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Tuesday 29 March 2016

Valley of Lights, Special Edition

In 2005 Telos Publishing put together a special edition of my novel Valley of Lights for their Telos Classics line. This same edition is now available in ebook form.

Like the expanded trade paperback - which is still available to order - the ebook contains the text of the novel along with extra material:
  • An introduction by Stephen Laws
  • Author's afterword
  • The Los Angeles diary I kept during our first crack at setting up a Valley of Lights feature
  • A bonus novella

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Danger Man

It was my first visit to the JBTV offices in Santa Monica. I was meeting with the members of Jerry Bruckheimer's (surprisingly compact) TV team in the office of Executive Producer Jonathan Littman.

Amongst the DVDs on the shelf by his desk, I noticed a boxed set of Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for US broadcast). A British action drama from the '60s, a black and white echo from my childhood... when I remarked on it, Jonathan glanced back. "The perfect show," he said. Which was some praise.

A couple of years later I was looking into remake rights for Man in a Suitcase. This was a later ITC show whose premise - disgraced-but-innocent CIA man scratching a living in London - had struck me as having coproduction potential. In an unexpected development, while picking my way through the who-owns-what jungle I was invited to pitch a reboot of Danger Man.

It didn't take long for me to see that this was never going to happen. You get a vibe as to whether the person with the proposal has the clout to carry it through. But in the meantime I'd revisited the show and sorted out my thinking.

A few days ago I came across the file while doing a little hard drive housekeeping. Rather than waste the words, I decided to share.

This is the show that Jonathan Littman described as the most perfect of series concepts, and I’m sure he’s right. It doesn’t matter how many spy shows have come along since, Danger Man was a design you can’t improve upon. You can only imitate and vary.

The secret of its success lies in the minimalist strokes that make up its format and the very precise, and almost understated, nature of the main character.

John Drake is complex without being complicated. You get him very easily. He’s a moral man doing dirty work, and internalising the resulting conflict. It's a price that he pays. His adventures are straight out of Ian Fleming but his soul is by Graham Greene.

There’s no attempt to resolve this inner conflict, and Drake has no safety valve. He never complains, shares, or unloads. Apart from the occasional vent at his superiors (which never gets him anywhere), he stays tightly wrapped. This is one of the keys to his character; it explains how a fundamentally non-violent man can more than hold his own in a violent situation. He displays a watchful stillness, but you never feel that he's calm – it's the stillness of a hard steel exterior with contents under pressure. So when violence is required, he just lets some of the anger out. It's available in an instant and he shuts it down just as quickly.

He will do his best to see that the innocent don't get hurt in the course of an operation, though his is a world in which innocents often suffer. The greater consequences can only be worse if he doesn't complete his mission, but many Danger Man stories involve Drake disobeying orders, devising a strategy of his own to achieve an objective by means less damaging to those he meets and sometimes uses.

Like Bond, he’s a competent hero in a hostile universe. But even after all these years we still don’t know what values Bond stands for. John Drake, however, reminds us what it is to be humane. In a dirty war, he stands for the moral difference between the good guys and the bad guys. He’s the opposite of Jack Bauer, who switches his conscience off when he feels the need to do harm. John Drake’s heroism requires him to carry the moral weight of his own actions at all times. His redemption lies in his willingness to be damned for the sake of others.

Just as Drake’s character is portrayed in a few clean strokes, so is his world. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know is thrown down in the Season One credit sequence.

It’s night. We see a floodlit renaissance dome composed together with a piece of brutalist office architecture, the traditional and the modern co-existing. From the building emerges a well-groomed guy in a suit, walking at a determined clip. The voiceover tells us his employer, his job description and his name. He doesn’t work for British intelligence; he works for NATO, an international and American-dominated organisation. He’s a troubleshooter. At that point he hops into a convertible and he’s gone.

Nine times out of ten the next we see is that he’s somewhere else in the world, dressed-down and pretending to be someone he isn’t. But we never lose sight of the authentic John Drake in a scenario. We’re always aware of the degree to which he’s acting, watching those around him, and recalibrating his plans.

Drake has a boss in London, but we don’t see him often. When we do, the two of them are usually arguing. Drake is a man who can be relied upon to get the job done but not to do as he’s told, which is the kind of thing every boss hates. In these scenes you can see the seeds of The Prisoner further down the line.

As well as the London office (fronted by a company named World Travel), Drake has a London home. It’s a mews house, very 1960s, very trendy, but with a nod to the 'clubland heroes' of the '30s. John Steed lived in a mews, as did The Saint. It’s bachelor-sized accommodation, fashionably modern, architecturally traditional. But this London underpinning is quite minimal. Most of Drake's adventures are in studio recreations of faraway places.

All of that, I would suggest, can be brought forward to the modern day with a very light hand. Drake’s character calls for little interference beyond fidelity to the concept and good casting. Start with Damian Lewis and work your way down.

Drake needs to be classless but classy, a Brit for whom a well-cut suit is natural wear and not an affectation, and who can switch on the accent to become any of the American characters that he’ll play when undercover. Because although John Drake’s roots were deep in British spy tradition, Danger Man the show calls for American style and pacing. That’s what Lew Grade and Ralph Smart aimed for with the original. What we’d be doing is picking it up from the Elstree backlot and placing it in the home it always dreamed of.

So what would new Danger Man look like?

Drake remains a British citizen, troubleshooting global security matters and getting his orders via the London office of an international organization. Which could still be NATO, which since 9/11 has (in reality) expanded its membership and operates a 'whoever attacks one of us, attacks all' policy. While he reports to London and occasionally touches base there, that's not a big part of the show. My perception is that for the network audience, a UK element would add spice to the mix (see the Season 4 opener of Bones) but too much would work against us. So we mostly see Drake working with American agencies or, when alone, with American citizens or interests. I think that one of the reasons why audiences failed to warm to The Philanthropist was that the overseas settings made them feel too remote from familiar culture. When the network audience travels, they want to feel at home when they get there.

In shows like Alias and Heroes we’re far more adept at recreating exotic places on the backlot than we used to be. But I’d say the first production move would be a block of shooting on the streets of modern London with our lead and his basic wardrobe, to build up a library of establishing and linking material for use in future episodes.

In our pilot I would introduce Drake undercover as an American, then have him drop back to his British accent (to the surprise of other characters) in those moments when he’s not pretending to be someone else.

The one big element that we no longer have access to is the Cold War. Or do we? We’ve got Putin in power, and we’ve just seen a major spy swap, so maybe it’s not quite the outdated trope that we all imagined.

What we do have is a world where silent espionage has been replaced by the threat of public violence. Now, one of the things about the original Danger Man was its comparatively realist tendencies. Its villains didn’t live in volcanoes. Drake did not single-handedly avert threats that we know would be dealt with by entire organisations. But what we have is a fragmentation of the world into factions with their own specific grievances, their own specific networks, and their own particular objectives. We have diplomatic crises where things go wrong and require quiet repair. We have high public figures who misbehave, and those who would seek to exploit their resulting vulnerability. There will always be stuff that needs quietly sorting out.
Well, that was it. I didn't get very far with Man in a Suitcase, either. As with Danger Man, whether that reboot could succeed without its magnetic, famously difficult leading man (Richard Bradford) remains to be seen.

You can find my earlier post and thoughts on Man in a Suitcase here.


Directed by

Written by

Wednesday 9 March 2016

The Quatermass Restoration

I just took delivery of Network's meticulously restored Blu-Ray of the 1979 Euston Films production known variously as Quatermass, Quatermass IV, or The Quatermass Conclusion. I'm a long-time Kneale and Quatermass fan, and Network's track record with this kind of material is exemplary. But all the same I'd been dragging my feet until a correspondence with restoration producer Mark Stanborough nudged me over the edge.

No excuses, I know, but I suspect that its hippie-themed 'fear of the young' element put me off at age 24. Some years down the line, it doesn't seem quite so personal. And I should add that my viewing of the original broadcast in 1979 was delayed and then compromised by a nationwide strike across the ITV network (and a bit of mea culpa here; I was an Assistant Controller in Granada's Pres Department at the time, and one of the sans culottes marching out of the gates).

Unusually for 70s British TV the production was shot on 35mm, with a four-part version made for broadcast along with a feature-length theatrical release. The restoration utilises original negative and source elements, and is superb. For the money you get both versions in high definition. Recommended.

For the celluloid geeks among us, Mark has kindly given me permission to post his account of the technical work involved in putting it all together.

Quatermass Revived
Picture Element History

Written by Nigel Kneale with dual purpose in mind (four-part television series and theatrical feature film), the original 35mm cut negative for the four episode ‘Quatermass’ series was photo-chemically duplicated to a 35mm intermediate positive (IP) before being re-cut into the 106 minute feature film: ‘The Quatermass Conclusion’. The trimmed negative cuts from the series have long since disappeared meaning the IP is the earliest generation remaining. When remastering the series, as much of the original negative as possible was utilized from the feature version in the episodic versions but where scenes were missing or re-cut to a shorter length, the IP was used to fill in. Episode three featured very little in the theatrical version so had the least original negative material available. Fortunately, the IP has aged fairly well meaning there isn’t a big difference between the elements.

Version Differences

In condensing the plot, there are a number of changes from the series to the film – most are minor but the sub-plot of the underground elderly commune was completely excised from the feature version. This also meant that alternative scenes were shot for the feature version with both Annie and Quatermass at the hospital (in the series it’s just Annie) but this was the only major editorial change.


The film elements were cleaned and then scanned on an ARRI scanner at 2K resolution before being conformed to a picture guide. The restoration involved processing to match the different grain structures of negative and IP, before image stabilizing and fixing any movement at splices, evening out any density fluctuations and despotting the image, removing literally thousands of instances of dirt. The series and feature were both colour graded so that they have the same look, and careful matching of the different picture elements mean the image is consistent throughout. One of the most challenging issues occurs in episode four when the sky turns ‘sick’ (green) – by digitally amending some of the backgrounds, it made it possible to key the hue of the sky to a more even green colour than was possible when the programmes were originally produced.

Main and End Titles

Each episode’s titles and part break colours are different, changing from red in the first episode through purple in the second, blue in the third and finally green in the last installment. Scanning from film elements allowed the true range of the colours to be graded properly so they now look clear and vibrant. For the feature main title, the text is over the opening scenes from episode one and, as the footage was a dupe optical in the feature negative (so further generations away and a softer image), the titles were re-created using the far sharper IP sequence as backgrounds. Both episode four and the feature version end with the shots of the girls playing in the meadow and, again, the titles were faithfully recreated using negative textless backgrounds.

Aspect Ratio

The four-part series has been mastered in the original 1.33:1 TV ratio. As the theatrical version would probably have been projected either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1, the feature has been transferred inbetween at 1.78:1 to fully fill the widescreen frame (with some individual shot adjustment for headroom, something not possible when the feature was produced).

Audio Salvage

The master sound material was triple 35mm magnetics comprising separate dialogue, music and effects tracks. Unfortunately, either due to storage conditions, temperature or stock, these audio tracks had badly deteriorated, shedding so that each reel was covered in magnetic dust. By careful hand cleaning, transfer and re-transfer (when inevitably the heads clogged), the triple audio was fortunately rescued. Once onto a digital format, the three streams of audio were individually restored and then combined to create a new mono final mix. This also means that each of the separate triple tracks can be mixed to a 5.1 surround for the release.

Restoration Commissioned By Network Distributing Limited
Restoration Producer: Mark Stanborough
Transfer Facility: RR Media, Acton
Colourist: Ray King
Picture Restoration: Anthony Badger
Audio Restoration: Nitin Negandhi

Tuesday 8 March 2016

The Atticus Syndrome

The village of Haworth, Yorkshire home of the Bronte sisters, has pretty much turned itself into a living museum. In fact the parsonage where they grew up is an actual museum, preserved in period, looking across headstones to the church at the top of the town. If you squint and ignore the tourists you can picture the steep cobbled main street as it once must have been. The pharmacy where Branwell bought his laudanum will sell you fancy soap.

It's buzzing now, but it must have been pretty grim back in the day. The drinking water supply ran through the graveyard, I'm told.

About three miles out and across the moor stands the ruin of Top Withens, a farmhouse said, with little in the way of any hard evidence, to have been Emily Bronte's inspiration for the Earnshaw farm named Wuthering Heights.

Last weekend we set out for the museum, but with better-than-expected weather we changed plans and struck out from Cemetery Lane and across the moors instead (see picture above for what 'better than expected weather' means for Yorkshire). In the footsteps of Heathcliff, here was our approach:

And once there, you find this:

I'm a sucker for a real-world place that's tied to an act of the imagination, whether it's a literary association or a movie location. I've stood in the cellar of the house in which Poe wrote The Black Cat. Sought out the Batcave in Bronson Canyon. Ordered buffalo steak in the Wyoming hotel where Owen Wister worked on The Virginian. Visited the castle at Elsinore, which is more than Shakespeare ever did.

"The buildings, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described."  And you know what? I hardly care. Actually, no, I don't care at all, because I know the difference between inspiration and reportage. What a locale gives you is an insight into the experience of the author, whose purpose is that of the tale. Who is free to pick out this element from here, and that from there, and add a memory or a fantasy or two, and resite the whole shebang on the moon if it suits her driving purpose.

I found myself thinking of the responses to Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman in which readers declared themselves shocked and upset to find that their beloved Atticus Finch was 'exposed' as a racist. As if Lee were a biographer; as if the novel were not a shelved tryout for a radically different version of the final character.

It shouldn't be breaking news that writers make this stuff up, organising the steps to move toward some distant goal that exists only as a vague sense of certainty. If we're lucky the finished product will contain at least a grain of the truth we were trying to define. In a perfect world we'd nail it completely and then have nothing further to say, ever. That never happens, by the way - unless, perhaps, you're Harper Lee.

For my part, I'm looking forward to the next novel in the Atticus Finch trilogy. I guess Lee's lawyer hasn't quite finished finding it yet.

Saturday 5 March 2016

An Award

OK, so you can't read it in the picture, but that's definitely my name on the shiny plate at the bottom. Just take my word for it, okay?

The SOFFIA represents the recognition given by the Society of Fantastic Films to creators and performers with a body of work in the genre. They've been presented over the past twenty-something years at the annual Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester.

Both the Society and the Festival grew out of the activities and enthusiasm of the Salford-based Delta SF Group. In addition to screening old favourites and lost classics, the Festivals offered an astonishing range of appearances and onstage interviews from personalities whose work we all grew up with, many of whom believed themselves forgotten.

In an obituary for the society's 'binding force and dynamo' Harry Nadler I wrote:
The ethos of the Festival of Fantastic Films is rooted in the Universal and Hammer horrors, the Republic Serials, Ray Harryhausen movies, anything you might ever have seen in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the Standard 8 one-reelers from Castle Films, B-movies of all kinds and from all nations, all coupled with a love of celluloid showmanship and the will to salute the surviving artists. 
Stephen Laws and I were regulars for many of those years, handling interviews and MC duties, filling in when necessary, and sometimes having to give reassurance to nervous talent convinced that they had nothing of interest to offer the waiting audience. After their reception, of course, it was always a different matter.

Amazing times. Ray Harryhausen. Brian Clemens. Val Guest. Jimmy Sangster. Janina Faye. Martine Beswick. Barbara Shelley. Francis Matthews. Mel Welles. Forry Ackerman. Richard Gordon. Andrew Keir. John Landis. Tony Tenser. Freddie Francis. Hazel Court. The list goes on.

The award was revamped at least three times, as moulds wore out and new maquettes had to be sculpted. But each version was based on the same design, the classic Maria robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Lang would surely have been a star guest, had he not been so inconveniently deceased).

Laws and I would watch with wistful envy as the statuettes left our hands, time after time. Little did we know that, just prior to his sudden and fatal heart attack, Harry had begun arrangements to acknowledge our own contribution. It's taken a while for everyone to catch up but a few weeks ago I got a phone call, and now I have this.

I couldn't post about it sooner because I was also given the job of presenting Laws with his own award, and to ensure it would be a surprise. Which I was able to manage last weekend, when we met up in Scarborough to look over the location of this year's British Fantasycon.

Steve continued to attend the Manchester Festivals while I relocated to the US for a while. He worked harder, fielded the tougher interviews, and is far more deserving of this than I.

But I've got one too, and I'm not giving it back.

Friday 4 March 2016

Stan Lee's Lucky Man, Episode 7

This week's Radio Times entry for my episode of Stan Lee's Lucky Man, airing tonight:
Nobody would argue this series was out of the top drama drawer, but when it gets a head of steam up it’s got something. For whatever reason, the plot about a London detective (James Nesbitt) and his pursuit of shadowy high-level criminals has started to liven up and this episode is the best so far.

Harry is on the trail of the mysterious Golding, a man whose name has cropped up in about four different subplots, but we still don’t know who he is… Harry and his excellent DS draw closer as they look into young conmen who target rich foreign students with a sort of reverse honey-trap. But be warned: the opening scene with a tasering-gone-wrong is quite nasty.
Working on this series was a tricky back-and-forth tennis job, servicing the running subplots while maintaining the spine of an original story. But I'm happy with the way it all locked together in the end.

The opening stunt was based on a theoretical possibility explored in a published science paper. I've since learned that despite this warning it's happened for real, and more than once. So... apologies in advance for any distress that may be caused.

That apart, enjoy the show.

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Every Day, It's a-Gettin Closer

We now have a publication date of September 30th, 2016