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Thursday 24 January 2008

The Living Dead at the Manchester Festival

One of the most heroic spectacles I ever witnessed on a public stage was that of Stephen Laws conducting an interview with Jorge Grau about his life and films. That's Jorge Grau, director of the cannibal zombie classic The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue... kind of apposite because this was at the annual Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, where the two of us helped out with the presentation work for more years than I care to count.

Grau spoke only Spanish. An interpreter had been promised, but not arranged. Italian director Antonio Margheriti, being interviewed elsewhere on the programme, spoke a little English and a little Spanish and was drafted in to help out.

Steve had to make himself understood to Margheriti, which in itself was no easy task; Margheriti then had to find a way to put over to Grau what he thought Steve had asked. Grau would shake his head, mystified, and everyone would try again. When Grau was finally able to get a handle on some version of the original question, his reply would start the long, long journey back.

Thirty minutes of this, and then someone appeared with a charming young woman and man that they'd hauled from a nearby Spanish restaurant. I think he was Spanish with some English, and she English with some Spanish... anyway, something like that. But they knew absolutely nothing about films. They joined the three onstage and from that point onward, all five of them were at it.

But here's the thing... by the end of the hour, Laws had succeeded in getting an interview out of Grau. Lesser men would have been carried off gibbering about ten minutes in.

The Festival paid the expenses of every guest and presented each with a statuette that was the most gorgeous thing of its kind I've ever seen; it was the robot Maria from Metropolis, perfectly sculpted and cast in pewter.

Every year Laws and I would present these at the end of each onstage interview (on one memorable occasion, the box was slid within reach as the interview ended... Laws gave it the big presentation speech buildup, and opened the box with a flourish to reveal... nothing), and then we'd pay our own hotel bills and go home.

We ached as we watched these objects of desire being carried off... mostly by the deserving (Freddie Francis, Jimmy Sangster, Val Guest, Janina Faye, Brian Clemens, Tony Tenser, Barbara Shelley, Hazel Court) but also by any old walk-on one-movie starlet or day player they'd managed to involve.

I always lusted after one of those Marias... but Laws genuinely deserved one.

UPDATE: February 2016

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Is it just me?

A theatre not too far from where I live - it would be mean of me to name it - sends out a quarterly newsletter which includes a regular ad for pre-show dining at a nearby restaurant.

The ad always includes this proud image:

Now, I know there's an art to photographing food in a way that makes it appetising. In fact I once spent an afternoon discussing the subject with a London photographer who did exactly that for a living.

I don't know if it's just me...

But I think that if you want to bring in the diners, a dish that looks like genitalia modelled out of bowel movements probably isn't the way to go.

Monday 21 January 2008

Soundscapes and Wide Screens

In a Blog post responding to Lost, In Transition, Carlo C draws attention to something that I hadn't been aware of before; that in the Lost soundtrack, in addition to the forest whispers sometimes heard by the characters, there's also 'hidden audio' that carries a certain amount of story freight. Or maybe the illusion of it. Only time will tell.

I'd never really registered the presence of any hidden audio - but then I'm used to sound being the least-considered element of TV drama. You almost never hear a 5.1 mix that makes effective use of the rear speakers, for example. There's a common industry argument that it's pointless to add an element that many people won't get.

About ten years ago, very few people had widescreen TVs and even fewer were able to receive anamorphic widescreen broadcasts - it seems like another age now, but those first-generation sets were analogue-only. The only way to get a widescreen image was to zoom on a letterboxed picture.

I can recall a demo that ran for ages in the basement of the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street; it was a widescreen set showing a zoomed VHS of Star Wars, and it looked appalling.

(I don't know about anybody else who passed through there, but it seriously dampened my enthusiasm for any upgrade. And let me tell you, I'd been waiting for widescreen TV ever since I'd seen it prefigured in Kubrick's 2001. In fact, 2001 was the movie I'd promised myself for the first screening when I got one.)

Anyway, my point is that at that time, despite the entire industry being on-track for widescreen broadcasting, the commissioning/scheduling end of the business was very leery of it. The result was that, for a year or two around '98-99, a large amount of stuff was ordered and shown in a compromised 14:9 format that managed to irritate everyone equally.

(4:3 is the old-style 'square' TV screen. 16:9 is the standard for widescreen TV. There's been no such single standard in the history of the movies, so theatrical films still have to be cropped or letterboxed to fit your TV screen. The 14:9 compromise gave a picture which fitted neither shape; it displayed with black bands above and below the picture on 'normal' TVs, and to either side of the picture on widescreen TVs.)

This was the time when I was shooting Oktober for ITV. We shot it on Super-16 in 16:9 widescreen, but ITV decreed that the broadcast master be a 14:9 telecine transfer on digital tape. We took the opportunity to make a 16:9 transfer while we had the negative in the telecine suite, but that went into a cupboard at Carnival and hasn't been screened since.

(There was never a physical positive print; all the editing was done offline on digitised rushes and when the picture cut was complete, the camera negative was cut to conform. The assembled negative was then scanned and electronically reversed to give the positive image - so no generational loss, and no added grain.)

So what I'm saying is that a lot of quite recent material was made in a form that limits its potential for exploitation now. Much as viewers used to complain about letterboxed movies, they now turn away from anything that doesn't fill the 16:9 screen. So even the oldest archive material gets zoomed to fit, and invariably looks cramped and odd.

As far back as the 50s, Richard Greene was arguing that ITV's 35mm Adventures of Robin Hood should have been shooting in colour. His argument was that it would be an asset for years to come. At the time, it was deemed to make no economic sense.

But, as we should have learned by now, times do change.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Those Cancelled Golden Globes

“Sadly, it feels like the nerdiest, ugliest, meanest kids in the high school are trying to cancel the prom. But NBC wants to try to keep that prom alive.”

Wallace and Kong

A post header which sounds like it has to refer to the most ambitious Aardman stop-motion film ever...

A sequence in one of the Disc One extras on the 2005 movie boxed set shows that Peter Jackson owns a copy of the Edgar Wallace material. It's used as the prop for the script that Jack Driscoll writes on the voyage, and we get to hear a short sequence involving Captain Englehorn's misgivings read aloud.

I can't believe that the onion-skin paper being waved around and crumpled with such abandon represents the original physical pages, but it's in proper screenplay form with character names as per the final movie. It's titled Kong, echoing earlier Cooper films like Chang and Rango. Jackson's cagy about how he got hold of it, though I'm not sure why he needs to be. Maybe it's just too long a story to tell.

Here's what I've found; for me the long movie plays much better split over a couple of evenings. Of course, what you then lose is the big-screen experience, which for a spectacle movie like this is significant.

(Maybe this is the answer...)

I'll tell you what still throws me, though. In the 1933 original, Kong is an example of a lost prehistoric species. Ape-like, enormous, and sui generis. In the modern version he's an authentic-but-bizarrely-magnified Silverback Gorilla, which is... I don't know. It's less, somehow. By which I think I mean it exerts less of a grip on my imagination.

The original Kong had two distinct looks, apparently, or three if you include the 'life-sized' constructed head used only in a couple of sore-thumb closeups and displayed at the premiere. Broadly speaking there was Skull Island Kong, and Manhattan Kong. There's some interesting stuff about the construction of the models and their fate after the movie if you want to look here.

Or if you want to see something really dumb, there's this piece. It sounds like it ought to come from The Onion but it's actually a po-faced article from National Geographic: King Kong Island Home Is Pure Fantasy, Ecology Experts Say.

Monday 14 January 2008

Lost, in Transition

You know where I came across the pilot episode of Lost? The one with the graphic plane crash and everything? It was part of the in-flight entertainment on a Virgin Atlantic service to the US. I mean, it didn't bother me, but, you know...

Apparently eight episodes of the new season were shot before the WGA strike closed down production. The ABC network has indicated that they'll be shown rather than held back, but hasn't yet said when.

Season three ended in a cliffhanger that neatly flipped the show on its head and refreshed the premise, which I thought was no mean feat. Lost is a show that plays a risky game; tantalise and satisfy but while tantalising more, on and on, with continuous invention and a continuing danger of viewer burnout. Just like on a plane ride, viewers can bale out in mid-flight but there's little-to-no chance of picking up new ones.

We baled early, but only because we found its form of transmission (5 breaks, ignoring the designated act endings, with the same sponsor bumpers repeated with throw-the-remote regularity) unwatchable, and so bought the US complete-season box set and watched that at times of our own choosing.

I'm not saying that Lost is the best thing ever, but when it's good, I do like it. It plays like a feuilleton - constant invention and distraction with the sense of a Big Scheme even though the big scheme itself can only have a vague shape in the creators' minds, and is being defined in the writing rather than designed in advance. And with the sense that anybody could fall into a volcano at any time.

(I know what they've said. That everything's been planned all along. Arse. Even the guys who sold 24 didn't know what was going to happen until they were into production.)

For me it can never end successfully with a make-sense-of-it-all revelation, any more than The Prisoner could... it's all about dread and uncertainty and wondering about what's on the other side of the door. As Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, the moment you actually open the door all that wonder condenses down into whatever's there.

The only good ending I can imagine is s something like, they find a box that's the answer to everything, look inside it and go "Wow." Like the moment in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray whispers something to Scarlett Johannsen that makes everything OK, and we all have ideas about what it might have been that are unique to ourselves, and which are best not shared. Some people won't have that... a quick Lost in Translation Google shows messageboards with people wanting tips on how they can boost the soundtrack enough to hear what Murray says.

In the meantime I'll endure the dull touchy-feely stuff and bad dialogue ("You okay?" "I was looking for you." "Well, you found me.") for the high-concept elements I'm getting a kick out of, and a trust in the astuteness of makers who know to throw in a good kit-off moment or a bit of mud-wrestling when everything flags.

But this business with the box set permanently altered our attitude to series TV. It's been a liberation. Now disc is our first-choice viewing medium, something I could never have imagined.

Saturday 12 January 2008

Of Robots and Heroes

While we're talking about the old-time stuff, and recuts and mashups, and harking back to this earlier post...

I still have my Super-8 print of the 1942 Lewis Wilson/Douglas Croft Batman serial, which was only available as six 200 foot silent spools... back in my student days I cut them all together, put a mag stripe on them, and added a semi-synchronised music and effects track that was very heavy on the Beethoven. The premiere was in Grant Hall's C-Block at The Lawns in Cottingham, sometime around 1972.

(If I say that C-Block had a film society, that makes it sound quite serious and erudite. What we actually had was a keg of beer, my Super 8 projector, and a sheet hung over the stairwell window. The night we screened Metropolis, all the lads were rooting for Rotwang. Probably because of his name; but he was also a Bad Guy with cool hair and a metal hand. What was not to admire?)

My favourite sequence is the one where Batman effects a rescue by tightrope-walking along a power line, and the bad guys switch on the electricity... which then SLOWLY fizzes its way along the wire like a gunpowder fuse. All to the accompaniment of the Eroica symphony. Best watched when drunk.

In fact, now I think about it, it's fantastic if watched when drunk.

Monster Munch (2)

Although prolific British thriller writer Edgar Wallace has a 'conceived by' co-credit on the 1933 film, Merian C Cooper later denied that Wallace had any hand in the finished product. "Edgar Wallace didn’t write any of Kong," he said, "not one bloody word."

Wallace died before production began, but in his diary mentioned completing a Kong scenario during his final boat trip to the US.

I recall reading somewhere (but cannot, alas, locate the reference) that there's a tantalising document catalogued under Wallace's name in the Library of Congress (?) that may or may not be that very item.

Friday 11 January 2008

Monster Munch

The 3-disc extended edition of Peter Jackson's King Kong can be had for around a fiver from all kinds of places at the moment - Amazon, some of the supermarkets - which makes it a pretty good bargain.

I saw it on the big screen but had no urge to pick up the DVD until now, where the pricing point makes it ridiculous to pass it up. I thought it was great filmmaking, but not a great film. Great execution, eye-popping sequences, but structurally... bloody hell. It was like being forced to shovel down a vast meal consisting entirely of treats and cake.

Here's a thought. Instead of a cut with even more sequences and extended scenes, what I'd like to see is the Merian C Cooper cut - by which I mean Jackson's footage, edited by him to conform to the structure and pacing of the 1933 original. Which, let's face it, moved with the speed of a cat out of a bonfire and still packs a wallop.

Incidentally, if you're picking up the Cooper/Shoedsack original and quality's an issue for you, make sure you get the restored and remastered version. British reissues at the time of the Jackson release featured an older, not-so-good transfer.

Tuesday 1 January 2008


I had a note this morning from Dave Young, architect of my website, to let me know that Play.com are offering all four seasons of the mid-90s action thriller series BUGS at £7.99 a pop in their New Year Sale.

(I mention the website business not because it's relevant, but because it's cheaper to hand out credit than payment.)

Bugs feels almost like a forgotten series now but for a while, back there, we owned Saturday nights. I can remember reading newspaper coverage of how ITV had been caught off-guard and were scrambling to find something remotely like it.

Which is kind of ironic, given that it was an ITV memo that started the whole thing. And that the entire tone and texture of the show were based directly on the kind of popular drama that had helped to define Independent Television through the 60s and into the 70s.

For me it began with a call from Stuart Doughty. Stuart had been the Presentation Department's Promotions Script Editor at Granada's Manchester studios when I'd worked there in the late '70s, and he was now a producer with Brian Eastman's Carnival Films. Carnival were/are one of the most successful of UK television's indie houses, with a back catalogue that includes Poirot, Jeeves & Wooster, and the original Traffik.

Stuart was aware of my genetics-on-the-rampage miniseries Chimera, and believed I could probably write technobollocks with the best of them. I remember that first meeting at the Carnival offices near the top of Ladbroke Grove; it was high summer and I turned up in shirt, shorts and basketball boots and must have seemed intent on talking myself out of the gig as I told them everything that I thought was wrong with the show concept. Their response was to commission a script, which rather took me unawares.

I didn't create Bugs. Brian and Stuart did, with a significant amount of development input and influence from Brian Clemens. Nor did I write the pilot; that was by Duncan Gould, so the show was pretty much fully-formed when I came to it.

The format had been put together in response to a memo sent out by ITV drama to all the indies, calling for submissions to fill a slot it had designated for an action series. (That's the arse-up way we've done TV since 1990, when the Broadcasting Bill ended the Darwinian system of competing regional companies and replaced it with a non-creative commissioning and scheduling body.)

Every indie in town prepared a pitch, and somehow the BBC got sight of Carnival's. They commissioned it on the spot, while ITV were still opening envelopes. A two-series commitment, no messing. It's rare.

It also caught everyone off-guard. I came along at the point where they were having problems extending the format into a multiple-story franchise, something they hadn't expected to be facing for a while. I fear that I was probably a bit precious about it at that stage; I wrote novels and created my own stuff for TV, after all, and probably felt that episode writing on someone else's show was a retrograde step.

But when I started thinking of it as a chance to shed the extra burden of authorship and get involved in making something like the old Republic serials, just pure, kinetic, forward-moving fun, that made a difference. Believing that my Bugs script would be a one-off with no follow-up, I chucked everything into the story that I could think of. I called the result Assassins, Inc and was turning around to clamber back onto my lofty pedestal when the phone rang again.

It was Stuart. I remember his words exactly: "Brian says that we'll take as many of these as you can possibly do."

And my reply: "Well, Stuart, I do have an idea that might make another story. But it would all depend on whether you could get me a submarine."

There was a pause. Then, in words chosen with great care:

"All I can say at this stage is that I can't see any reason why not."

Which led to the Season One story titled Down Among the Dead Men.

That was how it went with me. I tackled every story thinking it would be my last. I didn't warm to every aspect of the format - I suppose my natural urge was to Goth it up a bit to contrast/juxtapose with all the shiny docklands architecture - but I worked within the style and had more fun than any series writer can decently hope for. In our season one closer, Pulse, I introduced Jean Daniel, a smooth French-born villain who'd quit the Foreign Legion because he thought it was full of sissies. Gareth Marks played him with such evil joy that we brought him back in season two and had him underpin our series arc, in which Jean Daniel manipulates the stock market from his cell and buys the prison he's being held in.

My main contribution to season two was the Cyberax thread, a sequence of stories involving an online distributed intelligence and the first computer virus to cross the species barrier.

The BBC were unhappy with the increasingly science fictional direction the show was taking, and said so. Season three was commissioned with a directive for less sf, more relationships. I was given the job of setting that up. Craig McLachlan ('Ed') had been planning to leave the show and I gave him a spectacular demise at the end of the first season three episode, Blaze of Glory. But as season three went into production he agreed to stay, so Ed lived; and the character intended to replace him in the lineup, a young woman named Alex, was reworked to play a supporting role. I always liked Alex, and wished I could have done more with the character; but Craig brought so much bounce and energy to the show that I was glad to see him stay. Some of my best lines were actually his ad libs.

For my last story in season three, Renegades, I asked to be allowed to go back to the Cyberax story and give it closure. BBC or no BBC, Brian backed me on it and the result was one of my favourite episodes.

I wasn't involved in season four. I was off making Oktober by then. In the context of my career, I tend to think of Bugs as a massive sidebar. I didn't invent it, I don't own it, I can hardly hog the credit for it.

But for a while, it Entertained Our Nation.