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Thursday, 30 September 2021

Kicking Off The Sixties

This posting from Network's Twitter feed didn't so much trigger a memory as confirm one. Somewhere in the back of my mind lurks the vivid image of a life-sized Supercar, complete with life-sized test pilot Mike Mercury, revealed at the centre of the revolve in the end credits of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. It's been in my head pretty much for ever.

Ok, some unpacking needed here for those who might be gazing at those words and wondering WTF is he even saying. Chances are that you've heard of Supercar because it's a part of the Gerry Anderson universe which, thanks to repeats and remakes but mainly by having made itself a permanent place in British culture, continues to have a life beyond the nostalgia market.

Supercar wasn't the first Anderson show and these days may not be one of the best-known; being shot on monochrome stock and with a more juvenile angle, it hasn't lent itself to revivals and reruns like brand leaders Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. But for me it was the one whose timing had the greatest impact.

Blew my tiny mind, as I declared in an online response.

There was a cast of characters - a test pilot, a couple of scientists, a boy, a monkey, and a couple of idiot villains - but the car was the star; taking the futuristic features of the American gas guzzler and streamlining them into something with a genuine aesthetic, it was the ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything toy.

(Though the boy was voiced by Sylvia Anderson, there was no regular female cast member. There's a dissertation waiting to be written on the evolution of female characters in children's TV from sole tomboy gang member to bill-topping protagonist... unless someone's already covered it, of course.) 

This ultimate toy with its puppet cast featured in a series of half-hour action stories. The first season was mostly written by brothers Hugh and Martin Woodhouse, squeezing in the odd nugget of real science trivia wherever they could; for my money, nerd culture as we know it started right there. Martin Woodhouse also contributed episodes for the Patrick MacNee/Honor Blackman Avengers and wrote a series of highly readable science-and-espionage thrillers for the adult market; I tracked them all down as part of the background research for Eleventh Hour, and wished I'd discovered them earlier.

Sunday Night at the London Palladium was a Variety show broadcast live from the eponymous venue in the West End. The bill featured singers, comedians, jugglers, 'speciality' acts, a mini-gameshow, and a regular troupe of dancers called The Tiller Girls ("I know why they're called The Tiller Girls," quipped guest host Roger Moore one week in 1966, "because when I went by their dressing room I could see their rudders.") 

The theatre's stage featured a large revolve. At the end of the show the curtain would rise to reveal all of the night's performers in an outward-facing circle, waving from behind waist-high letters that spelled out the name of the show as they went around.

And on this one night - 25th February, 1962, according to the impeccable research of Andrew Pixley - the centrepiece of the tableau was Supercar, large as life. And my wee heart soared in a way that left a permanent track.

My life was on a course already, though I didn't know it. Albert Camus wrote: 

"A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened"

Now, sometimes out of that you get a Mahler's Second or a Botticelli Venus. With me it's all the stuff you can see in the sidebar of this blog. Not quite the Resurrection Symphony, I'll grant you, but it's been a life spent in pursuit of authentic wonder with some unexpected connections along the way. Supercar episode director Alan Patillo was to be the editor on my Chimera miniseries. I got to conduct a Q&A with Gerry at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films - he'd brought along son Jamie, then not yet in his teens, now custodian of the Anderson legacy and a producer in his own right. Just a few weeks ago I did a podcast interview on that legacy with Richard James (below, right), who appeared both in my Oktober miniseries and as a regular in Anderson's Space Precinct

(And Charlotte Serpell, Richard's wife, was Oktober's Assistant Editor. Some day, Charlotte, I swear by Grabthar's hammer, we'll see that gorgeous never-broadcast widescreen version out there on Blu Ray.)

Speaking of Blu Ray, the Network Fun Facts were advance promotion for Supercar: The Complete Series limited edition. Box set doesn't really cover it... it comes with a comic, a repro of the Mike Mercury pilot's license, Stephen La Riviere's Full Boost Vertical documentary, and Andrew Pixley's comprehensive study of the production. When Andrew asked if I'd be interested in contributing a preface to the book, my first impulse was to say that, more than be interested, I'd even pay him to let me write it. This was something I decided to keep to myself, lest he take me up on it.

Now I don't know for sure that it was the prop from the ice show that's shown in the picture, but what were the chances of there being two? Not sure who the woman is, either, and Mike Mercury's looking a bit like an elderly school caretaker. 

Otherwise, memories.

Friday, 6 August 2021

"How do I get my script read?"

"Any advice for getting a script read by some influential people?" A question asked of me recently that's impossible to answer in just a few words. But here's the digest version. 

My experience is that "influence" is mostly a public illusion of power, and it's no subsitute for the actual ability to get stuff made, whether it's for film or TV. Those who can get stuff made are an ever-changing crowd, its composition determined by the ebb and flow of personal or corporate fortune. 

 Some of the players are obvious. Ridley Scott can get stuff made. Most companies riding high on a hit can get stuff made. For more names - you need to study credits, read the trades. And even Ridley Scott moves in a world where he's juggling with what's possible for him to achieve at any given time. I'm sure there are plenty of projects he'd love to be working on. But the ones he can get off the ground are those that the market wants from him right then. He'll have more choices than most, but you can be sure he doesn't operate by personal whim. 

So, the good news and bad news. The good news is that the players are always on the lookout for new material to keep them in the game. The bad news - I call it bad news, actually it's just a fact of life - is that they get offered so much that each has to employ a fairly ruthless filtering system to cope with it. 

But it's a filtering system, not an impervious wall. Bear in mind that it's designed to locate exactly the kind of thing the company's currently looking for - business research, not public service. Many companies. All different needs. 

The first stage of the filter is usually an 'agented or solicited submissions only' policy. That's basically saying, "No cold callers". The expectation is that an agent will only submit material that's appropriate and of professional quality. Some agents shake that faith on a daily basis, I'm told. 

A solicited submission is one for which the company has opened the door. A tiny percentage of these come through some privileged contact, giving mind-fuel to the paranoid. But once received, they'll go through the same Darwinian in-house procedure as all the rest, where nepotism or special access count for nothing. I've never seen a better insight into that process than the one given here by mega-producer Gavin Polone. He's writing about the industry in the US and you can scale it down a few notches for the UK, while bearing in mind that the number of outlets is proportionately smaller. (and if you scroll down the comments, it's fairly easy to distinguish the "Hollywood sucks" contributors from the professionally aware.) 

You can get a solicited read for your script even if you don't have an agent. It comes down to this: give them a reason to be interested in you. Then they may have a reason to open the door, and to stand the expense of giving you serious consideration. Make your first mark. A short film, a home-made audio podcast, a bare-stage fringe two-hander with a couple of mates, a few short stories with a respected small press, a YouTube channel with a creditable following. 

Something modest, achieved well, counts for more than something ambitious, achieved badly. 

Then - enquire. The classic query letter. But draw your promise to their attention (and have the wit to research the company so that your material is a match for their needs, and your enquiry goes to the right person). 

99% fail right there, which is a Good Thing because it thins the field for someone like you. More than three short paragraphs, and you've probably blown it. But if you come over as a sensible adult with a professional attitude, and your project is in their ballpark, you may be invited to submit. If not, don't attempt to turn it into a conversation. Move on. And meanwhile be planning your next short, your next fringe piece... maybe get on a Script Factory course, involve yourself in someone else's project. True creativity doesn't wait around for an outlet. Channel yours into growing that starter CV. 

Every produced screenwriter that I know has followed some form of this path. Every one of them. You may hear tales of non-pros getting Hollywood breaks - I recall one about a taxi driver pitching a screenplay to his passenger in the course of a ride - but these are invariably more complex sequences of events that have been shaped by some journalist into fairytale form.

(Updated)

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Arts Aplenty. Or Rather, Not

 “Get the scientists working on the tube technology immediately”Tenacious D, City Hall

I haven’t known many Politics graduates, but daily observation suggests a political class to whom science is a house servant, to be instructed or overruled as required, while the arts are a hobby like your cousin’s am dram or your widowed uncle’s watercolours. This is further borne out by the fact that we’re about to see a generation discouraged and diverted away from an essential sector of our society and economy.

One of the supposed aims of this government’s suppression of arts education is to drive students toward STEM subjects, which isn’t how it works. I’ve spent a life in the arts but I’ve engaged with scientists almost from the beginning and here’s what I’ve observed; they’re at home in my world but I’m a stranger in theirs, constantly challenged to rise to science’s rigorous way of processing information. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing, I couldn’t be doing what they’re doing.

Which is not to say we've no common ground. Every science grad I’ve known has had a keen off-duty interest in the humanities; widely read, music lovers, theatregoers—amateur magicians, even, and many have kept up with the instruments they learned at school. And unless I’ve repeatedly misread the room, they appreciate and respect those who practice the arts for a living.

(That said I’ve never met Richard Dawkins, whose outrage at value placed on subtext, metaphor and mystery seems exceptional.)

It’s just that it's a different dynamic going the other way. We’re consumers of science every time we switch on a light or get onto a plane, but few people in the arts are scientists manqués. Most of us don’t have the maths. In worst-case scenarios you get those arts grads absurdly proud of their ignorance, much like Amanda Holden at a song contest; such people tend to equate personal opinion with scientific opinion, which leads to all kinds of problems.

But it’s really a difference in focus. Science puts the plane in the air while the arts give us Icarus, an unreliable treatise on solar radiation but a profound insight into eternal human folly. Science is a search for what things are, the arts are a search for what they mean. Those aren’t alternatives. Neither can thrive without the other.

These days it's possible to skip the arts and sciences and study for a political career. In his famous lecture on The Two Cultures C P Snow complained that our educational system's favouring of the humanities produced a ruling elite ill-equipped to deal with a science-driven world. That was in 1959. Progress since then; now they've no grasp of the value of the humanities either.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Luther, Follower, Bryan and Me

 A justified stir was caused last month by the announcement that production company Three River Studios has optioned the Luther Arkwright story cycle of my old friend Bryan Talbot for TV series development. From his roots in the underground Comix scene Bryan was a pioneer of the adult, epic graphic novel form, and the influence of the Arkwright books is acknowledged by creators throughout the industry.

Back when Bryan and Mary lived in Preston their Georgian terraced house on Bairstow Street was something of an international hub for genre talent. It was mainly thanks to Bryan's efforts as recruiter and host that the Preston SF Group was able to offer close to two decades' worth of free public events featuring current and future superstars of comics and literature. I should add that I managed to snare some great A-listers as well, but my hustle was nothing compared to Bryan's.

Follow the link and scroll all the way down this list and tell me I'm wrong. The evenings would generally begin with a bunch of us taking the night's guest to a local curry house before relocating to whichever pub was currently willing to let us have a function room at no cost. The pub event was open to all. A raffle of publisher-donated items raised some cash to cover guest expenses and that was followed by the visitor's Q&A with Bryan or me. After closing time it was always back to Bairstow Street for tea and chat into the wee small hours.

Good times. We all partied, went to conventions, helped out with each others' projects. Bryan drew this illustration (above) for my novel Follower; the original hangs on my wall. I wrote a pitch treatment for an Arkwright movie for a couple of producers who'd approached Bryan and who - if I recall correctly - bristled at the idea that they should lay out any money for the rights.

(No such problem this time around, as the deal was made by Casarotto Ramsay's Ellen Gallagher. Yep, relation. In fact I should probably lay claim to the credit, much as my dad did when when he looked around the Chimera set...)

The wait was probably worth it. Back then the state of the art in genre TV was Buck Rogers and Manimal. Now we have Mandalorian-standard FX capabilities and the material can be done justice.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Jeff Hayes 1953 - 2021

The entertainment industry's a sociable business, but mostly you're working in an ever-changing team that reconfigures with every project. It's always great to see the good people again, and you can try to avoid the not-so-good people the next time around. 

But meeting someone professionally and quickly getting the sense that here's a friend for life - well, that's not so common.

Jeff Hayes, who died on March 8th, was already in place on Crusoe when I came on board. It was a show made by a British production company for NBC, and they'd needed to bring in a producer with the experience to handle an international drama to the requirements of an American network. Jeff had done it all, from VP of Paramount's network TV division (where he'd overseen the development of Star Trek: TNG) to building a production operation on Australia's Gold Coast as President of Village Roadshow Pictures TV. He was Hollywood born and bred - his father was a talent manager and his mother an in-demand actress, and - as he told my Disney-freak daughter - as a toddler he'd been there on Disneyland's opening day.

But far from being the corporate type, Jeff liked making stuff. It wasn't about money, power, or status; "in it for the joy" is the phrase we used. He was my first American producer and the way we worked together changed my outlook for ever.

Crusoe faced some problems when I got there. A Canadian director/writer team had turned in their take and it didn't match the swashbuckling brief that had secured the network's involvement. Time was ticking away and they had no show to go with the title they'd sold. I thought I was pitching the London office for an episode assignment when I asked what the showrunner's angle might be; instead I was invited to offer one. A couple of weeks later I was on the phone with Jeff, planning a production strategy for a show that hadn't been written yet.

Here's what it took me a while to get my head around. My position in the team was not what I'd been used to. My screenwriter relationships up to that point had largely been that of supplier and client. To Jeff I was the story guy he was making the show with, and now I was here we could get on with the job.

The series pitch to NBC specified flashbacks to Crusoe's life in England. We'd yet to engage any episode writers, so I proposed writing those scenes in a block so we could get them shot while everything else was being firmed up. With Jeff I met no question over whether I could deliver; it was my responsibility and it left him free to focus on other things. 

We spent a week of scouting in and around York along with production designer Jonathan Lee and line producer Andrew Warren. Each evening in the bar of the Station Hotel I'd describe the scenes I could picture for the locations we'd seen that day. At the end of the week, Jeff went off to prep them and I went off to write them. In what seemed like no time at all we were back, taking over the Shambles and clearing out York Minster for our enormous camera crane. Jeff was everywhere, quietly, pleasantly, firmly making it all happen. When we'd wrapped on that, he and partner Lisa went to set up a production base in South Africa and I set about writing the pilot.

Jeff spoiled me for life, I admit it. It's a collaborative medium but so often the collaboration's heavily weighted to one side. Now when I talk to screenwriting students I urge them to think, not as writers, but as showmakers.

We communicated constantly throughout the shoot, building as we went. As the end approached, the money was running out and Jeff reckoned he'd run through just about all of the local guest talent. We hatched a plan using our principal cast and burning the sets, and that two-part season finale is one of the pieces of TV that makes me most proud.

We stayed in touch after, met up when we could, always keeping alive the idea of working together again, making new plans as recently as February. When the bad news came my daughter wrote on Twitter: Jeff was one of the warmest and friendliest people I've met in this industry, with absolutely brilliant anecdotes for all occasions - he will be greatly missed. 

 And I can't really add anything to that.

 Jeffrey M Hayes 1953-2021

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Doctor Who: From The Wilderness Years

I've been archiving some old files and I came across this piece, written as the preface to a charity anthology called Walking in Eternity in 2001. Doctor Who had been cancelled 12 years before, the Russell T Davis revival wasn't even on the horizon, and... well, read on.

I suppose now that we're firmly into the new millennium, it's safe to say that Doctor Who's niche in twentieth-century culture is an unassailable one. Would-be television landmarks have fanfared and faded (The Borgias, anyone? No? How about The Cleopatras?) but it's the geeky, underfunded kids' show—our geeky kids' show, and by God we're proud of it—that has seen them all off.

To put it simply, Doctor Who has captured a piece of the global zeitgeist like no other British show that I can think of. It's like the Land Rover of popular culture—original, well-loved, unpretentious, inexpensive, durable, everywhere.

Oh, yes. Everywhere. Those of us who've worked on it over the years can testify to that. Twenty years on and the royalty cheques keep coming; they may be modest (I've had repeat fees for Warriors' Gate that wouldn't buy me a sandwich) but, like even the faintest of pulses, they're solid proof of life. Somewhere in the world, Doctor Who is always on. And even where it isn't on, it's being discussed, rewatched, published about, imitated, satirised, analysed, argued over... and then before too long, it's on again.

It's the show that just won't die. Least enthusiastic celebrants of the fact seem to be its makers, the BBC, whom one might suspect of quietly trying to kick the plug out of the wall every now and again in the hope of inducing its demise. The corporate culture may find this an embarrassment, but whether the Corporation likes it or not, Doctor Who is BBC Television's one serious contender for a world-class brand.

Not that you'd know it. If Doctor Who was American, it would run for six months out of every year and we'd have seen eight or nine A-movie theatrical features from it by now. Various companions would come and go in their own short-lived spinoff series, and all of its writers would have executive producer status and be millionaires (just a little personal reverie, there).

But of course it's British, so it's off the air.

Even though it's always good for a Radio Times Special there's a persistence in belittling it, with jokes about wobbly sets and variable production values. It's like it's some home-made product whose charm all resides in the fact that we knitted it ourselves, and that we daren't take too seriously for fear of showing ourselves up. All right, so it cost nothing to make and the monsters were always crap. But that's all part of its charm. That's why we love it, don't we?

Well, no. Nobody has ever loved Doctor Who for its shortcomings. Millions have loved it in spite of them.

There is a world of difference.

The show has something that no amount of hype, merchandising, cross-promotion, or focus-group analysis will ever bring you. It has mojo. By which I mean it has a vital quality that will always draw people to it but which you'll never pin down. It has a life of its own. Suppress the spirit of it in one place, and it'll pop up in another form somewhere else. Why? Because people want it to. It's as simple as that. It's like a popular tune. Ban it from the radio, and you'll hear it whistled on the streets.

At least once, sometimes twice a year for the past decade or more, I've been approached and asked if I'd be interested in the thought of scripting a Who movie. Never by the BBC itself, but by independent producers, would-be producers or small groups of serious fans. Usually they have it on good authority that the BBC is open to collaboration with someone who can come up with the right package. I'm sure all the other ex-Who writers get the same kind of thing.

It never happens. Any more than the big feature films that are always on the brink of going into production (where the Doctor's been cast and it's Donald Sutherland... or it's a woman... or Tom Baker's coming back... or it's Lenny Henry...) And why do none of these initiatives ever come to anything? I can't tell you. I'm not the one to ask.

All I do know is this. Doctor Who is a durable cultural artefact with its own life, breath, and momentum. 

The evidence is before you.

Stephen Gallagher May 17 2001

 


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

My Second Ever TV Sale