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Thursday 30 August 2007

Future Proof

It's not quite as bad as the days when companies were destroying assets to save themselves tape and space, but a certain short-termism still dogs the business.

Richard Mitchell, who composes music for film and TV, told me, "A dubbing mixer recently explained that the UK TV industry has dug itself a hole which the Americans anticipated many moons ago... most of the decent drama that we produce is still not mixed in 5.1. This probably means that in a year or two, major TV buyers will use this as an excuse to disregard most of our back catalogue!"

(5.1 being Dolby 5.1, the multichannel stereo sound configuration you'll find on most of your DVDs and computer games)

I've known Richard for some time. In the sleeve notes of his soundtrack album for The Bridge, he included the following quotation from Albert Camus:

"I know with certainty that a man's work is nothing but the long journey to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart."

See if that sticks with you, the way it's stuck with me.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Ian Richardson

"An actor of astonishing power and magisterial presence on stage and screen; away from it, a humble, engaging, and truly likeable person. For any writer, it was an honour just to hear him speak one's words."

Lines that I wrote for my website on hearing of the actor's unexpected death earlier this year, and I make no apology for taking the opportunity to expand on them now.

My first meeting with Ian Richardson was at the Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in March of 2001. It's an imposing building in the middle of a block close to the Shaftesbury Theatre. BBC Films had taken one of the upstairs rooms for the table read of my Murder Rooms episode; not exactly a rehearsal, but a readthrough of the material and an opportunity for everyone to meet the people they'll be working with for the next few weeks. For the writer, a readthrough has an extra father-of-the-bride kind of significance, because it's the moment when the script moves out of your hands and into the hands of others.

(In theory, at least. In practice you tend to get sent away with a notebook filled with last-minute changes to implement.)

Murder Rooms was a series of feature-length films for television. The series was created by David Pirie, essentially a continuation from a one-off drama that he'd written around the relationship between the young Arthur Conan Doyle and his Edinburgh teacher and mentor, Joseph Bell. I thought it was an exceptional series idea in classic BBC style, and I was happy to be on board. The concept was a blend of fact, fiction and metafiction - Bell wasn't Sherlock Holmes but had provided Doyle with some elements for his fictional creation, and now here was the fictional Bell, playing a Holmesian role.

I always look forward to readthroughs. There are few happier sights than an actor with a job, and at a readthrough you get a room full of them. And if you're really lucky, there's cake. This time around, though, I was slightly nervous. Ian Richardson was playing the role of Joseph Bell and was a big name in anybody's book - an old-school, highly-regarded professional who would, I can imagine, have been equally at home on a bill with Henry Irving or Beerbohm Tree as on a modern film set. I'd first been impressed by the offhanded authority of his Bill Haydon in Arthur Hopcraft's adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; the air of dignity and acceptance with which he dabbed blood from his nose after a rough interrogation struck me as an acting masterclass all in itself.

I suppose that what I'm saying is, I felt a bit excited and a bit intimidated.

I needn't have worried. He arrived without ceremony, and demanded no special attention. The most magnetic actor on the screen was the most diffident man in the room. During a break I went over and introduced myself. Usually at this point I'd thank a performer for taking on a role, but in this case he wasn't joining my project - I was joining his. Dave Pirie had created a winning format and Charlie Edwards was a dashing Conan Doyle, but Ian's was the name and the presence that gave our show its stature and credibility.

In this case I think I just babbled a bit. I introduced my daughter, who had a small part as a circus girl with a line and a song; Ian's son Miles, who was busy with RSC duties and hadn't been able to make the readthrough, would be opening our film as the explorer Everard Im Thurn. I mentioned a short documentary I'd recently seen on BBC3, in which Ian took a walk up Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh and reminisced about his youth in the city. "Oh, that thing," he said. "I've no idea why, but they do keep showing it."

The next time we met was on location at the old American University in Bushey, a complex of redbrick buildings that's been used in movies from Lucky Jim to Harry Potter. The frontage was our Southsea museum, the yards around the back housed our wintering circus troupe, and inside the dining hall the art department had erected a fairground marquee for interior cover. This time Ian was mostly in character and in costume, and cut a genuinely commanding figure. He'd played Sherlock Holmes onscreen, but his Joseph Bell was a distinctly different creation; sharp and intelligent, but with a warmth unique to the character.

As we talked between setups, I realised that his research for the part went way beyond the page. He lent me a book on Bell, which I read and returned, and some photocopies of his research which I was to keep for future reference. None of us doubted that this was a series of continuing potential.

The film, directed with grace and precision by Simon Langton and with a marvellous turn by John Sessions as Bell's colleague William Rutherford, gave me more of a sense of satisfaction than almost anything else in my CV. The series as a whole was a success with both the critics and the audience.

So naturally, it was cancelled. A second set of stories was planned, but the plug was pulled before they were commissioned.

But hey. I got to meet Ian Richardson.

Monday 27 August 2007

The Joys of Research

From the front page of a microfilmed 1903 newspaper in the Historic New Orleans Collection... not exactly the reason I was there, but too good to ignore.

Saturday 25 August 2007

More Bones from the Kingdom

Tastes vary. I can remember going to see an afternoon show of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks with a group of friends and realising that, out of all the fellow-cheapskates and pensioners who made up the rest of the meagre discount-ticket audience, we were the only ones laughing. Looking around and seeing all those stony faces and folded arms in the light reflected from the screen... well, it was like we'd just pissed-off some visiting Cossack dance troupe.

Which thought is my excuse to introduce the following Kirkus Review:

Gallagher, Stephen/THE KINGDOM OF BONES
In this moody, gripping period thriller, the shadowy world of the undead sucks in a beautiful actress and the man who would give his life to save hers.

Forgive me for skipping the next bit because the reviewer then goes on to synopsise the plot in detail, albeit with far more elegance and compression than I could ever accomplish... before summing up with

Dark but splendid entertainment.

Now, that's a review to die for and I couldn't be happier with it. Kirkus Reviews are, in the words of one publisher, "notoriously critical". So it's not an issue when I say that there's one word in there that made me pause and see my own work in a different light:

Dark but splendid entertainment.

Note that 'but'. It's a reminder that not everybody likes 'dark'.
I'm thinking of the time when a neighbour asked me to give a talk to a meeting of her Young Wives and Mothers Group. Not quite as down, boy! it sounds... these young wives and mothers had all got together when their children were babies and had been meeting for about thirty years.

I went along and did the whole what-I-do and how-I-broke-in routine, and ended by retelling the story from one of my novels... I think it could have been Valley of Lights, which most people seem to find racy and spooky and pretty much the escapist fare it was meant to be.

I looked around about midway through, and noticed to my surprise that one or two of the Young Wives had gone a bit pale. One was fanning herself as if feeling faint. And I thought, Ooh. Result.

Now, I understand that the young Lord Byron had a similar effect on his female audiences but, much as I'd like to kid myself, I don't think the sweatshirt and bad '80s mullet (which I stuck with waaaay too far into the '90s) put me quite in the same league.

In this case it was simply that the tale I was giving them - not telling it, just telling about it - was over on the other side of a line that some people never think to cross. When they do cross it, by accident or by finding it unexpectedly in some more familiar style of narrative, the inherent thrill is there. But it's raw to them.

Either that, or I need to think seriously about regrowing the mullet.

The Kingdom of Bones is published in the US in September, but the hardcover's available to UK buyers through Amazon - the price yo-yos a bit with the exchange rate but currently hovers around eleven quid and is eligible for free delivery.

Go on. Christmas is coming. Chills'n'thrills. Perfect present.

Because we're all out of Piano Players

Did you hear the story about the British director Mike Figgis? He arrived at Los Angeles airport on his way to take up a TV job for Fox/Sony. When asked the purpose of his visit, he supposedly said, "I'm here to shoot a pilot."

As the story goes, it then took him five hours to clear security.

Sad to report, it's not entirely true... Figgis mentioned in an interview that the phrase and its possible consequences had crossed his mind, but what he actually said was something uncontroversial and he walked straight on through.

Didn't stop The Observer reporting it as fact, though.

Tuesday 21 August 2007

Only in France

I went onto Amazon's French site to source a link for the DVD of Bertrand Tavernier's brilliant police thriller L.627 for inclusion in a forthcoming post, and here's one of the books that came up amongst the site's featured home-page recommendations.

No, it wasn't a recommendation based on my past purchases. I wasn't even logged in. And yes, it's a product that does exactly what it says on the tin... of the author we read, "En tant qu'actrice, Coralie Trinh Thi a tourné une soixantaine de films pornographiques, ainsi que longs et courts métrages."

So she probably knows what she's talking about. My French isn't so great these days but I imagine that her writing has something in common with that of Ernest Hemingway. Given that Hemingway never wore underpants and preferred to stand while typing.

The first sight of that Stephen Cartwright-style artwork made me think I was looking at The Usborne Book of Sodomy.There's a whole series of them, but I'm afraid you're going to have to explore it on your own.

Saturday 18 August 2007

The Kingdom of Bones: the first review

From the current issue of Publishers Weekly:

The Kingdom of Bones
Stephen Gallagher. Crown/Shaye Areheart, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-307-38280-1

Set mainly in late 19th-century England, Gallagher's ingenious horror thriller revolves around the extraordinary life—and death—of Tom Sayers, a real-life bare-knuckle fighter who, after retiring, briefly traveled the country staging reenactments of his most memorable bouts. While working as a manager for a touring theatrical company, Sayers falls in love with the troupe's leading lady, 22-year-old Louise Porter, who unfortunately doesn't share his feelings. Sayers also becomes the prime suspect in a series of mutilation murders and, while barely evading arrest, embarks on a quest to save Porter, who's become hopelessly entangled in an all-too-real occult legend. Bram Stoker and Aleister Crowley play minor roles. Combining the meticulous historical detail of Caleb Carr's The Alienist with gothic mysticism and Christian mythology, Gallagher (The Painted Bride) delivers a nicely macabre blend of fact and fiction.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Birt Acres, Pioneer of the Cinema

I'm doing some story research (well, that's what I call the hours spent wilfing around the internet) into the early cinema pioneers. One of them is American-born British resident Birt Acres. Acres was an engineer, photographer, designer of the Birtac amateur camera, and plenty more besides.

I was immediately put in mind of Alan Burt Akers, the pseudonym used by Ken Bulmer for his series of Dray Prescott novels, and then intrigued when I heard that Birt Acres' grandson and biographer was one Alan Birt Acres.

I'm now wondering if there was a reason/connection behind Bulmer's choice of pen name. Ken's no longer with us, alas, and Google's found me nothing.

Bad Google. No biscuit.

At Least it's not the Show's Fault

"Idol: The Musical" shuts down after just one performance
The producer of the Off-Broadway production, which opened on Sunday night, blamed a lack of advance ticket sales, a lack of positive feedback from audience members and critics and a lack of sustainable financial resources.

See? It's never the obvious reason.

(Source: TVTattle).

Monday 13 August 2007


Detailed storyboarding was already a common practice when Francis Ford Coppola made ONE FROM THE HEART, but he moved it forward with a controversial experiment in which he taped rehearsals and put together a complete video assembly of scenes and angles that he then used as a guide throughout principal photography. As a scene was shot, he'd drop it in; gradually all the taped rehearsal scenes (which were shot without lighting, costumes or sets, and even in some cases with stand-ins for the
cast) were replaced by filmed sequences until only the proper stuff remained.

It was a troubled shoot, way over budget, and things got worse when someone (to Coppola's great dismay) screened the half-and-half assembly for executives who thought they were seeing the finished thing and panicked. Cast and crew hated the system, and the digital technology wasn't yet sufficiently developed to become the editing tool that Coppola wanted it to be.

But something of his approach survives in the present-day blockbuster practice of previsualising entire sequences in the form of animatics, which are mostly-rendered 3D animations cut together and followed closely in the actual shooting by director and CGI teams to ensure that everything gets covered and everything fits together. Sometimes you get to see these as DVD extras; I'm too lazy to check, but I'm pretty sure there are some examples on the first X-MEN disc.

Friday 10 August 2007

T*ts, Bangs, and Tenure

I've a friend who's a psychology PhD, struggling to establish herself on the academic ladder. She's been told that in order to keep her job she has to get two papers published in a recognised journal.

I'd always thought that publication in learned journals was a way for academics add to their income. Not so, apparently. Not only does the author have to submit, rewrite, and resubmit until the required standard is reached. The author also pays for publication.

A couple of weeks ago I had to go through the process of buying a couple of academic articles online (neither of which turned out to be worth the money, but that's another story). What I saw along the way confirmed this. On the guidelines page of one medical/academic publisher I read of how the author can pay their normal fee, for which the publisher will sell the article to readers in the normal way, or a hefty multiple of it, for which they'll make the article available to others without charge.

The advantage to the author being, presumably, that wider distribution can lead to more citations and consequent professional enhancement.

Citation seems to be the name of the game, here. Neither of the articles I bought turned out to contain much of use, beyond what was already suggested in the abstract. For a working writer looking for insight, detail and some actual information, they were a waste of money.

I suppose the abstract served the same function as a Roger Corman trailer. As a producer friend once put it, "All the tits and bangs, and then there's no need to see the movie."

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Patterson's Elves

THE TIMES of London ran a piece on the working methods of novelist James Patterson, showing that his high-turnover fiction output is largely a result of his farming out the production work to hired-gun collaborators.

Patterson is renowned for his "golden gut", an instinct for what will and won't work in a story. When (Maxine) Paetro receives the final outline, conceived by Patterson and worked on by her, she fleshes it out into a manuscript, which will become a 400-page book, and hands it over to him. "And it's his book," she says. "He runs with it from there, although he won't usually make big changes."

In one sense, Patterson is living every writer's dream - to have the thoughts but somehow dodge the slog of realising them. But most writers will concede that, however inconveniently, it's in the slog of the realising that much of the real writing takes place.

BLADE RUNNER: the Toddler's Lunchbox Edition

A while back I saw an ad from someone offering the old laserdisc release of BLADE RUNNER for sale, calling it BLADE RUNNER: ORIGINAL VERSION, and describing it thus:

"This is the original version of BLADE RUNNER before Ridley Scott f'd it up. This one has the voiceover and no cheesy dream sequence. Ltbx and beautiful."

(Apparently Ltbx means letterboxed. I had to Google it.)

The new 5-disc set feels like massive overkill but there is some stuff in there I'd be interested to see. I really don't need the suitcase, the lenticular animated film sequence, the origami unicorn, the 'original signed letter' or even the model spinner (although I suppose I could always stage a ground-to-air 'battle of the DVDs' with Robby from my FORBIDDEN PLANET tin). I don't care about the 'original theatrical version', which struck me as visibly compromised even when I first saw it, so I'm hardly interested in seeing that again plus a barely-different European cut of the same.

I am interested in seeing the workprint with Paul Sammon's informed commentary, not so much as yet another version but more as an extension of the documentary. Although I see from the Amazon description that only the toddler's lunchbox edition will contain it! As for the film itself... much as I felt that the '92 Director's Cut bore the signs of a repair job, I'm wary of this new, worked-over 'final cut'. When you go back to old work, you go back as a different person. Even if you return to execute a plan you made back then, your handwriting won't be the same.

What frustrates me is that there's no actual movie called BLADE RUNNER; instead there's this soup of movies in which nothing's quite precise or decided or entirely meant. I know that nothing's perfect and nothing's completely perfectible, but there's a moment in the creation of any piece of art where it best represents the mindset that drives it.

Whenever that moment might be, it surely isn't 25 years after the event. That's an older artist coming in and fixing the younger artist's work. Like doing something and then having your dad come in and insist on 'doing it properly' - I mean, come on, that's not how you make rock'n'roll. But at least I'm glad to see the voiceover and the copout ending fixed.

Conversely, I'm still p'd-off at Spielberg for going back and messing up CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. That wasn't fixing, it was fiddling. The new work slowed down the middle, and the added effects sequence at the end can never match what we knew to be inside the mothership. It was the visual equivalent of adding sound to Bill Murray's crucial unheard line in LOST IN TRANSLATION.

Maybe there's someone out there offering CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: ORIGINAL VERSION..?

Spoilers? Really?

The networks seem pretty sanguine about the online appearance of the two opening episodes of DEXTER's second season along with the pilots for several as-yet unaired series, leading some people to speculate that they were let out on purpose.

Next season, why not go for it for real? Get a sponsor to underwrite the show in return for an on-screen corner graphic in the place where the broadcaster's logo would go. At a stroke, an act of piracy becomes a new revenue stream. Every time a file gets shared or a disc gets copied or passed around among friends, the ad that pays for it goes right along with it.

Yes, I know those graphics are obnoxious intrusions. But it's either that or DRM.

Spoilers now follow...


I've been given a disc with the leaked preview of THE BIONIC WOMAN (or are they just calling it BIONIC WOMAN? There were no credits or captions in the print) and I'd rate it as 'more or less competent' - the kind of show you watch until the end and only then get the full sense that your time hasn't been well-used. It's no GALACTICA, that's for sure, although a few of that show's regulars pass through.

In essence, the parts that are interesting aren't original and the parts that are original aren't interesting. It takes far less from its progenitor than it does from BLADE RUNNER, from which it lifts wholesale and without a trace of shame. Instead of runaway replicants with creator issues we have runaway semi-androids with creator issues. Katee Sackhoff starts off in the Darryl Hannah role, then upgrades into the Rutger Hauer role for the show finale... which is a bionic sockfest on a city rooftop in the pouring rain, complete with a hanging from-the-eaves moment!

As Jaime Sommers, Michelle Ryan is a pleasing presence (indie-movie-pretty rather than impossibly-TV-glamorous) but she makes little mark. That may not entirely be her fault - her character takes a passive line throughout almost the entire hour and when she does take action, there's nothing to make you buy it.

And yet... give me episode two and I'll probably watch it. Between the high concept and the stolen clothes there was enough to make me feel... I dunno. At home for a while.

(And yes, I'm told that plain BIONIC WOMAN is the title)


This proved to be a workmanlike bash-through of the material, picking up in the wake of TERMINATOR 2 and seeming to pretend that TERMINATOR 3 never happened (originally it was meant to take place in the timespan between the two, but Josh Friedman's script openly contradicts several aspects of the premise of that forgettable movie).

It starts badly, with the (for me) unforgiveable sin of kicking off with a piece of high action and then, just as the danger seems certain to overwhelm the characters, cutting to Sarah sitting bolt upright in bed and panting. It was just a dream. As a fan of Friedman's writing, I'm loath to believe that he came up with it or fought for it.

After that the story doesn't really go anywhere that you don't expect; but then, given that the point of the franchise is the extended stripped-down chase, you're getting what you came for. The threat comes from an anonymous army of craggy bodybuilders in the Arnie mould.

Plus-points are FIREFLY's Summer Glau as their robot protector - I know she ticks all the boxes for cute, but put everything together and it all adds up to weird, which keeps things kind of interesting - and pacy direction from ex-X-Filer David Nutter.

(the proper name for those screen-corner logos is a DOG, btw. It stands for Digital Onscreen Graphic)

First Test Posting

Always said I'd never start a blog. That if I did I'd risk committing career suicide on a weekly basis.

Well, goodbye, cruel world.