Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Top Boy, Channel 4

My latest review on Orange. I worried I was being a bit hard on it, but after enjoying Hidden I was expecting much more from writer Ronan Bennett.

A lot of the drug-related stuff seemed a bit over-familiar and hackneyed, and it would have been interesting to see more of Ra'Nell having to take care of himself.

It's by no means a bad drama, but it could have been so much more.

Top Boy is a four-part drama being stripped across Channel 4 this week, billed as “an honest and gripping rendition of inner-city drug and gang culture”. However, despite coming from the hot pen of writer Ronan Bennett (Hidden), the opener was just another humdrum excursion into familiar territory.

At the heart of the drama is Dushane (Ashley Walters) – a “soldier” in a local drug network who's sick of bottom-feeding and fancies a shot at the big time. When top boss Bobby Raikes (Geoff Bell) gives him his opportunity, Dushane also has to deal with the unwelcome attentions of a rival gang, led by the violent Kemale (Tayo 'Scorcher' Jarrett).

Meanwhile, schoolboy Ra'Nell (Malcolm Kamuleke) is left to fend for himself when his mum Lisa (Sharon Duncan Brewster) goes into hospital with mental health problems, leaving him vulnerable to the temptation of working for Dushane. Elsewhere, Lisa's pregnant mate Heather (Kierston Wareing) is moving into the dope farming business.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Death in Paradise, BBC One (by Red Planet Prize finalist Robert Thorogood)

Here's an Orange review of last night's first ep of Death in Paradise on BBC One.

There's obviously been a lot of interest in this series from a screenwriting point of view, as it came about through its creator, Robert Thorogood, getting the opportunity to pitch the idea to Tony Jordan via the Red Planet Prize.

There's a short article by Robert here, as part of the press pack for the series.


About 15 minutes into tonight's first episode of Death in Paradise, my mind was already beginning to drift towards the kettle. As London copper DI Richard Poole (played by Ben Miller) reluctantly arrived at an idyllic Caribbean island to help investigate a murder, we were battered over the head with every cliché imaginable about uptight Brits and laid-back islanders. 

But then something quite remarkable happened. A contemporary TV detective actually started to do a bit of detective work! Poole looked for clues and made razor-sharp deductions, rather than crawling into a whisky bottle and sulking about his disintegrating marriage or that terrible thing that happened to his sister when they were kids.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Holy Flying Circus (Monty Python docudrama, BBC Four)

Monty Python's Life of Brian has become such a part of the furniture that the furore that surrounded its release back in 1979 seems incredible. Holy Flying Circus, BBC Four's “fantastical re-imagining” of the controversy, was an imaginative, energetic and highly entertaining trip back to those troubled times.

The film, written by Tony Roche (The Thick of It) and directed by Owen Harris (Misfits), admitted to the viewer at the start that “Most of what you are about to see never actually happened”, before launching into a witty mixture of drama, animation and characteristically surreal detours. 

Holy Flying Circus recreated the unpredictable feel of the Pythons' work perfectly, with the viewer never sure what exactly in what direction it was going to veer off on next.

The Comic Strip Presents: The Hunt for Tony Blair (Channel 4)

Just catching up with a couple of recent reviews for Orange.

It's a little-known fact that telly critics like to have tattoos to commemorate their favourite TV moments. And, as I sit here in the bath dictating these notes to Heinrich, my secretary, I can see '2 November 1982' scrolling down the inside of my thigh into the bubble bath.

Obviously, you don't need me to remind you that was the day Channel 4 launched and “alternative comedy” landed firmly in our laps, courtesy of the Comic Strip team and their cracking Enid Blyton spoof Five Go Mad in Dorset.

Now, 29 years later, at least some of the team have reunited for The Hunt for Tony Blair – “a special '50s-style fugitive film noir spoof” in which Tony Blair (Stephen Mangan) goes on the run to clear his name after being accused of murder.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Hidden, BBC One (Philip Glenister, Thekla Reuten)

Here's a review of last night's first part of Hidden what I wrote for Orange .

Watching it from a writing point of view, I really liked the way the flashbacks gradually rolled out to introduce bits of exposition that informed the present-day action. Very neatly done by writer Ronan Bennett.

From its opening montage of apparently unrelated scenes, it was obvious that Hidden – a four-part conspiracy thriller – was going to require a bit of attention. As it turned out, the opening episode struck a nice balance between intrigue and clarity, luring the viewer effectively into a shadowy world where very little might be what it seems. 

Hidden stars Philip 'Not Gene Hunt' Glenister as Harry Venn, a down-at-heel London solicitor. In true noir fashion, his world is turned upside down when a mysterious femme fatale – lawyer Gina Hawkes (Thekla Reuten) – turns up at his office and offers him a job.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Cinema Verite (Sky Atlantic): the birth of reality TV

Here's another quick review for Orange.

Way back in 1971, before "fascinating social experiments" like Big Brother were even a glint in a producer's eye, American film-maker Craig Gilbert put us on the road to TOWIE with An American Family – the fly-on-the-wall documentary that largely invented "reality TV". 

Cinema Verite, produced by HBO Films, dramatised the filming and aftermath of the series, starring James Gandolfini (Jim Royle on steroids) as Gilbert, and Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud, the heads of the wealthy Californian family that went under the microscope.

As the family struggled to get used to the constant surveillance, the caustic script by veteran screenwriter David Seltzer made it clear that the relationship between the philandering Bill and the flinty, abrasive Pat was already close to breaking point.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Fades (written by Jack Thorne), BBC Three

A bit late, but here's a review of BBC Three's new fantasy/horror series, The Fades, that I wrote a couple of days ago for Orange.

I didn't get chance to mention it in the review, but one brave choice that I really appreciated as a writer was having Paul wet his bed.

It was just a small character detail, but one that you'd never expect to see in a teen hero and something that highlights the compassion and insight that runs through Jack Thorne's writing.

Award-winning writer Jack Thorne might not be a household name, but having come up through Shameless, Skins, Cast Offs and This is England '86 in recent years, he's a man whose time has very much come. His new show, The Fades, is a fantasy horror series that proves you don't need a big glossy production to come up with some very effective chills.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Body Farm (BBC)

Here's a quick review of last night's The Body Farm I wrote for Orange.

Waking the Dead had enjoyed a pretty good innings when the BBC laid it to rest earlier this year. However, it didn't take long for Auntie to exhume its mouldering remains for this spin-off series. So, did it leave a good-looking corpse? 
The Body Farm sees Tara Fitzgerald reprise her role as forensic scientist Dr Eve Lockhart, who runs a remote research facility where she studies the way corpses decompose.

However, the real world came a-knocking again in the form of grisly copper DI Hale (Keith Allen), who'd made a gruesome and puzzling discovery in a tower block – something only the body farm's boffins could decipher.

Friday, 9 September 2011

My friend Janet

Last month my beautiful friend Janet Ellis died of cancer, aged 45.

She wasn't just my friend: she was also my sometime writing partner. She was a very experienced child-protection social worker, and she wanted to use her experiences as the basis for a drama series.

We talked about it extensively a few years ago, but then I got sidetracked by my MA. When I graduated in 2008 we got stuck into it properly, and eventually came up with the pilot for a series called Care and Control.

As a characteristically garrulous Yorkshire woman, Janet had a fantastic ear for language and dialogue and a keen observational eye; the raw material she came up with just sang off the page.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Field of Blood (BBC One)

Here's my Orange review of the first part of The Field of Blood, a very watchable thriller set around a Glasgow city paper newsroom in the early 1980s. It's written and directed by David Kane, based on a novel by Denise Mina.

I'm very surprised it didn't receive more promotion (having been broadcast in Scotland earlier in the year). It's definitely worth a look on iPlayer.

Set designers must make quite a few bob these days from recreating the murky world of the '70s and '80s – after Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Red Riding, we're now back to the smoky fug of an early '80s news room for The Field of Blood, a grim and gritty two-parter. 
Adapted from a novel by Glaswegian crime writer Denise Mina, it revolves around Paddy Meehan (Jayd Johnson), an ambitious (female) copy boy on one of the city's newspapers who aspires to becoming a fully fledged journalist.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Page Eight (David Hare), BBC Two

Here's a quick Orange review of tonight's upmarket spy drama Page Eight, written and directed by David Hare.

While Page Eight is a spy drama produced for the BBC, the similarities with Spooks end there. As you'd guess from a cast led by Bill Nighy and Michael Gambon, these spies, ahem, rock it old skool. However, after taking a while to warm up, David Hare's film eventually cranked up the tension in a satisfying way.

Nighy carried the piece as Johnny Worricker, a veteran MI5 officer who became drawn into a dangerous game when his boss and lifelong friend (Gambon) gave him a file revealing that the Government had been colluding secretly with the US to use intelligence gained via torture.

Meanwhile, Johnny's alluring neighbour Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz) started to butt her way into his life. With Nancy being the daughter of an Arab activist and angry over the covered-up killing of her brother by Israeli soldiers, we were invited to wonder if she had a hidden agenda.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Man Who Crossed Hitler (BBC Two)

Another quick review for Orange - The Man Who Crossed Hitler, last night's drama on BBC Two.

Last night's drama shone a little light on a remarkable but obscure moment in history. It depicted the occasion in 1931 when ambitious German lawyer Hans Litten called Adolf Hitler to the witness box in an attempt to scupper his rise to power.

However, that summary highlights the main problem with the film: we know, sadly, that Hitler wasn't ruined by his court appearance, so the biggest question in the drama was – for all Litten's moral courage – how glorious a failure his attempt was going to be.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

(Repost) Glorious 39/Q&A with Stephen Poliakoff

Sunday night was a goodie for films on BBC: as well as Mid-August Lunch and Fish Tank, we also had Stephen Poliakoff's Glorious 39 (which is still available on iPlayer until 10.59 on Sunday 21st)

When the film came out we saw it at the BFI, followed by a Q&A with the writer/director, so I thought it might be worth reposting that:

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.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Borgias (Sky 1)

A little after the event, here's a quick review of The Borgias I wrote for Orange.

Even with my limited grasp of Renaissance history, it seems obvious the dark doings of the notorious Borgia family should make good telly. Add to that the talents of writer/director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game), and we had to be on to a winner. Didn't we?

Well, for anyone expecting a glossy hurricane of sex and violence, the first episode of this nine-parter might have come as a bit of a shock. Instead of bloody excesses, we had the clandestine pigeon-based politicking required to make sure that family patriarch Rodrigo (Jeremy Irons) was elected as pope.

With a ponderous pace and distinct lack of humour, the opening hour definitely dragged until very close to the end, when Rodrigo’s son and lieutenant Cesare (Francois Arnaud) foiled an assassination attempt and hired the would-be murderer (the excellent Sean Harris) to work for the Borgias instead.

Monday, 15 August 2011

(Repost) 15 August 1968: The day I won the lottery

(I posted the original version of this last year, but given the date I think it seemed totally appropriate to post it again.)

The queen and I don't have much in common, but we do both celebrate two 'birthdays'. Forty-three years ago today, my mum and dad, John and Rita, collected three-month-old me from the Home for Catholic Friendless Children in Liverpool.

Obviously not everyone has had such a happy experience, but being adopted was a priceless gift to me. While a lot of parents seemed to treat their kids as an inconvenience, knowing how many hurdles my parents had to jump to get me made me realise just how wanted I was.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Salt of Life (Gianni Di Gregorio)

(Edit: We went to see The Salt of Life yesterday, at the very comfortable Picturehouse in Greenwich. It was as enjoyable as I'd hoped, with some beautiful subtle touches that reflect perfectly the male outlook on life.

The atmosphere of the film was very similar to Mid-August Lunch, and many of the same cast members shone again - especially the marvellous Valeria de Franciscis as his mother.

My only reservation would be that the ending wasn't totally satisfactory, although the little montage that ends the film, to Here Comes Your Man by (the) Pixies, was an absolute joy.

In addition, Mid-August Lunch was on BBC Four last night - so it'll be available on iPlayer until, hmm, let's think, 12:54am on Wednesday 24 August.)

A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to see Gianni Di Gregorio's lovely film Mid-August Lunch, which won the Satyajit Ray Award. I blogged about it here.

Anyway, it was a very nice surprise to get an email from the Barbican Cinema saying that his new film, The Salt of Life, will be on from the end of the week. Here's the blurb and a trailer:

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

BAFTA/BFI Screenwriters' Lecture Series (September)

NB. The site (http://tiny.cc/p23ov) says 'public tickets on sale soon', but by clicking through the booking link for Charlie Kaufman I was able to buy a couple.

Some of the world's finest screenwriters explore the art and craft of storytelling through their own words
"Without great scripts, films are nothing. born from a desire to celebrate the art of screenwriting and acknowledge its primacy in film, the inaugural 2010 Screenwriters' Lecture Series had a huge cultural impact. With the aim of making this the greatest celebration of screenwriting in the world, BAFTA and BFI are proud to announce an extraordinary line-up of speakers for our second year, featuring many of cinema's major screenwriting voices."
Jeremy Brock, Screenwriter and Founder of the Lecture Series
  • Tue 13 Sep, BAFTA: William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator)

  • Fri 16 Sep:, BAFTA: Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe)

  • Tue 20 Sep, BFI: John Logan (The Aviator, Any Given Sunday)

  • Mon 26 Sep, BFI: Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel)

  • Tue 27 Sep, BAFTA: Frank Cottrell Boyce (Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie, 24-Hour Party People)

  • Thu 29 Sep, BFI: Paul Laverty (numerous collaborations with Ken Loach)

  • Fri 30 Sep, BFI: Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine... etc)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Trollied (Sky 1): a sitcom with a bit of heart

Here's a quick review of tonight's Trollied I wrote for Orange.

As a grizzled veteran of the North-West value supermarket scene, part of me was looking forward to Trollied, Sky 1’s new sitcom. Meanwhile, another part was dreading it, fearing something like When the Whistle Blows, the awful comedy-within-a-comedy in Extras. So, how did it turn out?

I’m happy to say the opening double bill fared well, even if the comedy never reached a higher gear than “gentle” and a couple of gags got flogged to death.

With a quality ensemble cast, including Jane Horrocks (above) and Mark Addy (The Full Monty, Game of Thrones), it flitted at first from character to character a bit like a sketch show, before beginning to hint that there was a bit more going on beneath the surface.

The Fades, written by Jack Thorne: preview at BFI

Exciting! I just got an email from the BFI announcing a late addition to their September programme...

TV Preview: The Fades + Q&A

Mon 12 Sept 18:20 NFT3
From award winning writer Jack Thorne (This Is England '86, Skins, The Scouting Book For Boys, Cast Offs) comes The Fades.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Daniel Kitson: It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later (extra dates)

I've sung the praises of comedian/storyteller Daniel Kitson on here more than once, and the recently announced run of his latest show - It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later - at the Lyttleton Theatre (National Theatre, London) sold out sharpish.

However, he's announced a few more performances at the same venue in December:

Monday, 1 August 2011

Circalit writing competition (Deadline: 10 September)

This has been posted extensively elsewhere, but just in case anyone is using this blog as their sole source of screenwriting info...

Get your Short Film Script Produced by an Award Winning Director
Circalit Announces Free Short Film Competition 

Award winning London director, Gabriel Bisset-Smith, will produce the winning script of a new screenwriting competition at Circalit . Bisset-Smith is best known as a writer on Channel 4's ‘Skins’ and as the director/writer of the short film Thrush , which won the Tenderpixel Audience Award at Rushes Soho Shorts, the Vimeo Best Narrative Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Disposable Film Festival. The competition is free to enter, and Bisset-Smith will choose one script to turn into a film in the unique style of ‘Thrush’. The public can also read and vote for their favourite entries at www.circalit.com/projects/competitions/gabriel/toprated .

Bisset-Smith commented, " As a writer it's often incredibly difficult to get anyone to take your script seriously, so I'm glad I can offer this opportunity for a talented writer to take that leap from writing to production. The quality of scripts on Circalit is generally very high so I'm excited to read through the entries and I look forward to getting started on producing one."

The deadline for entries is 10th September 2011. Scripts should be no more than 5 pages in length. For more information please visit www.circalit.com/projects/competitions/gabriel/ .

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Martin Skidmore, RIP

Last night I heard the very sad news that Martin Skidmore had died from cancer at the age of 52. I never met or even communicated directly with Martin, but I've got a lot to thank him for. 

Among his many interests and areas of expertise, he used to edit a comics fanzine called FA (previously Fantasy Advertiser). 

I discovered FA in 1985, just as I was getting into comics. I'd picked up a few Marvel and DC titles from the paper stall at my local bus station, and when I got a Saturday job I eventually found my way to the Odyssey 7 comic shop in Manchester.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Torchwood: a bit of a rethink

When I reviewed the first episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day last week, I think I got a bit carried away out of sheer relief that it wasn't as bad as it could have been. 

I did have a few reservations that didn't find their way into my review, though.

For instance, while the action sequence on the beach was suitably spectacular, it didn't really belong: I was waiting for it to be over so we could get on with the story.

I also had my doubts that the fiercely protective Gwen would carry her baby through the middle of a firefight, no matter how 'cool' an image it created.

And I wasn't really paying a lot of attention whenever the American characters were on screen: those bits just seemed like generic filler and I was waiting to get back to the UK characters.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Apprentice final (BBC One): a quick review

Here's a quick review of last night's Apprentice final for Orange:

So there you have it. After 12 weeks, the railway stations of London no longer rumble with the fearsome hum of wheelie cases, and the Wobbly Bridge no longer reverberates with the echo of self-important stomping. And Lord Sugar has finally got himself a new business partner – Tom Pellereau, who proved once and for all that nice guys don't always finish last. 

Tonight's climactic episode finally saw the surviving candidates reveal their business plans – something that might have had Alex Britez Cabral (you remember – the Chuck-Bass-a-like "fired" in week two) crying into his scientifically proven method for turning water into non-polluting fuel (possibly).

The proposals (and candidates) were then verbally shredded in the traditionally agonising “interview” task. This year, along with old faves Margaret Mountford and Claude Littner, the candidates had to get to grips with magazine publisher Mike Soutar and a bod who was Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007 but still seems to leave the coat-hanger in his jacket and calls lifts “elevators”, despite coming from Burnley.

Friday, 15 July 2011

First Cuts: Double Lesson - 'It felt right, somehow'

Another day, another review for Orange...

Tucked away on Friday evenings, First Cuts is a nice little documentary strand that’s thrown up some very enjoyable films in the past. However, last night’s episode was an unusual and welcome addition – a fictional monologue delivered by Phil Davis, one of our favourite actors.

Double Lesson, written and directed by George Kay, told the story of David De Gale, an experienced teacher who lost it one day and physically attacked one of his pupils in the classroom.

Preparing for his trial, David described the combination of domestic and professional pressures that built up to his explosive attack. Struggling to cope with his wife’s impending mastectomy, the final straw came when a disruptive kid started to influence another, more promising pupil.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day - bigger and better?

Here's a quick review of tonight's Torchwood I wrote for Orange.

So, despite the boo-boys, nay-sayers and slightly rubbish aliens in boiler suits, Torchwood continues its march from digital obscurity on BBC Three to something approaching world domination. After hitting BBC One with the Children of Earth mini-series, it's now gone international for its fourth outing – Miracle Day.

The new 10-part series kicked off as people all over the world suddenly stopped dying. And while that's good news for some – like execution-dodging American child-murderer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) – it's bad news for the rest of us: within a few months, there'll be too many people for the planet to support.

Meanwhile, the word “Torchwood” suddenly appeared across the computer system of the CIA, sending a couple of curious agents on a trip that led to the Welsh front door of Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), the reappearance of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, above) and the kind of shiny action sequence we'd never have got back in the Hub.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

'The fascination of what's difficult...'

The Germans have a word for it: sitzpinkler.

It refers to a man who sits down to urinate, and it's meant as an insult.

But whoever coined it can't have had the pleasure of a loo-side library, which makes every trip to the bog an invitation to take off the weight for a few minutes and dive between the covers.

And it was on one of these visits a few days ago that I came across these lines from Yeats, which sum up perfectly what has become a difficult relationship between creative writing and me:

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead: There ain't half been some clever bastards

Even as I hurtle into middle age, there are still some sizable gaps in the brain loft where my cultural furniture should be.

For instance, I've never listened to a Bob Dylan album or read a Jane Austen novel – not even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

There's also a space in the corner where Tom Stoppard ought to be. Even though he's accepted as one of our greatest living playwrights, the only time I'd seen one of his plays prior to last night was the other year's production of Arcadia with Neil Pearson.

However, on that occasion I couldn’t even concentrate on the play because of having to squeeze into what must have been the West End's most agonisingly uncomfortable seats.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Stolen (BBC One): good cause, not-so-good drama

Here's another Orange review: 

The terrifying statistics about the level of child trafficking around the world that were displayed at the end of Stolen clearly show what an important subject last night's film tackled. However, as emotionally involving as it was, I'm not convinced the drama succeeded in its mission.

You can see the logic in casting a big name like Damian Lewis in there, to attract viewers and make the problem more accessible, but there's always going to be a level of glossy artificiality in the end product that puts a barrier between the viewer and the issue.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Sirens (C4): dead on arrival

While I'm at it, I suppose I should start putting up a few of my more relevant TV reviews for Orange, so here's Sirens from last week. 

After (relative) successes like Teachers and No Angels, Sirens is the latest Channel 4 comedy drama to point the spotlight on people with important jobs who may not always be as professional as we'd hope. However, this tale of cheeky paramedics was pretty much dead on arrival. 

Butley: a slightly uncomfortable evening

While my creative writing has been a bit thin on the ground in recent months (and that's another story), we have been doing a lot of cultural stuff of late, so I thought it was probably worth cranking up the blog again.

I've seen more West End plays than films in recent months, and the most recent was Butley by Simon Gray, at the Duchess Theatre.

As luck would have it, Butley is also - as far as I know - the only play to be dedicated to me (along with, admittedly, all the other staff and students, past, present and future, of the English department at the University of London's Queen Mary College).

Simon Gray had finished teaching at QMC a couple of years before I arrived there, but there was still a shudder of recognition in the setting of the play, about a mercurial but abrasive English lecturer with a gift for pushing people away as vigorously as he tries to keep them close.