Saturday, 29 November 2008

World's a stage

While transferring dates into my 2009 diary, I've just got rather excited about some of the theatre I've got lined up for the new year:

= A View from the Bridge (Ken Stott, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)

= Entertaining Mr Sloane (Mathew Horne, Imelda Staunton)

= Dancing at Lughnasa (Niamh Cusack, er... Andrea Corr)

= Waiting for Godot (Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart)

= Hamlet (Jude Law)

That lot's got me thinking about why I've never really tried to write for the stage; I think I'm too frightened to leave behind the televisual/cinematic bag of tricks. Because I tend to prefer high-concepty stuff, I always feel - rightly or wrongly - that I haven't got anything very compelling to say through my work.

As a result, I try to tart it up with bits of flashy technique (juxtaposition, transitions etc) and window dressing (mise en scene, 'extending the frame' through sound, etc) - especially after studying screen narrative so closely during my MA. Maybe I should go through my notebooks for a suitable idea and force myself to write a one-acter, just for the exercise.

Anyway, bring on those cramped seats!

Friday, 28 November 2008

The more you despise me, the stronger I get

Oh well - the Red Planet dream dies for another year. Obviously the "powers that be" just couldn't handle the originality and searing intensity of our work. What are they so scared of?! And I bet they nick our idea. Anyway, I've always been more comfortable in the role of derided outsider. Their contempt is like a vitamin to me. Their sneering ridicule gives me strength. I shall will myself into a thing of steel and crush my opponents, and my victory will be sweet... <continues rant in endless single paragraph on Shooting People>.

Seriously though, it is a bit of a disappointment to go out. We hadn't spent as much time on the first 10 pages of Care and Control as we would have wanted (it was still pretty much a work in progress when the deadline came along), but I thought our pitch document was pretty promising. Maybe - as Lucy conjectures - they're looking for more high-concept ideas. Oh well - at least it gives us a bit of breathing space to pull the script apart and put it together stronger. Good luck to all you finalists!

In other news, here's my latest blog on I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!:

Monday, 24 November 2008

The Devil's Whore, C4, 18 Nov

The first notable thing about this four-parter, set during the English Civil War, is that it isn't an adaptation of a decorated novel, but an original script by Peter Flannery, author of Our Friends in the North. The second notable thing is that Sky+ is laughably squeamish about the title, which it presents as The Devil's Wh**e.

Rather than providing a comprehensive blow-by-blow account of the causes and events of the war, Flannery examines the conflict and its consequences through the experiences of fictional noblewoman Angelica Fanshawe (Andrea Riseborough). It's a complex piece of work, and, as you'd expect, there's plenty for the screenwriters among the audience to chew over.

Structurally, the opening episode depicts the course of her marriage to cousin and childhood sweetheart Harry, starting on her wedding day and ending with Harry's execution by the King's firing squad, for surrending their family home to the parliamentarians.

The episode is also bookended by two scenes in which Angelica calls - unsuccessfully - for God to intervene and prove his existence. This correlates thematically with the wider political story, in which the divine right of kings is being questioned.

In an early flashback, Angelica's Catholic mother flees to a convent in France, after experiencing a vision of the Virgin Mary. When the distraught young Angelica rails against a "God that steals mothers", she in turn has a vision - of the devil. Later, at the climax of the episode, she calls on God to save her husband's life. When he doesn't, the devil appears to her again - indicating that the provocatively independent-minded Angelica may take 'the left-hand path' in her future.

Angelica and Harry's marriage reflects the deteriorating relationship between King Charles I (an eerily bloodless Peter Capaldi) and his people. While the king is keen to silence his critics - provocatively storming the parliamentary chamber to arrest Puritan agitators - the insecure Harry Fanshawe, with his mind poisoned by paranoia and the mockery of the young blades at court, reacts violently to his wife's 'wild mind' and sensual enthusiasm.

However, in a highly effective bit of irony, his love for Angelica proves their undoing. When the war comes to Fanshawe, in the form of parliamentarian colonel Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), she refuses to leave her home or husband and vows to fight to the death. To prevent her being harmed, Harry surrenders the house and incurs the full - and fatal - displeasure of the king.

While this personal story takes centre stage, the political and military beats of the conflict are dealt with economically. Indeed, the escalation to war is depicted through a 'wish I'd been there' moment; we hear about the open rebellion in London second-hand, as various courtiers run about with boxes and prepare to move the royal household to Oxford.

The nebulous nature of the conflict is epitomised by the story of Edward Sexby (John Simm), which forms the other axis of the drama. A sour, disaffected mercenary who becomes strangely captivated by Angelica during an early encounter, he changes sides during the battle of Edge Hill to join the parliamentarians. While everything that Angelica held dear is being destroyed, Sexby might be transforming from a nihilistic and opportunistic outsider into a man of principles.

Even within each side the lines aren't clear; Leveller pamphleteer John Lilburne nearly faces the rope for refusing to show due feudal respect to his 'superior', the Earl of Manchester - the parliamentarian commander-in-chief.

In a timely theme, the episode traces the radicalisation of Angelica through injustice, from a demure and loyal member of the court to a hardened exile. The episode ends with her on the brink - brutally and unjustly widowed, abandoned by God and expelled from the royal household. Flannery has created a compelling character - brought powerfully to life by Riseborough - whose progress through this turbulent period of history will be worth following.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Something completely different

After taking two hours to commute between Paddington and Penge last night, I then had to watch and write about a double-length I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!

Read all about it...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

John from Cincinnati, FX, 16 Nov

I know this is a bit of an omission, but I've never seen NYPD Blue or Deadwood, David Milch's previous series, so - other than the usual HBO seal of quality - I came to John from Cincinnati with no preconceptions.

On the surface, it's a family drama set on the Californian coast, involving three generations of the Yost family: grandfather Mitch, who retired early from competitive surfing because of injury; Butch, who somehow 'reinvented' the sport before falling prey to drug addiction; and his son, 13-year-old Shaun, who seems to have inherited the family talent.

However, it soon becomes apparent that there's more going on. Cleaning up after a surf, Mitch is surprised to find himself levitating a few inches off the ground. (This was used as the defining image in the marketing of the series.)

Meanwhile, an enigmatic bequiffed stranger - the John of the title - also materialises. Not much of a conversationalist, his vocabulary consists purely of phrases he picks up from others, plus such gnomic utterances as 'The end is near' and 'Some things I know and some things I don't'. Maybe we'll find out later where he picked those up from.

John is clearly the kind of mysterious catalytic stranger who used to turn up in Dennis Potter's plays. He soon hooks up with the opportunistic addict Butch, who sees him as a source of funding. Before long, a reconciliation of sorts is struck between Butch and his father.

Despite a couple of other subplots, the big questions raised by the first episode are who is John, what is his purpose and what - if anything - does it have to do with Mitch's levitation. And there's the problem - tonally, the show strikes an uneasy balance. There's nothing sufficiently compelling or empathetic about the principle characters to make the family drama engaging, while the stylised Lynch-lite 'weirdness' just becomes irritating.

However, what John of Cincinnati does brilliantly is create a sense of place. Imperial Beach is what a wankier writer than me might call a liminal zone. Not only is it on the border of land and sea (the crashing of waves is a constant presence on the soundtrack), but it's also on the frontier between the US and Mexico; we see a group of illegal immigrants making their escape in the first couple of minutes.

In light of some of the strangeness, it also seems to be a meeting place of the natural and the supernatural. Maybe young Shaun will be a key figure: his surfing and skateboarding skills show that he's equally adept on the water and the land - maybe he can also straddle the gap in the series between the physical and the metaphysical.

If he does, I won't be there to watch him, I'm afraid. I'm already struggling to keep up with the series that I'm enjoying. It's interesting, though - I've managed to write more about a programme I didn't really enjoy than most of the one that I have.

The Genesis of Doctor Who, BBC Archive

The BBC has published a series of documents from 1962 and 1963 regarding the creation of Doctor Who. Here's their blurb:

Explore the origins of a TV legend with this collection of documents and images. It's now the number one family favourite, but 'Doctor Who' had a difficult birth, emerging from the imagination of some of BBC Drama's top minds.

Here, we tell the story of the creation of 'Doctor Who' from the very beginning, starting with a report on the possibility of making science fiction for television and leading up to the moment a new drama series is announced in the pages of 'Radio Times'.

They form a nice bookend with the recent Russell T Davies scripts that were published to promote The Writer's Tale

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Come on in, the water's lovely

I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to plunging into cold water. Whenever I have to get into an outdoor pool, I inch myself in agonisingly slowly, gasping and spluttering at the gradual discomfort, when of course I should be plunging in like any normal person.

You can probably see where this beautifully crafted metaphor is going.

While my writing partner is having a shufty at Care and Control, I'm taking the opportunity to revisit Foot Soldiers, a feature-length idea I started developing a few months ago.

However, despite having a fairly clear idea of where it should be going (I've got an 18-page 'roadmap' of what I want to achieve) and a strong visual sense of the opening scenes, I can't bring myself to start drafting it in case I'm not fully prepared.

I know we're all pretty much prone to procrastination, but this is getting ridiculous. This morning I thought I'd finally browse through that copy of Save the Cat I bought months ago and nip to Ryman for a new pen. After all, you can't write a new script without a new pen, can you?

But no more! As soon as I finish this post, I'm off into the waves like Reggie Perrin...

Edit: And yes - the irony of blogging about procrastination hasn't escaped me.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Apparitions, 13 Nov, BBC One

With the knives currently out for the BBC, this - the first episode of a supernatural six-parter by Joe Ahearne (This Life, Ultraviolet, Doctor Who) - is a gutsy, skilfully crafted and highly enjoyable piece of work.

It focuses on the inner doings of the Catholic Church - particularly Father Jacob (Martin Shaw), who works for the office that investigates candidates for sainthood. However, he is also a skilled exorcist - and is being touted by the current Chief Exorcist as a possible successor.

Back in London, a little girl appears at the seminary where Fr Jacob is based, claiming that her dad is possessed. What follows is a tense game of cat and mouse between the priest and the father (Shaun Dooley), who may be possessed or may just be a particularly ardent atheist.

There's some absolutely excellent writing by Ahearne, who also directed the episode, as the two men engage in a verbal game of chess, each shielding their real agenda behind a mask of civility and thinking several moves ahead to gain an advantage. Some of the scenes reminded me of the gripping interviews between Frank Longford (Jim Broadbent) and the chillingly devious Ian Brady (Andy Serkis) in Peter Morgan's Longford.

In form, the series resembles a cop show. Fr Jacob, the capable and resourceful officer, faces hostility and interference from his superior (John Shrapnel). He employs Colombo-style stealth as he looks for clues and gathers evidence to shed light on the father's 'possession', before Shrappers in effect demands his gun and badge and takes him off the case.

Almost from the start, the series is in no doubt about the existence of demons and dark forces, although it's all done on a very domestic level, with a refreshing lack of grand guignol. In fact, the only bit of gore, very near the end, seems totally out of tone with the suspense and atmosphere of the rest of the ep, though it has been subtly set up throughout. The whole thing is cliche-free and relevant; in this world, demons have very human faces.

Shaw is note-perfect as the magisterial priest, and the episode creates a great deal of anticipation about the impending 'war', in which Fr Jacob is going to be a key player. This is classy stuff - I bet the beautifully lit interiors and cityscapes of Rome look amazing on HD. The best first episode I've seen on the Beeb for yonks.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Call me... The Master

Aw... there he is. A newly minted Master in the Art of screenwriting. (Although I should point out that I don't look that punchable in real life.)

Going down to Bournemouth last week for my graduation left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt pleased that the hard work I put in over two years, on top of a demanding full-time job, was being officially recognised. On the other hand, however, I couldn't help but feel that it was a bit of an anti-climax - that a very important part of my life was ending with a bit of a whimper rather than a bang.

Although it's only six months since I handed in my final assignments, David Bishop's reflections on the 12 months since he graduated left me thinking that I'd ground to a halt somewhat rather than using the end of my course as a springboard.

Admittedly, I've had lots going on in the meantime. I was made redundant and became a freelance writer/editor at the end of August, so I've had to spend a lot of time on finding work and the associated admin. I've also - fortunately - managed to find quite a bit of work, so I've devoted a lot of psychic energy to learning new writing styles, systems etc.

And I haven't been totally unproductive. Spurred on by the Red Planet Prize, I've co-written the first draft of a pilot episode for a drama series entitled Care and Control, set in the tragically topical world of social work and child protection.

But in responding to David's post, I realised how 'institutionalised' I'd become while doing my MA. While the course itself was incredibly stimulating and rewarding, I clearly allowed it to become a goal in itself rather than a stepping stone towards my bigger objectives. Without the external demands of deadlines and thorough critical scrutiny, I've allowed myself to take my foot off the accelerator.

So what's next? Like poor old Travis Bickle, I need to get organisised. While waiting for my writing partner to do a pass on Care and Control, I need to dig out my main MA project - a well-received feature script entitled The Last of the Reality Police - and give it another once-over. I might even take my tutor's advice and think about reworking it as a TV series.

I also need to put a bit more heat under the feature idea I was very enthusiastic about over the 'Summer' - a (hopefully) provocative Fight Clubby sort of thing about militant pedestrianism, entitled Foot Soldiers.

It's all about routine and motivation. I've still got the latter in spades, so I just need to recover the former. Seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. It's as simple as that...

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Underbelly, FX, 10 Nov

If you like your drama 'ripped from the headlines', it doesn't get much fresher than this Australian gangland 13-parter; when the show was broadcast domestically earlier in the year, it was banned in the state of Victoria because court cases relating to the events depicted are still in progress.

The series is based on a gang war that erupted in Melbourne between 1995 and 2004. The first part depicts the apparent downfall of egotistical mobster Alphonse Gangitano (played by Vince Colosimo), who swaggers along as the self-styled 'Black Prince of Lygon Street'.

After Gangtano kills an associate over the non-payment of a debt, the episode follows the police's attempts to persuade witnesses to testify. What follows is classic hubris-followed-by-nemesis, as the gangster ignores his bosses' pleas to keep a low profile and believes himself to be untouchable.

In the wake of The Sopranos, most contemporary gangster series are going to look a little pedestrian, and Underbelly is no different. While it's all stylishly presented, the events unfold in a fairly mechanical way and the characters are given little in the way of psychological complexity. There is also a strange lack of a cliffhanger at the end of the first episode, and not even a teaser for the next episode.

Despite this, the based-on-true-events nature of the series creates a bit of curiosity, and its distinct Aussie flavour keeps it fresh. Vince Colosimo is disturbingly imposing as the Black Prince, and would be a shoo-in for Marco Pierre White: The Movie.

The fact that Underbelly includes producer and writer Greg Haddrick among its staff also provides a cue for another of my book recommendations.

I'm not sure how easy it is to get hold of the two volumes of his Top Shelf: Reading and Writing the Best in Australian TV Drama; I picked up my copies in Sydney in 2001. However, I'd recommend anyone thinking of working in TV drama - either soaps or serials - to give it a look.

In Volume 1, Haddrick examines how the current writing systems have developed; how shows are plotted, constructed and script-edited; how style and production methods vary between series and serials; and the influence of the US and British systems. He writes in a highly engaging style that's backed up with entertaining anecdotes.

Volume 2 then presents some of the award-winning scripts analysed in Volume 1, including episodes of Home and Away, Breakers, Good Guys, Bad Guys, Blue Heelers and Wildside.

Together, the two volumes offer an enlightening insight into an area of writing that's often overlooked in favour of more 'glamorous' forms.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Life, ITV3, 30 Oct

I know this is a few days late, but I finally caught up with the first episode of this US import and thought I'd give it a quick review.

The premise is set up very quickly and efficiently in the first couple of minutes; Detective Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) is released from a high-security prison after serving 12 years for a crime he didn't commit. He studies Zen philosophy intensely while incarcerated, so when he is released and reinstated to the LAPD, he has a radically different viewpoint from his colleagues.

In fact, the opening couple of minutes offer an impressive lesson in rolling out the big questions and theme of a show. We get a very real sense of the ordeal a convicted cop would undergo while in prison, and instantly ask ourselves how this will have affected Crews, both physically and mentally. It's also mentioned casually that he was exonerated because the 'physical evidence didn't match'; this implies that he was framed, prompting us to wonder who and why?

As we move into the story proper, we also get a tangible sense of his detachment, with subjective camera work and POV shots drawing us into his sense of being constantly watched. However, there is a slight clash of tone when several people in his circle (ex-wife, attorney, former police partner) give documentary-style interviews to camera and discuss what happened to Crews. I've a feeling this might disappear in the rest of the series, like the vox pop interviews in the early episodes of Sex and the City.

The pilot episode employs the effective technique of using the 'story of the week' to leverage the exposition; a child is murdered during a botched scam to sell him information that would apparently quash the conviction of his imprisoned father. The investigation sends Crews back into prison – as a cop rather than a con – creating natural opportunities for him to encounter people from his past and to reflect on his experiences.

While Crew's Zen-inspired approach to detective work and Damien Lewis's flinty-yet-fragile portrayal of the cop are refreshing, there are still some aspects of the series that seem familiar: the beautiful-but-ballsy partner with problems of her own, the hardass boss, the sexual tension with his foxy lawyer, the still-to-be-worked-out relationship with his ex-wife. His befuddlement at modern technology such as the Internet and mobile phones could also get a bit old. However, Life offers an original twist on the Unorthodox Cop strand, with the overarching question of who stitched him up promising to pull the viewer along.