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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.

Thursday 23 May 2013

The Bedlam Detective

Publication day for the UK paperback edition
It's 1912 and Sebastian Becker, the Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, arrives in the West Country to interview Sir Owain Lancaster on his run-down country estate.
Descending from his train in the small coastal resort town of Arnmouth, Becker finds the entire community mobilised in a search for two missing girls. He offers his services and joins a party of local men searching moorland, and is close to hand when the bodies are found by a squad of army cadets.
Becker is employed by the Lord Chancellor's Visitor to look into cases involving any “man of property” whose sanity is under question. The pay is poor, his status unofficial. British-born, he spent a number of years in America where he worked from the Philadelphia office of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Now he lives in rooms over a furniture shop in low-rent Southwark with his American wife, her unmarried sister, and his bright but difficult son. To make ends meet, his wife is clerk to the Receiving Officer at the Evelina, Southwark's charity hospital for sick children. Her sister cares for the boy, takes in sewing, and has an unspoken crush on Sebastian.
 Sir Owain, the man of property he's here to see, is a former engineer and armaments manufacturer. He's one of only two survivors of a self-funded Amazonian expedition which saw his entire party wiped out, wife and child included. Once a rational man, his explanation for the tragedy is a nightmarish fantasy of lost-world monsters and mythical beasts.

"It’s certainly a thriller, but with a literary depth unusual in the genre, and fascinating in the complexity of its construct. Gallagher’s prose is swift, sure, and occasionally darkly comedic. Excerpts from Lancaster’s fantastical account are interspersed with historical Amazonian reports, adding to the mystery a compelling tale of jungle survival and all the fantastical steampunk appeal of a Jules Verne or Rider Haggard story... Three words of advice: read this book." Historical Novel Society

"Monsters, actual and metaphorical, are at the heart of this superbly crafted thriller... Gallagher loves character development but respects plotting enough to give it full measure. The result is that rare beast, a literary page turner" Kirkus "Best of 2012" starred review

Available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. Or support your local bookstore, send proof of purchase (scan of receipt, selfie at the till, we don't care) to mail@bedlamdetective.com and enter a draw for one of 3 signed copies of The Kingdom of Bones.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Curious Case of the Kindle Freebie

Got a Kindle? Got any space left on it after stuffing the memory with every free download that's been wafted past you by publishers and self-publishers convinced that if they can saturate the world with product, riches will follow?

Well, here you go again.

Don't get too excited. It's just a couple of short stories and they'd only cost you pennies on regular sale. But from now until Friday you can download them from Amazon at no charge.

But Steve, I hear you say, your generosity overwhelms us. Is there not even a catch? While the keen-minded among you will note that the first of the two stories introduces Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, the subject and main character of The Bedlam Detective. The UK edition of which is published this week by Ebury Press.

Yes, it's a barefaced promotional stunt. That first taste of crack cocaine that'll bring you crawling back for more.

You think you're stronger than that? Hah. Prove it.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Bryan Forbes 1926 - 2013

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Ray Harryhausen 1920 - 2013

Thursday 2 May 2013

Bank Holiday Big Book Bonus Bonanza

Okay, perhaps the post title's overselling it a little, but on May 23rd The Bedlam Detective sees UK publication and in anticipation of the event, we're making the Kindle edition of Down River free for the holiday weekend. You'll have 72 hours in which to grab it, from 12.00am (Pacific Standard Time) on May 4th to around midnight PST on May 6th.

UPDATE: apparently Amazon can be a little approximate with timing, depending on traffic at their servers.
Johnny Mays has the moral conscience of a selfish child in the frame of a plain-clothes police officer. The city is his playground, the rest of us his toys. He likes to find out where we work, where we live, what will scare us most. And Johnny never had a toy he didn't break.
But Johnny starts a car chase, and he pushes it too far. Soon they're fishing for his body at the foot of a dam, and partner Nick Frazier has been left behind.
They were friends, once, a long time ago, and there's no greater anger than that of a friend who feels betrayed. Nick had hoped that he might keep Johnny from going over the edge, in every sense. But Johnny doesn't see it that way.
Johnny's last words still echo in Nick's mind: "I'm going to remember this. I'm coming back for you."
Then the killings start. Killings of people Johnny didn't like. While Johnny's car is dredged up, empty.
"The denouement, thanks to Gallagher's strong writing and excellent characterisations, is unforgettable." (Publishers Weekly)
"An out-and-out novel of paranoia, tension and sharply honed violence which confirms Gallagher as one of Britain's most exciting writers of literate, nerve-shredding thrillers. Down River is Gallagher's most impressive novel to date. He's stripped, oiled and tuned his prose until it growls like a Ferrari, smooth, fast, and very, very powerful. The horror is firmly rooted in reality, yet seems ready at any moment to veer into deep, dark shadows... an unstoppable, gut-wrenching ride to the last page." (Starburst)
"Oktober broke new ground in its blending of genres, its thoughtful characterisation, and its non-stop action. With Down River, Gallagher returns to his own brand of police procedural once more... and he's pulled it off brilliantly." (Mystery Scene)

Wednesday 1 May 2013

A Criminal History

The Devil in the White City is one of my all-time favourite nonfiction reads. Historian Erik Larson counterpoints the planning and staging of the 1893 World's Fair with the murderous activities of one "Dr H H Holmes". The fake doctor – real name Herman Webster Mudgett – was a plausible charmer who preyed upon young women drawn to Chicago by the prospect of work and the excitement of big-city life in changing times.

One of the most frequent arguments to be offered in praise of the book is that it 'reads like a novel'. So it does, and a particularly rich one at that. We look into a world that is not our own, distanced by time, to find a timeless drama of fear and conflict. The historical panorama fascinates but it's the crime, the crime that drives the tale.

Historical crime. Pick any era, and you'll find a crime writer working the ground. Margaret Doody's Aristotle Detective, the Falco novels of Lindsey Davis, Phil Rickman's Doctor Dee, the Victorian railway detectives of Edward Marston and Andrew Martin (working half a century apart). Alienists, playwrights, and celebrities of the day all take the investigator's role, with varying degrees of credibility and success. Anthologist Mike Ashley's collections of historical crime draw together stories from Ancient Egypt to 1930s New York, and just a glance down their contents pages is enough to show that there's far more to the field than yet another Sherlock pastiche or tale of Jack the Ripper.

For me the stories that work least well are those which impose modern methods or attitudes on their historical context, treating history as little more than a dressing-up box. The best of them recognise that the past is, indeed, another country, where it's part of the thrill not to feel at home.

When it comes to imaginative creation, historical fiction is a harder act than most to pull off. The rules for the Walter Scott Prize, one of the richest in the field, require that "the majority of the events described take place at least 60 years before the publication of the novel, and therefore stand outside any mature personal experience of the author."

What does that mean for the story? For the author it means putting in serious work to achieve a sense of authenticity, where nothing can be assumed or taken for granted in the creation of your fictional world. That still leaves plenty of room for the imagination. In skilled hands and with the right attitude, even the most improbable events can be made plausible. Conan Doyle did careful research on his Lost World, and then populated his plateau with believable dinosaurs. Publication of The Lost World in 1912 gave me the springboard for a work of my own, when I was inspired to look into the real lives of its Edwardian subjects. The result was The Bedlam Detective, in which a discredited explorer's fantasies may hold the key to the murders of young girls on his estate.

I've read other 'true crime historicals' since The Devil in the White City. Larson's own Thunderstruck counterpoints the Crippen case with the development of the technology that would play such a big part in its climax, while Howard Blum's American Lightning juxtaposes the birth of Hollywood with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times offices in 1910. But the balance is an elusive one. It's a rare dramatic crime that exactly fit the needs of a dramatic narrative.

Which means it's rare to find the factual history that really does read like a crime novel.

For that, you need a novel.

First published in The Weekly Lizard