Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Bobby Lee Rodgers doesn't play Depeche Mode

I'm always loathe to recommend something I like to others, simply because my tastes are a tad eclectic. For example: last week I was browsing iTunes for cover versions of Depeche Mode tracks - I've got a fondness for bizarre cover versions of familiar songs and thought a Depeche Mode search might throw up some intriguing offerings. So I did a search for the song title See You, an early Depeche Mode track and a particular favourite of mine. Turns out there's a lot of people who've performed songs called See You, almost none of them covers of the Depeche Mode song.

But my search did lead me to a song called See You by an American performer called Bobby Lee Rodgers. Since I live in Scotland, I'd never heard of BLR but something about the 30 second extract from See You available on iTunes got my attention, so I bought and downloaded the track. It's 79 pence per track here in the UK and I've spent a lot more on a lot less in my life, sadly. Anyway, I loved See You by BLR and decided to find out more, courtesy of the wondrous internet. Bobby's got his own site [www.bobbyleerodgers.com - natch] and you can even listen to See You as an mp3 by clicking the headline for this blog posting. You might like it, you might not, but it's something you might never hear otherwise. Consider it your new experience for a chilly Tuesday...

Monday, January 30, 2006

Lewis: a worthy successor to Morse?

Ten months ago we sat down to watch the revival of Doctor Who, a combination of excitement and fear gripping the innards. I was hoping it would do the show's heritage justice without being a slavish copy, somehow updating the TV classic for a new audience and a new generation. In Doctor Who's case, the show had effectively been off-air for 16 years, barring the 1996 TV movie. There was an awful lot at stake. Happily, the show proved to be a ratings and critical hit, earning itself two more series and two Christmas specials. Job done.

Last night we sat down to watch Lewis, the pilot for a potential spin-off series from Inspector Morse. It's only five years since Morse concluded its phenomenally successful TV career. The lead character was dead and, sadly, the actor who protrayed him so wonderfully, John Thaw, died two years later from cancer. Now Morse's sidekick was getting his own show - and his own sidekick. The one-off special was effectively a backdoor pilot for a potential series. It brought back he massively underrated Kevin Whately as Lewis, along with many of the creatives and crew who'd worked on Morse. But could they breathe fresh life into the embers of that beloved series?

Put simply, yes. There were no shortage in tips of the hat to the ghost of Morse, but he didn't overwhelm the programme. Whately has aged visibly since his days on Morse, but the script wisely played upon that world-weariness, burning it into the character's soul. The tragic, senseless loss of his wife to a hit and run accident, the inevitable splintering of his family as the kids had 'grown and flown', the feeling that his experience was merely seen as evidence he was too old for the job - all were well woven into the fabric of the script.

The character of Detective Sergeant Hathaway appeared abrasive and unlikeable at first but as we learned more about him, so we grew to like him. By the end he and Lewis were a partnership, Lewis taking the mentor role while Hathaway was akin to a young Morse - a neat reversal of the old Morse and Lewis partnership. The programme looked gorgeous, as Morse always did, and Barrington Pheloung's score had all the flourishes so familiar and welcome from Morse.

The murder mystery was perhaps the weakest link, with much of the plot focused on a massive misdirection. The identity of the killer was somewhat telegraphed by having such a strong actor in such an apparently irrelevant role - you just knew they had to have more to do with the murders that was obvious. But the motivation for the killings was an unexpected twist in the tale, adeptly set up earlier in the script. 'Lewis' also boasts one of the biggest bodycounts in the Morse canon, with at least five bodies heading for the mortuary by the closing credits (to be honest, I was starting to lose count).

All in all, I think 'Lewis' has to be considered a success. There's no question a short series of two or three such stories each year would neat snugly into ITV's schedules, plugging the gaping hole left by Morse's absence. There's certainly plenty of mileage in the new partnership of Lewis and Hathaway, along with their somewhat patrician boss, Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent. The only question now is how well 'Lewis' did in the ratings...

UPDATE: Overnight ratings are in and it seems 'Lewis' was a big hit with viewers. Estimates put the averages viewing figure for the two hours it was on air at 10.7 million, peaking at 11.3 million. Some 46% of all viewers watching TV in Britain last night between 9 and 11 were watching 'Lewis'. While the figure of 10.7 million isn't that high compared to Morse's peak of 18 million back in the early 90s, it's an outstanding number in 2006's multi-channel digital age. It's also not the final figure - that comes later and more be larger, when it takes into account people who recorded the show to watch later.

Here's two more relevant comparisons: a week ago in the same slot Foyle's War averaged 7.3 million (31% of viewers). In all of 2005, only one drama programme rated higher than Lewis did last night: Doctor Who with 10.81m - and it only had 45% of all viewers during its much shorter timeslot. Conclusion: I'd be amazed if ITV wasn't on the phone this afternoon, commissioning at least two or three episodes of Lewis to be filmed this summer in Oxford and broadcast next January. Time will tell...

Friday, January 27, 2006

SARAH JANE SMITH cover revealed at last!

News flash! After what feels like a very, very long wait, the cover for the first of my new Sarah Jane Smith audio adventures has just appeared on the Big Finish website. You can see it above in all its glory or find out more by clicking on the link for SJS: Buried Secrets over on the right hand side of this blog. There's an audio trailer and everything [in Windows Media Player, natch]. Alas, due to a delay beyond the control of Big Finish, the disc's release has been delayed until February - but this being January 27, that's not a huge suprise by now.

Can I just add: Lee Binding is a genius. You can check out his website here - http://www.tea-lady.co.uk/ - although I don't think it's bee updated much lately; or you can embrace your inner Cher at Lee's blog - http://glitterforbrains.blogspot.com/

Taking (film school) stock

So last night I uploaded the last assignment for the first trimester of my MA Screenwriting course. As a part-timer, I only had two modules this term - Writing and Screen Project Development, and The Business of Screen Project Development. As our final pieces of assessed work, we had to hand in a script report on an unproduced screenplay for the writing module (3-4000 words) and a market analysis on a market segment of our choosing for the business module (2-3000 words). These count as 75% and 60% of our total mark for the module, respectively.

My script report was on 'Vivid Gray', a action comedy buddy movie in the style of 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. Yes, you read the title right, it's called Vivid Gray. I guess it could have been worse, the scribe could have called it Dull Gray, but you'd expect an action movie script to all least have a hard as nails, jeopardy-implying title, right? Anyway, I downloaded the screenplay from www.triggerstreet.com, a site set up by Kevin Spacey and associates to give wannabes a chance to get their scripts read and reviewed by their peers. It's a great idea, although you have to jump through a few registration hoops to access the meat of the site. Coppola's www.zoetrope.com seems a similar function, I'm told. I selected Vivid Gray (argh, that title!) because it was rated as Screenplay of the Month last September. No disrepect to the writer, but September can't have been the world's greatest month for screenplays at triggerstreet. Such is life.

For my market analysis I investigated science fiction and fantasy TV drama for family audiences. That's a market that apparently didn't exist before the resurrection of Doctor Who on British TV last year. Now everyone is rushing to develop a science fiction or fantasy series aimed at encouraging family viewing. The BBC's got Robin Hood well along the path, but pulled the plug on its Merlin project. [I was intrigued to read about the Merlin scribes getting to work with American screenwriters, learning hwo to break a story in a writers' room environment. I'd love to give that a try, though I may not be suited to it - not all writers thrive in such an environment.] Meanwhile ITV is opting for the cloning route, coming up with a series called Primeval that sounds like a cross-polination of Doctor Who and Quantam Leap. Sadly for wannabes like me, none of these projects is open to newcomers who don't already have a TV broadcast credit...

Anyways, I'm pretty happy with my final two assignments - fingers crossed the tutors are too. I got D3 for my first assignment on the writing module [D5 is near perfect, Distinction grade 5] and D1 [just squeaking into the distinction category, but considerably better than just a pass] on the business module. I think my market analysis is at least as good as what I delivered before, while the script report [hopefully] displays the requisite breadth and grasp of knowledge. We'll see.

My first priority for the MA is completing the course and getting a pass. But having had a taste of Distinction for my first two pieces of assessed work, that's got my competitive streak hungry for more. I've heard it said getting a Distinction for four of the eight modules [and passing all the modules] means you get an MA with Distinction. It's a long, long, long time since I've done anything academically, but I want to do well on this course. Twenty years ago I did a Journalism Diploma at the Auckalnd Technical Institute in New Zealand - I think it's now called the Aucland University of Technology. Back then I was all too conscious of the fact there were many other people on that course who knew more, had more confidence and were simply better at being journalists than me. My goal then was to get through the course and pass, which I did. Now I'm setting my sights a little higher...

Next week is a 'reading week' between the first and second trimesters. Translation: do some paying work. I've got the second part of a Phantom script to write for Egmont Sweden, closely followed by scripting another issue from a supplied plotline. That's next week taken care of. I've also got an interview feature to do for the Judge Dredd Megazine and some editing to do a couple of scripts for the same title. I'm waiting on feedback from the first draft of my radio script. I'm looking forward to hear the producer/director's comments. I used to resent being told what need improving in my writing. Thanks to the MA course, I'm eager to get feedback, find places I can improve. That's a pretty fundamental change of mind - and an important one. Heaven forfend, am I in danger of becoming a professional writer, as opposed to someone who writes for a living?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

These are a few of my favourite things

Footrot Flats is something of a New Zealand treasure. It's a daily newspaper strip about the misadventures of sheep farmer Wal and his dog, Dog. The strip's been running for decades and, at its peak of popularity, was published in nwspapers around the world. It was reprinted in book collections [Titan used to publish these in Britain - alas, no more] and inspired everything from a theme park to an animated movie. That film was a huge hit in New Zealand and Australia. Best of all, it's recently been released on DVD. Admittedly the disc is Region 4 coded, but any sane DVD owner these days has a multi-region player, so that's not a problem for most people. If you get the chance, I recommend watching Footrot Flats - a true slice of Kiwiana.

My copy arrived on Tuesday, only a week after I ordered it from the redoubtable www.marbecks.co.nz website. The joys of a generous exchange rate meant I got Footrot Flats, the double-disc DVD of another much loved NZ film Goobye Pork Pie, the new Bic Runga CD birds and a 6-CD plus DVD collection of NZ rock - all for under a hundred quid. As they like to say back home in Aotearoa: 'Choice!'

While I'm here, I also want to give a big shout to Sun-Maid Raisins. These little boxes of joy were a staple ingredient in my school lunches. When I saw a big of 18 boxes lurking on the shelves at the nearest supermarket recently, I couldn't resist trying them again. It's amazing how a tiny cardboard box full of raisins can transport you back 30 years in time. I don't need to be plunged into a coma to relive the past, a packet of Sun-Maid will do it. Just one question: how big is that girl's bonnet?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Get your groove on

Nothing like getting a few monkeys off your back to make the load that little bit easier to manage. Writing Fiends 3 had me stressed to the eyeballs, as anybody who read my cry-for-help blog entries on the subject may have noticed. Handing in the book was like removing the lead weights from a diver. Suddenly, I could swim again. If I was going to extend the metaphor even further, there'd probably be something about words as my ocean, but bollocks to that.

Anyways, writing the first draft of my radio play was fun. Actual, real life fun. It's been a while since I've felt that way about writing, enjoying the sensation rather than being bogged down with work and no foreseeable way out. I sent the first draft scirpt in yesterday. No doubt there'll be plenty of rewriting to come and the second draft is due February 23, so that still lays ahead. The Morse book is chugging along nicely too. I've now reviewed 20 of the 33 TV episodes and the end is in sight. The week's new TV listings mags were published today and the Morse spin-off Lewis is on the front of all of them, with cover feature status accorded the show in the Radio Times and Total TV Guide. Lots of positive reviews everywhere for the new show. I'm getting excited about the new show, being broadcast on Sunday. I'm even buying a DVD Recorder to keep a permanent record.

Between now and Friday I've got two more deadlines to meet: submissions for the major pieces of assessed work from the first two modules of my Screenwriting MA. For the script report I've chosen an unproduced screenplay called Vivid Gray, downloaded from triggerstreet.com - first thing I'll be recommending? Change the title! The other assignment is my market analysis, for which I've chosen science fiction and fantasy TV drama for family audiences, particularly in the wake of Doctor Who's phenomenonally successful resurrection last year. 3-4000 words a piece for both of those.

Once they're handed in, I've got a Phantom script that's fast becoming urgent, so that's the next job - and it's a paying job, so that's not an insignificant factor. But, once we hit February 1st, I'll be able to devote all my time to finishing off the Morse book revisions and start looking ahead to new projects. I won't have a book on the go and the path ahead seems remarkably clear of jobs that best resemble lead weights. Bring it on...

Monday, January 23, 2006

These are a few of my favourite (TV) themes

Over at http://kenlevine.blogspot.com sitcom scriptwriting legend Ken Levine has been extolling the virtues of great TV theme tunes - and bemoaning the lack of them on recent shows. He argues they provide instant recognition, can help establish the theme of the show and even become crossover hits (and marketing tools as a consequence). All good points. Of course, it's also worth noting that Ken was a significant writer on Frasier, one of the first shows to turn the opening sequence into a blipvert.

Here is Ken's list of his favourite top 10 TV themes (in no particular order):

I love the theme for Peter Gunn but have never seen the show that goes with it. Sadly, I've never seen an episode of The (original) Dick Van Dyke Show, only The New Dick Van Dyke Show [TV show titles - they just don't make them like they used to, eh?]. And who or what the hell was Mr. Lucky? Otherwise, all top choices and several of those would have been on my list too. We've been watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD as a palette cleanser between TV dramas on DVD lately. I'd love to know who was the old woman in the headscarf who gives Mary the evil eye at the end of the title sequence, as Mary flings a knitted wool hat in the air [can't say I blame her, that hat does nothing for her].

Anyway, just for fun, here's my list of top 10 favourites TV themes in alphabetical order, illustrated by DVD covers [where I could find them]:
THE AVENGERS: Bombastic, groovy and dripping with cool. A classic theme for a classic show, this one can sustain almost any attempt to rearrange it.
BARNEY MILLER: I loved this US cop sitcom and it's them is a gem: starts off cool but builds into a big funk-o-tronic groove-fest. Must buy this on DVD one of these days.
DOCTOR WHO: Come on, you just knew this had to be on the list, didn't you? Scared the bojangles out of me when I was a nipper. Creepy, spooky, like no sound you've ever heard before. Perfect summation of a great programme.
THE FLINTSTONES: Everybody sing along! Flitnstones, meet the Flintstones, they're the modern stone-age family! From the town of Bedrock, they're are... oh, you know the rest.
HAWAII 5-0: One of those themes you can start humming and everybody instinctively knows it, even if they've never watched a whole episode of the show. Best appearance: as the American national anthem in 'The Dish'.
INSPECTOR MORSE: Another inevitable inclusion, especially since I've been listening to it non-stop during revisions of the Morse reference book. Oozes class and generated a Top 5 album in the UK.
THE MOD SQUAD: Imagine if the Doors and the Monkees got together to write a TV theme for a cop show - this would be the result. This show doesn't seem to have been released on DVD, its prospects no doubt sunk by the bomb that was the 1999 Mod Squad movie. Shame, as The Mod Squad also had a cracking title sequence too.
THE PROFESSIONALS: Like Shaft, only white. Full of the obligatory 70s porn funk factor and wah-wah guitar all law and order shows from that decade got issued with.
TIMESLIP: Another sci-fi theme that made the blood run cold. Sapphire & Steel's them owes not a little to this doom-laden slice of scaremongering.
WONDER WOMAN: In her satin tights, fighting for her rights and the old red, white and bluuuuuue! Lynda Carter kickstarted puberty for quite a few teenage het boys. Oh yes.
THE WORLD AT WAR: Like Timeslip, but the doom-warning is even more poignant here as you know what you're about to watch is true. Again, married with a powerful title sequence.

Anybody else want to nominate 10 great TV theme tunes?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Been around the world (and aye aye aye)

The comedy writing genius that is Ken Levine [go visit his blog now, there's a link to your right] was burbling about his obsession with monitoring traffic to his page. Being a shallow, sheep-like creature, I immediately followed his example and hooked up this blog to sitemeter. Now, where inspiration is missing, I could click through and discover [roughly] where people who visit this blog live. Don't fret, I'm not planning to turn you in the authorities, nor disclose what else you look at online. For a start, I'm too thick to figure such things out - I'm amazed I managed to get sitemeter working. From what I can glean [what a excellent word, glean. Best newspaper name ever: The Daily Gleaner], I can discover the location of your ISP. For instance, my location appears as Falkirk and I ain't within cooey of there.

But anyway, let's have a big shout out to recent visitors across the UK and especially to all the international guests: Iceland, New Zealand, New York, South Africa, Mauritius, Massachusetts, Australia, California, Italy, Arizona, Norway and Georgia - amongst others. Hello! It's Saturday afternoon here in semi-sunny Biggar, 25 miles southwest of Edinburgh and 40 miles southeast of Glasgow. I'm off to make a mug of coffee and do some more work on the new edition of my mighty Inspector Morse tome. It's distressing to discover how many things slipped past me or were just plain wrong in the original edition. Even more disturbing are the prices being charged on amazon.com, abebooks.com and other such sites for second hand copies of the first edition. You could pay up to 100 bucks (US) on Amazon.com; 60 pounds sterling on amazon.co.uk; and up to 180 bucks (US) on abebooks.com. You can buy all 33 episodes on DVD for less than that - and pick up all the novels as a boxed set and still have change left over. Madness! Hopefully the new edition will put paid to all that.

As part of the revision process, I've been re-watching all 33 TV tales. Last night's viewing was Who Killed Harry Field? I remember being quite positive about it when I first saw the story, especially as Morse didn't catch the real villain of the piece. But my verdict in the first edition of The Complete Inspector Morse was rather harsh. So I've revised my verdict for the new edition. Doin my MA Screenwriting course has made me think a lot more about the use of theme in a story. If I had to summarise the theme of Who Killed Harry Field?, I'd say the story was about thwarted ambitions. Morse is thwarted from arresting Paul Eirl for murder and thwarted from proving Eirl killed Harry Field. Harry himself was a thwarted artist, Harry's wife was thwarted in her wish to become a mother - on and on, all the characters thwarted and frustrated, reality not matching their ambitions. Perhaps the only happy person in the story is the ever cheerful Lewis, who decides against applying for promotion, recognisign that perhaps he's already happy where he is. Next is line for the Morse Watch is Greeks Bearing Gifts and then the Australia excursion Promised Land...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

It's offically snowing outside - did I miss a memo?

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling

I never cease to be dismayed by the ability of spam to penetrate all the firewalls, junk filters and other security measures supposedly protecting the internet. If I'm not getting greetings from women (allegedly) of dubious virtue, it's invations to have either my breasts or my family jewels enlarged. Note to spam-senders: it's one or the other, guys, unless you're aiming at a very specialised market. Lately I've had a rash of emails about Rolex replicas, saying how much I really want to buy one. No, actually, I don't. But these emails - and the wintry shower of sleet, rain and snow I've just walked through on the way back from the paper shop - reminded me of an incident from my honeymoon.

The missus and I were wending our weary way back to Blighty at the start of 1994, having enjoyed three weeks in the sunshine and splendor of New Zealand. [If you ever get the chance, go - gorgeous countryside, friendly people, all the hobbits you can eat.] We paused for two nights in New York, stopping at a hotel just off Times Square. This is back when the area was still rather dubious, if not an utter sleazefest. Anyways, we arrived at our hotel round midnight, body cloocks set to lord knows what and unable to sleep. After two hours of fitful dozing and watching TV for insomniacs, we decided to go get something to eat.

January in New York is not the warmest place in the world. I don't think the temperature got above freezing the short time we were in the city, and the windchill was widely reported to be pushing temperatures down to minus 15. Despite that and the foot-deep covering most of the sidewalks, we ventured out into Time Square at two in the morning. Strangely enough, there wasn't a lot on offer. About the only place we could find to eat that looked safe was MacDonalds - cheap and cheerless. We struggled across the square, wading through the drifts and approached the front door. Outside was a man selling watches. While standing in two foot of snow. In Times Square. At two in the morning. "Genuine Rolexes," he said. "Fifteen bucks each - or two for twenty."

If memory serves, I had a Filet o'Fish. Tragic admission of ignorance: I never knew what tartare sauce was until I ate my first McDonalds. Then again, I come from a country where I can remember queuing round the block for their first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hmm - KFC potatoes and gravy. Talk about your guilty pleasures.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Unintentional humour

Maybe it's just me, but I found the following sentence [taken from a report on British TV industry trade paper Broadcast] unintentionally funny: "O'Grady's production company, Wildflower, is thought to be already in pre-production with the new C4 show, which is set to launch at 5pm later this year." It's the juxtaposition of pin-point accuracy and airy-fairy vagueness, linked together in just a few words. I mean, I know what the sentence means, but... Oh well, guess it's just me.

Moving right along... If you're a British internet user with broadband who likes Doctor Who [talk about your mutually inclusive parameters], you can go along to www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho and play the interactive adventure Attack of the Graske. Had a go at it this morning, myself, and succeeded - am now waiting for TARDIS to arrive and offer me a permanent place on board. One thing - can't say I go a bomb on the Graske's plan to depopulate Earth one person at a time. Since the human race is still growing, that suggests more people are being born each day than dying. It'll take some serious effort to reverse the population explosion, let alone remove 6 billion people hanging around the place at the moment. I'm honestly not sure the Graske has thought this through. Perhaps they should think about delegating more, perhaps franchise out the plan.

Thought I'd illustrate this entry with an image of the Graske. Instead I found this: Deborah A. Graske, Realtor Associate, who's office is in a place called [yes, honestly] Ho-Ho-Kus. According to her bio [on the website of New Jersey realtors Abbott and Caserta], Deborah Graske has decided to return to the Real Estate profession after spent 18 successful years in the corporate world. She's very proud of her key accomplishments. Deborah's career was highlighted by successfully negotiating and seeking value creating savings, driving down costs and introducing leading edge vendors that resulted in business growth and profits for her employers and customers. Why did this particular Graske decide to return to selling houses and the like? Seems she was longing for friendly person-to-person contacts, the relationship building and truly “hands on” personal approach and involvement that Real Estate sales allow for.

Any similarity between Deborah and Attack of the Graske is entirely coincidental.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I heart The Shield

Been watching Season 4 of The Shield as a wind-down mechanism and to plug those gaps when there's nothing better to watch on TV (i.e. most of the time). Would have watched it when Channel 5 broadcast it last Summer in the UK, but we can't get Channel 5 without a satellite dish and are reluctant to have one. The Government's announced our region will be the first to have its analogue TV signal switched off - in 2008, I think - and unless somebody spends a wad of cash to improve reception round here the satellite dish will become an inevitability. Ho-hum.

Anyway, loving Season 4 of The Shield. The addition of Glenn Close as the new captain has added a fresh element to the mix, giving cental character Vic Mackie the chance to redeem himself. Vic's Strike Team imploded at the end of the previous season - this season seems to be about putting it all back together. Rumour has it Season 5 will be the last for this great show. Created for the FX cable network in the US, it's not as hardcore as HBO's The Sopranos, but it's way tougher and grittier than CSI or the late, often great NYPD Blues. If The Shield is pulling the plug, I'll be sad to see it. But I'll definitely be watching out for whatever creator Shawn Ryan does next. Anybody who's ever thought of writing for TV drama, I heartily recommend getting the DVDs of The Shield Season 3, just for the documentary that takes you inside the writer's room. The documentary on Season 4's discs is good, but not so gripping or cohesive.

I've got a list of DVDs to buy while I'm in LA for Gallifrey: Proof, Grey's Anatomy Season 1, Moonlighting Season 3 and - finally coming to DVD - Season 1 of Hill Street Blues. I can't wait to see how the daddy of gritty ensemble cop dramas holds up after quarter of a century. Meanwhile, I need to get back to some writing after giving myself the luxury of a day off yesterday to tidy the study and empty my brain of WWII, vampyr and the like. Time for some radio drama, methinks.

Let's be careful out there.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

You had me at "Howdy"

'Brokeback Mountain' scored big at the Golden Globes, although Philip Seymour Hoffman got Best Ator (drama) for 'Capote'. Considering how few movies I go to watch at the pictures these days, I doubt I'll get to see Brokeback anytime soon - maybe on the plane to and from LA for Gallifrey next month, but that's probably a longshot. Come to think of it, I saw more films on planes last year than I did in cinemas. Anyway, I've got one question about Brokeback - why is (perpetually crocked) England rugby union hero Jonny Wilkinson playing a sometimes gay cowboy? And when did he change his name to Heath Ledger?

Monday, January 16, 2006


That's right, folks, the third and (perhaps unsurprisingly) final novel in my FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT trilogy has been emailed off to Christian Dunn at Black Flame. No doubt there'll be a few tweaks and twiddles yet to be done on the manuscript, but that's all the hard work done. Praise the lord. I hereby vow never, ever, ever again to write a novel over the Christmas and New Year break. With all my MA Screenwriting coursework and numerous other deadlines, it was the only time available I had, but blimey! Not a good idea.

Still, I'm happy with the way TWILIGHT OF THE DEAD pulls together all the threads of the previous two novels. I did my best to be faithful to the origianl FIENDS serial in 2000 AD, but did insert a couple of small ret-cons into the narrative. Despite my struggles for traction during the early chapters, I ended the novel feeling up for another FIENDS novel, should Black Flame be eager/insane/gulible to commission another from me. Probably not another trilogy, as such, but I've got at least two ideas for further Fiends tales that could sustain 70,000 words of rip-snorting, page-turning, pulse-pounding prose.

What next? I think tomorrow will be a taking stock kind of day. I like to sort out the study when I finished a major project, file away the relevant reference material, and get everything assembled for the next few jobs. Basically, it's a way of getting my professional (and personal) life back under control after the mad dash to the finish line that always accompanies the endgame of writing a novel. Sometimes I wish it wasn't so, but I haven't broke the habit of leaving myself the barest minimum amount of time possible to deliver. Deadlines are a wonderful imperative, along with my Amex statement.

Still, I have now officially booked my flights to Los Angeles for next month's Gallifrey convention. There's going to be a bunch of other scribes present, including the redoubtable JIm Swallow (hey, Jim!), and Doctor Who series one scriptwriters Steven Moffat, Paul Cornell and Rob Shearman. About ten years ago I conducted a roundtable interview with three writers, two of whom contributed to Virgin's line of New Adventures novels, keeping the flame alive during Doctor Who's time in purgatory. The other person at the table had never written for Who and at that point in his career probably never thought he would.

Fast forward to 2006: Steven Moffat and Paul Cornell have both written TV adventures for the good Doctor. Me, I still harbour aspirations, but have got a long way to go before the BBC would be mad enough to let me try. And the other scribe at that table, so long ago? Andy Lane. Wonder where he's lurking these days...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Fiends 3 is bloody finished - at last!

News flash - FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT: Twilight of the Dead (a.k.a. the book that wouldn't die) is officially finished! Hurrah! Well, when I say officially, I mean the first draft is finished. Now I have to print the bugger out, sub-0edit the whole thing and input all the changes. All before 5pm tomorrow. Still, let's savour the moment, shall we? It came to 73,889 words as a first draft. That'll shrink a little in the subbing, but nothing too drastic I imagine. So ends my 16th novel. A word to the wise: never agree to write a novel over the Christmas and New Year break. That way lies madness.

Now for some food.

Why don't we do it in the road?

For various reasons I ended up writing on the road yesterday, almost literally. Circumstances meant I didn't against staying home to write. Life in one room gets pretty tiresome, I need a day out every now and then - but I also needed to progress Fiends 3 to have any hope of finishing the bugger today. So, armed with my iBook and iPod (I am Steve Jobs' bitch when it comes to techno gadgets), I spent 90 minutes sat in a car yesterday afternoon, typing like mad. I bashed out 1500 words in that stint, before relocating to the kitchen table at an acquaintance's home - another hour, another 1000 words. I've always been bemused by scribes who say they write best in cafes and pubs, the idea seemed anathema to me. I'm used to writing as a solitary activity, best done in a small room with a closed door and as few distractions as problem. [I love broadband but it's a bugger when struggling to stay focused.]

Anyway, I got 2500 words down, moved all my pawns into place for the big finish and am now about to embark on the blood-soaked finale. Not convinced I'd make a habit of writing on the road - it's 30 miles to the nearest Starbucks, for a start - but with the iPod blocking out the white noise around me and creating a little writing cocoon, it is at least possible now.

Even procrasti-bloody-nation. Back to the book. Let wailing and gnashing commence, let death and blood-letting be unconfirmed, let acpocalyptic mayhem run loose in the dungeons of Transylvania. Enjoy your Sunday afternoon folks, I should resurface by nightfall...

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Taking stock (and staking pains)

If case you're wondering about the significance of the energy saving lightbulb image above, it's somewhat indicative of my state of mind at the moment. The old brain is bubbling and fizzing with all manner of ideas at the moment, rather like a bottle of good red wine that's gone past its sell-be date. You don't want to drink it, but you enjoy seeing the look on other people's faces when they take a sip. Perhaps this is what comes of watching late night darts as a cure for mild insomnia. Anyways...

How do you stake a pain? For several weeks the back of my brain was busy contemplating this daft question, after disassembling the word painstaking in my head. Eventually I put this question to somebody else and they pointed out that painstaking was a compound of the words pains and taking i.e. to take pains, to suffer in order to achieve a goal. Yes, yes, I said, bluffing like mad so as not to be thought a complete spoon, but how do you staking a pain? I've been known to scramble the occasional word in my life. As a child I was given a book by Richard Scarry called - I think - The Supermarket Mystery. My addled memories suggest it involved a Sherlock Holmesian cat (complete with deerstalker, cape and magnifying glass) solving a mystery at a supermarket (natch). Still being just a nipper, I knew the word my and had the word mystery explained to me. But I was determined that the word my at the start of mystery needed to be pronounced on its own, as well as part of the word mystery. So for some time (months? years) I pronounced mystery as my-mystery. However, I can't find any reason why I insisted on pronouncing kidnapped as kid-nah-pippered. Ahh, kids. Don't they say the dumbest things?

Now, let's take stock. I'll try and do this by impending doom-like deadline.
Due Monday (Jan. 16) - my Fiends 3 novel, 70000 words requried. Got 64k down and am now itching to get this finished. Due the following Monday, Jan 23 - first draft of my BBC Radio play script, 2900-3200 words.
Due Friday Jan 27 - two pieces of assessed work for my MA Screenwriting course, a script report on an unproduced screenplay and a market analysis, both around 3-4000 words.
My editor at Egmont Sweden has started agitating for the second half of my two-part Phantom story Circe's Island, so I guess that's got to be tackled in the next week or two - about 7000 words.
The Megazine's new editor, Matt Smith, has asked me to continue interviewing British comics creators as features for the title, and the first of those is due by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, any spare moments are devoted to re-watching every TV episode of Morse (16 down, 17 to go) while simultaneously revising the text for my reference guide to Oxford's most famous fictional detective. As previously noted, the Lewsi spin-off ain't far away, so I'm guessing published Reynolds & Hearn will want the total text ASAP in February.

In the best of all possible worlds, I'll put that project to bed before flying off on Thursday February 16 for LA to attend the 2006 Gallifrey convention. It's one of the world's most enjoyable Doctor Who events, a great opportunity to meet old friends and do some networking. Hmm, probably best to have some ideas for Gary Russell before I go, as we're overdue a conversation about a possible future project. And I need to buttonhole Big Finish supremo Jason H-E about something else.

And I need to put together material for a 45-minute radio play pitch. And work on my Warhammer pitch. And do some research for my historical murder mystery project. And the list goes on and on and on...

You can see why I need the lightbulb now, can't you? Sleep may be at a premium in the next month or two.

Friday, January 13, 2006

"You've Done It Again, Lewis!"

There was a lovely article in The Independent newspaper yesterday about the new Inspector Morse spin-off drama 'Lewis', starring Kevin Whately. Journalist Gerard Gilbert has obviously seen the special and gives it a glowing review: "...the highest accolade one can give Churchett's script is that by the end of the film, Morse's absence seems irrelevant. The transition is a complete success." This reinforces comments I've heard third-hand from the press screening, indicating the one-off was well received. Best of all, the piece in the Indy supplies a confirmed broadcast date for 'Lewis: Reputation' - Sunday, January 29 on ITV1. [Read the full article for yourself here: http://news.independent.co.uk/people/profiles/article338084.ece ]

I must admit to having had some ambivilence about the wisdom of doing a Lewis spin-off. The incredible success of Morse felt like it captured lightning in a bottle. Many other shows have tried with varying degrees of success to replicate the Morse formula. I guess A Touch of Frost is the most successful in Britain, but few contemporary detective dramas have matched the global love for Morse on TV - 200 countries and a billion viewers. But the portents for Lewis are looking good - hopefully the show will make them. Certainly ITV has been searching long and hard for something to replace Morse ever since the inspector stopped making a new series each year. Five Morse specials over seven years helped plug the gap slightly, but endless attempts to clone Morse [Midsomer Murders, anyone?] can't fill those shoes.

The last Morse got nearly 13 millions when it was broadcast in 2000. I doubt Lewis will get more than 8 or 9 million, simply because the rise of multi-channel viewing in our shiny new digital age has massively changed TV viewing habits. Eastenders struggled to pull 11m last Christmas when it was the top-rating programme on the day. A few years ago it was easily getting double that number of viewers. So Lewis cannot hope to match Morse for ratings. But hopefully it will be a quality show, continuing the legacy left by Morse and the late, great John Thaw, and attract enough viewers to merit further specials...

[Thanks to Graham and Richard for the tip-offs and insider information about Lewis!]

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Writing rituals - my manky coffee mug

If the photo above appears to have fallen over on its side, that's indicative of how little effort I make to understand the software on any new computer I buy. I've nearly mastered the art of pushing in or pulling out gadgets from my USB port, enabling me to upload photos to this blog. Alas, I lack any mastery whatsoever of iPhoto, which is why the picture is probably lying on its side. If, by some miracle, it's the right way up, ignore this paragraph.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, my manky coffe mug. Among the many stupid writing rituals I've developed over the years, the week-long coffee mug is my latest and daftest. Essentially, I try to write solely to office hours and only on weekdays. Reality doesn't always work like that, but it's the ideal I hope to achieve. When you work from home as a freelancer, it's all too easy to let assignments and commissions bleed outwards into other hours of the day. Hopefully, if editors and producers are being kind, you may have more work than you can handle.

[Why take on more work than you can handle? We're freelancers! We never know why the world will wise up and identify us for the charlatans we truly are. This in-built insecurity persuades us to grab every piece of work going. But this attitude has its benefits. If I was a sane person, I'd have said I was too busy before Christmas when a BBC Radio producer asked how busy I was. Instead I said I'd make time and from that got my first commission to write a radio play. You want to build a career as a writer? Just say yes. Worry about when you'll find the time to do the work later. The corollary to that is professionals never miss a deadline if they can possibly help it. Editors and producers love a creative genius, but they also need people who can deliver good work on time to specification. Fit for purpose, as comics scribe Andy Diggle liked to say when I worked with him at 2000 AD, oh so many moons ago. And yes, in case you're wondering, this section will conclude with a closing bracket soon. Any sentence now. In fact, right... about... now.]

So, if you are madly busy, there's always the temptation to put into your study/office/bedroom/studio and go a little bit more. Me, I try and keep that impulse under control. Do a good day's work and, whenever possible, give yourself the night off. Every creative individual needs some time away from what they do for a living [and for the love of it, hopefull], otherwise burn out beckons. Like a big, beckoning thing. But enough cod Blackadder dialogue. Where was I? Oh yes, my manky mug.

As part of my ritual, I like to start each writing week with a clean coffee mug. For the rest of the week I drink exclusively from this mug during office hours, not washing or cleaning it - unless there's been some catastrophic biscuit crumblage due to a lack of attention during dunking. I love to dunk, but all too often crumbs escape the biscuit and form a somewhat disgusting sediment on the bottom and sides of my mug. After five days and lord knows how many cups of coffee, this ain't good. Back enough my mug has more rings inside it than a giant redwood by Friday afternoon, without adding an encrustation of Krispie biscuits too. [Krispie bsicuits - marvellous New Zealand delicacy, involved baked coconut and 13 points round the edge.]

As for the mug itself, I choose from four I've accumulated for the purpose. Each was specially customised to make plays I've been involved with at the local am-dram ensemble, the Biggar Theatre Workshop. Pictured above is one of my mugs from Proof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn we staged in October 2004. I'm also fond of my Knights in Plastic Armour mug, a souvenir from the Robert Shearman play I directed in 2002. Shearman has since achieved a kind of Doctor Who immortality by writing last year's episode called Dalek, but he deserves to be remembered as much for his amazing stage plays and radio dramas. I can't wait to see or hear what Rob does next, he's a stunningly talented bloke. The git.

Anyway, that's my manky coffee mug ritual. When writing is going well, I keep myself to four mugs of coffee a day, or less. When a book is proving something harder to find amist the jumble of my mind [Note to self: must find Bill Conti's soundtrack album for The Thomas Crown Affair], the coffee intake increases dramatically.

Speaking of which, time for a fresh brew in a manky mug, then back to the final thrash on Fiends 3.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Final thrash for Fiends 3

The final volume of my FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT trilogy is fast approaching its deadline. I talked with Black Flame editor Christian Dunn yesterday, giving him an update on progress. The novel will be finished and delivered by 5pm next Monday, come hell or high water [what a wonderfully evocative expression!], so today, Wednesday and Friday will require some fancy fingerwork on the keyboard. Fortunately, I've got no shortage of plot and less than 20,000 words to go, so it's simply a case of knuckliing down to it. That's why I'm here, typing this blog entry - procrastination, I love it. Once I'm in and writing, everything starts flowing, but every morning is that same feeling of dread, fretting that I've somehow forgotten how to write whilst asleep. These blog entries are a way of getting me sat down, thinking and typing, plus they help empty my brain of extraneous matter. Like Tai Chi or yoga, but with less bending and stretching. And more cups of coffee.

After two weeks of pitiful post the motherlode arrived today. A big box of DVDs from the US - The Shield Season 4, the one and only season of Space Above and Beyond, the Firefly film Serentiy and Sin City - recut, extended and unrated. No shortage of entertainment to be had there. However, all that will have to wait as I've still got 17 episodes of Inspector Morse to watch whilst revising my entires for the new edition of The Complete Inspector Morse. I'm somewhat appalled how many errors crept into the first edition and am determined to put as many right as possible, while adding a wealth of new material. Still waiting for news of when the Lewis spin-off Reputation is going to be broadcast - an entry on Wikipedia from last November suggested this coming Sunday (January 15) as a likely date, but the new Radio Times says otherwise. Ho-hum. Guess that gives me a few more weeks' grace before Reynolds & Hearn will be expecting the new text!

In other news, we had auditions for Sweet Charity at the Biggar Theatre Workshop tonight. We've got the makings of a good cast, though no final decisions have been made on who's playing what yet - further auditions are planned for Thursday, hopefully mopping up any stragglers. Then it's casting time and prepping the script for a firt read-thru next Monday. Performances aren't until May, but I want this show to be slick and professional as possible. With a musical, the only way to do that is give yourself plenty of rehearsal time and be patient. Practise makes perfect, or at least much better.

Fiends 3 is dominting this week, but there's a bunch of other plates I've got to keep spinning. The first draft of my first ever radio play is due in on January 23, so that's next week's big job once Fiends is vanquished. Then I'm switching focus to my MA Screenwriting course, where two 3000+ word assignments are due in January 27th. Plus I suspect I'm due to deliver a new Phantom script to Egmont Sweden soon, but since the editor hasn't chased me for it, that can't be too urgent - yet.

On the to-do list: prep ideas for a Big Finish project I've been asked to pitch; prep and write a synopsis for a proposed Warhammer novel; mroe Phantom scripts, to be written from plots supplied by Hans LIndahl; my perpetually postponed Renaissance murder mystery novel; and grud only knows what else. Stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Now, it's time to get back to Berlin, where Adolf Hitler is about to top himself. Let the fiendishness begin!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

My PLR Top Ten

Every year a wonderful organisation called the Public Lending Right delivers to registered authors a statement indicating how many times their books have been borrowed from British libraries in recent times. To compensate scribes for the lost sale, the PLR pays out 5.57 pence per loan [roughly 10 cents in American money]. If your total from all your registered titles is less than five pounds sterling, it gets held over. There's a maximum payment threshold of £6000, to prevent the likes of J K Rowling and other immensely popular authors draining the PLR's coffers. In total 18,587 authors are getting payments next month for the last PLR period, with 286 scribes getting the six grand maximum.

Me, I'm a minnow in such matters, but the PLR is nice little bonus when it arrives each year. And the total is creeping up, as I get more and more titles published. Of course, some of my older books are gradually fading from the list - two of my novels from the 1990s got no loans at all, another got a single loan and the other was borrowed four time. The more recent your book, the better condition it will be in and the more likely it is to get borrowed. The bulk of my books are novels, but my non-fiction tomes continue to do well for me. I'm told hardcover books are best for libraries, because the copies last longer. Hopefully the new hardback edition of my Morse reference tome will bear that out when it gets published.

Anyway, here's the top ten of my books for the PLR Year July 04 - June 05 (with previous year's placing in brackets):-

1. (2) Starring Michael Caine (Aug 03)
2. (1) The Complete Inspector Morse (Jun 02)
3. (7) Judge Dredd: Bad Moon Rising (Jun 04)
4. (3) Doctor Who: The Domino Effect (Feb 03)
5. (6) Doctor Who: Empire of Death (Mar 04)
6. (-) Judge Dredd: Kingdom of the Blind (Nov 04)
7. (-) Nikolai Dante: The Strangelove Gambit (Jan 05)
8. (-) A Nightmare of Elm Street: Suffer the Children (May 05)
9. (4) Doctor Who: Amorality Tale (Apr 02)
10. (5) Bright Lights, Baked Ziti: The Sopranos - An Unofficial and Unauthorised Programme Guide (Sep 01)

Being the sort of person who used to examine pop chart trends before I discovered girls, I can't help but notice a few interesting shifts. The three new entries on my personal chart are all for books published during the relevant PLR year. The appearance of my Elm Street novel Suffer the Children is particularly remarkable, as that was only just published in time for inclusion yet it was borrowed nearly 100 times in a few weeks. And it's gratifying to see my first Dante novel do well, as I'm very fond of it and the character.

My book about the films of Michael Caine claims top spot from my well-thumbed Morse guide, but I expect those positions to be reversed in next year's chart when the updated Morse hits the shelves. My next PLR statement will also include two more Dante novels and two Fiends of the Eastern Front novels (with the third Fiends having to wait until my 2008 statement). If you want to know more about the PLR, type www.plr.uk.com into your browser.

Thanks to many, many people who borrowed my books from British libraries last year. Of course, I'd be even happier if you went out and bought a copy too, particuarly if you choose a title for which I receive royalties. But it's gratifying to know somebody, somewhere out there is reading what I write. Long may it continue...

Friday, January 06, 2006

Screenwriters to Comics Scribes

Somewhere back near the dawn of time [or, as I like to call it, Monday], I asked the following questions: What about the post-Millennium influx of screenwriters into comics? Are they just slumming it, picking up some easy money writing down for the fanboys? Are they just scratching a childhood itch to write Wolverine or the Batman, or some other bruiser in tights and a cape? Or is there something else at work here? [Pictured is Lost coc-reator Damon Lindelof, whose apparently writing a Wolverine vs Hulk comic. Sod that, Damon - tell us what the numbers mean!]

I lose track of when this trend started, but it's been going on at least seven or eight years now, if not longer: screenwriters turning their hands to comics. Who did it first? Can't remember. I seem to recall Back to the Future writer Bob Gale was towards the front of the cue, turning in a run on Batman during one of its cataclysmic continuity crunches. No doubt there were others in the mix too. But it was either Kevin 'Clerks' Smith or J. Michael 'Babylon 5' Straczynski that really got the ball rolling, IMHO. Marvel went apeshit promoting the hell of their two superstar screenwriters, trying to generate headlines that ordinary comics never get, simply on the name recognition factor of the scribes. Let's face it, does average bloke on the street care less if Brian Michael Bendis stops scripting any particular comic? No, because they didn't know he was already writing it and nor did they care.

Kevin Smith cannot be accused of slumming it in comics: Silent Bob loves comics. Hell, he's got his own comic shop - or is it a chain now? Anyway, he's got four colour ink in his veins. Of course, that doesn't mean he can turn a script in on time. Anything but. Smith is notorious for the long, long gaps between issues on some of his comic projects. He's busy - you know, making movies and stuff. He gets paid a great rate to script comics [more on that later], but I doubt it's even close to the money he could make giving, say, Fantastic Four the Sequel a quick polish. Publishers like Marvel get themselves into an invidious position when they hire a superstar name like Kevin smith to write for them. He has all the power, they have none. What are they going to do, sack Kevin Smith and replace him with Joe Schmo? Oh no.

Likewise, JMS didn't go straight for the Marvel money trough. He started at Top Cow with several creator owned projects, putting in the hard yards, proving his comics work was not simply about playing with the most popular toys - sorry, characters. Of course, JMS got stiffed with a turkey artist or two on Rising Stars before it got someone who could tell a story and do it on time. But I'm rather fond of Midnight Nation, even if it had speeches longer than Lord of the Rings in some of the speech bubbles. I hope the letterer got double pay for some of those pages, they earned it.

Editing superstar scribes can be an issue. If you believe the rumours, certain screenwriters demand their deathless prose for comics be left untouched by human hands from the moment it leaves their laptop until the printed comic reaches the stores. To me, that betrays a certain arrogance. Everybody - everybody - needs an editor, someone to curb the occasional excess. Alan Moore has complained in interviews that he hasn't been properly edited since Watchmen. Simply because someone is a success in their chose field, doesn't mean they don't need to be editorially challenged every now and then. For example, I wish someone would get J. K. Rowling to deliver a 300 page Harry Potter novel instead of these wrist-snapping tomes she now produces. I wish Universal executives had stood up to Peter Jackson and said save the three-hour version of King Kong for the extended DVD release. Editing may be the most invisible of arts but, sometimes, less is more.

Simply because you're highly skilled in one area of creative writer, that doesn't automatically make grant you the same level of craft and skill in another medium. Yes, comic scripts and screenplays have similarities, but that's as much to do with brevity and layout. Both are still simply blueprints for telling stories - not the final product. The fact that some publishers let screenwriters get away with such behaviour is a sign of comics' inferiority complex. In what other medium would you pay an inexperienced writer in that medium up to ten times the usual rates and then promise not to change a word they handed in? Actually, I can think of a not dissimilar case - the celebrity end of book publishing, where stars 'write' novels. Of course, the publisher sensibly gets a ghost-writer in to do the hard work and nobody actually expects the celebrity to be able to write. They are trading on their celebrity, not their writing skills.

Let's face it, green-eyed envy is another issue. Comics scribes spend years, even decades building a career, learning their hone, paying their dues. Meanwhile screenwriters are handed assignments on the basis of their work in another field, with better pay, better promotion and their name in lights. No wonder the lowly scribes are left to mutter darkly in corners.

I suspect there's three kinds of screenwriter to comics crossover. First, there's those who do it for the love of comics as a medium, their affection for the characters and their nostalgia for the comics they read as a youth - it is about scratching that itch, that teenage dream. Secondly, there's the people who have stories they want to tell and comics is a natural medium in which to tell them. Stories that would be too expensive to tell in other media, or that would simply never get commissioned. Thirdly, there's the opportunists, the people who get offered a wad of cash, having got any better offers on the table and feel like knocking off some quick work for some big bucks. Fortunately, the last of these are a rare breed and get found out pretty quickly. Mostly, it's types one and two. For that we should be grateful...

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Busy, busy, busy...

Photo © Big Finish Productions 2005-6
Sorry about the lack of updates here in the last few days. The good news is FIENDS OF THE EASTERN FRONT: Twlight of the Dead is now barrelling along [just as weell, it's due Monday week], and I'm making good progress re-watching all 33 episodes of Inspector Morse while revising my reference tome to Oxford's finest detective. The first from my quartet of new Sarah Jane Smith audios should be published by Big Finish Productions, fingers crossed. You can click the links to the right of this message to find out more about these projects.

Most exciting news of the day is that I've been formally contracted to write a 15 minute play for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Called Island Blue, it's the Wednesday episode of a five-day serial that'll be heard during Women's Hour this summer. My story is a standalone yarn, but also part of a large story devised by greater creative minds than mine. Gotta say, it's a lovely feeling to finding get my foot in the door of radio drama after several failed attempts - thanks must go to development producer David Ian Neville for his patience. Hopefully, this will be the first of many and a tiny step forward in my career.

Time will tell. Meanwhile, it's back to the Nazis, vampyr and whatnot for me.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Who - dream Doctor or poor poo?

An illustrator of my acquaintance sent me an email, venting his spleen about the Doctor Who xmas special. Here's my thoughts on the subject...

Personally, I think you're being a bit harsh, but perhaps that's driven by disappointment as much as it is by dislike. RTD's Doctor Who is not Doctor Who as we know it, but a new show with many of the same elements. Yes, there are adventures in time and space, but the stories in the first series were as much about exploring the characters of the Doctor and Rose. The plot first, characterisation second style of original Who is history. Since this new style is getting big ratings and critical raves, it's going to be here for a while.

Of course, the critical backlash can't be long in coming. If Ecclestone' 9th Doctor was a Holocaust survivor, haunted by the horrors of a war he alone survived, one wonders how the 10th Doctor will be defined? The Christmas Invasion addressed the question directly, the Doctor wondering out loud who he was and what he was about. It took the leader of the bad guys to define him, as the champion of Earth, fighting against enemies terrestrial and extraterrestrial.

The council estate, Mickey and Jackie - they're all anchors for the new Who. Sounds like they're a drag on the show to you. But for a lot of people they provide a human focus, rooting the show's most fantastical elements in the here and now. There's an obvious analog for this in old Who - the UNIY years when the 3rd Doctor was stuck on contemporary Earth and gradually an ersatz family formed around him: the Brig, Sgt Benton, Captain Yates and the Doctor's travelling companion. Like 'em or lathe 'em, I'm sure Jackie and Mickey will continue to be a significant part of the show into its second series and beyond. But the new series is already introduced more off-world adventures and settings, something that will only increase in the programme's future. There are only so many times contemporary London [and Cardiff, natch] can be invaded, after all...

I don't think we've seen the real 10th Doctor yet - that will emerge through the course of the new series. You're not the first to say RTD's scripts for the first series were among the weaker efforts, but he was showrunner for all 13 episodes - no small task, especially resurrecting something from the dead. To you it looked like Frankenstein's monster - recogniseable in parts, alien in others. Maybe so, but I think the success of new Who is opening a lot of doors that I, for one, hope to step through. For the first time in a long time, science fiction and fantasy are credible genres for mainstream drama in British TV. ITV's got the Eleventh Hour starting soon, plus Primeval in development, while the BBC is nurturing a clutch of other programmes for the new Who audience.

Even if RTD's Who ain't your flava, well, he's only writing five of the 13 episodes in the new series [1,2 10, 12 & 13 to be precise]. Steven "The Empty Child" Moffatt is back with a new story and there's a bunch of other scribes stepping into the breach as well.

Me, I can't wait to see Sarah Jane Smith standing beside a TARDIS once more [but I would say that, having written 4 hours of audio drama featuring the character recently] and to see the Cybermen back in action. Can you really resist either of those moments, coming soon to a TV new you?

Monday, January 02, 2006

Comics Scribes to Screenwriters II

Alex Epstein asked: "Will you write a bit about your transition from comics to screen? A number of TV writers are moving in the other direction, and I'm testing the waters, so I'd love to know your thinking..." Instead my first attempt to answer his question turned into a lot of inane wittering about me. Write what you know, folks, write what you know. But let's have another attempt at this subject, shall we?

So, how does writing and editing comics help you when it comes to screenwriting? British comics scribes are good at pithy, thanks to their on-the-job training [see last post]. Satire and irony are almost pre-requisites for the job on this side of the Atlantic, along with a dark sense of humour and plenty of cynicism. Having been raised a Catholic is another common denominator, but not obligatory - still, it is surprising how many British comics writers have that little reservoir of guilt, self-loathing and lust running their work. Phillip Larkin once wrote that 'They fuck you up, your mum and dad...' Well, the Catholic Church has it moments too. Fortunately for writers, that's all good fuel for the fire, grist for the mill and raw matter for the cliche generator.

Comics writers - for the most part - have a good grasp of characterisation, motivation and can plot their way out of anything. If they write full script [as opposed to the plot-first method pioneered by Marvel - not a good choice for conversion to TV or filmmaking, IMHO], they already write stories in a format remarkably similar to screenplays.

Most importantly of all, comics writers are used to collaborating. They are not the end of the chain, they are not the god of their domain [much as some would like to be]. They write a script and then it is given to the next person in the process. Sometimes that's a penciller, sometimes it's an illustrator who does completed black line art and sometimes the artist even paints or colour his work too. I think Dave Gibbons is almost the only British artist who also frequently letters his own work, for that extra level of control over his work.

In comics, the writer-artist is the auteur - far more so than the theory that a film director is an auteur. Excuse me for slipping into rant mode, but what a load of bollocks. An author writes a book. Aside from the editor [and copy editor and the occasional muppet in the production process who decides to tinker or whose mind wanders], the book author has a direct linkage into the thoughts, mind and imagination of their reader. That, to me, is a true auteur. A film director is a guy who depends upon anywhere from between five and five hundred other creative individuals to help him achieve something resembling his vision. He's the auteur of the film? My arse. End rant mode.

So, like I was saying several paragraphs ago [my, I do digress, don't I? Yes, you do, now shut up and type], comics scribes are used to be part of the process. An important part, a major cog in the creative machine, but still only one moving part. That's good training for how they'll be treated if they ever somehow become screenwriters. In cinema, infamously, writers are paid first but frequently come last when respect is being given. Television is another matter, of course. In the US, the showrunner is far more powerful a figure, but then they have responsibilities that extend far beyond merely writing the damn show [or even simply supervising the writing - and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting - of the show]. Like the name implies, they run the show - aided and abetted by an army of production staff.

The showrunner method is slowly creeping across the Atlantic, bringing with it the writers' room system of breaking a story in a group environment, asystem that can design a horse that looks like a thoroghbred, and not like a camel. [You want to see a writers' room in action? Check out the documentary on the R1 DVD release of The Shield Season 3 - inspiring stuff.] Gotta say, I would love to be writing in such an environment. The reality would, no doubt, be something of a shock to the system but some of my most enjoyable writing expereiences have been where I've collaborated with another person - thrown ideas around and come up with something better, something the two of us wouldn't have found on our own.

2005's example of a showrunner driving a great British show was Russell T Davies [in collaboration with Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson] resurrecting Doctor Who. RTD wrote the series bible, provided the writer's vision and communicated that vision to the other scribes. And it worked. The BBC has also employed that system on Merlin with Chris Chibnall, although the project has apparently not been greenlight for production. Shame, I was looking forward to seeing it.

Anyway, like I said, comics scribes are primed for screenwriting for all the above reasons and more. They're a fount of ideas, [you have to be, comics eat content like crazy] fast and pithy.

However, let's be honest - most comics are superficial and so are the scripts. Action, plot mechanics, well-carpentered structure - not a problem. Sub-text, themes, image systems - these things are not so important when you're writing cape fiction. How will Superblooperman escape certain death, rescue his girlfriend/boyfriend/poodle and save the world - that's important. There's probably an argument to be made that the best cinematic adaptations of comics have been where the material has a strong, underlying sub-text and thematic content. X-Men: mutants as outsiders, the dangers of prejudice, fear of the unknown, all that stuff. A History of Violence: a graphic novel with a lot to say about the masks people wear, the roles they assume, the importance of family, the impact of violence - all big, meaty stuff. Probably the best Dredd story is a 62-pager called America, by John Wagner and Colin MacNeil. Dripping with subtext and thematic material. If only that had been the Dredd movie, not the mashup of Judge Cal and the Return of Rico that got released in '95. Such is life.

The lack of depth in comics writing probably explains why the comics work of Alan Moore has been so ripe for cinema adaptation: From Hell, V For Vendetta. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine and the list goes on. Heaven help us, someday someone may actually turn Watchmen into a film - the fools. It's a mini-series, not a movie! Moore's work has a depth and richness that bedazzles when put next to the average comic book.

It's no surprise so few comics writers haven't cracked the shift to TV or film writing. I struggle to think of many examples. In fact I'm struggling to think of any examples. Neil Gaiman. Si Spencer. Pete Milligan.

But what about the other way? What about the post-Millennium influx of screenwriters into comics? Are they just slumming it, picking up some easy money writing down for the fanboys? Are they just scratching a childhood itch to write Wolverine or the Batman or some other bruiser in tights and a cape? Or is there something else at work here?

All may - or may not - be revealed next time, in Part III.