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Saturday 20 October 2012

Nightmares and Angels

Just after the Berlin wall came down, I threw a bag into the back of the Volvo and drove down to the Hamburg ferry. Not quite as spontaneously as that, of course. I had a plan. I'd lined up meetings with Hamburg's Sex Crimes division and detectives in the Criminal Investigation department of the Dussseldorf police. I had places to look at, questions to ask, and a date with the Senior Pathologist in the morgue at Heinrich Heine University.

But in the most ambitious part of the trip, I headed East. Right across Germany, through the border, and into territory that had, only months before - weeks, even - been sealed off, self-contained, an enigma to the West.

For someone raised on spy fiction, this was no small deal. In Cold War mythology, East Germany was enemy territory. In reality the border was a zone of tension, and people died trying to cross it.

What I found was empty checkpoints, broken barriers, watchtowers with their windows stoned-in... there were concrete blocks that had been placed to prevent any vehicle from making a dash through, forcing the car into a zigzag path that no longer served any purpose. This once-fearsome locale now felt like a corner of an abandoned airfield, already becoming overgrown.

And what I found on the other side resembled the Britain of my earliest memories. It was as if time had stopped in the 1950s, which I suppose it pretty much had. Fields, farms, and villages were untouched. Where there was industry, it was like a concentrated dump of poison in an otherwise bucolic landscape. My most powerful visual memory is of the bright yellow hillsides of oilseed rape, unnatural in their intensity, a sight that always takes me back not only to the place, but to that precise time of the year.

I don't know what they must have made of the Volvo. At least half of the cars I saw on the road were Trabants, those tiny two-stroke polluters with bodyshells made of cotton waste and resin. The Volvo was a red 480 ES, one of those sports coup├ęs with which they sometimes surprise the market, pictured here as it appeared in Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat. Driving around in it made me feel like Commander Straker in UFO.

I covered my checklist of sights and places, I gathered atmosphere and detail. It was all for a novel called Nightmare, with Angel.

I stayed in some odd places; one night in an inn where they kindly but apologetically gave me a tiny stockroom behind the bar with a bed in it, another in a workers' subsidised country vacation home, vast as the Overlook Hotel and just as empty. Along the way I found everything that I needed for the novel, and much that I'd never imagined. It didn't all find its way in, but it all made a difference. That's research for you.

I look back at some of the stuff I've done in the course of my career and wonder how I had the nerve. I had no one to guide me, I'd made no advance reservations. I didn't even speak any German. I did have a map and a phrasebook. I wasn't a complete idiot.

Here's how I began my pitch for the novel:
Imagine this.

You've got a nine year old girl who lives alone with her father in a big old house by the sea. Every day she looks more like her mother, and her mother was a tramp. Because of this her father all but ignores her, the woman who keeps house in the daytime also keeps her distance, and the child has to face a solitary life with only a scavenged photograph of her mother for comfort and a wishful image of what it might be like to be loved again. Her father isn't a hard man; but he's a mess, he's losing his grip, and he doesn't seem to see how he's losing his daughter as well. When he notices her, he's impossibly strict. But most of the time he's absorbed by his own bitterness, and he hardly notices her at all. Her days are long, and as bleak and empty as the coastal landscape around the house where she roams. With her father seemingly lost to her, she needs a father‑figure to take his place; and on the day that she falls into one of the big sea‑drains by the town dump and has to be rescued by a stranger, she thinks that she's found one.

His name is Ryan. He lives in a rented shack by the railway line and makes a living however he can; odd jobs, casual work, fixing up abandoned appliances, cleaning out aluminium cans and bagging them for scrap. He gets her out, he takes her home and, without waiting for thanks, he walks away.

But it isn't going to be so easy for him. 
So the story that swept all the way to the East began closer to home, on a part of the British seacoast that I knew quite well. Sunderland Point is one of those places that can only be reached by a causeway at low tide. Strange, desolate and charming, it's one of the most atmospheric places I know. At the time I was experimenting with one of those panoramic cameras that took a picture like a school photo. It was a format that somehow suited the landscape.

The novel did rather well for me, and one way or another it'll be available again soon. Don't ask me which way, because that isn't settled yet.

A couple of years later I traded in the Volvo for a sensible family wagon. Lots of legroom for the rear seats, plenty of luggage space, and room for the dogs.

This year, I traded back.

Monday 15 October 2012

Creating the Audio Drama

The first professional work I ever did was in radio drama, and I did quite a lot of it.  Long form stuff, six-part serials and 90-minute plays.  It’s a medium that provides a grounding that’s equally valid for both novel and screenplay writing.  You learn to structure, and to structure over distance.  You learn to balance scenes; you learn how to do speakable dialogue that carries story while still sounding like things that real people might say.  And, strange though it may sound, you learn the absolute value of the image as a way to deliver meaning.  You don’t have visuals in radio, so you’re forever seeking ways to put them in the audience’s mind, and you’ve an awareness of the need for them to count for something.  You can turn on your TV any night of the week and see writing that doesn’t attempt any of that.  People in rooms telling each other the plot. One up from that is the whole school of thought that believes the only ‘proper’ drama is two people arguing bitterly about their relationship.

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 Radio 4's 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 drama and led a very small team of highly experienced producers. Martin Jenkins did my next (An Alternative to Suicide) and I think with one exception he produced 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 of Coronation Street, of which he was a fan. But 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. On Alternative, which was a science fiction piece, 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.

On the half-hour Man in Blacks, I'd write the framing narration and it was understood that Martin would rewrite it for his needs. Those episodes now seem to be in constant repertory on Radio 4 Extra. Audio horror has an advantage, in that we're unsettled by incomplete information. Who's outside? What's making that noise? The moment you switch the lights on to see, that entire little universe of uncertainty collapses into something quantified. But with audio horror there's always something legitimately withheld.

I suppose if there's a weakness, it's that a lot of people imagine that an explicit visual trumps a quiet suggestion. If hearing someone scratching at your door is scary, the logic goes, then surely being confronted by them must be scarier still. I never really had to modify my writing because there was a very short note-giving chain and the people I was working with were all trained and experienced BBC staffers. But I can easily imagine having to deal with someone in the chain demanding that the uncanny be made explicit, because "that's what the audience will want."

As far as creating soundscapes is concerned, that's kind of interesting. Prior to my first BBC sale I'd written drama for a commercial radio station in Manchester. It 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 (I was working in Granada's Presentation Department, just down the road). 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.

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.

American radio drama was a quite different beast. When I imagine the kind of BBC drama I grew up with, I think of dignified thespians reading in a studio. But you listen to American 'old time radio' shows from the archives and they're like whirlwind rollercoaster rides with live music and a constant rain of shocks, stings, and climaxes. They're great fun but at the end of it you sometimes realise that it was all in the ride and nothing much of any weight has been said. The ideal is to try for something with a little more literary weight but still with that cinematic momentum.

I'd say that a good horror radio actor is one who'll go for the human truth in the scene where a lesser actor would fall into the trap of playing it for effect. Valentine Dyall – the original Man in Black, with whom I had the pleasure of working when I wrote for Doctor Who – let his natural gravitas do the job. Edward De Souza played it differently but just as effectively, by being sincere and not attempting to 'do creepy'. It's worth remembering that Vincent Price – another great radio voice – gave one of his career-best performances when, in Witchfinder General, he was shorn of all the tics and tricks that had carried him though many a crappy B-movie.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Thy Kingdom's Coming

I got a present at Fantasycon last weekend; the Ebury publicity team had brought along an advance copy of the UK paperback of The Kingdom of Bones, and handed it to me at the launch of Random House's new Del Rey imprint.

It is cool.

The cover is by Headdesign, who provided art for the current set of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels from Vintage. The back of the jacket features Sebastian Becker's Bulldog revolver.

As a bonus you get the opening chapters of The Bedlam Detective, the Becker-led follow-up. That one's scheduled for May 2013.

But this one's is available from December 6th. Just in time for... well, you know the drill.

Saturday 6 October 2012

The Entitlement Thing

The magazine Doctor Who Monthly runs a readers' poll every season. This year, one reader couldn't even wait until the end of the run before sharing. He gave every story the lowest possible mark ('Awful'), including those he hadn't seen. He hated every villain that wasn't a Dalek, and called for Matt Smith to be replaced and Steven Moffat to leave the show. Favourite special effect? "Not interested". Favourite line of dialogue? "None".

Editor Tom Spilsbury won't give any details, but did say that the reader is in his mid-40s. Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a middle-aged man watching Doctor Who. It's a show for the kid in us all, and that's one of the reasons for its success. But anywhere past your teens and you're not the target audience, you're a guest. A welcome guest, for sure. But a guest needs to know how to behave.

There are aspects of the show that I think work well and others that rub me up the wrong way (coughRiverSongcough) but I wouldn't dream of getting exercised over them, nor of demanding that the show be retuned to my preferences. We can all have an opinion about what works and what doesn't but when it comes to what goes in, the young audience is the one that matters most.

I'll confess my unease at the recent BBC-backed convention that discouraged children from attending. It wasn't a cultural studies symposium, it was a fan convention. But an adults-only Who feels... wrong. Take the kids out of the equation, and it's like messing with the gravitational balance of the Whoniverse. To me the most joyous part about New Who is seeing adults and kids together, parents sharing and passing on their renewed sense of wonder, a cameraderie that crosses age barriers. Those adults who gather in pubs to discuss it amongst themselves are connecting over something that started inside them long ago.

If it's going down well with the kids in a way that doesn't suit some adults, that's a pity but it's not for us to hijack it, nor to pester the driver by clamouring for his personal attention. When the kids are turning away, that's when it becomes a serious matter for the showrunner to ponder. And it's bad enough having to deal with notes from executives, without viewers trying to get in on the act. When it comes to someone else's TV show I consider myself a consumer, not a stakeholder, and for very good reason. I don't seek to be given exactly what I want. I'm looking for discovery. The risk of disappointment is the necessary downside of wonder.

And disappointment seems to come very easily to many people, these days, with every new genre piece being released to the sound of sharpening knives. Our culture has become like a birthing pool full of crocodiles. There was a time when the response to new material was to invest in it, meet it halfway, go all the way to find something to love in it, should it happen to be a Plan 9 or a Robot Monster.

Now, like the twerp who logs in to Amazon and one-stars every piece of PC software because it won't run on his Mac, the default setting seems to be one of outrage that our specific expectations haven't been met.

And speaking as someone who spent a childhood lost in awe, oblivious to wires, zips, obvious model work, corny dialogue, and stories that didn't always make sense, I think we're the poorer for it.

Friday 5 October 2012

Short Horror?

My psychology lecturer friend is looking for a horror short of  around 15-20 minutes to screen to a bunch of subjects as part of an experiment to test their recall. She needs to be able to show formal permission for its use, so she can't just nick a scene from a DVD.

If you've made a suitable short film and you're willing to make it available, tweet me a link @brooligan or use the email form on my contact page.

I'll pass on anything you send. Unless it's naked pictures of your bits.

We have some standards, here.

UPDATE: Thanks to all who responded. I've passed along the links. She now has to contend with her ethics committee...