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Thursday, 24 December 2015

10 Books about Movies, Part 2

Here's the second tranche of favourite movie books from my bookshelf. It was supposed to stop at ten, but... well, what can I tell you? Maths O level grade 4.

You may notice that there are no books on screenwriting here. I've read a few but the only one I ever recommend is Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, which isn't a how-to and may now seem dated to someone who's only just starting out.

If you want to write for the screen, I'd recommend you study screenplays for layout (production scripts, not published versions) and finished product for structure. See how minimalist and on-point screen dialogue actually is, how stripped the descriptive prose. Then put that together with a sense of how the big, broad strokes of a narrative usher you toward closure. All else, as they say, is housekeeping.

There was a loose network connecting many of the British novelists marketed as horror writers in the '90s. We knew each other through fandom, through Fantasycon, or through each others' publisher events, whether a panel at the ICA or a reading at Runcorn Shopping City. If we went to each others' homes I reckon there was a 90% chance of spotting Denis Gifford's Pictorial History of Horror Movies on the bookshelf. That distinctive Tom Chantrell wraparound cover (its influence perhaps surfacing in this) was immediately recognisable. Gifford was a fan of old-school horror cinema, his compendium a treasure trove for initiates. I reckon it hit a generation at just the right moment. We'd move on to David Pirie's Heritage of Horror and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies, but this was our foundation document.

I had the privilege of conducting an onstage interview with Val Guest at Manchester's Festival of Fantastic Films, and it's a landmark memory for me. He was 91 at the time, hale and dapper and sharp as a tack. He'd started out as a gag writer on Will Hay films and worked solidly through the decades until his swansong with episodes of Hammer House of Horror. Along the way, The Quatermass Xperiment, Hell is a City, The Day the Earth Caught Fire... classy jobs on tight budgets, interspersed with the kind of journeyman work I referred to in Part 1. Our conversation made for a fascinating, detail-packed hour, and when I subsequently picked up the autobiography I imagined it would be a recap covering the same ground. In fact, all that we'd talked about was dealt with in the first half-dozen pages of Guest's introduction. Everything else was new. I've a number of such British director autobiographies, many of them from niche-interest small presses, and I've found them all fascinating. Ken Annakin, Lewis Gilbert, Bryan Forbes, Roy Ward Baker, Jack Cardiff... theirs is the work that ran on television throughout my childhood, and their accounts feel like my personal cultural history. It's as if the child in me finally got to step through the TV.

A recent addition. David Hughes writes for Empire magazine and brings this fascinating set of film-industry narratives to life with journalistic skill. It's insider material made accessible by the clarity of Hughes' style and the fact that most of the properties, from Superman to Star Trek, will already be engaging to the target readership. Some of the projects have since made it to the screen; this book concerns itself with the versions that didn't. You'd think that with so much trouble, so much money, and so many talented people involved, the most likely outcome of each extended movie development process must surely be a well-honed masterpiece. Except that the quest for perfection mostly plays out like a series of train wrecks. One dumped script after another, one supplanted creative team after another, rewrites piled upon rewrites... and often, somewhere along the way, a fleeting glimpse of a superior version that quickly got stamped on. In so many cases the movie we get is not what they ultimately achieve, but what they finally settle for.

Time and technology have rendered the book largely obsolete, but throughout my 20s this volume rarely left my side and its attitudes and philosophy ("Dust is a part of life, and will not harm your film,"*) stay with me to this day. Where the likes of Movie Maker magazine were for the amateur enthusiast, Independent Filmmaking, born out of San Francisco's underground film scene, treated you as a pro with no money. Through Lipton I learned how to handle a 16mm camera, to cut and mark up a workprint, to lay and mix multiple soundtracks, and to deal with the laboratory process from raw stock to answer print. I still maintain that cutting film taught me more about writing film than anything else, and nothing's been wasted - when I made the switch to video cutting, the program's workstation was recognisable as a virtual version of the editing bench. Trained as a physicist, Lipton holds patents in stereoscopy and wrote the lyrics to Puff, the Magic Dragon.

*Not a recommended philosophy if your job is that of a negative cutter

Maybe it's not for everyone, given that it's more a business book than one for film fans, but if you've an interest in the dynamics of the entertainment industry then Hello, He Lied is an indispensible read. Hollywood regimes come and go and the movie/TV quality balance has changed in the last decade, but Obst's account is a lesson in how to rise, survive, and keep going without losing one's perspective or sense of humour. At the time of writing she'd been involved with big-screen successes including Contact and The Fisher King, along with disappointments that she charts with with open honesty. Her credits since then include Hot in Cleveland, Helix and Interstellar. Perhaps I should recommend it as a companion piece to The Last Tycoon, for its more up-to-date insight into what film company executives - so often the philistine cartoon villains of creatives' more self-serving narratives - actually do.

The BBC4 documentary based on Matthew Sweet's book was a semi-surreal piece, a fever dream narrated by the voice of a creepy uncle from a wax cylinder (OK, it was Charlie Higson, but check out this short clip and tell me I'm wrong). The book itself is as thorough and absorbing a 'secret history' of the British film industry as one could wish, featuring many familiar names while resurrecting shadows of our forgotten ancestors. Sweet followed the Brownlow method of collecting first-hand reminiscences from old-timers who probably thought their stories held no interest for the modern world. It's the period Britishness of the enterprise that makes it unique; I'd devised a rather painful closing gag about Sex and Drugs and Henry Hall, but I think perhaps I'll spare you that.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

10 Books about Movies, and another 2 (and 2 more)

Well, it was going to be ten, but it's so hard to narrow down the choices. Last week I browsed through a similar list online and immediately leaped to order Kirk Douglas' I Am Spartacus, which had somehow slipped by me before. It's exactly my kind of thing, a personal memoir mixing craft and business in the context of films that I have reason to love.

At least, I hope it will be. Right now it's sitting unread under the Christmas tree.

Douglas apart, my interest is less in the megastars and A-listers than in the journeymen and women who've travelled far and have more interesting tales to tell. I'm still kicking myself for passing up on a nice old John Paddy Carstairs memoir spotted in Keswick's second-hand bookshop a few years ago; by the time I'd relented and returned, someone less tight-fisted had swooped.

What follows is an entirely personal selection, not a ten best (with a couple more added to the dozen since I wrote the header), or a list of essential books, so don't go arguing with my picks. They're all from my own shelf, all part of my personal journey, each one an eye-opener for me in its way.
Agel's Making of Kubrick's 2001 is the first book of its kind that I bought, a dense scrapbook of information, essays, interviews and insights, all crammed into a thick Signet paperback with an extensive low-res photo section in the middle. There's something a little bit hippy-trippy Whole Earth Catalog about the book which makes a great match for both its subject and its era. Editor Agel collaborated on projects with Buckminster Fuller, with Marshall MacLuhan, and with Carl Sagan, but he gets sole credit here. I own at least three other books on the making of 2001, but this one gets all the love.

I picked up John Baxter's Stunt around the same time as John Brosnan's analog-era fx study Movie Magic, which is why I tend to think of them as companion pieces even though they aren't. It was published in '73 and so predates the modern blockbuster, but it's strong on the silent era and later B-movies and charts the development of the stunt performer from nerveless daredevil to careful technician. I guess the true companion piece would be Stephen Farber & Marc Green's Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego and the Twilight Zone Case, where the conflict between safe practice and the pressure to deliver onscreen danger has never been more thoroughly explored.

I wouldn't say I'm a fan of The Emerald Forest, though I do consider it a well-made and good-looking movie. Of the Boorman ouevre it's Point Blank and Deliverance that I most relate to, but this real-time diary of the setting-up, shooting, and post-production of a specific project gives you a genuine insight into the hustle, graft, and shoeleather involved in the making of a feature.

Boorman provides the afterword to Karl Brown's autobiographical memoir, described by Kevin Brownlow as "the most exciting, the most vivid, and the most perceptive volume of reminiscence ever published on the cinema (it is also one of the few that bears no trace of a ghost writer)." Later a distinguished cinematographer in his own right, as a teenager Brown wangled a job as assistant to Griffith's cameraman Billy Bitzer and so was a first-hand witness and hands-on participant in the making of Birth of a Nation, and later Intolerance. Brownlow's correct in his description. It's a great book. Brown is a natural storyteller with warmth, wit, and a deceptively easy command of detail.

Brownlow again, and this one's the monster. My Desert Island Book. The chapter on the 1926 Ramon Navarro/Francis X Bushman Ben Hur alone would be worthy of inclusion here, but there's so much more. Fascinated by silent cinema at a time when it was an unfashionable interest, aware that so much material had been lost and that the living memories were about to follow, Kevin Brownlow set out to interview as many participants and practitioners from the early industry as he could track down. The result is a bittersweet panorama, impressive in its depth and range. The chapter on Abel Gance would eventually lead to the reconstruction and revival of Gance's Napoleon, and the book as a whole is counterpointed by Thames TV's somewhat awesome documentary series Hollywood, produced by Brownlow and David Gill.

I've had Charles Davy's Footnotes to the Film for so long that I can't remember a time when I didn't own it. I think I unearthed it on a market stall when I was a teenager. Published in 1938 (long before I was a teenager, thank you very much), it's a selection of fairly lightweight essays aimed at the general reader. Which may not sound too promising until you see the list of contributors - Alfred Hitchcock on direction, Robert Donat on film acting, Graham Greene on subjects and stories, John Grierson on realism... along with Alexander Korda, John Betjeman and Sidney Bernstein (then an exhibitor, later the founder of Granada Television). Also - and this is important - it's a nice old book.

I've come late to Fitzgerald, and I'm catching up. For a while I avoided The Last Tycoon, knowing it to be incomplete and unrevised. But even without revision it's an accomplished piece, and in lieu of an ending we get the author's working notes - for a writer it's like an anatomy lesson from a master. Though it's a work of fiction, I'm including it here because, in my opinion, its observations on the dynamics of Hollywood, status and power circa 1940 continue to resonate to this day.

The Vikings, Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler... looking at Richard Fleischer's extensive and eclectic filmography it's clear that the studios regarded him as a safe pair of hands for their more expensive, if not always their most adventurous, projects. More crowd-pleaser than auteur, Fleischer nevertheless brought style and craft to his assignments. From Soylent Green to 10 Rillington Place, his was the guiding hand behind many a well-remembered movie. The book is mainly anecdotal, but what anecdotes... he tells of learning the best way to handle Kirk Douglas. When Douglas would find something to be unhappy about in every scene, Fleischer realised that if he staged it to put Kirk at the centre of the frame then his concerns would magically disappear. In terms of tone and sheer enjoyment I'd put this alongside Don Siegel's A Siegel Film.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Coming Attractions

A note from the Management...
Remember those horror portmanteau movies of the past, such as Tales from the Crypt, From Beyond The Grave and Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors? They’re back and now on stage! 

Five passengers meet on a train and agree to tell each other monstrous stories of possession, hauntings, devilry and science gone wrong. Each tale is inspired by a classic monster - vampire, ghost, Frankenstein, the Devil, mummy, ventriloquist’s doll. Each actor plays multiple roles within the tales, and as is traditional in the form, the framing story builds to a suitably macabre climax.

The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More is a follow-up to The Hallowe’en Sessions, which played at the Leicester Square Theatre Lounge in October 2012, selling out its run and garnering great reviews. Now we’ve gathered a fresh group of genre writers to craft a deliciously dark all-new tribute to the portmanteau movies, madder, badder and scarier than ever. 
Given the continued popularity of horror theatre such as Ghost Stories and The Woman in Black, we’re confident that there’s an eager audience for productions such as this. After positive response to our last show we expect a healthy return attendance, and this time around we’re targeting a wider crowd with a longer run and heavier PR. We’re looking forward to scaring the wits out of our audiences all over again…

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle, K9 Killer

Looking through some old stuff I found this short piece that I wrote on request for Starburst magazine in 2005. Even if you read it back then, I'm sure you'll have forgotten it by now.

I know I had...
Somewhere in the cuttings files they've got me tagged as "the man who killed K9", and it's a handle that resurfaces every now and again. For the record, I didn't do it. The character – or whatever you'd call him – didn't even die. When I got the commission for Warriors' Gate, Chris Bidmead and John Nathan-Turner gave me certain continuity baggage that I had to include. The story had to start in E-Space and end with the Doctor getting out of it. Romana had to leave the show at the end of the story. And, one way or another, K9 had to go.

It didn't feel right to kill him. That would have been like taking a bazooka to Tinkerbell. Not that I felt much attachment to K9 – I thought he was a juvenile inclusion in a show that had earned success by serving young viewers with the values of grown-up drama. I believe I stole my solution from a favourite comic of my childhood. Just as Superboy saved his faux-brother Mon-El by sending him into the Phantom Zone at the point of death, I had the Doctor give up K9 to a place where damage wrought by the Time Winds would be reversed.

Will I welcome him back? For the sake of the delightful John Leeson, who went out of his way to make me feel at ease on the set all those years ago, yes. But with the proviso that some pretty heavyweight re-imagining goes on. The last thing we want to see is the revamped show brought down by a toe-curling cute sidekick. What next? The return of Muffy the Daggit to Battlestar Galactica? Ye gods.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stan Lee's Lucky Man

They're doing publicity now - mostly tied to interviews with Stan Lee around the release of his graphic novel-style memoir - so it's probably OK for me to say that I worked on this.

Stan Lee's Lucky Man will air on Sky in 2016. The series was developed by Neil Biswas from a concept by Stan Lee, and made for Sky by Carnival Films.

Filming on the first episodes was already under way when I was brought on board. The production team had found themselves a script short, and Carnival head Gareth Neame suggested they give me a call. I'd worked with Gareth on Life Line, but my association with Carnival goes all the way back to Bugs.

The show stars James Nesbitt along with Amara Karan, Eve Best, Sienna Guillory, Darren Boyd, and Omid Djalili.

It's not my concept and my story had to encompass the running series arc, so it was an unusual gig for me. But it was fun to write, and a welcome distraction. At the beginning of the year I had an American network show fall through at the very last moment - bags packed, clock ticking, as close as that - so this came up at just the right time.

I'll tell the American story another day. My Lucky Man episode will be hour seven in the running order and was directed by Jon East.


Friday, 6 November 2015

George Barris 1925-2015

I'm reposting this from October 2009. 

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.


Tuesday, 3 November 2015

New Becker

There's no official announcement yet, but it's probably OK to tell you that the first hardcover edition to hit the market will be a signed limited from Subterranean Press in 2016. Other editions to follow.

I've been through the proofs, and the interior's a lovely piece of design in tune with the novel's 1913 setting.

The cover's in hand, and I'll post something on that when I'm able.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Crusoe on Drama

Crusoe begins a run on the UK's Drama channel this Sunday at 6pm. Channel 20 on Freeview, 158 on Sky, 190 if you're looking for it on Virgin.

Poldark offered you just the one shirtless hero. We give you two! Philip Winchester, Tongayi Chirisa, Anna Walton, Sam Neill, Sean Bean, Joaquim de Almeida, Georgina Rylance... the landscapes of South Africa's Nature Valley and the glorious historic city of York.

There's a shout-out to all our series writers here

And while we're at it, here's some action:


Friday, 21 August 2015

The Authentic William James

First announced in July over on the Sebastian Becker blog; I know it's been a while coming but I've now signed the US contract for this, the third Becker book.

More details soon.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Rain That Never Fell

"The first time that he saw her was across the parking lot of a motorway service area. It was about a quarter to midnight, and it had been raining. He could see that she was tired and cold and that she'd probably been on her feet for some time. She didn't look much more than sixteen, although he knew that she was older. She shifted from one foot to the other, waiting with her awkward bundle of papers under her arm like some census-taker worn down by a few too many rebuffs. He saw her walk up and down under the forecourt's dripping canopy, watching her for about fifteen minutes as she killed time and waited for new arrivals; and then, after she'd covered the same piece of ground more often than he could count, he saw her turn and go back inside."
It was in the early 90s that Zenith Productions, the company behind (among many others) Sid & Nancy, Inspector Morse, and Byker Grove, took an option on my London-set novel Rain. It was part of a slate of material that we were developing in the wake of Chimera, made by Zenith for ITV.

Rain is the story of North-country teenager Lucy Ashdown, late-night haunter of truck stops and motorway services. She risks her safety in the hope of picking up information on her older sister Christine, who was murdered while hitching home from the capital a couple of years before. When a lead sends Lucy heading down to pick up the traces of her sister's life, her father enlists the unofficial help of local police detective Joe Lucas to find her and bring her home. Joe's a friend of the family, a contemporary of Christine's. He's determined, but Lucy's tricky. She's always dodging one step ahead of him, convinced that her sister is somehow guiding her course. The closer she gets to learning the truth, the more Joe can see that she's courting Christine's fate.

Director of Production Scott Meek and EP Archie Tait pitched my script as a writer-director piece to Richard Broke. Richard was the in overall charge of Screen One, the BBC's main-channel showcase for single dramas. I'd be a first-time director but Zenith were backing me all the way.

Richard liked it. He didn't commit, but we were high on his list of contenders for the next season. British TV commissioners are the same to this day - keeping their options open as long as they can, because they can.

But if you sit on your hands all the way to the green light, it leaves you insufficiently prepared for the speed of what has to follow. The signals were strong enough for some necessary prep to be set in motion. David Lascelles (Morse, Moll Flanders, Richard III) came on board to handle production, and I pitched my choice of main cast.

At the time Jane Horrocks was starring in the West End run of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. I'd seen her in Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet and I'd seen her in a radically different role in Red Dwarf, and I reckoned she could probably handle anything in between. Peter Capaldi hadn't yet made The Crow Road but I reckon whoever went on to cast him as Rory McHoan was picking up on the same qualities that I had in mind for Joe. He was growing out of those gawky early roles into the projection of a genuine, complex  authority. Look where that led.

David arranged a lunch with Jane. She read the script and the three of us met. She was sharp and funny and, though she was in her mid-twenties, it was clear that she could easily play a convincing teen. And since the story required the teenaged character to pass as her own older sister... well, you couldn't ask for better casting. I don't know if we got as far as sending out to anyone else. I do know that David was now breaking the scenes down and had prepared a draft schedule and a budget.

Then we got word. Richard Broke was leaving Screen One before the new season was locked down. It's the nightmare of every project in mid-development. New commissioning executive, new broom. Which the New Guy then goes about using to sweep the desk of his predecessor's projects. If I remember correctly, the word that came back via Archie was, "I have three thrillers in front of me, all of them better than Rain." (Which would prompt Archie to ask, when the season had come and gone, "So where were they?")

So that was that. Everyone stood down, everyone moved on. I'm sure I dealt with it by turning my attention to the next thing, whatever that was. Probably something else that tanked and didn't happen, until something finally did. Because that's how it goes.
"The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling." Lucretius
Archie went on to produce several new series and multiple seasons of Heartbeat, and to teach at the LFS. Scott Meek went off to be Head of Drama at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. David Lascelles is now the 8th Earl of Harewood, and runs the estate.

So I guess we all survived the experience, one way or another.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Peter Diamond

You won't know the face, I can almost guarantee it, although you'll probably have seen it a hundred times. More, possibly, as with a change of hat and or facial hair he'd often take several action roles in a single movie. Such is the work of the jobbing stunt performer, submerging his identity for the sake of the project; but it was behind the camera as stunt coordinator, fight arranger and swordmaster that Peter Diamond rose to A-list status. It was a career that covered five decades and the spectrum of screen work from domestic TV to international features. Highlander, The Princess Bride, the Star Wars movies... I can't begin to list them, we'd be here all day.

In 1997, by means that were devious, roundabout, or fortuitous, depending on how you're inclined to interpret them, I landed a project at ITV to which I'd attached myself as director. Didn't think I'd get away with that, but I did. The project was Oktober, an action-chase three-parter based on my novel of the same title.

Producer Brian Eastman surrounded me with some solid industry veterans that included Production Manager Ted Morley and First AD Roger Simons. But the choice of Peter for stunt coordinator was my own.

I'm so glad I got him. I count working with him as a highlight of my career. He was around the same age as my Dad, and I think I related to him in much the same way. Being a first-timer directing a big-budget show means being constantly on the brink of a terror to which you can never afford to give in. That was my experience, anyway. But if someone was trying to shake my faith in one of my choices, or if my confidence was being undercut in any way, a glance over at Peter would get me a nod or a shake of the head that no one else would see.

A week or so back, while I was preparing some clips for the Stories About Science  event, I noticed that Peter's credit was missing from Oktober's Internet Movie Database entry. Fixed that. Submitting a correction to the IMDB used to be a daunting undertaking, but the process is much smoother now. I hadn't looked at the show in years but I was prompted to recall the work with Peter on one of our biggest action sequences, the third-act confrontation between Stephen Tompkinson and Richard Leaf.

The fight was scripted in the way I've described elsewhere using Crusoe as an example, and with that as his template Peter choreographed the action with two of his stunt team. He didn't attempt to take over the direction, as I'd been warned that some of the younger stunt coordinators might. Stephen and Richard followed closely as the stunt players walked it through. While they were getting the moves, I was working out coverage with the operator. When we came to shoot it was 100% the actors, giving it their all. There's an insert of the huskies tugging at Richard's sleeve that was picked up later by a second unit, otherwise it's all as staged.

Peter died in 2004, on his way home from the set of Heartbeat - working to the end. His son Frazer is assembling a tribute site  on which he's hoping to pull together all of Peter's film and TV credits. No mean feat, given that there's somewhere around a thousand of them.

After Oktober, I didn't go all-out to direct again. Don't get me wrong, I'd loved the experience. But as a writer I had no new work ready, so had no money coming in for a year or more.

Also, when I put what I achieved next to what I'd imagined achieving, I thought I maybe wasn't as good at this lark as I'd hoped to be. After revisiting the clip, I have to wonder if I was being too hard on myself. I've seen worse.

(With a special shout-out here to editor Andrew McLelland, who I see is now cutting the Sherlock Christmas special)

Monday, 8 June 2015

Richard Johnson

Sad to hear of the death of the great Richard Johnson at the age of 87. Mainly because of The Haunting, but also because... well, Richard Johnson.

"He also has many small-screen credits to his name, in such TV series as Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead, Silent Witness and Doc Martin, where his charismatic presence won over many viewers."
The Silent Witness was mine, The Legacy, a two-parter that aired in 2013.  I was buzzed to learn that Johnson had been cast and hoped I'd get to meet him, but his scheduled days didn't coincide with the times I could get down to visit the shoot.

So they sent me the above image from the set. It came with the proviso that it wasn't for publicity use, which is why I didn't feature it on the blog. Now I see that the BBC are using it to head up the obituary on their own website. So there you go.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Stories about Science (2)

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Stories about Science

If you're heading for this, I'll be your keynote speaker tomorrow... don't say you haven't been warned.

Stories about science: exploring science communication and entertainment media
A research symposium at the University of Manchester

Thursday 4 and Friday 5 June 2015

From the web page:
We are now in a golden age for science in entertainment. Academy Award winning films such as Gravity and The Theory of Everything, and television ratings titans like The Big Bang Theory, have proved that science–based entertainment products can be both critically acclaimed and financially successful. In fact, many high profile scientific organizations including the US National Academy of Sciences and the Wellcome Trust in the UK now believe that science communication can, and perhaps should, be both informative and entertaining.

These groups have embraced movies and television as legitimate vehicles for science communication by developing initiatives to facilitate scientific involvement in the production of films and television programs. Science communication scholarship on entertainment media has been slow to catch up with the enthusiasm shown by these scientific organizations, as science communication studies of science in mass media still predominantly focus on news media and factual documentaries.

This Wellcome Trust-funded two-day symposium brings together scholars from across disciplines to explore the communication of science through entertainment media in order to uncover new ways of approaching, understanding, and theorizing about this topic. Our exciting range of speakers will explore science communication and entertainment media from a variety of disciplinary and global perspectives as it is practised and experienced by a diverse array of publics.

The event will run from Thursday 4 to Friday 5 June 2015 and is organized by the Science and Entertainment Lab research group within CHSTM, comprised of David A. Kirby, William R. Macauley, and Amy C. Chambers. There is no cost for attending the symposium, but spaces are limited.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Emma to M

I've long held the theory that Judi Dench's M is actually Emma Peel in later life, after something awful happened to Steed.

It works. Nobody argue.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Pan and Scan

Okay, it's a leap, but talking about Pan Books in the Sam Peffer post reminded me of something that's all but disappeared with the advent of widescreen TVs; the 'panning and scanning' of movie prints for TV broadcast.

We've reached the point where the 4x3 Academy Ratio TV set is only ever seen as a prop in period dramas, but for over fifty years it was the standard. All programming was made in that almost-square format; anything that wasn't had to be fiddled to fit.

In the early days of widescreen cinema, studios saw TV as the enemy. Going bigger, wider, and more spectacular was the response, and it's said that some would even go out of their way to ensure that their images would play badly on the small screen. It was a shortsighted view; TV was to extend the earning potential of any feature way beyond its original release window.

Regular readers of the blog will know that one of my earliest jobs was in the Presentation Department of a commercial TV company. On the rare occasions when we broadcast a print in full widescreen with 'black bars' above and below the image (aka 'letterboxing'), the Duty Officer's phone would ring off the hook with viewers' complaints. Even when our Telecine engineers attempted a compromise, zooming slightly to lose the edges of the image and minimise the letterboxing, viewers were unhappy. It was like they wanted their screens completely filled up with picture on principle.

Letterboxing of films was rare on ITV. You'd find it more often on BBC2 or Channel 4, in the arthouse slots. Mostly we'd be provided by distributors with special TV prints of studio features, already adjusted for the shape of the screen by the process known as panning and scanning. The prints came with every scene reframed and optimised for TV. This involved losing anything up to one-third of the picture detail, along with all original sense of composition.

Panning and scanning could go way beyond the cranking of a frame to the left or right to squeeze the action in - a small section of a scene could be selected and enlarged to make a closeup from a medium shot, for example. I recall a scene which, in the original, was a single long take of two people talking. The telecine operator had reframed each person in a separate, enlarged closeup and then cut back and forth between them, playing editor. Didn't match, didn't work, looked appalling. But it used to be quite common.

Those calls of complaint seemed to persuade my bosses that no one out there really cared about quality. Or at least that they only cared for a Philistine's version of it - fill up my screen, crank up the colour until every face is orange, and nothing in Black & White, thanks very much. It was an assumption that persisted well into the Home Entertainment revolution, despite the fact that the revolution was driven - as all revolutions are - by a desire for something better. One of the great annoyances of being an early adopter of widescreen TV was that of finding that the DVD you'd just paid top dollar for had been mastered from one of those 4x3 television prints.

(Ipcress File, I'm looking at you. A crappy Carlton release which I've since upgraded to Network DVD's superior issue.)

Now all TVs are 16x9 and while that ratio doesn't correspond exactly to any theatrical format, it lends itself to less noticeable compromises. When I began shooting my own stuff the viewfinder on the film camera included an element with the 'safety zones' of the different viewing formats etched into the glass, so that the operator could ensure that whatever the composition, the essential information would fall within the frame and the shot would always make some kind of sense. Now such information's more commonly found on the video assist monitor. If you see a movie where you can make out the edges of the sets, or the microphone dips into shot, then it's probably not being shown in the ratio for which the operator framed it.

In Presentation now, everything's been turned on its head. It's old ('vintage') 4x3 material that causes the negative audience reaction. People shy away from 4x3 the way they shy away from Black & White.

In this case the choice is between seeing vertical black bars to either side of the image (pillarboxing) or zooming to fill the frame, losing the top and bottom of the picture and, once again, bolloxing the composition. The results are just as ugly as Pan and Scan - uglier, if anything, with exaggerated grain, noise, and visual clutter in images that were low-resolution to begin with.

Then there are those directors who shoot a digital frame, then add letterboxing to mimic a Panavision effect on a 16x9 screen.

To which one can only say, Dream on.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Glen Orbik

I'm saddened to hear of the early death of artist and illustrator Glen Orbik. This is the piece, one of many retro-pulp covers that he painted for Hard Case Crime, that first blew me away.

Free Stuff

I've two promo codes left for the Mean Streets StoryBundle (see below). While the book bundle's offered on a pay-what-you-like basis, the cost with a promo code is zilch.

Drop an email with STORYBUNDLE in the header to storybundle@brooligan.co.uk for a shot at one of the vouchers. We're in the bundle's last hours, so don't hang around.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

StoryBundle Sale - The Final Hours

The StoryBundle crime sale has just two days left to run. Somewhere along the way it's picked up two extra bonus titles, making a total of thirteen books that include Clive Barker's Cabal, Savile and Lockley's Jack Stone, and David Morrell's The Brotherhood of the Rose.

There's a countdown counter clicking away on the site - it's here - and it's pretty hypnotic.

When the offer's gone, it's gone.

This has been my first involvement in this kind of deal, and it's been a terrific experience.  You can download the bundle as DRM-free files or have it delivered straight to your Kindle or other device in the usual way.

The weird part is, there's no set price. You pay whatever you think the bundle's worth. There's a low minimum (which is, frankly, chump change) and a threshold beyond which the bonus books are released, but it's the buyer's choice. It's counter-intuitive, but it works. Sales have certainly exceeded my expectations. The people running this know far more about online marketing than I ever will.

And three charities benefit. Everybody wins.

Plus Jack Stone by Steven Savile and Steve Lockley, and The Crazy Case of Foreman James by David Niall Wilson.

Friday, 8 May 2015


A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Sam Peffer at one of the annual UK Vintage Paperback and Pulp Fairs held in a hotel in London's Victoria. Peffer, who signed his work Peff, was one of the UK's foremost paperback cover illustrators of the 50s and 60s. Later on he'd turn to film poster and video sleeve design but it's his hyper-realist, melodramatic cover paintings, many of them for Pan Books, that define an era and appeal to modern collectors in this relatively low-cost hobby.  It was Peff's cover art that graced the early paperback runs of Ian Fleming's novels, before the ad-land minimalism of Raymond Hawkey took their design onward into another era. Between 1956 and '68 he produced 168 covers for Pan alone.

(This is one that I picked up just a few weeks ago, by a writer who deserves to be better-remembered. Mackenzie was a former criminal who wrote character-driven thrillers. The more of his stuff I read, the more I tend to think of him as a British Charles Williams.)

Sam Peffer died in 2014, at the age of 92. You rarely see his original work on sale and when it does hit the market, I imagine it's at one of those pulp art sales by one of the major auction houses where bidders are international and prices climb through the roof.

Let me say right out, I'm not one of those high-roller collectors. Not even a collector, as such. I've just got a few pieces and posters, all of them with some personal meaning, all picked up at bargain prices. A Jim Mooney Spider Man page that I found in a Manchester comic book shop in the 70s, and for which I paid seven quid. Ron Embleton's cover art for the first Robin Hood annual I owned, spotted on eBay. An American circus poster that I stole from a notice board in Wyoming, the day after the circus left town.

When I saw this piece in the listings of The Illustration Art Gallery for around the price of a modest bookcase (just to keep it in perspective), I dithered a bit and then I fell. I thought I recognised it from the Mackenzie book, then realised I didn't.

It's a completely-finished gouache, not a rough. And while concept and composition closely resemble those of the Moment of Danger cover, the individual details differ. The large portrait head is more 'finished' on the cover; the foreground woman more detailed and accomplished in the artwork. Different model, different pose. A moorland chase in one, a gothic mansion in the other.

The gouache isn't signed, and my guess is that it's either a demonstration piece or an unpublished or rejected commission that Peffer did over for a different job. Having recycled such a close take on the idea, he couldn't use the actual painting again.

But take a look at this cover, for Edgar Wallace's The Valley of Ghosts. Peff worked from photographic reference, sometimes using models, often family members or even himself to get poses and lighting right. In this one he clearly used another shot from that original studio session - same model, same coat, same belt, and a variation on the pose. That creepy house in the background is looking familiar, too.

The look is more commercial, the level of finish not so high. The art director who rejected the original in my imagined scenario was probably right. The woman in the painting is a palpably real person in a way that the women on the published covers aren't... they're visibly fictional, one a femme fatale, the other a fleeing victim.

It's a context where too much honesty would jar. So for more than fifty years the painting has languished... somewhere, I don't know where.

But Peff, wherever you are, let me assure you... it's being appreciated now.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Lonely Undertaker

He wanders through the covers of historical novels, forlornly seeking his missing hearse...

Serious point. Nothing makes an author's heart sink faster than the realisation that the work they sweated to make original is to be marketed as an also-ran to someone else's. In this case I believe the imitation stems from The Alienist, but I'm willing to be corrected.

Here are a couple more designs that I admired on sight, whose less-fresh offspring I'm now seeing everywhere:

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Mean Streets Bundle

You know about StoryBundles, right? From their web page faq:

We take a handful of books—anywhere from six to nine—and group them together to offer as a bundle. Then you, the reader, can take a look at the titles we've chosen and decide how much you'd like to pay. Think of us like a friend that scours independent books for undiscovered gems, then bundles these titles together for one low price that you decide. Yeah, we mean it; you get to set the price that you want to pay!

Each bundle is available only for a limited time. If you miss out on the bundle, you'll have to buy the books individually from each author. We feature each bundle only once. Once it's gone, it's gone. 

Having the reader set the price is a pretty radical idea, but it seems to work. The proceeds also benefit three charities: SpecialEffect, Girls Write Now, and Mighty Writers. Which helps to mitigate the embarrassment I ought to feel in presenting Steven Savile's blog posting for today's launch of the Mean Streets crime fiction bundle.
Curated by Steven Savile

Steven Savile writes: When we were first mulling over the name of this bundle, Mean Streets, I had a very focused vision on what I thought it was going to be. I'd just finished working on the collaboration with Prodigy (the hip-hop artist from Mobb Deep's The Infamous fame, not the Firestarter) HNIC and was thinking very much edgy and dark stuff, hardcore, maybe not the poets of our generation but certainly a voice for a slice of society that's been disenfranchised by the system of living. It was a great starting place, the back alleys of Brooklyn Heights or Across Hundred and Tenth Street into Harlem, but they aren't the only mean streets. What we've got here, we're talking the pheromones of the city, the detritus of a nation. We're talking about the criminal elements that move and shake just below the surface, unseen but everyone is aware they're there… We're talking seminal TV shows like The Wire and The Shield. We're talking about outcasts forced to live hard or die harder. We're talking about the Lone Ranger or Shane riding into town and fix that shit even as it explodes all around them. We're talking primarily about heroes and villains where the cities they do battle in are as important as any character.
The first book I picked for this bundle, Stephen Gallagher's Down River, is one of those books that made me want to be a writer. Hell, I think I emulated if not outright copied elements of it for a dozen (unpublished and never to be published) stories. I make no bones about it, I adore this man's work. On any list of favourite authors I've written down from the age of 19 (when I first discovered his novel Rain) right up until today, Steve would be one of the first names down. You might not be familiar with his stuff. I could embarrass him by saying he wrote the Warrior's Gate and Terminus episodes of the classic Doctor Who era (Staring Tom Baker and Peter Davison respectively), or talk about the pure excitement in the Savile household reading copies of FEAR MAGAZINE in preparation for the release of his first creator-driven show Chimera, which was something of an event for a fanboy like me… I could mention The Eleventh Hour TV show with Captain Picard at the helm in the UK and Rufus Sewell playing Hood in the US, or the reimagining of Robinson Crusoe from a few years back, or that short lived Christian Slater vehicle, The Forgotten. If you're an anglophile I could mention some pretty devastating episodes of Silent Witness…

But instead, I'll tell you a little story about the first time I met Steve. It was at a dealer table at a convention, and I'd got a copy of a signed limited edition of his short story collection in my hand. We'd talked a lot before this, even exchanged old fashioned letters, and he'd been in my anthology Redbrick Eden which raised money for homelessness in the UK, but this was the first time we'd seen each other face-to-face… and what sentence preceded that auspicious event? Me saying 'Jesus Christ, thirty five fucking quid for a book, that's ridiculous!' and a voice behind me saying 'I know… it's rather embarrassing, but I didn't set the price…' as you can imagine… I did a very good impression of the Incredible Shrinking Man at that point. Suffice it to say, Steve is top man, and a terrific writer. I read Down River, the story of Johnny Mays, back in 1989 and I have never forgotten it. That should tell you something very important about just how good this guy is.


The second book I picked for the bundle was an easy choice, Ed Gorman. I've never had the pleasure of meeting Ed, but I consider him right there with John D. McDonald, Robert B. Parker and Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer when it comes to crime fiction. Ed is the very definition of a writer's writer. He's nothing short of brilliant READ MORE

There you have it. Pick up the bundle and look what you get. Clive Barker, Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini, Steven Savile, Maynard & Sims, Tony Black, Sean Black, Dennis Niall Wilson, Tom Piccirilli, David Morrell. Heavy hitters, all.

A downside of seismic changes in the book market has been the lack of reliable guidance to the good stuff. Big sales and fan noise are just as likely to lead to disappointment as to discovery. There have been a number of experiments in curation, and StoryBundle seems to be one of the more successful. Their organisation and professionalism has certainly been impressive. It's a pleasure and an honour to be included.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

If You Can Get To Camden

There's this:

From tomorrow, Thursday April 16th, for three nights at Camden's Etcetera Theatre. I didn't have a hand in the show but there's some DNA in there somewhere.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Nightmare to the Max

Hey look, the kid's all growed up.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Meet the Tiger

A happy find in Keswick today - Meet the Tiger was the first novel to feature Simon Templar, aka The Saint, and it's been out of print for some time.

Charteris was unhappy with his tyro work viewed in the context of his mature prose, and withdrew the book. His widow continues to respect his wishes; the title isn't included in the recent reissue of the otherwise complete Saint canon.

Two years ago I shelled out for a hardcover first edition, and I can report that LC had very little to worry about. The plot has flaws but the writing style and characterisation are well up to par with the later works. For a writer barely out of his teens, it's an impressive debut. 

And I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for a great old low-rent pulpy cover.

UPDATE: In the last available reprint of the novel published by Charter, New York, in September 1980, there's an introduction written by Leslie Charteris himself and dated 21st March 1980.

In it he says "(Meet the Tiger) has been out of print for more years than I can guess at, and with no complaints from me. Personally, I would have been very happy to leave it quietly in limbo; I was still under 21 when I wrote it, more than 50 years ago, and am no more anxious to parade it than any other youthful indiscretion".

He goes on to confirm his dissatisfaction with the contents, and follows this with: "However, I can’t deny writing it, its existence is a historical fact, and I suppose that anyone who is interested enough in backtracking into Simon Templar’s and my own adolescent beginnings has a right to access to the awful truths."

This is the edition mentioned in the title's Wikipedia entry as the last to see print. I don't know whether it means that LC blew hot and cold over the book's availability throughout his career, or if it was only after 1980 that the rights were returned to his control and he could put his wishes into action.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Doll Collection

Upcoming anthology from Tor Forge... I'm in it

Friday, 20 February 2015

The day I was offered THE PRISONER

It was back in the early 90's. I was at a meeting with Debra Allanson down in Soho Square. Her boss at the time was David Cunliffe, and he did a drop-by. He said they had access to The Prisoner TV rights and would I be interested in tackling a new version?

I didn't even hesitate. I said I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. I said that if ever there was a remake that you couldn't take on and win, this was the one.

It wasn't just a casual enquiry on their part. The drive to remake The Prisoner went on for decades. I heard they went on to have a discussion with the late Lelan Rogers, record producer and brother of the more famous Kenny, about an Americanised take on the show. But that foundered. Then in the mid-90s all the ITC rights went to Polygram and there was talk about a feature with a Patrick McGoohan screenplay. Mel Gibson was supposed to be attached at one point. Then there was the version with the Christopher McQuarrie script.

I thought about it afterwards, obviously, and played those head-games where you imagine what you might have done with it. The lead character's grown-up daughter contrives to get herself sent to the Village as part of a plan to liberate the father she's never met, and who hasn't bent an inch in all those years. He takes her appearance as yet another trick to break him. She starts to wonder if he's right, and whether her choices have actually been her own. And at the end of the day, true to the core value of the original: no straight answers.

But I've never been sorry that I turned down the chance. Talk about a poisoned chalice. Despite a stellar cast and a thoughtful script from Bill Gallagher (no relation), the choices that drove the 2009 ITV miniseries place it alongside the Fiennes/Thurman Avengers movie in the Gallery of the Misconceived. Listlessly shot in a threadbare Namibian Butlins', it's what you get when your producers haven't grasped what makes a property tick.

The Prisoner was a huge, flawed, sprawling, psychotic explosion centred on the personality of its producer/star. Take away the things that gave it unique life - McGoohan, the location, its 1960s psychedelic sensibility - and what you're left with is a story premise that, on its own, was good for one episode of Danger Man.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

"One of the Strangest Dramas in the Small Screen's History"

I was looking for something in the archives when I came across this little snippet, and thought I'd share. It fairly counts as contemporary, since the episode seems to air every other week on ITV3...

Of The Cup of Silence, December 23rd's feature-length Rosemary & Thyme Christmas Special, Victoria Segal wrote in The Sunday Times:
…Superficially it resembles Women’s Institute television, a comfortable shoe of a show, yet close inspection shows Rosemary & Thyme to be one of the strangest dramas in the small screen’s history… for all the intrigue you quickly believe this is written by people whose horticultural interests extend to high-end herbal exotics. Consider the evidence: gratuitous shots of mushrooms accompanied by sinister music; a group of B-movie fans re-creating Peter Cushing films in the hotel’s cellar; and best of all, a prog-rock reference so incongruous the writer must have had a bet. Forget Midsomer Murders and feed your head.
And I wrote:

"Much as I hate to disillusion a journalist, no exotic substances were involved. That's what my world looks like all the time."

Monday, 16 February 2015

Sebastian Blogger

I've put together a second blog in which I've pulled together all my material on the Sebastian Becker books and short stories. This is what it's currently looking like:

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Arthur and Sherlock

Most of my background knowledge on Arthur Conan Doyle comes from his autobiography Memories and Adventures, and from the 1949 biography by John Dickson Carr. I haven’t read the 1995 bio by Michael Coren but I understand that it goes further into the Doyle/Joseph Bell connection - the relationship that inspired the Murder Rooms BBC series - than most of the others. What I’ve read of the debate suggests that there are various camps arguing for a single model for Holmes (Bell, Doyle himself) when it’s perfectly obvious to any working writer that every character has multiple sources.

I read the Holmes short stories in my early teens and it was probably around then that I saw the Douglas Wilmer/Nigel Stock BBC adaptations. I reckon there's always a special place in your heart  for the actor who first introduces you to the character, much as Doctor Who fans divide along generational lines and four generations of adolescent boys lusted after whoever was wearing the catsuit (Gale, Peel, King or Lumley) in The Avengers when the hormones hit.

I can’t say I was ever the rabid kind of Holmes fan. I knew a boy who was, to the extent of taking up the violin because of it. If he's stayed true to form he’s probably a coke fiend by now. I liked a core of the shorts and none of the novels, which I felt lacked the tight structure and single focus that made the stories work. As for the rest of Doyle's output: I read Tales of Medical Life but I skipped Brigadier Gerard. I read some of the boxing stories. My big Conan Doyle book was The Lost World – loved it then, love it now. In fact I never thought about it until this moment, but now I count I’ve got at least five different editions of it scattered about the house, including a first. I even slogged my way through The Land of Mist because it had Professor Challenger in it, which is a serious test of affection.

The Holmes stories that have stayed with me all turned on some elegant and ingenious element, (the fire trick in A Scandal in Bohemia, the goose trick in The Blue Carbuncle) but I think I was never quite convinced by Holmes himself. I saw him as a group of eccentric attributes that never quite cohered into a believable personality. In retrospect I think the stories succeeded because Holmes and Watson together make a single character, divided for the purposes of narrative development. What I liked about Murder Rooms was that it dispensed with the fictional figureheads while occupying the same dramatic ground, effectively reinventing the whole thing. Bell and Doyle hit all the same buttons as Holmes and Watson, but with none of the limitations.

The first time that I felt the character of Holmes approached reality onscreen was in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes – neither a slavish copy nor a spoof, more of a jazz riff on Doyle’s tune. Not the definitive big-screen Holmes but for my money the most satisfying. If Doyle had felt able to develop the character with the same kind of freedom, maybe he wouldn’t have grown to detest his own creation so.

At this time of writing we have two very different screen Holmeses to consider - three, if you count Robert Downey Jr's charismatic man of action, an interpretation that drew criticism but which for my money got further under the skin of the character than any of the pipe-and-deerstalker brigade. I mean, Roger Moore? Charlton Heston? No offence to those gentlemen but... FFS... it's like Holmes has always been fair game to any fast-moving wheeler-dealer producer with access to tax shelter money and cheap studio time.

TV offers us two radically different takes in the form of the BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary. Note to fans; it's OK to watch both. Benedict Cumberbatch's version is dazzling performance art, a fascinating and superhuman creation that you'd never expect to meet in life. Jonny Lee Miller's awkward, vulnerable and self-aware Sherlock is something else; tightly-wound and earnest, more human than superman, more psychological truth than fireworks.

Doyle was never what you’d call a psychological writer. His was a world of concrete certainties. His certainties were entirely his own and he owed them to nobody – he believed in fairies and Empire and you could hardly call such a combination the mark of a conventional thinker – but in all his life and deeds he seems to have been free of any element of self-doubt. Which is great for a crusader and a champion, both of which roles he played in later life, but something of a hindrance when sitting down to imagine characters of conflict and complexity.

My private theory on Doyle is that inside his head he was always twelve years old. He wrote stories. He dreamed of dinosaurs. He was idealistic in an old-fashioned, chivalric, Walter Scott kind of a way. He carried boxing gloves in his luggage and challenged other boys to fights. He started to learn the banjo in middle age. When he went to visit the trenches in 1916 he designed himself a uniform.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Chimera: the making of a TV Monster

Here's a follow-up to this post from a couple of weeks back, in which discovering the whereabouts of an old colleague inspired me to revisit one of my early projects.

During Chimera's pre-production and filming I hopped around with my then state-of-the-art camcorder and collected footage which then sat, unshown and unseen, until Revelation Films secured DVD rights to the show after long and patient effort.

I offered the footage for use as a possible extra feature - in fact it made three featurettes. I recorded the commentaries on a deceptively tiny digital recorder in my Los Angeles apartment, working around the distraction of hummingbirds outside the window and the noise from my landlord's leafblower on the drive, and emailed them back to the UK.

This is the first of the three. If you want to see the others, it won't ruin you to buy the disc. Which also includes a PDF of the earlier radio adaptation script, and the show's original Press Kit, and a couple of other things I don't even remember. "Contains moderate gore".

Incidentally, with so much nostalgia-driven stuff on the blog of late you might be forgiven for thinking I haven't been working on anything new.  Not so. I spent most of 2014 developing a network project and working between drafts on a new Becker novel that I delivered last month. Development happens off the radar, so there's nothing to say about that right now. And it's too soon to give you any news on the novel.

But if you'd rather imagine me idle, feel free.

Crusoe to UKTV

From C21 Media:
UKTV has picked up a trio of scripted series from UK-based producer and distributor Power, including NBC drama Crusoe... The 13-part adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel stars Sam Neil and Sean Bean and was originally commissioned by NBC in the US and produced by Power.
Crusoe was last shown on British terrestrial TV as a Christmas season special on (if I'm remembering correctly) Channel 5. The shows have been acquired for UKTV's Drama channel, which is free-to-air on Freeview.

More here.

Monday, 2 February 2015

From Chad to Cumberbatch

Dougie Mann (left), Little John (right), and Kettlewell (background)Back in 1990 I drove down to Pinewood Studios for the first of several visits to the workshops of Bob Keen's Image Animation, a special effects company that had supplied prosthetics and animatronics for Richard Stanley's Hardware and Clive Barker's Hellraiser movies.

It was all a bit of a scramble. The script of Chimera had been doing the rounds of UK TV companies for over a year. First it had been picked up by development producer Simon Moorhead, then Morse producers Zenith had thrown their weight behind it.

Each of the majors had turned us down and we'd all but given up hope when a foundering project created a sudden gap in Anglia TV's production schedule. That misfortune was our opportunity. We found ourselves with a four-hour monster show to make and not much time to make it in.

It was a great experience for me. I got to hang out everywhere, and it would be a long time before I'd again get to be so hands-on in a show. The design and building of the creature is covered in one of the featured extras on the Chimera DVD, which can now be had for less than a fiver if you shop in the right place.

Our project was handled for Image Animation by Simon Sayce and our creature designer was an FX artist introduced to me only as Little John. They're both in the documentary, and that's Little John in the picture above. Behind the Chad mask is movement specialist Douglas Mann.

In the years that followed, I often wondered what had become of some of our team. In Little John's case, Google was no help. He was even billed as Little John onscreen and on the IMDB, where his credits stopped soon after. When someone seems to vanish from the record, you fear the worst; it's a precarious business, even for the most talented.

Last week, a development; thanks to the combined research efforts of the Demonic Offspring and filmmaker Paul Campion, I learned that not only does Little John have a surname but that I failed to stop his career in its tracks.

John Cormican is now the senior sculptor for Madame Tussaud Studios, travelling the globe and handling many of their high-profile projects. In the video he takes us through the measuring and modelling of Benedict Cumberbatch's figure, much as he did for my camera in the Pinewood workshop all those years ago. Look at the work here and you'll see why he's reached the top of his profession.

(Or if you're one of those lured here by the Benedict factor, take whatever you need)

All this pleases me more than I can tell you.

UPDATE: Well, this is just a bit spooky; from the Time Celebrity Newsfeed, "Watch Benedict Cumberbatch Pretend his Name is Chad".

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Doll Collection

Starred review from Publishers Weekly for The Doll Collection, edited by the invincible Ellen Datlow and available next month from Tor.

PS I'm in it.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Paragraph Test

Last Summer I discovered a bookshop with a healthy haul of '60s paperbacks, many of them in great condition for their age and fairly priced at three quid a pop. So of course I kept going back.

I put my focus on popular fiction writers that are now forgotten, or had passed me by, or that I'd been aware of but never read. It was a chance to see if my affection for the literate 70,000 word thriller had altered or diminished over time. Also to appreciate the all-but-forgotten art of the British commercial illustrator, for whom the Photoshopped stock image has proved an inexpensive substitute.

(They say you can't judge a book by its cover. But don't people do that all the time? Given that it's the cover's purpose?)

Any book that caught my eye would be subjected to the usual test, which is to open a page at random and read any paragraph. You know within a few lines if the writer can write, just as you know after a few notes whether a person can sing. Maybe it's a tribute to old-style editing, but back then fewer published authors seemed to get away with just plonking it down.

I'm still working my way through the reading pile, and will be for some time... I don't read as much as I once did. I blame this partly on The Job, because I pay too much attention to technique and can't lose myself in story as easily as before, and on bad TV, because there's always something on.

What am I finding? A couple of things stand out. Readers are more educated in procedure now, and won't stand for investigations driven by intuition or an investigator's whim. And though there were notable female thriller writers active at the time - Helen MacInnes and Josephine Tey spring immediately to mind - the female characters in this male-dominated field are largely undercooked stereotypes. They fall into the rough categories of fantasy wife, virgin to be rescued, or bitch to be tamed.

As well as discoveries - Donald MacKenzie deserves to be better-remembered than he is - the paragraph test spawned a few surprises as well. The quality of some writing was so at odds with the author's lack of reputation that I was driven to Google to find out more. What I'd often find was a famous writer knocking out decent thrillers for money. E V Cunningham turned out to be a pseudonym for Freedom Road and Spartacus author Howard Fast. The witty and elegant Edgar Box proved to be none other than Gore Vidal.

There's a line in "Box's" Death Before Bedtime that maybe hasn't travelled as well as some. Camilla Pomeroy, wife of the prime suspect in a Senatorial murder case, has wangled her way into the narrator's bed. We skip tastefully over the gymnastics, and in the aftermath:
She sat up on one elbow and pushed her hair back out of her eyes. She was obviously proud of her body; she arranged it to look like the Duchess of Alba. "What on earth would my husband say."
The Duchess of Alba? I didn't get the reference, so I had to look it up. The educated reader of the time should have been thinking of the pose in this painting:

Those with Safe Search off can find the complete image here. Spain put it on a stamp, so it's hardly scurrilous. Its actual title is La Maja Desnuda and art historians argue over whether it represents the Duchess at all; but the face is recognisable from Goya's formal portraits of his subject, with whom he was said to be obsessed.


Having no idea of what Vidal was shooting for with the image, I searched for The Duchess of Alba.

Here's what came up...

Yes, that's the Duchess of Alba.

All I can say is, the culture's moved along.