Friday, 24 July 2009

John Ryan RIP

Writer, artist and animator John Ryan, creator of Captain Pugwash and Mary, Mungo and Midge, has died in hospital in Rye, East Sussex, aged 88.

Obituary in Daily Telegraph

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Bill, ITV1

Today's our fifteenth wedding anniversary, so we're off for a day of jollification in the West End! Hurrah!

Anyway, here's a preview of the new post-watershed version of The Bill that I've written for Orange:

I've not watched The Bill for a while now. The last I remember, Tucker Jenkins/Mark Fowler had turned up and was trying to get off with his mum – or something. Anyway, I guess I'm exactly the sort of viewer the producers are looking to lure back with their reinvention of the show as a gritty post-watershed weekly drama.

However, the new filmy look – starting with two of Sun Hill's finest cruising the mean streets of East London, Taxi Driver-style – takes a bit of adjusting to, as if your Uncle Derek suddenly started wearing a white Saturday Night Fever suit and talking in a Brooklyn accent.

Anyway, while out on patrol, Sergeant Stone (Sam Callis) and PC Gayle (Micah Balfour) find a badly beaten teenager. As CID turn up and the investigation starts, a suspicious-looking youth, Ollie Readshaw (Jazz Litott), panics and runs away. The chase ends badly when Ollie runs in front of a lorry and is killed.

Ollie's behaviour makes him the key suspect for the brutal assault, and DI Neil Manson (Andrew Lancel) has to gain the trust of the dead boy's grieving semi-alcoholic mother to get closer to the truth. Meanwhile, family liaison officer DC Jacob Banks (Patrick Robinson) senses that the victim's young brother knows more about the attack than he is letting on.

After the stylish opening, the show becomes a bit pedestrian, with a lot of people sitting around in rooms telling each other stuff. It doesn't help that the cast don't have much charisma, either (although Julia Ford, seen recently as vengeful nurse Maureen in Shameless, steals the show as Debbie, Ollie's angry but fragile mother).

Despite the revamp, the show still seems quite worthy. It plays more like the BBC's daytime drama Doctors than the "darker, grittier and more hard-hitting" show its creators were promising. It's hard to see how even the new Bill is going to distinguish itself from perkier newcomers like Law and Order: UK, never mind heavyweight imports like The Shield.

Still, the conclusion of the two-part story is on tomorrow night, so things obviously aren't going to be quite as cut and dried as they appear at the end of the first part, when it seems that the police have got their man. A bit more pace and invention could give the new version of The Bill the jolt it needs.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Desperate Romantics (Preview/Q&A), BFI

Last week we saw a preview of the first episode of Desperate Romantics, together with a Q&A with writer Peter Bowker, Franny Moyle (on whose book the series is based), producer Ben Evans and several of the cast.

Desperate Romantics is a six-part drama (kicking off tonight on BBC Two) that follows the adventures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – three painters who created an artistic revolution in Victorian England. The first episode traces their search for a suitable model, the build-up to their first exhibition and their desperate hunger for the influential (and lucrative) approval of critic John Ruskin (Tom Hollander).

It also moves beyond their artistic endeavours to portray their tangled personal lives, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti falls in love with their new model and muse Lizzie Siddal, William Holman Hunt tries to 'save' prostitute Annie Miller and John Everett Millais lights the fuse on an ultimately explosive relationship with Ruskin's wife Effie.

Bowker's script is based on a book by Franny Moyle, a former BBC commissioner for arts and culture. He strikes exactly the right note by giving the artists' ascent to celebrity an irreverent and modern resonance without shoe-horning in awkward devices to bang us over the head with it.

In fact, his choice of narrative devices is spot on throughout. In the fictional Fred Walters (played by Sam Crane), he creates a composite friend, advocate and commentator for the Brotherhood, who provides a portal between the tightly bonded Brotherhood and the audience.

He also uses the notoriously tricky voice-over with great skill. Fred's opening narration gives a very economical introduction to the characters and their world for viewers who aren't art historians, but it's used very sparingly after that.

As you'd expect, everything about the production oozes quality, from the art direction to the performances. Rafe Spall is particularly compelling as the complex and imposing Holman Hunt, while Amy Manson is luminously beautiful as the resolute and plain-speaking model Lizzie Siddal.

The Q&A was chaired by art broadcaster Tim Marlow, so focused quite heavily on the relationship between the drama, the characters depicted and their work. Moyle and Bowker said that the impetus for the series was the thematic link between the Brotherhood and the high-profile Young British Artists (YBAs) who rose to prominence in the 90s, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Producer Ben Evans added that they also aimed at an irreverent treatment of the kind of costume drama that the BBC traditionally excels at, as well as a playful response to the way art biopics are currently made and watched. One of the aims of the series was to dust down the academic response to the painters' work and get to the human and emotional truth underneath.

It was also agreed that the success of some of BBC Four's biographical drama, such as the Curse of Comedy series (produced by Evans), had prepared the ground for this kind of approach.

Bowker revealed that some script problems during development were solved when the format of the programme was reoriented slightly from a serial to a series. Having each episode focus on a particular aspect of the Brotherhood's career enabled him to tidy up the stories and sharpen the structure of each instalment.

The hour-long drama is pacy and light-hearted, and captures perfectly the band-like camaraderie of the Brotherhood, as well as the simmering creative jealousies bubbling away under the surface. You might not think the Victorian art world is the most exciting arena for drama, but Bowker is a writer at the top of his game, and the first ep suggests that this is going to be a highly enjoyable series.

Official site (BBC): includes behind-the-scenes footage and info on paintings
Interviews with Peter Bowker in The Guardian and Daily Telegraph

Monday, 20 July 2009

Young, Dumb and Living off Mum (BBC Three)

In lieu of anything more exciting, here's my review of Young, Dumb and Living off Mum - a gruesome reality show featuring nauseating pampered kidults that kicked off on BBC Three last night.

Hopefully I'll come up with something more writing-related soon. We went to a preview of Desperate Romantics (plus Q&A) last week at the BFI, so I'll try to blog about that before it appears on BBC Two later in the week.

I'm also been commissioned for a preview of the The Bill in its new post-watershed format (starting Thursday), so I'll be watching those and writing about them tomorrow.

In addition, I'm planning to do something about some of the exciting theatre we've seen recently. We're off to see Tom Stoppard's acclaimed Arcadia tonight. Shamefully, I've never seen one of his plays before, so I'm looking forward to the cerebral challenge!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Torchwood, and after (Spoilers)

So, that was Torchwood: Children of Earth, then; for me, a big gamble that paid off. Despite John Barrowman's complaints that the five-part series felt like the show was being punished, I think that clearing the schedules for a single five-hour story was a real show of faith by the BBC and made it a real event.

And the fact that its audience held up so spectacularly over the week, winning its time slot throughout, suggests that it connected with a new mainstream audience that will hopefully make up for the fleeing 'ning-nongs' who feel betrayed by the people behind 'their' show.

Indeed, in one way, the big story about Children of Earth has been the fan reaction (although, as always, it's likely to be a handful of activists generating a disproportionate amount of the heat and noise).

James Moran, who co-wrote Day Three, makes himself publicly available through his funny and informative blog and Twitter feed. Or, at least, he did. After some of the crap that's been slung at him over the past week, he's decided to take a step backwards.

During my screenwriting MA, I wrote a lengthy essay on how fans reacted to Life on Mars and used it as the basis for their own creative and social endeavours. However, the vitiriolic accusations of contempt and betrayal levelled at Moran and his fellow writers reveal something else - an alarmingly possessive sense of ownership over the series.

In Russell T Davies's The Writer's Tale - an essential insight into the creative process - he bemoans the degree to which fans feel the show is 'theirs' and respond negatively to any developments that take it in a direction they don't like.

I remember Charlie Brooker talking about something similar on Screenwipe or Newswipe, when he looked at how quickly viewers complain when they see something they don't like on screen. He put it down to the prevalence of reality and talent shows, where you can vote someone off if you don't want to see them any more.

But drama works differently. When you sign up to follow a drama, you're putting yourself in the hands of the creative team. You're taking your place on the rollercoaster, and you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. As RTD points out, drama isn't a democracy.

Anyway, from a story point of view, I think the 456 provided a classic example of what Hitchcock termed the 'McGuffin' - a device that initially seems to be the focus of the plot, but which is simply a prop to get at the themes at the true heart of the story.

While the 456 ambassador might not have had classic behind-the-sofa credentials, the real horror of the show was provided by human nature - particularly the readiness of those in authority to undertake grotesque schemes and lie to the public to serve their own ends.

I felt it ran out of steam a little towards the end, and the climax and defeat of the 456 - even at a terrible cost - seemed a little too convenient. Still, it's shown that bold programming can take an audience with it, and the five-hour epic backed up what I thought after seeing the preview of Day One at the BFI: this was Torchwood done right.

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Street (Jimmy McGovern), BBC One

Jimmy McGovern’s The Street returns next week for its third series, after the first two walked away with the BAFTA and RTS awards for best drama, as well as a sackful of International Emmys. After seeing a preview of episode one, I think this run is going to get just as much acclaim.

The first episode stars Bob Hoskins as Paddy, a landlord who runs the down-at-heel Greyhound pub with his wife (Frances Barber). When he bars the son of local gangster Tom Miller (Liam Cunningham) for smoking in the toilets, he sets in motion a confrontation between the two men that neither can back down from.

After Miller says he'll batter Paddy if he doesn't serve his son the following day, the drama becomes reminiscent of High Noon, as the landlord desperately scours the community for support against the bad guy. However, the influence of the quietly menacing Miller – who sponsors the pub football team – runs deep.

As you'd expect, Hoskins is utterly compelling as a flawed family man and former alcoholic who realises that sticking to his principles may carry a terrible price. The tension becomes almost unbearable as the time runs down to their face-off - a classic example of using (literally, in this case) a 'ticking clock' to create tension in your story.

Another noteworthy point for screenwriters is that McGovern famously mentors new and emerging writers through The Street; only the first and last of the six eps are all his own work. So, it’s a great showcase for new talent (even if some of our admiration is tinged with a bit of professional jealousy).

The return of The Street isn’t getting the same fanfare that The Wire enjoyed, but based on the first episode, and with Anna Friel, Stephen Graham, Daniel Mays, Maxine Peake and Timothy Spall lined up to star in future eps, the series is likely to provide engrossing domestic-level drama that it’s impossible not to get drawn into.

BBC press pack: includes focus on McGovern’s role in the series
Interview with Jimmy McGovern in The Independent (2006)
Video: Jimmy McGovern and two S2 writers in conversation at BAFTA

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Getting back on the bike

Phew! I bet you were getting worried I was never going to blog again. Weren't you? Not even a little bit? Anyway, I hope that something like normal service will be resumed soon.

I haven't been blogging for a couple of weeks because we took on an onerous editing job which - combined with other freelance bookings - meant I had to cram in the hours and work seven days a week.

That also meant I couldn't do any writing for about three weeks - the longest gap that I can remember since we went to Oz and NZ in 2003. I knew it'd be irritating, but I had no idea just how frustrating and depressing it would feel. As I rumble into middle age, I'm becoming acutely aware of the value of time.

It didn't help that I also finally joined Twitter around this time (@TomeenMurphy). While it was great to hook up with other screenwriters, it seemed that every five minutes someone was heralding great progress with a project or hinting at a fantastic opportunity round the corner - all of which made me more even more acutely aware of how much momentum I was losing.

Anyway, over the weekend we took my improbably hip 78-year-old father-in-law to Bristol for the Banksy exhibition. On the train and while hanging around at the hotel, I managed to start work on outlining the second draft of our pilot episode for Care and Control, a drama series about social work that I've been co-writing.

It was such a relief; it felt like I'd suddenly opened the blinds and let the sunshine stream into a part of my brain that had been shuttered up and abandoned. Like I tweeted at the time, I felt like John Mills when he gets his long-awaited pint at the end of Ice Cold in Alex.

Anyway, the editing gig should be out of the way in the next few days, though I've got a few other shifts booked for this week and next. Hopefully I'll soon manage to get back into a routine - and when I go back to having the odd day off, I hope I can stick to the writing the way I did during my marathon editing stints.

Bring it on, the future starts here, etc!