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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.