Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Nothing says ‘Happy New Year’ Quite Like a Dog in a Hat.

It’s suddenly occurred to me that there have been no ‘dogs in hats’ posts on this blog since April. And what better way to wish you a Happy New Year than with a photograph of a chihuahua in a Santa outfit (which isn’t technically a hat, but you get the idea).
Happy New Year!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas TV Lowlights

At the best of times, my television viewing is random – and Christmas is no exception. Even when broadcasters unleash their promotional battering rams of endless trailers, I just simply forget to watch (it’s the same when my wife wants me to tape her something – she often has to physically write the name of the programme on my hand in felt tip, and even then I usually forget, leading to many a recriminatory bloodbath). Spooks? Caught the first one, forgot about the other six. Wallander? Two out of three wasn’t bad, I thought (forgot about the last one). Doctor Who? Clean forgot. Wallace and Gromit? Nope, sorry. Britannia High? No comment (was I hallucinating when I saw the trailer?). Even with the crazy voodoo magic of SkyPlus with its series links, I forget to record stuff all the time.

All this means is that when I do sit down and watch something, I often end up watching stuff that I wouldn’t choose to watch in a million years as all the good stuff has just passed me by. So, here are a few examples of what I’ve ended up watching over Christmas:

Tom Chambers’s expression on Strictly Come Dancing: the definition of Christmas cheese (that said, I’ve seen bits of cheese that can act better than Tom Chambers).

Murder She Wrote – The Celtic Riddle: the very definition of random TV. Guaranteed, when you switch on the TV and you can’t find anything to watch an episode of Murder She Wrote will be on (either that or Diagnosis Murder, which seems to be some sort of job creation scheme for the Van Dyke family). There’s something strangely fascinating/watchable about Angela Lansbury, inasmuch as she doesn’t do subtle. It’s all mugging, pantomime moves and SUDDEN REALISATIONS. The added bonus with The Celtic Riddle is that it’s set in Ireland – which means a whole skip full of comedy Irish accents! Hooray! Nothing cheers me up more. However, when Lansbury (unintentionally) weighs in with the comedy accent, you know you’re in trouble. Time for the adverts:

That Tractor advert: every year at this time, about a thousand ‘part works’ are unleashed upon the unsuspecting British public who had no inkling that what they really need in their lives is a magazine about farming with a model tractor attached. I mean, the countryside is great, but it’s nothing that a bit of concrete and the odd NCP couldn’t sort out (what exactly are you supposed to do with two dozen miniature tractors? Open a miniature farm?).

Finding Neverland: am I the only person in Christendom who finds this film just downright disturbing? In the same way that animated squirrels freak me out, films about Victorian authors with peculiar notions about childhood tend to give me the screaming ab-dabs. That said, it does feature Johnny Depp doing another comedy accent (Scottish this time), so it’s not all bad.

And er, that’s it. Having to deal simultaneously with a crap memory and manically depressed relatives on Boxing Day (something to do with Indy 4, the poor saps) rather put paid to a lot of my viewing this year. However, one series I did manage to record was Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, which contains a clip featuring Andy Nyman talking about the Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson – along with The Great Rupert, this has to count as the most disturbing (and funniest) TV I’ve seen this year (watch in wonder as Albert Herrmann’s ear falls off and Mr Nyman’s near hysteria about halfway through).

(Sorry, I seem completely incapable of adding this clip, so watch it here - you won't be disappointed).

On reflection, I seem to have spent the whole of Christmas in a permanent state of freak out. To immediately remedy this, I’m off to watch Black Christmas, so pip pip.

Monday, 22 December 2008

The Great Rupert

And the prize for the least festive picture/post goes to... Chip! Yay me!

Signing off for Christmas now, but not before I share the most disturbing Christmas movie (or any movie, come to that) ever made. Presenting The Great Rupert, (or A Christmas Wish), starring the late Jimmy Durante. Most of the commentary on this film would have you believe that it’s perfect Christmas fodder, a modest, inoffensive little movie that the whole family can enjoy.

Except that... it isn’t.

The film begins with washed-up vaudeville performer Joe Mahoney playing the accordion and singing a song about "Rupert", while Rupert the squirrel (dressed in a plaid kilt) dances on a table.

There’s no doubt that the blend of stop frame animation and puppetry was innovative for its time (1950), but there’s something just downright strange about this opening sequence. It’s akin to something from a Jan Svankmajer animation, but presented within the innocuous context of a family movie. Not that it’s meant to be disturbing, mind you – which, in a strange way, makes it even more disturbing. I lasted all of five minutes before I had to turn it off. Brrr (then again, I find Bagpuss vaguely disturbing as well). Perhaps it’s the jerky stop frame animation that does it. Add a touch of taxidermy to the mix however, and The Great Rupert will give you nightmares for months.

I couldn’t find any clips of the opening sequence, but there are a few stills here.

More old bullshit after Christmas – until then, have a good one.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I Bin Bizzy

I’ve neglected the blog for nearly a week now, but I have some absolutely sparkling excuses:

* It’s Christmas – which means I have to do a lot of obligatory last minute shopping (have you any idea how difficult it is to buy a hat for a dog?), and then get bladdered at a variety of respectable locations. The best was a couple of years ago, when I got completely soused on free Champagne here (rumour has it that if the Champagne is good enough, you won’t get a hangover – a rumour that, I can report from extensive personal research, is a complete falsehood).

* Last night I found myself here. Why? Difficult to say really. As I tried to figure out exactly why I was surrounded by 3,000 hippies, Hawkwind came on. I was still none the wiser.

Here’s a picture of Huw Lloyd Langton, possibly the skinniest support act I’ve ever seen.

* Man flu, which as everyone knows, is probably the debilitating disease on the face of the planet.

* This.

* Trying to decide what to finish watching/reading first: the first season of Homicide, or the book Homicide by David Simon. That said, I have the first season of The Shield to watch, plus Dexter and the fourth season of The Wire. There’s just too much good stuff out there that needs to be watched right this very minute.

* Inbetween all this assorted nonsense, trying to find some time to rewrite my Red Planet misfire following some stellar script notes from Script Doc. The problem now is that – even after going down the route of writing a detailed step outline – two of my characters have now decided to sleep together, the bastards. How dashed inconsiderate of them.

What with shopping for dog hats, the odd bladdering, a bout of man flu and standing in huge rooms full of hippies, I’m all tuckered out. Time for another episode of The Shield.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

A Bit on the Slow Side

Contains spoilers for Survivors

I was going to wibble on about Survivors for a bit, but Rob Stickler has beaten me to it here (and in typically erudite fashion as well – I quote: “The apocalypse has been a slight inconvenience mainly manifesting in an inability to text.” Arf!).

Even so, there were a few things that bothered me, not least the issue of what appeared to be a weird structural decision on behalf of the programme makers. Survivors is of course a TV show, which means it should have different structural concerns than film. Arguably, TV should provide a broader canvas, which means that everything has more space to breathe, for characters to develop, for themes to expand; after all, a ninety minute opening episode is a lot of televisual space to fill up.

So, how did Survivors choose to do it?

Mostly by elongating twenty minutes worth of story into ninety minutes.

If Survivors was forced at gunpoint to shrink its six and half hour running time into a ninety page screenplay, then no doubt the first episode would be concluded well inside the twenty page mark. And if it was, would you have lost any significant scenes from the remaining seventy pages?

I don’t think you would.

It’s not that Survivors was particularly slow as such; it just took its own sweet time in getting to the point – probably a consequence of the realisation that there was ninety minutes to fill (I haven’t seen the original series, so I have no idea how the respective first episodes stack up against each other). A case in point was when Abby awoke after being in a coma to find her husband dead in the front room. If this scene had been designed for film and not TV, it probably wouldn’t have been longer than a page. Such as it was, we saw Abby do a huge variety of things before discovering her husband’s body, none of them particularly interesting or essential to the narrative. But then, don’t forget: there’s a lot of time to fill here. And if you’re not going to fill it up with honest to goodness story, you’ve got to fill it up somehow: watching characters eat, take showers and wander around deserted suburban streets is probably as good a waste of time as any.

The other strange phenomenon that came to mind watching Survivors was the fact that it’s essentially a re-make (yeah, OK, so the BBC describe it as a ‘re-imagining’, but that still makes it a re-make in my book). Add to this news that Day of the Triffids is to get a makeover next year, and you have to start to wonder what’s going on in TeeVee land at the moment (even Wallander was in effect a remake – BBC4 handily showed the original Swedish series for comparison the other night).

I’ve always (probably naively) assumed that the BBC doesn’t have to chase ratings in the same way that their commercial rivals do, which surely means the Beeb is able to indulge in a certain amount of risk taking. What you seem to have is the opposite: remakes aplenty (wasn’t there a rumour recently about a Reginald Perrin remake? Yikes!), Andrew Davies writing every costume drama in christendom and ‘single drama’ relegated to the seldom watched margins of BBC2. In comparison, ITV looks like a veritable hotbed of originality. And that’s a scary thought.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Wallander Again.

Contains spoilers for Wallander

Bearing in mind that at the moment I’m attempting to outline a 60 minute detective TV pilot (effectively an attempt to resuscitate my sadly flatlined Red Planet script), I tuned into Wallander on Sunday for some inspiration: how does our eponymous hero keep the narrative moving? Given that even most basic screenwriting ‘advice’ states that your protagonist should be above all else proactive, how does the genre address this when all your hero is doing is essentially reacting to events? Notebook in hand, I settled down on my chaise longue with my novelty pipe and deerstalker.

Wallander is an anomaly in detective fiction inasmuch as the protagonist doesn’t really do anything you could readily describe as Poirot-like 'pure' detection. He follows up leads, interviews witnesses, talks to people, tits about with his PC, mopes around his house, forgets to shave, and glares intently at the odd corpse or four. Even Wallander’s modus operandi consists of following a series of leads that tend to go nowhere. In fact, it was this bit of the narrative make-up that I was most interested in: if you’re heading down a potential dead end lead-wise, how do you make the protagonist do a swift 180 about face, i.e., how do you make him take control of proceedings, instead of being sidelined by a bunch of unreliable witnesses and his uneventful personal life?

Uh, you don’t. And I’m not entirely sure that you need to.

If you’re looking for a detective with a serious case of the smarts, Kurt Wallander is not your man. An internet date quizzes him on details of his current investigation, and he’s more than happy to tell her what he knows – which isn’t a lot, but still. Just to rub it in, the grand conclusion to Wallander’s case comes by way of a flash of intuitive realisation; nothing to do with any elegant piece of deduction or intelligence on Wallander’s behalf.

So, all in all, Wallander didn’t really give me what I was looking for. In fact, the detective work it features is probably a lot like real life detective work: dull, time consuming, occasionally random, plagued by elementary mistakes and IT disasters – which is of course the whole point. And with that in mind, Wallander was by far and away the best thing I’ve seen on TV for a while. I wasn’t massively enamoured with last week’s episode, but Sunday’s was a real improvement on a series that’s shaping up to being a right little cracker by doing everything you’d least expect.

And my script? Back to the drawing board with it. At the risk of upsetting Paul Abbot, perhaps I need a maverick cop after all.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Writersoom in Brighton

Thursday evening at the Sallis Benney theatre saw Paul Ashton from the BBC Writersroom essentially presenting all ten of these – Paul is a brilliantly engaging speaker, and the love for what he does was more than obvious to everyone present. Lots of frantic notes were scribbled, and someone in front of me even videoed the whole thing. There wasn’t a huge amount of time left at the end for an extensive Q&A, and part of this was taken up by two questions on copyright (sheesh!). Suffice to say, the BBC will assume all copyright in your work once your script has been sent into Writersroom.*

Afterwards I went here with the beautiful and talented Michelle Lipton, the insanely personable Sheiky, and the always entertaining Mister G, who regaled us with tales of writing for The Bill and getting a sitcom commission. Yowsa! At this point you may well ask what I’m doing hanging around with such talented people when all I have to offer is a Uwe Boll story. Well, ask away; I haven’t a clue either. All I know is that the likes of Ms Lipton cannot escape, as she now owes me cake. Quite a lot of it, in fact. So there.
* This is a lie, for which I apologise. I am a bad person.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Are There Any Cops Out There Who Aren't Mavericks?

Contains spoilers for Wallander.

Fifteen seconds to nine pm on Sunday and things are not shaping up well:

And now on BBC1, Kenneth Branagh brings a maverick detective to life...

I’m immediately reminded of a Guardian interview with Paul Abbot:

We make a police series, with a bit of a maverick copper as the lead. I say, 'Is he called Maverick?' They go, 'No, he's called John.' Why not call him Maverick and let's get it over and done with.’ I mean, you might as well. It's derelict, it's fucking derelict.

Four minutes in: what a fantastic opening. A disturbed teenage girl empties a can of petrol over her head and sets herself on fire whilst Kurt Wallander (our eponymous maverick detective) watches on, powerless to act. Like, wow. I’m hooked.

Eight minutes in: ah, it’s set in Sweden. Nice move, not going for Swedish chef accents all round. I like.

Thirty minutes in: why is it that pathologists always seem to arrive at the scene of crime well before any detectives? One explanation could be is that there’s absolutely no traffic in Sweden; lots of brand new Volvos, but no traffic to speak of.

Forty minutes in: ooh, look: it’s that kid from Skins, Nicholas what’s-his-face. I bet he did it. Guilty as sin. Case closed. Detective Chip: have the night off. You did good, son.

Seventy minutes in: if this was on ITV, we’d have an additional thirty seven bodies and another thirty minutes to look forward to. Thank the lord for small mercies.

Oh, all right then: I’ll stop being such a grouch and admit that I quite enjoyed Wallander. There’s no doubt that it looks absolutely gorgeous; the cinematography is lush, almost hyper-real, hallucinatory. There’s an overhead shot of a field of rape that looks simply stunning. Ken Branagh is fantastic, as is David Warner and Nicholas Hoult.

But try as I might, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it all before. What exactly is different about Wallander? Is it simply the fact that it’s set in Sweden (and is a partial remake of this)? I’m struggling to think of anything else that distinguishes it from the competition, unless you discount some pretty heavyweight acting performances. It’s not exactly cosy in a Midsomer Murders style, but neither is it The Wire. So, what is it exactly? Another show about a maverick cop? I think we’ve got enough of those already, thanks. Looks nice tho'.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Skins vs Old Gits

My nineteen year old nephew stayed at Chipster Towers over the weekend, and it was a whole lot of fun. Honestly – it was. Well, for some of us at least.

On Friday evening, he went out in Brighton with a couple of friends, the intention being that they were going to stay in a seafront hotel for the night (I don’t have the room here you see – the east wing is currently being remodelled). Problem was, it didn’t quite turn out like that. The friend my nephew was supposed to be meeting went AWOL when his mobile died – not that this put a dampener on anyone’s evening. My nephew ended up getting hammered and crashing on a friend’s sofa, getting to sleep at about 5.30am. The morning after, he got the lowdown from his friend (mobile now back up and running), who remembered nothing from about 6pm the previous evening; the one thing he did know is that he shared his hotel room with a work colleague (what kids these days don’t discuss via text isn’t really worth going into – suffice to say, UFP is a fine upstanding pillar of the blogging community and I know what delicate, sensitive souls you all are ;-)).

Why am I bothering to mention this? Well, my nephew’s life over the course of any given twenty four hour period reads like an entire series of Skins on fast forward (every time I see him, he’s got a new tattoo or a piercing: the latest looks a bit like this – ouch, and double ouch) – which brings me very neatly to the recent ‘debate’ on the Shooting People screenwriting bulletin where various old gits have been complaining about this opportunity.

The fact that the upper age limit for entry into this competition has been set at 23 has caused a right load of wailing and gnashing of teeth, with accusations of ‘ageism’ being gleefully bandied about. I’m not a subscriber to that whole ‘write what you know’ ethos, but in this case I think the producers of Skins have a point. Skins is a show that is aimed at the 16-25 demographic (plus a few dirty old men I suspect), so it’s no wonder that the producers want to enlist younger voices – you know, for ‘authenticity’ and what have you. I’m sure the majority of parents out there would be horrified if they knew what their teenage darlings got up to of a weekend, and it’s precisely this experience and mindset that the producers are seeking out. Nothing wrong with that in my book. There are enough old codgers out there in TV land, so what’s wrong with giving the kids a break every now and again? God knows they need it.

So: how about my Friday night? My nephew was having problems with a 2,500 word essay on Roland Barthes, so in a crazy fit of munificence, I said I’d help. Turns out it was easier to write the damn thing myself (Barthes is a whole load of fun, isn’t he? I got to the 2,000 word mark before I realised that I hadn't got a flippin' clue what I was on about).

Like I said, some of us had some fun, but it sure wasn’t this old codger.