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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.

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 Arts, 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