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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.