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Saturday, 24 December 2016

This Time of Year...

Late one December I got a surprise phone call from Brian Clemens. It was a surprise because, although we'd met a number of times over the years and shared consultancy credits on BBC1's BUGS, long phone chats weren't something we really did. I wrote about it here.

If you know my stuff at all you'll be aware of Brian's influence on my own career. In its creativity, professionalism, and sheer variety, his work set targets that I could only aim for.

In '66 I was a kid entranced by The Avengers. At the end of 2014 there we were, catching up.

About three weeks later, the news broke that Brian had died on January 10th. 

Here we are onstage at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films, back in (mumblemumble). Neither of us having a good time at all, as you can see.


Thanks to Stephen Laws for sending the picture.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

"Anticipointment"

Why does my heart sink at the prospect of a new Jonathan Creek?

Because it's a prime example of how the BBC doesn't know how to handle a hit.

They set out to make it good, and you think it's brilliant. When they realise that, they set out to make it brilliant. And that's when it stops being good.

Are you listening, Sherlock?

Monday, 28 November 2016

Writers on Rejection

I'm one of a series of interviewees discussing writing and rejection on A J Ashworth's blog. Contributors so far include Alison Moore and A L Kennedy.

A sample:
AA: You’ve written successfully for television (as well as for radio) many times, but I know that some of the projects you’ve worked on have failed to make it to production. Has this been hard to deal with, especially if you’ve invested a lot of time in them?

SG: I could run my own channel with my unmade projects, but you have to take a long view. Especially in British TV, where everything moves so slowly that you can hear your own hair grow. I will say that I love the American system, which is brutal, fast and full of energy. Even if you have a near-miss, you know you’re playing a championship game. Last year I had a spec TV pilot that sold to ABC Studios. We cleared all the hurdles and just needed the network president’s nod for a straight-to-series order. At that point Spielberg offered him a show, and he handed over the slots that we’d been lined up for. That was hard. But you bounce.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Victorian Fun (2)

Well, no matter how long you've known them, your friends never lose the capacity to surprise you. Jo Armitage, with whom I worked back when I was represented by the Curtis Brown Agency, read my last entry on the British Library's Victorian Entertainments exhibition and wrote:
Well I never, just read the blog about your visit to the BL. Can’t remember if I’ve ever told you but my great grandparents (paternal side – Armitage) were a part of the George Sangers Circus. I believe that my great grandfather Armitage was a Ringmaster for them. Small world and when they left the circus he became the Manager for one of the Music Halls in SW London (think Clapham but not sure).
In dire need of some diversion on this election-dominated morning, I flipped through Sanger's autobiography Seventy Years a Showman and spent some time down the wonderful rabbit-hole of information that is the Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History site. If the Clapham association is correct, then it's quite possible that Grandpere Armitage may have been involved with Dan Leno's ventures in the area. Leno lived in nearby Clapham Park and was a partner in a business consortium that first took over Munt's Hall on St John's Hill, renaming it The Grand Hall of Varieties before going on to commission and build Clapham Junction's Grand Theatre. I turned up nothing useful that I could add to the family story, but was grateful for the excuse to go browsing.

When I asked Jo for permission to pass this along she added that the Ringmaster story came from relatives who are no longer around, so she'd no immediate means of corroborating it. But that her great grandfather worked for Sanger, and met and married her great grandmother while both were in the showman's employ, is beyond doubt.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Victorian Fun

In London for a couple of meetings last Thursday, I called by to spend a few minutes at the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. That's the beauty of our free museums, as I found in the 70s when I was in the capital looking for a way into film or TV; when you're broke (as I was then) and have time to fill, a regular half-hour in the National Gallery or the odd hour in the V&A can lift the spirits and leave you with a sense of the time well spent.

A chap was tuning up a piano. Not something you expect to find in the foyer of a library. When I took a closer look I saw that a stage was being set for the launch of a new exhibition titled Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun. The barriers were still up but I could see enough to know right away that I'd surely find it of interest.

As described on the BL's own website:
Roll up to celebrate some of the most popular entertainments of Victorian times performed in a variety of venues from fairground tents to musical stages. 

Focusing on five colourful characters, follow their stories as we bring the worlds they inhabited to life. These Victorian A-listers include Dan Leno, the original pantomime dame and ‘funniest man on earth’, John Nevil Maskelyne, magician and manager of ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, and the great circus showman ‘Lord’ George Sanger. Also hear of those whose fame has now faded such as Annie De Montford, a mill worker turned mesmerist, and Evanion the Royal conjuror

If you're familiar with the Becker novels you'll know that they largely play out against a backdrop of the entertainment business from the 1880s to the Edwardian era. From Music Hall touring companies to fairground boxing booths, from Wild West acts to the legitimate stage. And if you aren't familiar... well, you'll have to take my word for it. 

Two of the personalities covered in the exhibition (and the live presentations scheduled to accompany it) were central to the stories' conception, with their lives and histories providing a wealth of insight and detail. 'Lord' George Sanger was a prominent showman, and John Nevile Maskelyne was probably the most eminent British illusionist of his day. Here's where Maskelyne - in spirit, rather than in person - figures in The Kingdom of Bones
The Egyptian Hall stood in Piccadilly, and had been England's Home of Mystery for the past sixteen years. It had the frontage of an antique temple, four storeys high and with the look of something hewn from the rock of the Nile valley. Two mighty columns braced the lintel above its entranceway. Two monumental statues stood upon the lintel. All illusion, in plaster and cement. To either side of this slab of the ancient desert continued a row of sober Georgian town houses. 

Within the building there were two theatres. One had been taken by Maskelyne and Cooke for a three-month run of magic and deception that still showed no signs of ending, more than a decade and a half after it had begun. The other was used for exhibitions and the occasional show. 

A few minutes before midnight, their four-wheeler drew up outside. Edmund Whitlock stepped down to the pavement, where he turned and offered his arm to Louise.
To an observer’s eye the halls were shut-up and dark, but a watchman waited to let them in. Louise moved with her eyes downcast, looking neither to left nor right. They went directly backstage, where the Silent Man waited to lead them to the auditorium. 

It was an intimate house, with a small stage and a runway out from the footlights across the orchestra pit. The house lights were on and the curtains were up; Maskelyne was between shows, so his sets were half-struck and the theatre’s back wall was visible. About a dozen figures were out there in the stalls, all male, no two of them sitting together although some were conversing across the rows in raised voices. They fell silent as Whitlock led Louise to the centre of the stage, where a chair waited. He left her there and moved to the footlights. 

“Gentlemen,” he said, his voice ringing all the way up to the hall’s domed ceiling. “Welcome. I have spoken to each of you in turn before this evening.” 

Louise sat on her chair and continued to look down at the stage. Whitlock had taken her to Bond Street the day before, to be fitted for a new dress that the milliners had run up overnight. Her hair had been artfully pinned by the Mute Woman, who had a talent for such. Her face was powdered and her natural pallor relieved by the merest hint of rouge. 

Over by the wings, she was aware of the Silent Man easing out of the shadows and into a spot from where he could observe the auditorium. 

“I know you are intrigued,” Whitlock said. “I know you will be discreet. And I know the fascination that Miss Porter holds for each of you. Tonight I offer the chance for one man to pursue that fascination to the full.” 
I stayed on an extra day in order to return when I knew the exhibition would be open. It's sited in the BL's entrance hall and isn't huge - several display cases and some video material, along with walls of vintage poster art - but for someone with a love of such ephemera it didn't disappoint.

There are some props and personal effects but it's mostly printed matter in the form of handbills, tickets, programmes and other publications, much as you'd expect from a library's archive. Most interesting to me was the material from the collection of Henry Evans, illusionist, who as 'Evanion' had a fifty-year touring career on the stages of Britain. Presented here as 'one of those whose fame has now faded', to me Evans represents the true heroes of popular entertainment, hard-grafting professionals with a lifelong commitment to their often thankless trade. He was to die, elderly and impoverished, of throat cancer in the Lambeth Infirmary, a charity hospital joined to the workhouse in which Charlie Chaplin had been a child inmate. Forgotten, perhaps. But faded? No.

Afterwards I looked in the gift shop, and was a tad discouraged to see no merchandise in the exhibition-related area. Just Shakespeare stuff and, let's face it, he hardly needs the publicity. The main part of the bookshop offers a nice line in vintage detective fiction, all rather well-chosen, some of it in retro bindings, and with some rare old titles republished under the BL's own imprint (and kudos to whoever came up with the idea of returning the great Eric Ambler to public attention).

But hey, BL, if you'd care to stock some titles that can relate to the show, I've a suggestion or three for you.

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, Entrance Hall, The British Library, until Sunday, 12th February 2017

Monday, 26 September 2016

Meanwhile at Fantasycon...

Just back from a weekend of frolics, wine and conversation at 2016's Fantasycon by the Sea in Scarborough, a town of shabby-chic Edwardian charm with a fantastic coastline and some, er, interesting after-dark streetlife. The Grand Hotel made for a highly sociable venue in a spectacular clifftop location. Dining options on the doorstep, and some fine autumn sunshine for those moments where you just had to take time out and wander. I had a great time meeting up with friends old and new.

There was no single dealers' room, as such, more a bazaar that spilled through small rooms and passageways off a corner of the main hall. I'm pretty sure I didn't get to see everything, but I did get my first-ever sighting of the new hardcover in its finished form. I don't even have my author copies yet, but PS Publishing regularly handles UK distribution of Subterranean titles and had rushed a stack of advance copies expressly for the convention. So, many thanks to all involved, with further thanks to those who bought out the stack!

A damn handsome piece of book production, if you ask me. I couldn't be more pleased. The hardcover editions of both The Kingdom of Bones (Shaye Areheart Books) and The Bedlam Detective (Crown) were something to behold, and this new title equals and, dare I say it, surpasses them. Subterranean also holds ebook rights for US territories, details of which can be found here. I'll have paperback news in due course.

poster art: Graham Humphreys
The weekend was rounded off with the news that Ellen Datlow's The Doll Collection won the British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. 

I get to bathe in a little reflected glory because my story Heroes and Villains is in the book. That story was the basis of my short play Cheeky Boy, part of this theatrical event. You may recall me banging on about it somewhat earlier in the year.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Shipping Now: The Authentic William James

The book's now shipping and preorders are being filled. They're preceded by an interview conducted by Gwenda Bond for Subterranean. It's
on the company's Facebook page; follow the link to see the whole thing.
Today we’re bringing you a fascinating new interview with Stephen Gallagher about how he created the character of investigator Sebastian Becker. Gallagher is a novelist, screenwriter and director specialising in contemporary suspense. His latest novel about Becker, special investigator to the lord chancellor’s visitor in lunacy, is The Authentic William James. It earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and we expect it to start shipping soon. Get your orders in now; you’re in for a treat whether you’re already a fan of the series or this is your entry point.

Gwenda Bond: Where did the idea for this series start?

Stephen Gallagher: I suppose the first seeds were sown when I was around twelve or thirteen and I answered an ad in the back pages of a Sexton Blake paperback...

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Charlie

Down by the British Museum in Bloomsbury runs Montague Street, a terrace of Georgian townhouses of the classic Upstairs/Downstairs kind. They're now mostly brass-plate offices and boutique hotels, and I can never walk along it without thinking of Charlie Grant.

Charles L to the literary world, Charlie to just about everyone who knew him. The Montague Street connection is tenuous - he and Kathryn stayed in one of those hotels after a British Fantasycon where Charlie was toastmaster, having been the previous year's Guest of Honour. It's just one of those details that evokes a host of other memories and (see what I'm doing here?) the evocative detail is what Charles L Grant, writer and anthologist, was all about.

The '80s was a great time to be in horror. Already a genre with a strong tradition, in the 80s it was pretty much rampant. Writers such as Ira Levin, Thomas Tryon, and John Farris had already begun to break down the wall between genre and the mainstream, and then Stephen King drove a tank through the breach.

I count myself hugely lucky to have been finding my feet at just the right time. Two personal landmark events stand out in my memory; one being my first sale to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the other Charlie picking The Jigsaw Girl for Shadows 9. Publishers were mainly buying horror novels because they were making money. But if Charles L Grant bought your story, it was because he thought it was good.

Every field needs its controversies and ours was the Quiet Horror vs Splatterpunk debate. Unlike the Sad Puppies debacle it was an enriching and enjoyable hook for panel discussions, bar chats, fan writing... the question was basically over the relative merits of showing vs suggesting. Charles was widely acknowledged as Quiet Horror's Grand Master, both in his own fiction and in the influential Shadows anthology series on which he was editor. King praised his eminence as a creator of 'small-town horror', the form that's currently been so effectively mined and celebrated in Netflix's Stranger Things.

Many of those that I count among my 'cohort' have remained friends to this day. I only wish that Charlie, who left us on this day ten years ago, were still here among them.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Abroad Thoughts from Home

This is probably the most niche blog post ever, but I wish I'd had access to something like it when the need first arose. It's the Idiots' Guide for a British writer joining the staff of a US TV show. How you land the gig is up to you. This is just about the admin.

What used to be a rarity is becoming more common. For the British writer it's almost invariably a sideways move following a notable success at home or as part of the package in the acquisition of a successful format. Freelanced scripts aren't unknown, but they're exceptional. As a rule American TV drama is staff-written and the writing staff all work on-site. For all you need to know about staffing and more, I can make no higher recommendation than the Children of Tendu podcast.

This is an ad-hoc list that I threw together for a friend who asked for some advice. It's not authoritative, or comprehensive, and I'm taking no responsibility for any errors or omissions.

If it happens for you - and I hope it may - it's a brilliant adventure, and maybe some of the following will help to smooth the process when the time comes.
  • If you supply material to the American market but stay resident in England, then you can do that with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) which means the IRS will leave you alone and you'll pay your taxes on the income as normal in the UK (I've been told that this has changed, and that you can now claim the exemption with your own country's tax ID).
  • BUT if you're on a TV staff then you'll relocate, most likely to LA (though some shows have writers' rooms in NY). The room is almost always in LA even if the show is shot in Atlanta, Toronto, or wherever.
  • For that you'll need an 01 visa (Alien of Extraordinary Ability) to get in, and a social security number to get paid.
  • For the visa I had to make an appointment at the US embassy to show my employment contract and provide evidence of past achievements. It wasn't anything horrendous, just a lot of faff in a tearing hurry. Shows are greenlit at short notice and staff up quickly, so you don't get much lead time.
  • My US employer hired a service in London to deal with my application and fast-track it through. I got my passport back at my hotel the evening before my flight!
  • The payroll company will want a social security number in order to start paying your salary. Once in LA you can apply for it in person. There's an office on Olive Avenue in Burbank. It can take a few weeks to come through as it has to go via Homeland Security. My income backed up while I was waiting.
  • You'll also need to provide your employer with a Certificate of Continuing Liability from HMRC, which basically says that despite working in the US you're still a UK resident and taxpayer. Without it they'll withhold Medicare and Social Security payments from your salary, and you won't be able to reclaim the money. I was completely unaware of this, and in that first year it cost me dear.
  • To work for any of the WGA-signatory production companies - which is all of the reputable ones - you'll need to be a member of the Writers' Guild of America. 
  • Writers from Europe are enrolled into the WGAEast. Existing members of the Writers Guild of Great Britain can have the joining fee waived.
  • Dues are paid quarterly. Your WGA membership will provide you with medical cover.
  • You'll find that most of your coworkers will have their salaries paid into a Loan Out Corporation or LLC. My experience here is limited. I just worked and got paid as an individual. As an expat I already had enough admin to contend with.
  • Once you have your SSN you're in the system and you'll have to file an annual return with the IRS and pay taxes on your US income. This is claimed as a tax credit against your UK liabilities, so you don't get taxed on the same money twice.
  • If you're working in California you'll be paying Federal Tax and California State Tax.
  • A friend of mine who worked in California for one year (not in the TV business) filed his year-end return using a program called Turbotax. I felt much safer having a US accountant do it. Having said which...
  • My first accountant had no experience with expats while I had none of the US tax system, which resulted in various misunderstandings and penalties. Now I'm with an outfit with expertise in the tax affairs of non-residents.
  • On arrival I booked into a motel for a couple of weeks and looked for longer-term accommodation while I was getting into the work. You can take your chances on Craigslist but the premiere resource for LA is westsiderentals.com. You can search their listings for free but to get contact details you have to register. 
  • I paid the modest fee and searched for a furnished guest house, which is generally self-contained accommodation attached to a bigger property. 
  • The search categories for a reasonable commute to the major studios are Santa Monica/Westside, Hollywood/West Hollywood, Studio City/San Fernando Valley.
  • But find out where your writers' room is going to be. Many productions set up their offices in a rented suite away from a studio lot.
  • Before heading out I booked a long rental on a car. For some reason it worked out cheaper doing it from the UK. Booking from here I got the Collision Damage Waiver included; had I done it on arrival that would have been an extra.
  • Alamo was offering the cheapest car rental at that time.
  • I don't know if it's still the case, but renting a Satnav as an extra came at some ridiculous price. I took my own with a US map preloaded, and it was invaluable.
Pay special attention to the Certificate of Continuing Liability. No one warned me and, as I said, it proved an expensive omission.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

See a Dinosaur Eat a Cow. You Know You Want To.

Here's a film I'd never seen before, and have finally caught up with. I don't quite know what to make of it. As you might expect it's a B-movie through and through, but the production values took me by surprise. With the Mexican locations, and widescreen cinematography, its look is great.

Like the later Valley of Gwangi, it's based on an idea by Willis O'Brien. In fact, it's based on the same idea. The backroom genius of The Lost World and King Kong had a hand in the script but none in the special effects, which is entirely the wrong way around.

It's a cowboys-and-monster movie. Apparently English and Spanish-language versions were shot back-to-back. In places it lapses into colourful travelogue but, to be honest, you're grateful for the distraction. Unless you're a fan of ranch boundary disputes it's a long, long wait for the dinosaur action we've bought in for. And when it comes...

Well, what the hell. It's called The Beast of Hollow Mountain and we're not here because we mistook it for the Tarkovsky.

You know what they say - "If the cooking in this house doesn't meet your standards, try lowering your standards."



(Re that trailer, and just for the avoidance of doubt - no, there is no such thing as a 'Sneak Peak".)

Director Edward Nassour described his patented "Regiscope" process as a form of electronically programmed animatronic model work. It was later established by Cinefx's Don Shay that the dinosaur action was mostly achieved by swapping out multiple models in different poses, elsewhere known as 'replacement animation'.

Though the technique had been used with success in George Pal's Puppetoons, Ray Harryhausen described its use in live-action features as "not quite practical".

Thursday, 1 September 2016

DANCING WITH SHADOWS, the Charles L Grant Blogathon


Neil Snowdon writes:
12th-18th September I’ll be hosting a celebration of Charlie and his work, with contributions from myself, Ramsey Campbell, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Morris, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Christopher Golden, James A. Moore, Lynda E. Rucker, Stephen Bacon, Mark west, James Everington, Thomas F. Monteleone, Nancy Collins, Stephen Bissette, Stephen Gallagher, Jean-Daniel Breque, Tim Lebbon, Jonathan Oliver, Marc Laidlaw, Steven Savile, Kealan Patrick Burke, P.D. Cacek and John Langan and more to come…
I'm scheduling my contribution for September 15th, the tenth anniversary of this enormously respected artist's death. For more details and for links to the other contributors, see Aim for the Heart at https://neilsnowdon.wordpress.com/.

Photo credit (right) Mary Jasch

Monday, 22 August 2016

Jurassic Park, Unearthed

This is weird.

While sorting through some old files I came across this film review from the year of Jurassic Park's release. I don't remember writing it, or for whom it was written. But dated references to video (ie, VHS), to the then-unbuilt Universal Studios ride, and to competing movies... they all have the feel of another era, whereas the movie still seems to me like pretty fresh goods.

I rewatched it recently, and its age was never an issue. And what I wrote back then is still a fair reflection of what I think of the movie now. Durability beats novelty any day.

So here it is, from '93:
Over in the US, at least, the commercial shape of this summer's movie season appears already to have been set. CLIFFHANGER as the well-timed warm-up act, not quite a contender but perfectly fine to keep us going until the blockbusters come along. SLIVER straight down the tubes, gathering critical disdain and playing to empty houses. THE LAST ACTION HERO a major embarrassment; a ton of money, a mess of a film, and limping along in the wake of the one movie that was obviously a clear winner by the end of the day that it opened. They're still counting, but JURASSIC PARK has taken over one hundred million dollars within the first two weeks of its release. It managed this by opening everywhere, a massive investment in print costs alone; and in some locations this was maximised by chaining the print through a succession of projectors to play two or three auditoria at once. They were filling them, too.

Is it worth it? I think it probably is. As a suspense movie, it's about half as good as JAWS. But the realisation of the dinosaurs is technically perfect and there are some set-pieces (most memorably a Tyrannosaurus attack on a jeep and a stalking through an empty visitor centre) that are worth the price of admission alone. JURASSIC PARK may be a so-so story, but it's a magnificent ride. It'll make a great feature on the Universal Studios tour (are they planning one? Are you kidding?) and it'll clean up on video. The merchandising is, perhaps, another matter; there's no protectable copyright on the dinosaurs themselves and all they really have to sell is the logo, which resembles something out of the Ahlbergs' FUNNYBONES. Anyone can cash in on the fever, and everyone seems to be doing it.

Spielberg has added a few typical personal touches to the narrative of Michael Crichton's spare and one-dimensional novel, most noticeably in the Sam Neill character's reluctant conversion to the role of protective father-figure. There's a hug-a-stegosaurus scene which is pure Spielberg (seeing this and thinking back to ET, pets must have filled a big void in the director's early life) and he's dealt with the book's least appealing aspect, the whining and stereotypical characterisation of Hammond's young grand-daughter, by giving her a piece of the action instead of simply making her a drag on the Guy Stuff. Richard Attenborough's John Hammond character is rather wasted - he comes over as well-meaning and dim, a Walt Disney without the buried dark streak - and there's a general lack of any point to be made. The novel's point, that there are penalties to be paid for hubristic science, is buried somewhat. Not much surprise there; it's a hard line to sell in the context of the fun we've been having.

This kind of cinema is the modern equivalent of the sensational theatre spectaculars of the Victorian era where one could see Ben Hur's chariot race live on stage with full teams of horses running flat-out on rollers. Great fun, low art. And if it leaves nothing lasting beyond a sense of awe at the occasion. . . well, pardon me for saying so, but what a strange life it must be in which that counts for nothing.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Three

You have written a considerable number of short stories, some of which have been published as collections (‘Out of His Mind’, ‘Plots and Misadventures’). What are your thoughts about the differences between writing short stories and novels? Have any of your short stories been developed further (in any media)?

Short stories are tricky, and when you get one just right it’s very satisfying. In my distant youth, enthused by the BBC adaptations, I read John Galsworthy’s sequence of Forsyte novels and I vividly remember a passage in which Young Jolyon talked about the difference between painting in oils and watercolours. The gist was that in oils you build up from the canvas, and along the way you can try things out and make revisions and cover your mistakes. Whereas with a watercolour you lay your brush on the paper, and if the stroke isn’t right, then the whole thing’s ruined. That’s how I see short stories – they work or they don’t; there’s no margin for error.

I’ve adapted some of my short stories for radio – By the River, Fontainbleau, The Horn and Life Line. They were all for the Fear on Four slot and they keep showing up on BBC4 Extra. A lot of my radio stuff got wiped, one of the producers told me. Off-air copies get traded between collectors but the broadcast masters are gone.

The notion of a TV anthology show seems to raise its head every two or three years. Producers love the idea of them, but commissioners and schedulers are much cooler. You can more or less guarantee that when an anthology show does get commissioned, it’ll be first in line to be pre-empted for a sports fixture or a special event. The viewing figures get driven down, and then the figures are used as proof that anthology shows aren’t popular.

I’ve seen you at a couple of conferences recently and you also talk to writers’ groups. What do you personally get out of this, and what do you think aspiring writers might gain from your input?

Well, it’s a great opportunity to talk about how hard it all is and to scare off the competition! But seriously, if anyone can get something useful out of anything I’ve got to say, that’s great. It’s not like I’m making it easier for anyone.

There’s a vanity element to it as well. I spend most of my days sitting in a room at a keyboard. Tell me there’s a place with a bar and a willing audience and a bunch of friends to catch up with afterwards, and you’re pretty much describing the main social pleasure that this job has to offer.

What are your feelings about the indies and what purpose do you think they serve, bearing in mind that their circulation is often quite small?

Independent publishing has always played an enormous role in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. In early science fiction there was the Gnome Press; in fantasy and horror there was Arkham House. They were mould-breakers in their way, and they were an important bridge between the pulps and the mainstream book market. Some of today’s indies continue that tradition. Then you’ve got all the small-circulation magazines and anthologies that offer new writers a place to get their voices heard and to sharpen up their craft. If they didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Two

Getting back to your novels, and thinking about your early work, where did the inspiration come from for books such as ‘Chimera’, ‘Oktober’, ‘Rain’ and ‘The Boat House’?

I can answer for definite with Chimera because that came from a passage in Vance Packard’s book The People Shapers, where he quoted a Rand Corporation study predicting the routine production of laboratory sub-humans by the year 2025. I didn’t take that as a solid prediction, but I did foresee a process by which it could come about. It doesn’t matter how responsible the scientific establishment is, there’s always someone with a dodgy degree out there, looking for a chance to make his name by pushing the envelope.

For the rest of them, I’ve no doubt that if you dig through the file boxes with all my original notes and papers, somewhere you’ll find a little scrap of notebook paper with an illegible scrawl from the moment where light first dawned. It is actually like that. You know you’ve got a goer when it’s like you can see the entire book folded up inside a seed. It’s only the start of a fairly enormous process, of course, but when it happens you can sit back happy, because you know you’re in the game and you’re going somewhere.

You famously wrote the screenplays for some of the classic Doctor Who episodes (under the pen-name: John Lydecker). How did this opportunity arise? Considering this and other screenplays you’ve written for television series, how do you go about writing stories involving established characters?

TV characters are designed to be written by many hands. They’re not like fully-formed characters, but more like stripped-down racing versions of the same. So once you’ve got your head around their regular function in the weekly structure, you’ve a good idea of where you can and can’t go with them.

You can’t change them or teach them too much, unless you’ve been given some significant change to work in as part of the production plan. When that happens, it becomes a narrative point that you can factor into your story in a way that you hope will make it stand out. In my two Doctor Whos I got to write out two assistants and one robot dog. Which was great, because in character terms it meant I’d been given something I could write towards.

I got the job because I was working on a science fiction radio play called An Alternative to Suicide, and my radio producer sent the script over to the Doctor Who office. I got a call to drop in for a chat, and everything grew from there.

To what extent do you feel that the real world should feature in your work? By this I mean politics, wars, developing technology and topical issues. What control do you have over these areas when work is commissioned for television or film?

I’m kind of ambivalent on this. I did talk before about the importance of location and sense of place, so that’s me speaking up for realistic texture. But when it comes to politics or technology you’re really talking about something that right now feels like the only reality there is, but which is going to change faster than you can nail it down. Blair’s Britain? That’s yesterday already.

So I think my attitude is to let the timeless stuff seep in, but steer away from the notion that your reason for being here is to tell it like it is. You can’t write just to explain background. If you want to make a political point that doesn’t date, put it in a solid story. Solid stories are imperishable. Why has some of Brecht’s stuff worn so well? Because his narratives are compelling regardless of whether you care about the politics. It’s because the stories work that he leaves you more politically aware than you were going in.

Technology’s tricky in a different way. Think about how the mobile phone affected plotting. I put some computer stuff in Oktober that dates it terribly now.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part One

You have been in the writing business for some time now. What would you say were your best and worst experiences?

Fortunately the best way outnumber the worst, and they’ve mostly come out of the experience of researching the novels. I do try to achieve an authentic sense of place in the writing and that’s always involved a lot of travel, meeting new people, and getting into situations that I’d never otherwise encounter.

Back in the early days, when I’d just gone freelance and I was dead broke, this would mostly involve backpacking around Europe or America. For The Boat House I went all over Western Karelia and into what was then Soviet Russia. These trips generated some very rare and vivid moments of epiphany, a fair number of them on railway station platforms at 3 o’clock in the morning.

When you’re out on your own like that, travelling with a purpose but full of uncertainties, it’s like you lose a few layers of skin and become very sharp and sensitised. That feeds back into the writing. I’d often find that the thoughts that I recorded or jotted down at those times would not only influence the entire tone of the book, but would often make it into the text almost verbatim.

Worst moments – I’d say they’ve been whenever I’ve been pushed off a project that I’d started from nothing and brought to within sight of completion. That’s happened to me about four times. You just feel sick and helpless when it happens. Only one of those projects went on to get made.

Would you say that your writing style has changed as you have become more experienced? In what ways?

I’m not entirely sure that it has. I can look at prose that I wrote at the beginning of my career and as far as the writing style is concerned, give or take a few infelicities, I’d be happy to have turned that stuff out last week. The actual voice doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

I suppose that what changes is the quality of what you have to say, as opposed to the way you say it. That’s where things have definitely matured and evolved, I hope. I mean, I was first published in my mid-twenties, and I knew nothing about anything. Now I know nothing about a much greater range of subjects.

Apart from writing novels and short stories, you’ve had a lot of success in other areas – film, television and radio. What would you say are the pitfalls when moving into these areas? Can you give me some examples from your own experience? What frustrates you as a writer when dealing with these media?

The prose writer and the screenwriter live in two universes that move at very different speeds. The screenwriter who doesn’t understand that will turn out books that read like novelisations. The novelist who doesn’t get it will write a script that can’t be shot.

You need to be aware of the need for a change in pace, not just in what you write, but in the way you work. Okay, so a story’s a story. But you spend a novel looking inside out from inside the characters, while in a screenplay everything’s determined by what you see them say and do.

You couldn’t have a more radical difference between the two forms. When prose is described as cinematic, it’s often anything but.

I suppose the most obvious difference is that for a novel you go up the mountain, brood for a long time, and come down with something that’s finished and complete. Whereas on a screen project you don’t get the final say on anything. What you get is everyone else’s notes, pretty much from day one. After a while it starts to feel like everyone including the office manager (it’s happened) gets the opportunity to have a say over what you do.

The writer, of course, never gets to change anyone else’s work.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Click to enlarge

Sunday, 5 June 2016

If you want to feel old...

...here's what Chad looks like now.

Movie prop collector Ian has sent me this display cabinet photo of the Chimera prosthetic head that he picked up on Ebay, one of the three created for the 1991 ITV production. A lucky find, given that it was listed there as a "Planet of the Apes Mask".


Here's how he looked in better days:


The flexible latex foam skin isn't made to last, and it doesn't. Ian writes: "There are quite a few feet of cables on it which I wound around the base of the head it is mounted on. Quite dry and crispy when I got it but the skin is now sealed and should hopefully last well."


"Planet of the Apes Mask" isn't the only odd description to surface in recent weeks. Here's a catalogue listing from an auction being held by Bamfords in Derby next Wednesday, June 8th:


Doctor Who and the Prisoner of Azkaban?? It's actually one of the Vanir helmets from my story Terminus.

Looks in rather good nick, too. I might have been tempted to put in a bid... but I ain't going up against that J K Rowling, she's got way more firepower than I can muster.

 UPDATE: With corrected details, the Vanir mask went for a hammer price of £1,400.00.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Showreels


Directed by


Written by

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Neither Houdini, Nor Doyle

If you just want the free story, scroll on down to the links. Otherwise...

Back when we were wrapping up Crusoe for NBC, producer Jeff Hayes pitched me a TV project that a colleague of his was looking to set up. It was called Houdini and Doyle and it was about the real-life friendship between the two, transmuted into a mystery-solving partnership for series purposes.

And no, as far as I'm aware it bore no relation to the Fox/ITV series that's currently on air. This particular historical pairing has a long history of producer appeal, and there have been a number of attempts to bring it into being.

In fact I'd already addressed it myself, kind of. I'd been inspired by another pairing of opposed ideologies when I read how, in the 1980s, convicted Watergate hardliner G Gordon Liddy teamed with LSD proselytizer Timothy Leary on a lecture tour titled Nice Scary Guy vs Scary Nice Guy. I imagined them going at it hammer-and-tongs during the debates and then retiring to the same hotel to unwind with a drink and divvy up the box office.

So long before that suggestion of Houdini and Doyle I'd written about the pairing of a spiritualist and a stage magician, based on their friendship but with characters of my own invention. Will Goulston is a stage magician, forced into a money-making venture after losing all his properties in a fire, while Frederick Kelly is raising money for a Spiritualist temple. Together they move from town to provincial town, maintaining a cordial relationship while rehearsing the same debate, night after night.
The man from the Blackburn Times said, "What are we going to see? Do we see physical manifestations?"
    "Goulston does all of those," Kelly told him. "You want to see a table tip and fly, Goulston does it better than anyone I've ever seen. I practice a form of clairvoyance that is far less spectacular. I handle objects and I say whatever comes into my mind. Rarely do I see more than that."
    "Do you raise the dead?" the Telegraph man said, and there was a tone in his voice and a look in his eye that seemed to urge Kelly to say yes, just so that the Telegraph man could go on into print and make him regret it.
    "I do not raise the dead," Kelly said and then he added, with care and certain emphasis, "Sometimes I believe the dead can speak through me."
    The Telegraph man switched his gaze. He looked like a bank clerk, but his manner showed the wiry energy of a whippet. "Mister Goulston?"
    "Let me be diplomatic," Goulston said. "I believe that Mister Kelly is an exceptional performer of his type."
    "Do you think he's a fraud?"
    "I have no doubt."
    "But no proof."
    "Proof will come."
To me the notion appealed not for its mystery-solving possibilities, but for the light it shines onto a deep-seated conflict that lies within all of us. The magician embraces mystery, but he knows too much; his curse is that mystery can never embrace him back. And although I wasn't familiar with the term when I wrote the story, you can say that Frederick Kelly is a 'shut-eye' medium, one whose belief in his own powers is sincere.

The novella's available to buy on Amazon, but from tomorrow until Sunday May 15th you can download it to your device for free.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Who's Round, Part Two

Toby Hadoke's marathon interview series continues:
Toby Hadoke's Who's Round 168 - Stephen Gallagher (Part 2)
The second part of an interview with one of those script writers whose subsequent career means that Doctor Who is just a tiny element of an impressive CV. So he discusses his work on the show from the perspective of a successful writer who still works in television and knows how it works. He also happened to write two stories which had a very difficult transition from script to screen and discusses them openly and with fondness.
 Free podcast, download it here:

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Doctor Who Events

On Saturday May 7th, 2016, I'll be guesting at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society's 40th anniversary weekend at the Arora Hotel, Gatwick.


No idea what I'll be doing. No doubt spouting the usual old nonsense to anyone who cares to listen. I'll just be one in a very big list of show-related figures, some with a much closer association  than I can muster.

But speaking of the usual old nonsense, some time back I did a long interview with Toby Hadoke at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre (in the bar, not on the stage) for his ongoing podcast series Who's Round. The first part's out already and can be found here:


"In honour of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013, Toby Hadoke has embarked on an epic quest: interview someone from every single Doctor Who story. Feeling Doctors or companions are a bit too easy, he travels the country meeting legends of the show's history both in front of and behind the camera, and chats to them about both Doctor Who itself and the lives his interview subjects have led since (and, indeed, before).

"The interviews are in the form of podcasts on the Big Finish website, which you can download or stream here, or subscribe to on iTunes. All episodes are free, so if you've enjoyed Toby's chat, all he asks is that you give a donation to a charity nominated by the interview subject."

The released instalments of my spoutings will be interspersed with Toby's Paul Joyce interview. Paul was the director on Warriors' Gate and his angle on the events can differ from my own. The more you learn about this fraught production, the less surprising that becomes.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Valley of Lights, Special Edition

In 2005 Telos Publishing put together a special edition of my novel Valley of Lights for their Telos Classics line. This same edition is now available in ebook form.


Like the expanded trade paperback - which is still available to order - the ebook contains the text of the novel along with extra material:
  • An introduction by Stephen Laws
  • Author's afterword
  • The Los Angeles diary I kept during our first crack at setting up a Valley of Lights feature
  • A bonus novella

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Danger Man

It was my first visit to the JBTV offices in Santa Monica. I was meeting with the members of Jerry Bruckheimer's (surprisingly compact) TV team in the office of Executive Producer Jonathan Littman.

Amongst the DVDs on the shelf by his desk, I noticed a boxed set of Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for US broadcast). A British action drama from the '60s, a black and white echo from my childhood... when I remarked on it, Jonathan glanced back. "The perfect show," he said. Which was some praise.

A couple of years later I was looking into remake rights for Man in a Suitcase. This was a later ITC show whose premise - disgraced-but-innocent CIA man scratching a living in London - had struck me as having coproduction potential. In an unexpected development, while picking my way through the who-owns-what jungle I was invited to pitch a reboot of Danger Man.

It didn't take long for me to see that this was never going to happen. You get a vibe as to whether the person with the proposal has the clout to carry it through. But in the meantime I'd revisited the show and sorted out my thinking.

A few days ago I came across the file while doing a little hard drive housekeeping. Rather than waste the words, I decided to share.

This is the show that Jonathan Littman described as the most perfect of series concepts, and I’m sure he’s right. It doesn’t matter how many spy shows have come along since, Danger Man was a design you can’t improve upon. You can only imitate and vary.

The secret of its success lies in the minimalist strokes that make up its format and the very precise, and almost understated, nature of the main character.

John Drake is complex without being complicated. You get him very easily. He’s a moral man doing dirty work, and internalising the resulting conflict. It's a price that he pays. His adventures are straight out of Ian Fleming but his soul is by Graham Greene.

There’s no attempt to resolve this inner conflict, and Drake has no safety valve. He never complains, shares, or unloads. Apart from the occasional vent at his superiors (which never gets him anywhere), he stays tightly wrapped. This is one of the keys to his character; it explains how a fundamentally non-violent man can more than hold his own in a violent situation. He displays a watchful stillness, but you never feel that he's calm – it's the stillness of a hard steel exterior with contents under pressure. So when violence is required, he just lets some of the anger out. It's available in an instant and he shuts it down just as quickly.

He will do his best to see that the innocent don't get hurt in the course of an operation, though his is a world in which innocents often suffer. The greater consequences can only be worse if he doesn't complete his mission, but many Danger Man stories involve Drake disobeying orders, devising a strategy of his own to achieve an objective by means less damaging to those he meets and sometimes uses.

Like Bond, he’s a competent hero in a hostile universe. But even after all these years we still don’t know what values Bond stands for. John Drake, however, reminds us what it is to be humane. In a dirty war, he stands for the moral difference between the good guys and the bad guys. He’s the opposite of Jack Bauer, who switches his conscience off when he feels the need to do harm. John Drake’s heroism requires him to carry the moral weight of his own actions at all times. His redemption lies in his willingness to be damned for the sake of others.

Just as Drake’s character is portrayed in a few clean strokes, so is his world. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know is thrown down in the Season One credit sequence.

It’s night. We see a floodlit renaissance dome composed together with a piece of brutalist office architecture, the traditional and the modern co-existing. From the building emerges a well-groomed guy in a suit, walking at a determined clip. The voiceover tells us his employer, his job description and his name. He doesn’t work for British intelligence; he works for NATO, an international and American-dominated organisation. He’s a troubleshooter. At that point he hops into a convertible and he’s gone.

Nine times out of ten the next we see is that he’s somewhere else in the world, dressed-down and pretending to be someone he isn’t. But we never lose sight of the authentic John Drake in a scenario. We’re always aware of the degree to which he’s acting, watching those around him, and recalibrating his plans.

Drake has a boss in London, but we don’t see him often. When we do, the two of them are usually arguing. Drake is a man who can be relied upon to get the job done but not to do as he’s told, which is the kind of thing every boss hates. In these scenes you can see the seeds of The Prisoner further down the line.

As well as the London office (fronted by a company named World Travel), Drake has a London home. It’s a mews house, very 1960s, very trendy, but with a nod to the 'clubland heroes' of the '30s. John Steed lived in a mews, as did The Saint. It’s bachelor-sized accommodation, fashionably modern, architecturally traditional. But this London underpinning is quite minimal. Most of Drake's adventures are in studio recreations of faraway places.

All of that, I would suggest, can be brought forward to the modern day with a very light hand. Drake’s character calls for little interference beyond fidelity to the concept and good casting. Start with Damian Lewis and work your way down.

Drake needs to be classless but classy, a Brit for whom a well-cut suit is natural wear and not an affectation, and who can switch on the accent to become any of the American characters that he’ll play when undercover. Because although John Drake’s roots were deep in British spy tradition, Danger Man the show calls for American style and pacing. That’s what Lew Grade and Ralph Smart aimed for with the original. What we’d be doing is picking it up from the Elstree backlot and placing it in the home it always dreamed of.

So what would new Danger Man look like?

Drake remains a British citizen, troubleshooting global security matters and getting his orders via the London office of an international organization. Which could still be NATO, which since 9/11 has (in reality) expanded its membership and operates a 'whoever attacks one of us, attacks all' policy. While he reports to London and occasionally touches base there, that's not a big part of the show. My perception is that for the network audience, a UK element would add spice to the mix (see the Season 4 opener of Bones) but too much would work against us. So we mostly see Drake working with American agencies or, when alone, with American citizens or interests. I think that one of the reasons why audiences failed to warm to The Philanthropist was that the overseas settings made them feel too remote from familiar culture. When the network audience travels, they want to feel at home when they get there.

In shows like Alias and Heroes we’re far more adept at recreating exotic places on the backlot than we used to be. But I’d say the first production move would be a block of shooting on the streets of modern London with our lead and his basic wardrobe, to build up a library of establishing and linking material for use in future episodes.

In our pilot I would introduce Drake undercover as an American, then have him drop back to his British accent (to the surprise of other characters) in those moments when he’s not pretending to be someone else.

The one big element that we no longer have access to is the Cold War. Or do we? We’ve got Putin in power, and we’ve just seen a major spy swap, so maybe it’s not quite the outdated trope that we all imagined.

What we do have is a world where silent espionage has been replaced by the threat of public violence. Now, one of the things about the original Danger Man was its comparatively realist tendencies. Its villains didn’t live in volcanoes. Drake did not single-handedly avert threats that we know would be dealt with by entire organisations. But what we have is a fragmentation of the world into factions with their own specific grievances, their own specific networks, and their own particular objectives. We have diplomatic crises where things go wrong and require quiet repair. We have high public figures who misbehave, and those who would seek to exploit their resulting vulnerability. There will always be stuff that needs quietly sorting out.
Well, that was it. I didn't get very far with Man in a Suitcase, either. As with Danger Man, whether that reboot could succeed without its magnetic, famously difficult leading man (Richard Bradford) remains to be seen.

You can find my earlier post and thoughts on Man in a Suitcase here.

Showreels


Directed by


Written by

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Quatermass Restoration

I just took delivery of Network's meticulously restored Blu-Ray of the 1979 Euston Films production known variously as Quatermass, Quatermass IV, or The Quatermass Conclusion. I'm a long-time Kneale and Quatermass fan, and Network's track record with this kind of material is exemplary. But all the same I'd been dragging my feet until a correspondence with restoration producer Mark Stanborough nudged me over the edge.

No excuses, I know, but I suspect that its hippie-themed 'fear of the young' element put me off at age 24. Some years down the line, it doesn't seem quite so personal. And I should add that my viewing of the original broadcast in 1979 was delayed and then compromised by a nationwide strike across the ITV network (and a bit of mea culpa here; I was an Assistant Controller in Granada's Pres Department at the time, and one of the sans culottes marching out of the gates).

Unusually for 70s British TV the production was shot on 35mm, with a four-part version made for broadcast along with a feature-length theatrical release. The restoration utilises original negative and source elements, and is superb. For the money you get both versions in high definition. Recommended.

For the celluloid geeks among us, Mark has kindly given me permission to post his account of the technical work involved in putting it all together.

Quatermass Revived
Picture Element History

Written by Nigel Kneale with dual purpose in mind (four-part television series and theatrical feature film), the original 35mm cut negative for the four episode ‘Quatermass’ series was photo-chemically duplicated to a 35mm intermediate positive (IP) before being re-cut into the 106 minute feature film: ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’. The trimmed negative cuts from the series have long since disappeared meaning the IP is the earliest generation remaining. When remastering the series, as much of the original negative as possible was utilized from the feature version in the episodic versions but where scenes were missing or re-cut to a shorter length, the IP was used to fill in. Episode three featured very little in the theatrical version so had the least original negative material available. Fortunately, the IP has aged fairly well meaning there isn’t a big difference between the elements.

Version Differences

In condensing the plot, there are a number of changes from the series to the film – most are minor but the sub-plot of the underground elderly commune was completely excised from the feature version. This also meant that alternative scenes were shot for the feature version with both Annie and Quatermass at the hospital (in the series it’s just Annie) but this was the only major editorial change.

Restoration

The film elements were cleaned and then scanned on an ARRI scanner at 2K resolution before being conformed to a picture guide. The restoration involved processing to match the different grain structures of negative and IP, before image stabilizing and fixing any movement at splices, evening out any density fluctuations and despotting the image, removing literally thousands of instances of dirt. The series and feature were both colour graded so that they have the same look, and careful matching of the different picture elements mean the image is consistent throughout. One of the most challenging issues occurs in episode four when the sky turns ‘sick’ (green) – by digitally amending some of the backgrounds, it made it possible to key the hue of the sky to a more even green colour than was possible when the programmes were originally produced.

Main and End Titles

Each episode’s titles and part break colours are different, changing from red in the first episode through purple in the second, blue in the third and finally green in the last installment. Scanning from film elements allowed the true range of the colours to be graded properly so they now look clear and vibrant. For the feature main title, the text is over the opening scenes from episode one and, as the footage was a dupe optical in the feature negative (so further generations away and a softer image), the titles were re-created using the far sharper IP sequence as backgrounds. Both episode four and the feature version end with the shots of the girls playing in the meadow and, again, the titles were faithfully recreated using negative textless backgrounds.

Aspect Ratio

The four-part series has been mastered in the original 1.33:1 TV ratio. As the theatrical version would probably have been projected either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1, the feature has been transferred inbetween at 1.78:1 to fully fill the widescreen frame (with some individual shot adjustment for headroom, something not possible when the feature was produced).

Audio Salvage

The master sound material was triple 35mm magnetics comprising separate dialogue, music and effects tracks. Unfortunately, either due to storage conditions, temperature or stock, these audio tracks had badly deteriorated, shedding so that each reel was covered in magnetic dust. By careful hand cleaning, transfer and re-transfer (when inevitably the heads clogged), the triple audio was fortunately rescued. Once onto a digital format, the three streams of audio were individually restored and then combined to create a new mono final mix. This also means that each of the separate triple tracks can be mixed to a 5.1 surround for the release.

Restoration Commissioned By Network Distributing Limited
Restoration Producer: Mark Stanborough
Transfer Facility: RR Media, Acton
Colourist: Ray King
Picture Restoration: Anthony Badger
Audio Restoration: Nitin Negandhi

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Atticus Syndrome

The village of Haworth, Yorkshire home of the Bronte sisters, has pretty much turned itself into a living museum. In fact the parsonage where they grew up is an actual museum, preserved in period, looking across headstones to the church at the top of the town. If you squint and ignore the tourists you can picture the steep cobbled main street as it once must have been. The pharmacy where Branwell bought his laudanum will sell you fancy soap.

It's buzzing now, but it must have been pretty grim back in the day. The drinking water supply ran through the graveyard, I'm told.


About three miles out and across the moor stands the ruin of Top Withens, a farmhouse said, with little in the way of any hard evidence, to have been Emily Bronte's inspiration for the Earnshaw farm named Wuthering Heights.

Last weekend we set out for the museum, but with better-than-expected weather we changed plans and struck out from Cemetery Lane and across the moors instead (see picture above for what 'better than expected weather' means for Yorkshire). In the footsteps of Heathcliff, here was our approach:


And once there, you find this:


I'm a sucker for a real-world place that's tied to an act of the imagination, whether it's a literary association or a movie location. I've stood in the cellar of the house in which Poe wrote The Black Cat. Sought out the Batcave in Bronson Canyon. Ordered buffalo steak in the Wyoming hotel where Owen Wister worked on The Virginian. Visited the castle at Elsinore, which is more than Shakespeare ever did.

"The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described."  And you know what? I hardly care. Actually, no, I don't care at all, because I know the difference between inspiration and reportage. What a locale gives you is an insight into the experience of the author, whose purpose is that of the tale. Who is free to pick out this element from here, and that from there, and add a memory or a fantasy or two, and resite the whole shebang on the moon if it suits her driving purpose.

I found myself thinking of the responses to Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman in which readers declared themselves shocked and upset to find that their beloved Atticus Finch was 'exposed' as a racist. As if Lee were a biographer; as if the novel were not a shelved tryout for a radically different version of the final character.

It shouldn't be breaking news that writers make this stuff up, organising the steps to move toward some distant goal that exists only as a vague sense of certainty. If we're lucky the finished product will contain at least a grain of the truth we were trying to define. In a perfect world we'd nail it completely and then have nothing further to say, ever. That never happens, by the way - unless, perhaps, you're Harper Lee.

For my part, I'm looking forward to the next novel in the Atticus Finch trilogy. I guess Lee's lawyer hasn't quite finished finding it yet.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

An Award

OK, so you can't read it in the picture, but that's definitely my name on the shiny plate at the bottom. Just take my word for it, okay?

The SOFFIA represents the recognition given by the Society of Fantastic Films to creators and performers with a body of work in the genre. They've been presented over the past twenty-something years at the annual Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester.

Both the Society and the Festival grew out of the activities and enthusiasm of the Salford-based Delta SF Group. In addition to screening old favourites and lost classics, the Festivals offered an astonishing range of appearances and onstage interviews from personalities whose work we all grew up with, many of whom believed themselves forgotten.

In an obituary for the society's 'binding force and dynamo' Harry Nadler I wrote:
The ethos of the Festival of Fantastic Films is rooted in the Universal and Hammer horrors, the Republic Serials, Ray Harryhausen movies, anything you might ever have seen in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the Standard 8 one-reelers from Castle Films, B-movies of all kinds and from all nations, all coupled with a love of celluloid showmanship and the will to salute the surviving artists. 
Stephen Laws and I were regulars for many of those years, handling interviews and MC duties, filling in when necessary, and sometimes having to give reassurance to nervous talent convinced that they had nothing of interest to offer the waiting audience. After their reception, of course, it was always a different matter.

Amazing times. Ray Harryhausen. Brian Clemens. Val Guest. Jimmy Sangster. Janina Faye. Martine Beswick. Barbara Shelley. Francis Matthews. Mel Welles. Forry Ackerman. Richard Gordon. Andrew Keir. John Landis. Tony Tenser. Freddie Francis. Hazel Court. The list goes on.

The award was revamped at least three times, as moulds wore out and new maquettes had to be sculpted. But each version was based on the same design, the classic Maria robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Lang would surely have been a star guest, had he not been so inconveniently deceased).

Laws and I would watch with wistful envy as the statuettes left our hands, time after time. Little did we know that, just prior to his sudden and fatal heart attack, Harry had begun arrangements to acknowledge our own contribution. It's taken a while for everyone to catch up but a few weeks ago I got a phone call, and now I have this.

I couldn't post about it sooner because I was also given the job of presenting Laws with his own award, and to ensure it would be a surprise. Which I was able to manage last weekend, when we met up in Scarborough to look over the location of this year's British Fantasycon.

Steve continued to attend the Manchester Festivals while I relocated to the US for a while. He worked harder, fielded the tougher interviews, and is far more deserving of this than I.

But I've got one too, and I'm not giving it back.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Stan Lee's Lucky Man, Episode 7

This week's Radio Times entry for my episode of Stan Lee's Lucky Man, airing tonight:
Nobody would argue this series was out of the top drama drawer, but when it gets a head of steam up it’s got something. For whatever reason, the plot about a London detective (James Nesbitt) and his pursuit of shadowy high-level criminals has started to liven up and this episode is the best so far.

Harry is on the trail of the mysterious Golding, a man whose name has cropped up in about four different subplots, but we still don’t know who he is… Harry and his excellent DS draw closer as they look into young conmen who target rich foreign students with a sort of reverse honey-trap. But be warned: the opening scene with a tasering-gone-wrong is quite nasty.
Working on this series was a tricky back-and-forth tennis job, servicing the running subplots while maintaining the spine of an original story. But I'm happy with the way it all locked together in the end.

The opening stunt was based on a theoretical possibility explored in a published science paper. I've since learned that despite this warning it's happened for real, and more than once. So... apologies in advance for any distress that may be caused.

That apart, enjoy the show.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Every Day, It's a-Gettin Closer


We now have a publication date of September 30th, 2016

Monday, 22 February 2016

Ghost Train News

From Kim Newman:
Just a friendly heads-up that, following the sold-out run of The Hallowe’en Sessions in 2012, we’ve put together a new horror anthology play which will run for two weeks in March. We hope you’ll come along and be terrified.

The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore will run at the Tristan Bates Theatre from the 7th to the 19th of March.  Our hostess is Jenny Runacre (Jubilee, The Final Programme, The Passenger, The Canterbury Tales, The Duellists, Husbands, The Creeping Flesh, Brideshead Revisited, etc) and our monsters are Claire Louise Amias as the Vampire, Jamie Birkett as the Broken Doll, Billy Clarke as the Frankenstein Monster, Jonathan Rigby as the Devil and James Swanton as the Ghost, with Grace Ker as the Ticket Inspector.

The play is written by Christopher Fowler (the Bryant and May books, Hell Train), Stephen Gallagher (Valley of Lights, The Bedlam Detective), Sean Hogan (The Devil’s Business), Kim Newman (Anno Dracula, The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School), Lynda E. Rucker (The Moon Will Look Strange), Robert Shearman (Doctor Who, Remember Why You Fear Me), and Lisa Tuttle (The Silver Bough, The Mysteries).  It’s a Bad Bat Production, produced by Ellen Gallagher and Steve Jordan.

The lovely poster is by Graham Humphreys*.

Most importantly, if you haven’t done so already, Book your tickets here.
*I believe that a limited number of the posters may be on sale at the venue, but don't quote me on that just yet. SG

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.