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Monday 24 November 2008

You Know the Score

Lee Goldberg's comment on The Saint on TV has prompted me to plant another signpost to this underpriced gem, a 3-CD boxed set of Laurie Johnson tracks that includes over 70 minutes of Avengers cues including the full-length "mein liebe rose" track used to torment Mrs Peel in the episode The Joker. Although, I'd guess for some copyright reason, it's minus the German vocal.

(As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm tempted to have it played at my funeral. Imagine how it would creep everyone out!)

The other two discs in the set cover some of Johnson's non-Avengers themes and other orchestral work. Some of this was eye-opening; credits geek though I am, I'd no idea that he'd contributed to the score of Doctor Strangelove.

Right now, the set is on offer from Amazon UK at £4.98. Less than five quid! Unbelievable. Buy one for yourself and one for someone else, and you'll even get free delivery. The US price is higher, but Amazon dealers are offering it for a lot less.

A second 3-disc set expands the collection and includes a similar set of Johnson theme-and-cues from The Professionals, and doesn't cost much more.

Btw, if you go to Lee's blog, check out this rarity; a short test reel for an unnmade Batgirl show, featuring Adam West and Burt Ward and probably knocked out in half a day on an existing set to test the viability of the project.

Sunday 23 November 2008

The Saint on TV

Ian Dickerson has drawn my attention to this DVD, the perfect stocking-filler for the certain-kind-of-TV-geek of which I am one.

Available as a web-only exclusive and currently on pre-order offer at £9.99, The Saint Steps in... to Television is an expanded documentary based on the interviews and extras gathered for Network's boxed-set releases of The Saint and Return of the Saint. There's more than two hours of material and you can view some sample interview footage on the Network website.

Here's how the blurb puts it:

"Previously only available with the best-selling Saint and Return of the Saint DVD box sets, this series of highly acclaimed documentaries has now been revised and expanded with new interviews to form one feature-length documentary. The Saint Steps In... To Television is the definitive look at the series’ production for Lew Grade’s ITC company, as told by those involved in its creation. It covers the full story of how Simon Templar came to the small screen in the early 1960s, the series’ evolution into colour and its revamping and reformatting to fit the shifting trends of a late 1970s audience. Featuring extensive contributions from Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy, Robert S. Baker, Johnny Goodman, Patricia Charteris and many more, this two-hour documentary is the final word on Simon Templar’s time at ITC."

Network is a bit of a national treasure; unashamedly devoted to the 'other' classic TV, the mainstream popular stuff whose showbiz nous and solid craft are only now getting the appreciation they deserve, their releases can be pricey but are put together with knowledge and care. I've written before about their Man in a Suitcase set, but it's their release of Strange Report that opened my eyes to this short-lived, late-flowering series that now emerges one of the most interesting and forward-looking of the ITC shows.

"Criminologist Adam Strange (ANTHONY QUAYLE) takes on the cases that are too difficult, delicate or politically sensitive for Scotland Yard. With the assistance of forensic expert Ham Gynt (KAZ GARAS) and pretty young artist Evelyn McClaine (ANNEKE WILLS), Strange unravels some of London's most complicated crimes..."

While on the Network website I found myself eyeing wistfully their Edwin Astley soundtrack releases. These aren't your usual soundtrack albums, but comprehensive multi-CD sets containing the entire library of music cues composed for the show in question. As well as Astley's work on Danger Man, Department S and Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased, there are sets for Man in a Suitcase and The Prisoner and I'm told that an equally comprehensive set for The Saint is upcoming.

It takes a more specialised taste than mine to engage with every single sting, bumper and bar of incidental music from a show, and while I'm happy to see that someone cares enough to release these sets and that aficionados care enough to buy them, I'd be even happier to see a "slob's digest version" with the themes gathered together on a single CD! All my Astley material is on old cassettes, or on CDs with re-recorded cover versions that mean well but often miss the mark.

Saturday 22 November 2008

Frequently Answered Questions

On Getting Started
I was lucky enough to start as a reader when horror was a subtle art, and just as lucky to start my career at the point where it turned into big business. So my early reading was people like HG Wells, Conan Doyle, Joseph Payne Brennan, and all those marvellous Pan Books of Horror with their tacky head-in-a-bucket covers and some of the most incredibly well-crafted writing inside.

In the 80s it was people like Stephen King and Peter Straub who led the way for writers like me by taking horror into the mass market. Although I think that Ira Levin was there ahead of them with Rosemary's Baby, and John Farris with The Fury. Along with Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home they'd be my main candidates for the founders of the cycle that played itself out at the end of the 90s – I think horror's back to being a subtle art again, in written form at least.

On Breaking In
Whatever it is you want to do, chuck yourself at it at whatever level. I was getting my stories rejected from The Wizard when I was nine. If you write fiction, try the small presses. If you want to do something for the screen, get together and make something with friends. At that stage energy matters more than accomplishment – do stuff for the fun of doing it and don't try to ape big-time professionalism with tiny resources, which was one of my early mistakes.

In the case of film, read lots about the industry. And I mean lots, everything from the silents to Weta Workshop. Don't be one of those people who thinks that film history began with George Lucas. Then when it comes to looking for actual work within the industry, have specific goals – set out to be a runner, or an editor's assistant, or whatever. You aren't going to direct or land screenplay work until you've proven yourself, so make a calculated bid for a specific point of entry. And when somebody asks you what in the business you want to do, don't say "Anything" – there's no such job as an Anything.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Fnaar, fnaar

Been fixing some plumbing.

Don't ask.

F & SF

No, I'm not in it this month... haven't written any short fiction for some time, as it happens, but way back when I started The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was my break-in point.

I can't tell you how proud I was. F & SF was - is - one of the classic genre magazines from the Golden Age, and it continues to this day with the same class and character under editor/publisher Gordon Van Gelder.

The reason I bring it up now is that the mag's just launched an Annual Bundle Offer where you can buy a full year's worth of back issues at discount price. That's eleven issues plus the double anniversary issue for $24 plus shipping.

Friday 14 November 2008

You Know the Face

Probably as J Jonah Jameson or Juno's dad, or as Law and Order's Dr Emil Skoda, or any one of a zillion other shows or movies...

In Gareth Maclean's TV blog in The Guardian he asked the question "Who are TV's most underrated actors?" and I immediately thought of J K Simmons.

Simmons currently plays Police Chief Pope in The Closer. He shows up in quality character parts wherever you look, so it seems churlish to call him undervalued. But he's one of those actors who raises a drama's game and makes everyone look good, while almost never getting the spotlight to himself.

Sunday 9 November 2008

A League of One's Own

In a feature-length episode of Rosemary and Thyme titled The Memory of Water, I wrote a scene in which one of the characters - a fully-qualified anaesthetist, and like everyone else in a 'tec show a potential suspect - explains over coffee in her kitchen a number of suspicious-looking phials that she keeps in her refrigerator.
Katie’s examining the medicine bottle in the light.

It’s for the children’s little ailments. I make it up myself. Do you know how homeopathy works?
You take a heavily diluted form of something that causes the same symptoms as the disease?
Ah. You’ve done a study.
Just what I read in the magazines.
Of course, when they set the dilution levels, they failed to realise that you’d need to drink eight thousand gallons of the stuff to get one molecule of the additive. So then they came up with the Memory of Water.
I was never that good at science.
They say it doesn’t matter if the additive’s long vanished. The water (gives the bottle a shake) remembers it. Now, when I make up medicine for the children, I take that one stage further. I just show the additive to the water. And then the water (shake) imagines it.
(catching on)
You... don’t believe in any of this, do you?
I do believe in the placebo effect. The power of suggestion. And I don’t imagine plain water ever did much harm to anyone.

So, just to recap... a form of medicine that goes one better than homeopathy, where instead of the water having to 'remember' the nonexistent ingredient, you just show it the ingredient and the water 'imagines' it.

Of course, you do something like this, only to find that life outstrips art. A friend who's a science lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire told me, "I was on a course with a biologist and he'd met a bloke who insisted that all you needed to do was write the name of the chemical structure on a piece of paper and put it under the glass. And the water then reads the chemical structure and puts it into the solution. At the time I said you couldn't make this stuff up - seems I was wrong!"

The University made the headlines earlier this year. They'd been offering a BSc Honours degree in Homeopathic Medicine. Not as a rigorous dissection of a pseudoscience in which philosophical conclusions are transmuted into invented principles, but as "a recognisable academic and professionally recognised course for people interested in pursuing a career in homeopathy."

UCLAN is a former Polytechnic that was awarded university status and has been steadily raising its game to merit the name. Many of the staff were horrified to discover that the course was on offer. Now, as a result of "relentless attacks from the anti-homeopathy league", the course has been suspended.

Friday 7 November 2008

Michael Crichton

A year or so after we moved into our current house we had a bookshelf collapse that was a consequence of a) the urge to display far too many cherished hardcovers on a screw-to-the-wall track system, and b) my total inability to put a secure screw into a plaster wall.

One of the most cherished, and one of the few volumes to take any damage from the fall, was my 1972 copy of Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man. It was only a slight tear to the jacket at the top of the spine, but it was still upsetting. I'm not quite your anally-retentive Mylar Snuggs fanboy, but that particular copy is unique.

For a while in the 70s, particularly in that run of stuff from Binary to Westworld, Crichton was one of my career gods in the days way before I had any kind of a career. In 1972, I was still in the Sixth Form. My copy of The Terminal Man was that year's Nancy H Bent Memorial Prize for English, a choice which I suppose would give plenty of scope for snarkiness to commentators who praise Crichton's narrative ability while cutting him down to size on literary quality.

I didn't care. As far as I was concerned, Crichton had nailed it. Then Westworld, precursor of both the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises, nailed it in another medium.

My non-critical appreciation continued until Sphere when, despite myself, I was disappointed. Instead of a novel offering a solid template for adaptation, it felt like the novelisation of a movie that was yet to be made. If I backed off thereafter, my appreciation of the earlier stuff didn't fade. And I did back off... made uncomfortable by an overt misogyny in his treatment of female characters in Jurassic Park and Disclosure, and feeling myself being co-opted into a neo-con didacticism that first showed itself in Rising Sun.

But then I'd turn up something like Runaway, his overlooked (and great fun) 'gadget cop' movie with Tom Selleck and Gene Simmons, or Airframe, a crash-investigation novel that's light on character but an object-lesson in the mastery of detail, and I'd be reminded of all the positives. To my mind, the pilot of ER still stands as a self-contained gem of a TV hour.

Crichton spoke of the obstacles inherent in making drama out of science, and responded to criticism by scientists of the ways in which they saw themselves portrayed.

"Let's be clear," he said in a 1999 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "all professions look bad in the movies. And there's a good reason for this. Movies don't portray career paths, they conscript interesting lifestyles to serve a plot. So lawyers are all unscrupulous and doctors are all uncaring. Psychiatrists are all crazy, and politicians are all corrupt. All cops are psychopaths, and all businessmen are crooks. Even moviemakers come off badly: directors are megalomaniacs, actors are spoiled brats. Since all occupations are portrayed negatively, why expect scientists to be treated differently?"

Adding, quite reasonably: "I'd remind you Jurassic Park does have a scientist as its hero. He's right there, Alan Grant. He saves the kids, he saves the day, rights the wrongs, and looks dashing. Beside him is another hero, Ellie Sattler, a botanist. So in a movie where nearly every character has a doctorate, why talk about wanting to be heroes not villains?"

It's an insightful address, and recommended reading for anyone interested in the workings of the science-based thriller. David Milch's assertion that "the scientific method is antithetical to storytelling" may well be true, but Crichton's genius was in the dramatic work-arounds that bridged the gap between the two.

And now he's gone.

Damn. Didn't see that one coming.

Monday 3 November 2008

Robin Romps

I'm still catching up, or I'd have pulled this post together before now... last Friday saw the broadcast of Andy Rattenbury's Crusoe episode The Mutineers and this week it's the show I've known all year as 'hour five', aka High Water by yer own James Moran.

(The 'hour five' business, for a show that goes out in week four, is an attempt to keep everything straight in my head after embarking on a 13-hour plan and then revising it to accommodate NBC's request for a two-hour opener.)

I promised to name names and here they are; Hour 3/week 2 was by Avrum Jacobson, and future episodes come from Nick Fisher, Debbie Oates, Cameron McAllister, Jack Lothian, and Rohan Gavin. I've taken care of the two-part season closer that brings the running flashback story into the present and wraps it up.

I haven't said much about the actual format, but a few weeks before the premiere I was asked to write something for the press release. This is from that:
Everybody thinks they know Robinson Crusoe, but what people really have is just a small handful of images – a man on a beach with a goatskin umbrella, and a footprint in the sand that everyone thinks is Friday’s (it isn’t). Although a lot of the novel is given over to Crusoe’s patient survival, it’s also a rollicking tale of captures, escapes, disasters, cannibals, mutineers and pirates. Defoe fed on the tales of adventure being conveyed back to England from the Caribbean and the Spanish Main, and he turned them into something that feels almost like documentary fiction.

It was never going to be a matter of translating the book page-by-page to the screen. The French did that brilliantly with the Robert Hoffman series in the 1960s, the one that everyone can sing the theme to. I’m not interested in competing with that memory.

What did interest me was Defoe’s world, and the prospect of being let loose in it. Certain things set me free. Part of the brief was to explore Crusoe’s backstory, and memories of the love of his life back in England. But the fact is, in the book there’s very little of one and nothing at all of the other. All we see of Crusoe’s family life is a mild disagreement with his father, and he doesn’t meet his wife or marry until the sequel, which takes place after his time on the island. But this cue to draw on wider elements pretty much opened up Defoe’s world before me. And when I read a couple of Defoe biographies as part of the background research, I knew where my pitch was going to go.

And it was pretty much this:

I grew up on great filmed adventure series that took characters from history and literature, created a world out of the source material, and then revisited that world on a weekly basis – Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans, Wyatt Earp, Long John Silver. I haven’t seen a show like that in years, and I really miss them.

So let's take that slice of the novel between Friday’s arrival and Crusoe’s escape from the island, and anchor our series arc to its two major incidents – the rescue of an un-named Spanish captain, and the arrival of a shipload of mutineers whose imprisoned crew offer Crusoe his best chance of escape. In amongst those unfolding stories we develop further tales of Crusoe and Friday on their island. For Crusoe’s life and loves in England, rather than add to his life with pure invention I looked to Daniel Defoe himself.

As a child, Defoe lived through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. As a young man he dabbled in dissenter politics, lost fortunes in business, and got swept up in rebellion that had him hiding in fear of his life. It reads like something out of a Rafael Sabatini novel, and it’s in a blend of the creator and his creation that I found the engine for our show.

The other part of the brief was to provide action adventure for a modern audience, and I looked backwards for that one, as well. Back to Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks and all those great seafaring swashbucklers from the Warner Brothers Studios. My DVD bill went through the roof.

What we’ve ended up with is a modern show that I’d like to think Defoe would recognise. It draws on his life and his obsessions as well as his most famous work.

One of the most interesting challenges has been the development of the relationship between Crusoe and Friday. Looking at Defoe’s own sources and other contemporary writings, it quickly became clear that there's more to be explored here than a master-servant relationship. When it comes to survival, Crusoe has nothing to teach Friday and so much to learn. Every skill that Crusoe has struggled to acquire comes naturally to Friday. Crusoe can't pronounce Friday’s true name, while Friday acquires English in a matter of months and speaks it with the eloquence of a natural linguist. Theirs is a partnership of equals in an environment where their very survival depends on it. But what Crusoe knows, and Friday can only suspect, is that if they should ever leave the island together, a very different reality awaits them.

Defoe appears to instruct, but he wrote to entertain and in doing so, he almost single-handedly and at a stroke created the novel of adventure. That’s what we’ve got in our sights with this show. We’ve got ships and shipwrecks, swashbuckling and swordplay. We’ve got amazing tropical locations that don't look anything like your usual desert island, and a wonderfully detailed and atmospheric recreation of Defoe's England. We’ve got great young leads and the starriest cast you’ll find on TV anywhere. And, from a personal point of view, I’ve had more concentrated fun working on this show than just about any other.
The most bizarre moment of these last couple of weeks came when I stopped to fuel the Jeep at a Shell station in Santa Barbara.

Above the pump was a TV screen that came to life and ran ads as the unleaded started to flow. First thing I heard was, "Alone on an island..." then I looked up and there was Philip Winchester with his spyglass, through the gas fumes.

Back to normal now.

I think.

Sunday 2 November 2008

KoB in the NYT

The Kingdom of Bones gets the following nod in the New York Times Book Review:

Gallagher conjures a perfect demon to symbolise the industrial era of the turn of the 20th Century in England and America in a book that "shows the occult mystery in its best light", Marilyn Stasio said in the Book Review.

I'm interested to see how differently readers can interpret the book... some look at it and see an openly occult novel, others see it as a more mainstream novel about people of their time who accept the occult's existence. Their convictions play out in the dawning light of a more rational age.

It's a fine line to walk, and one that fascinates me. I'd visited it before in the novella In Gethsemene, which is why it seemed appropriate to offer the story for download as a kind of taster.

In Gethsemene first appeared in Peter Crowther's angel-themed collection, Heaven Sent (Daw Books). Grab it now if you want to look at it, either by clicking here or on the link in the colum to your right; I'll be taking it offline sometime around the end of the month.

John Brunner

I met British SF great John Brunner in his later years - liked him, but could understand his reputation for a certain spikiness and hauteur. He'd come up to Preston to address our local SF group and when the pub closed we all went back to Bryan Talbot's house, where John was staying.

I was going through an album yesterday and came across a small printed card that he gave me that night. I'm guessing that he carried them and handed them out as a kind of credo. It was signed at the bottom, with a small CND symbol appended. I kept it with the signed pictures of TV stars I collected as a kid.

It's titled What We Have Here. The graffito is quoting, I believe, from Cool Hand Luke, released the previous year.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate" - Graffito in hallway of slum apartment building, Lower East Side, New York, 1968

When those creatures who had men for ancestors
Set off in the ember glow of the dying galaxy
In search of fellow-mourners for its funeral
They came very shortly to Arcturus
And there found bones in heaps around machines
Which had been listening to the sky a million years

And likewise found at Regulus and Rigel
And Deneb and Polaris and Denebola
And Canopus and Capella and Achernar
And sixty systems in the Magellanic Clouds
- piled-up bones -
and electronic ears
Listening and listening
while no one spoke

Autograph News

Issue 25 of Graham Groom's Autograph News UK is now out, and here's another snippet from my interview therein:

I’ve got one last thing to say about autographs, and it’s a general point. Only ask if it means something. There are people out there who compulsively harvest signatures from people they neither know nor care about, and it shows in the request.

I’ve a friend who used to draw for Count Duckula. He had a request from a child for an original sketch for her school project, which he’d have been happy to oblige with were it not for the fact that he got the same request from every other kid in the class. The teacher had set the assignment and given them all his address.

Need I say this is not the way it’s done?