Friday, 31 October 2008

Dead Good

Contains spoilers for Dead Set, Hammer House of Horror

Over the last ten days or so I’ve been catching up with various episodes from the Hammer House of Horror series currently airing over on ITV3 – and what a treat they are. The three I’ve caught so far – Charlie Boy, The Thirteenth Reunion and Silent Scream (see here for further details on the series) – have been grim, desolate fun (although they may look a little hokey by modern standards). However, the one thing that these three episodes have in common is that they are all unremittingly bleak, which is a quality I don’t think you see often enough in modern horror.

A little while back I read something (probably on a blog somewhere, I forget) that suggested that all narratives needed to possess a certain degree of hope to make them meaningful and worthwhile experiences, as if drama is some sort of route to 'self-improvement' – this is something that the Hammer House of Horror holds no truck with whatsoever. Each episode ends on a decidedly downbeat note, where hope is taken outside and given a good kicking on the basis that that is where true horror lies: to witness the protagonist of Charlie Boy die through no real fault of his own is both disturbing and unsettling, which is surely what any respectable horror narrative should be aiming for. The Hammer series does this with a frightening regularity, and mostly without any unnecessary gore (which usually isn’t scary in the slightest).

One of my favourite films is My Little Eye, which has an ending so bleak that it made me feel physically unwell – which I think is a good thing. Throw in Session 9 and Blair Witch, and you have a triumvirate of some of the bleakest, most morbid films ever made (is it simply a coincidence that all three films are all shot on video? Maybe there’s something about the everyday, ‘homemade’ nature of the medium that makes these films genuinely unsettling).

So with these films in mind, it gives me great pleasure to announce that bleak is back with a vengeance, in the shape of the Charlie Brooker penned Dead Set, showing on E4 at the moment (last episode tonight). The pilot episode was terrific: unnerving and, above all else, genuinely frightening (again, shot mostly on digital video by the look of things). Like the Hammer House of Horror, Dead Set’s milieu is contemporary Britain, a recognisable scenario to anyone who’s seen more than ten minutes of Big Brother. However, Dead Set doesn’t go out of its way to satirise reality TV – if you’re looking for satire, then no doubt you’ll find it, but there’s more to Dead Set than simply putting the boot into Big Brother and its ilk. Even before the zombies show up (sprinting this way and that in true 28 Days Later stylee), the studio setting is bleak enough: a kind of claustrophobic maze where stressed out producers bark orders at interns, who are only too happy to be involved in the subterranean hell of TV production.

Also, Brooker seems to have got the tone just right – in today’s Guardian, Anne Billson says this:

Because horror movies tend to approach their themes more obliquely than other genres, they often succeed in getting under our skin where more self-consciously "serious" mainstream treatments of contemporary issues fail to cause a dent. Horror films draw on metaphors that are not polished and hermetically sealed, but misshapen or amorphous, like the monsters themselves, which leaves all the more room for individuals to interpret them on a personal level.

Brooker understands this all too well, and that’s what makes Dead Set such powerful viewing. Its narrative doesn’t labour the point with regards to reality TV, but at its core there’s something dark, twisted and nihilistic: witness the treatment of Davina McCall. Rather sportingly, Davina gets bitten in the throat early on by a member of the undead, and spends the first two episodes banging her head unthinkingly on a door in an attempt to get at Patrick the producer. Of course there‘s a certain glee in doing this to a well known TV celebrity, but at the same time, Brooker uses Davina’s familiarity to paint something bleak and ultimately hopeless. Hope be damned - when TV is as good as this, who needs it?

Monday, 27 October 2008

Guilty Pleasures, Part 6 - 60 Minute Makeover

Terri Dwyer (the posh bird of Hollyoaks fame) presents a show on daytime TV entitled 60 Minute Makeover*, which does exactly what it says on the tin: a swarm of builders, painters, decorators, chippies and sparkies (and that bloke from Big Brother) descend upon a house deserving of a little interior design TV magic. The property on Thursday’s show looked like an MI5 safe house; by the time the team had finished, it looked like Joe 90’s crash pad, all dizzying optic wallpaper and retina scorching fluorescence.

Ordinarily, I try and avoid shows like this as they’re all essentially the same: moving wallpaper, I suppose you’d call it. However, what made Thursday’s edition so riveting was that the recipient of the makeover (Umar) had absolutely no idea who Terri Dwyer was or what the hell the show was all about. Terri and her enormous team greeted Umar with a huge banner that screamed ’60 Minute Makeover’ in foot high letters. As Terri gaily proclaimed what they’d all been doing with themselves for the past hour, Umar looked completely baffled: “It’s a programme, right?” he said, wondering who the hell all these people with the cheesy grins gathering round him were. Even when he was treated to a tour of his own made over house he looked as if he’d just stumbled out of a war zone.

Perhaps we are now getting to the point where there are simply too many celebrities. Half the point of a show such as 60MM (which sounds like a sequel to 8MM) is that there should be at least some flicker of recognition as the recipient realises they’ve been ‘had’: much hilarity and realisation ensues. In the good old days of Changing Rooms, this was a given. Nowadays, nobody has a clue who these presenters are.

However, watching good people like Umar struggle to figure out what the devil is going on and who the hell Terri Dwyer is is superb entertainment in my book; it’s similar to the feeling I get when I inadvertently catch CelebAir – I mean, Michelle Marsh? Dan O’Connor? Amy Lamé? Who are these people? Maybe I need to start watching more daytime TV to catch up.
*Note to self: for Christ’s sake, stop watching so much daytime TV.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Length

I’m not sure if I like Silent Witness or not. For the most part, it’s the older brother of Bonekickers, inasmuch as it spins stories out of a seemingly sedentary occupation. Pathology and archaeology both deal (mostly) with the dead, and there’s your challenge: how do you make a drama where your plot is partially driven by people who can’t answer back? Bonekickers continually wrestled with this question, and didn’t altogether do a massively convincing job (mostly because it seemed unsure as to what it wanted to be: teatime romp, or post-watershed ‘issue’ drama). Silent Witness is more assured, as it figured this question out a long time ago. Rather than simply popping up to proclaim foul play and chewing on the obligatory pathologist’s sandwich, Dr Leo Dalton’s team usually find themselves right in the centre of the action – mostly due to the addition of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense copper, DI McKenzie.

Next problem: you’ve got two hours of prime time TV to fill – does a story such as the recent Judgement penned by Christian Spurrier need two hours to tell its story?

I don’t think it does.

It’s been covered elsewhere of course, but Jane Tranter’s parting shot before heading off to LA (which can be found here) seems a hugely strange way in which to talk about the BBC’s ‘single’ drama output:

An audience doesn't think “great, a single drama's on tonight”.

(For an alternative view on this, see a David Hare rant here).

Rather than taking issue with the ‘fetishisation’ of the single drama, perhaps it might be opportune to talk about the fetishisation of the series itself – or, for the purposes of this post, the two-parter. Many ITV dramas (Midsomer Murders, A Touch of Frost) wind up their stories in a single evening – granted, it’s still two hours of prime time hitched to a drama ‘brand’, but at least you don’t have to give up two evenings to catch the whole damn thing. That said, perhaps it’s worth pondering why a drama such as Silent Witness is shown in two halves. News at Ten occupies an immoveable place in the BBC schedule, which means that everything else has to gravitate around it, and the many gruesome autopsy scenes means that Silent Witness is not exactly pre-watershed fare. Regardless of the fact that a lot of TV drama mentioned here doesn’t really justify a two hour running time, this must put programme makers in a bit of a quandary. Judgement certainly didn’t need two hours, but the schedule *sort of* demands that it does. What’s the alternative? An hour one night, followed by thirty minutes the next? That wouldn’t work. Two hours seems to be the default setting, so two hours is what you get, whether the drama deserves it or not.

The other problem is that drama is not immune from branding. Silent Witness is now in its twelfth season and has been on our screens since 1996; in ad-speak, it would be described as a ‘strong brand’, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s probably the ‘hook’ that gets people watching in the first place. As with any brand, there are a series of identifying details that should be immediately recognisable: with Silent Witness, this identifier is partially contained within the title itself. The problem is that drama series often seem hampered by their reliance on these ‘signifiers’ – it’s almost as if there’s a checklist of branded bits that have to be ticked off before recognition kicks in. With single dramas such as The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall (strangely enough, another two hour drama but one that fully justified its running time) this isn’t so much of a problem, and the drama seems stronger as a result. However, single dramas probably don’t achieve such a high ‘brand recognition’ as series do, which is a huge shame (but not exactly a problem that can’t be remedied, I think).

Perhaps Tranter’s comments come down to nothing more than the holy grail of viewing figures: David Hare’s My Zinc Bed picked up a derisory one million viewers (about 4.5% of the overall audience) when it was broadcast on BBC2 at the back end of August, despite having a cast that featured Jonathan Pryce, Uma Thurman and Paddy Considine – all this says to me is that if you don’t have an instantly recognisable drama ‘brand’, you have to rely upon starry name actors, a strategy that simply didn’t work with My Zinc Bed.

Is the solution more single drama? Probably not. Maybe it’s a question of giving writers greater freedoms in the stories they choose to tell without being constrained by ‘branding’ concerns (and also giving writers other than David Hare and Stephen Poliakoff a crack of the whip). However, given the woeful performance of My Zinc Bed, it looks as if the big drama brands are here to stay (that said, a new series of Spooks starts on Monday, which has at least been one series that the BBC seems to get consistently right).

Sunday, 19 October 2008

BBC Mess with Space/Time Continuum

Strictly Come Dancing is doing my head in, but probably not in a way you’d expect...

All filming is obviously done during the course of a single day, but in order to squeeze as much air time out of it as possible, the BBC spread the results of the filming across two evenings (the main ham twirling is done on a Saturday, then there’s the painfully prolonged results show on the Sunday). The only problem is that during Sunday's show, everyone pretends that they've re-convened and that it’s being filmed live (the only non-cunning difference between the Saturday and Sunday shows is that Tess Daly is wearing a different frock).

Now this is hardly a scandal along the lines of last year’s Blue Peter pussy outrage, but it has a peculiar effect inasmuch as it starts to make me doubt my own sanity. That, and the effect it must be having on the space/time continuum. I mean, there are people out there filming a show who are pretending that they’re doing it twenty four hours later than they really are (or maybe they aren’t, in which case I must be mental). Over on ITV, The X-Factor wraps everything up in a single evening, with the results show following hard on the heels on the live show (perhaps the BBC figured that their target audience would all be safely tucked up in bed with their cocoa by 10.35pm, and therefore too knackered to hang about to find out that Gary Rhodes is a borderline psychopath).

The upshot of this is that if the very fabric of the universe is ripped apart in the next couple of weeks, I’m going to blame Strictly Come Dancing (oh, and whilst we’re about it, I’ll blame The X-Factor as well – it gets blamed for everything else, so no-one will notice if we tack the end of the world onto the list as well ;-)).

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Codeword: Demented

Before I recount this story, let me just say that this sort of thing happens to me ALL THE TIME. I’m under no illusion that at the outset of any ‘writing career’, you’ve got to be pretty relentless when it comes to chasing down work, but the big difference with this one was how much it made me laugh (interspersed with a good degree of, ‘Oh, shit! Whatever next?’). I will try and be as discrete and polite as I possibly can be, so apologies in advance if you think I’m being coy – I just don’t want to upset anyone unnecessarily here, but perhaps it’s unavoidable at the end of the day - who knows?

Back in July this year, I responded to a highly unusual script call (through the Shooting People screenwriting bulletin, I think). Four times out of five I don’t even receive a reply, but on this occasion I did. The script I offered as a writing sample wasn’t exactly a 100% fit for the requirement, but it seemed unusual enough for the recipient (who we’ll call ‘Naomi’) to give it a whirl. And she liked it. It wasn’t quite what she had been tasked to find, but still – she stated she would be very happy to pass it on to some producers and directors ‘over here’.

I whizzed over another script and Naomi read that one as well. She liked it, and asked if I had optioned it to anyone? Uh, nope – not since I last checked anyway ;-)

In the meantime, I had a brainwave (a rare occurrence round these ‘ere parts) and plugged Naomi’s name into Turns out she’s an actress based in Los Angeles – a few minor credits, and then a role in this, directed by none than...

Uwe Boll.


It’s a living, as they say.

A couple of days later, Naomi e-mailed me to say she had passed one of my scripts onto the director Pitof. For the uninitiated, Pitof (or Jean-Christopher Comar to use his real name) was the visual effects designer for one of my favourite movies of all time, Delicatessen. He moved into directing with Vidocq in 2001 before re-locating to the States some time later where he directed...



All this really shows is that you have absolutely no control over who reads your scripts – and indeed, why would you want any at this stage? Once the things are out there, it’s all you can do to hope that they’re not being used to prop open fire exits or being used as murder weapons or something.

That said, I’m reminded of a great Adrian Reynolds post here – I’m obviously a long way off from writing treatments set in the world of cage fighting and starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, but a boy can dream, eh? ;-)

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Writersroom in Brighton

Many thanks to John Soanes for informing me about this – the last time I was in the Sallis Benney theatre, Steven Berkoff was getting all unnecessary about skinheads (which he used to do with frightening regularity). So, see you down the front for a spot of heckling (joke).

That said, these events usually attract the odd crackpot or two, so hopefully the entertainment value will be quite high!

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Return of the X-Files

For all you young whippersnappers out there who don’t remember The X-Files – fear not! JJ Abrams has re-made it for you in the shape of Fringe. He’s also stolen some of the sillier bits of Flatliners as well, but to be fair, there’s quite a lot to enjoy here – explosions! Joshua Jackson! Anna Torv in her underwear (black and functional, in case you were wondering)! A constant recurring sense of refrigerator logic!

However, do we really need a re-tooled X-Files?

The X-Files of course was phenomenally successful, running to over 200 episodes (something I can’t quite see Fringe doing) and still spawning the odd, uneven film (I Want To Believe). Fringe has a slightly different initial focus inasmuch as there’s a great deal of pseudo-scientific babble floating about the place, but essentially it possesses the same DNA as The X-Files, as both narratives share many of the same underlying building blocks.

Perhaps there’s some merit in re-tooling old(ish) TV shows for today’s audience, something that JJ Abrams seems to be doing more and more these days, what with Star Trek due for a 2009 overhaul (perhaps Lost is an exception. That said, check out Jeffrey Lieber’s – the co-creator of Lost – story here; it really is a fascinating read). And whilst we’re on the subject, how about Cloverfield? A real hoot, but essentially a remake of every Godzilla film you’ve ever seen.

In comparison, perhaps it’s more interesting to look at where X-Files writers such as Vince Gilligan have ended up. A couple of posts back I wittered on about Breaking Bad, written and directed by none other than Mr Gilligan himself – to say it’s the diametric opposite of The X-Files would be a drastic understatement. Fringe, therefore, can’t help having a little bit of a retro feel. Sure, it goes ‘Bang!’ quite a lot and it certainly holds your attention – however, its many plot holes are more reminiscent of cinematic narratives rather than a carefully crafted TV drama such as Breaking Bad.

Seems to me at the moment that all JJ needs to do to re-tool a much loved show and/or concept is to give it a great big ‘War on Terror’ spin – which is fine, until you come up against Star Trek. I have no idea what he’s going to do with it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to look and sound strangely familiar.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Sherlock ‘Chip’ Holmes to the Rescue

Over the last couple of weeks or so, there’s been an interesting mini-debate of sorts taking place via the Shooting People Screenwriting bulletin along the lines that exposure to film and TV images can have (supposedly) a corrupting influence.

Here’s Alan McKenna:

It seems exposure to violent images predisposes us to greater tolerance of violence. Not a lot of doubt I'm afraid.

And here’s Allen O’Leary:

I've come across some interesting research lately about TV watching and behaviour. Take a read of this (...)

Precis: If you haven't had the experience of a risky sexual behaviour and you watch programs that show that risky behaviour you are more likely do it later REGARDLESS of whether the consequences of the behaviour are shown to be bad in the program.

That's very interesting indeed and implies there is a critical failure in programs that supposedly model bad behaviour as an 'educational' device - they could back-fire horribly...

And here’s Elisabeth Pinto:

My conclusion... was it was nigh-on impossible to make an anti-war film even if the film explicitly set out to do so. Not for physiological reasons per se but because of the nature of film narrative (which may amount to the same thing). By giving a sense of control over events (A happens, followed by B, followed by C etc), it is only too easy to project yourself into the action in a positive way. Which you end up doing because film romanticises and mythologises everything. And we all know how human beings yearn for myths...

With all due respect to these good people, I’m convinced that they are all totally, utterly wrong. But instead of merely stating that they’re wrong and leaving it at that, armed with my Psychology A level, I’m going to dig about and unearth some evidence as to why. In the meantime, here’s I.C. Jarvie from his book Towards a Sociology of the Cinema:

While people believed (believe?) that film and television do influence their children, and that if the programming is bad, then their children will be, too. Studies such as those done by Himmelwit (TV and the Child, London, 1958) and Schramm (TV in the Lives of Our Children, Stanford, 1961) reveal that this is untrue. Film may influence us toward good or evil, but if it does, then the way we are is much more complicated than what it seems to be on the surface, and it could even possibly be counterintuitive.

Sunday, 5 October 2008


Contains Spoilers for Breaking Bad

Stevyn Colgan’s blog steered me in the direction of the first episode of Breaking Bad, a new US import currently showing on FX. And it’s utterly fab. But don’t take my word for it – the first episode is available as a free download on iTunes (what a relief that Apple didn’t carry through their threat to shut it down, eh? The greedy, bluffing tossers).

In the same post, Stevyn says this:

Yet again I find that I'm praising an American show when I want to be praising British shows.

Which is when it struck me: there has to be a reason as to why we don’t generally see drama of this quality in the UK, and I’m struggling to figure out why. Perhaps it might be worth looking at Breaking Bad’s narrative for some clues:

* The protagonist of Breaking Bad is Walter H White (an almost unrecognisable Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle), a fifty year old part time chemistry teacher with an unexpectedly pregnant wife and a teenage son with learning difficulties. Walter’s part time teaching job isn’t enough to keep the wolf from the door, so he also works part time in a car wash, where his extravagantly eyebrowed boss harasses him into working extra hours cleaning cars, which isn’t really Walter’s job.

* After collapsing at the car wash, Walter is informed by his doctor that he has inoperable lung cancer, a fact that he keeps from his wife and son.

* Through his brother-in-law (a dumb, bullet headed cop), Walter becomes intrigued by the money that is made by the town’s drug dealers. Accompanying his brother-in-law on a drugs bust, Walter spies one of his ex-students sprinting from the scene. He collars the kid later and effectively blackmails him into becoming his new partner.

By now, great big fluorescent alarm bells should be ringing. Right off the bat, the protagonist of Breaking Bad is fifty years of age. Fifty! Man, that’s old! Not exactly your key BBC3 demographic there. Is that a significant fact (as an aside, I sat down and watched the superb Dad’s Army last night and wondered if someone would have the nerve to pitch it today)?

If relative old age is a demographic turn off, consider what else could make Breaking Bad a UK commission disaster zone: learning difficulties! Lung cancer! Drugs! Guns! Taken as standalone issues, I’m sure we can all name at least a couple of UK dramas that have taken these subjects as their main dramatic focus, but maybe that’s the problem: perhaps we treat subjects such as old age, learning difficulties and cancer too much as issues that need to be discussed ad infinitum rather than simply as factors that help establish milieu and character. And Breaking Bad is all about character – is that the difference?

Breaking Bad doesn’t do anything tricksy – there’s no intrusive voiceover, no smart ass structure, and its exposition is handled beautifully. Its moral universe is grey at best, as Walter wants to use the gains from his drug dealing to provide a financial cushion for his family, which means that there’s no cosy, Inspector Gadget-like ‘message’ tacked on – with a story this strong, you don’t need it.

It’s not as if the UK doesn’t produce quality TV drama, but the balance has been skewed in recent years in favour of the US. And there’s got to be a reason for that – right?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Super Scary

This is scary (well, it isn’t, not technically speaking, but you get the idea) (I much prefer the way that Holy Moly reports the same story here).

Glad to see that what I talked about earlier in the year here is all coming true (or not, as the case may be).

Unfit For Print – the blog that’s bizarrely prescient. Whoooo... (cue The X-Files theme tune).

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

In The Crap

There’s an article here by Toby Young that essentially talks about this:

As a reviewer, I always accepted that film is a collaborative medium, but until I started spending time with film-makers I had no idea just how true that is. It is most obvious when it comes to the screenplay. It is fairly well known that the officially credited writers of a film are rarely, if ever, the only authors of the shooting script, but I was still shocked when a famous screenwriter confided he'd been Oscar-nominated for a film he hadn't written a single word of...

I now realise that describing someone as the "director" - or "screenwriter" or "producer" - is completely misleading, in that there are no clearly circumscribed areas of responsibility on a film set. Those official titles are, at best, starting points, guideposts that sometimes point you in the right direction, but equally often lead you astray.

Slogging my way through In The Cut, a single question became immediately apparent: if film truly is a collaborative process as Mister Young states in his article (and I’m not suggesting for a second that it isn’t), then how on earth does something like In The Cut limp its way onto celluloid? Didn’t anyone involved with the making of this film have the presence of mind to say, “Uh, Jane, sweetie – that film you’ve directed? It’s utter guff.” Perhaps everyone was intimidated by the Oscar that Ms Campion no doubt takes everywhere with her, but even so, that’s not really an excuse. If you believe Toby Young, then a film can be made or destroyed in the edit. With that in mind, just imagine the raw material that the editor Alexandre de Francheschi had to work with – it doesn’t really bear thinking about it.

Just what makes In The Cut so toe curlingly bad? Talking about film as a collaborative process is all very well, but if you’re going to start with a script that’s essentially rubbish, then no amount of blood, nudity, swearing and pretentiousness is going to help you. The protagonist Frannie is as drearily passive as a wet weekday morning, where the male characters veer between being either cardboard cut outs or gross stereotypes. Campion can sprinkle the finished product with as many moody atmospherics and pretentious asides as she likes, but she can’t disguise the clunky, paint-by-numbers plot that telegraphs its ending a good hour before it occurs. In other words, you can’t make a skyscraper out of housebricks – and the building that In The Cut most closely resembles is a brick outhouse.

Perhaps the fact that Meg Ryan takes her clothes off might divert attention from the mound of rubbishness clunking about on screen?

Er, nope.

As above, the one thing that constantly staggers me with films such as this is that it has taken a small army of professional, intelligent people with an Oscar winning director (supposedly) at the helm to get the thing made. So why is it so bad? There has to a reason: too many cooks? Or not enough? Maybe there weren’t enough suits involved (Toby Young’s criteria for getting a half decent film made)? Who knows? And more to the point, who cares? All I know is that some collaborations work and others don’t – and you can safely put In The Cut in the latter column.