepare for the voyage?

The scribbler looks up.

DEFOE
Voyage?

Santana waits.

DEFOE (CONT’D)
Did I actually say anything about getting you a ship? I just write stories. I thought you understood that. I can get a great one out of this.

Santana slumps, and covers his eyes.

SANTANA
Mister Defoe.

He waves him away. Glancing around guiltily, Defoe quickly gathers all his scraps and scribbles together.