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Monday 31 March 2008


I've been away on Crusoe business - two good days with the incoming writers followed by three equally productive days scouting locations for the UK scenes - and I find on my return that the WGGB site now carries the interview that Tom Green conducted with me back in January.

(No word of Crusoe in there, by the way - the Eleventh Hour 13-episode order was public knowledge by then, so that gets a mention. But at that stage I hadn't even had the Crusoe call.)

It was for the Spring issue of UK Writer, the Guild's own magazine. But if so inclined, the whole world can now read it here.

Someone must have ticked me off the day we did the questions. I don't know how else to explain a response like,

"There’s a lot we can learn from the American approach to running a series. They don’t just buy stories; they hire writers, and instead of being pieceworkers defending their one story to the hilt, those writers come together and make the show. They’re all part of an efficient production structure and they're credited accordingly. I can initiate a £4m drama and I don't even get a pass to let me into the building – I have to be led to the meetings like a chimpanzee in a nappy."

Even more disturbing is the hint of a developing chimpanzee theme in my thinking. It's beginning to surface in the most unlikely places...

Sunday 23 March 2008

A Book by its Cover (2)

In the comments section of A Book by its Cover, Gail Renard wrote:

"Oddly enough, I first read Thunderball and a few other James Bonds when I was 10. Do you think he was the Harry Potter of our generation?"

Dammit, yes! Why didn't I think of that? Potter may be children's fiction openly read by adults, while Bond was adult fiction read (often to adult disapproval) by children, but the generational crossover and the enormous cultural wave feel very much the same.

Although, Gail, you're far too young to be speaking of "our generation"...

Saturday 22 March 2008

Third Acts in Writers' Lives

While we're on a thriller theme...

I've always thought of Bond as a '60s phenomenon but of Fleming as a '50s writer. A quick check shows that he died in 1963, the same year that Gavin Lyall turned to full-time writing. Lyall was my favourite of the postwar adventure writers, though Alistair Maclean was probably the best-known.

It may have been Maclean who first led me to think about the 'third acts' of creative careers. Some people seem to do their best work as their experience accumulates; others, their worst as their energy and interest diminishes.

I'd even be willing to believe that anything with Maclean's name on it from The Golden Gate onwards might be of dubious origin. It was sent to me as a book club selection and I remember wondering at the complete disappearance of the author's familiar style and personality. Hard to describe it, but everyone's writing has a texture and Maclean's was no longer there.

Seawitch and Athabasca were even worse - The Golden Gate at least had a functioning story but I remember thinking of Seawitch that almost nothing actually happened plotwise, and that its male protagonist team was a lazy lift of Starsky and Hutch. I left the book club shortly after, and not much more than a decade after that they stopped trying to entice me back.

The inability to portray a world with credible women is, for me, the one major flaw that dates most of the post-WWII school-of-Buchan writers that I loved so much; mostly the women were either resistible bitches or idealised girl-figures, free-spirited but compliant, accessories to the hero's manliness ("Let the girl go!"), and his eventual reward. Invariably the resistible bitches would melt, their inner girl-figures released by exposure to that same manly influence.

But I'd make an exception for the late Gavin Lyall, who could write strong female characters capable of surprising and second-guessing his male protagonists. He was married to the journalist and columnist Katharine Whitehorn, and I sometimes wonder if her influence in his life helped raise his game somewhat. Most who know him now know him through The Secret Servant and the other Harry Maxim novels, but I never took to those. Maybe it's the third-act thing again. But there's a clutch of early novels - pan-European chase thriller Midnight Plus One (predating and anticipating Frankenheimer's Ronin by several decades), Shooting Script, personal favourite Blame the Dead (whose Norwegian setting was a huge influence on my early novel Follower)... everything up to Judas Country, in fact - that were the state of the art.

Friday 21 March 2008

A Book by its Cover

In a recent piece in The Financial Times, James Lovegrove cites Raymond Hawkey's 1963 Pan cover for Thunderball as one of the all-time greatest paperback designs.

(In case you're not familiar with it, those 'bullet hits' are actual holes in the cover.)

I so agree... although for me it's one of those cases where your feelings about a piece of culture are entangled with the surrounding experience of its time, so it's hard to know to what extent I'm being objective. But I've always thought that the 60s Pan Bonds, and Thunderball in particular, were a near-perfect marriage of package and content. This was the very edition of the book that earned me a mild reprimand on my school report when I took it along to 'own choice' reading class in 1965, aged 10.

One odd thing, though... Lovegrove writes that "Hawkey fills the cover with a close-up of a man's naked back, perforated by two bullet holes" and on reading it I realised that I'd never given any thought to the gender of the subject. The use of skin tone as background is so abstract.

If you'd asked me and I'd answered without looking, I'd have said it was a woman's back. But I've looked, and there's a slight leathery coarseness to the skin texture that makes a subtle contribution to the overall effect.

Tuesday 18 March 2008

Anthony Minghella

I turned on the radio for the lunchtime news a few minutes ago, and was dismayed to hear the announcement of the death of Anthony Minghella at the age of 54.

I swore out loud, and scared the dog. Anthony and I were fellow students in Hull University's Drama Department, back in the mid-seventies. I'm not claiming that we were the closest of friends, but we shared a lot of the same classes and worked on some of the same productions, including an avant-garde French piece in which I was in drag and he was a frog who played the piano.

(I don't believe I've heard his musical abilities mentioned since, but he composed and played all the music for and in the show)

After graduation he returned to Hull to teach, and there began writing for the stage and making an immediate mark with his early radio work. He served an apprenticeship in TV drama that included script-editing Grange Hill and writing for Inspector Morse before going name-above-the-title with Truly, Madly, Deeply, after which there was no stopping the bugger.

We met up once in recent years. It was very brief. He was coming out of a meeting, and I was on my way into one. But I was able to tell him what a storming job I thought he'd done on The English Patient, and to offer him the compliment of healthy envy.

Right now I'm just glad I got the chance.

Monday 17 March 2008

Cricket and Me

I don't 'get' cricket. Never have. And it seems I'm not alone.

I was in London's Natural History Museum around the end of last year. In one section there's a wall display bearing a montage of cartoons that illustrate various explanations for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

One shows an enthusiastic diplodocus with a bat. He's demonstrating cricket to the rest of his species.

All of whom are visibly losing the will to live.

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Eleventh Hour USA

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, and other sources, Planet Terror's Marley Shelton is the latest addition to the Eleventh Hour lineup.

Marley Shelton has been tapped as the female lead opposite Rufus Sewell in Jerry Bruckheimer's new CBS drama "Eleventh Hour."

The project, based on the limited British sci-fi series, centers on Jacob Hood (Sewell), a special science adviser to the government who, with his feisty female bodyguard Rachel (Shelton) in tow, saves people from the worst abuses of science.

In the original series, the roles were played by Patrick Stewart and "Ugly Betty's" Ashley Jensen.

The CBS version, which is set in the U.S., was penned by Mick Davis and will be directed by Danny Cannon.

Davis, Cannon, Bruckheimer, Jonathan Littman and a Granada executive are executive producing for Jerry Bruckheimer TV, Granada International Media and Warner Bros. TV.

Shelton most recently starred in Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's "Grindhouse." The actress, repped by Endevor and Untitled Entertainment, next appears in the indie "Our Lady of Victory."

Saturday 8 March 2008

Life Line

Did you see this? I wouldn't be surprised if the answer was no. It seems to have become one of the best-kept secrets of my career.

It was a two-parter for BBC1, two hours long, and starred Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo in Rome), Joanne Whalley (Edge of Darkness, The Singing Detective, Scandal, and many a young chap's fantasy), and Jemima Rooper (The Famous Five, As If, Hex).

It's not my job to make claims for the writing, but in the execution it was among the best-crafted of my TV stuff to date. It had some real money thrown at it, and it shows. Jamie Payne's direction was imaginative, able, and respectful of the script (qualities rare in combination!) and cameraman Mike Southon did awesome, feature-quality work at TV-shoot speed (Mike is a features/music video guy whose credits include Ken Russell's Gothic and Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate, as well as oodles of stuff for the likes of George Michael and Guns'n'Roses). Chris Farrer was the script editor and Tim Bradley produced. If you ever find yourself working with any of this gang, consider yourself blessed.

It shares the premise (a haunted chat line) of my short story of the same title, but it isn't the short story.

It started with a call from Gareth Neame, who was on a fairly urgent search for genre material. The BBC had three slots to fill and Gareth, in his capacity as the new MD of Carnival Films, was going after the commission. They were looking for contemporary fantasy singles but the possibility of further series development would sweeten any idea's chances.

What I pitched was a modern take on the Orpheus and Euridice tale, with the chat line playing a similar role to the car radio in Cocteau's Orphee - a bridge between the two worlds, echoing with enigmatic exchanges which could generate any number of further narratives if they wanted a premise for an anthology series.

To be honest I was barely interested in the series angle but if it was gonna get me through the door, fine. I'd already adapted the short - once for radio's Fear on Four and again for the unmade second series of Chillers for TV - and wasn't interested in going there again. Whereas I'd been wanting to do a modern Orpheus for yonks and had my ideas mostly worked out and ready to go.

I offered them a different title but they liked Life Line.

It changed somewhat in the making - the visual modernism takes it into a different territory than the semi-documentary settings of my imagining - but I liked the result. David Pirie, author of the landmark study Heritage of Horror, praised the show and predicted that it would get up the noses of 'the realist brigade', as I imagine it probably did.

If any of them saw it.

Everyone involved was proud of the show, right up to the exec levels within the BBC. Word came through that the schedulers were rushing it forward to an earlier slot. I thought, Wow. They must really love it.

Imagine my joy when I opened The Radio Times to see that we'd been 'rushed forward' into a slot to run against live football on ITV... a small matter of Manchester United versus A C Milan.

The Wingrove Boy

In the comments section of the Crusoe post below, Tara provides this link to a site where you'll find details of what Chung Kuo author David Wingrove has been up to in recent years. It's a fascinating piece of insight into the roaring energy of a writer's imagination.

I can't be sure whether we first met at an Eastercon or when he came up to Preston to give a talk to the local SF group, back when the indefatigable Bryan Talbot was driving our guest program. I was awed by the imaginative ambition and sheer stamina involved in the Chung Kuo project.

I think we only found disagreement in one area - he believed in engaging in a debate with one's critics, whereas I tend to believe in letting all that go. My take on it is that critics are talking to readers, and I've no part in that conversation. And critics who think they're talking to writers are best not encouraged.

Monday 3 March 2008


A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a new gig that promised to keep me busy through the summer, but I was coy about naming it because it was far from certain.

And I've avoided mentioning it since because my deal was being worked out and my 'take' had yet to win the approval of all the parties involved. Speak too soon in a situation like that, and it's sport for the gods.

But now everything's moved on a step and, from emails I've been getting, the word's out anyway. So I might as well confirm that I'm handling lead writer duties on Crusoe, shooting this summer for an autumn schedule date.

From Digital Spy:

NBC has placed a direct order with British production firm Power for a new adaptation of Robinson Crusoe.

The network has ordered 13 hour-long episodes of an "updated and adrenaline-charged for a 21st-century audience" version of Daniel Defoe's classic tale.

Power founder and CEO Justin Bodle said: "This deal is the first for nearly 40 years where a leading British producer has received an order directly from a US network. It is hugely exciting to be producing a network show for NBC, and to be working with Ben [Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment] and his phenomenal creative team. Power is consolidating on its reputation as the leading creator of high-end event drama in Europe and Robinson Crusoe will be a landmark piece of television in more ways than one."

Silverman explained: "One of our key strategies is to look abroad for great production partners. This was an opportunity that made perfect sense for us. Justin Bodle, Chris Philip and the team at Power create high-quality productions and working jointly with Universal Media Studios, we know they will combine to give new life to this classic tale of adventure."

NBC's remake will be the first (TV) adaptation of Defoe's novel since 1964.

I don't intend to keep a running production blog and I'm not going to give away any information on how we're tackling it, either. But NBC are buying action-adventure. So don't expect thirteen weeks of a bloke learning to milk a goat.

I know there's a lot of curiosity about how the concept will be transferred to the screen, and my stance on that is... you're just gonna have to watch it to find out.

Anything else just wouldn't be showbiz.