Thursday, 4 June 2009

Psychoville preview, BFI

So... another day, another event at the BFI. Just 24 hours after the Satyajit Ray Award and Mid-August Lunch, we were back to see the first two episodes of Psychoville, a seven-parter written for the BBC by the League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

Not surprisingly, the show is similar in tone to the League, mixing grotesque characters and sinister imagery. The mystery kicks off when five seemingly unrelated people each receive a handwritten card from a shadowy figure. The message: "I know what you did".

The recipients range from a bitter one-handed clown to a lovestruck but victimised dwarf actor who seems to have telekinetic powers. As they each pursue their individual storylines, their sinister persecutor closes in on them, and fragments of a murderous incident in the past come to light.

I think it probably suffers by comparison with the League, which is still one of my all-time faves. While Psychoville is engaging and hooked my curiosity, it lacked the variety and suffocating sense of claustrophobia that came with Royston Vasey.

Some of the characters seemed a bit familiar too. Mr Jelly, the misanthropic clown, is essentially the League's would-be comedian Geoff, while Joy, an unhinged midwife played by Dawn French, has many of the same attributes as nefarious Job Club sadist Pauline.

I'm looking forward to watching it again in the serenity of my own home. The crowd seemed a bit overexcited and howled, squealed and guffawed at every single beat of the story, making it difficult to judge how effective the more suspenseful aspects were.

(I turned round to glare briefly at who I thought was a hooting ninny from a League fansite. Harumph, says I. The BFI is a local cinema for local people. Anyway, when I fixed her in my withering gaze, I discovered it was Alison Steadman. Oops.)

The Q&A included Reece Shearsmith, producer Justin Davies, and Lisa Hammond (Bleak House, Max & Paddy) and Daniel Kaluuya (Skins), who form part of an impressive ensemble cast.

Reece said that he and Steve (his regular writing partner) wanted to come up with something different while taking some time off from League activity. While developing ideas for a traditional sitcom, they decided to do something in a longer form with a stronger overarching story.

He said that any similarities to the League just came about naturally during the writing. They were attempting to steer clear of the 'darkness' that people attribute to the League, but it crept back anyway because of their influences and what they find funny.

This is an interesting point for screenwriters to think about - I'm sure we'd all like to be totally versatile and equally adept at any tone, format or genre that got put in front of us. However, I'm sure we all have a style of work that inspires us more than others.

For instance, the stuff that stimulates me most is SF-tinged stuff that's drawn from imaginative work such as classic British 'telefantasy': The Avengers, The Prisoner, UFO, the ITC adventure series, etc.

I can bring my skills to bear on more 'social realist' work - such as the child protection drama I'm currently co-writing with a friend - but I always feel slightly off-balance, or like I'm speaking in a foreign language that I'm not entirely fluent in.

Life's short, and the amount of time we get to spend writing is even shorter. What do you reckon: should we 'stick to our knitting' or should we try to spread ourselves over a variety of styles?

Interview with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton (BBC)
Preview/interview (The Independent)
Preview/interview (Sunday Times)

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