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Monday, 28 December 2009

"Good Sentences, and Well Pronounced"

Someone once asked me how to go about achieving a writing style. Like the caterpillar challenged about its coordination in walking, I stumbled as soon as I started thinking about it.

I think the best answer I could offer was that you should try to state the obvious simply, and the style would take care of itself.

In a blog post titled Good Stuff, Lee Goldberg lifts a few sentences from Walter Kirn's novel Up in the Air (source for the current George Clooney movie) and expresses a fitting admiration for Kirn's handling of the words.

I genuinely believe that you can flip open a book and read any random sentence and it'll tell you whether time spent with the author will be wasted. It's not an absolute guarantee - I can think of many a literary novel where I've been seduced by style and let down by structure - but as a working principle, it serves me well.

Seen on Hollywood Boulevard

On the open street just along from the Egyptian Theater, this charming and child-friendly scene:

And when you look more closely:

Friday, 25 December 2009

A White Christmas

Only the second in my own memory; my first was, I think, in 1966, and I can fix the date because That Darn Cat was playing at the Princes Cinema in Monton and the snow-covered marquee features in the first roll of film I shot with my Christmas present, a Regula 35mm camera. I spotted a cat on the cinema's steps, and was inspired to my first attempt at visual irony.

(Gimme a break. I was twelve. One of our two art teachers at Eccles Grammar School had started a photography club that year, and showed he'd shown us how to develop and print our own negatives in the poky darkroom at the back of the freezing pottery workshop in the girls' playground. I think it was Mr Chapman, rather than Mr Connolly; teachers didn't have first names back in 1966.)

I believe it was '66 rather than '65, which is the official release year for the Disney movie, because back then it was usual for the UK to get sight of a new film as much as a year after the US. And the Princes was only a little local cinema, not one of the first-run houses. It was a classic 'Smallest Show on Earth' place, managed by a husband-and-wife team whose quiet dedication to their calling I'm only now able to appreciate. They ran a kids' Saturday matinee that was like a zoo during an earthquake. He wore a suit and dickie-bow and ran the front-of-house; she had one of those '60s piled-high hairdos and sold the tickets.

During the pop explosion of the early 60s the kids' matinee would feature a spot from a local band; I'd love to tell you that I witnessed the start of some big-name supergroup but the only one I remember clearly was Ken and the Combines. The Combines stumbled their way through a Ventures-style instrumental by way of a buildup, followed by the offstage announcement, "And now... the moment you've all been waiting for... It's Ken!" Ken ran out to embrace his moment of glory with such enthusiasm that he yanked the microphone lead out of his amp and appeared to mime silently throughout his number.

I reckon that the Princes (not 'The Princess', as many called it) was as important a part of my education as the Grammar school. I remember when Midnight Cowboy played there, going back every night for a week and dragging my parents along on the Friday.

It's gone, of course. There are houses there now. They did the same with the Grammar School, closing and demolishing it the year after I left. I hope that was a coincidence. Maybe they waited until I'd gone and then sowed the ground with salt.

According to the Met Office, it's not a real White Christmas unless the snow actually falls on the 25th. Snow lying from the previous day doesn't count.

But if I listened to the Met Office, I'd have no White Christmases at all.

(the picture is of the view from the end of my driveway)

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas 2009

We're all safely home - on a day of closed runways and widespread flight delays, our flights weren't held up at all... we stopped for a curry and a sleep in Ealing and then, on a day of countrywide blizzards and blocked roads, we sailed through West London and up the M6 like there were angels with yard brushes clearing the way. Even made it home in time to pick up the dog and get the black Christmas tree down from the loft.

The hardest part was getting four people plus suitcases into a Yaris, in the dark, with hail, while ankle-deep in parking lot slush. All it needed was red noses and a honky horn and for the doors to fly off whenever we stopped.

Finally made it to Paradise Cove last week, the Malibu location of Jim Rockford's caravan. It was pissing with rain, but I stood there! And we had lunch with Crusoe's Jeff and Lisa Hayes, in the beach restaurant between that spot and the pier. The next week, the weather reverted to California-normal and we had Disney days in the sun and 79 degrees on Santa Monica pier.

Back in the New Year. All my stuff's there.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Happy Holidays

Most years I've just about managed to get all my Christmas cards out by now, but this isn't most years.

Instead of my usual last-minute scramble I'm facing a scramble of another kind - my ticket home is for a British Airways flight, and right now I can't say whether I'll be spending Christmas in my own house, in the air, in an airport lounge, or stranded while awaiting some nonexistent connection in Nome, Alaska.

Where at least I suppose a white Christmas can be more or less guaranteed.

My artist friend Dave Windett is way more organised than I am, so instead of sending out cards this year, I've asked his permission to share this one with you.

Ain't it cute? You can see more of Dave's work at Davewindett.com.

(Btw, when my family flew out to LA with Virgin Atlantic a couple of weeks ago, Eleventh Hour was again part of the in-flight entertainment. Go, Virgin!)

Friday, 4 December 2009

All Change

Fun and games here. I've seen the director's cut of my new episode and feel good reason to be happy. Danny Cannon stopped by the office this morning to say nice things about it. It's set to air in January; last I heard was the 12th, but that can change.

It's been part of my arrangement that along the way I'd generate new ideas and pitch them to JBTV under a development deal that pre-dates my involvement with The Forgotten.

Well, two weeks ago, one of my balls landed in the bucket, so to speak. As of Monday I switch from working on the show to full-time pilot development. It's good timing; The Forgotten has hit its stride and has some good material lined up to take it to the end of the season.

No, I don't want to say anything about the new show. Not here, not now. But I do want to say to Mark and my co-workers that the last six months have been a blast.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Potshots Always Find You

In the current issue of Ansible, David Langford notes:

The Times Literary Supplement review of Dinah Birch's new edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature mutters that 'There is palpable overcompensation for the previous neglect of science fiction.' Though Neil Gaiman's short entry is admired, there is sniffiness about the inclusion of 'Stephen Gallagher, author of two series of Doctor Who in the 1980s'; praise for Greg Bear's Blood Music 'feels incongruously partisan.' But overall it's a positive review. (TLS, 28 October)

Even the Bolton Chronicle stopped calling me 'The Man Who Killed K9' more than twenty years ago.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Robert Holdstock

I just learned that Robert - Rob - Holdstock, a good man and a superior author, has died in intensive care after being laid low by an E Coli infection. He was 61.

I first corresponded with Rob when he and Chris Morgan were co-editing Focus, a magazine on writing for writers and would-be writers, for the BSFA. We met at the next Eastercon, I believe it was. Strongly-built and bearded, back then he seemed indestructible. Despite health issues in recent years, he remained a presence who could light up any company by being a part of it. I remember him telling that one of his reasons for giving up zoology for writing was that he hadn't anticipated having to deal with the animal suffering that was involved in the science.

His novel Mythago Wood made huge and lasting impression on me. A beautiful and sure-footed conflation of English myth and grounded wonder.

Despite this world-class talent, he was without artistic airs and graces; he saw himself as a working pro. But he was the kind of working pro we should all aspire to be; ready to share, ready to teach, and incapable of giving less than his best. When he conceived and sold the Night Hunter series, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Robert Faulcon, what could have been a piece of hasty expoitation turned out to be a textured, gripping six-book cycle of genuine emotional power.

I'd heard that he was ill last week; I hadn't imagined that he wouldn't pull through. I know well enough what can happen. It's just a prospect that you don't want to entertain.

Read Mythago Wood. Please. It's brilliant. You won't be sorry.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Questions from Planet Hood

It was quiet on the lot yesterday. Apart from the crews on the stages, most people seemed to have left early to travel for Thanksgiving. I went for a wander and found my way onto the giant set for Miami Trauma, Jeffrey Lieber's show for Bruckheimer which is now shooting. I don't think I'm giving any secrets away if I say that it's pretty spectacular, and resembles a space station in a big-budget science fiction movie.

My medical thriller episode for The Forgotten had completed its filming over on Stage 6 the day before. It'll move into post-production next week and I'm really happy with the way it's been turning out. Director Guy Ferland nailed and enhanced every scene; now I know why Medea turned out as it did. This episode is a nice blend of creator Mark Friedman's vision for the series and the things I'm best at. And as we move toward production on the show's 'back five' they've been letting us be more adventurous, more character-driven, funnier when we need to be.

As with my earlier episode, many of the crew from just about every department had previously worked on Eleventh Hour. Over the days of shooting I got into numerous conversations about the series, with everyone expressing dismay at its cancellation. Many made the point that shows with lower numbers are being hailed as this season's successes.

When we wrapped and all shook hands after the final shot of the day - the 'Martini' - I told DP David Stockton that I looked forward to working with him again. His parting response was, "On Eleventh Hour, the Movie!"

Which brings me to the Resurrection Campaign, a fan-driven movement which instantly grew out of the Renewal Campaign on the day the cancellation was announced. While I'm entirely sympathetic to what these guys are doing, they're completely independent of me. They're working to their own honest agenda, not some devious one of mine.

When I heard that there was a feeling of disappointment at the lack of response to their approaches, I contacted one of their number, Kellie, and said that if she wanted to collate some questions from the participants in the Planet Hood forums I'd do my best to answer them here.

What are your thoughts on our continuing this campaign...is there hope?

I'd rule nothing out. I thought the British show was dead in the water until I got an email that said, 'Congratulations on the American sale'. But at this stage we'd be talking about a rebirth rather than a renewal. Normally I'd be a pragmatist and think, okay, that was good while it lasted, dust yourself off and move on. But what keeps me attached to it, even while I'm working on The Forgotten and developing other shows, is that the appetite for the material is proven but nothing else is filling its niche. It's an action show with hard science. The science may be dramatized - its processes shortened, its effects exaggerated - but the audience can sense that those processes are grounded in a reality. You didn't get that from The X Files, you don't get that from Fringe. They go the fantasy route. Which is entirely valid, but those are different worlds.

What are you and the producers willing/able to do to help bring the show back? Are Bruckheimer and Warner Bros interested in trying again with another network?

For my part, I could be up and running overnight. Cyrus and Ethan have moved on to other things but for the past six months I've effectively been in training for the gig. As far as Bruckheimer TV and Warner Bros are concerned, I'm on great terms with everyone there but they play their cards close to their chests. I'm not aware that reviving Eleventh Hour is high on anyone's agenda right now. Not because they don't believe in the show, but because all their energies are deployed elsewhere. A cancelled show doesn't normally stay in the portfolio until something unexpectedly puts it there.

What more can we do as fans to help bring the show back?

Stay visible. I can't say that any specific thing that you're doing will lead to success, but the fact that you're doing it proves there's a continuing audience for the show.

Have you had any contact with any of the actors about the possibility of the show's return?

Rufus and Marley had already moved on when I got out here. But that's a conversation we'd start when there was a real possibility of making it happen, and it would take place in the context of their other prospects and commitments. Most things are negotiable.

Have you had any feedback/interest from any of the networks we have contacted?

Not personally, no.

Did CBS ever give you a reason for canceling the series?

My understanding is that they believed they had a strong development slate for the next fall season, and also that they could profit more from shows that their studio division, rather than Warner Bros, owned, even if those shows drew smaller audiences. Which explains why they picked up Medium. I know that Nina Tassler was a strong supporter of Eleventh Hour, and for that I thank her. But there was another CBS executive who let slip a few injudicious remarks when talking to a class of film students, which appeared later in one student's blog; we knew then that there was a faction within CBS that was less receptive to arguments for the show's renewal.

Did Warner Bros ever give a reason for their choice to release the DVD as manufacture-on-demand and in the US only?

I've tried to find out. All I know is that if it wasn't for the personal interest of Danny Cannon and the good graces of Peter Roth, there wouldn't have been a DVD release at all. Which to me seems mad. I can walk into any video store in LA and buy the British version. You can't tell me there's less of a market for a Bruckheimer show.

What made the show so expensive... and will this affect someone picking it up?

Sets, locations, dressing, and crew moves. Most shows have a 'precinct' - a series of regular locations where a significant proportion of each week's story can take place. It's already built and dressed, and in some cases is pre-lit. By always setting a certain number of pages in your precinct sets, you can get a lot of your material shot efficiently and at basic cost. Hood and Rachel were always on the road, and a big part of the appeal of their stories was that they'd show up in a new place every week. In production terms, every story was like a pilot.

Some shows reduce their costs by leaving LA, taking advantage of tax breaks in other states and using local labour. Leverage, which I love, shoots in Portland. Battlestar Galactica shot in Vancouver. Mental shot in Bogota (to unhappy effect, I'm told) while in The Starter Wife Australia's Gold Coast doubled as Miami. But...

But a top LA crew is a phenomenal thing to watch in action, and Eleventh Hour's production team were integral to its success.

I go back to what I said at the beginning. Rebirth rather than renewal. I need to gain more ground here, and somewhere along the line I'd need to meet someone who's interested in working with me, who has the power to greenlight shows, and who feels the spark when I pitch the idea of reuniting Rufus and Marley for a feature-length special or miniseries. I'd need to get the production company and the studio onside, since they own the property, but two things would work in my favour; a killer story, and a noisy fanbase. I can't now see a network picking it up, and I'm not even sure that network TV is the best place for Eleventh Hour stories - anything with any edge to it makes the networks very nervous. I can imagine doing the special as a piece of 'event' TV for one of the more quality-minded cable channels, where the prospect of snagging even a fraction of the show's 12m network viewers could have an appeal. We'd have to make it to a budget. But if the special proved enough of a draw, there would be an argument to go on and make episodes.

Thre's a saying in Hollywood, that I picked up from Lynda Obst's book Hello, He Lied - ride the horse in the direction it's going. I can't force it to happen, but I can stay prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that may come up while I pursue those things I can make happen.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Kong at Christie's

The 22-inch metal armature from one of the animation figures created for the original 1933 King Kong has been sold at auction for £120,000.

Because of the perishable nature of the materials used in their construction, little usually survives of stop-motion models once a few years have passed. As with the rest of us, only the skeleton stays around for any significant length of time. Anyone who visited London's much-missed, world-class Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank will recall the figure of Mighty Joe Young, decaying in his wooden box like a mediaeval Memento Mori carving, held in place by a fragile strip of cotton.

The armature in the Christie's sale came from a slightly larger model, created for the sequence in which Kong is seen in a long shot, ascending the outside of the Empire State Building. So, not one of the 'hero' Kongs, good for closeups and for expressing character... but still an authentic Kong.

(There were at least two 'hero' Kongs, of slightly different appearance - the model featured in the Skull Island sequences had a longer face and is now owned by collector Bob Burns, who also owns Forbidden Planet's Robbie the Robot. Peter Jackson had his animators study this armature when preparing for his King Kong remake, and it was the basis of the limited edition replica sold by Sideshow Collectibles a few years ago. The model used in the Manhattan sequences had a perceptibly rounder head, and is believed to have been broken up and lost)

If you click here, you can read the Christie's brochure for the sale... turn the pages, zoom, rotate the picture... and save yourself 120,000 quid.

And clicking here will take you to an earlier Kong post of mine, from where you can navigate onward to a lovingly-compiled site about the movie and its cultural legacy... or you can just click here and go straight to the page about the surviving armatures.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Callan on DVD

In the UK there's a boxed set that calls itself season one but is actually season three. Who on earth thought that was a good idea?

In the US there's 'set one' and now 'set two' while from Australia 'season four' includes two episode commentaries from Woodward.

Last night I hopped all over the web trying to work out what I already had and what would merely be duplicated by which other release.

In the end my brain imploded and I went to bed.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

On the Set

It's always pleasant to work on a set where visits by family members are welcomed. It makes for a nice atmosphere. On Friday, the father of our cameraman Eric Roizman came in to watch some filming and meet his son's co-workers. I got to lend him my chair in the video village.

If you're wondering why that's a big deal, you can click here.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Edward Woodward

I just heard on the news that actor Edward Woodward has died at the age of 79. This is a post that I wrote in September 2008.

I came across my old autograph album when I was straightening the study a couple of weeks ago. Back when I was a child I used to study the end credits of my favourite shows and write to the stars at the addresses of the TV studios.

It's not a huge collection. Getting autographs was a very hit and miss affair in those days. Now it’s an entire industry with a lot of fakery involved. But back then you sent your letter and then maybe you’d hear back six months later or maybe you wouldn’t.

My first was Roger Moore, a lovely colour postcard with a genuine signature. It’s got the spit smear where I tested it because I couldn’t quite believe it was real.

Others followed. Flicking through the album now, it's like a mosaic of my dream life at the time. Richard Bradford, Patrick Troughton, Marshall Thompson, Steve Forrest, Lawrence Payne and Roger Foss from Sexton Blake. Christopher Lee. A lovely picture and a typed postcard from Peter Cushing, and a super 8 x 10 and a personal letter from Callan star Edward Woodward.

Callan was possibly the finest popular TV drama of its era, and one of the least well-remembered because it was made on tape, not film. What survives of the show is really just archive material, below what's generally considered to be commercial quality. I know there was a movie, but that isn't the same. Callan nailed the intimacy of the TV medium.

Years later a friend of mine was producing a film in which Woodward was appearing, and I asked if he would do me a favour and pass along a signed copy of Down River with a little note, along the lines of “you won’t remember this, but years ago...” And I think I even included a photocopy of his original letter to me.

My basic message was, “You showed me how a public figure ought to behave, and I’ve tried to follow your example” And I signed the book “To Edward Woodward, still my hero”.

Got another note back from him, saying how delighted he was.

And, you know? I was eleven years old all over again.

Titans Will Clash

Have you seen the new trailer for the remake of Clash of the Titans?

"Titans Will Clash!" I'm cool with it, because I thought Clash was a way less than perfect movie and was far from Uncle Ray's best work... that crappy mechanical owl that has to have been inserted by the studio as a poor man's R2D2, that thick-legged Pegasus, Harry Hamlin giving a performance so stiff that it makes Talos look like Jim Carrey...

Maybe I'd think better of the movie if it didn't stand so much in the shadow of Jason and the Argonauts. I have a personal memory of it; well, a tangential personal memory. It was 1980 and I wasn't yet making enough money out of Me Art to live on, so Yvonne, my then-agent, had landed me the job of novelising a David Essex bike racing movie called Silver Dream Racer. The movie was shooting at Pinewood Studios and I was invited down to visit the set and to meet with whichever executive had been assigned to supervise the writing of the tie-in.

All I really remember of the meeting was being told in no uncertain terms that my expansions and additions to the basic storyline were less than welcome, and all that was required of me was the script in prose form and nothing else. Which wasn't true of the tie-ins I'd enjoyed, and still seems like a pretty joyless approach to the form.

But Yvonne and I got lunch in the Pinewood commissary. Over at the next table was Burt Reynolds, in England to shoot Rough Cut for director Don Siegel. He was lunching with a tall grey-haired man with an eyepatch whom I guessed, on no evidence other than the eyepatch, to be Andre de Toth. Over on another table, both in white bathrobes, sat Judi Bowker and Neil McCarthy, Clash of the Titans' Andromeda and Calibos (Calibos was McCarthy in closeup, and stop-motion in the long shots).

I said it was a connection. I didn't say it was a particularly impressive one.

The Silver Dream Racer novelisation went out under the pseudonym of John Lydecker. I'd lifted the name from one of my own early radio plays, An Alternative to Suicide, for which I'd lifted it from Howard and Theodore Lydecker, the effects technicians who'd made Captain Marvel fly.

That mechanical owl in Clash was called Bubo, if I remember correctly. And if I also remember my Camus correctly, that's also the French word for a plague abcess.

Please, God, just tell me he's not in the remake.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Best Clearance Note Ever

From the memo detailing the legal clearances on names, brand names and any other identifiable object involved in my current script:

Friday, 6 November 2009

Scripts Online

Over at his Complications Ensue blog, Alex Epstein provides a handy link to a site called Pilot School where downloadable scripts for a host of pilot shows can be found.

I don't know where they're sourced from, but they include one of my drafts for the British pilot of Eleventh Hour along with Mick Davis's take on the same story for the US.

I've been told that the script for the feature-length Crusoe series opener is somewhere out there as well, but I've never seen it. If you should fall across it anytime, let me know.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Richard Williams

You could do worse than hop over to Blowing my Thought Wad for this piece inspired by a recent Foyles event featuring 'veteran animator', Canadian-born Richard Williams. Williams is an animator of eclectic achievements, the most well-known of which I imagine to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

I suppose Williams is to drawn animation what Ray Harryhausen is to stop-motion - the practitioner that all others in the field look up to and learn from.

It's a fascinating post, and includes a video clip in which Williams breaks down the interacting elements that underlie the motion of a walking horse. Experience the sheer pleasure of having someone with a clear insight lead you to an understanding of something you didn't know (which used to be a major component of all TV in the UK, I'm reminded with a jolt).

When I first went to London in the mid-70s, looking to break into the biz and filling the long hours by walking the streets and seeing the sights, one of the first places I sought out was Richard Williams' HQ in the corner of Soho Square. All I did was stand outside and look at the brass plate and feel a connection.

I didn't quite realise it then, but I think I was responding to what I knew of Williams' professional attitude. He was about the work, the work, the work. Understanding it, knowing how things fit together, mastering it without shortcuts or compromise. I've heard it best expressed in Trevor Griffiths' brilliant play, Comedians.

I can only paraphrase the line. Veteran comedian Eddie Waters tells his night-school class of aspiring performers that there's nothing wrong with wanting to be rich and famous, but you have to want to be good first. Because you can never get to be good after.

Star Wars

Star Wars? I was right there at the beginning, I tell you.

Well, when I say the beginning, I mean I got into the press show. In Manchester. All right, so it was hardly the creative coalface, but looking back on it I can feel that I was a witness to something. I saw the moment when we moved from a world with no Star Wars in it to one where it would forever be a part of the fabric.

Many at that showing were genuinely astonished at what unreeled before them. They just weren't prepared for it. Until Star Wars came along, to be an sf fan was to have lowish expectations from the cinema. You learned to be very, very happy over not very much.

If I didn't quite share the astonishment, that was for one simple reason. Back then I subscribed to American Cinematographer, and the issue dated July 1977 had carried a Star Wars cover and no less than four behind-the-scenes articles including one by effects supervisor John Dykstra, detailing the various ways in which the visuals were achieved. There was no skipping over the hard bits, no simplification for public understanding. This was a magazine for fellow-pros who didn't need to be talked down to, and hangers-on like me who didn't want to be.

American Cinematographer
was to be my guidebook through the boom in science fiction cinema over the next few years. Its editor was Herb A Lightman, a former cameraman who loved nothing better than to get out of the office and take himself down to a movie set where he could talk shop with old colleagues and maybe end up operating camera number fifteen on some massive, unrepeatable stunts-and-effects sequence. Lightman's almost childlike enthusiasm for the business of making movies, allied with the magazine's technical remit, resulted in some of the best insider coverage of screen science fiction around.

Over the next half-decade or so, that same coverage gave me advance warning of a whole series of ground-breaking sf movies that would all owe their greenlighting to a "Star Wars effect". Not that Star Wars changed the audience. The audience was always there, its appetites unrecognised, uncared-for, not believed in – those around-the-block lines didn't gather by mass hypnosis. Rather, it forced a change in the industry's attitude to science fiction. Fox executives famously slept through the preview screening and would later scramble to retrieve and shred copies of their market research, out of sheer embarrassment. The success of the film was one massive head slap which made them start taking the idea of big-budget sf very seriously indeed.

To me the most memorable films of that period were the ones that owed their commercial viability to the Star Wars effect, but not their inspiration. Alien. Close Encounters. Superman. Blade Runner. As each one came along, its groundbreaking techniques flagged and enthused over by Lightman and his team, it really felt as if the future was opening up and that the possibilities of screen sf were going to be endless.

So what happened? Did that prove to be the case? I'd have to say no. Back then I thought of it as a tidal wave, carrying us forward. But now I think of it more as an earthquake, shaking things up where they stood and leaving us with a different landscape. I look at screen sf now and what I mostly see is new variations on (almost) thirty-year-old templates – which themselves were revisions of much earlier, lower-rent models.

It's hard to find a civilian space crew that doesn't owe something to the bickering bluecollar bunch from Alien, or a scary extraterrestrial that doesn't owe something to that same movie's indestructible phallus-headed cockroach. If it's a non-scary extraterrestrial… well, even ET was pretty much a calving from the Close Encounters iceberg. While we're at it, knock off that movie's feelgood ending and give Roy Neary a badge and Clarice Starling for a sidekick, and you've got The X Files.

Has there been an Earth's-future dystopia since that hasn't made us think of Blade Runner? I look at Spiderman or Iron Man now and I see the same basic approach that made Superman work. It was that film's screenplay that cracked the problem of the comicbook movie with the realisation that the key to believable superdeeds lies in the way you handle the hero's private life. The humour, the form, the tone, the exact placing of the line between fantasy and reality… it's all there in the template.

It was a fertile period, and Star Wars allowed it to happen. It was a great time to be a fan. The downside is that if you felt the first impact of something like Alien, it's hard to get too excited when a Pitch Black comes along. And in a way, we've taken some backward steps; my heart sinks at the prospect of committing two hours of my life to a movie in which I just know that the last act is going to consist almost entirely of two CGI characters slugging it out in a CGI world.

When the Art of Star Wars exhibition was running at London's Barbican centre, I took myself along. Nearly all of the props and sketches were from the later films but I might as well have been back in 1978. The only difference being that while I still find Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back watchable, Return of the Jedi seems to have set the tone for the rest of them – a bunch of elements thrown together, some you like, some you don't, but the whole thing lacking in coherence and feeling somehow unnecessary. For me, watching the later Star Wars movies is like being buttonholed by a gamer at a convention who insists on recounting in great detail all the fantastic and hilarious things that happened to his character in last night's RPG. Lucas has extended the weaknesses of the original – the cod mythologizing lifted straight from Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, the made-up future politics – while losing sight of its youthful joie de vivre.

And then he had to revisit the originals, too. What would the young Lucas have made of this middle-aged stranger imposing revisions on his work? George, you're just fiddling now. Stop it. You're spoiling it.

American Cinematographer's no longer the magazine it was, either.

Grump, grump.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The Forgotten

Just a quick heads-up - tonight's story is one of mine:
The team investigates the killing of a John Doe found buried at a popular vacation destination; a stray dog standing vigil over the grave is the only clue in the case.
On ABC, right after Dancing with the Stars.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

A DVD Competition and a Trailer

Over at the Are You Screening blog, reviewer Marc Eastman writes about the Eleventh Hour DVDs and offers the chance for readers in the US and Canada to win a set simply by adding to the comments section.
"Starring Rufus Sewell, on the short list of most underrated actors, as one of the world’s leading scientists who works for the government tracking down criminals who abuse science in ways few other people would understand, Eleventh Hour is an order of magnitude beyond your typical crime show. There’s investigating using science, and then there’s investigating using science, and this show is simply off in another world. Whether it’s cloning, bizarre viruses, or people with two hearts, if Dr. Hood gets sent in, we’ve moved into realms no one else wants to be involved with."
Read the entry in full here.

Meanwhile Warner Bros has (have?) put out an online trailer for the release. I saw this on the Spike TV website, where the clip was preceded by a condom ad.

See, I told you it was a sexy show.

Don't worry if you happen to get the condom ad, it's quite tasteful. Although if you ask me, the mime has a rather exaggerated opinion of himself.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Avengers Guy

I had to miss last month's UK Fantasycon, but I'd already been asked to write an appreciation of Guest of Honour Brian Clemens for the Convention's programme book. Here's what I said.

It was one o'clock in the morning and I had stuff on my mind. I turned on the TV for distraction. In a '60s Geneva created from library footage and a crisply-photographed studio backlot, an international security agent who'd been missing for two days walked into his headquarters building and calmly shot one of his superiors. For the next hour, the stuff on my mind ceased to trouble me and the world was young again.

(Except, of course, when my world was young, there was no TV or much of anything else going on at one in the morning)

I hardly needed to look at the credits to know who'd written the episode. Brian Clemens was always the master of the arresting story hook, a Sensei among warriors in the screenwriting ranks. There's hardly a piece of classic British 'cult' TV that doesn't either have his fingerprints on it, or his DNA somewhere in it. Even The Prisoner, a show in which he had no actual hand, can be traced back to the Clemens-scripted Danger Man pilot in which both Patrick McGoohan's secret agent persona and the Portmeirion location made their first TV appearances.

For many people Brian Clemens will be, forever and above all else, the Avengers guy. But The Avengers is really just the most prominent peak in a career characterised by prodigious energy and inventiveness, coupled with an impeccable professionalism. In a field that can so easily be colonised by journeyman work, his writing always has a voice, an angle, an attitude.

Born in 1931, Clemens grew up in Croydon. After service in the army and work in advertising, he sold a single play to BBC Television which led to a stint as house screenwriter for the Danziger Brothers. Depending on your prejudice or your point of view, the Danzigers were low-rent exploitation producers or resourceful low-budget entertainment providers in the Roger Corman style. They supplied second features for British cinema bills and half-hour filmed series for UK and US television. While in their employ, Clemens developed a proficiency in writing to deadline around available resources, as the brothers seized opportunities to get some extra use out of sets, props and sometimes even paid-up performers from other, more expensive productions.

Those skills were widely used by Clemens in such series as Mark Saber and Richard the Lionheart for the Danzigers, while also moonlighting scripts for Sir Francis Drake, Ivanhoe and HG Wells' The Invisible Man. He once said, "At one time, all of British episodic television was written by about ten writers, and I was one of them." He credits the Danger Man pilot as his big break; renamed Secret Agent, the show was picked up for network screening in the US by CBS and blazed a trail for all of UK international production throughout the '60s.

Although Sidney Newman is often credited as the creative force behind The Avengers and other classic TV including Armchair Theatre and Doctor Who, his role was more accurately that of a godfather. Newman came up with the Avengers title, and the idea of doing something new with Ian Hendry's Police Surgeon character from an underperforming series. Clemens was again brought in at the pilot stage, and three seasons later took over full creative control of the series as it moved from electronic production to film. The mix that had been brewed up in the creaky and low-res live-action studio now exploded with the application of top-drawer production values. The result was unique and confident. It didn't so much mirror the swinging sixties, as play a major part in defining them.

Season four was the 1965 black-and-white season, with such classic episodes as The House that Jack Built, The Town of No Return, and the glorious and notorious A Touch of Brimstone. Season five went to colour and hit the same level of triumph with knobs on. But it's those episodes in 'sparkling black and white', as the American trailers described them, with their stark op-art world and King's Road sensibility, that made the first and deepest cut for me. There is a place forever in my heart where the door to Emma Peel's flat has a big eyeball on it.

Although Clemens freelanced scripts for just about every high-profile action show from Adam Adamant to The Persuaders, after The Avengers he was also a force as a producer. When he was making The New Avengers a TV Times profile made reference to "his sixth Ferrari" and "the exclusive privacy of his four acres in Bedfordshire". With the suspense anthology series Thriller he became that rare thing for a screenwriter, a marquee draw with his name linked to the title. The Professionals made as much of a mark on the '70s as The Avengers in the decade before it, and the sitcom My Wife Next Door brought him a BAFTA award.

When Brian Eastman's Carnival Films wanted a high-concept, pacy action show for BBC1 on Saturday evenings, they turned to Clemens for Bugs. The show ran for four series and gave me the opportunity to write the kind of TV I'd grown up on, and later to share the role of series consultant with one of my biggest professional heroes. Imagine that! Though we'd met at festivals by then, we never actually met on the show. I'm told that half the time our feedback was 100% in agreement, while the other half of the time our comments were in complete opposition. Which I suppose sounds kind of healthy.

But back to that late hour, a few nights ago. My one o'clock diversion did exactly as its author intended. It gave an hour's pleasure, and a valued respite from the ordinary. It was an episode of The Champions, the Heroes of its day. I understand that it was written during the brief period when Clemens was out of The Avengers (after Diana Rigg's last season, and before Linda Thorson's first) and before he had to go back in and sort out the mess they got into without him.

The Champions episode was typical of Clemens' contribution to other people's shows. It's as if he examined the underlying concept and set out to nail it just a little bit better than anyone else, in this case taking the main characters and setting them, Marvel-style, to use their powers against each other.

There's much I've missed out. I've said nothing about his sales to American TV and I've been skipping over feature work that includes See No Evil with Mia Farrow, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad for Ray Harryhausen, an excursion into writer/director territory with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter for Hammer, The Watcher in the Woods for Disney. But check out his Internet Movie Database page; it lists over a hundred entries, many of them for multiple series writing credits, and it's still growing. The films are as eclectic a selection as the TV work, but all have the same stamp on them; Hitchcockian technique, with an irreverent light touch.

And if you were thinking of asking: no, he had nothing to do with that Avengers movie.

The loyal and eagle-eyed may have spotted a couple of paragraphs recycled from an earlier Avengers piece. And speaking of recycling, The Champions has been slated for a feature remake by Guillermo del Toro, and despite his current involvement with the Hobbit movie it's said to be still on the cards. Last I heard he was going to write, but not direct.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Eleventh Hour on UK Freeview

The show starts a run on the UK's Virgin 1 Freeview channel on October 28th.

Click here for screening times and details.

Look What Ships Today

All eighteen episodes, from Resurrection to Medea.

Here's the blurb:
Acclaimed film and television producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Caribbean, CSI) is back again in the nick of time with… ELEVENTH HOUR. Starring Rufus Sewell as Dr. Jacob Hood, a brilliant biophysicist and special science advisor to the government, the series follows the enigmatic doctor as he investigates scientific crises and oddities - everything from cloning to cryogenics. With absolute jurisdiction and a resolute pursuit of those who would abuse and misuse scientific discoveries and breakthroughs for their own gain, (Hood) is called in at the eleventh hour as the last line of defense. Marley Shelton co-stars as Special Agent Rachel Young, the decorated FBI protection officer assigned to watch his back. Based on the British miniseries by acclaimed writer Stephen Gallagher, the series follows this unlikely pair as they crusade to protect the substance of science from those with nefarious motives.
Available only from WBShop.com, the online store of Warner Bros Studios. If you do buy the set, why not go back to the site and give it a review and some stars?

Can't hurt.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Old Sitcoms Never Die...

These days, they surface on Hulu.

Gail Renard made the comment, "Speaking of star cars, I wonder what ever became of the one from the Smothers Brothers' TV epic, "My Mother The Car." A title and a pitch all in one."

Someone else in the UK remembers My Mother the Car! Were the Smothers involved? It's been lawd knows how many years and I still know all the words to the theme song. For anyone who doesn't know it, the show featured a guy (Jerry Van Dyke, brother of the more famous Dick) whose 1928 vintage car contains the reincarnated soul of his mother, who nags him accordingly.

Back in the 60s, much of what we in Britain knew of US culture came from imported sitcoms. Though we thought we were seeing a reflection of suburban American life, what we were probably seeing was America's reflected fantasy of itself.

Which shows reached our TVs depended on what the networks' buyers (ITV's, mostly) picked up and what your region's company chose to run. So in the Granada area we had Lucy in her various formats, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, F Troop... we saw No Time for Sergeants, but not Leave it to Beaver. The Dick Van Dyke Show, but no Andy Griffith.

You'd think that My Mother the Car would have to be the brainchild of someone strung-out on too many drugs, until you realise that it was probably an attempt to make a variant on the successful talking-horse comedy Mister Ed. Then it makes logical sense, kind of. Mister Ed was a TV recycling of the Francis the Talking Mule series of movies. Which were probably the brainchild of someone strung-out on too many drugs.

But it's far from the forgotten show I imagined it to be. Last week I discovered that there are complete episodes of My Mother the Car streaming online from Hulu (restricted to the US, as far as I can tell). The print was pin-sharp, the colours diamond-bright. By using 35mm film with feature-quality lighting, they made the shows technically future-proof.

As for the car itself... it was one of George Barris's creations, and has been spotted in a museum in Tennessee.

Now I'm wondering if anyone else remembers the dude ranch sitcom Guestward Ho!...

Friday, 16 October 2009

What I did on my Birthday

The night before my birthday, I had an idea for a way to mark it.

I'm spending a lot of time on my own here in Los Angeles, but it was no big deal being alone on my birthday. It's not like I'm twelve or anything.

But... one of the routes from my place to the studio takes me past George Barris's custom car workshop on Riverside.

The name should be familiar - he's the Batmobile guy. I've seen at least one of the fibreglass replicas that he built - it's in the Cars of the Stars museum in Keswick, Cumbria -- but the so-called 'number one Batmobile', the movie prop vehicle adapted from the Lincoln Futura concept car, is the one that was actually used in the 1966 TV show. And I'd heard that he keeps it there.

So I stopped by. I had to go through the yard to find the door to the office. There was a guy behind a desk. I introduced myself and asked if it was possible to see the Batmobile.

He explained that it was a private office, but I was welcome to take look around as long as I didn't touch anything. Three steps and there it was! Not only the #1 but, through a doorway in an inner workshop, one of the five replicas as well.

I was the only person in the place! No ropes, no barriers, nothing. A woman passed through and asked politely if I'd spoken to anyone, ie whether I'd just snuck in or if anyone knew I was there; I said I'd asked permission from the gentleman near the door, and she said, "Oh, that's Mister Barris."

I walked around and around and geeked for a solid fifteen minutes. I saw an ad for "Photo of the Batmobile, signed, $10" so I asked if they had any and we chatted for a while. Barris signed a picture to me with a 'happy birthday' and wouldn't take the money.

I mean, it's not like I'm twelve or anything.

Yeah, right.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

John Stroud

A shadow is cast across the day as I learn of the untimely death of John Stroud, a talented director and one of the most pleasant and engaging people I've had the honour of working with.

Many of John's achievements were in television comedy, so it was surely no coincidence that he brought a light and deft touch to drama.

I met him when he directed my Bugs episode Blaze of Glory back in 1997. I have vivid memories of a visit to our set in dripping tunnels just off London's Clink Street, made-over into a gothic nightmare complex with Leslie Ash hanging upside-down a wire harness...

John was a welcoming presence, and great company, and his death is a real loss.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

William S Hart

William S Hart was one of the biggest stars of the silent era. He made Westerns with the onscreen persona of a strong and silent hero, usually with a criminal past for which he'd earn redemption by displaying moral conscience in extreme adversity.

In his day, his drawing-power and earnings made him the equal of Fairbanks and Pickford. He's not so well-remembered as his peers. But he is remembered. Tumbleweeds in 1925 was his last (and many reckon his best) feature.

Last weekend I drove up to visit his retirement ranch in Newhall, just outside Santa Clarita. The hilltop house is preserved just as it was when Hart lived there, with all his memorabilia and the original furniture. He extended the house to give himself a new bedroom because his dogs took over the one he started with. They were Great Danes, so you can see why. His dogs are all buried on the ranch, as is Fritz, his movie horse.

The half-hour guided tour is free but there's a box for donations. After the tour I went for a walk on the nature trail behind the house. Along the way I saw warning signs about both rattlesnakes and mountain lions, basically to the effect that rattlers don't attack unless threatened or hurt, and most mountain lions will back off if you wave your arms and shout.

The addendum to that was, if you get a mountain lion that isn't scared off by a show of defiance, report it to the rangers.

Which to me seems to leap over a little gap of logic somewhere in the middle...

Okay, the following picture has nothing to do with anything. It's my parking space on the lot. Just wanted to share.

Hey, it's my birthday. Indulge me.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Eleventh Hour on DVD

Danny Cannon dropped by my office this morning and mentioned that the Eleventh Hour DVD boxed set is now scheduled for October 2009 release.

Danny's had a hand in the presentation and the quality specs, so technically the set should be well up to snuff.

I Googled to see if any public announcement had been made before mentioning it here, as I'm not in the business of breaking confidences, only to find that it's been on Warners' own DVD site for a few days already. According to TV Shows on DVD, pre-orders will ship on October 20th but here's an odd thing... if their information's accurate, the discs won't be available in stores but sold online-only as 'manufacture-on-demand' under the Warners Archive program.

Make of that what you will. In the course of the day it's been suggested to me that healthy sales may lead to a wider release with extras, commentaries and the like. Warners know that I'm up for a contribution if they want to call on me.

But how you achieve healthy sales with a product that has no retail presence is another question altogether...

Monday, 28 September 2009

Can't Let This One Pass

In a press release following the release of Thursday night's viewing figures, CBS announced:

The second season premiere of THE MENTALIST on its new night improved the 10:00-11:00 PM year ago time period premiere of ”Eleventh Hour”

which is hardly comparing like with like... Eleventh Hour's number was for a new show and was the beginning of a rise, while The Mentalist's figure shows a fall in numbers from its previous season.

I'm not going to knock The Mentalist. I think it's a successful, light-touch entry in the 'brilliant amateur' detective genre, at its best with straight cases, on less certain ground when it addresses its 'Red John' mythology. Creator Bruno Heller was responsible for Rome, one of my favourite shows of recent years. And their writers' building is just across the street from here, so their people can easily find me.

But why use The Mentalist to knock Eleventh Hour? Especially when the argument doesn't really stick.

And if you could only have seen the Eleventh Hour story we had lined up for that night...

Friday, 11 September 2009

On the Lot (2)

I spent yesterday as writer-on-the-set for filming of my bylined episode of The Forgotten. A lot of time is spent in the writers' room swapping ideas and working up stories, but every now and again you have to shut the door and write one. And that's as much insider leakage as I'm prepared to offer... the omerta of the writers' room prevails.

It was a long day on the Warners lot, but a fast-moving and productive one. It took me a couple of hours to pick up the rhythm and to fully get my head around having a role in the process, after a career-so-far in which the writer onset has always been essentially a visitor. When I showed up there was even a chair with my name on it. Well, not my name, exactly. But it said 'Writer'.

The episode's director is fellow-Brit Bill Eagles and the producer is another fellow-Brit, Matthew Carlisle. My first contact with Matthew was back last year when he was producer on Eleventh Hour; our DP is also Eleventh Hour's David Stockton.

In fact, what I found yesterday is that a large number of The Forgotten's department heads and crew worked on that show. I know it because they made a point of seeking me out to tell me so. Not an easy show to make, they all agree, but everyone seems to regard it - and working with Rufus and Marley - with unusual affection.

And I see traces of it everywhere. The traffic cone that protects Danny Cannon's parking spot in Warner Village still has the show's name stencilled on it. The location scout for my Forgotten episode included a loft used in filming Olfactus. On the way back from the tech scout, Matthew and unit production manager John Scherer pointed out the freezer plant used in Containment.

But that was then, and this is now. I understand that Human Target now occupies our old offices on the Warners Ranch. And me - well, I'm in a place that I didn't even imagine two years ago, still learning new stuff and still buzzed by the wonder of seeing it made.

And free food, when you're shooting.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Stephen Volk

Screenwriter, Noirmeister and all-round Good Guy Stephen Volk has a newly-launched web presence and you can find the new site here.

Stephen Volk is the creator of Afterlife and writer of the notorious Ghostwatch, the Halloween 'live' investigation of a haunting that scared the crap out of a nation and set the template for an entire genre of far less artful imitations. His theatrical screenplays include Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, and The Guardian, directed by William Friedkin.

(That's two famously batshit crazy directors to begin with... we can only hope that the Volkster will add a blog to the site, get drunk some night, weave his way to the keyboard, and spill the beans!)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Forgotten

We have a promo online, though I'm told that for the moment it won't play outside the US; if anyone comes across a live international link, please let me know.

UPDATE: With thanks to Hoppy Uniatz, I've replaced the link with one that should play worldwide.

The previous version, which offers higher resolution, is still available here.

The Dodgers, Christian Slater, and Me (2)

One thing I noticed at the ballgame.

Before the gates there are big signs listing all the things you're prohibited from bringing in. They include alcohol and weapons and there's a bag search to check for them.

As soon as you're inside, they'll sell you beer and a baseball bat!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Dodgers, Christian Slater, and Me

On Sunday I went to my first-ever ball game. The Dodgers vs the Chicago Cubs. Christian Slater was the day's celebrity first-ball pitcher, and he'd invited the cast and crew of The Forgotten to attend the game as his guests.

I dithered a bit, I admit... I'm not really a sports event kinda guy. But I'm so glad I went - it made a good break from deadlines and I had a really good time. I still know bugger-all about baseball and didn't even watch that much of the action, but the stadium atmosphere was great. Loads of kids and families and just a big, big buzz. It's like the game is just something to hang it on. Christian had bought VIP seats behind third base for all - we weren't all sitting together but nobody stays in one place for any length of time anyway. After I'd bought my Super Dodger Dog (all beef) I discovered that my ticket included complimentary food in the VIP suite.

I'd set out early thinking that traffic and parking would be a problem but the traffic was light and the parking lot so enormous that I just sailed in ahead of the crowds... though the rows weren't numbered by any system that I could make out, so I made myself a map as I went to be sure I'd be able to find the car again. Amongst all the stuff they put on the big TV before the game, they played trailers for the show.

The VIP boxes were right down at ground level and out in the brutal sunshine (I'd remembered to slap on the sunblock before I set out), so when I felt I'd endured being a VIP for long enough I went up to the middle of the tier to watch from the back in the shade, and from there on bumped into various co-workers including all our cast. I was sitting having a beer and catching up on stuff with with one of our executive producers, and I swear Adam Baldwin walked past.

The Dodgers lost the game. But they'd beaten the Cubs in the other games in the series during the week, so they still came out the overall winners. I left before the end to get out ahead of the traffic, and again got away with no problems. Drove back along Sunset Boulevard and through Beverly Hills. Flopped on the bed for an hour to sleep off the sun and the super dodger dog and to reset the brain for some work.

And hey. I'm a Dodgers fan now. I've got a hat to prove it.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Autry

I got to the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park yesterday - looked as if there might not be much to it at first but it was good fun. Like a pocket version of the Cody museum in Wyoming. Even has a Buffalo Bill section, and a series of rooms dedicated to early western movies with an emphasis on B-movie cowboys. There was a corner of a case with Ken Maynard memorabilia - my dad's childhood hero. Felt like coming full circle.

One of the galleries houses an exhibition called Sparkle and Twang, a collection of Country Music memorabilia accumulated by Marty Stuart throughtout his career. Not a name I was familiar with. He started as a teenaged mandolin player with Lester Flatt's band (Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs played The Beverly Hillbillies theme and on the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack) and played backing for Johnny Cash before he went solo. I wasn't expecting much but the collection's great - loads of gaudy and ludicrous stage clothes worn by various big names, handwritten lyrics by Hank Williams, Cash's first 'man in black' suit and an explanation of how he landed on the style, and various videos of just the right length.

It'll be worth another visit. I wanted to go in the bookshop but I was in the museum right up until closing time. Only just managed to see everything. The entrance to the LA Zoo is directly opposite.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Mystery and Imagination

In the comments section, Good Dog wrote:
...if you’re stuck for something to do next weekend, the Mystery & Imagination Bookshop at 238 N. Brand Blvd in Glendale is having a signing/celebration for Ray Bradbury’s 89th Birthday on Saturday 22nd, August starting at 1:00pm.

When I last stopped by (some years back) they were still in the tiny premises around the corner on East Broadway so I don’t know what the new location – a few blocks down from where Warner Bros Feature Animation used to be - is like. More space for a start, obviously. Still, the owners are really great people. They were certainly happy when I bought a fine hb copy of Harlan’s Strange Wine for $75.
The heads-up info is much appreciated. As it happens I found the M&I on my very first night in LA, which confirms my belief in some kind of supernatural karma-driven radar - Steve Jones had mentioned it to me in an email but I wasn't specifically looking for it, just doing that thing where you've landed and you're tired and wired at the same time, so you go exploring.

My motel was right by the Americana Mall, which has sprung up complete in the past couple of years and isn't a mall in the usual sense - that function's served by the enormous Galleria Mall that all but adjoins it. The Americana is a bizarre open-air retro small-town square, style of Disney, feel of Futurama, with performing fountains and piped Tom Jones and Dean Martin from speakers hidden in the street furniture. Some Angelenos seem to hate it but for me... well, I clearly have debased tastes because I thouight it was fun, not least because of the way that its enormous Barnes & Noble - about six strides from my motel - stayed open until 11pm.

The new M&I premises are maybe a five-minute wander up the street, with stuff to look at along the way. I can't say what the area was like before, but my impression is that North Brand has been given a boost by the development... maybe not a huge boost but it's created that fringe of cheaper-renting premises where the more interesting businesses are always found. And though, for some reason, town planners never get this, it's always those businesses - the stamp shops, the second-hand bookshops, the woman who makes her own jewellery, the bloke who fixes old watches - that make a place a destination.

The frontage looks like something out of a Bradbury or a Wells story. Once you're inside, the stock goes way back deep into the building and there's an upstairs room for readings and talks. And I got recognised! They asked me to add to their signature wall in the stairwell. I found a space and wrote big. I could barely get my ego out through the door afterwards.

I'm reaching a point now where the town feels like it's opening up to me, and instead of seeking out tourist high-spots I'm beginning to find those quirky little pleasures that don't need to feel like a 'day out'. They just call for an hour here and there.

So this afternoon I'm heading for the long flight of steps in Silverlake, up which Laurel and Hardy made repeated attempts to lug a piano in The Music Box. Not only are the steps still there, but some devotee with time on his hands has scrutinised the footage and established from cracks in the concrete that they're still the originals. Gonna walk 'em all, whistling and saying a silent thanks for hours of childhood pleasure.

And speaking of childhood pleasures, and while we're under the Mystery and Imagination banner... Network DVD have released all the surviving episodes of the '60s series of that name. It set an unmatched standard for television treatment of the supernatural and macabre.
This highly acclaimed anthology series presented a selection of Gothic tales by major 19th century writers. Among the adapted works featured in this collection are Robert Louis Stevenson’s nihilistic The Suicide Club, Sheridan le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula and a commendably faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A distinguished cast includes Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), Denholm Elliot (Indiana Jones), Patrick Mower (Callan) and Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man), who gives an astonishing performance as the demented barber, Sweeney Todd.
While checking their website for the link I noticed that in September Network will be releasing the Ted Willis-created Sergeant Cork, which I remember as a hugely atmospheric Victorian procedural.

Laurel and Hardy on Bob Monkhouse's Mad Movies, Sergeant Cork, Mystery and Imagination, The Avengers... my God. Is that what ITV Saturday nights used to be like?


Well, I found it. I parked on Sunset Boulevard, just across from what appeared to be a strip club, a one-story windowless building with no name but a neon skunk for a sign. In the dark and with the sign lit, the skunk's tail would be animated and would flicker back and forth. Pepe le Phew, perhaps? I have no idea.

The stairway begins about a hundred yards or so from Sunset. Where once it ran up a largely open hillside, it's now lttle more than a narrow alley with properties right up against it on either side. First thing I saw was a toilet bowl which had been dumped, along with a pile of ruined old suitcases, just behind where the nursemaid is standing in the picture.

But f*** it. They're the Music Box stairs! A blue civic signpost tells you so, top and bottom, and there's a small plaque let into the lowermost step honouring L&H.

I climbed to the top. The stairs there end at a street of houses that seem to have been built on shifting ground -- the sidewalks are buckling, the driveways are sagging, and perimeter walls are bursting outward under pressure from tree roots.

Of course, when I got up there I had that dorkish feeling. Because there was nothing for it but to check out the view and then turn around and go back down.

At which point I heard it - someone, no more than two or three houses away from the top of the steps - was practising the piano.


I didn't take any shots. But I did find this YouTube video made by someone else.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

New Work, and Some Old Places

I'm thinking of going to the Gene Autry Western museum in Griffith Park this weekend. See if there's anything that helps my ideas for the new book.

(That's the new new book; the new book, a big historical in the same vein as The Kingdom of Bones and from the same Random House imprint, is written and wrapped and I'll have a confirmed title and a publication date to give you soon)

I picked up Richard Alleman's Hollywood: The Movie Lovers' Guide earlier this week. Loads of historic Hollywood sites and addresses with the history behind each - not really for your average tourist, who probably doesn't give a crap about where DW Griffiths' Intolerance set once stood, or the house where George 'Superman' Reeves shot himself (not far from where I'm living, it seems), but engrossing for some of us. Apparently the Bob's Big Boy Restaurant that I pass every day on my way to the studio is quite historic. As these things go.

And there's a closed apartment above the carousel on Santa Monica pier that was opened up and rented out to filmmakers in the 1960s, where Curtis Harrington shot NIGHT TIDE - a little B&W indie horror movie that no one's heard of and which took me years to track down, until Stephen Laws steered me to a copy. Dennis Hopper's first lead role and a story about an off-duty sailor who falls for a sideshow performer who may or may not be a real mermaid... if you know The Boat House, you'll know why I was drawn to it.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

PS Publishing Summer Sale

Pete Crowther is currently applying a walloping 60% discount to almost all of his back catalogue titles, which means that the hardcover editions of White Bizango and Out of his Mind can be had for ten quid (or sixteen dollars) each.

The indie presses often have to price their titles on the high side to reflect their high setup-to-volume costs, so this represents a really good deal.

The link for White Bizango is here.

That for Out of his Mind - winner of the BFS Award for best short story collection - can be found here.

Both books have covers by the amazing Chris Moore and Out of his Mind has an introduction by the great Brian Clemens. The White Bizango introduction is by the awesome Joe R Lansdale. According to the PS website, remaining stocks on each title are low - between 11 and 20 copies of each. Once they're gone, that's it.

Go here for the PS Publishing home page.

Go on. Go on.


Blog follower dvikib asked this question in the comments to Rockford Redux, and I thought it worth giving some prominence because it's another opportunity to direct attention to one of the best TV series the UK ever produced:

"I envy you that you were able to see the TV version of Callan. Amazon US recently added Callan: Set 1 (1970) for US DVD players. It's actually the 3rd season April-June 1970. Do you think a yankee would be able to follow the episodes without having seen seasons 1 or 2? I'm not concerned about accents or British slang (which I love) but sometimes it's hard to jump into the middle of a long running series. I realize the film quality might not be the best but I would love to see that character. Any thoughts would be much appreciated!"

When you say "the TV version" I'm inferring from your choice of words that you've maybe seen Callan: the Movie, which is the theatrical feature version of A Magnum for Schneider, which was the TV play from which the Callan series sprang... if you have then the boxed set will make perfect sense, and if you haven't I reckon you'll probably be ok with the boxed set anyway. They're pretty much standalone stories, and their 'world' is fairly self-explanatory.

And if you haven't seen the movie... well, there you go. One for your wish list.

The picture quality of the boxed set is that of old colour videotape -- hardly feature quality, but way better than the low-grade 16mm telerecordings that survive of the earlier series.

I have to say that the image at the top of this post is hardly representative of the show's gritty, downbeat tone, which is far closer to that of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold than to Bond. In fact, if you know the show at all, it's kinda hilarious.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Rockford Redux

So here I am, midway through my boxed set of The Rockford Files season two, when I see the news today that David Shore, creator and showrunner of House, is lining up a revival of the show.

It's a task both enviable and unenviable - Rockford is probably the best show of its kind, but it'll be a tough challenge to match it. Jim Rockford was a Philip Marlowe who'd survived the Summer of Love with his old-fashioned principles intact. The format was deceptively simple. Tone was everything, and the show was one of those where its magic was an alchemical product of stylish, witty screenwriting and charismatic lead.

One of the things I've come to realise is there's an underlying principle common to many a long-running show, which is "the world is scary but your dad's here."

I noticed it first in The Equaliser, because I couldn't make out why the show worked; the hero wasn't dashing, nor was he intimidating, but when he showed up you knew everything was going to be OK. Then I started noticing how many shows depended on the dad principle, or variants of it. Grissom's a dad figure, Mac of CSI: NY is a dad figure. All the way back to James Arness in Gunsmoke and Lorne Green in Bonanza (literally), Mark Harmon in NCIS. Our own Doctor Hood.

Jim Rockford was more your big brother, but same principle... with him on the case, you could have faith in the outcome. Columbo and The Mentalist are your funny uncles. It seems to be the key to a strong format that never burns out whereas a heavily-engineered, Pushing Daisies kind of format... doesn't matter how much you love it at first, after a while you're going to tire.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

You Don't Say...

"But as he came to the door of the salubrious squat close to Guildford dressed as Delores in a blonde wig, sheer black tights, a leopard skin skirt and a cropped top with prosthetic breasts, before explaining that the world as it is known will end on 23 December 2012, it is perhaps clear why some of his former friends are concerned that he has suffered some form of mental collapse."

David Shayler, MI5 whistleblower, is now Jesus in a frock. Read all about it here!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Travelling in Time

I'm seeing trailers for the new movie The Time Traveller's Wife (as we'd spell it in the UK), and they've reminded me that a while back I did some thinking around the uses of time travel in fiction and on the screen. And what's a blog for, if not to share?

The most obvious form is the 'paradox romp' like Back to the Future, where something in the past gets changed, and repairs have to be made to safeguard the present as we know it. There's a '70s Czech comedy called Tomorrow I shall Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea that involves defeated Nazis trying to go back and give the H-bomb to Hitler. The Terminator is one of these, inverting the concept so that the aim is to prevent an unpleasant future rather than preserve the timeline. NBC's Journeyman featured the same kind of action on a weekly basis, with Kevin McKidd going back to change individual lives for the better. Which is laudable but not half as much fun as killer robots. In Harlan Ellison's Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk has to watch Joan Collins get hit by a car knowing that if he saves her, Hitler gets atomic weapons (again).

After that comes the 'story of ironic fulfilment', where someone travels back in time and becomes an essential part of history, for example by unintentionally starting the Great Fire of London. An extreme case here would be Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man, where the time traveller goes back to AD 28 hoping to meet the historical Jesus, only to end up taking on the role and being crucified. (In Garry Kilworth's Let's Go to Golgotha, time-tourists at the crucifixion are instructed not to change history and to join in the call for the release of Barrabas instead of Jesus; the protagonist realises that the baying crowd is comprised entirely of time tourists, and no-one from the actual era.)

Perhaps the most subtle riff on this theme is Chris Marker’s La Jetee, a French arthouse short told entirely in still images, in which a man is sent back from the future using his most powerful childhood memory as the means of focusing for his journey. The memory is that of seeing a man shot and killed at Orly airport moments after parting from his lover. Without realising it, he was witnessing his own death. The short was the basis for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Often the most memorable thing about these tales is the resonance of their conclusions.

The simplest form of time travel narrative is the 'fish out of water' story where paradox and consequentiality don't much matter, and the pleasure is in a) having a present-day protagonist experiencing a past or future landscape, or b) seeing someone from another era experiencing ours. Life on Mars and Somewhere in Time fall into this category but the granddaddy would probably be A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur. Karl Alexander's Time After Time has H G Wells pursuing Jack the Ripper through present-day San Francisco.

And there are time travel stories that don’t involve actual time travel but achieve man-out-of-time scenarios by other means. In the Sixties the BBC made Adam Adamant Lives! In which an Edwardian adventurer frozen in 1902 was thawed out in Sixties swinging London. While being dismayed by just about every modern advance he encountered, he was also a walking 60s style icon. It was cheaply and sometimes quite shabbily made (an hour of TV, rehearsed for a week and then shot in 2 hours of studio time), but could be tremendous fun. It inspired/was ripped off liberally by Austin Powers to an extent that’s probably nuked its chances of ever being revived or remade. In Richard Ben Sapir's The Far Arena, a Roman gladiator is thawed out of a glacier and struggles to adapt to the modern world. It's a long novel with a promising concept in which not very much happens. The focus is on the detailed procedure of discovery, revival and adjustment. Very short on mayhem. The TV series New Amsterdam had its main character travel in time by living for 400 years, as in Highlander.

Probably the most robust way of doing a weekly time travel series for TV is to have a big machine, a team, and an agenda. Or a fault in the machine that repeatedly drops the main cast into new and dangerous situations. Time Tunnel immediately springs to mind, where the two leads bounce around time like a pinball table, every week showing up on the eve of some well-known historical event, while the 'control team' anchored in the present day mostly watch helplessly and occasionally manage to supply a warning or some vital information. In the UK we have our own Doctor Who, where the hero makes random jumps through time and space and happens upon a local adventure wherever he shows up. Originally this was because his time machine was busted and he’s hopping around trying to get home. In his current incarnation he’s the ultimate tourist, so far from his home that his home’s no longer there. Doctor Who mixes sf and historical episodes; my memory from when I worked on it is that the historical episodes were fewest in number but always drew the higher ratings. Quantum Leap, slated for a remake, had an everyman hero, again with no control over where he'd show up next. Sliders involved parallel worlds rather than time travel but it was pretty much the same kind of thing.

I understand that the late Michael Crichton's Timeline pretty much follows the machine/team/agenda model, although I haven't read the book or seen the movie. In series terms I can't help feeling that the Stargate franchise may have colonised the setup.

If the big machine isn't broken, then the key lies in the agenda. Jack Finney's Time and Again sends the hero back with a mystery to solve. But a weekly non-mythology series needs a weekly mystery. I've heard of – but never seen – a UPN show called Seven Days in which, after any national disaster, an agent is sent back in time (using Roswell technology) and has seven days to avert it. It's a neat idea.

My own modest contribution to the genre is the short story My Repeater (F&SF, Jan 2001), set in a near-future where time travel is available to all but used only by an obsessive few who waste their entire lives returning to the same moment in repeated attempts to perfect it.