Saturday, 30 August 2008

Taking the plunge

Well, that's that, then: having left my job and – hopefully – negotiated my leaving drinks without making too much of a tit of myself, it's time to start looking forward.

Jason Arnopp recently made a very interesting post (which attracted some stimulating comments) about how writers perceive and describe themselves – particularly at the early stages of their career. I felt a bit of this tension last night; when people were asking me about what I was going on to do, I found myself focussing more on the freelance journalism bit rather than the screenwriting. Why is that? While Jason's call for action and self-respect was rousing, I was concerned that I would sound like a self-regarding prat by going on about a glittering career that isn't there yet. Yes, I've got a bit of faith in my talent, which has been validated by others, and I worked bloody hard to get a decent MA, but I didn't want to sound like some Nathan Barley-type prattling on about castles in the air.

I think I successfully fudged it by not describing myself as anything, but saying that I'm working on some exciting projects...

1. Care and Control - a drama series pilot for the Red Planet Prize (and beyond). This is a 'precinct' drama set among a social work team in a South London borough, that I'm working on with a writing partner – someone who's been a social worker specialising in child protection for years. She has come up with a mouthwatering array of characters and situations, which I'm trying to weave together into a coherent series arc. We've been kicking the idea around for a couple of years, so the RPP has given us the kick up the arras we needed to get on with it.

2. Foot Soldiers - a feature-length drama about a bloke who gets too caught up in the shadowy world of underground militant pedestrian activity. This is still very much at the outlining stage, but it's all falling into place and I'm quite excited about it.

3. The Last of the Reality Police – the feature-length script that was my major MA project. I haven't really looked at this since I submitted it in May, so I'll probably give it a quick polish before testing the ground and sending it out (it got good feedback from my tutor, who said it was a 'very credible calling card').

So watch this space for progress reports.

In other news, I'm going to see REM today – which is great, but I can't help feeling it's about twenty years too late. For, when I was a passionate young shaver, around the time of Life's Rich Pageant, Document and Green, they were absolutely my favourite band. But something imperceptible happened after that to weaken our relationship; I bought Out of Time and Automatic for the People, and while I realised they were excellent I just never fell in love with them the way I did with the previous albums. So going to the gig today feels a bit like a divorcee going to a school reunion, hoping to connect again with that spotty bloke/girl from the back of the Vauxhall Viva.

A final question: why is it that you can only remember all the words to It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) when you're drunk?

Tuesday, 26 August 2008


In response to an excellent post on Robin Kelly's invaluable blog, I've dug up these notes from a lecture given during my MA course by David Hanson.

During the lecture, David told us that in order to create an empathic bond between our unknown audience and our characters, we need to use basic psychology to ensure that our characters share the same fundamental human needs and desires as the viewer. To identify these needs, he drew on the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow, who proposed a hierarchy of needs in a 1943 paper entitled A Theory of Human Motivation.

The lecture notes are in a PDF, and are pretty much as I scribbled them down in the lecture room. They might not make complete sense without the accompanying film clips, but a lot of those excerpts should be familiar enough. If nothing else, the notes might provide a starting point for further research into the theory.

Lecture notes:

Another important service announcement

Not all of my posts are going to be that long.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Edinburgh Fringe - Day Three

Sunday lunchtime epitomised what I loved about my first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe. When I roused from my blissful slumber that morning, I had no idea that within a few brief hours I’d be watching a six-foot transvestite singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the style of Bernard Manning. But lo – such a thing came to pass. And not only that, but it came to pass during Jim Bowen’s Let's See What You Would Have Won show. As I say to Janie – and anyone else who’ll sit still long enough – that’s the beauty of life; you never know what’s going to happen next.

Jim’s show followed a similar format to that of Nicholas Parsons a couple of days earlier; an opening routine – delivered in his characteristic miserablist style – followed by guest appearances from another couple of fringe acts – drag queen and impressionist Lavinia Slutford and Polish acrobats the Cesar Twins. Like a lot of comedians of his era, Jim veers a bit close for comfort towards moaning about the 'PC brigade' (who would have had him down as a Mac user?) However, the dry wit and old-fashioned craft of his jokes just about kept him afloat. The show then moved on to an abbreviated version of Bullseye; members of the audience linked up with the guests for the 'pounds for points' game, with the winners – the Cesar Twins and young Esme from Derby – going through to Bully's prize board! After only winning one fairly meagre prize, it was an easy decision for Esme to make during the time it took the board to revolve (ie, the time it took for Jim's producer to hump it around): GAMBLE!!! Sadly for Esme, the gamble didn't come off, but – in time-honoured fashion – Jim revealed the special prize that was hiding behind Bully – a (toy) speedboat, containing a hotel voucher.

It's hard for you young 'uns to appreciate what Bullseye means to gents of a certain generation. For know this, gentle reader, there was once a time when the pubs shut on Sunday afternoon. And most other places hadn't even opened in the first place. And verily was there fuck-all to do. Amid this desolation, Bullseye – at 5pm – stood out like an oasis, its cheery music like the mesmerising chimes of a resplendent golden carousel amid an otherwise abandoned and derelict fun fair. The gig was made complete when Jim announced that he'd be signing copies of his autobiography outside afterwards. As I shook his hand, I felt a profound sense of connection – a sense that only came to an end three minutes later, when a grizzly security guard prized my fingers apart and released Jim from my grip.

The nostalgia trip continued a bit later with Roy Walker's Goodbye Mr Chips. Roy – 'the Perry Como of comedy' – started with a much more personal slide-show of his showbiz career, from his early days as a boy soprano singer, through the difficulties of being a comedian in Belfast during the Troubles, to his big breakthrough on Catchphrase. He then revved up the show with a few energetic rounds of the game, before wrapping up with that clip of Mr Chips. While his show wasn't a laugh-a-minute (he's had a bit of personal tragedy along the way), he's got such natural charm and a sense of gratitude for his success that it's impossible not to feel a lot of affection for him. His laconic deadpan delivery also suits his material perfectly – he's fond of the 'slow burner' that only gets the 'big woof' a couple of seconds later.

Early evening, and a quick whizz across town to see Jeff Green's Life-Ache. I'd never come across Jeff before, though the friends we were in Edinburgh with had seen a couple of his shows down the years. I think this was our only view of what the hard side of Fringe life could be like – the (smallish) auditorium was only about half-full, and Jeff said that he'd had some harsh reviews. His show mostly revolved around the changes that had taken place in his life since he'd got married and had a kid, so we had tales of his honeymoon and the strangeness of finding himself as a 'grown-up', as epitomised by his becoming a caravanner. The routine was generally funny, though Jeff seemed a bit strained at times and struggled to get his thread back after a few late arrivals in the audience.

No such concerns for Ed Byrne, whose Different Class was apparently one of the hottest tickets of the Fringe. Ed is a very polished performer, showing the confidence of someone who knows they're at the top of their game. The theme of his show was his discomfort at not knowing quite what class he was supposed to be, though he soon veered off onto other topics – most successfully, the traumatic experience of organising his recent wedding. It seemed a strangely fitting show to finish our weekend on, as it was definitely the Premiership end of the festival; the Assembly Hall is the largest venue on the Fringe, and while Ed's show was funny throughout, there was absolutely nothing risky or out of the mainstream about it. In addition, the size of the venue – I'd guess about 1,000 seats – meant that there wasn't the interaction between performer and audience that made a lot of the other shows so vibrant. All of which is nit-picking really; Ed Byrne matches his material and his delivery perfectly, and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted.

Which just left one more overwrought performance to see out the weekend – me slipping into full King Lear mode when I found out at about 11.50pm that I'd lost the key to the guesthouse. Janie tells me that I get too cross with myself for doing stupid and utterly avoidable things; 'catastrophising', her calls it. Anyway, after a great deal of over-apologising and much psychic self-flagellation, there was a happy ending – the Assembly Hall, where we saw Ed Byrne, rang a few days later to say that they'd found the key. A satisfying epilogue to a very stimulating and highly enjoyable first trip to the Fringe.

An important service announcement

Due to unprecedented complaints, the character previously known as 'Wifey' will now be given the shadowy code-name 'Janie'.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Edinburgh Fringe - Day Two

Saturday kicked off with a lunchtime date with John Hegley (Beyond our Kennel). This was definitely one of the treats of the weekend. Hegley affects the stern persona of the driest, most deadpan teacher you ever had (step forward Mr Fenlon of Holy Cross, Chorley) and delivers his witty and inventive poems and songs with ironic sombre conviction. I’ve enjoyed his work on the page for years, but hadn’t previously seen him live (though I met him a couple of years ago when Wifey was nominated for a mental health charity’s annual journalism prize, and I can confirm that he’s a very pleasant chap). He really should be more of a National Treasure than he already is.

After that we had a special super bonus show – having enjoyed our taste of Adams and Rea at the Nicholas Parsons show the previous day, we flung ourselves into their early-afternoon gig. Musical comedy is a tricky thing, but armed with a variety of guitars, banjos and ukeleles, they plunked and strummed their way through a an entertaining set, drawing inspiration from the sad loss of Animal Hospital, the abundance of other people’s pubes in cheap hotel rooms, and the difficulties Abu Hamza would face as a balloon sculptor. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened, but during a bit of audience participation I ended up as Leisa Rea’s boyfriend. Fortunately Wifey seems OK about my new long-distance relationship.

Then it was time for a dash across town and a change of gear – the play Surviving Spike, starring Michael Barrymore as Spike Milligan and Jill Halfpenny as his PA-turned-manager Norma Farnes. Based on Norma’s published memoir, the play takes a fairly accelerated look at their relationship over a number of decades. While the amount of ground to be covered meant that the play was pacy and constantly stimulating, it also meant that – as other reviewers have pointed out – we got little sense of Spike’s constant, prolific and varied creativity. Jill Halfpenny gives a very natural and engaging performance, while Michael Barrymore really comes into his own as Spike becomes older and more burnt-out. His depiction of the frail comedian on the brink of defeat at the end of his life is highly moving.

Then for something completely different – Jerry Sadowitz. Even with prior knowledge of his sociopathic stage persona, it’s hard not to be shocked by the venomous energy of his various rants – in favour of paedophilia, murderous dictators and the Holocaust, and against the McCanns, Muslims, the Chinese and (naturally) the English. However, even though nearly everything he says is thoroughly reprehensible, there’s something thrilling – almost exhilarating – about the glee with which he baits the crowd and seeks out and annihilates even the most sacred taboos. On top of all this, his close-up magic is absolutely exemplary; he can do some amazing things with a pack of cards.

Staggering out into the night, I once again though how exciting it would be to lose my guesthouse key. But, once again, I decided to save that treat for another time…

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Edinburgh Fringe - Day One

Well, seeing as I promised some thoughts on my MA course – here’s a quick review of my lightning trip to the Edinburgh Fringe. Having been saying to each other for about 15 years that we really should be going, Wifey and I finally extracted our digits and organised it this year, with a couple of friends.

We got there on Friday and eased ourselves into the weekend with Nicholas Parsons’ Happy Hour – probably the only time over the whole weekend where I was younger than the audience average. While he’s as smooth and professional as you’d expect, his wit is a lot more barbed that you might imagine, though just being in his regal presence left this grizzled veteran humming the theme from Sale of the Century for the rest of the weekend. Ah… what is that celestial music that Peter Fenn is about to play…? The show followed a chat-show format; his guests were Aussie stand-up Adam Hill, with whom he had a good yak about prostate treatment, and musical comedy duo Adams and Rea, one of whom became my girlfriend later in the weekend… (How about that for a teaser?)

After our audience with His Nickness, it was Justin Moorhouse in Ever Decreasing Social Circles. Having a fairly ambivalent attitude towards social networking sites (didn’t they used to be called ‘pubs’?), I found the premise of his show irresistible. Working from his Nan’s advice that you’re blessed if you can count your true friends on the fingers of one hand, he decided to trawl through his 600+ Facebook and MySpace ‘friends’ and whittle them down to five, using a fairly arbitrary survey process to gauge their compatibility. He also used the questions – asking his respondents for their attitude towards topics ranging from motor sport to Morrissey – to veer off into more traditional stand-up territory. The show ended with audience participation, as he applied to same criteria to find a ‘friend’ in the audience. Wifey and I got down to the last few before I was dismissed for having a knob and she was binned for having her arms folded. Don’t care. Got enough friends anyway.

The final show of the night was Daniel Kitson (another Phoenix Nights veteran) in 66A Church Road. I didn’t know much about it in advance except that it was a meditation on a flat in which he lived for a number of years, and that his shows are more like theatrical monologues than stand-up routines. As he began to speak, it became apparent that he Church Road he was talking about was in Crystal Palace – a regular haunt just up the road from Murphy Grange. Even stranger, one of the people we’d gone to the show with has inhabited the same road for years, but had no idea Daniel Kitson lived in the area.

Maybe it helped that we knew the places he was talking about, but the show was mesmerising – thought-provoking, funny, profound and moving. Kitson’s slightly shambling and socially awkward persona (plus his characterisation of his soulless landlord) draw you in and make you laugh, while his observations on memory and the significance of ‘home’ make you want to go back and look at your own domestic situation from a brand new perspective. His relationship with the flat - which he loved despite, or because of, all its faults - also provided a surprisingly apt metaphor for all our personal relationships.

After that, it was back to the guest house. I thought for a while about losing the key in the street, but decided that it would be altogether more interesting to do that another night…

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Is this thing turned on?

Hmm… is there an etiquette for opening blog entries? I suppose I’d better give you ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’.

My name’s Tom Murphy and I’ve just graduated from Bournemouth University with an MA in Screenwriting. Yay. I’m currently waiting for ParcelForce to turn up with the Golden Key to Every Door in the Film and TV Industry.

In the meantime, I thought it would be worth starting a blog to record my experiences and progress as I shuffle uncertainly towards where the action is. I also see quite a few films and a fair bit of TV and theatre, so I’m hoping that blogging about a few of those might help to sharpen up my critical outlook.

In other news, I turned 40 earlier in the year, and am currently facing what Martin Amis described as ‘the Information’. I’m also being made redundant and going freelance (writing/editing) in a couple of weeks, so these are Interesting Times.

Next, I'll try to come up with a few reflections on my MA course, as the whole issue of teaching screenwriting seems to twist many melons.