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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.