Sunday, January 01, 2017

Ranking the first 13 episodes of Endeavour

To mark the publication of my new ebook Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse, I've written a listicle that ranks the show's first 13 episode. Totally subjective, it ranks episodes according to the levels of panache, wit, surprise and empathy they generate for me as a viewer. Ask me again tomorrow, the rankings would likely be very different. Feel free to debate my choices in the comments section, or propose your own rankings! Now, eyes down for a full house...

13th - RIDE: Even lesser episodes of Endeavour are more than a match for the better episodes of many police procedurals, but Ride’s tangle of plot threads and a lack of characters with whom to empathise make this a hard effort to love. The opener of Series Three gets plenty of marks for panache but the script lacks the show’s usual wit and the surprises feel forced, rather than the twists that feel inevitable in retrospect.

12th - NOCTURNE: A creepy, almost empty countryside boarding school, missing girls, a hundred-year-old massacre to solve, all set against the backdrop of the 1966 World Cup - yet somehow this episode is less than the sum of its parts. Since the show is based in a logical world, the ghost story is too obvious a red herring while the explanation for the killer’s action takes nearly six minutes to unravel. All in all, a curate’s egg.

11th - GIRL: Series openers are not a strongpoint for Endeavour, though there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Girl. By comparison to the stories that follow, this episode’s only issue is being a bit low-key. Girl could just as easily have been set a decade earlier or later, making little use of the 1960s period. But the arrival of new regulars like Constable Jim ‘Matey’ Strange is a big plus, pushing it close to the top ten.

10th - ARCADIA: This episode fully embraces its Summer of Love setting, and throws plenty of references to that late 1960s classic, The Graduate - plus an extended homage to Dirty Harry. The script is witty and looks luscious, but lacks the element of surprise that would elevate it further up this list. A few too many red herrings and a small-scale story keep Arcadia below the level it would otherwise deserve here.

9th - ROCKET: Plenty of wit and style on show here, with Craig Parkinson proving his star turn in Line of Duty was no fluke. This factory-based mystery based around a royal visit also digs into the past of young Morse as he gets intimate with an old acquaintance from his student days in Oxford. Some excellent work all round here, just edged out by the extra sizzle found in the episodes ranked higher.

8th - TROVE: A series opener that grips from start to finish, full of twists and turns, alarms and surprises. Fans of the original Inspector Morse series will enjoy the early appearance by a repugnant academic whose true evil will only become apparent in future. Lashings of noir styling, a painful trip to the big smoke for Endeavour and the arrival of Nurse Monica Hicks combine to make this the best series opener to date.

7th - PILOT: This is a corker from start to finish, with few things to complain about - so why isn’t it rated higher? The reason is not for what is here, but what isn’t. Regulars like Bright, Strange and Jakes would only appear when Endeavour got a full series, and they add another extra dimension to the show that’s a little absent here. The spy subplot is also superfluous to requirements, which explains why it was cut for US viewers.

6th - FUGUE: The obligatory serial killer toying with the police episode. Clever, canny and creepy in equal measure, this is a compelling tale with Morse and others in jeopardy as a high functioning sociopath [no, Sherlock, not you] performs a series of opera-inspired killings. The only frustration is it takes Endeavour and co so long to figure out what is obvious to any regular viewer of serial killer thrillers.

5th - SWAY: The margins between each episode at the top end of this list are finer than gossamer thread. So what lifts Sway above the likes of Fugue? It’s the supporting cast of characters at Burridges department store. They all seem like real people, with individual flaws and foibles, rather than temporary fodder for a crazed killer. Thursday’s heartbreak only adds to the impact of this high quality drama - a real gem.

4th - CODA: If the opening episodes of Endeavour can be a problem, series finales are almost always crackers. This was the endgame of Series Three, with a bank heist in the middle and the departure of Joan plucking the heartstrings at the end. Thursday coughing up a bullet will strain credulity for some viewers, but this is still a very strong effort - even if it can’t match the gut punch drama found in the other series finales.

3rd - PREY: The ultimate love it or hate it episode of Endeavour, the one with the tiger stalking people in leafy Oxford. Even attempting this storyline seems like an act of madness, but pulling it off verges on miraculous. Surprise, wit, panache - this really ticks all the boxes, hence it’s bronze medal finish here. Hard to imagine any other police series delivering this story with a straight face and making it work - masterful.

2nd - HOME: This episode is heart-breaking. Thursday faces his past as London gangsters come to claim Oxford, while Morse must confront his estranged family. In the midst of all that is a huge conspiracy, amazing snow-bound visuals and a genuinely surprising murder with the unlikeliest of culprits pulling the trigger. A stunning finale for the first series, exceeded only the next series finale a year later...

1st - NEVERLAND: Dark, bleakly funny, and profoundly disturbing are all accurate descriptions for the Series Two finale. Alas, shocking stories about cases of historic sexual abuse and their cover-ups remain timely, so the narrative behind this episode continues to resonate. The shocking cliffhanger left viewers gasping, while the 21-month wait for Series Three even more agonising. A stone cold classic in every aspect.

Series Four of Endeavour starts at 8pm, Sunday January 8th, 2017 on ITV. Where will those four episodes end up on this list? Can the series opener overcome the curse of the first story? Will the finale match the likes of Coda, Home and Neverland? We shall see...

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflecting on 2016, planning for 2017

Stuff I did and stuff that happened in 2016:
Wrote my 46th issue of Fantomen comic, as yet unpublished. 
My 2002 Doctor Who novel Amorality Tale was released as an unabridged audio book, read by Dan Starkey, which was nice.
Revisited my Doctor Who novel Who Killed Kennedy and added a new ending to create a 20th anniversary edition, one with which I'm finally happy - you can read the ebook free here.

Signed the contract to co-write a putative trilogy of SF novels about which I can say no more.

Updated and expanded my Inspector Morse guide by nearly 50,000 words and published it as an ebook, Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse, available exclusively for Kindle readers through Amazon.

Spent several fruitless months in development hell working on Tealeaf, my TV project for pre-teens.

Devoted several months to finessing the treatment for my rom-com spec feature Nobody's Perfect, working with a development student at the National Film & Television School.
Stuff I will do and stuff that will be happening in 2017:
Thrill-Power Overload - my history of iconic British weekly 2000AD - is being reissued in February 2017. The edition will be hardback, 400 pages and updated with new material by journalist Karl Stock to cover the last ten years. I'll even be attending 2000AD's 40th birthday bash in London to help pimp the book. You can pre-order Thrill-Power Overload here
I'll be working on the co-written trilogy about which I can say no more. 
I'll be writing at least a first draft of Nobody's Perfect.

And I'll be starting a Creative Writing PhD at Lancaster University in January, part-time via distance learning. For this I will be writing a historical crime novel with the working title Safer To Be Feared.
I may well spend some more time in children's TV development hell, and would love to write another script for Fantomen, but the things listed above are my 2017 priorities.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Why Endeavour is the best Inspector Morse spin-off

My new ebook Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse includes a section tracing the character's evolution over the decades. In this, I argue that the young Morse TV drama series Endeavour is the most creatively successful new work involving Dexter's characters since the author killed off his Oxford detective, trumping the Lewis spin-off, Morse stage play and all other efforts. Below is an exclusive extract:
Broadcaster ITV struggled to fill the void left by the loss of Morse, with nothing able to match the success of such a beloved series. So in 2004 ITV went back Dexter and secured his permission to resume development of a Lewis spin-off. Whately was persuaded back into the role and approval gained from Thaw’s widow, Sheila Hancock.
            Launched in January 2006, Lewis was another success, making a regular series inevitable for the newly promoted inspector. He would deal with 33 cases over the next nine years, ample proof of how enduring Dexter’s creations had become. The author even wrote a short story for Lewis and his television sidekick Sergeant James Hathaway in 2006. The circle was complete once more, in print and on screen.
            Morse has also ventured into theatre, taking to the stage in a 2010 play called House of Ghosts. It didn’t match the success of his other incarnations, but history proved the inspector is a resilient character and a revival of the play followed in 2015.
            But the most unlikely and - in the opinion of this author - the most creatively successful new incarnation of Morse is the prequel TV series Endeavour. Conceived as a one-off to mark the 25th anniversary of Morse’s first television appearance, it was inspired by a short story Dexter wrote for the Daily Mail in 2008. The prose tale had an undergraduate Morse solving a mystery, but Endeavour moved on to his earliest days as a police detective in Oxford. Dexter has written little about Morse’s background, much of its contradictory, leaving the creative team free to craft their vision.
            The 1960s setting enables Endeavour to avoid the narrative pitfalls borne of 21st Century technology like mobile phones, facial recognition software and DNA profiling. Instead, the detectives must rely on their instincts, intelligence, and deductive reasoning to solve cases. The period also provides a vibrant storytelling backdrop, with British society undergoing radical changes during the Swinging Sixties.
            The usual high standard of production values, the glorious backdrop of Oxford and an outstanding cast of actors have all contributed to the success of Endeavour - especially Shaun Evans and Roger Allam as DC Morse and DI Thursday, respectively. But the masterstroke for this particular show has been the presence of a single writer - Russell Lewis - providing each and every script.
            Having Lewis as executive producer and sole writer for Endeavour echoes the role of Colin Dexter as Morse’s creator. This authored approach helps give the show a consistent creative vision. Characters can grow and evolve but retain their unique voices and attitudes, even in the most outrageous experiments with tone and genre. From the spooky chills of ‘Nocturne’ to the serial killer thriller ‘Fugue’ or the nature strikes back bizarreness of ‘Prey’, every episode still feels like part of the same show.
            Lewis says he has already written the final scene of Endeavour. Perhaps it will be Morse getting the keys to his beloved burgundy Jaguar 2.4 Mk II - registration 248 RPA - and driving it away through the dreaming spires of Oxford? Whatever the show’s finale, hopefully we will not be seeing for a while yet...

Monday, December 26, 2016

This is Endeavour: The Complete Inspector Morse

 January 6th 2017 is the thirtieth anniversary of Inspector Morse making his TV debut, starring John Thaw as the grumpy Oxford detective and Kevin Whately as his long-suffering sidekick, the redoubtable Sergeant Lewis.

To mark the occasion I have self-published a new ebook edition of my guide to all things Morse. ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse is a vastly expanded and updated version of the book formerly known as The Complete Inspector Morse, adding nearly 50,000 words of new material to the ebook.

It covers Colin Dexter's original Morse novels and short stories, the Inspector Morse TV series that ran from 1987-2000, and related materials - radio adaptations, the Morse stage play and so on. The big addition to this edition is comprehensive analysis of Endeavour, the TV drama prequel set in the 1960s, starring Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as his mentor, DI Thursday.

The new ebook covers the first 13 episodes of Endeavour, up to and including Series Three. To mark Morse's 30 years on screen, ITV is launching Series Four on Sunday January 8th 2017. I've got a wee preview of Series Four in the ebook, a full analysis will be in a future edition. The new run of stories looks like a corker, judging by this trailer:

For now, ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse is only available as an ebook, sold exclusively through Amazon sites in various countries [the US edition is available here, for example]. This raises two questions: why is it only available as an ebook, and why have I chosen to self-publish it this round?

The Complete Inspector Morse has always been a steady rather than spectacular seller. Titan published the fifth edition in 2011 after acquiring Reynolds & Hearn's list of titles, but The Complete Inspector Morse didn't shift enough to persuade Titan into commissioning an update for Morse's 30th TV anniversary.

But my original contract is so elderly [2001 - long before Kindles or tablet computer], it gave the publisher only non-exclusive electronic rights, enabling me to issue a new ebook. With the ease of self-publishing, I choose to do just that.

Endeavour enthusiast Jo White [aka @Jodelle08 ] provided the cover photo which she took while the show was filming its fourth series in Oxford earlier this year. She even waived a fee, suggesting I make a donation to Oxfam instead, which I was happy to do.

Being too time-poor [and, let's be honest, too lazy] to learn how to format my complicated text for ebook, I employed the publishing consultancy services of Caroline Goldsmith to do all the coding. Very helpful and reasonably priced too - I can recommend her.

I don't expect to make money from ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse - indeed, if I eventually cover my costs, I'll be happy. So why did self-publish it? Because I enjoy all things Morse and wanted to mark the character's 30th anniversary on TV.

So, if you enjoy all things Morse - or if you're simply a fan of the TV series Endeavour - you might give ENDEAVOUR: The Complete Inspector Morse a look. And if you enjoy the ebook, please give it a good review on Amazon or Good Reads. Onwards!

Monday, January 18, 2016

My PLR top ten titles for July 2014 - June 2015

Every year the Public Lending Right sends registered authors a statement estimating how many times their books were borrowed from UK libraries. To compensate for lost sales, the PLR pays about six pence per loan. There's a maximum payment threshold [£6600] to prevent bestselling authors from draining the PLR's precious coffers of cash.

About 22,000 authors will get payments for the most recent PLR period [July 2014 - June 2015], with about 200 on the maximum of £6600. The fate of the PLR is in flux, as cash-strapped councils close libraries and eBooks alter reading habits. But authors still welcome this new year bonus.

It is free to register your books for PLR - just go here. Even if you only wrote [or drew, in the case of comics artist] part of a collection, you can still register your bit. I represent a tiny 3% of the Heavy Metal Dredd graphic novel, but it makes me a few pennies.

I’m a minnow for PLR payments, never getting more than £500 in any given year. With my focus on screenwriting since 2007, and no new novels published in nearly a decade, the size of my payment keeps tumbling as my dog-eared tomes disappear from libraries.

My 2000AD-related tomes dominate the list this time, no doubt thanks to the recent Future Shock documentary and the 2012 Dredd movie starring Karl Urban.

My last published novel - Warhammer tome A Massacre in Marienburg - remains in the top five here. Only one of my novels remains in physical print, Doctor Who: Amorality Tale, thanks to a new edition by BBC Books in early 2015 - but many are still available as eBooks.

Anyway, here are my top ten tomes for July 2013 - June 2014 (with previous year's placing in brackets). NOTE: this list was edited after the PLR office issued amended statements in March 2016:-

1. (1) Heavy Metal Dredd (graphic novel, published Apr 09)
2. (3) Fiends of the Eastern Front: Stalingrad (graphic novel, Oct 10)
3. (5) A Massacre in Marienburg (Dec 08)
4. (10) Fiends of the Eastern Front: Operation Vampyr (Oct 05)
5. (-) Doctor Who: Amorality Tale (new edition, Feb 15)
6. (-) Thrill-Power Overload: Thirty Years of 2000AD (paperback, Feb 09)
7. (8) Fiends of the Eastern Front: The Blood Red Army (Apr 06)
8. (-) I Am The Law: Judge Dredd Omnibus (Oct 06)
9. (-) Fiends of the Eastern Front: Twilight of the Dead (Jul 06)
10. (-) Judge Dredd: Kingdom of the Blind (Nov 04)

Bubbling under - Thrill-Power Overload (hardback); Starring Michael Caine; and Judge Dredd: Bad Moon Rising

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Looking back at my writing over the past ten years #1

I started this blog soon after starting an MA in screenwriting at Screen Academy Scotland, part of Edinburgh Napier University [which was then just called Napier University]. Tutor Mark Grindle suggested we kept a journal of our progress through the course, to chart our learning and record the experience. I opted for a blog - this blog.

Ten years ago I was writing a lot, all of it founded in other people's creations, characters and worlds. I'd more than a dozen novels published with more coming - all tie-ins to licensed properties. I flirted with writing for computer games, enjoyed more success scripting comics and audio dramas, and used my journalism skills for non-fiction books.

But nearly all of it was reactive, and little of it felt like my own. I had long aspired to write for TV, but my attempts were stillborn. I knew I could tell a compelling story, but clearly lacked the skills to crack broadcast drama. Fortuitously, Napier was about to launch its screenwriting MA, so I decided to apply in the hope of retraining myself.

I got on the course as a part-time student. There were bursaries available, but as Foreign Scum™I wasn't eligible for such assistance which meant self-funding. That meant a lot of sacrifices, especially as I had to turn down work to study. My income plummeted, my expenses skyrocketed - but I avoided loading myself with student debt, at least.

I learned a lot from the MA, but also reached to grab whatever knowledge I could find - workshops on script editing and storylining, plus nine months of being mentored in TV writing [a massive thank you to the Scottish Book Trust for that opportunity]. I didn't write enough on the course and wish it pushed us more, but I made breakthroughs.

Thanks to pre-course efforts and the encouragement of producer David Ian Neville, I secured my first broadcast commission writing a 15-minute play for BBC Radio 4 in 2006. The other breakthrough came when a project I've developed on the MA called Danny's Toys won Short Film Screenplay prize at the 2007 Page Awards in Los Angeles.

Those two events - coupled with my final project script Families at War - got me a trial at the BBC TV continuing drama series Doctors. My efforts were good enough that I was asked in 2008 to pitch story of the day ideas, working with lovely Caroline Brittain, then a script editor. I set aside most other areas to focus on screenwriting.

It took two years to get my first episode on screen [not uncommon, I was forewarned]. In that time I became represented by Katie Williams [then of Blake Friedmann, now at The Agency]. I got my second radio play commission from the BBC, and a rewritten version of my script Families at War was a finalist in the Red Planet Prize.

Meanwhile, a new focus emerged for my professional life: teaching. In the autumn of 2008 I saw a job advertised at Edinburgh Napier. The university was preparing to launch a Creative Writing MA programme and wanted tutors with expertise in genre fiction, screenwriting and digital media. It was like they had designed the job for me.

I swithered about whether to apply, not convinced I wanted to devote half my week to non-writing activities. My mother had been a teacher and it seemed a rewarded but all-consuming profession. I got shortlisted and was remarkably laid back at interview, simply because I wasn't sure I wanted the job. I got offered it two hours later.

That was the end of 2008. I was skint, still hadn't gotten a TV commission at that point and uncertain how I could sustain myself as a screenwriter. I knew it would take years to build a self-supporting career, even assuming everything fell into place. So I took the job. It was only 17.5 hours, I still had the rest of my week to write, right?

Ahh, how naive. Teaching has occupied into much more than 17.5 hours a week. But the experience has been massively rewarding, and I have learned a lot from it [probably more than the students at times]. No doubt my career would have been different if I wasn't teaching, but it is the pathway I choose so I refuse to regret that choice.

Looking back, it's curious to see the opportunities I pursued and the one I let it slip away. I did next to nothing with my open invitation to badger Red Planet with ideas, preferring to pursue more broadcast commissions with Doctors. There have been other moments I could have chased, but held back through timidity or lack of hunger.

One thing is clear to me: I write best to commission, or the strong likelihood of a commission. My blood is not fired by open invitations to pitch whatever in the vague hope of someone maybe being interested. That makes me less suited to unspecified development opportunities. I respond well to constraint, to the focus of a deadline.

Give me a set of parameters and a narrowing window of opportunity, chances are I will rise to the occasion. Give me an infinite canvas and a free invite to pitch whatever whenever, chances are I will drift away. It's probably why I wrote so much for licensed properties with short deadlines - I need the rush, the barriers, the thrill of the thrill.

I guess that makes me ill suited for some openings and well armed for others. It certainly explains why I have spent years and years not writing a novel entirely of my own devising, despite having bookshelves groaning with reference tomes and a clear sense of what to write. But I have a plan to overcome that reticence in 2016.

Next time on Vicious Imagery: what happened after I got my first broadcast commission.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Vicious Imagery going into mothballs soon

This blog was launched ten years ago - ten years ago yesterday, to be precise. It has long since ceased to fulfill the original purpose, charting my time as an MA Screenwriting student. After that I used it to follow my progress as an emerging screenwriter, which proved increasingly problematic as I actually started to get work in that field. Lately it has been much neglected, with occasional postings - mostly music videos of a Kiwi persuasion.

I had a stat counter on Vicious Imagery, but lost all that data about five years in. I do know that the blog has attracted nearly 650,000 visits in the past five years - despite the fact I haven't been posting nearly so much as I once did - which is nice. Anyway, I'm going to officially mothball Vicious Imagery soon, but I have a few random observations left to make before then. I won't be deleting the blog, it still attracts up to 300 visits a day so there's some useful content in the archive. But the end is coming for new posts here...