skip to main | skip to sidebar

Sunday 29 December 2013

Social Notworking

Teenagers are turning their backs on Facebook, apparently, and deserting it in droves. Well, let me tell you young kids, I was way ahead of you.

There's an account out there with my name on it, but it's one that I very rarely check. You can spot it easily. It's the one with the profile picture of a hunting dog being rogered by a racoon.

All right, so I didn't enter into the whole Facebook thing too seriously. But what started as a handy way to share pictures on the move almost immediately began to run out of control. With as few as half a dozen friend connections, here was a thing that already demanded feeding, monitoring, and constant maintenance.

I saw what was coming. To quote the great Patsy Ann Noble, he who rides a tiger can never dismount. So I hopped off this particular beast before it could properly get going.

I won't say Facebook is entirely without its uses. When someone owes you money and is pleading dire financial straits, it's instructive to go online in lurker mode and see them brag about the new piece of kit to which they're in the process of treating themselves.

Then there's LinkedIn. I signed up to that one with no certain idea of what it was for. But with so many people with whom I'd worked already on there, I was persuaded that I'd surely find out.

I still haven't. The only activity seems to come from rapacious get-rich-quick types selling empty schemes and fist-pumping seminars, and people trying to break into the professional circles of complete strangers.

So if you've recently sent me a friend or connection request and I haven't replied, it's not because I want to ignore or insult you. I'm just not around.

Unless you owe me money. In which case I'm there in the shadows, watching you like a hawk.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

In Case You Hadn't Noticed, It's Christmas

If someone gave you an e-reader, I've scheduled a free promotion for some of the Amazon backlist titles on Boxing Day. Click on the covers in the sidebar to find out which ones. But not until then, of course.

I'm not being cute over it, I really don't remember which ones I landed on.

Oh, and a Happy New Year.

Sunday 22 December 2013

In Gethsemane

For this weekend, my favourite novella free to the Kindle.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Eleventh Hour Sizzle

Tidying up my hard drive, I found this. Because the CBS show was already under way when I joined, it was my first sight of what the team were doing.

Tuesday 17 December 2013


Sandbaggers (The): The Complete SeriesI picked up the 3-season DVD boxed set and watched all of The Sandbaggers a while back, to find that it holds up brilliantly. If only all vintage TV could so well match our memories of it... the episodes are mastered from decently preserved tape, not telerecordings, and while the production values are standard for 70s studio-based drama, it's the writing and performances that give it real enduring quality.

My first agent was the Transworld editor responsible for dealing with writer/creator Ian Mackintosh over the series' novelisations, and he'd told her that he himself was a former Sandbagger. In a business filled with bullshitters, this seemed to chime with stories I was hearing of scripts being sent for vetting by some shady government department before production. Personally I'm inclined not to disbelieve it; Mackintosh's depiction of a credible bureaucracy, and the way in which he invests it with urgent dramatic life, hardly seems like a fantasist's first choice of material.

Long before the DVDs were available, I was in contact with a researcher from Kudos who was trying to track down VHS copies of Sandbaggers episodes. They served as part of the groundwork for the show that would become Spooks (MI5 in the US).

Still available from Network DVD.

Friday 13 December 2013


A short story twofer, free to Kindle now and over this weekend.

Science Drama Awards

Just got the pix from Lisbon. This is me being...

I have no idea what I'm being.

But I'm thanking Sharon Bloom, Chris Farrer, Philippa Giles, David Richards, and the Silent Witness cast and crew.

Thursday 12 December 2013

The First Kingdom of Bones

The Kingdom of Bones was the title I gave to my script for BBC Films' Murder Rooms series, the one I was discussing in my previous post. Writing about its parallels with the Ripper Street cancellation prompted me to dig out this showreel clip.

I didn't know it at the time, but piecemeal funding of development meant that by delivering early I jumped the queue and got my story onto the production train before the whistle blew. They were buying scripts without knowing how many they'd actually get to make. Not the best way to run a business and the producers didn't like it, but we were all dealing with the system as we found it.

I was able to deliver a relatively well-finished first draft for one reason; I had a head start in Victoriana because I'd been working on Victorian Gothic, a period epic of my own devising that had become a long-term passion project. Zenith had optioned screen rights on it for a couple of years before going out of business. Jane Tranter picked it up and developed it further for the BBC, only to find her persuasive energies wasted on a channel controller whose background was in sport.

When the novel sold to Shaye Areheart's Random House imprint, Shaye didn't like Victorian Gothic for a title and picked The Kingdom of Bones from my list, where it still lurked. I didn't protest.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Victorian Gothic, Edwardian Style

Last week's post on the cancellation of the BBC's Ripper Street sparked a surge in blog traffic, retweets, and general indications of agreement. It seems I'm not alone in my view that the BBC is letting down its subscribers by running its programming in imitation of an ad-funded broadcaster. This Den of Geek piece is saying much the same thing, and I'm seeing the arguments repeated elsewhere. It's not the usual spectacle of fans rallying to a doomed show; it's a very British response to an open display of unfairness. Give all the good toys to the kids with the most toys, then watch as they break them.

I'm not of the opinion that only idiots watch those live contests and shiny-floor shows. All kinds of people watch them to unwind. But it's not the only kind of thing they ever want to see.

This comes at a time when the BBC Trust has instructed Director General Tony Hall to “re-examine the creative culture in TV management and commissioning to consider how to achieve new peaks of distinctiveness across all services”. Does distinctiveness mean ratings? It would be a perverse interpretation to act as if it does. The subtext here is about quality, not numbers.

And sometimes it's not about quality or numbers, but politics or prejudice. It's attitudes that are at the heart of the 'creative culture' referred to by the Trust. Anyone who's worked in TV for any length of time has their stories of politics or prejudice, real or imagined. Since we're talking Victorian crime let me refer you back to the case of the BBC's Murder Rooms, historical mysteries with production values to die for. Charles Edwards played the young Conan Doyle and Ian Richardson his mentor and model for Sherlock Holmes, Joseph Bell.  I wrote here of the against-the-odds process by which it was put together, and also the manner of its cancellation:
I was told some time after the event that this was most likely the outcome of a silent turf war between BBC Drama and BBC Films. The word went around that the show had been "too successful for the wrong department". Co-producers The Television Company offered to take it over and finance it themselves, but were turned down.
There are rumours of a similar proposal for Ripper Street to be funded and carried by Amazon-owned download distributor Lovefilm, either pushing the BBC into a secondary market position or even eliminating the Corporation altogether. The mould was broken some time ago, when FX cancelled legal thriller Damages after three seasons, and satellite carrier DirecTV underwrote and broadcast two further series. Ripper Street is made by an independent production company, Tiger Aspect. I've no idea whether their deal allows them to sell it elsewhere, but an indie may not be so quick to turn down a lifeline.

While waiting to see how that pans out, you may care to consider this handsome pair as a stocking-filler for the fan of Victorian crime now pining away there in the corner. I've seen a surprise surge in the Amazon sales over the past few days, with new stock on the way. Don't let that deter you from supporting your local bookshop, if you have one, and if they stock the titles. A third Becker book is well in hand, and there's an upcoming story in Subterranean Magazine that picks up the chronology from the end of The Bedlam Detective.

And from our Colonial cousins, this handsome pair:

Yep, in the end it's always gonna be about me.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Ripper Street, Not Resting in Peace

Every show's cancellation hits the people who love it, and every show has a core group of people who love it lots. But the wider dismay over the BBC's cancellation of Victorian-era police drama Ripper Street seems to have an unusual edge to it.

I'm not a fan. By which I don't mean that I have a low opinion of it, simply that I don't follow the show. And if anything I ought to welcome its cancellation, because with Ripper Street and Copper out of the way, development execs are willing to look seriously at the Becker books again.

But it's worrying that once again the BBC has killed a series that it claims to be proud of, citing a fall in viewing figures as the reason. For an advertising-driven broadcaster like ITV, viewing figures are crucial because their business is one of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The viewer is not the client, but the product. The programmes are bait, to draw a crowd and serve it up to the client's sales force. Regulation imposed a quality threshold on commercial television from the very beginning. With relaxed regulation you get Babestation.

The BBC isn't ITV. With its one-off yearly license fee funding, the BBC's model is more like that of a cable company - and it's the biggest bargain of its kind in the business, whatever the bottom half of the internet may say. Sky charges you more, produces less, and still shows you ads.

Subscription-funded companies like HBO or Showtime don't have to worry about the figures for any one programme. Their brand image is defined by the quality of some of their least-watched product. Hence The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad - bar-raisers for an entire industry. AMC's Mad Men made its debut to less than a million viewers. The episode average never rose above three million, but it was deemed worthy of six seasons.

The BBC's there for all of us. Because of the compulsory license fee, we're all subscribers. Yet the BBC chooses to ape ITV's methods and compete for ratings in time slots, as if courting imaginary ad buyers. Which wouldn't be so bad if they didn't then use those ratings as the measure of a programme's worth, when simply moving the material around the schedule can have a drastic effect on its numbers.

(I speak here as someone who once saw his big-budget one-off BBC drama scheduled against live football on ITV, Manchester United v AC Milan. They knew what the outcome would be and didn't even bother making any trails for the show.)

I've heard it suggested that the real reason for Ripper Street's cancellation is that it's too 'blokeish' for some executives' tastes, and the numbers only provide a handy excuse. So presumably the blokes will now go off and watch The Paradise instead. Or maybe Mr Selfridge.

That's about a bloke, isn't it?

Sunday 1 December 2013

The London Film School

I'm heading down to London to give the LFS Returning Drama masterclass that I wrote about here. Stop laughing. Yes, you. It's real and they've said there'll be biscuits.

I've always been wary of the whole masterclass idea because the longer I go on, the less I'm convinced I know. But putting together a little showreel to start the thing off, I realise that I've kicked around enough, and in a sufficiently diverse number of places and situations, to at least bring back a few travellers' tales.

It's a specialised part-time course for writers who've found their footing and want to increase their expertise. It's not cheap, and this one's filled up, but there are always more. I've spoken disparagingly about courses that purport to teach non-writers to write, but this isn't one of those.

Monday 25 November 2013

An Award! An Award!

It doesn't happen often, so what the hell, let's shout. I'll write a proper update on the event tomorrow (ish - it's very late and we've been hitting the bright lights and low dives of Lisbon) but for now, from the press release:
Lisbon, Friday November 22nd 2013 On the eve of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary celebrations, one of its former writers has picked up the European Science Drama prize. LEGACY is Stephen Gallagher's two-part story for season 16 of the BBC flagship drama SILENT WITNESS. The European Science TV and New Media Awards ceremony took place on Friday night at Lisbon's Pavilion of Knowledge, Ciência Viva.

LEGACY follows the uncovering of a major 60s nuclear accident through a forensics team's piecing together of clues from its present-day aftermath. CRUSOE showrunner Stephen Gallagher has a track record as a creator of science-themed popular drama, from 90s  bioshocker CHIMERA to CBS/Bruckheimer's ELEVENTH HOUR. Gallagher is represented by Julia Kreitman at The Agency and Josh Hornstock at UTA.

The 2013 European Science TV and New Media Festival is organised by EuroPAWS and Euroscience with the support of BASF, Janssen, the La Caixa Foundation, and NEF: The Innovation Institute and Science Foundation Ireland.

IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0302497/
Awards schedule and shortlist: http://europaws.org/awards/

Wednesday 20 November 2013

City of Culture, 2017

Congratulations to Hull on the winning bid. No doubt there'll be the usual city-what-culture snark but my memories of Hull are all good ones, of deep history and atmospheric landscape and unique creative energy. Down River was my love letter to Humberside and the East Yorkshire coast.

For all those cities in competition, apparently the very act of getting a bid together has been proven to affect cultural life and economy; almost as if the morale of the public had a value.

Imagine that. Hope and happiness mattering. You wouldn't guess it from the way we're being driven, would you?

Monday 18 November 2013

Who Day

Saturday's Dr Who day (Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes, University of Central Lancashire) was great fun, as these things always are. When people come together for an occasion like this one, there's an air of cynicism-free joy that's completely at odds with some of the online griping you see. Which leads me to think that maybe the online griping is just the Grinch joining in with the fun.

Key to it all is the presence of the bright and very young, I think. The day was advertised as 'for ages 12 and up', which is in contrast to those BBC-backed fan affairs recommended for adults only. Dr Who is a children's show that doesn't talk down to its audience, and they rise to meet it as children will. Which makes it a canny move by UCLAN to stage the event, and not to dumb it down. It was effectively an Open Day for future undergraduates, with real lectures in a real lecture theatre, the odd quiz, and cosplay and props courtesy of Hyde Fundraisers.

(If you think that raises unrealistic expectations for student life, you've obviously forgotten Freshers' Week.)

I showed up for my bit, but I stayed all day. Even had a signing line which meant that I missed the beginning of Dr Sarita Robinson's talk on The Psychology of Dr Who - but no worries, I got to catch up with her to-camera piece for the Special Features on the Day of the Daleks DVD. This wasn't soft stuff. The point being that the imagined wonders of Who open doors to real questions of cosmology, psychology, and the nature of time itself.

I've one regret, which is that at the end of my Q&A, when asked what advice I'd give to aspiring writers, I kicked off with, "Don't go on courses, don't trust books," which is a pretty ungracious thing to hear from a guest in an educational setting. The fact is, I've friends who run courses. I've shown up and done guest spots, and I've mentored screenwriting students. What I meant to urge was an attitude of mind; don't expect to be guided, don't look for a map. Approach such things as an explorer, with an eye to what you can steal and co-opt to your purpose. If I'd been a bit less shoot-from-the-hip, I'd have had the wits to say so.

I was rubbish at the quiz, as well.

UPDATE: There's a report by David MacGowan on the full day here, complete but for mention of  Dr Ian Turner's entertaining and informative The Science of Doctor Who, which was conducted with s great sense of fun in the persona of the Doctor himself. David was watching a screening of Warriors' Gate during that hour, so I guess he's excused.

Monday 28 October 2013

Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes

Lancashire Science Festival Presents Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes on Saturday 16 November 2013, 09:30am - 16:00pm in the Darwin Building, University of Central Lancashire, Marsh Lane, Preston, PR1 2HE.

£5 for full day entry (access to all sessions), free entry to the festival activities (excluding sessions) and free parking (see details on their website)

"To celebrate 50 years of Doctor Who, the Lancashire Science Festival proudly presents Doctor Who: The Science Behind the Scenes. Have you ever wondered whether the Doctor's time travelling antics were really possible? And if so, how? Please note that this event is aimed at ages 12 and above."

And here's the bit that I''m involved in:


Doctor Who Screenwriter Stephen Gallagher will be attending the festival and giving a Q&A (paid tickets only) and Autograph Signing Session at 1pm!

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Other Side of the Fence

In case you haven't picked it up via Twitter or any of the other social media, I have an offspring in the business - her name's Ellen Gallagher and she's to be found in the Film and TV department of London's Blake Friedmann Agency. And if you're a screenwriter with questions that call for an agency perspective then she's started a series of blog posts to tackle them here.

While you'd think it an obvious choice of career for a writer's kid, it was anything but. It's not like a merchant bank, I didn't have a word and get her in. It was basic office skills picked up while working for a machine parts supplier that led the way into film company PA work. Which in turn led to opportunities to take on some of the workload of the development department. A stint with Scott Free, a year with Hammer, some fringe festival and feature work, and now this.

You'll get a different angle from anything I can offer you. Advice from a writer often takes the form of "Here's how I'd do it," which is rarely what you most need to hear. Feedback from an industry-trained reader will tell you when you're missing your targets, or when you're making rookie mistakes that scupper the impression you're trying for. Except that agencies aren't set up to give feedback. So if this is the kind of thing you need to know, get your questions in while you can:
You need several scripts in your 'arsenal', as an agent will want to feel that you're interested in a career, not just 'selling a script' as a one-off. The number of submissions I see that begin with 'I need your help to sell my script...' or 'I'm looking for an agent to represent my script...' - that's a red flag to agents. Since we're going to be building a professional relationship with YOU, not your script, we want to feel that you take your writing career seriously and want to do more in the future than just one project - we want to feel that you've got a career in mind rather than 15 minutes of fame. 
I like to think that growing up in a writing household may have provided some usable insight but as far as advantages go, that's been it.

Friday 11 October 2013

Crime Fiction Files: Researching the Detectives

If you don't ask, you don't get.

And sometimes, even when you do ask...

When I was starting out, planning a novel that would be called Chimera, I approached the Cumbrian Police to ask for some help in researching how they'd respond to a major incident in their area. Their response was polite, brief, and negative.

But just a couple of years later, gathering detail in the US for the novel that I'd abandon and then revive as Valley of Lights, I had a very different experience. Within hours of contacting the Phoenix PD I was out in a car with Tom Kosen, one of their sergeants. When his shift ended, I transferred to another. I watched the police at work, I listened to their jargon, I got shown all the trouble spots and the favourite places. From our conversations I made notes on their shift patterns, their career arcs, their education, their attitudes. I scribbled down the language and the speech rhythms of the people they dealt with.

Nobody put on an act for me; citizen ride-alongs were available to all, and this was routine for them.  I started to build an insight into the state's complex layers of law enforcement... where police responsibility began and ended and where the Department of Public Safety took over, how the local law worked outside the city, where the FBI came in.

And what I did with the police I also did with the DPS, otherwise known as the Highway Patrol, and then again with the local FBI office. It was a boy's dream. I got a call from the motel at about three in the morning to ask what had happened to me; I'd been riding for about eighteen straight hours and had lost all track of the time. I filled one notebook after another.

You don't feel glamorous when you're tagging along. You're a geek who knows nothing while they're totally at ease on their territory. What I felt from with them was a kind of amused tolerance, entirely friendly.

I've found individual British police officers to be just as co-operative on an individual basis… it's the institutions that can  be radically different. In the States you contact the Public Affairs office or whatever, and the reception you get is both cordial and willing. They pass you down the chain to whomever you need to see, and tell you to get back to them if there's anything else you need. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the local film commission made a couple of calls and within hours I was paired with one of their detectives. That was for The Spirit Box, a favourite among my novels. Find it if you can.

I got exactly the same response from the police in both Dusseldorf and Hamburg when I was researching Nightmare, with Angel. "Come in, you're welcome, what do you want to see?"

But in the UK, it's like the safe answer from the higher-ups has always been 'No'. Unless you're the BBC or some major company, and then they'll deal with you because it's harder not to. They know that the project's likely to get made with or without them, and it's better for them to have some input.

But that's when you're backed by a big organisation. If you're a lone writer researching police affairs over here you have to use contacts and seek out individual officers. My experience has been that they're usually happy to speak privately.

The way one of them put it to me was, "If I talk to you on the record, I'll have to clear it with my boss. He'll have to clear it with his boss and his boss will probably say no. So I'll tell you anything you need as long as you don't attribute it to me."

I've had some great contacts in my time. The officer who advised me on Down River was a senior detective in the Serious Crime Support Unit. For Rain it was the youth liaison officer in Soho's Vine Street station. My advisor on The Painted Bride was an ex-Detective Superintendent who'd been advising on a BBC show, and so I hired him for a set period at the same hourly rate. We met in pubs and I paid him in cash in a brown envelope. Fantastic.

They all leave me in the end. They retire and go off to live in Spain. I imagine them socialising and swapping stories with all the villains they used to nick.

Friday 20 September 2013

Writing for the BBC

According to Twitter there was a big booze-and-canapes soiree for BBC writers last night. I didn't get an invite.

Maybe this is why...

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Brooligan's How-To Book of the Day

Although in all seriousness I can't recommend it...

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Returning Drama Series

As well as its full-time MA studies the London Film School runs a number of part-time courses for screenwriters and filmmakers. They're professional training so they're not cheap, but if you've reached a point in your career where you can make use of industry insight then they can be of real value.

In November/December there are eight places available on this one, aimed at developing ideas for returning drama series and covering six workshop days and three masterclasses.
In this series of workshops we will be working with professional television writers, ideally with at least three broadcast TV credits, on developing original drama series Bibles for shows that can then be pitched to the British networks.
I'll be giving one of the masterclasses and I ought to be held up as Mister Bad Example, given that some of the best shows I've worked on never made it to a second season. It's hard to think of them as returning dramas when they didn't return. But everything eventually ends in cancellation, is my attitude, and anything you can get away before that counts as a win.

(The other two Masterclasses will be given by Lucy Gannon and Ashley Pharoah, whose returnable dramas have a track record of actually returning)

Some years back I laid out my own money on a MediaXchange weekend of panels and exercises with American showrunners, and it completely changed my attitude to the business. It would be at least a decade before I'd be able to put any of what I learned into practice, but now I'd seen what a professionalised writers' system looked like and the hunger for something better - for a system where you didn't just write a script but went on to steer it though production, and where work that was asked for always had to be paid for - never went away.

Going Again: Creating and Developing Returnable Drama Series LFS, November/December £800

The London Film School is situated in Covent Garden, down a side-street past the Pineapple Dance Studios and what I remember as a quite decent Mexican restaurant.

I believe the course will be followed by a networking booze-up some time in January. Or that might just be in my imagination.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

To Hull and Back

Hull's on the shortlist of four for City of Culture, 2017. The bid submission's going in at the end of this month and when asked if I'd support it with some kind of personal statement, here's what I wrote:

The Hull Council Ratcatcher and his Support Team
I came to Hull in 1972 to begin what would prove to be the most important years of my young life and future career. My time with the University's Drama and English departments wasn't a hasty syllabus of printed handouts and "reading weeks" but a real, eye-opening, immersive education in which the city itself played a seamless part. In the cinema club under the Central Library I had my first sight of the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, and shook the hand of Peter Cushing. Heard my first live Mahler at the Philharmonic. Chose a favourite picture at the Ferens Gallery (Alexander Slaying Cleitus, Daniel de Blieck - not for the action, but for the control of space). Hull Truck was a young theatre company laying the groundwork of a national reputation while Hull's touring venues played host to a range of guests and visitors, from the fledgling Actors' Company revival of a rare Chekov with Ian McKellen, to the awesome old-school stagecraft of Morecambe and Wise.

Hull was famous, then and now, for producing students who found it hard to tear themselves away. Though I left at the end of my time, I'm proud to maintain some links. I've life membership of the Friends of the Gulbenkian (the University's unique purpose-built teaching theatre). All my drafts and working papers go into the care of the Hull History Centre, a state-of-the-art archive at the forefront of international research into the challenges of long-term digital storage. Every year I swear I'll revisit the unforgettable fair, and someday I will.

Why City of Culture 2017? These have been hard decades for the creative life of every British town but in Hull there's a significant cultural infrastructure to be saved, preserved, restored and reinforced. I'm one of the many who have been equipped by the partnership of city and university to take that spirit forward. I'd like to see it continue through further generations; I can't imagine a better investment, or a finer legacy.
I sense your curiosity about the choice of picture. I was actually looking online for a shot of Hepworth's Arcade on Silver Street, one of my favourite places in the city, when I came across this image of the Health Department's ace ratcatcher on the History Centre's website.

If I have to explain further, then we're probably both wasting our time.


Thanks to Mark Healey for this Hepworths Arcade pic, taken on Saturday.
 Embedded image permalink

Tuesday 27 August 2013

No You Don't

Movies about magicians are tricky.

OK, now we've got that out of the way, let me explain. One of my less satisfying viewing experiences of the summer was a heist movie called Now You See Me, the premise for which involved four illusionists teaming up and combining their skills to pull off a series of spectacular and ingenious crimes.

The spectacle was there but key moments of that ingenuity were achieved with VFX rather than performance skills. So where's the point? Magic, like dance, is one of those things that you appreciate because a human being is doing it.

In the early days of television, screen magicians understood that without a perception of honesty in the presentation, the person-to-person trickery has no value. So no cuts, no camera tricks. We expect to be fooled, but not cheated of any chance to spot how. In these less principled times, when exposed dishonesty has been rebranded as 'constructed reality' and no one admits disgrace, it's possible to see concocted TV magic where no magic is performed at all - a performer pretends to do a trick, a crowd of stooges pretends to be amazed, and the trick itself is faked in the edit. Check out online magic forums to see other magicians calling out the offenders.

But what does that matter in a movie? They're actors, not magicians, any more than Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are ballerinas. And the actors do a creditable amount of work to convince us that they can do this stuff. Many of the story's illusions mimic famous effects, and magic advisor David Kwong was involved at the scripting stage:
CGI was employed in hand doubling for more elaborate moves and one trick where Fisher’s character floats above the audience in a bubble. “They’re portrayed as the magicians of tomorrow,” he says. “The director asked me what tricks I wanted to do, but never quite had the method for them."
That's where the film falls down, in director Louis Leterrier 's cavalier use of what's been placed at his disposal. There are tricks here that look like known tricks, but with a damaging sense of no method behind them. Behind all magic stands hard science. As Christopher Priest suggested in The Prestige, the most significant element in an illusion is the invisible work behind it, referred to as The Trouble.  With its emphasis on planning, execution, and surprise, The Trouble is also a fair description of what makes a successful heist movie tick.

Now You See Me's problem is that the Trouble rarely convinces. So for now, I'll have to make do with this.


Wednesday 21 August 2013

New Stories

From the editorial desk of Scott Harrison come a couple of projects, both of which include new stories of mine.

On sale from August 24th is Thirteen, an audio anthology available for MP3 download with a CD version to follow. Thirteen is...
...presented as a portmanteau anthology, with an umbrella story tying all 13 stories together, and produced with appropriate sound effects to give the impression of an old vinyl recording - a homage to the horror LPs of the 60s and 70s.
My story is titled With Her in Spirit and is read by Frances Barber.

Yeah, Frances Barber. How about that?

There's a full list of stories and performers at the Spokenworld Audio website. The other contributors include Kim Newman, Mark Morris, and Simon Clark, with readings by Arthur Darville, Gemma Arterton, Greg Wise, Lalla Ward... don't make me list 'em all, click on the link and take a look for yourself.

Then in November there'll be Twisted Histories, a paperback anthology from Snowbooks which includes my story Blame the French. More about that one nearer the date.

Monday 5 August 2013

Who's Who

So we made it back from London just in time to catch the second half of the BBC's live announcement of the new Doctor Who casting, settling down before the TV with the Bargain Bucket we'd picked up on the way home. We hadn't been rushing back, or anything. Twitter was hardly likely to be silent on the subject in the coming hours. Not if the past few months have been anything to go by.

Given that I wasn't particularly invested, I was surprised to feel oddly moved when Capaldi stepped out. It was a nice moment and it felt right in all kinds of ways. I have no form when it comes to anticipating Who recastings; I'd never have predicted Smith, Tennant or Eccleston. Now I see them all as manifestly right moves... with the possible exception of Eccleston, who for me will always be the odd-man-out Doctor.

I'm not saying he didn't work. One of my favourite "Welsh Who" stories is an Eccleston episode, Rob Shearman's Dalek. But his leather-jacketed rough-edged Everyman seemed to stand outside the parameters of a character that, until that point, I'd imagined had none. A strength of the format, I'd always assumed, was that the Doctor could be anybody. But suddenly I could see a testing of the hidden limitations behind that illusion of infinite possibility.

With Tennant and then Smith we were back within the parameters, whatever they are. Don't ask me to define them; casting is an art, not a science. Nor is it an opportunity for social engineering; it's high-stakes showbusiness, with a massive commercial decision resting on a producer's shoulders. Moffat is not only tasked with making the decision, but with making the decision work.

Were I in the hot seat, I'd have cast Capaldi like a shot. He's been on my male-lead wishlist for almost every project of the last 20 years, and the fact that he's never appeared in anything of mine is a sign of the regard usually given to a writer's casting thoughts. I suppose it's ironic that he's now on the show when I'm not. But there you go.

And people complaining that he's too old; f*** you, he's younger than me.

Monday 29 July 2013

Of Shadows and Pilgrims

Pilgrim Shadow Logo

A shout-out for this one-hour SF comedy, beginning a 6-night run at the West End's Tristan Bates Theatre this evening at 7.30.

Written and directed by Stephen Jordan and featuring Cliff Chapman and Adam Joselyn, it's presented by Manmoth Productions as part of the Camden Fringe and is a FringeReview Hot Pick.

Why the shout? Well, a) it's smart and funny, and b) its Associate Producer is Ellen Gallagher, aka Little Miss Brooligan, whose mission in life seems to be to erase my name and steal all my friends. By day she can be found in the Media Department of the Blake Friedmann Agency. At night, just follow the noise to the relevant karaoke bar.

The same team were responsible for last year's Fringe success Dead Static, which opened at the Etcetera Theatre and went on for a further run at The Hen and Chickens. It's now available as an audio drama, free to stream or download during Pilgrim Shadow's run.

See you there?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part Four

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation. This is the last, and the briefest.

Which companies have you worked for? What are they like to work for? Are there differences in styles and techniques?

Off the top of my head -- the BBC, ITV, BBC Films, Zenith, Carnival, Gaumont, Power TV, Jerry Bruckheimer, Warner Bros, CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC, most of them several times. You can find my full credits list in the IMDB but that's only a partial snapshot of my career because there's no mention there of the 14 novels, the early radio dramas where I learned my craft, or any of the companies 
I've developed stuff with that didn't get made, including at least four feature screenplays.

Most people along the way have been good to work with. My style and technique don't really vary as I move from one place to another, because that's what they come to me for.

Parking space, Warners lot. Trust me, it's a big deal
Parking space on the Warner Bros lot. The paint takes one season to fade away.

Monday 22 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part Three

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation.

How would you go about selling a script or concept? Can you sell a concept?

You can sell a concept, and people do it all the time, but it has its hazards. Because, see above - if you've sold a concept then you've then got to find its form with the added pressure of people invested and breathing down your neck. So in my case, when I pitch a concept, I've got the completed plan already thought-out. Not in minute detail, but in the broad strokes. If rushed it's very easy to make lazy choices - of characters, motives, and incidents drawn from other films and TV - and once those are locked-in, you're stuck with them. You'll see many a film or TV show where the one-line concept is intriguing but the characters and situations are all stock.

US TV has a 'pitching season' in the middle of the year when all the broadcast and cable companies open their doors to new material, and producers book appointments to go in with their writers and pitch the show they've been developing together. You get about 20 minutes to explain your show to a listening team of four or five executives, and then it's the next team's turn. Sometimes - rarely - a pitch will be bought 'in the room'. More often you'll hear back within a couple of days, a week at the most.

In the UK it's way less organised. A broadcaster will circulate a note to production companies to say they don't want to see any more crime shows but they're in the market for an inner-city medical series about Travellers. Every producer contacts their regular writers and works up a Big Fat Gypsy Medic pitch. All the pitches come in at the same time. Meanwhile the broadcaster buys something completely different, probably a crime show. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen this happen.

Are there certain rules about production companies wanting in-house staff writers?

The US hires writers and the UK buys stories. Every US show is staff-written with almost no openings for freelancers. There's a 'staffing season' that comes right after 'pilot pickup season', where the showrunners of new shows read script samples and hire that season's team. There's a ranking order to the job titles with Executive Producer at the top, then co-exec, then supervising producer, story editor, consulting producer, staff writer. All are writers, and each will probably have two scripts in the season with their byline. On those scripts they'll be the prime writer, though the story will have been worked-over and beefed up by everyone in the Writers' Room and the showrunner will give it a final pass for style and consistency. Staff Writer is the 'entry level' job. People get to be staff writers by writing 'spec scripts' of shows they don't work on, to show as writing samples. Every writer on the team has a personal project of their own that they someday hope to sell.

In the UK, the episodic series producer will first approach writers he or she has worked with before, and then will put out a call to agents for potential contributors. Then a meeting or a phonecall in which the producer describes the show to the prospective writer, who then goes away and cooks up two or three story ideas. It may go further, it may not. If it doesn't, the writer's been working for nothing. In my experience of such series the writer usually doesn't meet the creator or any of the other writers. In my humble opinion this is a vastly inferior system. The few times I've seen a UK production attempt to imitate the American system, it's stumbled at the British reluctance to commit to a writers' talent and put them on staff to produce material. They want to see the story and then buy it.

Soaps are different, employing storyliners who supply detailed outlines to a pool of scriptwriters, but they still depend on the freelance model. Producers are trusted to be paid a salary for work they haven't done yet, writers aren't.

Friday 19 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part Two

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation.

Is there a difference in writing for UK and US audiences, and if there is, what is it (cost, budget, more/less freedom)?

I don't think the audiences are that different, but I find that the commissioning cultures are. I much prefer dealing with the US, where they don't fanny around. There I've pitched a script in the morning and had a Yes before lunchtime. The energy level's higher and if something doesn't work out, it doesn't count against you. You've simply proved yourself a player. UK commissioners are unclear on what they want and indecisive over what they're shown, and they have no concept of the value of a fast No.

In the writing I don't really discriminate between US and UK because the stuff I do tends to work in either venue. Either that or I've always been a misplaced American TV writer at heart and that would explain why getting every one of my UK projects made has been like re-inventing the wheel. I like US pace and structure. To me it's all about witnessing things as they happen, not watching conversations about events.

Budget's not such an issue at the concept stage where the ideas set the agenda. Once a show is under way then budget is a factor, because it's been set before the scripts are written. Every episode is scheduled for, say, 8 shooting days, with maybe 5 of them in the studio and 3 of them 'out'. In the studio you'll want to make maximum use of your standing sets, and on your 'out' days you'll want to combine locations to minimise time-consuming crew moves. I once had to lose a crowd scene in order to be able to afford a submarine. You can call that a limiting of freedom; to me it's just the way to what you want.

What are the differences between original material and adaptations?

With an adaptation you're spared the sweaty anxiety of the early stages where you have an idea, and you feel it's good, but you don't yet know if there's a form in which it will work. When you're adapting your own work or someone else's, that question's already been solved. You may need to come up with a radical reconception of form to take it from one medium to another, but the baseline is that the ideas fit together, they go somewhere, and there's a pool of characters and incidents to draw upon.

With an original, you first have to do all the work that gets you up to that baseline. For me it's the crucial part. It's satisfying but it's not enjoyable.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Opinionated Writer, Part One

Earlier this year I gave long answers to some very basic questions for a film student's diploma dissertation.

I had two aims in mind, beyond the obvious one of helping him out. One was that I'd eventually put the material online for general use (so other film students, take from this what you will and don't email asking me to write your essay for you).

The other involved the hope that I might inject a little contemporary awareness into academia, after hearing of a student on a script editing course being scoffed at for suggesting that the US TV writer's experience can be better than here. But she was right - those epic horror stories from LA-bruised Brits are not the norm.

I've a lot of friends, colleagues and Twitterpals in the business who work in areas that I don't, and usually in a piece like this I'd stop along the way to consider and qualify some of my remarks with them in mind. Here I just kind of charged on through. So if you want to take exception to anything, by all means do; and if you want to blog a riposte to any of these points, let me know and I may embed a link.

It's in four sections. The others are scheduled to appear over the next few days.

So here goes.

What are the differences between writing for TV and for film?

 I have to break this into two parts because there's 1) the conceptual difference in the two dramatic forms, and then 2) the difference in working practice.

1) I've heard it said that if something remarkable happens to people once in in a lifetime then it's a movie, but if something remarkable happens to them every week then it's television. A film story fashions a universal myth out of its material. Television drama approaches the universal from another angle, taking the myth apart and finding the domestic details that build toward it. When you have nothing but the domestic details, to no ultimate purpose, you have a soap.

2) Most starting-out writers dream of selling a feature screenplay, but all the feature writers want to get into television where they'll have greater opportunities for expression and control. See Ted Griffin, Graham Yost, David Goyer. It wasn't always that way - TV used to be seen as a lesser medium with lower budgets and lesser ambitions - but that's changed. They've now become very different beasts. As feature budgets have grown, their choices have become safer and safer. In features the writer is required to serve the director's vision, and is a replaceable component. In TV - and especially in American TV - the director's job is to get the showrunner's vision onto the screen. The showrunner is an industry-trained writer in charge of a writing team and a production machine. He or she will most likely have conceived and pitched the idea to the network and written the pilot, although sometimes an experienced showrunner is hired to take charge of a series conceived by an inexperienced creator. The UK has yet to fully embrace the showrunner concept. In the UK writers are mostly shut out of production so they'll rarely have any hands-on production experience.

How much influence do producers have over your work?

The two equally valid answers are, none, and huge. None because, as a writer, the thing that gives you value is your unique point of view. If you don't have that, if you only ever write to assignment or chase the market, then you're aiming no higher than the second division. You should conceive your ideas with no thought of catering to anyone else. And huge because, once you find a producer who picks up on your point of view and believes that what you're doing is what he or she has been looking for, then you enter a partnership in which the other person steers. I've known that go well and I've known it go horribly wrong. They can hire a 'visual' director with no narrative gift, or one of the known 'writer-killers' who don't respect the script. They can miscast key roles. In a worst-case scenario they can replace you with an untalented friend.

Saturday 13 July 2013

The Long Road to Bedlam

At the request of crime specialist and site editor Barry Forshaw, I wrote a piece for the Interviews section of the Crime Time online website. Here's a taster:
There are two kinds of characters that carry novel series. They're devised or they're grown, and those are quite different beasts. The devised character is like a track car, stripped of all unnecessary parts in order to run and run. The art in the creation of such a series hero is assemble just enough well-chosen characteristics to give the illusion of a character without the encumbrances of personal development. As readers, we're complicit in this. We accept Mike Hammer's life of brutal solitude without questioning from where, exactly, comes this infinite supply of Old Friends who show up needing his help. 
 And you can read the rest here, if so inclined.

Friday 21 June 2013

Writing a Fight Scene

I've meant to do this ever since I saw a script in which a scene contained the unhelpful direction, "They fight". And no more.

Film fights have a dramatic purpose. Gone are the days when personal violence was offered as the test and proof of a hero's moral superiority.  Even in Fantasy, that's a fantasy that no longer convinces. These days even Superman takes a beating and has to resort to ingenuity in order to prevail.

So for a screenwriter to write "They fight", and then leave it to the director and stunt team to work out exactly how the conflict should play out to advance the drama, isn't enough. But nor is it helpful to choreograph every blow and angle on the page. The idea is to provide a dramatic plan, the broad strokes of staging that will release your experts to concentrate on detail.

Here are the script pages and corresponding sequence of a swordplay scene from Crusoe, performed by Philip Winchester and Georgina Rylance. I'll be the first to admit that I'm choosing this example because it went to plan and I'm happy with the way it turned out.


For me Georgina was one of the great 'finds' of the pilot; the part of Judy was cast only days before shooting and she nailed it with a strong, subtly off-centre and dangerous-feeling presence. Her showreel at georgina-rylance.com carries more Crusoe moments along with other work.

If you compare script to screen you'll see some differences - the odd line tweak or cut, Lynch's interjections to provide cutaways, bringing the daggers into the fight at a later stage - but you ought to get an idea of how the drama flows through the battle. Action in drama exists to show character, whether the crossed swords are real or verbal. Every incident is there to show us something. There's a corresponding swordfight in the series finale that shows the change in Crusoe over the season's arc; this episode's naive Englishman becomes the seasoned islander, taking Judy's lesson and turning it onto those who betrayed him.

There's a version of the scene in better quality on YouTube - click here to see it - but it may be subject to region restrictions.

Director Duane Clark, fight choreographer/sword master Trayan Milenev-Troy.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

More Saintly Stuff

From Mulholland Books, with a June 20th publication date, comes this reissue of The Saint Goes On with an introduction by yours truly.

Mulholland is an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, publishers of the classic 'Yellow Jacket' editions. So in effect, the thirty-five reprint titles are being kept within the family.

Their number does not, at this time, include Simon Templar's first appearance in Meet the Tiger. Charteris' widow continues to honour his wishes over keeping it out of print.

Here's something of what I wrote:
"For me, the Saint of the early 1930s is as modern as the character gets; he's hard, he's principled, he seems to take nothing seriously but he can turn in a second. It's all an act. And underneath it is a very, very bright guy indeed... this is the Saint as I've always liked him best. Here, he's a man with a complete disregard for authority and a rigorous code of personal fairness. He lives high on money that he takes from thieves and the greedy rich. He appears to seek a life of luxury and entertainment, while nothing entertains him more than righting an injustice done to an innocent. But every now and again, we get a glimpse of the utter steel underneath."
I had my pick of a number of titles, and I deliberately chose this one; it's The Saint before the movies, the radio serials or the TV adaptations got to him, feeding back in and reshaping the character. Before the collaborators, the ghosts, or the tie-in writers moved in.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Family Values

Here's my Father's Day present from the one known as @audreydeuxpink.

Monday 17 June 2013

The Science Thriller

Steve reluctantly agreed to drag up for his Festival appearance
Well, I'm back from Dublin and the European Science TV and New Media Festival. As ever, the only downside of my visit to the city is that I didn't get to stay for longer. We did our panel thing in the afternoon, as part of a programme that included screenings of some of the entries in the festival's TV drama competition. I was there to represent the BBC for Silent Witness: Legacy but the competition's strong, including the Feynman vs NASA docudrama The Challenger, so who knows.

The difference between science-driven dramas and drama about scientists is something that we touched on in the hour. It wasn't a debate, as such; everybody brought something different to the panel and we ranged from the coaching of actors to achieve authenticity, to the dangers of embracing bad science for popular appeal, to the wider use of media to communicate real and urgent science issues in accessible ways.

Along the way I referred to a document that I'd written for private circulation back in March 2009, when we were waiting to hear if CBS were going to pick up Eleventh Hour for a second season. Our figures were good but the omens weren't, as we'd only been given a partial order for extra episodes instead of the full 'back nine' to complete the first season.

This was a memo that I'd written at the request of the Bruckheimer people, spitballing a future direction for the show and reflecting on why our science thrillers could hold a unique place alongside the forensics and the procedurals elsewhere on the network. Having mentioned it in Dublin, I said that I'd put it online when I got home. So if you were there, here it is.

And even if you weren't, here it is anyway. It's a gathering of thoughts resulting from my experience on the ITV show, where I had little control and my commitment to scientific probity was considered unhelpful, and from the US episodes which represent some of the most satisfying work I've ever done.

The whole thing runs just over four pages and the PDF is here.

Here's an extract:
Villains and Guest Characters

At the beginning of my career I wrote a miniseries called Chimera, a variant on the Frankenstein story with a cold-hearted scientist as its villain. It made some waves, and through various debates and public events brought me into contact with a lot of real-world science professionals. I found that these scientists were, almost without exception, sharp, cultured, funny, and great late-night company. They were well-read, they listened to opera, they played musical instruments. Future Nobel prizewinner Paul Nurse was a motorbike nut (and was the guy who first encouraged me to dream up a real-science drama). Biologist Jack Cohen advised sf writers on alien-building. All were genuinely excited to be doing the work they did.

As much as these real scientists shaped my picture of Hood, they also shaped my attitude to science villains. The ruthless, 'playing God' stereotype, arguing that harm can be justified in the name of progress, is a cartoon. Science's villains are the same recognisably human people as those regular scientists. But they become villains through regular human flaws, not by Nazi logic. They sell out, or screw up. They can bend the truth to suit their paymasters or the policymakers, and call it 'being realistic'. They can be reckless, they can underestimate danger, they can lie to cover their mistakes, they can take desperate measures to cover their lies. But science's villains are characterised by their human failings, not by single-minded immoral intent.

And often they won't even be scientists, but people who co-opt science to their own purposes. CEOs, charlatans, toxic waste dumpers, politicians, lobbyists, thieves, counterfeiters, scammers, conspiracy theorists, drug lords, mobsters. People like the real-life international hustler and would-be breakthrough human cloner who provided the model for the bad guy in my very first story.
The memo was never intended for public circulation but I reckon enough time's probably passed by now.

You may find it a useful snapshot of a discussion in the show-making process. Just bear in mind that we didn't get the pickup!

Friday 14 June 2013

Science and Drama in Dublin

If you're in Dublin tomorrow, you can come and see me yak at this free Science Gallery event. It's part of the 2013 European Science TV and New Media Festival, with a keynote speech followed by a panel discussion.
Science, Medicine and Media
Keynote Talk: Dr David Kirby, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication, University of Manchester, UK
The Representation of Scientists in TV and Film Panel-led Discussion
Chair: Diarmaid Mac Mathuna, Head of Client Services, Agtel, Dublin
Speakers include: Kathriona Devereux, Scientist and TV Presenter Dr Mark Little, Professor of Nephrology, Trinity Health Kidney Centre, Trinity College Dublin / Tallaght and Beaumont Hospitals, Stephen Gallagher, TV Writer of science based drama.
I'm there because my Silent Witness two-parter Legacy is one of the BBC's shortlisted entries in the Drama category of the festival competition, along with the Feynman vs NASA teleplay The Challenger. It's the first one of these I've done in a while, and I'm looking forward to it. Some time ago I was involved in a discussion organised by The Wellcome Trust; there's a report on that event here, and here you can read the text of my presentation.

My views may have changed a little since then, I suspect. But I won't find out for sure until I hear what I have to say.

Monday 10 June 2013

Brown Paper Packages, Tied Up with String

There's a long-established and old-fashioned bookshop in Southport, Lancashire, called Broadhurst's - new books downstairs, old books above, and they wrap your purchase in brown paper and string before you leave. The really high-value stuff is in a room that resembles Sherlock Holmes' study, with a velvet rope across the doorway, while on the same landing is a room filled with more modestly-priced first editions.

I was there a couple of weeks ago, and though I wasn't specifically searching for it, in the latter room my eye was caught by a copy of the Ward Lock version of Meet the Tiger. This was the novel in which Leslie Charteris introduced Simon Templar, alias The Saint, to the world. Charteris was in his 20s when he wrote it, and later in his career he'd declare himself so dissatisfied with the book that he withdrew it from sale. It was a second (1929) edition rather than a first, but a rather nice one. I read the opening page; yep, regardless of his later disclaimers, the Charteris voice was there and the character read as recognisable and fully-formed.

It wasn't exactly cheap, but it wasn't Vanderbilt money either. I like books that have aged gracefully, and I'd rather have something affordable and a bit shabby than mint and untouchable. After I came away, it played on my mind so I did some internet research and established that a) the second-edition price was probably a fair one, and b) I could put aside any thoughts of a first edition. So I went back this Saturday and visited again, read a couple more pages, left the shop and walked around a bit to prolong the moment, then caved in and bought the book. For the wrapping they have a purpose-made 1920s table with the brown paper being pulled down from a roller and the string from a ball.

So now here's my problem. I've brought it home and I can't bring myself to undo the parcel. A brown paper package, that's tied up with string. It's sitting on the shelf in the open, an ornament in itself.

But I will open it. Real soon now.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Hammer Chillers - The Box

I recently guested on a late-night radio music-and-chat show where the topic of conversation was "My Mis-Spent Youth". To be honest, I don't think my youth was particularly mis-spent. Comics, B-movies, telefantasy and cheap paperbacks pretty much gave me a career. But you have to get into the spirit of the thing.

So I talked about my happy hours at the Prince's Cinema in Monton, just outside Manchester. The subject was fresh in my mind because I'd recently given this interview to Simon Barnard of Bafflegab, the production company entrusted with the making of Hammer Films' new series of audio Chillers.

It was at the Prince's (Prince, singular) that I first encountered Hammer films in all their gory big-screen glory, in the form of the Sunday double-bill. Barely remembered now,  the Sunday double feature was a programming mainstay of the UK's local cinemas. With Hammer you always got value, but often they were the kind of films where the posters promised much, and the films delivered... well, perhaps not quite so much. You'd find anything from William Castle films to early Cronenberg; it was here that I saw Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, a no-budget gem whose poetry shone through the most basic of craft, and which I've written about here.

In an earlier post I wrote:
The Prince's was only a little local cinema, not one of the first-run houses. It was a classic 'Smallest Show on Earth' place, managed by a husband-and-wife team whose quiet dedication to their calling I'm only now able to appreciate. They ran a kids' Saturday matinee that was like a zoo during an earthquake. He wore a suit and dickie-bow and ran the front-of-house; she had one of those '60s piled-high hairdos and sold the tickets.
I don't think I ever knew them by name, but the internet serves them up as Jim and Joan Shepherd. It was Joan who, when I was hit on the head by a flying frozen Jubbly (Google it) thrown from the back of the stalls, dried my tears, cleaned me up, and sent me home to change before readmitting me just in time for the cartoons and serial.

And it was Joan who turned a blind eye when I started showing up for the Sunday Hammer doubles when barely into my teens. The films were X-rated  but after all those matinee Saturdays she recognised my devotion, I'm sure.

And now the world comes full circle. I've had various Hammer connections over the years, though for decades it was more of an undead company than a living one. Right at the beginning of my career I had a number of pitch meetings with John Peacock, scripter of To The Devil a Daughter and sometime story editor on Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense, at that time the point man for a revival by the company's new owners. They didn't buy anything from me but I'm consoled by the fact that they didn't buy anything from anyone else, either. Whenever the company changed hands,  there was always the announcement of a new lease of life for a great British brand, the promise of a slate of new high-class horror. But as one insider explained to me, the reality was that the back catalogue was the real prize, a modest but reliable cash cow, whereas new production offered nothing but risk.

In the meantime I was getting to meet many of my Hammer heroes at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films. My daughter would scurry about the place collecting autographs; years later, as PA to Hammer CEO Simon Oakes, she'd be the only company employee able to name-drop the likes of Val Guest, Jimmy Sangster, or Eddie Powell.

(A job she landed without any help from me, I ought to add. None of your "James Caan" special privileges here. Even if she'd cared to trade on it, my small faux pas in an earlier pitch meeting would have made my name a dubious asset at best.)

But now here we are; with Friday's release of the Hammer Chillers I get to be a part of it all at last. The Chillers are half-hour audio dramas, available as downloads or as a CD digipack, to be released on a weekly schedule with scripts from Mark Morris, Paul Magrs, Christopher Fowler, Robin Ince, and Stephen Volk. A killer lineup by anyone's standards.

My story, The Box, is up first. I've listened to an advance copy and I'm really happy with the way it's turned out. It's something of a return to my roots and the first audio piece I've written, I think, since my episodes for Radio 4's Man in Black series.

An early review from Starburst reads:
"...the truth behind The Box was one that will stay with me for a while... As an audio production this is first rate; from the first bar of the opening music to the final bar of the close the sound is full, rich and deserving of being heard on decent headphones or speakers. All the ingredients come together when Sean takes his turn in The Box and the sequence feels very claustrophobic in terms of the sound, acting / directing and the writing... everyone involved has worked hard to produce a high-quality production in the Hammer style."
While from SciFi Bulletin:
There’s a steadily rising air of threat throughout the story... A neat tale whose last line will haunt you long after it’s finished.
The Box launches the series on Friday, June 7th.

UPDATE: A terrific review of the first three releases in the series from SFFAudio.com.

Click here for everything you need to know about the Hammer Chillers.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

I'm currently revisiting this modest second-hand find from a few years ago, and confirming that it's the best book on British TV drama production I've read. It was published in 1970, and is about a '60s BBC show that I never watched.

But it's still the best book on British TV drama production that I've read.

John Elliot, who died in 1997,  was a BBC staffer who in 1961 cowrote the landmark SF serial A for Andromeda with astronomer Fred Hoyle. In 1963 he resigned from his job as Head of the Script Department to work on his idea for an ambitious drama series about the global oil industry. He had no encouragement other than an indication from Elwyn Jones, Head of Serials, that if Elliot came up with something, he'd look at it. So Elliot launched off on a self-driven series of meetings with oil company executives in a search for story background, industry allies, and stock footage.

The result was a spec script and series proposal for a show called Mogul. Rechristened The Troubleshooters in its second season, it would run for seven series until 1972. The book is Elliot's first-person account of its development, selling and progress into production.

You might think it would be dated and irrelevant, but it isn't. You don't have to know the show - I was aware of it growing up, but it was never for me. I think I saw it as drama for the kind of serious grownup that I never much wanted to be, and would probably appreciate it more now. But much as we can look at the classics and see timeless principles in action, many of the challenges faced by Elliot are faced by show creators today.
"For the first scripts of a new series there are far more imponderables than for a single play. Which of the main characters will continue, and what will be their enduring roles?  What style, what set of circumstances can be established in one short episode which will not only satisfy the immediate demands of its viewers but be germinal for many more to come? A whole world has to be touched into life by a single incident if the elements which make it serial matter are to be remembered and recognised and accepted in the following weeks. It is like wearing bi-focals: you have to be able to look at the immediate and the distance at once."
And this is Elliot on the BBC's Television Centre building in White City, his tone reflecting feelings of my own that made me unable to enter into the sentimental protests at its closure with much enthusiasm:
"It seems odd to have to describe that West London television factory to the millions who see programmes from it; yet, if you do not know it, it is hard to visualise its sheer uncoordinated ugliness or the wilderness in which it is set, or the vitality which it conceals.

The site was once that of an Edwardian exhibition, and fragments of aged stucco were for a long time to be found at its edges, crumbling and tarnished like icing from an old wedding cake. The Metropolitan Railway sweeps past on arches, and the nose-to-tail traffic on Wood Lane rumbles all day past the gate. Across the road lie a steel yard and the Kensington Refuse Department, and to the north rise the stadium stands and lamps of the White City. It is like a cathedral in a slum. The site itself is the shape of a chump chop - and so, consequently, are the buildings, with a tall tower at one end and a muddle of builders' huts at the other. The main block, being circular, is built around a deep cylindrical well where no water plays in the fountain and grass is only grown after infinite persuasion. This well is dominated by a gilded and frankly naked statue of Ariel, known locally as the Coq d'Or.

Inside, offices open off long, hushed corridors which are circular. To advance along them too impetuously is to end up where you started, and this could equally apply to one's career. Behind the offices, the studios radiate like spokes, supplied by a service road at the back with scenery and equipment, so that no such squalid reminders of actual production ever cross the paths of executives who enter from the front. It is a system which works; but it is a little intimidating."
The book is a thoughtful, and slightly rueful, account of the long. lonely, and uncertain process of working up an idea to the point where it can be shown to the world, of maintaining belief in the work despite seeing it met with indifference, of the justified anxieties felt when others move in on the process, and of the tristesse felt as the price of success on seeing control taken by those very people who offered you no encouragement in the first place, and who now get to impose their ideas over your own. It gives the truest sense I've encountered of the freelance writer's process and life.

Thanks to the BBC's infamous wiping policy, many of the show's episodes are lost and only one survives in colour.

Elliot's book is out of print. I've checked and there are a few copies out there. But not many. So be quick.