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Tuesday 27 December 2011

Everyone's a Critic

Okay, first up, here's the deal; the eBook versions of both Down River and Oktober are relaunching with new covers by Paul Drummond, and I've 20 review copies of each to give away. In return I ask you to add your review to the Oktober and Down River pages on Amazon.com. Use the contact page to let me know if you're up for it.

How you rate them and what you write is entirely up to you. I'm not shilling for stars, just hoping to see some balance in the system; I can't fathom how Amazon aggregates its marketing material but there's some weird alchemy that sometimes pulls in the reviews from previous editions, sometimes not. In this case I've got two otherwise well-received novels, one of which spawned a TV miniseries, in new editions with their two worst notices attached.

Well... their two worst notices so far.

I guess I'm old-school in that I think you should draw the line at asking friends to give you favourable reviews or, even worse, writing your own. During the research period for Crusoe, I chased down various Defoe biographies; the worst-organised and least useful of them carried a glowing five stars from its own author, writing about himself in the third person.

But the eBook jungle favours the barefaced; one self-published writer's strategy involved organising a squad of friends and family to buy multiple copies of his book within the same hour, with a simultaneous order for one of the site's topselling titles. The aim was to ride the 'customers who bought this item also bought...' algorithm to public attention.

Did it work? I've no idea.

Until four or five years ago, the writing game was fairly clear-cut. You wrote your first book and when it got turned down you wrote another. Here's how that works: your writing evolves as you go, and you realise that as you look back. It's not about that one book, but about developing your skills. Eventually you plunder your early work and it sees the light of day in a form you hadn't originally imagined.

There was one debutant I knew who'd written an 800-page SF epic and was determined that he wouldn't write another word until the world had recognised the work he'd put in. It wasn't a bad first book but it wasn't special, either. I urged him to write short stories and submit them to small presses as a way to build up his writing skills and connect with an audience, but it wasn't what he wanted to hear.

Last I heard, he was very bitter and had still written nothing else. But how would I advise him now? The handful of stories of debut authors who self-publish and do well, beating the odds like lottery winners, provide ammunition to counter any argument for a learning process. Especially when it's a painful learning process that used to be involuntary, but which can now be sidestepped.

Some of them may be terrific writers. The few that I've looked at aren't, but they do fall into an honourable tradition of fast fiction, offered cheap, that runs from the feuilletons of the nineteenth century through the story papers, pulps, and mushroom jungle paperbacks of the twentieth.

Just like those 'mushroom publishers' of the postwar period, created in an explosion of low-cost bulk fiction occasioned by the lifting of paper rationing, the vendors of eBooks are more concerned with turnover than quality. They're exploiting an opportunity, and doing so to the hilt. But I'd like to think that, as with those same postwar publishers, e-publishing's business moves may eventually enrich the field without destroying it. Darcy Glinto may well be unreadable now, but it's a grim culture that has no room for Lady - Don't Turn Over.

My most-retweeted Twitter remark of recent weeks is Still befuddled by ppl who drop serious money on an eReader but won't pay more than 99c for a book. Clearly it chimed with a shared perception that a generation of buyers are being trained to expect all books to be dirt-cheap or given away. But after reading this blog post by Romance writer Elle Lothlorian, I brightened a little. She writes:
While skimming various Kindle reader forums, I ran across a thread on the topic of pricing. One reader wrote that she never bought a book that was $2.99 or less because it was sure to be self-published “indie crap” riddled with typos... (by setting a low price) I think I had inadvertently turned my Amazon page into the equivalent of a dubious used-car lot, with blinking neon lights screaming “SALE, SALE SALE! EVERYTHING MUST GO!”
The thrust of the piece is that by raising her prices, she engaged with a more committed and interested readership. Her sales actually went up, suggesting that there are still readers who are interested in something other than a race to the bottom in quality and price. They're out there; they've always been out there; it's just that there's a 'fair field full of folk' obscuring them from our view.

I don't control the eBook price of The Kingdom of Bones or The Bedlam Detective, but while I don't plan on putting my backlist titles in the premium bracket, I'm not about to throw them in the bargain bin either.

Link for review copies here.

Friday 16 December 2011

Bernice Summerfield Did My Headshots

Seriously. Lisa Bowerman - aka Doctor Who's Bernice Summerfield - is a talented portrait photographer, specialising in actors' headshots. You'll find numerous examples of her work in the Spotlight directory of performers. She works with traditional film negative and natural light, moving to digital for delivery.

Photo credit: Lisa Bowerman

Okay, so Pitt and Clooney have nothing to worry about. But I love the way she takes honest shots with no flattery or fakery. And technically she's so good that you can zoom in to my eyeball at the highest resolution and see her with the camera reflected there.

For actors it's important to show who you are, not what skilful studio lighting could make you look like fifteen years ago. Having been on the other side of the audition table to hear actors read, I can say that sending in a misleading photo does no one any good at all. Rather than give you a head start, it suggests insecurity and, at worst, delusion.

Writers' headshots are a whole other field of study.

We need to have them but, being writers, we don't want to pay for them. Sometimes your publisher will commission some publicity stills but that doesn't always work out - Hodder & Stoughton once sent me to a man who specialised in photographing fruit for Marks & Spencer. Maybe they chose him because of the "&". I don't know what fruit he had in mind when he studied me - maybe Zombie Cucumber. We took the shots in his attic, with me lurking behind a wormy pillar or looking out around a peeling chimney wall. The result: I looked like a ghoul in the fourth stage of something terminal.

I fared no better when I decided to splash out on some shots of my own. I picked a local wedding photographer with a sideline in industrial work - he should have been good, he had a studio and everything. I asked for no diffusion but he thought he knew better. The results were well nigh unusable - not sharp enough for good reproduction and I looked like one of those primped 80s guys in Movies4Men softcore porn.

Don't tell me you don't know what I'm talking about.

My first professional headshot was for the jacket of Valley of Lights. I forget who put me onto him, but the photographer was Arthur Waite of Arthur Waite Publicity, a one-man operation in a poky studio behind Salford Cathedral just down the road from Granada TV. Arthur looked a little bit like Paul Daniels, as I recall... there was an electric fire warming the studio and a Sheltie lying on a dog bed in the corner. Arthur specialised in photographing Variety acts and advertising copy for The Stage. His portfolio included Ken Dodd, Tom O'Connor, and International Cabaret Stars Margo and Trevor.

I told him what I did and what I needed. He'd never had a writer for a client before. He thought it over then gave me the lighting he used for magicians, which I rather liked the idea of. I liked the work he did, as well.

Photo credit: Arthur Waite Publicity

Hey. I've not changed that much. Maybe I could get away with using this one...

Saturday 10 December 2011

Bedlam Detective first review

Thanks to Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press for forwarding this Publishers Weekly starred review:
The Bedlam Detective
Stephen Gallagher. Crown, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-0-307-40664-4

Set in England in 1912, this masterful whodunit from Gallagher (Red, Red Robin) introduces Sebastian Becker, a former policeman and Pinkerton agent who now works as the special investigator to the Masters of Lunacy, looking into cases involving any “man of property” whose sanity is under question. His latest assignment takes him to the small town of Arnmouth to determine whether Sir Owain Lancaster has gone around the bend. Lancaster returned from a disastrous trip to the Amazon, which claimed the life of his wife and son, only to attribute the catastrophe to mysterious animals straight out of Doyle’s The Lost World. Lancaster believes that the creatures that plagued him in South America have followed him home, and are responsible for the deaths of two young girls, a theory supported by a local legend of a beast of the moor. Gallagher’s superior storytelling talents bode well for future adventures starring the well-rounded Becker. Agent: Howard Morhaim. (Feb.)
Yeah. What he said.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Salut, Georges

On this, your birthday.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

The Bedlam Detective

I've just had word that the jacket art is locked, so here it is. The book will be published in hardcover on February 7th by Crown.

The story features ex-Pinkerton man Sebastian Becker, last seen arriving in England with his family at the end of The Kingdom of Bones. He installs his family in cheap rooms in Southwark and takes a gig as Special Investigator to Sir James Crichton Browne, the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy. Becker's job is to pursue the criminally insane whose wealth or position protects them from the law.

I'll be mentioning this again. You can count on it.

Friday 2 December 2011

New to Kindle

Two more of my backlist titles are now available in eBook form. Full info on each title soon, but for the moment here are the new cover designs by Paul Drummond.

On The Boat House:

"Gallagher handles the balance between mundane reality and stomach-turning horror with reassurance and offers a nicely twisted ending to boot. Highly recommended." Nigel Kendall, Time Out

And on Rain:

"Gallagher has become Britain's finest popular novelist, working a dark seam between horror and the psychological thriller."

Click here to find Rain on Amazon, and here for The Boat House.

Friday 25 November 2011

Getting Published 101

In the week of the announcement that Penguin have paid £400,000 to acquire a party planning book by celebrity relative Pippa Middleton, it must be hard for new writers to keep their optimism alive. The temptation to dump your first draft straight onto Kindle and wait for the e-millions to roll in must be a powerful one.

Console yourself with this. That £400,000 is just business. The book will be ghostwritten and will go the way of all such rubbish; bought, gifted, unread, remaindered. It has nothing to do with publishing. It's regrettable that a great name like Penguin should be attached to such a venture but the writing was on that wall when they paid a fortune for the meretricious Lace, all those years ago.

Every now and again I get an email to the website asking for advice on getting into print or getting an agent. Here's pretty much what I always say; read on and save me the trouble of saying it again.
Despite a widespread belief that publishers are resistant to new work, they're all on the lookout for good stuff that they can run with. And it's always been harder to get an agent than a publisher. You're asking a publisher to commit to a book, which is a known quantity. An agent commits to a career, which is a major unknown. Often the best time to get a good agent is when you have a publisher's offer.

The traditional strategy is to study what's around and note the kind of publishing house that would seem to be a fit for what you're trying to do. Then find out the name of the fiction editor (a quick phonecall to the switchboard usually does it) and write a brief, polite query letter asking if he or she would be willing to look at your submission. Work on the letter; the verbose, the needy and those who can't spell rule themselves out at this stage. If they ask to see something, send only your best. Not something unfinished, not work-in-progress; keep your work offline and out of the public eye until it's done.

It's an ever-changing market and traditional publishing is under pressure, but it's still the quality route. I shouldn't need to tell you to watch out for the predators and never pay anyone to represent or publish your work, but for safety's sake I'll say it anyway.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Magic and Memorabilia

Along with Chris Moore I headed down the motorway to Memorabilia last weekend. There I met up with Good Dog, and we had our first decent chat since a fleeting hello at the NFT's South Bank Chimera event. I urged him to get blogging again. Which is slightly ironic, considering my own long periods of blog silence over recent months...

Memorabilia's a twice-yearly UK event where one of the halls in Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre gets turned into a giant dealers' room for mostly SF and media-related goods, old and new, along with a section of autograph-selling tables for mostly TV faces, mostly old. It probably pales by comparison with similar US events, but I enjoy a mooch and usually come home with a few stocking-fillers for friends and family.

I view the autograph tables with a mixture of cringe and curiosity... very few of the personalities involved get more than sporadic visits, and most spend the day fiddling with their pens and chatting with their neighbours. Some have solid achievements in their resumes, like lead roles in old shows, and they're the ones I feel for; but while I'd love to chat to Quiller's Michael Jayston or William Gaunt of The Champions, I come from a tradition where such appreciation is offered over a drink in a Convention bar, not fifteen quid on a table. And not when cheek-by-jowl with someone who did two days' work on Star Wars and has been blagging hotels and expenses off it ever since.

But then I think back to the time when @Audreydeuxpink and I stood in line for a picture and a word with the great Leslie Phillips, and I think, Oh, what the hell. Each to his own magic. But I suppose I feel a share of the pain when the magic falls flat.

As it happened, Good Dog was acting as minder to some of the better-known faces on the weekend's guest list. The organisers have got it together more since the early years when signers were just parked alone with no one looking after them, but I can still find it an uncomfortable spectacle when people with careers have put themselves out there and nobody's stopping by. I can remember The Man from Uncle's Robert Vaughn, alone at his table with no one else around him, looking like the most pissed-off man in the world while attendees tiptoed nervously past at a respectful distance.

That's a Brit thing, perhaps. But it's compounded by the way that the less experienced of the enthusiasts who organise fan weekends and conventions can sometimes show little idea of what's required of them as hosts, especially when their guests are ageing performers, often insecure and uncertain of their reception, lured with a promise of hospitality only to be cut loose to fend for themselves amongst strangers.

They're not those giants you see on the screen; they're rather more like you and me. And I know how I'd feel if it was me out there.

For a start, there was that book signing in Watford in 1989...

The Metropolis image is one of a range of brilliant movie posters created for screenings at San Francisco's Castro Theater and offered in hand printed, limited editions by Memorabilia exhibitor The Dark City Gallery. Those that may look a little dull on the website are actually printed on gold or silver stock, and have to be seen to be appreciated fully.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Coming Events

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Writing Software

I was looking for info before buying an upgrade to the latest version of Final Draft (decided against it, no advantages over the version I've got) and came across a link to this free writing software recommended by many.

Haven't tested it, so don't know if it's as good as they say. One thing for certain is that it's not industry standard and scripts would have to be converted to PDFs before being sent out (as opposed to Final Draft files, which just about every production company has the software for). But having managed without dedicated screenwriting software for a dozen years before switching, I can testify that a program taking care of layout while you focus on the writing is a Good Thing.

If you've tried Celtx and have an opinion on it, feel free to add a comment.

Friday 7 October 2011

Chimera for Sale - Sold!

A note via the website from Stefan - who says he recalls being scared witless by Chimera, as well he might since he was nine years old at the time - sent me to check out this item at movie collectables and memorabilia dealer The Prop Store.

Here's the text, to save you from squinting:
An original ‘Chad’ creature mask used in the 1991 British TV mini-series Chimera, which was watched by over 21 million viewers. The misunderstood creature, created by combining human and ape DNA can be seen throughout the series after being brought up in a fertility clinic acting as a cover for the disturbing project. The full head mask is made from foam latex with prop hair, painted eyes and realistic yellow teeth and gums, the creature features both human and ape features, such as an elongated jaw from the apes, and the size with full head of long hair from the humans, and is a scary thing to behold. Due to its age it has lost its flexibility and as a result is crispy around the neck, and should be handled with care, however the main body of the piece still has integrity and is fairly solid. This piece is supported on a black wooden stand with metal rod, and stands at approximately 42cm (16.5”) tall.
I've no idea what the piece was selling for, as Stefan already had it reserved. My recall is that there were three full head masks created for the show, with every hair hand-stitched into the scalp. Each was a latex skin that fitted over a headpiece core moulded to actor Douglas Mann.

From the way it's painted I'd guess that it's the one used in the barn scene in episode four. I'd be fascinated to know where it's been for all these years. In the mid-90s, one of the Chad masks and costumes featured in a horror exhibition of TV and movie freaks and monsters on Blackpool's promenade - I went along and saw it there, a figure posed in a gloomy cellar like some latterday Elephant Man.

Around the time of filming, I asked sculptor Little John to give me a price for a resin cast finished in the style of some ancient Greek museum bronze. But then along came the tax bill for the script money, and my finances were scuppered for a while. At least I know that this one's heading for a good home.

UPDATE: The Chad 'closeup head' is in the hands of a private collector who's posted some pictures and details online. The closeup head had cable-articulated movement, with expressions created by offscreen operators. Due to wear and tear it's showing its age rather more than the Prop Store's model. You can see it here.

Thursday 22 September 2011

My Lost Worlds

There's no cover image yet for The Bedlam Detective, so here's my first edition of The Lost World instead.

If it looks a little shabby that's because it cost me less than thirty quid, and that from a dealer who specialised in Conan Doyle material and knew its worth. So I knew it wasn't a steal, though I did think it a good bargain. The binding is tight and the pages are clean and all the photographic plates are present, even including the tipped-in sheet of tissue paper that was there to protect the frontispiece.

Ah, the frontispiece. Have a look at it; Doyle was having fun, here. The photograph purports to be 'the members of the exploring party' and this entire 1912 edition of the novel is presented as a spoof non-fiction published memoir, illustrated with sketches and photographs created or doctored for the occasion.

That bearded Professor Challenger figure seated behind the table - that's Doyle himself. Edward Malone, seated in the foreground, is actually W H Ransford, the photographer responsible for the composite paste-up work which allows illustrator Patrick Forbes to appear as both Professor Summerlee and Lord John Roxton with a change of makeup. Legend has it that Doyle showed up on the doorstep of his brother-in-law, Raffles creator E W Hornung, in full disguise and posing as a thickly-accented German doctor, managing to keep the pretence going for some time until a less-than-amused Hornung saw through the deception.

It's this element of mischief, Doyle's knowing blurring of the line between fantasy and reality, that connects The Lost World to The Bedlam Detective.

Everyone has books that are special to them and The Lost World is one of mine. The one above all others, probably. When I was invited to submit a story to David Pirie's Murder Rooms series, I saw an opportunity to riff on a favourite novel's themes and elements while playing with the fantastic train set that is BBC period drama. Murder Rooms featured the young Arthur Conan Doyle and his relationship with his mentor, Joseph Bell; theirs was a prototype of the Watson-and-Holmes partnership, and here was a way of refreshing the spirit of the stories without having to go over some well-trodden ground. It starred the late Ian Richardson and the equally excellent Charles Edwards, soon to be seen as Michael Palin in Holy Flying Circus.

My episode opened with Doyle at a lantern-slide lecture given by the famous Victorian explorer Everard Im Thurn. Im Thurn was one of the first Europeans to reach the remote plateau of Roraima in Venezuela, model for Doyle's lost world. While the main story goes on to concern itself with a planned Fenian outrage in the heart of London, woven in with it are a collector of dinosaur bones, a fickle young woman named Gladys, a short-tempered former teacher of Doyle's (William Rutherford, played by John Sessions) who would inspire the character of Professor Challenger, and a travelling circus whose elephants moving through English woodland provide a groggy Doyle with a momentary and memorable epiphany.

Fast-forward about five or six years. A conversation with editor and SF historian Mike Ashley set me looking at the subject from another angle. I pictured a real-life man like the novel's Challenger years later, isolated, his memoir exposed as a fraud, his reputation in tatters, a man still clinging to the belief that all of his troubles can be traced back to a time when he saw monsters; and at that point I let go of The Lost World, and launched into the story of guilt, inner conflict, madness and memory that would stand separate and alone as The Bedlam Detective.

In this earlier post I wrote:
I have five different editions of The Lost World... a well-handled first, the Pilot and Rodin annotated edition, a '30s Hodder & Stoughton hardcover, a children's paperback, and the Professor Challenger Omnibus in which I first read the tale. If only the text mattered, then any one of those would do. Or I could junk them all and download the words from Gutenberg. But each of them carries a different charge, of association and of the era when it was published. Each one is a different performance of the text.
Well, since writing that I've acquired a couple more... the two bound volumes of The Strand magazine from early in 1912 containing the story in its original serial form, and issues of The Eagle from 1962 in an adaptation by Richard Jennings with art by Martin Aitchison (see the panel above, and click on it for a larger version).

I was in touch with Martin earlier this year, and he wrote of how much he'd enjoyed the job; adapting the tale again for Ladybird Books a few years later, he'd shown the Eagle artwork to his new editor who'd opted, in the end, to provide younger readers with a take that was just a little less exciting.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Bitter Crazy Ranting, aka an Interview

Interviewed by Eleanor Ball for Write Here, Write Now, and you can find it here.
"A lead writer is Britain's gelded version of a showrunner. Both write show-defining scripts, set the series arcs, brief the other writers and take a final pass on the scripts for consistency. But generally speaking, a lead writer has no producing power. If you can fire a director, you're a showrunner. If a director's giving you notes, that's a lead writer."
Click and read more.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Sergeant Cork

After losing stock and technical assets in the Sony warehouse fire during the Enfield riots, it's good to see Network DVD up and running again. And also happy to see the release of a second season of the Victorian CID detective drama Sergeant Cork, currently offered as a 'web exclusive' title.

If you're interested, don't hang about. For reasons not explained on the Network site, "This title will only be available until 9 March 2012."

Rights expiry? Making way for a two-season boxed set? If I find out, I'll let you know.

Though 16mm telerecordings give us a relatively low-res record of classic studio TV, it's the tight, character-driven writing and classy, nuanced performances that make Sergeant Cork worth the present-day viewer's time. The odd, rare mistake on the studio floor (remembering a character's mid-scene moustache failure in season one!) makes you appreciate the high level of theatrical and technical craft that went into a weekly hour of live TV drama.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to go back; and live TV certainly isn't a medium I'd care to write for. It was a theatrical form that imitated the form of film, without access to most of its grammar. Those who pushed the medium most also went furthest in exposing its limitations.

Btw, opportunist dealers on Amazon will offer to sell you the second season for fifty quid. Network will sell it to you for fifteen.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Revisiting Robinson

In a message via the contact page, Nancy wrote:
My family and I have really enjoyed watching the Crusoe series but wish we knew how the story would have ended. Do you have any ideas how you would have reunited Robinson and Susannah?
Well I do, and I did, although in series TV drama it's never quite as simple as that... preparing for a future season is like having to pack and plan for a trip you may or may not get to make, by routes and means you can't yet choose, over a distance that only fate will determine. One of the cutest things I've read in recent years was the novelist with a couple of books to his name on how much better a job he'd have made of the plotting of Lost.

Brother, you can have no idea.

During our development period, NBC were pretty clear that this was to be a thirteen-part miniseries, entirely self-contained. But once shooting began I started getting signals from the London office to keep some story options open for a possible second season.

Tricky stuff. But then it's the challenge faced by almost every American show, and by any British drama series incorporating a seasonal arc; to offer both closure and continuation, keeping the ball in the air, answering enough questions to give satisfaction without closing the door on further developments.

The comments on Amazon's Crusoe DVD page suggest that Nancy's family aren't alone in their curiosity, so here's what I told her:
My plan, had we been given a second season, was for Susannah to use some of Blackthorne's fortune to charter a rescue ship with the Spanish captain (Santana) in command. Olivia would stay close to Susannah but we'd never be sure of her motives - is she Susannah's friend or her enemy? Is she selflessly working for Crusoe's happiness at the expense of her own, or using Susannah to get him for herself?

Meanwhile Crusoe and Friday are back on the island and Crusoe's finding it hard to recapture his optimism after such a huge betrayal and the destruction of everything that he'd built. Friday takes it upon himself to motivate and encourage him, and eventually they get to leave the island by the subterfuge of allowing themselves to be captured by the Spanish Garda Costa with their escape already planned and prepared for.

After escaping they make their way up through the Carribean in a series of high-seas adventures as wanted men, while Susannah arrives at the empty island and finds evidence that suggests Crusoe may have lost hope and died there. Believing him dead, she gathers what she can find with the intention of taking it back to the children. But their ship has been stalked by pirates who now take it for booty and Susannah for ransom.

The Spanish captain has no value and is left alone on the island but, a seasoned mariner with access to a sunken longboat, he's able to reach civilisation and to contact Crusoe, who by now is in a Spanish jail in one of the ports waiting to be hanged. After a daring escape, Crusoe, Friday and the Captain steal a ship and sail to the rescue. Crusoe and Susannah are reunited and return to England.

And had there been a third season... that would have started a couple of years on, with Crusoe prospering in England and Friday fitting into society, adopting the style of an English gentleman but uncomfortable at being perceived as a novelty wherever he goes. I'd envisage an anti-slavery plot taking them back onto the high seas, but beyond the broad outline of an idea I'd develop it no further until I saw how season 2 had worked out.
Well, that was the dream. Whether there'd have been the budget to achieve it is another matter. Crusoe was a show of exceptional visual lushness but it wasn't an expensive production; one of the factors that had lured NBC had been the prospect of numerous inexpensive two-hander stories featuring just our main cast pitted against "the island itself".

In practice those two-handers were a problem; with two protagonists and no antagonist, the prospects for drama were limited. Stories could easily fall into a pattern; Crusoe and Friday have a spat, one of them stomps off, he falls in a hole, their differences are forgotten as they cooperate in a rescue. They discover something interesting, one want to leave it where it is and the other wants to take it home, one stomps off and the other one tries to reach it and falls into a hole... with five acts and a teaser to fill, it's not easy to stretch that out and keep it alive.

It was producer Jeff Hayes' idea to get them off the island in season two and send them buccaneering. I was all for it, especially since the budgeting would be his problem! But ships and ports and cities full of extras don't come cheap, and maybe we'd have been forced to change our plan.

It's all hypothetical now, anyway. Time's moved on. Anna Walton went on to a lead role in the British suspense feature Deviation, and Philip Winchester is currently starring in another UK/US production, Cinemax's Strike Back. But here's an off-camera moment with Mark Dexter, filming on a May 2008 Bank Holiday in York Minster.

You can find more behind-the-scenes stuff here. I shot some HD footage during the UK filming; it's still sitting on the hard drive but I'm planning to get it edited and online Real Soon Now, in my Copious Spare Time.

A Hero's Update

Here's a page of reviews for A Hero's Journey, mine included.

Can you type with gritted teeth? The show played to full houses and even made money. My first piece of staged writing, longer ago than I'm willing to admit, was a similar venture that attracted exactly one review. And it was a stinker.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

A Hero's Journey

A lightning strike on Brooligan Village has knocked out phones and broadband for the past ten days, which has put a crimp on my blogging and tweeting while forcing me to get some actual work done.

But here's where I'll be later this week. I have tickets for A Hero's Journey, an hour-long comedy playing from Wednesday to Friday in the Camden Fringe. It features the internal struggles of an embittered washed-up Doctor Who writer, and keep your smart remarks to yourself.

The lead character's a creative writing teacher with one professional credit - a pretentious Who spinoff novel (To Whit, a Dalek) - and an enormous chip on his shoulder. To be honest, he sounds like what we'd call around here, "a right arse". His angst follows him around in the form of a bad-angel version of the fifth Doctor. Imagine Play it Again, Sam with the Doc in place of Bogart, and you're probably halfway there.

The two writers are fans of the show, so we should be on safe ground. I know of at least three other former Who scribes who'll be in attendance, so an element of nervous hysteria amongst the audience is guaranteed.

Do I have any connection with the project? Kind of... the Associate Producer is @Audreydeuxpink, whom I'll probably have to disown when it's all over.

A Hero's Journey
is by Stephen Jordan and Patrick Baker, at the Etcetera Theatre (above the Oxford Arms pub) on Camden High Street from August 17-19 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £8, available from Ticketweb and, I imagine, at the door.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Stan Barstow

I'm sad to hear that novelist Stan Barstow has died at the age of 83. His Guardian obituary is here.

I served as Northern Chair of the Writers' Guild for a couple of years more than a decade ago, and Stan and his parter Diana Griffiths were two of the most reliable regulars at our (often sparsely-attended) meetings above the Mitre Hotel behind Manchester Cathedral. I found them both warm and supportive, and Stan maybe a little shy; some found him taciturn, and I wonder of the shyness increased when Diana wasn't around.

I liked both of them, a lot. I tracked down a first edition of A Kind of Loving with the idea of maybe asking Stan to sign it someday. Though I never did.

Stan was white-haired and full-bearded when I knew him, and I used to joke that it was as if God himself had showed up for Guild meetings. Though not in his presence, of course...

Friday 22 July 2011

Science and Sensation

I love this. Under the headline, Experts Warn Over Humanising Apes, the Associated Press has put out a lengthy science piece which has been picked up by, among others, The Independent - in fact it's being reprinted everywhere, from Pravda to The York Advertiser. It begins
Action is needed now to prevent nightmarish "Planet Of The Apes" science ever turning from fiction to fact, according to a group of eminent experts.
Their report calls for a new rules to supervise sensitive research that involves humanising animals.
One area of concern is "Category Three" experiments which may raise "very strong ethical concerns" and should be banned.
An example given is the creation of primates with distinctly human characteristics, such as speech.
A tip of the hat to Chernin Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox, for happening to launch their advance publicity for Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the very week that the story breaks... what are the chances, eh?

Here's how we did it in 1991.

I know for sure that this kind of sensationalism is an irritant to many working scientists, though maybe not to the extent that you'd think. Apparently there's an entire generation of computer designers inspired to their choice of career by 2001's murderous HAL 9000. How many people working in gene science today had their imaginations fired by the mayhem in Jurassic Park? And I know from my own experience that it's never hard to find a scientist ready to share a beer and speculate in the aid of some extreme worst-case scenario in their chosen field.

(Would that more producers would take advantage of this, instead of regarding such due diligence as, as one critical of my method put it to me, 'letting the tail wag the dog'.)

Science and sensation will always go together, not least because science can be pretty sensational in its own right. But there's more involved than simple awe and the contemplation of wonder; science is our age's way of connecting with myth, with those eternal patterns of human behaviour writ large and lurid in tales designed to captivate.

The coverage inspired by Chimera was, to put it mildly, highly speculative. Not that we didn't encourage it. But nor, in interview, did I ever try to blur the line between actual science and the concerns of the fiction we'd based on it. When the novel first came out I met with John Burke Davies, a reporter from The News of the World, whose editor had sent him to investigate or expose this charlatan who claimed to have inside information on the whereabouts of man-made monsters. Once it was established that I was claiming no such thing, our meeting turned into an eighteen-hour pub crawl around the journalistic haunts of Manchester. I remember drinking with sharply-dressed Sun reporters in a bar panelled with timber salvaged from an R101 airship. But that's all I remember.

The 'eminent experts' quoted in the AP release include Sir Paul Nurse, whose encouragement toward the creation of a pro-science show set me on the path to Eleventh Hour. As far as I can tell from the selected quotes, most of them are talking about the hazards and ethical issues of modifying gene functions at the cellular level, which is where the real science is at.

Dare I suggest that the raising of ape armies and the overthrow of mankind is best left to those of us who deal in that kind of thing.

Now available with added Andy Serkis.

Saturday Event

On Saturday I'm giving a talk-with-clips about my TV career at the Lass O'Gowrie on Charles Street in Manchester, and as the day gets closer I'm growing convinced that no one is going to turn up. If you've an events diary or similar feature and might be interested in giving it a mention, feel free to pass the information on.

I was born in Salford so this is a homecoming for me. I'll be covering ground from my start with Doctor Who through working with Brian Clemens on BUGS in the 90s with side-trips into TV horror and Rosemary & Thyme, right up to the experience of remaking Eleventh Hour in Hollywood for Jerry Bruckheimer (the first version, with Patrick Stewart, was shot in Manchester).

The talk's in an upstairs room of the Lass at 6.30, right after my old friend Bryan Talbot speaking about his Grandville graphic novels. It follows a day of events with Johnny Vegas, who I suspect will have no trouble pulling an audience.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Chris Moore

In my post of the influence of Philip K Dick I talked about Chris Moore, cover artist for many of the PKD titles in the SF Masterworks series; just to add you can now buy signed prints from his website.

Saturday 16 July 2011

'Sizzling Summer Reads' Promotion

It's with some irony that I'm writing this as the rain hammers hard on the skylight above my head... but the Top Suspense Group, of which I'm a member, is running a day-to-day Summer Reads promotion and yesterday was my day in the sun.

Titles featured so far include Lee Goldberg's Watch me Die, Vicki Hendricks' Voluntary Madness, and Naomi Hirahara's Summer of the Big Bachi. There'll be a new title featured more or less daily until the end of the month.

So if this rain continues, you can always stay in and read a book. With my salesman's hat on, here's what I wrote for the Group's blog.
I was within two blocks' drive of Paradise when the call came over the air. It was a 927, a general code meaning to investigate unknown trouble. The dispatch girl was offering it to Travis and Leonard, both of whom were checking IDs for warrants in the scrubby little park around the Adult Center on Jefferson; knowing that I could have them as backup in three minutes or less if the 'unknown trouble' turned out to be something bigger than anticipated, I cut in and took the call. Squad Sergeant responding, one minute or less.

Valley of Lights is a fusion of crime and horror, a dance between predator and prey in which the story twists, the stakes increase, and the tables are repeatedly turned.

It grew out of time that I spent in Phoenix, Arizona, researching the city and the desert and going on ride-alongs with the Phoenix PD. I was working on a novel that I never actually got to write. That novel idea was ambitious and sprawling. It was everything I ever wanted to say. It was art. It would have been as boring as hell. Instead, I wrote this.

It began as a simple idea for a short story and grew as I wrote it, in the way that no book had ever grown in my hands before. The story flew. All those days in the squad car with Lieutenant Dave Michels, the late shifts with Sergeants Tom Kosen and Jesse James, the flophouses and the trailer parks and the stakeouts in gaudy motels and the millionaires' houses in the Camelback Mountains - everything came together to feed the tale.

This is the book of which Dean Koontz wrote, "If thriller reading were a sin, Stephen Gallagher would be responsible for my ultimate damnation. His work is fast-paced, well-written, infused with a sense of dark wonder, and altogether fresh."

When I selected the title to present as my Sizzling Summer Read, fellow Top-Suspenser Ed Gorman kindly wrote, "I still think that Valley of Lights is one of the coolest - and most imitated - novels I've ever read."

Here's what Phoenix PD Sergeant Alex Volchak finds on his arrival at the Paradise Motel:
We came to the last of the units. Beyond this was some empty parking space and then a high cinderblock wall topped with wire. Not a place, on the whole, that I'd have cared to spend any time in. The desk clerk stood out front and gestured me towards the window as if to say take it, I don't want it, the responsibility's all yours. I was aware that, some distance behind me, one or two people had emerged and were watching to see if anything interesting was going to happen. I stepped up to the window and looked inside.

The sash was open an inch at the top, and some faint stirring of the air had caused the drapes to part down the middle. The bug screen and the darkness inside made it difficult to see anything at all, but as my eyes adjusted I began to make out shapes. Something that had at first looked like a bean bag resolved itself into a human form, slumped, halfway out of a low chair as if he'd fainted while sitting. The details weren't clear, but also in my line of sight across the room was the end of the bed with somebody lying on it. I could see a pair of soiled tennis shoes for this one, not much more.

Just drunks sleeping off a party, I thought, remembering the heavy breathing that was being picked up by the dislodged phone, and I turned to the clerk and said, 'Who's the room registered to?'

'A little s...' he began, but then he caught himself. 'A Hispanic guy. I don't think he's even one of them.'

'Well... all I see is people sleeping. I don't know what's so unusual in that.'

'For four straight days? It could have been longer. He registered weeks ago, he closed the drapes on day one and he musta sneaked the others in when no-one was watching.'

'What about the maid?'

'We're residential, maid service comes extra. She just leaves the towels and sheets outside, doesn't go in. What do you think?'

I felt a definite stirring of interest. I said, 'I think you should get your pass key so we can go inside and find out what the problem is.'

'And that's legal? I mean, I'm all square with the owner if I do what you say?'

'Get the key, all right?'

We went inside; or rather, I went inside and the little monkey in the technicolor shirt hovered in the doorway behind me. My first expectation, which was of the smell of opium smoke, turned out to be wrong; what hit me instead was a rank odor like bad breath and drains. I crossed the room and opened the window as wide as it would go, and then I turned to look at the place in the harsh angles of daylight.

Nobody had moved. There were three of them. Slumped in the low chair opposite the window was a man in a grey business suit, an expensive-looking summer lightweight with the pants stained dark where his bladder had let go. He was the one who'd fallen against the phone and dislodged the receiver, as if he'd been propped awkwardly and hadn't stayed that way. The soiled tennis shoes on the bed belonged to a short, muscular-looking man in his late thirties, while over in the other chair by the key-operated TV sprawled a black teenager in a leather jacket.

All three of them were inert, like corpses; but I checked for a pulse on each one, and they were all alive and steady. The arms of the man on the bed, who was wearing a T-shirt, showed no fresh needle marks or even old scars.

I said to the clerk, 'Did you move anything when you came in before?'

His face was that of an animal that had just been stunned prior to slaughtering. Perhaps he thought I'd read his mind; he probably didn't realise that he'd already given himself away.

'No,' he finally managed. 'I didn't move a thing.'
You can find Valley of Lights for the Kindle right here.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

The Bedlam Detective

New book coming. If you were waiting, sorry to have made you wait so long. Issues mostly beyond my control.

(This isn't it, by the way. This is the Italian paperback of The Kingdom of Bones, which just came in.)

The Bedlam Detective
picks up Sebastian Becker's story in 1912, one year after the conclusion of The Kingdom of Bones. When Kingdom ended, he'd brought his family back to London in fulfilment of a long-standing promise to his American wife. Now he's working as the Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, sent out to uncover criminal insanity amongst those who have the wealth and position to conceal it.

I've a date for early 2012 publication but it's not set in stone yet, so I'll not get too specific until it's confirmed. Ditto with the cover, of which I've seen a rough.

This is the novel that I'd originally titled The Suicide Hour, but once it was in proof my editors at Crown suggested a change to something that sounded more more like the book I'd written, and less like a memoir of despair. Before you leap in and argue on my behalf, let me say that I didn't take much pushing to agree. The new title's all mine, too.

Previously I wrote:
It's a murder mystery, with locations ranging from Southwark to the Americas. Becker is sent to the West Country to establish the mental state of Sir Owain Lancaster, a discredited industrialist under the control of a personal physician. Following the deaths of two children on Lancaster's land, Becker unravels the secrets of a disastrous expedition that destroyed the man's reputation and possibly his sanity.
If The Kingdom of Bones owed its origins to Bram Stoker, I suppose The Bedlam Detective could be described as my Conan Doyle tribute number. But like The Kingdom of Bones, it's very much its own thing.

I didn't intend it as a sequel, or ever see Becker as a series character - in fact Howard Morhaim, my agent, had to persuade me not to kill him in one of the early drafts of Kingdom - but I'm deep into a third Becker story now, with an idea lined up for a fourth.

If it isn't a series then I'm not sure what to call it - a sequence or a cycle, maybe, following a character through his life and seeing him significantly changed as he goes. Don't get me wrong, I love series characters. They're just at odds with what I try to do in a book.

Just as a track car is stripped of many of the features required for the road, series characters are built for distance and consistency. They collect just enough baggage to maintain the illusion of life, but never enough to slow them down. At the extreme end you get those private eyes who live lives of brutal solitude, yet have an endless supply of Old Friends who show up on their doorsteps in need of help.

I'm fine with that. It's just not what I do.

UPDATE: Amazon.com already has The Bedlam Detective listed with a US release date of February 7th. No image as yet.

As to why the US, see my previous post on the subject.

Monday 11 July 2011

Scooter, Skeeter, Spud.

In one of the few non-Murdoch pieces in today's Guardian, critic Peter Bradshaw asks, "Why are closing credits full of nicknames?"

Grips, wranglers, animators, all kinds of below-the-line employees opt for their contractual credit to include the nickname by which they're known within the industry. Why? Mainly it's the internet. Crew members choose to be known by unique nicknames for the same reason that new businesses hire consultants to create compound or invented words, so that they'll stand out in database searches. It didn't used to matter; now it does. Ask the owners of Syfy, the former Sci-Fi Channel.

Few of us may hang around to watch an entire credit roll but it's the only permanent embedded proof of each project's workforce, and often the only way to verify a technician's CV. Production companies fold, studios clear out paperwork, negatives are lost, but as long as one complete print exists then prospective employers - and, later, historians - have a reliable record.

But Bradshaw concludes,
Real stars don't get nicknames. The nickname is for the little people: it's a nice thank you to the legions of supporting players and humble crew members essential to movie-making. It's well intentioned, of course, but if an American actor or second grip asked me for some career advice, I'd say lose the nickname. Do you want to get to the top or not?
Peter, I know your tongue is probably in your cheek at this point (or I hope it is) but I doubt those 'little people' will be beating a path to your door to pick up career wisdom.

A credit isn't a 'thank you', it's a contractual right. Unless it's a 'thanks to', in which case it's a usually substitute for money. If you're ever on a set visit, and you find yourself at the craft services table alongside any of those hardworking little people... it might be handy to get a nickname or a middle initial so you can blame all this on some other Bradshaw.

Meanwhile, those 'real stars' don't have any need to distinguish themselves. Never wondered why Equity doesn't allow any two actors to register with exactly the same name?

Friday 8 July 2011

Paranoia and the Legacy of PKD

The Gary Sinise movie based on Philip K Dick's Impostor was a waste of the premise, but one of my earliest and most vivid TV memories is of a 1962 adaptation in ABC's Out of this World anthology series (that's the British ABC, the one that produced The Avengers, not the US network).

(That's the British Avengers, not the Marvel... ah, forget it)

Impostor is a PKD short story that involves a crashed spacecraft, and a sole survivor who's unaware that he's an android built around a bomb. Realising the truth will be the bomb's trigger. Doesn't that just send a chill though the back of your brain?

I recall a studio camera production, black and white, with cheap sets and a bit of modest model work for the crashed spacecraft. The final devastating explosion was achieved by cranking up the gain on the image so it went to white-out. The script was by Terry Nation and direction by Peter Hammond, two of the era's solid journeymen and go-to guys for genre material. As I was only eight at the time I had to have the ending explained to me, but that didn't diminish its power.

After broadcast, the tape was wiped and the show lost.

What lodged in my eight-year-old mind was the thrill of that notion. To think that you're human, and not be. That the reality you take for granted may be unreliable. It's an irresistible seed of paranoia. That's the appeal of PKD's fiction to filmmakers, I reckon, that strange poetry of identity with a sense of endless, unresolvable conflict.

The problem, shown up most recently in The Adjustment Bureau, lies in the inevitable drive to tame the intriguing premise in a conventional narrative. To resolve that which only grips because it's unresolvable. SPOILER: the ending of The Adjustment Bureau is total cack.

For a proper stab at a Dickian conclusion, see Source Code, which isn't based on a PKD story but which honours the legacy pretty well while achieving the near-impossible, a happy ending that doesn't betray the premise. Blade Runner, famously, was sent out into the world with a patched and cobbled ending that did exactly that, until later cuts removed the clumsy fixes and allowed the ambiguities to resonate. If you don't think that Deckard's a replicant while I'm certain that he is, then that's exactly as it should be. To push it to any firm conclusion is to kill the magic.

At the risk of lowering the tone, let me tell you that I drew on my memories of Impostor in the writing of a Bugs episode, once. It was in the second season, the one where we got steadily more sfnal before the BBC reined us in. My premise involved the first computer virus to jump the species barrier; the indebted twist was that awareness of the infection triggered its effects. Ros (Jaye Griffiths) grew ever more alienated from the others as they struggled to save her without being able to tell her why.

Those were the days, my friends, those were the days. I could ask for a Russian submarine or a particle accelerator and they'd get me one or build me one. If you're interested in the story behind the show, I wrote about it here.

Incidentally, the cover illustration at the head of the piece is by Chris Moore, whose bio I contributed to Paper Tiger's book on his art. Here's the image in its full glory:

Through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, for many Chris has become the artist most closely associated with Philip K Dick's work. Those Masterworks covers are some of my all-time favourite SF art. You can see more like this on his website.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Tough Pitch

For some reason the networks are reluctant to take a look at my love-triangle procedural, Two Girls, One Cop.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Ray Harryhausen

One of the proudest moments in my career came when I was remembered and recognised by Ray Harryhausen in a Convention bar.

Happy 91st birthday, Ray.

Friday 24 June 2011

On Suspense

Over on the Top Suspense blog we're trying out a form of online craft discussion in which a bunch of us tag-team the post over a number of days. Here's my contribution; hop over and check it out in the context of the others' thoughts and comments.
My take on suspense is a pretty straightforward one, I think. You have a character with whom the reader empathises, who needs to achieve something. Bad things are going to happen if he or she doesn't achieve it.

As they set out, everything seems set for success. But then obstacles arise - immediate, unplanned-for problems that have to be solved before your protagonist can move forward toward the greater goal. Meanwhile, the bigger situation deteriorates and the bad consequences loom larger.

Solving the lesser problem may get your protagonist closer, but gives rise to further problems that will impede progress even more. This is where the art comes in. Those problems have to be entertaining, and the effect of the delays and diversions has to be a pleasurable one. Suspense isn't about making the reader uncomfortable. It's about deferring closure in a way that heightens the anticipation of it.

The reader is trusting you to deliver an ultimate reward. But there's only a slim chance of success for your protagonist. And it gets ever slimmer, the closer you get to it. Will that slim chance disappear altogether just as you get there, or will your protagonist make it in time? For me that's the essence of suspense.

Thursday 23 June 2011

The Killing 2

No spoilers, but thanks to a friend with connections I've been getting a sneak preview of Forbrydelsen II and it (probably wisely) doesn't attempt to replicate the first season's slow-burning emotional drive. It's more of a mystery thriller, revolving around a deeply-buried secret in the recent past of a Danish military unit. Imagine if Michael Mann had directed an episode of NCIS in the style of Manhunter. The counterpointing of procedural and politics is there as before, and the Lund/Meyer relationship is roughly paralleled, though not recreated, in her pairing with a new partner.

And more than that I will not say.

Thanks to the same source, along with the release of the first Krister Henrikssen Wallander season on DVD, the last few weeks have seen something of a Scandinavian TV fest chez Brooligan. I don't know whether it's just a case of distance lending enchantment to the view, but digital-era cinematic visual style and American story pacing seem to have blended with the home culture without the inauthentic feel I get from some of our own crime shows.

Den Som Draeber (aka Those Who Kill - see a trailer here) is a more conventionally glamorous murderer-hunting show than The Killing, but it scratches an equally legitimate itch. Rejseholdet (Unit One, clip here), is a team-of-cops show with another strong female lead, and featuring a pre-Bond Mads Mikkelson in the lineup. I'm midway through season one, where a retro-feeling credits sequence gives the show an almost '70s air; YouTube clips like this one from a later season indicate a slicker visual style.

I'll watch more stuff and keep you posted.

A word of warning; if chasing down DVDs, check for English subtitles before you buy. And when it comes to Eurocrime, Engrenages (Spiral) still rules them all.

Oh, and you can buy your own Forbrydelsen season 2 Sarah Lund sweater here.

Monday 20 June 2011

Manchester Events

Got a couple of things going on in Manchester in July, and as the month's speeding toward us I suppose I'd better a) mention something about them, and b) start getting psyched about what I'm going to do.

Both events take place at "Manchester's perfect pub" the Lass O'Gowrie near Oxford Road, and the first of them's Doctor Who-related; I don't do much Who stuff so it'll give me a chance to trot out my anecdote. Titled Vworp 4, the 'convention in a pub' runs from 9am until 6pm on Sunday, July 3rd, and confirmed guests include Bob Baker, Paul Tams, Dez Skinn, Adrian Salmon, Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronovich and "the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre performing an exclusive set of their Doctor Who material".

Tickets for the day are £19.95 and you can get them here.

Then on Saturday July 23rd, as part of the Lass O'Gowrie's ongoing Pub Fiction programme, there's just me for an hour in the Salmon Room from 6.30 to 7.30, most likely with a few video clips to talk around. Tickets for this are £5 (there's a capacity limit on the room so you can advance-book here to avoid disappointment - as if)

Just before me, at 5.30, there's an illustrated talk by old mate Bryan Talbot in which he'll be discussing his graphic novels Grandville and Grandville Mon Amour.

Then at 8pm they're screening a classic horror double bill of Night of the Demon and Vampire Circus. Despite the presence of lightweight B-movie import Dana Andrews and the show it/don't show it rubber monster controversy, this updated 50s retelling of M R James's Casting the Runes is well worth your attention - not least for Niall MacGinness's Dr Julian Karswell, a shaded and thoughtful take on an Aleister Crowley-style villain.

In fact if you cast an eye over the programme of events for the venue's month-long fringe festival, the Lass O'Gowrie is becoming a significant national hub for genre and genre-related activity.

Thursday 16 June 2011

My Start

It's only looking back that I realise how fortuitous my career timing was. With just one spec Saturday Night Theatre script it was like I stepped into radio's National Theatre. My very first producer (on The Humane Solution) was the legendary John Tydeman, who'd pretty much launched the careers of Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. He was head of BBC radio drama and led a very small team of highly experienced producers.

Martin Jenkins produced my next (An Alternative to Suicide) and I think with one exception he directed everything I wrote for BBC radio thereafter. We got on really well. While I was still working for Granada he came up to Manchester and I took him to see the outdoor set for Coronation Street, of which he was a fan.

He obviously enjoyed the fact that my stuff was anything but social realism, and that it gave him opportunities to push the medium in all kinds of unusual ways. For my part, I got an enormous sense of uplift walking through the doors of Broadcasting House on Portland Place, feeling a connection with everything that had passed through those studios before. On Alternative, a science fiction piece starring Michael Jayston, I can remember the studio managers wiring up every piece of weird and extreme equipment in the building, tying up every channel and turntable. When I had to leave for my train they were still bringing in more.

(Without telling me, Martin sent the Alternative script over to the Doctor Who production office which was then in Threshold House, possibly the dullest, grimmest office building on the planet just a couple of doors away from the Shepherds Bush Empire. But that was the start of another story.)

I wasn't the biggest fan of radio drama in my growing-up years; that would be the 60s and for me the most meaningful radio of the time was the scripted comedy. We must have had terrible reception in the house because I can remember going out to the garage and lying on the scratchy back seat of my dad's Ford Popular to listen. The model didn't come with a radio but he'd installed his own and that's where I'd catch the block of comedy shows on a Sunday afternoon. The material was a mix of traditional and radical – Ken Dodd, The Navy Lark and The Clitheroe Kid alongside I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again and Round the Horne. Actually, in retrospect I'd move Ken Dodd into the radicals' camp. These days he's usually thought of as the last of the traditional variety performers, but on radio I remember him as a demented surrealist.

The drama that probably influenced me most in terms of what the medium could do, and what it ought to sound like, was a series of Sexton Blake stories dramatised by Donald Stuart. This was 1967, so I'd be 12 or 13. William Franklyn was terrific in the lead. In form and pacing they were almost cinematic, way more so than the TV of the time, where you were very limited in sets, staging, and coverage. Stuart had been writing Blake for story papers and pulps since the 20s but there was nothing dusty about his radio technique.

That spec script didn't come out of nowhere. Prior to my first BBC sale I'd written drama for Piccadilly Radio, a commercial station in Manchester, where my total lack of experience coupled with enthusiasm made me appealingly cheap. Piccadilly was a music station, but they'd made a commitment in their franchise application to deliver scripted content.

We made the episodes as a kind of co-operative, in the sense of everyone mucking-in and no money. Tony Hawkins was their commercials producer, and he produced. Pete Baker was the breakfast DJ and he handled the technical side. Our cast was drawn from the actors and voiceover people we worked with every day... Malcolm Brown, John Munday, Peter Wheeler, Chris Kay, Jim Pope, Charles Foster, Diana Mather, Colin Weston, Mike Hurley... a year or so later I roped many of the same people into making a short film which, if I'm lucky, will never see the light of day again.

Pete devised a method by which we'd use our limited time with the actors to get a clean voice recording, and then he'd prepare all the sound effects on the instant-start cartridges used for commercials and jingles. Then he'd re-record the voice track through the DJ's desk in the station's unused backup studio, varying the acoustics with equalisation and playing in all the effects in real time.

The serial was called The Last Rose of Summer, and Piccadilly traded it to other independent stations that were in the same pickle vis-a-vis their franchise commitments.

It was a different situation at the BBC. There it was a rehearse-record system. Different parts of the studio were furnished in different ways to produce different kinds of sound quality, and effects were either created live with props by a studio manager, or played-in from pre-cued vinyl recordings on one of a bank of turntables. Watching it all come together was like some great elaborate ballet resulting in auditory magic. This was my words getting the historic BBC treatment and I was living the dream. But Pete's method was ahead of its time and gave a comparable result, I've always thought.

I still get mail about The Last Rose of Summer. The master tapes are now in the North West Sound Archive and there are bootleg copies knocking around online, if you know how to find that kind of thing.

I mourn the dismantling of BBC radio drama production in its old form, simply because it was the nearest thing we'll ever have to a National Writing School. I was a 23-year-old from the provinces who sent in a spec script and from day one was treated with the same consideration as any experienced pro. The structure and dialogue skills I learned in radio have served me as an equal foundation for both prose and screenplay writing.

But while I mourn, affordable technology and new means of distribution mean that the 'co-op' approach that got me started is now available to anyone. If you want to make a play, you can make a play and put it online, podcast it, whatever. What's harder is that move from there up to the next level.

UPDATE:  I had an approach from BBC4Extra over the possibility of rebroadcasting the episodes. Mixed feelings from me over bringing such early work out of the past for present-day scrutiny... all of which is a bit moot because the initiative seems to have run aground on the question of rights, despite the agreement of all the involved parties. One thing we did establish, though - the North West Sound Archive say they don't have the tapes. Though on the upside, some of the bootlegs have proved to be of near broadcast quality.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

'king Crimson

I've been catching up with The Crimson Petal and the White and it's an encouraging reminder of BBC2's much better days, though I'm uneasy at the BBC's current operating assumption that the only acceptable historical drama involves shagging or lesbians. Don't get me wrong, I'll happily watch either, but the feeling's like that of reading the newsletter of some kinky middle-class society of which I'm not a member.

The camerawork's fashionable, which is never good, but the production design is terrific and the performances spot-on. In tone, and in Mark Gatiss' side-plot of sexual self-loathing, I'm reminded of David Turner's 1970 adaptation of Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy. The script is cinematically paced and encourages inference in place of exposition; Lucinda Coxon, Crimson Petal's adaptor, is a playwright with no prior TV credits.

Does the current season mark a turning point for BBC drama? As Good Dog points out, this one will be the first to show the outcome of the BBC Trust's stinging 2009 quality review. Or maybe it represents Ben Stephenson's master plan anyway, and the review merely marshalled him the way that he was going. It's good to get an adaptation of a literary work that isn't already crashingly familiar. But with a generation of writers crushed and discouraged by the Holbification of drama, it's going to be a while before we start hearing original voices in authored TV again.