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Friday, 21 August 2020

Of Nightmares and Angels

Recently I saw a gratifying burst of Twitter affection directed toward Nightmare, with Angel. It was as unexpected as it was welcome. I once saw a member of an online book group refer to it as her go-to ‘comfort read’ and that was pretty unexpected, too.

If you don’t know it, Nightmare, with Angel is a trans-European novel in which ten-year-old Marianne Cadogan coerces a local man into helping in the search for her German mother. I didn’t realise it until later but the setup has echoes of Wim Wenders’ road movie Alice in den Städten, except in this case the local man has a record that renders him the least suitable person for the job. It all takes place in the Spring of 1990, within a few months of reunification.

Just before Covid put the world on hold I’d been looking to Germany again with a couple of projects, one of them a big coproduction and the other more personal, and I’d had occasion to revisit some of the novel’s settings. To research the book I’d written some letters, made a few appointments, and then slung a bag into the back of the car and headed for the Hamburg ferry. My plans took me from Hamburg to Düsseldorf and from Coburg through abandoned checkpoints into the former East. 

One of the places I was curious to see again was the town of Hirschberg, the setting for the story’s finale. Back then it had been a tannery town on the Saale, a community with schools and a Hall of Culture built around a single industry. The riverside tannery buildings were almost a city in themselves; sheds, warehouses, tall chimneys, wide cobbled yards. I’d arrived just as the workers were emerging in their numbers for the midday break.

Now the tannery’s gone and the area’s green. Just one of the buildings stands, and it’s a museum. A bit of the border’s been preserved and that’s a museum, too. Germany’s former East now shares much with my own home country, England’s North; a rich industrial heritage and a dearth of jobs. Whenever a Nightmare screen version gets mooted, as it regularly does, the question always arises; Why don’t we make this present-day? And my answer’s always the same—because I set out to nail a moment in history, and I still feel I pretty much did.

(These days the discussions are usually around a co-produced miniseries but the first option was for a feature. The American producer was pursuing Liam Neeson for Ryan O’Donnell while the German producer argued for the less well-known but well-on-his-way Daniel Craig. All was moving forward until a director came on board and had me dropped from the project, after which they couldn’t get a workable draft. I later learned that he was one of those known in the business as a ‘writer killer’; directors whose projects are never completed by the writers who started them.)

After that epic research trip I came home and wrote the book in a rented attic above a payroll company in the middle of Blackburn. It was bare boards and rafters but the landlord let me take my dog to work every day. The memories I summoned up in those rooms remain vivid; the empty solitude of Morecambe Bay, the abandoned wire and empty observation towers of the unmanned border, the yellow fields of oilseed rape that pin down the season almost to the week. A hidden city of the homeless in the derelict carriages of an old railyard. The scent of a fish soup in Saxony that I followed to its source like a cartoon character floating above the ground to a windowsill pie.

(Probably so memorable because I shed half a stone on the trip by otherwise living on bratwurst from open-air truck stops. Not a diet I’d recommend. Not a diet at all, really, so much as actual malnutrition.)

So there you go, the story behind the story of Ryan and Marianne.

Okay, it’s an unlikely comfort read. But I do know what she meant.

Alice in den Stadten

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Sentinel Case

...is the original title of my second Eleventh Hour story for the 2006 ITV series that starred Patrick Stewart and Ashley Jensen.

I've decided to add the script to my small library of downloadable PDFs because... well...

Rather than a coronavirus, the story concerns an outbreak of hemorrhagic smallpox. It was partly inspired by the last recorded smallpox death in the UK - the result of a lab escape at the University of Birmingham Medical School in 1978 - and a separate story of forgotten pathogens discovered in commercial cold storage.

My research was aided by the late Steve Connor, Science Editor of The Independent. The fun stopped there because the show as shot was not the show I wrote. So much so that I did something I've never done before or since; I walked off it.

So what you have here is the version you never saw, and not the one of which Robert May, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, wrote in the Times Educational Supplement, 'the underlying epidemiological science is melodramatically misrepresented; (eg) "In 24 hours, the virus will be on every continent"... we need watchable dramas in which the science is done well.'

A couple of years later my story was adapted by Adam Targum for the JBTV remake of the show on CBS. It can now be streamed on Amazon. You're welcome to feel differently, but it's my preferred version.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Donald Roy 1930-2020

Sad to hear that Donald Roy, founding head of Hull University's Drama Department, has died in Brighton at the age of 90. I was a Drama and English joint honours student in the mid-70s and  so many of the good things in my own life can be tracked back to that special time with that exceptional bunch of people.

Don excelled at marshalling a lineup of uniquely quirky but highly able people for his teaching staff, who between them fostered a we-can-do-anything atmosphere. When the department started, it was just Don on his own; it was only the third Drama Department of its kind in the country, but under his guidance it became the first to have its own fully-equipped teaching theatre and TV studio in The Gulbenkian Centre.

After his retirement the performance space was renamed The Donald Roy Theatre. The TV studio would later be revamped and named The Anthony Minghella Studio, for the late writer-director (and my fellow cast member in Don Roy's translation of Romain Weingarten's Akara; I was in drag as a French woman whose son was a dog, Tony was a frog who played the piano. Theatre of the Absurd. What can I say?)

The drama course was terrific, a deep dive into human history seen through the lens of performance and exploring its inextricable links with mythology, religion and social change. On top of that, the practical craft of production and the actual business behind show business. And on top of that, the very thing that people seem to think that drama students do to the exclusion of all else - a weekly session of fannying around in leotard and tights. The purpose of this, I now realise, was never to make us into actors. It was to give us an understanding of what performers do.

Which is not to say that the department didn't turn out its share of talent. When I tried to image-search for a photo of Don the screen filled with headshots of actors whose CVs all include early roles in the Donald Roy Theatre - quite the testament in itself.

So instead of Don's headshot, pictured is the performance space that bears his name.

UPDATE: With great thanks to Francesca Roy I can now add this image, said to be from an occasion when Don was presenting an honorary degree to Harold Pinter...

Monday, 25 May 2020

Tales of Dark Fantasy 3

Advance review from Publishers Weekly; book launches August 2020, available for preorder now in both a trade hardcover and a limited edition signed by all the contributors.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Friday, 28 February 2020

BAFTA omission (2)

That post from earlier this month, the one of me and the crew on the boat...

I found a few screen grabs from the film we were making. It was called Trick Shot. An over-ambitious mini-feature but my first crack at directing, made towards the end of my time working at Granada. It wasn't a Granada production, just a thing of my own involving everyone I could rope in and whatever facilities I could beg, borrow, or quietly make disappear for a while.

If you grew up in the North West, you may know some of these faces. Shot on Eastmancolor negative with processing and neg cutting at Manchester's Humphries Film Lab, now long gone. The film stock was sourced as a favour through the World in Action production office; a professional kindness in itself, and then the bill never came...

Trick Shot: Malcolm Brown, Oslo

Trick Shot: Charles Foster, Diana Mather, Salford and Manchester

 Trick Shot: Jim Pope, Stock Ghyll Force, Cumbria

They say we learn from our mistakes, and I learned a lot. But it was enormous fun, and a serious step up in my education.

(Pictured: Malcolm Brown, Charles Foster, Diana Mather, and Jim Pope. My cast, my teachers.)

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

An Englishman Abroad

...or, Fool, Interrupted. The appearance online of an interview prompts me to a long-overdue blog post about one of the highlights of my 2019. The interview's further down this post and, be warned, I do go on a bit. It was filmed by Magnus Edgarsson on the deck of a floating hotel on the Fyris River, just a short stroll from the centre of Sweden's oldest university town.  The interruptions came courtesy of distant dogs, other residents trucking through, a passing ambulance, and a far-off football match where things seemed to be going well for one side or the other.

I was in Uppsala at the invitation of The English Bookshop along with fellow writers Juliet McKenna, Steven Savile, and R J Barker. Together we played two panels to a packed house on Saturday evening. One was on crime and the other on fantasy, with the audience switching seats around in between.

It's a terrific bookstore, a proper readers' paradise with a deep selection of new and backlist titles and tremendous support from its customer base. As a panel I felt we made a good lineup with a variety of angles and, dare I say it, what felt like a good team chemistry. On the Friday evening we were welcomed into the home of our hosts Jan and Isabella - old-style Swedish elegance and bookshelves to die for - and on the Saturday before the session we had a guided tour of the town. It has a long history but for me this comparatively recent feature resonated the most:

Saturday afternoon found us back on the boat taking our turns in front of Magnus' camera. The range of interviews can be found on his dedicated channel here, but this is mine:

On the Sunday before flying home, RJ was off signing stuff while Julia and I were given a walking tour of Stockholm by Swedish adoptee Steve Savile; all the main sights plus the bank where a siege gave rise to the term 'Stockholm Syndrome' and the stairs up which Olaf Palme's killer fled. I can't think of a better way to make a first-time visit.

Monday, 3 February 2020

BAFTA omission