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.