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Tuesday 21 April 2009

Squawk Like A Pirate

I've got mixed feelings about the jail terms and fines passed by the Swedish courts on the operators of the Pirate Bay filesharing setup. I'd have more sympathy over the sentencing if the guys in question weren't such clanging assholes.

Piracy is, by its very definition, a parasitic act, and the successful parasite is the one that doesn't damage the health of its host. The parasite that taunts, defies, derides and generally abuses what it feeds on is an evolutionary dead end. If you cause pain when you feed, you'll get swatted. If you dance around, hooting and flicking V's, you can be sure you'll get swatted first.

And a kind of evolution is surely what's happening here. Not so much in movies, where the ripping and redistribution of DVDs is hard to defend as anything other than freeloading. But with TV... and TV drama especially... I believe the pirates have set up a genuine model for the future. It's really just a question of the industry catching on to the fact that, just as the pirates stole product from them, they can now steal something back in the form of some free R&D.

Broadcast TV is only good for soaps, news and reality now - background stuff, stuff you can keep one eye on while you do something else, stuff you can dip in and out of, stuff you can talk through. The truly ephemeral stuff with a 24-hour shelf life, or no shelf life at all.

Drama, being immersive in its nature, struggles to thrive in that environment. And, sure enough, it isn't thriving. Even the best dramas don't get ratings these days, because no one wants to settle in for that long, or focus that much, at a time that doesn't necessarily suit them. There's always going to be an appetite for TV drama, but people have definitely lost their taste for being scheduled.

A few short years ago, I can remember celebrating because ITV shifted News at Ten and made all of its nine o'clock dramas ninety minutes long. As a writer I thought that it was going to be a great move - every script would be a feature!

But I was wrong, and it wasn't great. As a viewer, I hated it. Even the slightest story had to be a seven-act marathon. Night after night after night. Imagine if every single meal had to be Christmas f***ing dinner in five courses. The only person who'd be happy would be that mad guy who shows up on the news each December for celebrating Christmas every day (and, frankly, I'm beginning to think he only does it for the attention).

Imagine if the pirates' distribution model was the legitimate one. It's already open to all, but finding and downloading material requires a smidgen of geekiness that excludes the majority. Imagine a global TV market, with fresh product coming in all the time, and with a legal, user-friendly, micropayment-driven interface where you'd pick your shows from a searchable menu and download them to watch, ads-free, at a time of your own convenience. A new season of House begins... you buy it from the source, right away, for buttons. What's not to like?

That's how it's got to go, I reckon. I'd tolerate a sponsored logo or watermark in the corner of the screen, if that were the only way to monetise the copying and passing-on of downloaded files. But the point of micropayments is to make it all too cheap to bother. I reckon that network TV showings will serve the same function that used to be served by hardcover publication in the book trade, where the hardback would sell very few copies but give the book a profile which would pay off in the paperback edition. Indie stuff will be offered straight to market, with no network involvement at all, and live or die by its merits.

You know, once I would have thought it scary. That the reliable, steady stream of broadcast product from the BBC or my regional ITV station might not always be a part of my life. That it might be replaced by a mosaic of my own choices, continually refreshed and revised. But now I can't wait.

And at last we'll be spared the apologists for piracy, with all their talk of Fat Cats and corporate greed and how much they're being ripped off.

For that alone, roll on the future.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Killing the Joke

I've only once given up on a movie and walked out of a cinema in the middle of it, and it was in Las Vegas in 1980. We were backpacking across America from West coast to East, and we were taking full advantage of a cheap room deal and the even cheaper all-you-can-eat buffets in all the casinos.

This was before 'family friendly Vegas' with its Eiffel Tower and sink-on-command pirate ship. The bright lights and the atmosphere were our main entertainment. In a four-day stay we gambled no more than ten dollars on the dime slots and came away with a small profit. There was also a four-foot plush Yosemite Sam that we hadn't wanted to win and that we had to drag along with us for the rest of the trip.

(I won it by throwing a curtain ring over the neck of a Coke bottle in Circus Circus. Which may sound skilful but the bottle I snagged wasn't the one I was aiming at)

(We brought the damned soft toy all the way home and it stood in the corner of our bedroom gathering dust for the next five years, until the dog chewed its foot and finally gave us an excuse to throw it away)


Though there was free champagne in the evenings and sometimes donuts (if you were prepared to sit through a timeshare presentation and wriggle away from the salesperson assigned to you at the end), daytime in 1980 Las Vegas was like the long empty morning after a late party. It was like only we and the housekeeping staff were awake and moving around. To fill the time until the evening, we went looking for an afternoon movie and the only one we could find was a comedy titled Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?

Unpromising as that sounded, the poster featured Robin Williams "in his movie debut". Williams had just starred in Popeye but it was for Mork and Mindy that we rated him. That's what drew us in.


Shoulda known better. Williams was in the movie for no more than two minutes in the most minor of early-career bit parts. The poster was a piece of total opportunism on the part of the distributor. But the film itself...

The film consisted of seriously old and staggeringly obvious jokes, acted-out as literal playlets by a talent-free cast. A joke that takes maybe twenty seconds to tell would take two or three minutes to plod to its punchline, which invariably was so obvious that it had to be visible from space.

We'd paid our money so we stuck it as long as we could, but we were losing the will to live.

If the film proved anything, it's that a narrative is entirely specific to its medium and that to shift its content to another just doesn't work. In a successful adaptation, what comes out is something new, something re-imagined, something... else.

I always think of that piece of unwatchable crap in a Las Vegas fleapit when I hear people expressing bafflement over Alan Moore's attitude to film adaptations of his work. He doesn't want the money; he doesn't want a credit; he'd rather the films weren't made at all.

I've met Alan Moore on a couple of occasions and, without being a comics fan, I've sampled his work a number of times. In person he's thoughtful, intelligent and charismatic; in his work he's achieved more with graphically-conveyed narrative than most lauded novelists.

I reckon that his disowning of the film adaptations springs from the honest recognition that the craft he puts into the page disappears when people dress up and act out the storyline in front of a camera.

Of course, nothing in the Moore-adapted canon is in quite the same league as Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?

Although I have to say that the movie based on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came pretty damn close.

Sunday 5 April 2009

John Garforth

By the miracle of Google (and I can't for the life of me remember what I was looking for at the time) this morning I discovered this, the personal website of one-time - or, more accurately, four-times - Avengers tie-in writer John Garforth.

Garforth wrote four Avengers novels for Panther Books in 1967. Two years earlier Hodder and Stoughton had put out Deadline and Dead Duck, two rather classy tie-ins written by Peter Leslie but with Patrick Macnee credited as their author... a marketing ploy which seemed as transparent and ludicrous to my eleven-year-old self as it does now.

Both had their virtues. Leslie's books read like a literary source from which the show might have been adapted; Garforth's Panthers were shorter, racier, and had a more contemporary feel to them. All were true tie-ins as opposed to novelisations; which is to say, they were original works based on the series' characters, and not pre-existing scripts adapted into prose form.

I'd had a long-standing curiosity about Garforth, who'd seemed to explode with a flurry of published work relating to stuff I was obsessed with (The Champions, Sexton Blake) and then to disappear. The opening scenes of The Passing of Gloria Munday seemed to suggest a familiarity with my part of the world at a time when anywhere that wasn't 'Swinging London' didn't get a look-in, unless it was in a booze-and-shagging kitchen-sink drama.

He didn't disappear, of course. He simply disappeared from my world and got on with his real life. He had a day job in local government, first as a librarian and later as an arts administrator, running the programming for venues that included the King George's Hall, Blackburn (featured in my novella In Gethsemene). He's now a Staffordshire County Councillor and Labour Party activist.

Under the heading of Writer he skips lightly over his published work, saying:
"I found an agent and began to receive commissions as a noveliser of television series and as a ghost writer. These included ‘The Avengers’, ‘Champions’, four Paul Temple novels, Sexton Blake and – the silliest of them all - a novel called The Pallisers based on Simon Raven’s television series. But I earned more during this fifteen year period than most reputable novelists and certainly more from writing than local government was paying... I recommend that if anybody comes across any of these works in second hand shops or jumble sales you buy them and destroy them unread and I will reimburse you the 50p or whatever you paid, as a service to literature."
In my case that's a bit unlikely, given the trouble that I went to in order to track down presentable replacements for my own lost copies!

Scroll down the site's news page, and you'll find a piece titled My Avengers Past Catching Up with Me, in which Garforth discusses the writing of the novels and describes an encounter with Diana Rigg at her Dolphin Square flat.