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Saturday 29 December 2007

Independent Filmmaking

This readable, likeable handbook was my bible back in the 70s when its combination of practical sense and friendly encouragement meant that it served both as craft manual and comfort read.

Its user's-view of various Super 8 cameras, wind-up 16mm Bolexes and optical printing techniques may have little-to-no application in this digital age but the laid-back, know-your-tools-and-do-some-stuff aesthetic seems as relevant to me now as it ever was.

(UPDATE: There's been, so I'm told, something of a recent upsurge of interest in Super 8 as a production medium for its purely aesthetic qualities, and Lipton's book - along with its companion piece The Super 8 Book - continues to be recommended as a user's vade mecum.)

More so, if anything. I'm in the midst of a screener-viewing frenzy as this year's BAFTA voting deadline approaches, and there's a low-budget Irish musical shot on the streets of Dublin with a handheld DV camera that's outclassing all the Hollywood blockbusters for heart and originality. It's called Once. I heard somewhere that the budget was £150,000, or it might even have been Euros. Which, in mogul-speak, is "chump change".

Lenny Lipton, of course, was also the co-author of PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

The Second-Marriage Wedding Present on the Other Side of the World

One of my closest friends lives in New Orleans. We've managed to get together no more than half a dozen times in the thirty years since we met, but that's how some friendships can be. First we kept in touch with long letters, the occasional phone call, and the the annual exchange of bizarre Christmas gifts between our families. Well, I say bizarre. But I imagine they'd think the voodoo kit they sent us to be unremarkable, while finding our Chorley Cakes quite exotic.

Later on we switched to email. The distance was no less and the messages tended to be shorter, but now our news flew back and forth in something like real time.

So we were able to cheer him through his midlife career change and share the joy of his daughter's Bat Mitzvah. We could sympathise during the bruising divorce in which he discovered all the disadvantages of having married a lawyer.

And when someone new came into his life and he hesitated because his faith in happy endings had been shaken, there was someone standing outside the situation who could urge him to stop hesitating and go for it.

Then came the problem. The Second-Marriage Wedding Present on the Other Side of the World.

It's not something you can really mark with a tin of Kendal Mint Cake but in all honesty, what can you do? Pedal bins and bedlinen are poor candidates for sending by air mail, and I don't think there's anywhere that you can use Debenhams vouchers in Louisiana. And, besides... they'd got that stuff already.

It took three weeks of racking my brains. I think the lowest point came when I wondered how much it would cost to name an asteroid after the happy couple.

Then I got it. A proper, practical, traditional wedding present. A useful object for a happy home.

A bread knife.

I know, you're thinking, That's it? A bread knife? Three weeks of sustained mental effort and that's what he came up with? But hear me out and remember, the chances are you'll face this problem yourself someday. And on that day, you may well thank me.

Firstly, not just a bread knife, but a bread knife. Balanced in the hand, fine tempered steel, shockingly expensive... not just some tat off the local market but something akin to a sword forged by a fallen samurai master tempted out of retirement to make the most exceptional weapon of his career.

A good one, in other words. It slid neatly into a poster tube for mailing purposes, and with it went the following note of explanation.
Dear friends,

OK, so you've looked at this and it seems like an odd choice for a wedding gift. But at least hear out my logic...

1. When kids marry they need absolutely everything useful, from eggcups up.
2. But when grownups marry and merge households they end up with TWO of everything useful.
3. So people buy them ornamental stuff, which they have to hide and then remember to get out and put on display when the donor comes to visit.
4. Unless the gift was money or booze, which both disappear in due course.
5. But only parents and elders can do the money thing.
6. And booze doesn't airmail well.
7. But everybody needs a bread knife. Even vegetarians and vegans.
8. A good bread knife is significantly better at its job than an ordinary bread knife.
9. Everybody buying for themselves buys an ordinary bread knife.
10. Even if you end up with more than one good bread knife, a busy kitchen can easily make use of two.
11. If you wind up with more than two, just keep it in the packaging and the next time a wedding amongst friends or family comes up...
12. Well, when kids marry they need everything useful.

But please bear in mind that if one of you uses it to kill the other, then that would be a VERY BAD END to this story.

Saturday 22 December 2007

The Christmas of Bones

And Season's Greetings to all.

Friday 21 December 2007

All Your Past Are Belong to eBay (2)

I undertook to say something about this, so I suppose I'd better...

It's the Adventures of Robin Hood annual, published by Adprint in 1961 and based on the Richard Greene TV series. It was a typical children's annual of its era; a yearly one-off publication for the Christmas market, in large format with shiny board covers, containing a mixture of text and picture stories.

The cover and interior art were by Ron Embleton, one of that great and often unrecognised generation of postwar illustrators whose distinctive, painted style gave a unique character to British children's fiction of the day. Embleton, who died in 1988, was one of the best of them; his work ranged from The Trigan Empire to Penthouse's Wicked Wanda, and it's his art that can be seen under the end credits of every episode of the original Captain Scarlet TV series.

The story's a short one. Last year I was searching online for a signed Ray Harryhausen print for a friend's birthday. A damn-near fatal move. Hours were lost as I kept forgetting my original purpose and losing myself in the catalogue listings of dealers like The Book Palace, sellers of all things concerning comics, graphic novels and the related arts.

And what did I find on sale there but the original Ron Embleton painting for the cover of my Adventures of Robin Hood Annual, number five.

Now, I don't believe in the business of people buying themselves some piece of goods and then informing a partner "That's my Christmas present from you." If ever there was an ultimate corruption of the Christmas spirit, there it is. So instead I did the proper, traditional thing, and begged and pestered for it.

I don't know where the piece has been hiding for the past forty-seven years, but here's where it lives now, above my study stairs, providing occasional inspiration and frequent escape:

And yes, I located the Harryhausen print as well, so that year everyone was happy.

God bless us, every one.

Thursday 20 December 2007

Tony Tenser

I'm late catching up with the news, but British film producer and distributor Tony Tenser died on December 5th.

I interviewed Tenser onstage twice at Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films, and considered it a privilege to be given the opportunity.

Some obits that I've seen are characterising him as a producer of nudie exploitation pix with a couple of redeeming titles to his credit. But to my mind the producer of Repulsion, Cul de Sac, The Sorcerers, and Witchfinder General has nothing to apologise for.

Here's a thought for you; our contemporary art of the most lasting value is made when low culture reaches up. Never when high culture condescends to reach down.

My favourite story from those interviews came from the set of Repulsion. Polanski was shooting the scene in which Catherine Deneuve is menaced by disembodied arms that erupt from the walls of a narrow corridor. He'd stipulated a certain number of extras to provide the arms, and had been supplied with less. Tenser asked him to justify the number he'd asked for, and Polanski walked off the set.

A runner was sent after him with the message:

"If Mr Polanski does not return and shoot the scene with the available extras, Mr Tenser will be obliged to bring in his associate Mr Harrison Marks to complete the film."

and Polanski was back on the runner's heels.

That's how Tenser told it. And if anyone was there and knows different, I don't want to hear.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

For All Your Academic Needs

The Alabama Pacific University Online. Accredited by the NAAUCU. "Members of the NAAUCU are institutions whose standards do not meet the overly drastic and unreasonable demands of the recognized accreditation boards."

Affiliated institutions include The Sports University of Central Kansas ("e-mail disconnected while we figure out how to teach over the internet") and The Boston Institute of Revisionist Mathematics.

The National Ninja and Bounty Hunting College of East St Louis has had its NAAUCU membership revoked pending the outcome of the trial.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Die Hard, in a Castle

When I was sixteen and 'doing' Shakespeare's Hamlet for A Level English Lit, our English teacher Roy Bateman took the class to a screening of Grigori Kosintsev's Russian-language film version of the play. It was only a scratchy 16mm print in a regional film theatre, but it blew me away.

For me it became the definitive reading of the material and I've never seen another version to touch it, before or since. If I had to say one negative thing it would be that Innokenti Smoktunovsky was maybe a tad old for the lead, but then I've never seen an actor playing Hamlet who wasn't. Everything else is perfect. And he's perfect, too. Just half a dozen years earlier and he'd have been even more perfect.

I think the film showed up once on TV, sometime in the 70s. Then they invented VHS and I watched for it in vain. Then they invented DVD and the internet and I watched and searched in vain a while longer, until I discovered the newly set-up website of RUSCICO, the Russian Film Council dedicated to the mastering and international DVD release of Russia's film heritage.

Hamlet was included in their release programme. I waited until it became available and then, with some trepidation, placed an order and gave my credit card details to Moscow.

And here's how it came:

Yes, in a brown paper package all tied up with string. So cute that I had to make a photographic record before I could bring myself to open it.

The film lived up to the memory and I still recommend it unreservedly. Amazing settings, atmosphere, black and white widescreen photography, and music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Since my little Moscow adventure it's been licensed for release in the US and can be had from Amazon.

The fact that it's in Russian with English subtitles matters not at all. The point is to render Shakespearean thought and imagery in cinematic terms, and Kosintzev & co nail it.

Saturday 15 December 2007

All Your Past Are Belong to eBay

See this? It's Yoshiya's Action Planet Robot. A wind-up clockwork tintoy modelled (unofficially) on Forbidden Planet's Robby, it's one of the iconic tin robots.

There are plenty of them about, and recent reproductions can be had for just a handful of change. Back in 1999 someone discovered a horde of unsold warehouse stock and began leaking them into the market one at a time, so even mint-in-box originals can be found without too much difficulty.

But this one isn't just any old Yoshiya. This is the Action Planet Robot with the brown rubber hands.

Best Christmas present ever, circa 1960.

My parents bought it from Lewis's department store on Market Street, in Manchester. I'd asked for a robot for Christmas and I'd begun to imagine what it might be like. In my dreams it was about my size and I pictured it climbing onto the bus with me, a kind of 1960s Asimo.

The Action Planet Robot that I took out of the wrapping paper on Christmas Day stood nine inches tall, walked with a shuffling clockwork gait, and made sparks behind a tinted plastic panel in its chest.

Do you know what? This was better!

(I can date it because the rubber-hands version didn't stay in production for long. The earliest models had plain tin claws, which the reproductions, erm... reproduce. These were replaced sometime around 1960, but the rubber was fragile and perished quickly and so the hands were replaced again, this time by red plastic matching the boots. Later models had a black plastic head dome in place of the metal. There were other variants as well - versions in red, versions in olive green, non-clockwork versions powered by battery and a wire controller. I'll stop now before I burn off my credibility completely.)

By New Year's Day, I'd worn him out. About a week later a Lewis's van pulled up in front of our house and a uniformed deliveryman brought a replacement to the door.

I wore that one out, too, in time.

On the outside he was still pristine, but on the inside all the soft metal of the cogs had been worn down by constant playing. He no longer walked, he could no longer spark. My dad reckoned that the machine shop at Shell might be able to do something with the parts and so we carefully prised apart the tin tabs that held his body together (the robot's, not my dad's) and extracted the clockwork.

Alas, it was not to be. Not only could the machine shop do nothing with the innards, we couldn't even reassemble the shell properly.

I don't remember being too cut up about it at the time. I'd probably moved on to other delights, newer obsessions. But there's always that one toy of your childhood that sticks in your mind for life (Chad Valley Give-a-Show Projector fans, I'm talking to you), and this was mine.

I didn't imagine I'd ever see one again, and then along came eBay. Every lost toy of your childhood is out there. The rubber-hands robot is notoriously rare and very hard to find with the rubber in anything like decent condition, but I found one. Somewhere in Texas, as I recall. It wasn't cheap, but it was cheaper than jewellery or some crappy plate from the Franklin Mint.

So there it stands all day on my windowledge, watching me work. Not the exact same toy, but I suppose it's kind of like cloning a pet - you like to think the spirit's still there.

And if it ain't about magic, what is it about?

Next time, staying on the remembered-Christmas theme, maybe I'll have to tell you the story about this:

Saturday 8 December 2007

Amazon Blog Interview

Jeff VanderMeer interviewed me about The Kingdom of Bones for the Amazon weblog. The Amazon daily blog is here - the post's dated December 6 and sits between a memoir about Elizabeth Hardwick and an item about watching TV shows on your tie. Alternatively, you can skip straight to it by clicking here.

Amazon.com: Besides making sure the historical detail didn't overwhelm the story, what was the biggest writing challenge for you with this novel?

Stephen Gallagher: There were so many strands that it allowed me to pull together. The biggest challenge was in making them all work to a single end. I wanted to capture some of the energy of the old dime novels and story papers but also to be able to say something meaningful about love, death and obsession along the way. However you think I did, give me some credit for aiming high. There's no reason why popular fiction should be devoid of theme, and no reason why serious art shouldn't entertain.

Follow the link for more of the same.


When the headshot that accompanies the interview was taken this summer, I was in Kevin Costner's restaurant on Main Street in Deadwood. I could look out the window across to where Wild Bill was killed.

Different kind of headshot there, though.


The interview will be added to the novel's page on Amazon.com.

Thursday 6 December 2007

Who Needs Them Golden Geese Anyway?

The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan has written this astute analysis of the changing face of entertainment distribution, and the failure of the networks' negotiators to grasp where their industry's going.

She writes, To put it bluntly, the corporations that control the entertainment industry need to wake up. In the digital age, content creators matter more than distributors.

Unless studio executives begin to view the people who create films and TV shows as their partners, not pesky contractors, it’s the executives who’ll be writing the “death warrant” for the industry, contrary to a blustery statement one anonymous executive made to the New York Times Dec. 1...

As Scott Collins of the LA Times wrote in a recent piece on the growing power of showrunners, “viewers don’t watch networks. They don’t even care about networks. They watch shows. And they don’t care how they get them. That takes a lot of power from the networks. And it hands it to showrunners.”

Ryan points out that the AMPTP is repeating the mistakes of the record industry, which would seem to echo something that yerblogger wrote in this post:

Downloading is going to be the dominant delivery system of the future, no question about it. But the AMPTP's entrepreneurial hardwiring is preventing it from coping with the change... when you let that happen in any field, something different arises and leaves you behind.

Read the full Maureen Ryan article here.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Furious Fred, the Butcher's Ted

Have you ever noticed how, whenever a drama features a small child's drawing that has to play some part in carrying the story forward, you can tell that a child didn't do it?

(This one's real. Jack the Ripper, drawn by my daughter, when she was aged about six. She's twenty-one now. We used to worry until we caught on that we were actually raising Wednesday Addams.)

It's almost always the case. Like those terrible overdubbing jobs where grown women provide children's voices and we're not supposed to notice.

A child's spontenaeity is hard to fake as it is to spell. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I was sorting through some of my old file boxes. I came across some notes that I'd jotted down waaaaay back in 1982. Back then I was a newbie with two years of freelancing under my belt, and occasionally I'd do a writer visit to some local school - read a story, talk to the children, answer their questions. Doesn't happen so much now, mainly because the children of my friends have all grown up and that's where most of the requests came from.

About a week after a visit I'd get an envelope filled with stories the children had written. It's a nice feeling, I can tell you. And children write like they paint. I've no memory of doing this, but on that occasion in '82 I copied out some of the passages before returning the stories. Probably to remind myself what genuinely fresh writing looked like.

Spelling and punctuation are shown exactly as-was. I think these are vivid and funny, in the best possible way.

My name is Anna I where glasses I have freccles and long black hair. I go to boarding school. Last night I wrote a letter to my boyfriend to say shove off.

Some stories touched on the supernatural:

One day the witch was making a spell and saying I will go and get the bottle. Now the witch had put lots of ingredients into the pot there were tadpoles slugs snails and wee wee.

And some were science fiction:

John Richards carefully placed the tray of chemicals on the commanders desk. "Thanks Richards" said Commander Dilson. "these chemicals may be futile if dropped."

Some of the spelling was downright creative:

The space cat has many advantagis Like his protectiv scine and his jetts witch he can go very fast with them and his big earess he can hear 2 miles away from him. Now you know his advatagis well get on with the adventure.

From The Adventures of the Man in Space:

David had a badly burnt face and a broken leg and broken ribs. The good news is that he is better but the bad news is that he will have to have his leg cut off.

And this, from the epic The Space Being:

Once upon a time in 1981 there lived a marshan strat from Marse. When he left Marse he was ten. So when he got to earth he would be oldenof to bring some girls home, if he falled he would be killed. All the marshans what has tride to do the tasked was killed because they falled. The marshan was called Peter. Peter liked to play little Wisel.

In ten years he reached earth. He crased in the at the beach. He came out and he looked around and said "Bagige blar blar blar blere plaseif" which ment good morning, aney more girls.

No, I've no idea what 'little Wisel' is.

And finally, can somebody please tell me what was going on in this kid's head?

Then one day another Space Dust monster came from the planet XTS. And changed places with the heir to the throne, King Two-bo-locks.

Saturday 1 December 2007

The Avengers

Patrick Macnee tells the story of how, one day in Toronto, he bumped into Peter O'Toole who asked, as you do, what Macnee was up to these days. Oh, says Macnee, I'm doing The Avengers.

"But Patrick!" wailed O'Toole. "You're always doing The Avengers!"

I loved that show. There had never been anything quite like it on British TV before, and there's never been anything quite like it since. And do you want to know what I loved best? Season Four, 1965 to 66. I was eleven years old.

Season four was the first set of shows made on 35mm with the American market in mind. I'd been aware of the series before that, but I can't say it had been a favourite. Those earlier episodes had been studio-bound. Studio-bound TV drama (I now realise) always had stolid theatrical pacing while multiple cameras cut around the performances, pretending to be film.

The seeds of it were all there in the live shows, and it was working for plenty of viewers, but it wasn't yet working for me. My mother had taken against Patrick Macnee for no reason at all ("Look at him. The big girl") and that didn't exactly help.

I also have to say that I found Honor Blackman's Cathy Gale a little, er, scary (I don't think it was my young age. I still find her scary now!)

I never quite 'got' the stories, and the dialogue-heavy studio scenes moved at a finger-drumming pace. Those electronic cameras and vision-mixer cutting were particularly cruel to the staging of fight scenes – in Quatermass and the Pit they'd addressed the problem by shooting the sequences of physical action on film and dropping them in. The live-studio Avengers didn't, so the action could never be very extensive, or overly convincing.

But here's why I think it's important that Macnee was "always doing The Avengers". I've been involved in the setting-up of a number of shows – some you'll have seen, many that you won't because they never got any further than the drawing-board – and I know how tricky the creation of a format can be. I also know that never, in a million years, could you sit down and devise The Avengers as it appeared in that 1965 season.

That's because The Avengers, 1965, hadn't been devised; it had evolved. The elements had been cooking and changing for three seasons. Steed had mutated from mysterious authority-figure to unpredictable dandy, mainly thanks to a constant seepage of Macnee's own personality into the role. When Ian Hendry, the original series lead, left the show, his replacement by Honor Blackman meant that a conventional man-shaped place in the structure was unconventionally occupied by a woman. This shook up and redefined viewer expectations much as Sigourney Weaver's Ripley would later redefine the big-screen heroine. Sidney Newman might have been the show's originator, but it was the dominating narrative touch of Brian Clemens as both writer and producer that gave the series its increasingly light, tight and surreal flavour.

And then it went to film. Honor Blackman dropped out to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, and Diana Rigg's Emma Peel took over in a piece of casting that had adolescent boys of all ages weeping in gratitude. The mix that had been brewed up in the creaky and low-res live-action studio now exploded with the application of top-drawer production values. The result was unique and confident. It didn't so much mirror the swinging sixties as play a major part in defining them.

And you know what else? It was uncompromisingly British, through and through. It didn't conquer the American market by pandering to American forms and expectations, as so much product since has attempted to do. Like Danger Man, like The Saint, like Monty Python, like any cultural product of ours that the US has taken to its heart, it had a zero prostitution factor in its casting and its subject matter.

Season four was the black-and-white season, with such classics as The House that Jack Built, Castle De'Ath, The Cybernauts, A Touch of (gulp) Brimstone. Season five went to colour and hit the same level of triumph with knobs on. But it's those episodes in 'sparkling black and white', as the American trailers described them, with their stark op-art world and King's Road sensibility, that made the first and deepest cut for me. There is a place forever in my heart where the door to Emma Peel's flat has a big eyeball on it.

The Thorson episodes were fun, and I tend to underrate them consistently. And The New Avengers had its moments, if you can manage to forget the sub-par Canadian-shot episodes, but by then it had become a show that, with its ITC-style triangle of The Father, The Lad, and the Desirable Tomboy, you absolutely could have sat down and devised.

You couldn't grow a show like The Avengers now. Our schedulers think they're being bold if they commission more than four of anything, and from the first broadcast they're watching the ratings and poised ready to kill.

The Avengers was great. The Avengers was ace.

Let's not even talk about the feature film, eh?