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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.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Imitation of Life

In some of the awards-season discussions of The Imitation Game I've noticed a subtext in which anything other than support for the film is read as an act of disloyalty toward Alan Turing himself. Much as, once upon a time, thinking The Green Berets an awful movie branded you as anti-American, or finding 12 Years a Slave a grim duty-watch made you an apologist for its horrors.

Personally, I thought The Imitation Game a passable time-filler. But then I'm not a big fan of re-staged histories, which seem to me the least ambitious use of the drama toolkit. I must be in a minority because they come out in starry droves every awards season, an opulent parade of beards and wigs and rubber noses.

Like it or don't like it but don't conflate the film with the man who, more than a posthumous pardon or a memorial, deserves a time machine and an unqualified apology.

I was set thinking about Sebastian (1968). You probably won't know it. It's very much a 'Swinging 60s' movie in which Dirk Bogarde plays a charismatic Oxford academic overseeing a squad of female codebreakers. Given what was and wasn't public knowledge at the time, both about the Bletchley Park scene and Bogarde's sexuality, it now feels like one component in a dizzying meta-cocktail of movies and material.

For years Sebastian was just a remembered viewing from my teenaged years, but now someone's put it onto YouTube in its low-res entirety. It's a rarity with an impressive pedigree - Michael Powell producing, the Cinematographer was Gerry Fisher, score by Jerry Goldsmith. Based on a story by former wartime cryptographer (And Peeping Tom screenwriter) Leo Marks, which explains a lot.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Brian Clemens 1931-2015

They say you should never meet your heroes. I'm here to tell you that it isn't necessarily true. I've written elsewhere of my personal debt to The Avengers and little imagined, as a kid growing up with 60s TV, that I'd someday get to play in the telefantasy sandpit.

(Actually, that's a lie. I fantasized about it a lot.)

I first met Brian Clemens at the Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films, where I got to interview him onstage. I have to admit that I reverted to a fanboy mode that I've never really broken out of. In the '90s we were co-consultants on Carnival Films' action-adventure series Bugs. He subsequently wrote the intro for my first collection of short stories. Publisher Pete Crowther approached him for me; I was embarrassed to ask. But holy shit, did I glow when he said yes. And a couple of years ago we switched roles when I contributed the intro to Brian's own collection, titled Rabbit Pie & Other Tales of Intrigue. It was at a Brighton Fantasycon signing session that we last met up, starting in the bar and ending the evening in a Chinese restaurant while a bastard of a rainstorm raged outside. Brian seemed frail, but he was sharp. We last spoke a week before Christmas, when he phoned me out of the blue. He was bright, upbeat, just the same as ever. He invited us down to visit in the New Year.

I was out of the country when Brian guested at the 2009 Fantasycon, but I got to write the appreciation in the programme book. Here it is again.
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.