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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.