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Saturday 28 June 2008

Step Aside, Mister Bond

If ever you needed someone to save the world, I was your guy.

Mind you, I was only nine at the time.

I think it was an ad in one of the Man from Uncle tie-in novels that gave an address where you could write in and be recruited as an UNCLE agent. The card arrived about three weeks later in a small brown envelope. I believe that MI5 operate in a similar way today.

I might have had more confidence in the world's prospects for international security if the office person responsible had managed to spell my name right.

There was no end to my talents back then. I was licensed to fly Supercar, as well.

Wednesday 25 June 2008


Good Dog mentioned a couple of classic series and broke a memory... I was a Presentation trainee in Granada's Manchester studios when they were making The XYY Man, and one of our control room monitors was hooked to the studio feed. So I saw everything the studio cameras saw, both during and between takes. I watched Paul Freeman getting shot and sliding down a fridge door four or five times, so they could get the blood smear right.

My Controller was a formidable lady named Paddy Owen - she'd been an army driver at the Nuremberg War Crime trials - and though she was terrifying to a new kid in the first year of his first job, she loved actors and they loved her. And she seemed to know all of them.

So when the shift was over we went across to the Stables bar, and I ended up drinking with Freeman and Paddy... I think Stephen Yardley was there for some of the evening as well. It's hard to say. Working in TV in the 70s seemed to involve being drunk a lot of the time.

Before it was a bar the Stables had been a theatre for a while, but it had originally been a home for railway horses. Granada owned a large area of derelict warehouses and goods yards across the road from the Quay Street studios, and had been negotiating with city planners to develop the land.

The negotiations went on for years, and in the meantime various temporary uses were made of it. The set for the Coronation Street soap was over there; they built it on a cobbled marshalling yard, where the physical restrictions of the site meant that for several years of the show the cobbles ran at a strange oblique angle to the pavement. The Baker Street standing set for the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes went up in the same area, but that was after I'd left to go freelance.

Student vacation work apart, that time at Granada represents the only real job I've ever had. I was there for five years. Nowadays, a TV company is an office full of people and corridors stacked with boxes of photocopy paper. But Granada in the late 70s, the "David Plowright era", was the real thing. They made stuff, all kinds of stuff, and an unofficial education was available to any employee with the right kind of curiosity. During night shifts I wandered the sets of Laurence Olivier Presents. I watched my friend Jim Pope synching commentary for World in Action. And out on that railway backlot I watched John Irvin direct the arrival of the circus troupe for the cracking adaptation of Charles Dickens' Hard Times that started Granada's run of big-budget filmed drama (and pointed Irvin, a former World in Action documentaries director, toward a feature career).

Later they developed the site for a short-lived studio tour and now it's mostly offices. There's still some production there - Cracker was made in Manchester, and the UK version of Eleventh Hour had its production office suite in the warehouse - but everything's changed.

For nostalgia's sake, I went looking for the old Central Control Room where I used to work.

I got lost.

Tuesday 24 June 2008

Man in a Suitcase

I just finished working my way through the boxed set of the 1967-68 ITC series Man in a Suitcase. It's taken me longer than I expected it to, and it's provoked some mixed feelings.

It's a show that I was enormously impressed by, the first time around. And I still am, but in a qualified way. So much of it holds up. Both Ron Grainer's theme and the credits sequence (designed by ITC regulars Chambers and Partners) are pretty well timeless. As is the simple but powerful premise of a scapegoated CIA man using his old skills as best he can to make a below-the-radar living in Europe.

Perhaps the most impressive element is a central performance of towering integrity and commitment by Richard Bradford; almost unknown before the series, almost forgotten after it until he resurfaced in a string of steady character roles for American TV.

Bradford prowls through the show with the grace and presence of a jungle animal, once wounded, twice shy, forever set on avoiding trouble, forever unsuccessful at staying out of it. My decades-old recall is of him getting the shit beaten out of him on a weekly basis, at the end of which he'd haul himself up off the ground and totter away with his trust often betrayed, but his dignity always intact.

All of which is what made the show stand out in my memory. What let it down this time around was just about everything else.

You can make allowances for the production values of the day; a good story will overcome that, no problem. But with a handful of exceptions, Man in a Suitcase didn't get good stories. What it mostly seems to have got, if you believe the rumours, was rejected Saint scripts made-over for the character.

So by the middle of the set I was flagging and when I got to the end, I had to go back to the pilot episode (Man from the Dead) and watch it again to remind myself why I've always held the series in such high regard.

The whole "Yank in London" setup made brilliant sense in the context of the premise, whereas in shows like The Baron and The Adventurer it was an obvious matter of commercial calculation. McGill's London felt real, with well-chosen locations and the sense of a genuine city rather than a tourists' backdrop. There in the pilot were the grit, the texture and the coherence that would slowly leach out of the episodes that followed, leaving Bradford standing there like the one enduring feature in an eroding landscape.

He wasn't popular with other cast and the crew, by all accounts. In his autobiography, Supervising Editor John Glen wrote, "Richard didn't seem to believe that acting was essentially about pretending, and wanted to do everything for real."

One can only imagine the eye-rolling and the after-hours bar chat that this must have provoked. But well done, Richard; time has proven you right.

There's a wonderfully bonkers version of the theme arranged for two flamenco guitars here.

Saturday 14 June 2008

Gallic Noir

I just got back from a few days in Paris (and if that doesn't make you even a little bit jealous, then I can only suppose it's a place you've never visited yet).

As soon as I got to my hotel room I did what comes naturally to every visitor to a distant city. I picked up the remote and spent a few minutes wallowing in the sights and sounds of strange telly.

There was a TV Guide in the room and, to my delight, I discovered that the much anticipated second season of Engrenages began on Canal Plus this month.

Engrenages is a French cops'n'justice drama, the first season of which was made in 2005. It aired in a subtitled version under the name of Spiral on BBC4 in 2007, and was popular enough to merit an instant repeat. I watched both showings, and then I borrowed a friend's off-air recordings and watched it again. It was my absolute favourite TV piece of last year.

But then, I really love a good French policier. I find them stylish and atmospheric and downbeat-romantic. I think the film that probably hooked me was Bob Swaim's La Balance, recently reissued in a sparkling-sharp DVD that, but for the dated visual style of the credits, could easily have persuaded me that I was looking at a movie no more than five years old. In a class with La Balance is Bertrand Tavernier's tense, funny and moving L.627, both films featuring credible and human police teams operating in a morally murky environment.

More formal and classical in style is the work of Jean Pierre Melville, whose Le Cercle Rouge received the full Criterion treatment on DVD. It sent me on a Melville jag in which none of the director's other films - Le Samourai, Bob le Flambeur, L'Armee des Ombres - ever quite managed to match the kick of that first viewing.

I did better with Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose 1947 film Quai des Orfevres looked as if it was going to be dated but proved to be sharp and surprising and superbly well-crafted. Clouzot is best known for Les Diaboliques and La Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear); Alfred Hitchcock paid him the compliment of viewing him as a rival, taking style tips from Les Diaboliques and nabbing the rights to the next novel by the same writers and making it the basis for Vertigo.

Although not strictly a policier, I think my favourite French crime thriller of recent years has to be Sur Mes Levres, aka Read My Lips. It was the film that Jacques Audiard made before the better-known (but, in my humble opinion) not-as-good The Beat My Heart Skipped. It features Emanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel, as a deaf secretary and a convicted prisoner on work-release. They're a misfit pair of outsiders who join forces to rob the company that employs them.

Cassel I consider a magnetic performer and a natural, albeit unusual, leading man; he's made several English-language movies but has always been cast without imagination as an accented, unpleasant villain. But see him in this, see him in La Haine, see him in the batty but beautifully-made Les Rivieres Pourpres with the ever-watchable Jean Reno.

(and skip the sequel, which was an absolute stinker)

But back to Engrenages... after the reception of the first season, a subtitled UK airing of the second must surely be a no-brainer. I loved the casting, I loved the fluid, easy Continental camera style, with a lot of high-quality handheld work and none of that faux-naif camera shake meant to imitate a spontaneous vitality.

(And which I hate. It's lame. Frederic Wiseman, the great documentary observer to whom such camera styles owe everything, never shook the camera or made a virtue out of hosepiping around a scene or in-shot reframing; he simply picked up his camera and observed, using as little obvious technique as he could.)

The BFS Awards

I've just learned that both The Kingdom of Bones and Plots and Misadventures feature in the recommendations list for the British Fantasy Awards, voted by the membership of The British Fantasy Society and announced each year at Fantasycon.

It's not an actual nomination or even a shortlisting, so let's not get carried away. But it's a thrill to see the titles in there, amongst such great company. The Kingdom of Bones gets a mention for the August Derleth best novel award, and Plots and Misadventures is listed under the recommendations for Best Collection.

The BFS membership will choose the shortlist in an online vote that runs until August 1st. Best to do my bragging while I still can.

Saturday 7 June 2008

Characters that Stick

"Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you into a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon and his sympathy had no warp."

When I was fifteen, I thought that writing couldn't get any better than John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. I thought that no ensemble could ever be sketched with so light a touch as the amiable drifters who rent the run-down Abbeville place from Lee Chong's Grocery. I also thought that there could be no more rounded a portrait of human decency than that of Doc, owner and operator of the Western Biological Laboratory.

Doc was closely based on Steinbeck's friend Ed Ricketts. His portrayal mingles affection and respect in equal measures. Doc holds no public office and makes very little money selling the specimens he collects, but everyone in Cannery Row looks up to him. Although far from a saint, he's a natural teacher, an interested listener, a flawed romantic. Time in his company, I imagined, would be time well spent.

Do I still feel the same? Your tastes change with the years but, mostly, I think I do. A couple of years ago I was close to Monterey and I took the opportunity to stop by Cannery Row.

Yep, that's me on the stairs. Right where it all happened. Or would have happened, if it hadn't been fiction. If you know what I mean.

Cannery Row is for tourists now (some nice pictures and a description of a visit here), but Ricketts' original marine laboratory building is still there.

It's modest and shabby, and doesn't it look exactly like you'd want it to look?

Thursday 5 June 2008

Valley of Lights

Once again, a question in the comments spawns a post... Stan, people are gonna start talking.

The true answer to the question (about which of my novels I'd most like to see adapted) is The Spirit Box, for reasons I'll go into another time, but for now here's an extract from my afterword to the Telos Classics edition of Valley of Lights, preceded by a spot of scene-setting:

A routine call to a sleazy Phoenix hotel throws police sergeant Alex Volchak into a world where the brain-dead check themselves out of hospital, and a stranger can seem to know the most intimate details of his life. Like his feelings for Loretta, the neighbour who's more than a friend, and her daughter Georgina, so much the child he never had. Volchak finds himself on the hunt for a child killer, someone who can apparently switch bodies with ease, and who is playing games with the police. And then Georgina is taken.

Although I was a Granada employee for five years, I never freelanced for the company until the commissioning of Dark Matter (as Eleventh Hour was initially called). They took an interest in my writing while I was there, though. I worked in the Presentation Department as an Assistant Transmission Controller, which basically meant I did the hands-on cut/wipe/fade business involved in getting all the day's scheduled material onto the air. There was some office prep involved but most of our time was spent in a windowless control room in the bowels of the Quay Street building, where we lived like moles.

Every now and again I'd get a call inviting me to a meeting... not a pitch meeting, just a get-to-know to find out what this bloke in the cellar was up to. One such call was from Gerry Hagan, head of the Script Department. As a result of it he put me in touch with Stuart Orme, a TV director on the lookout for film projects. There was no real Granada angle to this; it was just the kind of thing that Gerry was known for.

Stuart has since gained a profile as a director of high-end British TV (he directed The Sculptress and the recent adaptation of The Lost World) but back then he was making a mark in the newly-burgeoning music video business and looking for a feature. Our first attempt at getting one off the ground was an adaptation of my second novel, Follower, the story of a man stalked by a shape-changer from Norse mythology with a choice of setting not a little influenced by Gavin Lyall's Blame the Dead. We got that one half-financed, but the project foundered for lack of British investment to match the Norwegian oil money we found.

I showed Valley of Lights to Stuart while it was still in manuscript. He brought in his MTV producing partners and together they optioned the material. The company was named AWGO, comprising the initials of the principals (along with Stuart there were Marcello Anciano and Martin Wyn Griffith). They had offices on Beak Street on the fringes of Soho, just around the corner from Curtis Brown where Leah Schmidt, the media half of my wizard new representation team, was busily remaking my screenwriting career.

My main memory of the AWGO building is of a shared stairway that was like something out of Graham Greene; ill-lit, peeling, decorously decaying... but then, almost every film company I've ever had dealings with has been approached by a stairway exactly like it. The uncollected mail on the stairs. The mysterious co-tenants who never appear.

I suppose the appeal of the material would have been obvious, in retrospect. It was a natural low-budget genre piece that hit all the commercial buttons and was eminently makeable, had a fantastical premise that called for no elaborate or expensive effects, and it offered a bunch of eager Brits like us an 'in' to the American filmmaking scene. I wrote the screenplay, and they sent it out. First to the big studios and then to some of the larger independents like New Line, Handmade, Cannon, The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Wherever it went, the script seemed to make a mark. By 1986 AWGO were encouraged enough to take me out to Los Angeles, from where we struck out further on a tour of Arizona locations that I documented in the diary that forms a part of this book.

It was a magical collection of moments but, in the end, the movie fell through. We'd got so close, in fact, that AWGO had begun hiring production people and was able to raise the money from Zenith to go beyond a yearly option and buy the novel's film rights outright. So I did pretty well out of it, the downside being that those rights will never revert to me - they're Zenith's property now, and always will be.

But those who'd shown most interest eventually said pass, and some of them went off and developed similar properties of their own. Will the chances of our seeing a Valley of Lights movie ever be revived? I kind of doubt it, and for one reason only, which is that it no longer has the fresh currency that it would have had were we to have made it back then. The pursuit of a body-hopping entity in a crime/horror fusion was to become a staple in films of the late '80s and '90s, and I fear we've seen enough of them. The trend began with New Line's 1987 The Hidden, in which Kyle Mclachlan's Lloyd Gallagher chases down a disembodied alien whose targets for occupation along the way include a police lieutenant.

People told me to sue. But who's to say it wasn't coincidence? And in truth, I rather enjoyed The Hidden and had little heart for kicking up a fuss about it. Since then there's been Fallen, Wes Craven's Shocker, even a body-hopping plotline in Twin Peaks...

There are times when you just need to lay down your cards and move on to the next hand.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

Book into Film (2)

In the comments section, Stan asked:

"On the topic of novel-to-film translations, what would be your favourites? I was very impressed with 'LA Confidential' and 'The English Patient' - they both seemed to condense large novels without really losing anything (although they did actually dispense with a lot of plot and characters). It's a crime that 'Titanic' got best picture Oscar instead of 'LA Confidential'!"

The same question came up in the magazine interview I mentioned a couple of posts back, so for speed and sheer laziness here are a couple more cherrypicks from it:

The question was, What kinds of books do you feel best translate to film or television?

And I said

A strong story with a good structure, fashioned as a narrative in which events shape character and lead to some form of crisis, is always going to play well in either medium. I re-watched LA Confidential a couple of nights ago and was reminded of how it's one of those rare films that's not just adapted from a novel, but feels as satisfying as one.

I think Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying is pretty well unfilmable. Two adaptations have proved it. But you have to read it to see why. There's no cinematic parallel for the way that Levin manipulates viewpoint and reader perception.

I haven't read the source novel of The English Patient so I can't say much on that subject, although I understand that the book's style and structure called for some radical reorganisation from Anthony Minghella.

I usually point to Ted Tally's screenplay adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs as my idea of the model adaptation. It's the heart and guts of the book – images, relationships, pace, atmosphere, everything the author was looking to put into prose – properly and cinematically re-imagined. And there are moments in the Boam/Cronenberg version of The Dead Zone that nail what Stephen King's all about, better than any film-of-the-book before or since. But for something extraordinary, I'd maybe have to say The Night of the Hunter.

(The screenplay for which is credited to critic James Agee, although Robert Mitchum would later claim that Charles Laughton disliked Agee's material so much that Laughton paid him off and rewrote the screenplay himself. Usually I'm seriously doubting of such director-aggrandising stories and in this case, Agee's reputation is supported by the 2004 discovery of his first draft. Though it's overlong, Laughton's film apparently follows it scene-for-scene. If Agee nailed the structure and the scenes, then he wrote the film; anything beyond that is editing.)

(And for the avoidance of doubt, I also think that Laughton did a brilliant job.)

Monday 2 June 2008

The Birds

From Variety, and presented without comment:

Cathy Schulman has made her first hires and promotions as president of Mandalay Pictures and Mandalay Independent Pictures. A highlight of the Mandalay Pictures' slate at Universal is the remake of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, scheduled to be in production by early fall.

"We think we have a very contemporary take," Schulman said. "In the original, the birds just showed up, and it was kind of like, why are the birds here? This time, there's a reason why they're here and (people) have had something to do with it. There's an environmental slant to what could create nature fighting back."

No. Really. I'm not going to add anything.

Why Libraries Matter

According to The Guardian, several publishers are planning to put recommended age ranges on the covers of their children's books.

It strikes me as an earnest but dumb idea. How do you categorise Enid Blyton, whose continuing popularity depends on children whose reading age is racing ahead of their emotional maturity? How do you keep the slow reader reading when the only suitable material is branded for significantly younger children?

And who the hell knows what's age-appropriate anyway? At 11 I was reading Richmal Crompton, Ian Fleming, R M Ballantyne and The Rocket Ship Saboteurs. And by 13 I'd discovered Alfred Bester and had a go at Joyce's Ulysses.

Didn't get very far, but there was no one to tell me I shouldn't.

But then, this isn't about reading. It's about buying. Every book I mentioned, I found in the Library. It cost me nothing to explore.

Sunday 1 June 2008

Book into Film

Inspired by the questioner mentioned in my previous post, who wanted to know how best to scan a novel into his computer before starting to adapt it, I've dug out some thoughts that I put together for a Writers' Guild newsletter some time back. Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings series had just got under way, and provided handy examples. The pic shows Sophie Ward, who starred along with Nigel Havers in Peter James' Prophecy.

Adapting is not a matter of reformatting. Adaptation is re-imagination. When you're reading prose, the incidents may run as vividly in your head as when you're watching a movie, but don't let that mislead you into thinking that there can't be that much difference between them.

Back in 1997, Pumpkin Books published the full text of Dracula: or, the Un-Dead, the first-ever stage adaptation of Stoker's novel. Performed once-only in a bare-stage reading with the sole purpose of securing theatrical copyright protection, it was exactly the kind of cut-and-paste, prose-into-playtext version envisioned by that Guild member a full century later.

As a historical document, it's fascinating; but viewing it as drama, it's hard to disagree with Henry Irving's back-of-the-stalls opinion of "Dreadful."

It doesn't work. It doesn't play.

It doesn't offer an equivalent experience in the target medium. And that, really, is what it's all about.

True adaptation is neither for the inexperienced nor the faint-hearted. Like Richard Gordon's Sir Lancelot Spratt, you have to be ready to make a huge incision and then dive in with both hands. You have to absorb the book and try to get inside the author's thinking, trying to get a sense in your bones of what he or she was gripped by and reaching for.

In the end it comes down to two raw materials. Impulse, and image.

These were the things that came before the prose. By impulse I mean the shape, the feel of the thing. Its tone, its purpose, its play on the emotions. And by image I mean the elements through which all those vague components are externalised. Images are those things that stay in your head when you've forgotten the plot. And often they're the things that are in the author's head before the plot gets worked around them. How many times have you read an author saying something like, "I got this idea in my mind of a man walking down a dusty road with a saddle over his shoulder, and I wanted to know who he was, where he'd come from, where he was going..."

Images aren't so much pictures, as key moments. William Goldman recommends finding the five most important ones in a story and charting everything else around them. Sometimes you'll be able to take material from the book in order to do that, a lot of the time you'll find yourself inventing stuff in the spirit of the book. You need a structure that works for the screen, you need a narrative progression that can be rendered in terms of things you see and sounds you hear because, let's face it, that's what a movie is.

In recent months we've seen a couple of adaptations within our genre that are, by general agreement, as faithful to their sources as commercial celluloid is likely to get. I'm talking about the Harry Potter and the Tolkien - although I've actually heard at least one Tolkien purist griping along the lines of, "They shouldn't have been walking along like that, they should have been walking like this..."

The Potter was a pretty straightforward job, but given the size of the enterprise and the unforgiving nature of some of the judges that awaited them, I think that Jackson and his co-writing team had to be more bloody, bold and resolute than most. LOTR is as near to the page on the screen as you're likely to get; but break it down, beat by beat and moment by moment, and you can see that it isn't the page on the screen at all.

Adaptation means absorbing the author's work and then getting into the author's shoes and then doing the job anew. And all your moment-by-moment decisions have to be made in the light of the new and radically different medium that you're now serving. You can't blame the book if you go wrong. You're the captain, now.

Your assets? Cineliteracy, for one. Believe it or not, film history did not begin with George Lucas or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Conciseness, for another. The best story points are the ones that the viewers pick up without being told directly, the implications they see in some well-chosen piece of dramatic business. Some writers never get this. Few things can make a viewer lose the will to live more than a scene with two people in a room, sitting there and explaining the plot to each other.

A sense of pace won't go amiss, either. Film pacing is all about compression and omission. Goldman again: get into a scene late, get out of it early. The beauty of film narrative is that you can run parallel streams of action and, by cutting between them, maintain the illusion of real time without actually sticking to it. Get that dynamic into your head, and the 'secret' of screenwriting moves to within your reach.

And lastly, never admit to this, but a little sense of poetry does no harm either. Kong on top of the Empire State Building is not just a monkey on a roof. Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart walking off into the fog are not just there to show you what the weather's like in Casablanca.

Adaptation is not an easy option, although I have to say that it does spare you the agony and brow-sweat of dragging something out of thin air where there was nothing before. Back in 1994 I had great fun adapting Peter James' Prophecy for Yorkshire TV. Peter had done all the work of the imagination; I took all his work on board and then applied invention to render it as film. On one level I changed everything, but it a more important sense I changed nothing at all... I was conscious of the responsibility to show you what was already there, but in a different way.

Peter still talks to me, so I must have done something right. There's another discussion to be had, about adaptations that plunder and then wilfully misrepresent their source material in order to serve someone else's creative agenda… but, what do you know? I've used up all my space.