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Friday 31 December 2010

Misheard in the Movies

Line heard in Don't Wait, Django, Shoot! a badly-dubbed spaghetti western on the low-rent movies4men channel last night: a character looks out of a window to see a man emerging from the building across the street.

The line was meant to be, "Here's a mouse coming out of its hole."

What we heard, thickly-accented, was, "He 'as a mouse coming out of 'is hole."

After Gutenberg...

I was thinking about writing a blog post on my trickiest-ever script assignment, and was scrolling through the news section of my old website trying to locate a particular item when I came across this review of The Painted Bride from The Washington Times.
The Painted Bride (Subterranean Press, $40, 181 pages) is veteran thriller-writer Stephen Gallagher's tense melodrama spun from the mysterious disappearance of auto dealer Frank Tanner's wife Carol, the stalled police investigation into Frank's possible guilt - and the complications ensuing from the obsessive actions of Carol's burnt-out, former drug-taking younger sister Molly, who knows Frank did away with his wife, and devotes her dwindling energies to protecting the children now in his care and bringing him to justice.

Mr. Gallagher expertly shifts among several characters' frazzled viewpoints, detailing the progress of Molly's "investigation" and Frank's suspicious evasive actions in crisp, quick scenes, making chilling use of a child's drawing of a woman in a red dress ("the painted bride"), leading toward a series of violent climaxes at a seaside ferry terminal, where crucial secrets are unearthed - and the paradoxical image of the nurturing parent as murdering monster is finally engaged and explained.

There's even a hint of the supernatural in an endangered child's anguished outcry... It's a neat capstone to an accomplished and suitably unpleasant shocker.

The print edition sold out and I've now priced it as the cheapest of my Kindle titles... if you got a device for Christmas and you've already downloaded all the free classics from Project Gutenberg (and why wouldn't you?), then you might want to give it a go.

(In England that's what we call a 'hard sell')

Monday 27 December 2010

On Method

For anyone fascinated by process, and I know I'm not alone, here's an example from Derren Brown's blog in which he records, with staged photographs, the evolution of a painted portrait. It has a relevance to writing that I'll explain in a moment.

For those from outside these shores who may not be familiar with Derren Brown's TV work, he's a magician and mentalist cut from the same cloth as Penn and Teller. He combines an Edwardian illusionist's showmanship with a modern sensibility. He tells you that he's about to deceive you and then compels your sense of wonder anyway.

I'd heard that he painted in his spare time. I may have assumed that he'd be one of those celebrity artists who paints like a chimp and gets bought by sycophant millionaires; if that's what I thought then I was wrong. Derren Brown is a talented painter with a deep grasp of craft, as this developing sequence shows.

Back in my teens I remember getting a valuable lesson from my school art teacher, Mr Chapman. Observing one of us (maybe me) starting off a drawing with some particular feature at a random spot on the paper and then spreading the detail outward like a growing crystal, he stopped the class and explained the simple basics of managing composition. Da Vinci didn't start with the Mona Lisa's eye and keep adding; he laid out the painting's broad blocks of shape first and then worked from big strokes to fine detail. Get the big structure right first; then steadily finesse it, keeping overall control.

A few years later I saw a series of TV programmes by convicted art forger Tom Keating, in each of which he reproduced step-by-step the techniques of various past masters. Genial, and with a love of his subject, Keating deconstructed each painter's journey from structure to detail. The sketches and inspirations that initiate a painting; the laying-out of an overall visual structure; the transfer of drawing onto canvas; the underpainting; the glazes; the final surfacing where the detail from those first sketches finds its place in the bigger scheme.

And the more I saw of other people's processes, the more I realised that at heart the arts are all the same. The sculptor who marks up the outside of a block of stone and then removes the chunks to establish a shape. The composer who orders and connects musical ideas to create a sense of progression and arrival before tackling orchestration. In every case, a sense of the big shape is the key to everything, like a builder pegging out the lines of a building on the ground before the first walls begin to rise.

My school had another art teacher, Mr Connolly. The writing lesson I got from him concerned telephone boxes. One morning he set us the task of drawing a regular red telephone box, the classic cast-iron design that could be seen on almost every street corner back then. I think I walked past at least two of them on my way to school every day. We all knew what they looked like so down our heads went, easy-peasy, scribbling away.

Seems we didn't know what a telephone box looked like at all.

No two depictions were the same and none was even close to life. We had no idea of the number of windows, of how the roof attached to the sides, what the signage was...

The second part of the lesson was to be sent out to look at the box that stood just a couple of hundred yards from the school and this time, to draw from direct observation.

Observation. It's part of the job. Not just of the physical world you're writing about but the details of life and living, of the shadings of human nature. You can get away without it, do no research, make stuff up, rely on the shared experiences of TV and other people's fiction to do the work for you; but that kind of attitude produces very soft fiction indeed. The kind you get from those naive writers who 'write from a trance-like state'.

I didn't keep up with the art. I liked to paint as long as I thought I was good at it. I realised that this affection had more vanity than love in it when I grasped how much more I had to learn. Instead of being eager to tackle the learning, I was deterred. Like so many, all I really wanted was to be told how good I already was.

Sunday 26 December 2010

Christmas, and a plug for my Kindle stuff

I reckon I must have had a happy childhood because most of my Christmas gifts seem to recall it in one way or another. I'm kinda shameless in the hints I drop but at least it makes me easy to buy for. How else could anyone know that my old Corgi Batmobile needed a nice repro box and liner? (Seven quid, handmade, from Twentieth Century Box UK. Lovely work, and there's no way this guy can be making any money out of it.)

If you're puzzling over a shiny new Kindle today and looking for something to download onto it, let me remind you with an equal lack of shame that I have mucho stuff online now - click here for the UK selection or here for a US link, or just hop on Amazon and search the Kindle store with my name.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

The Danger List

My producers have now made an official announcement about the new show I've been developing for Fox, so I suppose it's OK to at least mention it... but as it's a work-in-progress, don't expect me to say too much about it just yet.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy (2)

UPDATE: Check out Andy Greenwood's contribution to the comments section on the original post. Apparently the Laurel and Hardy collection exists in two forms, and Amazon withdrew the set from sale for a while due to a customer complaint about the goods as described.

As far as I can see it's a packaging issue and not a disc quality issue; the first boxed set had better cases and booklet inserts, while the second set (which this is) has the same material with bare-bones packaging and no booklets.

If that's a problem for you, apologies if I've steered you wrong. Personally I still think it's a great buy.

Amazon has now revised the sales info and the set's available again, still bouncing around under the £30 mark. For my part, I feel that packaging rarely adds value to a DVD; I'd say never, but there will always be the glaring exception of my beloved King Kong in a tin. Which I note can currently be picked up in the US from Amazon sellers for around five dollars plus shipping.

Which low price suggests that the added value is personal to me, and hardly a market enhancement. The difference between, say, a vinyl LP in a well-designed sleeve, and a CD in an all-purpose jewel case with a disposable insert, mirrors a change in our perceptions. In making the packaging more generic and more convenient to themselves, distributors have hastened our changing attitude along. LPs were kinda lovely. But now when I buy movies or music, I don't particularly want them taking up space in my house.

Monday 6 December 2010

Pipe Bursts

True story.

The late '70s weren't exactly the biplane-and-barnstorming days of television technology, although looking back from today it can sometimes seem like it. In Granada TV's Presentation Department we ran traffic control on live feeds both from network and our own studios, analog VT from two-inch tape, and an array of telecine machines that had gone missing from some museum. Whatever film you put on them, out came Arthur Askey.

Our tools and continuity aids were glass-mounted slides, cardboard captions, a clock in a brightly-lit box with some complicated swinging mirror arrangement, and a small team of continuity announcers (including friend-of-the-blog Malcolm Brown) ready to leap in and burble off-the-cuff with total confidence for however long it took for an on-air breakdown to be fixed, resolved, or otherwise dodged-around. Our workplace was a wall of TV screens and a vision mixing desk that I was told had been thrown out by the Post Office some ten years before.

(At that time the GPO handled the routing and switching of all telecommunications land lines, as well as the mail... that's how London's Post Office Tower got its name.)

Each day's commercials came on three, sometimes four 35mm reels that had to be assembled and then broken down daily by the Film Ops department. Everything ran to a schedule and the breaks were of an allotted length. The Sales people in London would work until the last minute to sell the available commercial time, but inevitably there would be some breaks - mostly in the afternoons, or late at night - that wouldn't be fully sold.

Sometimes we could just reconfigure the schedule on the hoof and make those breaks shorter. But mostly that wasn't an option... it could throw out your timings and cause problems further down the line. Or it would leave telecine or VT with insufficient time to run through the leader in the middle of a reel to line up the next part of whatever we were showing.

In those cases we had a book of Central Office of Information films that we could slot into the gaps. They were the same length and format as our commercials and they cost the company nothing to run. If you watched British TV back then, they'll be etched into your consciousness. French Frank, with Graham Stark, was a genuinely witty short about the safest way to reverse an articulated lorry. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was a safety warning aimed at children, so traumatising that we were forbidden to schedule it when children might be watching.

Then there was Pipe Bursts. My personal favourite.

The maximum length of an ITV break in the late '70s was three minutes and forty seconds. That was three and a half minutes of commercial time plus ten seconds' allowance for the fractional spaces in between ads and the reaction time of the controller. The last film clip in every break would have ten seconds of freeze-frame on the end, to bridge any final gap.

Pipe Bursts looked like a home movie shot by the kind of bloke who built his own caravan. I still can't decide whether it was genuinely inept, or a gonzo work of calculated amateur charm.

The 'freeze frame' consisted of everyone in the family standing as still as they could, for as long as they could.

Which wasn't very long.

Whenever there was a gap, and the choice was mine to make, I'd slot it in. By rolling everything tight and cutting fast, I could get to the end of a three-and-a-half minute break with almost the full ten seconds to spare.

Ten seconds is a looooooong time on a TV screen. Watch the little girl on the right.

Whoever uploaded this... if it was taken from live TV, chances are I was on shift at the time.

NB: For maximum cringe, click the lower right-hand corner of the Youtube box to view it fullscreen. Press Esc afterwards to return to normal.

Tuesday 30 November 2010


By one means or another I try to keep up with at least the pilots of the new crop of each season's US TV shows, and in the current season one's been the standout for me - Terriers, from FX, starring Donal Logue (who I thought was miscast in Life but is perfect here) and Michael Raymond-James (who played the Cajun guy in season one of True Blood).

Imagine the Fred Ward/Kevin Bacon team from Tremors transplanted, along with their pickup truck, to scratch a living as unlicensed private eyes in a beachfront suburb of San Diego, and you'll have a sense of what it's about.

Not an exact sense, of course, because this isn't a high-concept drama; the private eye thing gives it genre credentials and offers the viewer a point of entry but once inside, it's a character-driven show. One of the questions you'll often hear in development is, "What's [insert name of main character]'s superpower?" These characters don't have any. They've got their wits and their good hearts and their tenacity, and they're written and played in such a way that they will - if you commit to the show and get to know them - win you over.

And therein lies the problem. Terriers is a critics' darling but almost no one has been watching, despite a pedigree that includes creator Ted Griffin (Oceans 11) and showrunner Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and a bunch of gorgeously-shot stories that balance intrigue and emotion. It's hard to win over an audience that doesn't show up.

Various reasons have been offered for the audience's failure to find the show (do you see what I did there?) Some blame the title, which I suppose doesn't help; it wasn't much of a hook for me, I know. Others blame a misleading/off-putting advance campaign, which I can't comment on because I didn't see it.

The latest argument I've heard is that Terriers is at odds with the FX 'brand'; though it seems to me to be a perfectly compatible companion in tone and content to Justified, FX's hit of a previous season.

As I write this, the show's first season is coming to a close and the prospect of a second is far from certain. I think FX would be mad to dump this gem. They'll search long and hard to find a property of this quality and it makes far more sense to regroup, try again, maybe with a 'special event' marathon rerun of the entire season, and get the marketing right this time.

UPDATE: 'Twas not to be. FX cancelled the show on December 5th.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy

I don't often do this, but there's an insane price for the complete Laurel and Hardy collection on Amazon right now; the boxed set originally retailed around two hundred quid. It includes foreign-language versions of some of the shorts made for export, with different supporting casts and, in some cases, extra routines and material.

Plus, these are the decently-mastered DVDs; there's plenty of L&H material out there, but with little guide to the quality of what you'll get.

Monday 22 November 2010

Theatre Ghosts

How cool is this: the late Ian Richardson steps in to haunt the refurbished RSC theatre.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Of Candles and Darkness

Anybody remember the great Splatterpunk vs Quiet Horror debate? If not, consider yourself forgiven. It was a small storm in a small teacup, but we got a fair few convention panels out of it. At its best, splatterpunk was Clive Barker; at its worst, it was everybody who tried to write like Barker but lacked his gift. Depending on who you talked to, quiet horror was either outdated fodder for the old and incontinent, like tea dances and singalongs, or else it was the underappreciated craft of the genuine adept.

Looking back, I reckon it's fair to say that splatterpunk made more noise but quiet horror won. One was a fashion, the other a value. All those flayings and entrails seem like so much old hat now, but any writer with a brain is still trying to unpick the secrets of M R James and Shirley Jackson.

At the height of the controversy, Chris Morgan put together an anthology called Dark Fantasies and declared its pro-subtlety credo in an introduction titled No Slime, No Chain-Saws. I wrote a story called Life Line for the collection, and I'm glad that I did because it's had a career of its own way beyond that first publication. Adapted for radio, bought for TV's Chillers series (no, you didn't miss it – it was commissioned for the unmade second season, whose chances were nobbled by the strategy of using season one's episodes as irregular fillers between sports fixtures), then optioned for a feature but not made... then optioned for a feature again... finally to make it onto BBC1 as an expensive two-parter a couple of years ago.

I think it's travelled so well because Life Line's story conceit is such a potent one, and I'd be happy to take credit for it if I wasn't so sure that some thought very like it must cross everybody's mind at one time or another. The conceit; imagine if you could pick up the phone, dial the number of someone you've lost, and hear them answer. How small a step is it, to extend the boundaries of we can't see just that little bit farther, into what we can't know? Nothing visible changes; only the possibilities. The world still looks the same.

My dad's number is still on the speed-dial of my phone. He's been gone ten years. The number doesn't even exist any more, but I can't quite bring myself to erase it. Why? I know it sounds stupid, but it would be like blowing out the last candle in a vast darkness. Nothing says I have to do it, so I don't. I can't overcome the feeling that if I do, then he won't just be gone, but gone for good.

Friday 12 November 2010

Coding Your Book for the Kindle

With more detail and clarity than I can offer you, Paul Drummond has added a page to his own website in which he lays out the process of setting up a manuscript for e-publication to a professional standard.
"Each chapter was copied from the original Word document, converted to HTML and added to the .ePub document. Unnecessary formatting was removed as all styling within an .ePub document is handled by a global style sheet. Generally, eBooks shouldn't contain much styling / presentation information. For example, the Kindle always uses the same typeface so there's no point specifying which font to use. Also, the size of the page text can be adjusted by the user so there's no reason to specify absolute type size such as '12pt'. After converting all the text from the novel we had a well structured .ePub document, ready for use on various readers and devices, or conversion to .mobi format for the Kindle. However, it still needed a cover."
See the full page of info here. And contact Paul if you want to look into the same service for your own material.

Follower is now in the Kindle store - I'll make a bit more noise about that in a week or so when I should also be announcing a Kindle edition of Out of his Mind, the short story collection that nabbed me the British Fantasy Award, along with a little pre-Christmas freebie.

Monday 8 November 2010

This Wednesday

A shout-out for Ellen 'Audrey Deux', singing with Sunday's Child at the Cobden Club in Notting Hill this Wednesday evening.

From the club's website:
Nottinghill's local DJ/Producer Alistair hosts "Hoochie Coochie live Club" Every week 4 to 5 of London's finest and best acts (both signed & unsigned) from acoustic singer-songwriters to soul/jazz to ska bands to rock'n' rollers perform from 9pm-11pm.

From 11pm to close Alistair will DJ an "Eclectic Portobello sussed" set of Ska, Electro, Dub, Down-tempo, the Stones, Classic tunes, Sebastien Tellier et DJ Shadow the likes.
The Cobden is a private members' club but the Wednesday sessions are open to the public. To get on the guestlist email alistair@retrolive.co.uk.

Nearest Tube is Westbourne Grove.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Super Duper 8

I spent last Friday morning in the BBC's number 4 grading suite at the Television Centre in London. For a while I'd been looking for some way of digitising the Super 8 that I shot in the late '70s and '80s, but there was always a problem.

For all its reputation as a 'bootlace gauge', the image quality of a well-exposed piece of Super 8 film can be pretty good. I'm talking now about camera original, reversal-processed film; start making prints or copies and the quality quickly deteriorates. Before domestic video came along there was a small but healthy market in Super 8 features for home screening, where the picture quality ranged from 'not unwatchable' to 'OK I suppose'. But first-generation Super 8 is sharp and stable and has an aesthetic all of its own. That's why it hasn't completely died away.

The problem was that when I investigated those ads that promise 'your home movies transferred to DVD', what I found was never too encouraging. Bear in mind that I once worked in this part of the industry, so I know how a transfer ought to look. I was seeking broadcast quality, not a 'film chain' setup where a projector throws the image for a camera to record, nor the 'domestic quality' promised by AV houses with desktop scanning machines.

Back when I'd worked in Granada Presentation the state-of-the-art was the 'flying spot' telecine machine, and apparently it still is. Such machines don't project the image but scan each frame of the film with a moving spot of light to give the sharpest, most detailed line-by-line rendering possible. The machines are the size of a double wardrobe and cost about 250 grand. But I was only planning to do this once, so I wanted to do it right.

I thought I'd reached my journey's end when I tracked down a guy in West London who owned an ex-broadcast Bosch telecine machine with a Super 8 gate. Unfortunately the person who'd sold him the business had made off with the sound heads and he could only offer mute transfers. It was friend-of-the-blog Stan who finally steered me to the last place I'd have thought to enquire... taking your home movies to the BBC feels rather like getting Rembrandt over to paint your kitchen. But you can! Hire the BBC's facilities, I mean. Rembrandt's dead.

The department in question is BBC Studios and Post Production and it's the arm of the BBC that sells the Corporation's services to the independent sector. Remember the days when neither ITV nor the BBC would acknowledge each other's existence on air, but everyone would refer coyly to 'the other channel'? No? Trust me, they did, and it was as stupid as it sounds. Now Granada makes University Challenge for the BBC, and there's a fair chance that any ITV show you're watching may have been shot in a Television Centre studio with a BBC crew (the night before my transfer booking, we watched a recording of Harry Hill's TV Burp in the same building).

Those services include the digitisation of Super 8 and even 9.5mm film to the standard seen in the BBC 2 Home Movie Roadshow. You don't have to run a production company, the service is available to all. The drawback? It's only for material you really, really care about because it doesn't come cheap. In my case this was edited footage that had been sitting in its cans for thirty years. It's both personal record and professional training. It's fragile. But for the price of a weekend in Brighton, it lives on.

For more work by the same department have a look at the Grading/Restoration/Archive page of the BBC site. If you click through to the 'case histories' you can read about how authentic colour was restored to a black-and-white Dad's Army episode using coded information hidden within the monochrome 16mm image. The account of the painstaking reconstruction of Space: 1999 for a pristine Blu-Ray release makes me wish I liked the show more - apparently the quality is staggering.

UPDATE: There's a featurette on the Dad's Army colour restoration here. Apparently it's not something that can be done with every monochrome telerecording - it depends on someone having forgotten to throw a certain switch that should have removed the colour information at the time.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

In Sickness and in Stealth

Back in 1984 I travelled through Finland and Russia to research the book that would eventually become The Boat House. I say eventually because it was a far from easy road. Not the travelling, that was an adventure that I wouldn't have missed for anything. Helsinki, Joensuu, Savonlinna, the towns of Western Karelia... then onto the Leningrad train and into Soviet Russia, to sneak away from the Intourist guides and find the psychiatric prison hospital on Arsenal Street. Did you know that Russian trains depart without announcement, without a whistle, without even making a sound? I didn't, until I glanced back while stretching my legs on some little rural halt's platform to see mine leaving with all my luggage, money and passport but without me. I had to run on slippery ice and get the door open before I could scramble on board, which earned me a finger-wagging from the enormous babushka in charge of the carriage.

No, the problems started when I got home, turned yellow, and was diagnosed with Hepatitis A, the form that gets transmitted by faecal contamination in the food chain. I can't be sure of the source but if the chefs in the Hotel Europiskaya were as diligent and professional as the waiters, they probably couldn't tell the difference between the sliced ham and the toilet paper.

Believe me that you never really appreciate your liver until it shuts down on you. It goes hard, and it hurts. It leaves you listless and delirious and drained of energy, and recovery takes months. Mine did, anyway, but I couldn't afford an idle convalescence. My last published novel had flopped, the one I'd written right after it was still unsold, and I was broke. We lived in a small bungalow at the time, and it was about five paces from the bedroom to the room that I used as a study. For many weeks those five paces were about as much as I could manage in one go.

The first draft of The Boat House was written in those months. At the end of the process I looked back at what I'd done and became aware of two things. The bad news was that the manuscript read exactly like the ramblings of a sick person – it was shapeless, barely coherent and certainly unpublishable. But there was good news too, because I saw stuff in there that no well person could ever have come up with. The whole thing was like one long, sustained flood of vivid dream imagery.

So for the next few months I rewrote and reshaped, putting in the craft while trying to preserve that gift of tone. I had to be pretty ruthless with the material, and a lot of interesting stuff went by the wayside because it had no place in the new, tighter narrative scheme.

I suppose The Boat House has a special place in my affections. There have been several attempts to film it, including one by a Prominent British Director who raised finance on my screenplay and then replaced me with his non-writing office assistant.

Sometimes, the crashing of a project can bring more relief than disappointment.


When I gave up the day job back in August 1980, we took half of the advance money from Chimera and set off for the US with the intention of stretching it out as far as we could and staying until it was gone. We travelled coast to coast and spent the main part of our time in Arizona, where I had the notion to set a novel. We'd passed through Phoenix going in the opposite direction two years before, and some aspect of the place had planted a hook in my mind.

It didn't quite work out as I'd planned. We stayed for several months and had a memorable time; gambling in Las Vegas, riding down the Grand Canyon on mules, walking the rim of Meteor Crater, riding night shifts with the Phoenix Police. But the novel never quite happened. The concept had preceded the experience, and in the light of the experience the concept seemed naïve. After a year or so I received a query from the Inland Revenue. They wanted to know about this trip that I'd claimed as an allowable tax expense. Where was the novel it was supposed to have led to?

I sent them my outlines and my unfinished drafts. Ah, they wrote back. Now we can see why you didn't get anywhere with it.

Everyone's a critic.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Michael Sharvell-Martin

You may not know the name, but if you've any familiarity with British TV comedy of the last 30 years you'll immediately recognise the face... actor Michael Sharvell-Martin died of cancer of the oesophagus on October 27th.

A consistent and solid player in scripted comedy (No Place Like Home, Terry and June), and a regular in shows with Dave Allen and Benny Hill, Sharvell-Martin was also the founding chairman of The Irving Society, dedicated to the life and memory of the Victorian actor-manager.

Saturday 30 October 2010


Last night I got to see Lee Goldberg's stinging and accomplished short film Remaindered, and I'm going to recommend it to you without reservation. Yes, I know Lee, and no, friendship has nothing to do with it.

The tale's as well-turned as you'd expect from a pro, and it takes imaginative flight from a reality that'll be recognised by anyone who's ever faced the world over a stack of books at a signing table. OK, so not everyone's done that. But it's about those dying-inside times when your soul and your sense of self-worth are laid bare for strangers to pick at, and there's no escaping them as they oblige.

It's the mise-en-scene, to get fancy about it, that takes it to another level. The small-town Kentucky locale is perfectly textured for the story, and Lee's choices are all spot-on. From the opening shots you've a real sense of a place and its people. A special shout-out here for Todd Reynolds as Detective Bud Flanek, whose easy John Goodman-like screen charisma left me surprised to see that he doesn't have a long resume of Hollywood character roles.

When I look at Lee's film and Danny Stack's more oblique and enigmatic Origin, I'm impressed and a little depressed at the same time... I've already written about my own early efforts with a camera and although I had at least as good a time and probably learned as much as these guys, my results were nowhere near as well-conceived or presentable (someday I'll tell you about Trick Shot, the entire 16mm movie that I shot with no sync sound and a busted light meter).

Trick Shot: screeenshots

But here's the lesson. You don't wait for someone to give you a break. You make your own. You want to be a visual storyteller but you don't want to drum up support, gather people, strongarm your friends, motivate strangers, beg favours or otherwise hustle for something you believe in? Then you're missing the point... that's actually the job.

Monday 25 October 2010

Brooligan on the Kindle

I've just released four of my backlist titles as ebooks for the Kindle, with other platforms to follow when I can get around to putting the work in.

Formatting for a professional-looking result isn't the doddle that some would have you believe; up-converting a Word file with Amazon's own online tool gives a result that I personally wouldn't pay money for. These titles were put together by Paul Drummond, who offers a complete ebook design service from his website.

The books are Chimera (the genetic thriller that spawned the ITV series, US Kindle link here), creepy police procedural Down River (US link here), contemporary on-the-run fantasy Oktober (another ITV adaptation, with Stephen Tompkinson, US Kindle link here), and modern noir suspenser The Painted Bride (US here).

In the near future I'll be adding my Scandinavian supernatural horror tale Follower along with Out of his Mind, the short story collection that picked up the British Fantasy Award.

Amazon has (have?) kindly linked the new titles to old customer reviews. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this consists of three people who didn't care for the books and took the time to say so. While respecting their opinions (ya kinda hafta or you don't look too good) I'm crossing my fingers that others will soon chip in and provide some balance without me having to go the Orlando Figes route.

On the subject of embarrassing sock-puppetry, when researching the life of Daniel Defoe to flesh out Robinson Crusoe's backstory I found that one Defoe biographer had rubbished the most prominent book on the subject while writing his own a glowing five-star review. Unfortunately he must have misunderstood the process, and his real name appears on both entries.

Thursday 21 October 2010

The Secret in their Eyes

Okay, so I'm slow to catch on.

El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in their Eyes) already won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and here I am only now recommending it to you. And I saw it on a plane, which is hardly the cinephile way. Quality issues apart, imagine two hours of reading subtitles on that washy little seatback screen.

But I still loved the movie. Its storytelling and emotional tone won through. Someone once described my own stuff as 'melancholy mysteries' and I'm guessing that's why I connected so well with it.

Yeah, it's all about me.

Thursday 14 October 2010


Brooligan is now on Twitter. You can find me here. I'll drop in the odd nugget about the new show that I'm developing for Fox, insofar as I can do it without tempting the gods.

You know how they love to screw with our plans.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Welcome to my World

From Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood:

Lionsgate is adapting Stanley Park, a pilot it produced in the UK for the BBC, for the US market. Giving the keynote speech this afternoon at the Mipcom TV market in Cannes, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer said that Fox “loved it.” Writer/creator Leo Richardson is now working on the pilot script, he said. The BBC though still hasn’t made its mind up. “Shame on you,” Feltheimer said.

Friday 1 October 2010

Curses! Tagged Again

This time it's to make an A to Z list of books you've read, first one into your mind, no cheating. Here's where I get to give thanks for XENO by D F Jones (Science Fiction Book Club, 1979) and - after much head-scratching and the iron self-control required not to turn and scan the bookshelves - Gerald Durrell's A ZOO IN MY LUGGAGE.

I read the challenge from Good Dog about half an hour ago and I've got the full list now - I defy anyone who's put on the spot not to stop everything and tackle it right away. It's an open invitation so anyone can have a go. The rules are:

1. Go through the alphabet, and for each letter, think of a book you’ve read that starts with that letter (A, An, and The do not count).

2. You must write down the FIRST book you think of for any given letter.

3. You must have actually READ the book.

4. If you think of a more impressive-sounding book for a particular letter, you CANNOT change to the more impressive-sounding book.

ALL IN COLOR FOR A DIME Richard Lupoff & Don Thompson
CONGO Michael Crichton (one of his worst)
EVERY MAN AN ENEMY William Howard Baker (Sexton Blake)
HIGH CITADEL Desmond Bagley
JUST WILLIAM Richmal Crompton
LORD OF THE FLIES William Golding
MARATHON MAN William Goldman (coincidence, honest)
THE NESTLING Charles L Grant
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY Kendal Burt & James Leasor
RODNEY STONE Arthur Conan Doyle
SOLARIS Stanislaw Lem
VOICE OF OUR SHADOW Jonathan Carroll
THE WHITE DACOIT Berkeley Mather
XENO D F Jones
A ZOO IN MY LUGGAGE Gerald Durrell

Now, back to work...

Tuesday 28 September 2010

My Own First Film...

...was on Standard 8mm and held together with sticky tape. As a logistical exercise it had a certain magnificence, for which I can take no credit at all. As a piece of filmmaking it's barely watchable, which is entirely down to me.

But as a formative experience... priceless.

It was August 1974. Three of us set out with backpacks and a camera to get documentary footage on the history of theatre-building in Europe. Pat Monks was, like me, a second-year student at Hull University. We were on the Joint Honours, Drama and English course. Norm Randall was Sociology, but he'd taken a drama option in his first year and and it was there that we'd hatched our plan.

Hull's drama department wasn't some soft option where performer wannabees paint scenery and learn to juggle. There was a certain amount of fannying around in tights but at the heart of it was a solid academic study of theatre's social, anthropological and practical history. We started with Aeschylus and, over the three years, took it all the way to the (then) present day with the 'poor theatre' that was taking place in basements and back-rooms behind the Iron Curtain. Along the way we put on shows, learned the basics of lighting and stage management... the only one of us I recall painting scenery was Tim Reed, but that was his thing, and he went on to make an international career of it.


Norm and I got the ball rolling early in '73 and recruited Pat somewhere along the way. Our aim was to get to film as many of the key European sites as we could, covering the centuries from the Greek theatre at Epidaurus to the Bayreuth Opera House. We produced a prospectus, got the patronage of Lord Clark and Sir Alec Guinness (don't ask me how), and raised about eight hundred quid. It was enough to cover film, ferries, Interrail tickets, hostels and food. At 24, Norm was the grownup of the party. Given some of the giggles we had, I hesitate to say mature - Pat was younger but she was almost certainly the mature one. I was 19 and didn't have much of a clue about anything.

The camera was a Russian wind-up Quarz 5 that I found for fifteen quid in a second-hand shop on Anlaby Road. It was a thing of robust beauty and it weighed as much as a small car. I think the Soviets must have engineered their cameras out of White Dwarf Star metal. Ours ran wonderfully in all tests and broke down as soon as we hit France. The clutch on the take-up spool failed, which meant that exposed film would wodge up inside the camera body until it jammed. Wherever we went, I had to find a light-tight wardrobe that I could climb inside as a makeshift darkroom, to fix it without ruining what we had. Norm or Pat would have to hold the door closed in case I elbowed it open.

We started in the South of France with the magnificent Roman arenas in Nimes and Arles, where the brutal Van Gogh sunshine gave us guys an excuse to buy cowboy hats. It was at the awesome Roman theatre of Orange that I got my first taste of what was to become a major feature of my chosen life, which is the opportunity to cross barriers and mooch around behind the scenes. In Vicenza's Teatro Olympico I got to stand on its famous forced-perspective stage; in the Teatro Farnese the only visitors were the three of us and the Duke of Parma, down at the far end checking out his real estate.

It was in Delphi that we rolled in late, found the Youth Hostel full, and ended up sleeping on its roof. I woke to a magnificent sunrise and the realisation that I was about six inches away from a three-storey drop into the alley. Leaving Delphi was even trickier than getting in; it was in August '74 that Turkey landed an invasion force on Cyprus and the Greek army was mobilised overnight. We camped on the station platform for two days watching the troop transports going through, and finally hitched a ride in a cattle car with half a dozen civilian conscripts on their way to their mustering point at Thessaloniki, who insisted on sharing their food with us. At Thessaloniki we got the last, overcrowded train out to Vienna; two and a half days on the move spent dossing in the corridor as we crossed what was then Yugoslavia.

My main memory of Yugoslavia is of the kids who lined up along the embankments to wave, and then when we waved back they stoned the train. We reached Vienna tired and filthy, with nowhere to stay. Our contact there was Paul Stefanek of the Institut fur Theaterwissenschaft, based in the Hofburg Palace at the other end from the Spanish Riding School. Friendly, diffident, and an absolute hero, Paul gave us the gigantic palace key and we slept that night on the Institut floor, after inadvertently dining in a nearby brothel. The palace rooms were magnificent but the facilities were few; we took turns getting clean at a tiny kitchen sink with an Ascot water heater. To demonstrate my new-found maturity I put my anorak hood on my head and ran through the Hofburg in my underpants, as Batman. The final week of the journey, taking us through Salzburg, Munich and Bayreuth, was uneventful by comparison.

And the film? Ah, the film was a shambles. I shot as much as I could and I used everything I shot. But it looked great on my CV and since no prospective employer could be arsed to go to the trouble it would have taken to arrange a viewing, I was never found out.

Wednesday 22 September 2010


I've been waiting for a hook on which to hang a mention of Danny Stack's slick, thoughtful and entertaining short-film debut, and it now arises in the form of screenings at Jersey's Branchage Film Festival on September 26th and at London's Raindance Festival on October 7th.

Danny's Scriptwriting in the UK blog has been a resource and point of entry for many a new screenwriter trying to get some orientation on the business. Now he's collected together the best of the blog posts, along with downloadable material, on the newly-created Scriptwriting in the UK website.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

'Cause People Say We Monkee Around

In the Comments section, Piers Beckley wrote of his old electronic typewriter: "I loved it, because it meant I didn't have to tippex or retype when I miskeyed... Finally got rid of it a couple of years ago after I realised I hadn't plugged it in for more than a decade and was never going to again."

Ah, Tippex... in my day I must have bought enough of it to pay for Mike Nesmith's swimming pool. I used to get it wholesale, by the box.

When I finally decided let go of my massive office-sized Adler, someone in the Crime Writers' Association was gathering unwanted typewriters for remote regions where they could still be put to good use. I drove it over to Robert Barnard's house in Yorkshire and took my daughter along for the ride. She'd be about six, I guess.

It was a summer Saturday and on the way back we stopped for some lunch in Ilkley and took a rowboat on the river. When it came time to hand it back I somehow managed to tip it and put us both in the water. Kid came home in a whole new outfit.

Happy days.

Friday 10 September 2010

The Way the Future Is

I still like a book. I haven't been won over to e-reading yet but I've no doubt the day will come when I will, just as I retired my typewriter, my super 8 movie camera, and my Olympus stills camera when it became self-evident that I was sticking with them for the wrong reasons.

Stay with me, there's a lesson here.

My Olympus was a replacement for a super-slim 35mm pocket Ricoh that was stolen from my jacket on a location in the 90s. The Ricoh was a thing of beauty, aesthetically the nicest camera I've ever owned. The insurance company wouldn't reimburse me the value, but insisted that I go to a local camera store and get the manager to give me a written estimate for its current equivalent. They'd pay the store and I'd get a new camera.

Which is how I came to be stuck with Kodak's crappy 'APS system', which did more than anything else to push me forward into digital picture-making. APS was a desperate attempt to dress an old technology in new clothes. That it was doomed from the start was obvious to everyone except Kodak.

Actually, I'm pretty sure that Kodak must have known it too, but were forced by their heavy investment in film to go through the motions. APS required a new design of camera to take a new design of film cassette, which required specialised processing. Every stage of the system was expensive, it was laden with unnecessary bells and whistles, and with a negative area that was only 56% of a 35mm frame it gave inferior picture quality.

It seems to me that this kind of undignified tarting-up happens with every good but soon-to-be-outmoded technology. Anyone remember Polaroid's Polavision, the self-processing Super 8 cassette? The 'electronic typewriter', where you typed onto paper but it remembered your keystrokes and corrections and then typed it all out again? Super-VHS?

Now there's the Espresso Book Machine (link courtesy of the Writers' Guild blog). It's that long-anticipated device, a machine in a bookstore that prints your selection on the spot. I wish them well in their business but I can't help feeling that a familiar pattern is being played out all over again.

It's a seductive idea; old-fashioned books produced with the newest of new technology. There was a time when I saw print-on-demand as the way forward in preserving and making available every author's backlist, but I'm growing away from it. I love books as physical objects but a generic chunk of paper print does nothing for me at all. If a POD book has no more character than an e-book, then the e-book wins.

Outmoded technologies don't lose all value just because they no longer command the mass market. People still shoot Super 8 but for its specific aesthetic, not because it's their only option. Photographer and portraitist Lisa Bowerman uses film stock and natural light to luminous effect, then handles the images digitally. There's still a part of my heart that lusts after a classic 35mm Leica even though I know I'd get very little use from it... though it would still be way more relevant than my Olympus APS camera, which is basically hi-tech landfill.

There'll still be books, I reckon, but only those that give you something to care about. Otherwise it'll be a universe of reading material at your fingertips.

I'm not saying I like it... I just think that's the way it's going to be.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Jacob Hood - the Firefox Theme

Whenever my Firefox browser auto-updates, it always kicks off by inviting me to choose a 'persona', which is basically a fancy Bergmanesque name for a toolbar graphic.

There's thousands of the buggers, apparently, nearly all user-generated, and usually I skip on by. But someone's just added a Jacob Hood Firefox Persona.

And before you ask... yeah, of course I downloaded it.

It would be rude of me not to.

UPDATE: This option seems to have been removed. Don't know why.

Monday 6 September 2010

Noir and Back Again

I just heard that two of my favourite publishers will be combining forces to put out a double volume of early Lawrence Block novels sometime early next year. I suppose that Subterranean Press and Hard Case Crime can both fairly be described as 'niche' publishers, but not in any pejorative sense; in an era when general publishing is like a great beast struggling to adapt in a changing landscape, they survive by reflecting editorial taste rather than a marketing department's analysis.

Subterranean's Bill Schafer and Hard Case's Charles Ardai set out to publish the kind of stuff they like. If it's the kind of stuff you like too, then you seek them out. Subterranean's list is primarily SF and Fantasy, built around a core of Joe Lansdale material, while Hard Case specialises in reprints of of high-craft but forgotten noir mixed in with modern writing in the same hardboiled vein.

In each case the books' physical form is an element in the reading experience, though the two have very different approaches. While Subterranean specialises in quality limited runs, Hard Case celebrates vintage era paperback design with artwork from the likes of Robert McGinnis and Glen Orbik, whose painting for Wade Davis' Branded Woman is a particular favourite of mine. Where every other crime novel seems to feature a blurry generic library photo with whatever font the Art Director's chosen from the Photoshop menu, they really stand out.

(I should declare an interest - Subterranean published two of my novels and a story collection. Each was a great experience and the editions all sold out.)

Hard Case books are inexpensive mass-market paperbacks, printed and distributed (until now) by 'mass market romance publisher' Dorchester Publishing. Last month, Dorchester announced that they were getting out of the print business and switching to an E-book model, which many have read as the last optimistic thumbs-up gesture of the about-to-drown.

This should be interesting. I'm crossing my fingers for Hard Case, and optimistic for the survival of the line; just as a freelance has a more precarious existence than an employee but more options for surviving market changes, I'm willing to bet that Hard Case will reconfigure its relationships and prevail. I believe that this collaboration of independents predates Dorchester's announcement, but I reckon it's a sign. A sufficiently good idea has a life that's independent from any one business model.

Here's Chris Moore's cover art from the Subterranean edition of The Spirit Box.

The Subterranean logo and back-of-jacket copy were added later.

UPDATE: Hard Case titles are now to be distributed by Titan.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Process and Procedure

Which ought to be the title of Jane Austen's unpublished crime novel...

It's the network pitching season in LA, and I just got back after an intense week with results that I should be able to tell you about sometime soon. After nine hours plus of breathing buggy plane air on the way home, I succumbed to a virus that's laid me out for the past three days. Emerging from the mental fog I find Good Dog back online with his personal list of movies that stand repeated viewing.

(In a separate post he also reports on the BFI South Bank Chimera screening.)

Reading these lists, compiled by various people as the meme hops from blog to blog, I'm struck by the sense of a common factor. The titles are diverse but none of the the films are stupid, and few are what you'd call chin-strokers either; and however they may differ, it's like there's something in their DNA that suggests a relatedness, however slight. Regardless of their genre, ninety per cent of the rewatchables can best be described as high entertainment executed with wit and intelligence. Call it the showbiz gene.

I'm not sure when entertainment became a dirty word, but somewhere in the second half of the last century it seems to have been redefined as the enemy of art. As far as the UK's concerned I suspect that, in a kind of back-door Orwellian move, the creation of the BBC's 'light entertainment' department helped to formalise the schism, defining an entire category of amusement without substance and separating it from more educated, more adult concerns.

In British TV drama, that seems to have led us into a commissioning culture where the showbiz gene's been bred out. The current crop of Drama execs make a buzzword out of 'passion', but approach scripts as texts rather than as blueprints for spectacle. With most new series, the kindest thing you can say is that you can see what they were trying for.

Much fuss has been made of the BBC's Sherlock, and for good reason; Sherlock has the gene, cropping up like a cheerful ginger in a clan of swarthy depressives. For me it's reminiscent of the first season of Jonathan Creek, a favourite of mine before the drawbacks of the one-to-write-them-all approach began to show. The giddiness with which Sherlock has been greeted reflects the parched landscape into which it fell.

In The Observer, former Guardian editor Peter Preston duly observed:
How would the primetime lords of American TV feel if they'd happened to make a series called Sherlock, about a modern Holmes, and won tremendous audiences and critical praise in the process?

Modest triumphalism? Not if the "series" in question was a mere three episodes, shown in the depths of summer, with nothing poised to come in the writing, let alone in the can. A pilot without a runway.
Which I think is where I came in. Here's how those 'primetime lords of American TV' go about it:

Now is the time of year when networks are hearing pitches from writer/producer teams. Many of those teams were formed when producers started taking meetings with writers in the Spring. At the networks, drama and comedy pitch separately. You get a half-hour slot to present your show and answer their questions.

Say you get lucky. What happens after that is kind of like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The stakes increase as you ascend the ladder, and so do the chances of getting kicked off it. A successful pitch leads to a pilot script, which leads to a pilot. You have a matter of weeks to write before the pilot script goes into production; my producer friend Jeff Hayes completed shooting on the Rizzoli and Isles pilot in December of last year.

With the holidays out of the way, the networks begin to view and test the pilots and make final decisions on which of them to send to series. They have to juggle those decisions against which of their existing shows to recommission or cancel. By now we're into April and May. Once those decisions are made, it's staffing season. The successful teams start hiring writing staff and booking crews and directors, while the networks present the new shows to advertisers at the 'upfronts' around the beginning of June.

(Almost all drama is written by heavily collaborative writing staffs. The chances of standing outside the system and freelancing a script for an LA-based series are very small. I know I freelanced two Eleventh Hours but my position there was unique. Whoever I ask, on your behalf, about the way for a British writer to get any traction in Hollywood, the answer is always the same; relocate.)

The writers get a bit of a head start before cameras start rolling sometime around August. It's quiet on the lot, and you don't have to stand in line for lunch. You start by discussing the shape of the season and all the different ways it can be taken, before individual stories start to coalesce and get assigned.

Your first episode most likely goes out in the fall and your target is to make thirteen hours by the end of the year, at which point the network looks at the ratings and decides whether to commit to the 'back nine' to make up a full season of twenty-two episodes. If that happens, everyone (or sometimes a reduced writing staff) comes back to work in January for two or three months. Meanwhile, producers out there are meeting with writers to hear the next round of ideas...

It's relentless. But it gets it done. There's no dithering, there are no hesitant toe-in-the-water strategies. Our own system may not have the critical mass to match that kind of performance, but I think most UK writers will agree that our biggest frustration comes from commissioners' slowness in reaching decisions; they sit on scripts and keep their options open at our expense. Technically I'm still waiting for a straight 'no' on Oktober from the BBC, a decision I gave up waiting for when I took the show to ITV and made it over twelve years ago.

Last year I got an email from a director I'd once worked with, bemoaning the lack of available work at home and wondering if there might be any openings in LA. I told him that the timing was perfect, and the opportunities were certainly there; Terry McDonough had shot two Eleventh Hours and Bill Eagles was working on The Forgotten.

By the time his agent got around to following up, all the jobs were gone.

Saturday 28 August 2010

This Island Rod

A recommendation - while googling for something else (I've forgotten what) I came across this film blog written by Roderick Heath, who describes himself somewhere as a film school dropout (I've forgotten where I saw that, too) and is based in Lithgow, New South Wales.

It's only been up for a couple of years but it's quite a body of work - I'm enjoying browsing through all the past entries and I thought you might, too. Heath's prose is entertaining and readable and he'll cover anything, no distinctions between high and low culture. Carnival of Souls is in there ("Herk Harvey’s solitary but celebrated midnight matinee masterpiece is an indelibly creepy no-budget work that could be called the film Ed Wood might have made if he'd had talent"), and his review of Jason and the Argonauts is one of the most insightful I've read. He basically writes about movies he likes, so the pieces tend to be snark-free and appreciative. I reckon you'd go a long way to find a more sympathetic analysis of The Abominable Doctor Phibes.

(Some of the links in his sidebar are worth following too - he also contributes to Ferdy on Films, where you'll find his appreciation of The Prisoner.)

Saturday 21 August 2010

Scribal Rites

The Wall Street Journal features this piece on how TV series writers have their own ways to achieve fulfilment and exact retribution. Most of the examples are more subtle than confrontational...
David Kohan (tells of how) comedian Elayne Boosler treated him so badly early in his career that he tried for years to get revenge. Finally, a character on his show "Boston Common" was stopped at the airport for making a wisecrack about a bomb. He said 'You're going to arrest me for telling a stupid joke? Then why don't you arrest Elayne Boosler?'
Some are more direct...
To writers, bringing actors down a notch is sweet revenge. Some love to tell the story of the time an actor uttered a familiar lament to Mr. Bochco, the producer: "My character would never say that."

Says Mr. Bochco: "I told him, 'Maybe your character wouldn't say that, but he's not your character, he's my character, and he's saying it right here." He pointed to the script.
For the rest of it, with stories from Desperate Housewives and The Sopranos, click here.

Friday 20 August 2010

Radio Daze

I've had a heads-up to say that BBC Radio 7 will be airing my 90-minute adaptation of Chimera in two slots this coming Sunday (August 22nd) and again the following day... click here for the scheduled times, if that appeals to you.

And, tying in with my Quiller post below, I notice that all this week the same station has been running a serialised reading of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, and the reader is none other than Michael Jayston.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Of Girls, Swedes, and Dragon Tattoos

If you're interested and you get the chance, try to see Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish-language version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before you hear much more about the planned David Fincher remake. That first adaptation isn't a perfect movie by any means, but as screen mysteries go it's a very good one. A nicely paced Euro-thriller, crisply photographed, immaculately cast, with actors that are more fascinating than beautiful.

There's the thing... all credit to Fincher for keeping the story in its Swedish setting, but you only have to observe the casting process to get a sense of how the ground shifts when Hollywood reprocesses success. Gym-toned Daniel Craig in place of pie-fed Michael Nyqvist (if Nyqvist ever set foot in a gym, he was probably there to install the carpets), age-defying Robin Wright for ageing-gracefully Lena Endre... I've never seen Rooney Mara (Fincher's choice for Lisbeth Salander) in action, but by her stills she's more pretty than she is odd.

(And by the way, that rich old guy at the beginning of Oplev's movie... that's Sven Bertil-Taube, that is, powerboat hero of 1971's Puppet on a Chain.)

Fincher will most likely do good work but there's definitely something in the original that you're never gonna get. The cinematic equivalent of a fine Continental beer that's 'brewed under license in the UK'. The Swedish film is an indie movie with a commercial aesthetic; Hollywood is going about its version in the only way it knows how, infusing a commercial film with an indie vibe. If you want to taste the original, then now's the time. It won't taste the same later.

I cannot, alas, be quite so positive about Daniel Alfredson's follow-up movie The Girl Who Played with Fire; most of the cast and the production standards are the same, but the material is decidedly inferior. Nice poster art, though.

Sunday 15 August 2010

Quiller and Quiller Again

Last night, in a collision of whim and a weekend sale by the good folk at Network DVD, I watched The Quiller Memorandum for the first time in a number of years.

(Pause for a quick shout-out to my daughter Ellen, singing at the Bloodstock festival today with the band Neonfly. Check out the site - it looks like a great event and the band names alone are worth the visit.)

The movie's one of those big-budget, widescreen, sober-faced cold-war spy thrillers of the 1960s. The best of them was probably The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the most entertaining The Ipcress File. I knew there was something about Quiller that gave it some special place in my affections, but I couldn't for the life of me remember what.

Now I know. It wasn't the story, which is well-shaped enough but thinly-spread and improbable, and mostly rigged to deliver a final act in which Our Hero wanders empty streets while the Bad Guys shadow him in plain sight, daring him to make a move. Nor was it Harold Pinter's dialogue - I'll happily concede that Pinter was a theatrical genius but a very little of that mannered non-sequitur stuff goes a long way with me.

No, the two main elements responsible for the film's hold on my heart are its brilliant use of '60s West Berlin locations, and its John Barry score. There some incidental pleasures as well - Alec Guinness as Quiller's spymaster, conjuring a memorable character out of thin air before your eyes, and a neat improvised escape with a bomb sliding its way down the vibrating bonnet of an idling car - but the narrative isn't one of them. You pretty much have to tune out of the story's logic in order to enjoy what it lays before you.

If I had to describe it I'd have to say it's a bunch of top-notch actors doing the kind of things they do in spy films, in a package that's professionally executed. What the movie lacks in soul, West Berlin and John Barry supply.

Though he does an adequate job in the lead, George Segal has been better elsewhere; not least in Bryan Forbes' King Rat. For me the preferred Quiller has always been Michael Jayston; though the 70s series suffered from the usual BBC studio-cheapness and many of the episodes are now lost, Jayston (with whom I later got to work when he took the lead in An Alternative to Suicide) was the man.

Monday 2 August 2010

Of Prams and Hallways

In today's Guardian Frank Cottrell Boyce takes on Cyril Connolly's much-quoted assertion that "there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway".

The piece is accompanied by a picture of J G Ballard and his three small children, raised single-handedly after the death of his wife at a young age. The image is rebuttal enough on its own. Although I suppose, in a spirit of cruelty, you could further counterpoint it with a list of Connolly's literary achievements.

(But that's an easy shot. I wouldn't want to see mine set against Ballard's, either.)

The pram in the hallway is merely a handy excuse for mediocrity. Your children, on the other hand, are a wonderful source of startling ideas and unexpected insights, and they can't sue when you steal.

Thursday 29 July 2010

You CAN Go Home Again

Okay, I've been tagged, and this time I can't dodge it. On his blog Between the Pavement and the Stars, Piers Beckley has listed those films that he'll watch any number of times, and challenged me, Danny Stack and Jason Arnopp to do the same.

It's not supposed to be an objective greatness list, or even necessarily a 'best I ever saw' list. There's many a great movie that I admire enormously, loved at first sight, and remember with awe, but don't necessarily want to re-experience. At least not right now, and probably not ever on a regular basis. Some experiences are diminished the second time around. I loved The Sixth Sense when I saw it in the cinema, couldn't wait for the DVD to come out, bought it the moment it did... and it's been sitting on the shelf unopened ever since. And not just because I know 'the twist', which was fun at the time but added no lasting value.

(Twists in movies are not the best idea. Something I've believed ever since, on the first appearance of Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, someone yelled from the back of the stalls, "She's gorra cock.")

I suppose it's the difference between a memorable party and a favourite restaurant. Try to repeat the party experience and you're doomed to a vague sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment, whereas a favourite restaurant promises something reliable. Here the movie has an advantage in that the chef won't storm out in a huff at the beginning of your evening.

(It's happened)

Anyone who's raised a family since the advent of the VHS machine will be familiar with the phenomenon of the favourite tape or disc, played over and over, feeding a child's endless appetite for the familiar. We were lucky; in our household it was Pinocchio, and later The Blues Brothers. My friend Graeme wasn't so lucky. He got Bananas in Pyjamas.

If you're flicking through the TV channels and you happen on a familiar movie and you stay until the end, looking forward to "this next bit where...", then it probably belongs in your own list. If in an idle moment you find yourself thinking, "It's about time I saw X again," then X almost certainly belongs in your list. If you can quote every line and do all the voices, you probably belong in an institution.

King Kong
Jason and the Argonauts
Way Out West
The Music Box
The General
Les Yeux Sans Visage
What's Opera, Doc?
(Tarkovsky, and seriously)
Twenty Million Miles to Earth
Hell is a City
Blade Runner
The Wages of Fear
Pas de Deux
(Norman McLaren Film Board of Canada short)
Whistle Down the Wind

These are the rules of the meme:

1. Provide a non-exhaustive list of films you'll happily watch again and again;
2. There is no rule 2.
3. Reprint the rules.
4. Tag three others and ask them to do the same.

So Stephen Volk, Good Dog, and Lee Goldberg, if you should happen by... now I bet you're sorry.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Johnny Hollywood, the Commentary

You may be curious as to why I appear to have a habit of interviewing myself, so the previous post could benefit from some explanation.

The first Johnny Hollywood entry came about as a result of a freelance journalist contacting me through my publisher to request an interview for a well-known magazine. I said okay, he sent me a list of his questions, and I imagine I must have put in an hour, maybe two, drafting the kind of responses I'd be happy to live with.

I never got to see the piece he wrote, but I gather that he'd canvassed about a dozen different writers with the same list of questions. From all the responses he cherry-picked selective quotes. Which is... well, it's not illegitimate. I'm not even saying it's wrong.

But I reckon it's pushing it, a bit.

Rather than see the words wasted, I shunted them onto the blog. A few weeks ago another interview request showed up in my mailbox. I didn't know the sender but she has a site for aspiring writers, from which it's obvious that she's sincere. Now, I never want to forget that my roots are in fandom - old-school fandom, the kind where the convention book rooms were huge and the screening programs tiny, of zines and apas that were often the nursery slopes for the next generation of pros. I'm conscious of my debt to the Bob Shaws and Rob Holdstocks of that world, so I try to behave as I think they would.

Well, as soon as I got a spare hour I fired off my responses, and despite a follow-up query it's been radio silence ever since. So I chopped out some early-career stuff you may have read before, and onto the blog it went.

So here's the outcome of that. In setting up a website and later a blog I made myself accessible, but maybe the internet now makes it too easy to get hold of people and some boundaries are called for. So if you want to ask me anything, ask me here, where it's personal.

But if you're setting out with Google and a list of boilerplate questions, looking to drum up some content from someone whose work you've never even read, from now on I'm gonna have to pass.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Johnny Hollywood Explains it All (2)

How do you stay motivated to finish a novel? How do you stay focused?
I don't start a novel unless I've got a story that gives me a little sense of awe whenever I think about it. Not out of vanity, I mean that sense of having lucked into something classical and timeless like a myth or a folk tale. As long as that sense is here, you never want to let go. The motivation and focus take care of themselves.
What is your writing schedule like? Do you write in the mornings, evenings, and for how long?
I mess around in the morning, start getting up to speed in the afternoon, have a productive burst when I get there, and I'm done by early evening. If I could lift out the productive burst and get it out of the way at the beginning of the day, the rest of my time would be my own... but it doesn't work that way. Over the longer term, I set wordage targets if it's a novel, page count targets if it's a script. I have a year planner or a calendar and I keep a daily score, so I can see how I'm doing as I work toward the target.
How do you get your ideas? What is your method for remembering them?
The way for me to get a new idea is to complete the work on an old one. It creates a hole in my life and the new idea slides into it. That's the only answer I know. I wish I controlled the process, but I'm pretty much at the mercy of it. As for remembering ideas, I jot notes whenever I have odd thoughts. At some point you find that the notes are like jigsaw pieces and fit together in a way you maybe didn't expect. It's great when that happens. It feels like a gift from your subconscious.
If you get writer’s block, how do you get over it?
Feeling blocked usually means I'm out of love with what I'm doing. My only answer is to cast around for something else.
What are your thoughts on self publishing?
"A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient." If self-publishing were the way, I'd still be writing stories about a detective with a steel head and a tuxedo. It's okay if you just want to play to your circle, but being a professional in the public arena means riding out rejection and raising your game. The best publishers are the ones with the best editors, and your best editor isn't you.
What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a writer? What is a good starting point for them?
If you're thinking about doing it, then maybe it's not for you. It's like sports or anything else, you burn to be active from the get-go and you don't stop to weigh it against other options. But read, and read well, and read widely beyond the kind of thing you want to write. Study technique, look for things that you can use and make uniquely your own. Aim for simplicity and balance and eventually your prose will sing.

Monday 19 July 2010

Panning and Scanning

I was channel-hopping last night and came upon a comparative rarity; one of the digital channels, could have been ITV2, was showing a modern movie in 4X3 format, the almost-square 'Academy' ratio that was phased out in the cinema about 40 years ago and in TV at the beginning of this century.

Like a Chav faced with subtitles, I skipped right on by.

I've no problem with the Academy ratio, which was good enough for some of the greatest cinema ever made, but this wasn't that. This was a widescreen film in a cropped 'TV version' at least a decade old. Rather than source an up-to-date transfer, I'm guessing that the broadcaster had used the version supplied to them on tape when they made a deal for the rights. I mean, come on, guys. Cheat if you have to. Run out and buy a DVD.

Format can be problematical. The widescreen of your widescreen TV is not the widescreen of Ben Hur. Like most things in life, it's a compromise. The viewfinder on a modern film camera includes an element with the 'safety zones' of the different viewing formats etched into the glass, so the operator can ensure that whatever the composition, the essential information will fall within the frame and the shot will always make some kind of sense. Hi-Def video assist systems offer the same facility in the monitor display.

In the early days of widescreen cinema, feature film makers saw TV as the enemy and went out of their way to ensure that their images would exceed the capabilities of the smaller screen. Panning and scanning was TV's response to that. It was an alternative to 'letterboxing' the image, which preserved the composition but invariably triggered a stream of phoned complaints to the TV station's duty officer.

Panning and scanning involved continually reframing the film in telecine. This could go way beyond the cranking of a frame to the left or right to squeeze the action in - a small section of a shot could be selected and enlarged to fabricate a closeup from a medium shot, for example.

The end result would, in essence, undo the work of cameraman and director and sometimes the editor as well. Grain, contrast, focus, and framing would be all over the place. I recall a scene which, in the original, was a single long take of two people talking. The telecine operator had reframed each person in a separate, enlarged closeup and then cut back and forth between them as they spoke. Didn't match, didn't work, looked appalling. Used to be quite common.

'97 was the awkward pre-pubescent time for widescreen TV. The first sets were around, but almost nobody (apart from my dad) had one. Broadcasters hedged their bets, shooting new material in 16X9 widescreen but putting it out in a bastardised 14X9 shape that looked bad on both kinds of display.

I can place it so precisely because '97 is the year I made Oktober for ITV. The three-hour miniseries was shot on Super 16, a format that originated (if I recall my American Cinematographer correctly) with the Aaton camera company in Sweden. It used a customised camera gate to utilise more of the 16mm negative area. In the case of Oktober, the broadcast master was scanned directly from the camera negative and electronically converted to a positive image, eliminating the loss of quality you get when making a print.

ITV were hovering over when to 'go wide' so after the grading we made two complete transfers, one in full widescreen and the other in the half-cropped, half-letterboxed 14X9 ratio. I watched the widescreen version going through. Bruce McGowan's photography looked rich and wonderful, the high Alpine locations spectacular.

Guess which version went out.

The Betacam master of the widescreen transfer went into storage at NBC-owned Carnival Films, where I cross my fingers that it's survived their office moves of recent years. I last checked on it when Revelation produced their full-series DVD (for the UK only; the US release is a 96 minute 'feature cut'). I tracked it down, hooked everybody up, but there was some glitch with distributor approval and it was the 14X9 master that went onto the disc.

And so I remain the only person on the planet who's seen the three-hour show in its full 16X9 ratio, on a big plasma screen in a windowless editing suite that misty afternoon in Soho.

But someday... maybe someday.

Though probably not, I'm guessing, anytime soon on ITV2.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Crusoe in Kent

I'm grateful to Scott Andrews for the news that the many of the sets, props and weapons created by Production Designer Jonathan Lee for Crusoe have been shipped from South Africa to the UK. The sets have been reconstructed as an adventure play attraction at Groombridge Place near Tunbridge Wells (these images are Jonathan's concept sketches, not views of the park itself; I haven't seen any of those).

From their press release:
A desert island from a TV blockbuster has been recreated using props and artefacts which were shipped all the way from South Africa and the Indian Ocean.

Container loads of Robinson Crusoe’s belongings from the TV series ‘Crusoe’- which was shown on television screens at Christmas and starred Sean Bean, Sam Neill, Philip Winchester and Joss Ackland – have been delivered to Groombridge Place, near Tunbridge Wells, for the new attraction ‘Crusoe’s World’...

...Two tree houses have been built high in the trees linked together with rope bridges and a central viewing tower. They are on several levels with decking and platforms and the houses are sheltered under sail roofs. There is a look-out post high above one of the tree houses, providing fabulous views over the canal, open countryside and the steam trains of the Spa Valley Railway.

Actual props from the film, including Crusoe’s fishing equipment, cooking pots, catapult, boats, barrels, furniture and dummy weapons, are there for visitors to create a little make-believe on their very own desert island.
The Crusoe page on the NBC website is still live, and you can see more of Jonathan's concept work here if you're so inclined.