Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Doctor Who: The End of Time, BBC

Another post from the blog that just won't die! Well... having been lucky enough to get invited to a preview screening of the Doctor Who Christmas Day episode, I thought it'd be a little ungrateful if I didn't blog about it: here's a fuller version of the preview I wrote for Orange.

I was expecting the screening to be a very sterile PR event like the one I went to for Braveheart in New York a couple of months ago, but it was a lovely event, with plenty of excited kids and appearances from Cybermen, Ood and a Judoon.

My own excitement levels were raised before I even got into the Television Centre; I came through the revolving door with Steven Moffat, who was hoping that he wouldn't have to say "Don't you know who I am?" to the army of clipboard nazis gathered in reception.

There was a Q&A after the screening, with RTD, John Simm and Bernard Cribbins on stage. However, most of the questions related to what we'd just seen, so I can't relate the answers without giving too much away. Bernard Cribbins was his usual brilliant self - he's still sharp as a tack - and it's great to think that a whole new generation is enjoying him.

Afterwards, everyone piled back into the reception room for mince pies, mulled wine and encounters with the monsters. Unfortunately the snow had started to tumble down by that stage, so I couldn't really hang around, but everyone seemed to be having a marvellous time.

Anyway, here's the preview. And happy holiday to you all! I'll be back next year.

OK, so there's a fair chance you don't need convincing to watch Doctor Who this Christmas Day. In fact, it might well have been the first thing you marked up as you sat down with your double-sized Radio Times, highlighter pen and mug of Assam.

However, The End of Time – David Tennant's final two-part adventure as the Doctor – is clearly going to be a bigger deal than the average Chrimbo special. It starts off with an epic feel, narrated ominously by Timothy Dalton, and before long the Doctor is summoned to meet his dangly old muckers the Ood, who warn of a darkness falling across the universe.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, everyone is having nightmares that no-one can remember the next day – no-one, that is, apart from poor old Wilf Mott (Bernard Cribbins), the grandfather of the Doctor's former companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate).

It'd be criminal to give much more away, but it's no secret that John Simm comes back as the Doctor's old adversary, the Master. There's also a creepy billionaire (David Harewood) who's tinkering about with a bit of alien technology that fell into his hands after Torchwood went boom. So that's obviously going to turn out well...

The episode is spectacular: it's very cinematic and looked at home on the big screen at the preview. However, it does hit a few bum notes early on: the way the Master makes his comeback isn't totally convincing, and there are a couple of sequences that would look more at home in Heroes.

However, Cribbins is brilliant as the time-worn and haunted Wilf, who seems – reluctantly – to be at the heart of the gathering storm. And one simple scene of Wilf and the Doctor talking in a cafĂ© packs the biggest emotional wallop the show's seen since the Doctor had to say ta-ta to Rose.

John Simm has great fun as the Master, who's more feral and insane than ever. There are a couple of scenes that will have you holding your stomach and groaning if you're still full after your Christmas dinner.

His plan for revenge on the Doctor is a cracker, and as it takes effect at the climax of the episode, it sets up what should be a massive conclusion on New Year's Day.

Of course, that may not be the full story; Russell T Davies is notorious for cutting out big surprises from press screenings and we didn't see a trailer for the grand finale, so – literally – anything could happen. I'm excited!

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Fattest Man in Britain, ITV1

I know the blog is supposed to be on hiatus, but I just thought I'd add a review of The Fattest Man in Britain that I wrote last night for Orange.

(Sometime over the next couple of days I'll also put up a thingy about the Doctor Who preview I went to at the BBC last week.)

At first glance, you might have thought last night's The Fattest Man in Britain was just another bit of knockabout Northern working-class fun. However, with a script co-written by Caroline Aherne and a star performance by Timothy Spall, the truth was far more complex and moving.

Spall played Georgie Godwin, a massively overweight and housebound man who's become a bit of a tourist attraction. This is all thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of local cabbie Morris (Bobby Ball), who charges visitors to come and enjoy (fairly excruciating) encounters with the fattest man in Britain.

However, the wind of change blows into Georgie's life with the arrival of Amy – a troubled teenager on community service who's set the task of tidying Georgie's long-neglected garden. After he intervenes to save her from her violent drug-addict boyfriend, an unlikely friendship develops between the two.

The pregnant Amy moves into Georgie's house and tries to make him realise he's being exploited by Morris. She also persuades him to open up about the grief and unhappiness that caused him to start over-eating in the first place.

However, it takes the heartbreaking tragedy of Amy losing her unborn child and moving out, saying she can't bear to watch Georgie eat himself to death, to spark him into action. Locking Morris out of his house, Georgie sets out to find Amy again.

Even though it was just a fat bloke struggling down a high street, there was something punch-the-air heroic about Georgie's first expedition out of the house for 23 years. The final 15 minutes of the drama would have brought a tear to a glass eye.

Compassion and warmth may not be the most fashionable traits in TV drama these days, but Aherne and her co-writer Jeff Pope showed how simple human kindness can bring us together and how much nicer the world could be if people looked after each other.

The bitter-sweet script was full of beautifully observed comedy, while not shying away from the stark realities of Georgie's miserable existence. It might have lurched a little too close to sentimentality at times, but the script, the performances and even the music (by Badly Drawn Boy) made The Fattest Man in Britain a cracking early Christmas present.

Monday, 7 December 2009

It's not you, it's me

I've been giving this blog a lot of thought over the past couple of weeks. It's not exactly been giving me sleepless nights, but I've been in a bit of a quandry over what to do next.

On the one hand, I've really enjoyed writing it. I'm lucky enough to go to a lot of plays, screenings and writing-related events, and it does me good to exercise my critical muscles and come up with opinions on them.

On the other hand, I'm facing a bit of a time crunch at the moment. I've just started a long-term editorial assignment which is good in lots of ways but restricts the amount of time I can devote to writing.

After spending most of this year wrapping up a couple of spec scripts that had been tugging at my trouser leg for years, I think I need to revise my whole approach to 'breaking in' as a writer and start to think a lot more professionally and strategically.

So, fifteen minutes of mantra-filled oompah will have to go on hiatus for a while. I know this all seems a bit self-regarding, considering the handful of people who read it, but I wanted to draw a line under this chapter of the blog rather than just leaving it abandoned and unloved.

Thanks to anyone who's followed the blog. Hopefully it'll rise from the ashes some time soon.


Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Paradox, BBC One

Hot off the press, here's a review of tonight's Paradox wot I've written for Orange.

We'll always have cops and docs, but a lot of those TV drama box sets we can't resist are "high concept" – series with big ideas like Lost, Fringe and FlashForward. The BBC has given it a go before, with stuff like Life on Mars and Survivors, but unfortunately the first episode of new crime series Paradox has come out a bit soggy.

Paradox stars Tamzin Outhwaite as flinty detective DI Flint – a no-nonsense copper who seems to have too much time on her hands. Tonight, she got her whole team involved when intense(ly annoying) boffin Dr Christian King (Emun Elliott) came across a collection of images that seemed to have come from the future and suggested that Something Very Bad is about to happen.

However, while FlashForward gave us widescreen vistas of devastation across LA and Fringe pinged us into an parallel New York where Leonard Nimoy's got an office in the World Trade Center, tonight's Paradox unfortunately culminated in a chase down a Lancashire B-road to prevent a sleepy driver crashing his lorry into a low bridge.

But even allowing for a tighter budget, the time-scale for the action seemed implausible and a death toll of 73 looked a bit unlikely from the explosion we saw. Meanwhile, the dialogue included razor-sharp zingers like "Find the nearest manned signal box with a land line and ring them!" You can't exactly hear that bursting out of Jack Bauer's mouth, can you?

The concept promised us something new and shiny, but the delivery was as humdrum as Doctors or Casualty (and that isn't a dig at those popular shows). In fact, this could almost be relabelled as Holby Time Cops, if it wasn't already set in Manchester (or some strange alternative version of the city devoid of Mancunians).

I feel bad dumping on this, as it's exactly the sort of thing I've always enjoyed. The idea's obviously intriguing, but it's executed at such a pedestrian pace that it looks like a very poor relative of the US shows it'll inevitably be compared with.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Glorious 39/Stephen Poliakoff Q&A, BFI

This is a bit after the event (Blame it on St Ives), but the other week we saw Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 at the BFI, followed by a Q&A with the writer/director, as well as cast members Romola Garai and Bill Nighy.

(I’ve since lost the notebook in which I was furiously scribbling during the Q&A, so unfortunately I’ll have to rely on my addled memory for what was said.)

Glorious 39 is Poliakoff’s first film for the cinema in more than a decade. He said he hadn’t planned to stay away that long, but enjoyed the creative control he was given while working in TV. Since the success of recent work like Gideon’s Daughter, he’s been waiting for the right story to come along for his return to cinema.

The film is an atmospheric thriller set around an upper-class family – headed by MP Alexander Keyes (Nighy) – on the eve of World War II. Anne (Garai), the family’s adopted daughter, finds her life threatened when she stumbles upon what seems to be a conspiracy by pro-appeasement activists to prevent Britain being drawn into the war.

However, the mystery deepens when Poliakoff raises the possibility that Anne could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ and imagining the whole thing. The events of the film are seen almost entirely from her perspective, which takes on a nightmarish quality that suggests she could be suffering from paranoia.

A few things in the script don’t quite add up, but it’s a complex and cinematically rewarding film. It’s more than a little Hitchcockian in the way it draws an ‘innocent’ into a world of danger they struggle to comprehend. While there aren’t many thrills and spills, the atmosphere and imagery are effective and the outcome remains uncertain to the very end.

Afterwards, Poliakoff spoke about how he came up with the Keyes family’s story to embody the vital struggle that was taking place in political circles as war approached. Even though we know the appeasers failed, he sought to create tension by dropping us into history and making us identify with a character at the heart of the mystery who doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out.

He also uses the theme of being betrayed by one’s family to reflect what happened to those who were suddenly persecuted by the Nazis in communities where they had previously felt secure. Throughout the film, imagery evocative of the Holocaust raises the spectre of what is about to happen across Europe.

Naturally, Poliakoff’s Jewish heritage makes this an even more vital theme; he claimed that most people remain unaware of how close the UK came to reaching an agreement with Germany that would almost certainly have led to the creation of a Vichy-style government in the UK and the eventual application of the Nazis’ murderous agenda.

From a screenwriting point of view, Anne also offers a useful lesson in how you can give your characters aspects that allow you to explore the theme of your script in a dramatic but natural way. She is seen throughout as something of an outsider; as well as being adopted, she’s also a film actress – a less-than-respectable profession that marks her out as the black sheep of the seemingly upright family. This makes her increasingly vulnerable when it seems the rest of the family is closing ranks against her.

In terms of structure, Poliakoff also stressed the importance of the present-day framing section that bookends the film. He included it to remind the viewer that this vital moment in our history occurred within living memory. He also wanted to draw a link to the 1930s as a living period, rather than the cosy fictional ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ world that drama set in the period often defaults into.

I’d never really engaged with Poliakoff’s work before, so I can’t judge Glorious 39 in the light of what came before it. However, despite a few glitches and a slightly bum-numbing running time (129 minutes), I enjoyed it as a fairly engrossing if slow-moving thriller - thanks in no small part to Romola Garai's performance.

Interview with Stephen Poliakoff (Writers and Artists)
Preview of Glorious 39, focusing mostly on production (Screendaily)
Set visit (4-min video, BBC)
Cast and crew interviews (6-min video, BBC)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

My Son The Fanatic (1997, Hanif Kureshi)

As I’ve written before, while I love Hanif Kureishi’s ferocious intelligence, I’ve always found it hard to recognise his vision of London. So, My Son The Fanatic, which is set in Bradford, offers an interesting chance to view his work in another context.

Adapted by Kureishi from his own short story, the script tells the tale of Parvez (Om Puri), a Pakistani taxi-driver in the city. At the start of the film, he is thrilled that his son Farid (Akbar Kurtha) is assimilating into British culture to the extent that he’s engaged to the daughter of a senior police officer.

However, his life starts to unravel through two strands of action that highlight the gap between his native culture and that of his adopted country. Firstly, Farid calls off the engagement and becomes entranced by Muslim fundamentalism. Secondly, Parvez begins to develop a relationship with Bettina (Rachel Griffiths), a local prostitute who is one of his regular fares.

The film is Puri’s, for his moving portrayal of the compassionate Parvez, but it’s a lot less successful in explaining how his son becomes radicalised. However, the image of Farid and his three friends walking away near the end, complete with backpack, was oddly prescient of the 7 July bombings.

Parvez and Bettina embark on a physical relationship that scuppers his already poor standing in the community and finally drives away his wife and son. He’s alone at the end of the film, but enjoying the freedom represented by the whisky and blues music that were previously restricted to his basement den.

In addition, despite everything that’s happened, he’s achieved dignity and a level of redemption by dumping the degenerate German businessman (Stellan Skarsgard) who hired him to procure girls for sex parties.

The script operates on a more domestic level than some of Kureishi’s other work, and particularly succeeds in playing out political, religious and social tensions through personal relationships. It also provides a compelling portrait of an immigrant who’s pulled in two directions by the duties and pleasures of his native and adopted cultures.

BFI screenonline: detailed synopsis and analysis

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Execution of Gary Glitter, C4

Here's a review what I wrote for Orange of last night's slightly odd drama The Execution of Gary Glitter.

Paedophilia and the death sentence are two subjects that people generally have pretty strong views about. So how did this oddly conceived dramatised imagining of the fictional execution of Paul Francis Gadd (aka Gary Glitter) turn out so utterly unengaging?

For a start, the format of the programme was a bit of a mish-mash. Emphatic title cards told us that “THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION” and “WE ARE IN AN IMAGINARY BRITAIN” where the death penalty was re-introduced after the Soham murders of 2003. However, it then became a mix of conventional drama and documentary-style interviews with the characters involved in the case.

It got even weirder when politician Ann Widdecombe, journalist Miranda Sawyer and media rent-a-gob Garry Bushell turned up to add their tuppenceworth. It only became clear later that they were playing fictional versions of themselves, commenting on the action depicted in the drama.

Hilton McRae gave a suitably creepy performance as the devious and manipulative sex offender, but there was very little suspense as the film trudged through the legal proceedings leading to his execution for child abuse in Vietnam. In fact, the first bit of tension came 10 minutes from the end of the 90-minute film, when it seemed like the Home Secretary might offer him a reprieve.

Presumably the programme was designed to spark Heated Debate over the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. However, the “members of the public” who popped up to offer both sides of the argument were totally unconvincing; one was even given the immortal line, “If you don't like it, go and live somewhere else”.

The drama culminated in a bizarre sequence on the day of Gadd's execution, when the condemned popster freaked out after hearing a remix of 'Leader of the Gang' that included samples from his court room evidence. After he smashed the radio, he was taken to the gallows and hanged. Everyone went home again. The end.

There's obviously compelling drama to be drawn from the debate over the death penalty, how we should deal with paedophiles and the effect celebrity can have on society. However, The Execution of Gary Glitter seemed to miss the target completely and turn such emotive subjects into something surprisingly bland.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

(We've come to a decision here at Oompah Central. I enjoy the critical exercise of blogging, but my working routines are changing, so I'm going to have to squeeze the amount of time I spend on it. So, from here on, I'm going to try and keep my posts to a 300-word limit.)

We saw The Bad and The Beautiful the other night, as part of the 'Passport to Cinema' series, run by the BFI and NFTS. Written by Charles Schnee (who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay) and directed by Vincente Minelli, it's a portrait of Jonathan Shields, a monstrous but charming Hollywood producer, played by Kirk Douglas.

It's got an interesting flashback structure, with Shields never appearing in 'real time'. A director (Barry Sullivan), film star (Lana Turner) and screenwriter (Dick Powell) are summoned to the office of Shields' assistant and offered the opportunity to work with him again. Then, each of them recalls their experiences at his hands that made them swear never to go near him again.

However, Shields is a complex character. Despite his selfish deeds, it's clear that he's a man of considerable ability and charm - not quite the typically monstrous blowhard you might expect.

Ironically, his ruthlessness made their various collaborations successful and paved the way for all three to enjoy future prosperity. As the film ends, it's clear that he retains sufficient charisma for the trio to find themselves being drawn in to his proposed project.

I'd never heard of the film before seeing it in the BFI brochure, but it's an entertaining look at the dark side of Hollywood, with quite a bit of edge. And any film with a screenwriter as one of the main characters has got to be worth a look.

So how'd I do... 241 words! Welcome to the Golden Age of Brevity!

Analysis and detailed synopsis (FilmSite)
Trailer (Spike - after a Family Guy ad)

Friday, 30 October 2009

Attention screenwriters - help needed on feasibility issue!

So, here’s the problem:

In the script I’m working on, I’m trying to misdirect the audience regarding the gender of an as-yet-unseen character.

Do you reckon it’s feasible to show a hand-written note from the character without the writing giving away that they're male and not – as I’m trying to lead the audience to believe – female?

Maybe I’m worrying too much, but I just reckon you can normally tell someone’s gender by their handwriting. Any thoughts gratefully received.

Thanks in advance!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Speaking in Tongues, Duke of York Theatre

In between this week's LFF screenings, we've also managed to see Speaking in Tongues, the award-winning play by Andrew Bovell that he later adapted and directed as the acclaimed film Lantana.

The play is a complex but beautifully engineered piece that pushes poor oul' Aristotle and his dramatic unities out of the window. Instead, it creates a non-linear and overlapping mosaic of scenes involving a group of people who are diversely linked to the disappearance of a female psychoanalyst after her car broke down in a remote area.

Its complexity becomes immediately apparent in the opening scene, where two couples, planning infidelity, occupy the set simultaneously. Separate but sharing the same location, their dialogue matches and overlaps as their encounters come to contrary conclusions.

The formal experimentation becomes more pronounced in the second part of the play. There are four characters on stage, each in a different time and place and each delivering a monologue that reflects and interlocks with what the others are saying.

Despite this complexity (heightened by each of the cast playing more than one character), Bovell and director Toby Frow never lose control of the narrative. And the audience is rewarded for its concentration as it pieces together the web of connections between the characters.

However, it's not all about the fractured narrative. The excellent cast (John Simm, Lucy Cohu, Ian Hart and Kerry Fox) create a series of characters and relationships characterised by secrecy, misunderstanding, betrayal and suspicion.

The play's due to run until 12 December, but if you can't make it to London, I'd recommend anyone with an interest in non-conventional dramatic structure to try and get hold of the play text.

Interview with Andrew Bovell

The programme included an interesting interview with the playwright by Elaine Peake. Here are a few of the most relevant bits:

You've said that the play came from a single image of a woman's car breaking down late at night. How did the themes, structure and characters develop from that?

The play had a number of starting points: the glimpse of a woman's shoe discarded at the side of the road, a man writing a letter to an ex-lover, a series of messages left on an answering machine, a middle-aged man breaking down and weeping, a pair of brown brogues left at the edge of the water and so on.

From each image or moment witnessed, a story began to unfold, and slowly connections between them began to emerge. Each of these stories seemed to be about love and loss, with the possibility of something untoward having taken place.

In the play, a series of mysteries emerge, each of which acts as a catalyst for the witness to reflect back on their own life. As these stories are told and retold, the play becomes like a series of concentric circles reverberating out from the centre... the classic stone dropped into a still pond.

The structure of the play is quite complex. Did this mean it was difficult to write?

Yes. But is it easy to write any play? The chronology of this play is complex and the management of time between the three parts was a mental minefield. But the things that made it difficult were also the things that made it so interesting to write. I remember feeling a sense of revelation and satisfaction when disparate and unconnected moments fell into place and reflected each other in interesting ways. It's strange... I don't like doing puzzles, but I seem to like creating them.

There's also a very filmic quality to the play. What genre do you consider Speaking in Tongues to be in?

People say it's filmic, but I've never seen a film like Speaking in Tongues. I think it's very theatrical and does what the theatre does really well, the manipulation of time, repetition, juxtaposition, lateral and backward movement of narrative. In terms of genre... well, it's a drama but it is drawing on some noir elements and elements of mystery... the motel rooms, the bars, infidelity, a missing woman, a detective trying to find the answers, but it's also about some pretty poignant and ordinary moments.

You've said, "Writing for me is an organic process where I respond to the impetus of the moment rather than any grand design".

I'm actually a hell of a control freak and I plan on a minute level. Maybe I meant I don't begin with a grand theme or idea. I discover that along the way.

You adapted the play into a film, Lantana. How did you conceive this and how did you translate the language of a play to the film. Did you find this changed your perception of your original play?

That's a huge question. The process of adaptation was complex and extensive. Given that it was my own work, I felt quite free to change things. In fact I needed to change certain elements to make it interesting for myself. And of course the film allowed me to work on a broader canvas. In the end it's more a retelling than an adaptation. And the play exists in its own right... as a separate piece of work.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Three Days With the Family/Tres Dies Amb La Familia (London Film Festival)

If you’d expect a Spanish (or, more accurately, Catalan) family drama to be full of overwrought passion, you might be pleasantly surprised by Three Days With the Family. Mar Coll’s confident debut film as director and co-writer (with her friend Valentina Viso) shows that middle-class repression and the fear of intimacy are not restricted to stiff-upper-lip Brits.

The film follows directionless student Lea (Nausicaa Bonnin) as she returns to Catalonia for the funeral of her grandfather. She’s approaching a turning point in her life; having failed her exams, she is half-heartedly planning to abandon her ambition of becoming an aeronautical engineer to help her selfish boyfriend open an ambitious bar and cultural centre.

As she gathers with her parents, uncles, aunt and cousins, there are other issues waiting to be addressed. It soon becomes apparent that her bourgeois patriarchal family runs on hypocrisy and the need to keep up appearances rather than warmth or intimacy.

For instance, Lea’s parents have been separated for two years, but her father Josep Maria (Eduard Fernandez) has been unable to let the rest of the family know. Meanwhile, her aunt Virginia (Amalia Sancho) has been virtually banished from the family after writing a successful autobiographical novel that painted an unflattering picture of her lawyer father.

The sparse script vividly depicts the empty gestures that replace genuine emotion among the family; whenever awkward subjects threaten to surface, the need to maintain a respectable front takes over. There are no overblown dramatic moments, but the small psychological transitions and shifts depicted prove very powerful within the low-key naturalistic setting.

Indeed, one of the film’s main strengths is its strongly naturalistic – almost documentary – style. It’s shot in what looks like natural light throughout, and the only music used is the opera that Josep Maria constantly uses to fill the awkward silences. One of the film’s key moments comes when Lea turns off the CD and insists on talking to her father about how she feels.

The naturalistic tone continues to the closing sequence, in which the credits appear silently as the gathered family watch a cemetery worker cement the patriarch into his tomb. We've seen hope for the future among the youngest generation of the family, and the closing image beautifully symbolises the shift taking place.

The film has already won a number of awards at Spanish festivals, but I don’t know how much of a release it’ll get over here; this was its first screening outside Spain. However, it’s a beautifully measured and subtle piece of work that smacks of absolute truth and honesty in its depiction of family relationships. It’s well worth keeping an eye out for.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Bunny and the Bull (London Film Festival)

Another LFF film we just managed to get tickets for was Bunny and the Bull. This is also a debut feature, written and directed by Paul King, who directed The Mighty Boosh on TV.

While Paul was keen to stress that this isn't a Mighty Boosh film, it's no surprise that Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding have parts in the film, and they were both out to support it at the screening.

As you'd expect, it offers a fairly skewiff look at the world. Obsessive agoraphobic Stephen (Edward Hogg) hasn't left his flat for a year, and looks back at the events during a disastrous European tour with his wayward friend Bunny (Simon Farnaby) that left him unable to face the world.

Although it raises a few chuckles, the script is a bit slight; King admitted that a fair bit was improvised and was keen to highlight the input of script editor Richard Ayoade (who also appears briefly). However, the film is a riot of visual invention. As Stephen recalls earlier events, they become re-enacted in his flat, incorporating the various bits and pieces we've seen lying around.

The film owes a significant debt to Michel Gondry's mesmerising The Science of Sleep, but the lo-fi blend of animation, imaginative design and live action is totally charming and beautifully executed. And although it's not that easy to get emotionally involved with the characters, the conclusion of the film is surprisingly poignant.

Bunny and the Bull has been nominated for this year's Sutherland Trophy (awarded to the most original and imaginative first feature) and goes on general release on 27 November. It's well worth supporting, even if you're not a big fan of the Boosh.

Bunny and the Bull (Warp X)

LFF Videoblogisode (ahem): Bunny and the Bull Special Edition

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Scouting Book for Boys (London Film Festival)

Well, our London Film Festival experience didn't get off to the most auspicious of starts, when our priority booking form got lost in the post. Fortunately, we sprang into action before everything had sold out, and got what must have been the last two seats for this screening.

The Scouting Book for Boys is the debut feature from director Tom Harper, from a script by Jack Thorne – a playwright who's also written for Shameless and – more extensively – Skins.

It's set around a caravan park on the Norfolk coast, where teenagers David (Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holliday Grainger) are inseparable best friends; they live permanently on the site, where their parents work. However, their carefree lifestyle comes to a halt when Emily disappears, shortly after being told that she'll have to go and live with her absentee dad.

It'd be criminal to give away too much of what happens next, but things get progressively darker, culminating in a devastating conclusion. However, the storytelling is sparse and subtle throughout, meaning that when a fairly nasty moment came along, it provoked a audible response from just about everyone in the cinema.

In screenwriting terms, the characterisation of the hesitant and slightly dim David and the much more precocious Emily is brilliantly laid out, helped by compelling performances from the two leads - especially Thomas Turgoose, whose expressive face and body language articulate what his tongue-tied character can't.

The film is also beautifully shot. The optimistic early part of the film is bathed in glorious golden sunlight, while the later scenes are marked by a much bleaker atmosphere - a great example of using mise-en-scene to reflect characters' psychological states.

I read somewhere that it's going to be released in the UK next spring, but you can probably catch details of further preview screenings via the film's twitter feed - @SB4B.

There was a short Q&A after the screening. Jack Thorne said the idea came about when he read that Robbie Williams' dad used to be an entertainer at a caravan park. He used to go on family holidays to caravan parks and had often wondered about the people who lived there permanently.

The script spent about seven years in gestation, but he really started to develop it under a mentoring scheme by Celador Films. His first draft led to Tom Harper and Film4 becoming involved, but then a second draft went badly wrong and the project went backwards.

However, after Jack was told by the producer to go away and write whatever he wanted, the script popped up in second place on the inaugural Brit List (an industry survey of hot unproduced screenplays) - behind The Men Who Stare at Goats. That generated more interest and led to another draft.

Tom Harper added that he'd previously read a couple of Jack's scripts and was keen to work with him. It was a coincidence that the Scouting Book script ended up in his hands, but he loved it when he read it and the project moved on from there.

There was also a brief discussion of the portrayal of adults in the film. Tom Parker said that the script is mostly from David's point of view, so he wanted to represent that in a heightened reality on screen - something worth thinking about when you're considering the POV you want to present in your own scripts.

The adults seem on a slightly different plane to David and Emily; they're a bit crap and peripheral, so the teens have to occupy themselves and make their own fun. So, the world originally seems idyllic through David's eyes, until things start to go wrong (reflected in the change of tone noted above) .

The cast paid tribute to the precision and timing of Jack's script, but the writer himself admitted that the story changed quite a bit in the edit. His original ending came earlier than the conclusion seen in the film and was more ambiguous, but didn't feel right on screen.

LFF blurb, including pics and trailer
Video interview with Tom Harper (Cineuropa)
Tom Harper's filming diary (Film4)
Old-ish interview with Jack Thorne (BBC writersroom)

Friday, 23 October 2009

Murderland Q&A (David Pirie), BFI

As promised, here are some notes from the Q&A session that followed the preview of Murderland at the BFI t'other week.

There was a fairly high-powered panel, including Laura Mackie (Director of ITV Drama Commissioning), David Pirie (writer, pictured), Bel Powley (cast member), Catherine Morshead (director) and Kate Croft (producer).

The session was moderated by crime writer Mark Billingham, and kicked off with Laura Mackie saying that what sparked her interest in the script was its originality and sense of authorship, along with David Pirie's passion for the project. From a commercial viewpoint, it also helped that Robbie Coltraine - a long-time friend of Pirie - was already attached.

Talking about his inspiration and approach to the script, Pirie invoked David Simon ("Fuck the casual viewer") and said that audiences respond better to dramas that force them to pay attention and concentrate; you patronise the audience at your peril. The purpose of depicting the events from a number of angles was to make the viewer constantly question what they'd already seen.

He was partly inspired by the reverse narrative structure of the 2007 series Fallen Angel, which moved backwards in time to uncover the layers of a clergyman's daughter who becomes a psychopathic killer. He also wanted to include a feminine POV, reflecting the "women's melodrama" strand of noir exemplified by Mildred Pierce.

Pirie was also keen to focus on the victim - a character who is often overlooked in murder mysteries and used as an almost throwaway catalyst to get to the main cop v criminal conflict. He wanted to shift away from the standard procedural towards a more emotional and personal slant on the events surrounding the killing. Murders might get "solved", but it's often much harder for those involved to achieve a sense of closure.

The script is structured so that you invest in Lucy Cohu's Sally throughout - especially in the third and final episode, in which the flashbacks are related from her perspective. The writer said he enjoyed playing with point of view to generate emotion, and Catherine Morshead added that the POV aspect of the script made it very attractive to her as a director. She also said that the editing process was very important in refining the narrative by slightly changing emphasis and POV.

Pirie spoke a bit more about his idea of "noir with heart", saying he based the story on lengthy discussions he'd had with Robbie Coltraine about what they'd like to see on TV and the balance between love and obsession in Hitchcock's films.

He also said that we don't really do noir in the UK, focussing more on procedure, and admitted that pure noir wouldn't play well on ITV. So, he aimed to create characters the audience would care about to generate suspense, using the emotional basis of the script to ensure there's more going on than just wanting to see the plot resolved.

Pirie also elaborated on the title, which he arrived at very early on. It works on two levels: firstly, it refers to the psychological condition into which Carrie falls after her mother's murder - a fugue state of obsession with the crime, which leaves her open to DI Hain's manipulations.

However, it also refers to the fact that Carrie's childhood is traumatically curtailed by the murder. She has a map of Fairyland on her bedroom wall, but Murderland represents the dark territory into which she moves following the killing, eventually resulting in the meltdown on her wedding day, 15 years later, which sends her back to Hain.

In terms of examining the lasting effects of murder on those close to the victim, James Ellroy's memoir My Dark Places, based on the murder of his own mother and his subsequent investigation of the crime, was cited as a key influence on the series.

For screenwriters, the general message that came from the Q&A was that you should always aim for quality and an original viewpoint, rather than trying to second-guess what the audience is looking for. It's easy to do a generic crime story, but more difficult to strike out in a more original direction. The key element is always passion for the story you want to tell.

The event was inspiring, with the participants creating the impression of a supportive and collaborative creative environment, with the vision of the writer at the heart of it. There seemed to be a strong belief that strong writing will persevere even through hard times.

David Pirie: BFI screenonline profile
Broadcast: Behind the scenes feature on Murderland

Monday, 19 October 2009

Murderland, ITV1 l

I've just got back from my NYC jaunt for the Braveheart BluRay launch, and thought I'd publish this preview of tonight's Murderland wot I wrote for Orange.

(I've also added some notes on the Q&A that followed the preview screening, featuring writer David Pirie and Laura Mackie (Director of ITV Drama Commissioning), Bel Powley (cast member), Catherine Morshead (director) and Kate Croft (producer).)

After the BBC raised the stakes with its bleak but brilliant Criminal Justice the other week, ITV will tonight try to get back in the game with Murderland, a complex and twisty three-part thriller that looks at a murder from three different perspectives and across 15 years to reveal the truth.

At the heart of the drama is the 1994 murder of Sally Walsh (Lucy Cohu) and the effect is has on her daughter, Carrie. On her wedding day in 2009, the adult Carrie – now known as Carol (Amanda Hale) – runs away and tracks down Douglas Hain (Robbie Coltraine), the detective who led the apparently unsuccessful investigation into her mother's killing.

However, David Pirie's script tackles the story in a novel and engaging way. Each of the three episodes depicts the events of 1994 from a different point of view, so we'll see the same scene through different eyes and begin to question what we've already witnessed. The second episode will focus on DI Hain before the concluding part, seen through the eyes of the victim herself, will provide the final pieces of the puzzle and reveal what really happened.

Anyway, the first episode relates the events surrounding the murder from the point of view of the 13-year-old Carrie (Bel Powley), who enters the “Murderland” of the title by becoming obsessed with the crime and desperate to help Hain however she can – much to the concern of Laura Maitland (Sharon Small), the child psychologist brought in to protect the traumatised teen.

This is complex and compelling television that forces the viewer to lean forward, join the dots and try to guess what's going to be revealed after we've seen the story from every angle. There are strong performances all round – especially from Bel Powley as the victim's daughter – and the first episode ends with a cracking cliffhanger. Breathing new life into an old genre, this is great stuff. Critics keep publishing its obituary, but ITV drama isn't dead just yet.

Murderland press pack (doc)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Knowing when to let go

Despite not having blogged for a few days, I've got plenty of stuff lined up that I wouldn't mind thinking and writing about:
  • Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls: looking at an old idea in a new way to give it a fresh lease of life

  • Mother Courage at the National Theatre: more wittering about naturalism and Brecht's theories about drama and the audience

  • New ITV crime drama Murderland (preview and Q&A at the BFI)

  • Various new series piling up on Sky+: Warehouse 13, FlashForward, True Blood, Eastbound and Down
However, for the past few days I've been focusing on Care and Control, the spec social work drama I've been co-writing. We're currently on our third major draft and have realised that eventually we're going to have to throw it in the air and see if it flies. So, we've set ourselves a mid-November deadline and are packing in the meetings and activity.

Despite sharpening up the script and making a few breakthroughs, the process of constant restructuring and rewriting has left me a bit concerned that I can't see the wood for the trees any more. While the script is clearly getting stronger, I worry that I can't quite focus on which bits work and which don't.

Does anyone else get this 'snowblindness' when they're rewriting? And how do you cut through it? Paul Valery said that a poem is never finished, just abandoned. How do you writers out there know when something's ready to go out into the world?

In other news... script progress will be halted briefly this weekend as I jet off to New York for a couple of days to cover the launch of Braveheart on BluRay for Orange. (Psst - Did I manage to sound sufficiently casual about that?)

It's probably going to be a bit knackering (arrive Saturday night, leave Monday morning), but it'd be a bit churlish to turn down a free stay at the Soho Grand and the opportunity to meet Mel Gibson and double Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. Wouldn't it?

Hopefully I'll get chance to pitch Mel with my Secret Jewish World Government script...

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Generation Kill, Channel 4

The terrestrial run of Generation Kill starts tonight on C4, but it's being seriously overlooked in favour of True Blood, which also starts tonight. So, to redress the balance, here's a repost of a review I wrote when I saw GK on FX earlier in the year.

Just a quickie, in light of yesterday's post on Ed Burns.

Generation Kill is a seven-part mini-series by Burns and David Simon, his co-creator on The Wire, adapted from the book by Evan Wright - a Rolling Stone journalist who was embedded with the US Marines at the start of the Iraq War.

The thing that struck me from a writing point of view was how much the opening episode epitomised Burns's mantra that writers should never explain: "say it once and move on".

The episode starts as a fog of jargon, acronyms and procedure, with little initially to differentiate the uniformed, crop-haired Marines.

However, the main characters and themes steadily emerge to provide an almost, er, Kubrikesque depiction of the absurdity of life during wartime; bizarre rumours about the death of J-Lo fuel conspiracy theories around the camp, while senior officers get in a rage about moustaches that violate regulations.

The key craft moment for me came when the journalist arrived in the camp. In the hands of lazier writers, the newcomer would be given a guided tour of the unit and introduced to the main characters: "This is Private Whatsit, but we all call him 'Thingy' because of his whatever..."

However, here he's flung straight into the middle of camp life and has to make sense of what's going on in the same way that the viewer does.

It's a warts-and-all depiction of the outbreak of war, with the Marines struggling to deal with uncertain orders and a lack of adequate information and equipment.

While the first episode deals largely with the 'phoney war' before the real hostilities began, it ends with the unit becoming unwillingly complicit in a murderous situation that highlights the ambiguity of their objectives.

Great stuff. (Channel 4 have just bought the series for terrestrial broadcast later in the year.)

Andrew Billen in The Times
Jonathan Finer in The Washington Post
The Guardian: Interview with Ed Burns (MP3)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Criminal Justice, BBC One

I watched and reviewed Criminal Justice last night for Orange, and thought it was excellent. Writing, direction and performances meshed together perfectly to produce absolutely top-quality drama.

The storytelling was stylish but brilliantly economical; the number of 'silent' scenes with just one person revealing themself through their actions reminded me a lot of Mad Men.

Even the first couple of minutes, showing Maxine Peake struggling with her cardigan and her seat belt, created a strong impression of a woman out of phase with the world. Meanwhile, the missed calls between the couple highlighted a lack of communication and the fact that their worlds didn't quite connect.

There were also a couple of classic set-ups and pay-offs, where a little bit of business that seemed to be there to illuminate character had greater significance later on. For instance, Jim's detailed notation of his runs seemed to just highlight his OCD tendencies, but then his similar attention to the mileage clock in the car provided more evidence of Juliet's apparent

I think the only bum note in the whole episode was the coincidence when the traumatised Juliet staggers into the hospital just as the critically injured Jim is being wheeled through. Other than that, it all added up beautifully. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series.

EDIT: Another fantastic writing choice that just came back to me was the lead-up to Juliet stabbing Jim; instead of her arriving back upstairs with the Vaseline and then revealing the knife (DA-DA-DAA!!!), we see her notice the knives in the kitchen and can almost hear the idea forming in her brain.

She then deliberates about choosing the right knife, and slowly climbs the stairs with it in her hand, protracting the build-up and increasing the sense of dread and anticipation. Even after that, the stabbing is handled obliquely, with the audience just seeing its immediate aftermath through the eyes of their initially uncomprehending daughter. A great example of staging a familiar scene in a fresh and enthralling way.

The success of the first series of Criminal Justice, written by former barrister Peter Moffat, means that the second five-parter, showing each night this week, is a highly anticipated TV event. Thankfully, this haunting first episode was no disappointment.

Maxine Peake stars as Juliet Miller, the wife of successful barrister Joe Miller (Matthew MacFayden). But behind the affluent facade, she's clearly a woman with secrets and problems; she's not taking her anti-depressants, and she seems to be having an affair with the father of one of her daughter's friends. Twitchy, frantic and distracted, Peake gives a powerful but unsettling performance that manages to be compelling and difficult to watch at the same time.

Meanwhile, husband Joe seems to be a committed and conscientious barrister and a good father and husband. However, his suspicious mind and obsessive nature, combined with the attention to detail that makes him a formidable force in court, reveal Juliet's apparent duplicity. As the episode progresses, we find out he's got secrets of his own and he's not a very nice man after all.

When Juliet stabs Joe during what amounts to marital rape, she finds herself plunged into the criminal justice system – a cold world of bare cells and harsh, disconcerting noises that's powerfully evoked by atmospheric direction and editing. Clearly traumatised, her only ally seems to be Jack Woolf (Sophie Okonedo), the spiky solicitor who's allocated to her case.

Tricked by the unpleasant and devious DI Sexton (Steven Mackintosh), Juliet confesses to her crime in the belief that she'll be able to see her daughter if she does so. So, while Joe continues to fight for his life, it looks like an open-and-shut case – until the more thoughtful senior officer DCI Faber (Denis Lawson) has the last word and sets up the drama to follow: "Did anyone ask her why she did it?"

The first series won the 2009 BAFTA award for Best Drama Serial, and the opening part of the second series suggests it's going to be in contention for awards again. It might build slowly and lack car chases and shoot-outs, but this is sophisticated, compelling and thought-provoking stuff. If you missed tonight's episode, you can catch up on BBC iPlayer (in the UK).

Monday, 5 October 2009

Prick Up Your Ears, Comedy Theatre

(EDIT: Obviously, I wrote this before the very sad news about Kevin McGee broke. Condolences to his family and friends.)

Matt Lucas's starring role in the West End stage production of Prick Up Your Ears creates an interesting opportunity to contrast two dramatic treatments of the same source material - Joe Orton's diaries and John Lahr's biography of the playwright.

The first adaptation of Prick Up Your Ears was the 1987 film, written by Alan Bennett, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. (NB, my notes of the film are based on having seen it quite a few years ago...)

Although its depiction of Orton's promiscuous lifestyle raised a few eyebrows at the time, the film is a fairly straightforward biopic of the writer's rise to fame and the breakdown of his relationship with one-time collaborator and long-term partner Kenneth Halliwell, culminating in Halliwell's brutal murder of Orton and subsequent suicide.

Bennett frames the story by introducing a fictional version of Lahr (played by Wallace Shawn), who interviews Orton's family and friends - particularly his agent, the legendary Peggy Ramsay (Vanessa Redgrave), who introduces scenes by reading from the diary that she encouraged Orton to keep, with a view to future publication. (Ironically, the details of his sex life that Orton recorded in his diary played a part in pushing Halliwell over the edge.)

Bennett also reflects the relationship between the successful artist Orton and the overlooked Halliwell by depicting tension between the preoccupied biographer and his marginalised English wife (Lindsay Duncan).

Simon Bent's stage version, which opened recently in London after a run in Brighton, takes a very different approach, restricting the action to the claustrophobic Islington flat where Orton and Halliwell lived - and died - together.

Remaining in the flat focuses the story more on Halliwell's descent from insecurity into murderous psychosis. As Orton increasingly goes out into the world, for both his casual sexual encounters and his successful career, his partner becomes increasingly reclusive.

The bedsit is very much Halliwell's environment and increasingly reflects his mental state, as the walls become covered in his montage of photographs. By the end of the play, dramatic lighting and echoey sound design create a strong sense of his psychological disintegration.

While Matt Lucas gives a powerful performance as Halliwell, Chris New's Joe Orton is almost a bit part - especially in contrast to the dangerous and sexually charged swagger of Gary Oldman in the film. Bent's play is very much Halliwell's story.

The play has flashes of humour, but really comes to life when it focuses on the destructive conflict between the two men. It might lack the scope of the film, with its greater freedom to shift through time and location, but it's an intense adaptation that makes the most of its theatrical setting.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Benidorm, ITV1

Here's a review of Benidorm I wrote last night for Orange. I'd never seen the show before, and was pleasantly surprised by how sharp it was. As I say below, there wasn't much of a plot for an hour-long episode (including a couple of lame set-pieces), but the strength of the banter and characterisation just about made up for it.

After the high drama and helicopter rescue of the summer special – and the small matter of winning Best Comedy at the National TV Awards – the sitcom Benidorm is back for a third series. And not only that: despite its well-publicised financial problems, ITV has such faith in the expat chucklefest that it has bumped it up to hour-long episodes.

Following their hostage ordeal, the regulars at the Solana Resort have turned up to take advantage of the free holiday being offered as compensation by the management. So, we bump again into the argumentative Garvey family, middle-aged swingers Donald and Jacqueline, awkward southerner Martin and his new Scouse girlfriend Brandy (Nicholas Burns and Sheridan Smith, pictured above), and sniffy gay couple Gavin and Troy.

What plot there is focuses on the opening of a mobility scooter shop, but the show is more about well-observed family tensions and distinctly off-colour banter. It might sound like an updated version of 80s classic Duty Free, but it soon shows a bit of edge. The opening scene on the airport bus sets the tone, as three generations of the Garvey family enter a ping-pong match of foul-mouthed abuse, kicked off by nasty gran Madge (Sheila Reid).

In addition to creator Derren Litten's zingy scripts (he previously co-wrote The Catherine Tate Show), the strong ensemble cast is one of Benidorm's strong points. Steve Pemberton probably steals the show as under-pressure family man Mick Garvey, while Johnny Vegas continues to plumb the dark side as the unappreciated pub quiz champion known as The Oracle. Sheridan Smith also stars as the foul-mouthed dog-rough Brandy.

Everyone involved is probably sick of the comparisions, but Benidorm has got the same kind of bittersweet northern flavour as The Royle Family or Early Doors. It may not ring quite as true as those series, but it strikes a nice balancing act by showing us a recognisable warts-and-all vision of Brits on the Med while not inviting us to sneer at Dirty Working Class People.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

"Barefoot filmmaking": Rage and Q&A (Sally Potter), BFI

Last week we went to the premiere of writer-director Sally Potter's new film Rage - a tale of murder set against the backdrop of a New York fashion show.

However, Potter departs radically from traditional film narrative; the film is a series of intercut talking-head monologues, shot by an unseen and unheard student (Michaelangelo) who claims to be compling a school project. The film was shot very simply; the crew consisted of Potter herself and a sound recordist, filming each of the actors in turn against a green screen in a photographer's studio.

His 14 interviewees include models (Lily Cole and Jude Law), an acerbic critic (Judy Dench), the flamboyant designer (Simon Abkarian), a burnt-out photographer (Steve Buscemi) and the fashion house financier (Eddie Izzard).

It's a very bold attempt, but while the writing and performances create a compelling series of character sketches, the draw of the narrative runs out of steam after a while. The approach becomes increasingly unsatisfactory as the action being depicted just off-screen escalates later in the film.

The novel narrative approach is matched by Potter's distribution strategy. The film is being released free via Babelgum on internet and mobile phone formats day-and-date with the digital cinema release.

The Q&A included quite a bit of unneccessary guff about it being the "first social-networking premiere": questions were sent by text and Twitter or beamed in from a number of UK cinemas, while Jude Law, Eddie Izzard and Lily Cole took part remotely via webcam.

Sally Potter was the star of the Q&A though. Charismatic, intelligent and able to clearly articulate her ideas, it's easy to see why actors are so keen to work with her. Video extracts of the Q&A are available here, but these were a few of the key points she made (taken from my scribbled notes - apologies if I've got anything wrong:
  • Despite Rage being a performance-led piece, there was no improvisation during the scenes. She had to be very precise with the timing and phrasing because of the nature of the film, which precluded the use of a wide range of cinematic narrative devices.

  • She thinks that watching a film like Rage on a mobile provides focus, like viewing a miniature painting. Also, people can cluster around it, so it affords intimate access to the film.

  • In her approach to distributing the film, she's attempting to sidestep what she calls the "cultural gatekeepers" - particularly film critics, who exert a heavy influence on how films are distributed. She referred to her approach as "barefoot filmmaking" - an attempt to swerve around the lumbering studio system and enable direct communication with the audience.

  • However, she doesn't see films like Rage heralding the end of the regular distribution system. As with previous developments in technology and narrative, she thinks it's just offering another way to tell stories. She hopes that it will encourage filmmakers to work with new formats (like mobile phones) in mind.

  • She created the unseen and silent character of Michaelangelo to be characterised by openness and non-judgementalism; he's the only person in the film who really listens. He originally had scenes and dialogue, but in the edit Potter decided he'd become a more powerful vehicle for audience projection if he existed more as a blank canvas.

  • The script existed previously in a more traditional form, but starting to keep a blog made Potter increasingly aware of the intimate nature of communication via the web, inspiring her to approach Rage differently.

  • The film isn't a direct attack on the fashion industry. The rage depicted is a backlash against the alienation and exploitation that seems to characterise consumer society more generally. The world of fashion just happened to offer a very fitting metaphor.

  • She doesn't believe in 'interactivity' to the point where the audience could influence the direction of the narrative. However, she does firmly believe that the audience interacts with a piece of work through the way it interprets it.

  • She was interested in exploring the historical form of the monologue, particularly the way it has developed recently on TV into the 'diary room' confessional. She also looked at the way Michaelangelo worked in the film in the light of psychoanalysis. By allowing the characters to continue talking without interruption, he enabled their various truths to emerge from a world of pretence.
Video interview with Sally Potter (BBC Film Network)
Variety review
Little White Lies review
Independent review

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Theatre Royal Haymarket

If people turn up to the Theatre Royal expecting to see Anna Friel give a reprise of Audrey Hepburn's performance in Blake Edwards' 1961 film, they're in for a shock.

The play goes right back to Truman Capote's original novella rather than the film, which Capote described in later life as "a mawkish valentine to New York City...thin and pretty, whereas it should have been rich and ugly".

Indeed, the Capote estate, which is fiercely protective of the writer's reputation, only authorised the production on the understanding that it'd be a new dramatisation rather than an adaptation of the film.

However, from a dramatist's point of view, the novella throws up a big problem. As the narrator of the book is an anonymous and detached observer, Adamson needed to create a more three-dimensional character to lead us through the story and take us into Holly Golightly's world.

Successful novelist William Parsons (played by young American actor Joseph Cross) returns to NYC in 1957, 14 years after arriving in the city as a naive young writer. As he reminisces, he recalls becoming captivated by the beautful neighbour who seemed to guide effortlessly though the city's social whirl (which carries on without a care while the world war rages on).

However, her uninhibited approach to life led to the failure of their friendship, until she was arrested for aiding and abetting a gangster and needed William's help to get out of the country. In hindsight, years after seeing Holly for the final time, Parsons realises how their relationship helped him to 'find himself' in his new life.

It's probably over-stating it a bit, but there are shades of Citizen Kane about the structure of the play; as we are hit with revelations about Holly's past from a variety of sources, the layers of her character and identity are peeled away. It also strikes the right note about attempting to reinvent yourself when you move to a big city with dizzying and almost infinite possibilities.

There's quite a bit of humour and edge to the production, which isn't coy about Holly's $50 "trips to the men's room". There were also a few sharp intakes of breath at some full frontal nudity, and I'm pretty sure the film never depicted Audrey Hepburn giving Hannibal Smith a handjob in the bath.

However, not all the theatricality works. The profusion of short scenes and location changes means there's a distracting parade of period-dressed stagehands lugging furniture around. The main part of the set, two large NYC fire escape staircases, sometimes take a little while to get in position and hold up the pace.

I love Anna Friel's TV work, but I don't think she's got sufficient presence to convince on stage as a girl it's impossible not to fall in love with. The rest of the cast are entertaining, though - James Dreyful slightly steals the show as fast-talking showbiz agent OJ Berman.

It's not the best West End play I've ever seen, and I'm guessing the critics won't be kind. However, even with its faults, it'd be a shame if this got written off as just another bit of fluffy tourist-bait featuring a TV star.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Trinity, ITV2

I've just had to review Trinity for Orange, so here it is; at least that means I'm getting recompensed for the hour I've lost.

I'm too tired to think of much else to add. The whole thing was a mess - there might be an interesting programme in there somewhere, but there's way too much noise and not enough signal.

And poor old Christian Cooke should be having a word in his agent's shell-like after being landed with the awful character of Dorian so soon after Demons.

Oh dear - this one was a bit of a mess. ITV2 clearly have high hopes for Trinity to be the channel's next Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but the new show makes Billie Piper's series look like The Sopranos. Characters without two facets to rub together, an inexplicable mixture of storylines and the most laughable sex scenes since Showgirls – this one's got the lot.

The action centres around the old-school wood-panelled setting of Bridgeford University's Trinity College. Trinity has been a poshos' playground for centuries, but the winds of change are threatening to blow through the institution, led by modernising new warden Angela Doone (Claire Skinner). The college is now even opening its doors to overachieving plebs like Theo McKenzie (Reggie Yates) – a streetwise kid from Lewisham.

The people behind Trinity obviously came up with a wish list of stuff they'd like to stick into what executive producer Ash Atalla called their "high-octane, ball-breaking drama". So, we have sizzling teen sex and drug-taking (Skins), exclusive social cliques tormenting their victims (Gossip Girl), a dark scientific conspiracy lurking behind the institution's facade (X Files) and two loveable stoners desperate to lose their virginity (just about every teen comedy ever).

If it wasn't for the other 90% of execrable guff, about 10% of Trinity could be quite intriguing. Professor Maltravers (Charles Dance), the dean of the college, is keen to discourage change in case it leads to the uncovering of a sinister project involving something or someone called Galahad (as well as some shadowy figures with unconvincing American accents).

Meanwhile, one of the new intake – Charlotte (Antonia Bernath), a po-faced, strait-laced Christian – is determined to find out why her recently deceased father Richard (who had a lucky escape by being menaced to death by one of the "Americans" at the start of the show) suddenly left his promising academic career at Trinity a few years earlier. Every mention of his name brings raised eyebrows among the senior members of staff, and it's obvious that there are startling revelations and discoveries to be made.

So while Trinity tries to pile everything in, it might end up satisfying no-one. Dem Yoof might tune in for the Skins-style shenanigans, but will they give a monkey's about the Dark Secrets From Years Ago waiting to be atmospherically unravelled? And will any viewers reeled in by the mystery element be able to sit through the cardboard antics of the students? It looks like being a difficult first term at Trinity College.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Daniel Kitson: genius at work

Apart from a friend being flat-ridden with a terrible back problem, I had another great time at the Edinburgh fringe and book festival this year. We stayed for a week, which meant we could take things a little easier but still see a load of stuff.

Anyway, rather than trying to review everything exhaustively like I did last year, I'm just focusing on one performer who gave us two of the real highlights of the week: Daniel Kitson.

Kitson is an astonishing writer and performer who won the Perrier Award in 2002 but shuns publicity, avoids weekend gigs and wouldn't touch telly with a 10-foot pole (after his unhappy experience as Spencer as Phoenix Nights).

We first saw him perform last year at his theatrical monologue 66A Church Road: A Lament Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases. That was a beautifully structured and delivered meditation on having to leave a rented flat to which he'd got very attached and, by extension, what we mean by 'home'.

It was given extra resonance for us when it became apparent that the Church Road of the title was the one up the road in Crystal Palace on which my friend and writing partner Janet lives. (Since then we've seen DK a few times, usually through a thick miasma of 'yummy mummies' in Domali).

This year we caught both of his shows. The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church is his follow-up 'story show' to 66A Church Road, but is delivered in a more stand-uppy way; his only props for the 90-minute performance are a table, chair and small notebook.

However, it's a brilliant and compelling shaggy-dog story. He tells the tale of how finding an attic full of letters in a house he was thinking of buying led him to piece together the life story of the title character, who seemed to have finally killed himself 24 years after writing his first suicide note.

As Kitson relates how he became engrossed and went through the 30,000 letters, he creates a vivid picture of both Gregory Church and his various correspondents, dropping revelation after revelation and building up to an unexpected and very satisfying conclusion.

We Are Gathered Here, his epic stand-up show (1 hr 40 mins with no interval the night we saw it), was also a total sell-out and explores similar themes. It starts with the observation that the fact we all know we're going to die can leave us treating life like the crap last day of a holiday, when you've checked out and are just killing time waiting for your flight home.

However, he uses these ruminations - inspired by the death of his Downs Syndrome aunt - to touch on various aspects of his ramshackle and slightly dysfunctional lifestyle, before tying the threads together to reach a life-affirming conclusion: as grim as it is, grief is still a part of being alive.

His stage persona is hard to pin down, wavering between between an unflinching examination of his social and physical limitations and a pushy, overconfident awareness of his intellectual capacity.

Quite apart from the virtuosity of his performances, Daniel Kitson is very much a writer's comedian: his love of a telling phrase and the structural skill with which he constructs and unfolds his stories lift him far beyond the rest of the comedy herd.

Comedy is obviously a highly subjective thing, but you really should spend an evening in his company some time.

(He's currently touring We Are Gathered Here in the UK and Australia until November, and he's hoping to launch tours of 66A Church Road and Gregory Church next year. More details and a mailing list are available at his website.)

Monday, 14 September 2009

Dorian Gray (plus Q&A), BFI

Apart from the essentials of the premise (which just about everyone must know anyway, irrespective of whether they’ve read the book), the main thing I can remember from The Portrait of Dorian Gray is learning that I could thumb forward a few pages as soon as I saw a paragraph-long description of some flowers.

So, maybe I’m not the best person to judge how successful an adaptation Dorian Gray is. Or maybe I am, because I’m not so smitten and possessive about the original. It was clear from the film and the following Q&A that the filmmakers – particularly absent screenwriter Tom Finlay – aimed to keep a similar distance from the source material.

Indeed director Oliver Parker said that they brought in Finlay because his vision for the film lacked some of the literary reverence that restricted earlier drafts. Talking about adaptations more generally, Parker argued that sometimes you need to move some distance from the source material to gain a better perspective on the original.

After his previous adaptations of Wilde’s stage plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, Parker felt that an adaptation of the author’s novel could offer something more cinematic that those two films, which he feels remain performance pieces at their core (even though he was attempting to “blow the dust off Wilde”).

Their aim with the script wasn’t just to animate the novel as it was written, but to approach the story as they thought Wilde might have if he was alive today and – as he almost certainly would have been – writing scripts.

Parker admitted there’s a trade-off in adapting such literary work. On the one hand, you inevitably lose some of the narrative’s mystique; whoever plays Dorian Gray is never going to be as mysteriously beautiful as the literary character, while the grotesque portrait always takes on a more hideous aspect in the reader’s imagination than might be depicted on screen.

However, giving the world of the book physical form also provides positives for the narrative. Dorian becomes more of a character than the enigmatic cypher of the book. We also become able to see things through his eyes; Parker thought this might be partly why they entitled the film just Dorian Gray, rather than following the book’s lead.

The question inevitably arose of why they didn’t set the film in a more modern context, especially given the current obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity etc. Parker responded by pointing out that the repression in Victorian society is a key engine of the story; it’s what makes Dorian’s licence to do what he wants even more powerful.

He added that the social conditions of the time also made for a stronger contrast between the well-heeled social circle of Wotton and Gray and the grime of the Whitechapel demi-monde into which the Mephistophelean Wotton initiates Gray.

Finally, he said that he prefers the metaphor of using Wilde’s work in its original setting to depict something about the present day. Wilde was ahead of his day - and maybe still is – and period films work better when they have a strong perspective on the present.

In technical terms, Dorian Gray is a strongly coherent film, with a clearly defined structure and a consistent tone. Parker’s earlier work included theatrical collaborations with horror writer Clive Barker, and the film touches effectively on the Gothic atmosphere of its source while adding a contemporary visceral edge.

The script is also admirably sparse, resisting the temptation to slap on layer upon layer of characteristically ‘Wildean’ dialogue or narration. Colin Firth spits out a few familiar epithets as the sardonic Wotton, but the story is generally told with slick cinematic economy.

Edit: Here's a note from Fun Joel on his response to the script when he read it for a Hollywood studio.