Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In Which I Talk About How The Packaging And Presentation Can Detract From The Gift When It Ought To Increase Our Interest

I'm going to advance a theory, but first of all I want to perform a little experiment. A thought experiment, if you will. Okay, here we go: how do you react when I tell you the following?

"I've got a present for you - but I'm not going to tell you what it is. It's a secret. You'll have to wait and see."

Now, if you're anything like me - and if what follows is going to make any kind of sense whatsoever - you'll have thought vaguely along the lines of 'oooh, wonder what it is?'; which is, I think, perfectly natural and reasonable (if you didn't react like that at all, the rest of this post will make me sound like a lunatic, which isn't new, but it will undermine the point I'm trying to make, so you might want to bail out now before you start getting annoyed by what I have to say).

If someone tells you they've got you a present, I think it naturally triggers a number of questions in the mind: what is it? Where did they get it? Is it something I've mentioned I'd like? And so on. Arguably, receiving the present and opening it, and thus having it reduced from 'potentially anything' to 'what it actually is' can seem disappointing, as if all the possibilities have been swept away, and the present itself (no matter how exciting it is) something of a letdown. In my typically pretentious way, I think it's rather like the Schrödinger's Cat paradox with the various probabilities waves (or, for the purposes of my comparison, possibilities) collapsing to reveal the true state of things.

I genuinely believe that the human brain has an almost inbuilt tendency towards constructing some kind of narrative, or speculating on possible events; in the same way as we see shapes in clouds or faces in patterns on the curtains, I think that if you present people with a scenario or a set of circumstances, they'll almost immediately start to wonder what came before or what happened afterwards. I think a lot of art relies on this - we wonder what La Giaconda is smiling at, or why she'd rather sink than call Brad for help, and even if the picture is specifically titled to let us know it's The Lady of Shallott, the picture acts as a snapshot, a moment frozen in time from a longer narrative.

In his long-form essay Writing for Comics, Alan Moore does this brilliantly with William Holman Hunt's painting The Hireling Shepherd, throwing out a number of ideas as to what might happen next, as if it were a frame in a film which might suddenly start rolling again. I doubt this theory could be applied to abstract art - it's hard to imagine 'what happens next' in a Jackson Pollock painting - but I think that in representational art it holds true, probably due to the fact that anything depicted on a canvas is purportedly happening somewhere at some time, which inevitably leads the mind to wonder what preceded or what follows it.

Why am I thinking all this, you might wonder? Well, it's for a typically mundane reason - I was watching Doctor Who the other night (blissfully unaware as I sat down to do so of Mr Arnopp's cameo role) and when it got to the end of the episode, there was a 'Next Week…' snippet. Now, I don't like these pseudo-trailers anyway - they seem to be fairly insulting to the writer of the episode that's just finished as they imply that the episode hasn't been of a sufficiently high quality to draw you back - but when the episode closes on a cliffhanger, it's all the more daft to sneak-peek at the next episode; if you end the episode with large numbers of people in peril (as happened in DW on Saturday) and then show various people running around and shouting and so on, it's pretty obvious that they're not all going to die in the first ten seconds of the show, no matter what the cliffhanger suggested. It's often called false peril, but I'd say that this is more like defused peril - and defused because someone, probably in branding and/or marketing, thinks that people need to know a bit of what's coming next, that it's the only way to draw them back. I disagree.

This isn't entirely confined to fiction, as news programmes seem all too keen to tell us the key aspects of a story before going to their reporter live at the scene, who reiterates the key notes again before (if you're lucky) adding in a detail or two and handing back to the studio. It feels like spoon-feeding, and more annoyingly it's a waste of airtime (which may, unfortunately, be the reason for it - there are after all many minutes to fill for as little money as possible).

So, given my theory about an innate narrative tendency in the human brain, I think that the folks who 'package' and 'brand' TV shows in this way (all too often a very different job from actually making programmes) are missing the point quite dramatically. I feel people have a natural tendency to want to know what happens next, or (if they come in partway through a story) to invent 'the story so far' so as to catch up on what they've missed - if (and this is key) they're sufficiently drawn in. Constantly reminding the viewer of what's happened in the last few minutes (as seen in the moronic voice-overs in Dragon's Den) or trying to keep us interested with 'Coming Up' stuff (especially in BBC shows where there are no ad breaks to encourage channel-hopping) actually undermines the content of the programme itself, and detracts from that which might actually attract viewers in the first place.

And it doesn't work. I say this with a hearty chunk of confidence, because more and more of these tacky little tricks are in evidence on our TV screens all the time, and the prevalence of them is the clue; if they were drawing in and holding an audience, they wouldn't be slapping these 'coming up' bits and 'next time…' trailers on the shows. The only programmes that I can think of which are thankfully devoid of this kind of nonsense are… any ideas? Yes, the soap operas.

Say what you like about the soaps - and after seeing last night's episode I'd once again point to EastEnders' enormous flaw in not having even one vaguely sympathetic character (or at least not one with a storyline at present) - they are absolutely brilliant at providing 'the story so far' as they go along. Sure, there are sometimes slightly clunky lines of dialogue like 'So, how are you doing since your wife ran off with the milkman, Terry?', but most of the time the necessary exposition is woven into the dialogue so seamlessly that it's invisible, which is exactly as it should be. Stan Lee, co-creator of super-heroes such as Spider-Man and The X-Men, once said that every issue of a comic book is someone's first issue, and this is true across most media; all episodes of soaps or dramas are someone's first episode, and so the story so far, and the characters' names and relationships, need to be established as quickly but discreetly as possible. Watch an episode of any long-running soap opera and watch out for how they do it, it's quite instructive.

The soaps, which attract vast numbers of viewers, seem to be immune from this 'previously on'/'coming up'-type nonsense, and yet in their attempts to attract the kind of audience share the soaps consistently command, the people who package programmes seem to think the best way is to market shows in a way that actually detracts from the content. I'm guessing the soaps don't mess with their format on the grounds that isn't broken so it doesn't need fixing, but all too many other shows seem to try to fix it by breaking it even more.

The soaps, and many other forms of entertainment media, are based on the fact that, suitably lured in, people want to know what's going to happen next. JJ Abrams, the creator of Alias and co-creator of Lost, is obviously a man who knows something about getting the viewers and keeping them interested, and talks about the effect 'mystery' can have in an interview which you can view via this page. Abrams says "maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge," and I'd not only agree with that, but I'd go further and say that people are more drawn to mysteries than they are to knowledge.

Who killed Laura Palmer? Who shot JR? Will Maddie and David / Sam and Diane/ Lois and Clark/ Ross and Rachel/ Smithy and Nessa get together? Questions, and mysteries, are often the aspects of stories and entertainment which draw us in and then draw us back for more. By constantly stating what happened before what you're seeing now, reiterating what you've just seen, and giving you glimpses of what's yet to come, the experience of not knowing what's to come is as good as lost. It's not that I don’t want to know the answer to the questions posed in the story, it's just that I don't necessarily want to know them quite yet. It's slightly perverse, perhaps, but isn't it more perverse that, as a species, we create stories of things that never happened to people who never were in places and times which weren't as depicted, and then break these stories (writerly pun intended) into sections deliberately designed to keep people paying attention?

Well no, I don't think it's perverse at all. I believe - as I've said above - that it's absolutely natural. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman's introduction to one of his Sandman volumes, being alive is very much a case of trying to catch up on what's gone before, and as we'll leave long before the story comes to its end, the tendency to speculate and wonder about events (be they real or imaginary) is, as good as innate in humankind; and the stories which hold our attention best are those which know how to play on this tendency and then go on to provide a satisfying resolution.

Oh, and that present I mentioned I have for you? I think you'll like it, but I'm out of space now - I'll have to tell you about it another time.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Slightly Blurred, I Think My Hand Shook In Time With My Head

Spotted on a Jubilee Line train here in London the other day.

All fairly standard religious stuff, but then you reach the last line, and ... well, I presume all the folks involved in producing the tube card decided one preposition was as good as another.

I guess a person 'believes on' Jesus in much the same way that cheetahs 'pray on' the slowest wildebeest in the herd.

Monday, April 28, 2008

If This Isn't Your Sort Of Thing, 'Flight Of The Conchords' Have A New Album Out, But You'll Have To Pay Actual Money For That.

I've written at length before about my love for the work of Jim 'Bat Out Of Hell' Steinman, and I'm pretty sure that I've touched on my fondness for Batman, so you can probably imagine the double-surge of fanboy glee I experienced this weekend when I found this, a site about the started-but-never-produced Batman musical.

Steinman was booked to write the songs for the musical, and as ridiculous a pairing as that might sound, I think it's pretty much perfect; not just because of his experience of writing songs with the word 'Bat' in them, but because Steinman pretty much specialises in wildly operatic and overblown (he tends to use the word 'engorged') songs about damnation and the like. Seriously, I think it would have been a perfect pairing, and of course Steinman has experience of writing for stage musicals ('Whistle Down The Wind' in London, and 'Tanz Der Vampire' in Germany).

For whatever reason, it didn't happen - but thanks to the wonders of the internet, and the hosting skills of Madhatterster, various details are available - but even more importantly, demos of songs which Steinman wrote for the musical can be downloaded, for free. For a perfect example of the kind of insanely overdone stuff I love so much in Steinman's work, I'd point you towards the song 'Gotham City / The Graveyard Shift'. Those of you who, like me, have followed Steinman's stuff for a long time will recognise a number of themes (in terms of both lyrics and music) which he's used before, but I find that oddly reassuring.

And if you don't care for any of it, fair enough; despite what the pages of NME might have you believe, the world's big enough for us to have differing opinions on music (though I'm right).

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Despite Looking And Behaving Like This, I Am (Amazingly) Getting Married This Year

What better way to celebrate this, my 500th post, than by badly making the picture to the left, which inexplicably makes me look rather cross-eyed?

Well, yes, I'm sure there are many better ways, but it's done now, so we'll all have to get over it.

Anyway, 500 posts feels like something of a milestone, and the timing's ideal in that this week I've been fortunate enough to see this blog linked to by the BBC Writersroom Blog and Stevyn Colgan's blog alike. Forget happyslapping or having a Kanye West ringtone, linking to this blog is what all the cool kids are doing. Oh, yes it is.

So, thanks to you all for your ongoing eyeball time, and hello and welcome to any recently acquired readers - I can assure you that pictures such as the one accompanying this post are not standard practice, so don't be afraid to come back again soon.

(Apologies, of course, to Gerard Butler for the above. And Frank Miller and Zack Snyder too. But if you think this bit of 'for my own personal amusement' non-artistry is bad, you really ought to check out the work of so-called professionals on Photoshop Disasters. Seriously - they get paid for that stuff...)

Friday, April 25, 2008

REVIEW: 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall'

This film, as you may well know, opens nationwide today. It's the latest film to be produced by Judd Apatow, who also made 'The 40 Year Old Virgin' and 'Knocked Up' (yes, and 'Superbad', but I haven't seen that one).

Like the two films I mention above outside of parenthesis, the plot of 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' is pretty much summed up in the title; a chap who's going out with Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is dumped by her, and spends the rest of the film trying to come to terms with it. The lead character, Peter, is played by Jason Segal - I'd not heard of him before, but if you're a fan, you may be pleased to know there are several glimpses of his genitals in the film, which is all the more impressive or worrying given that he also wrote the screenplay.

Anyway, heartbroken Peter goes off to Hawaii to try to get over his emotional trauma, where he bumps into Sarah and her new beau, a rock star played by Russell Brand. Frankly, I like Brand - I find his standup different if often self-indulgent, and his weekly BBC Radio 2 podcast demonstrates an active mind, though I'm painfully aware that his tabloid reputation as someone who prowls the streets of London (and now Los Angeles) looking for women to sleep with does rather overshadow his body of work. That said, I don't really think Brand is acting much in this film, though perhaps slightly surprisingly his character isn't painted as some kind of out-and-out villain, which would be all too obvious in this sort of story.

Against a frankly beautiful background of beaches and ocean sunsets, Peter tries to get over Sarah, whilst inevitably bumping into her a lot, but also befriending a local woman called Rachel (played by Mila Kunis, who I know only as the voice of Meg on 'Family Guy'). I think you can probably guess where it all goes now I've told you about her character, and yes, you'd be right. Nonetheless, the film's pleasant enough, and there are some genuinely funny moments.

However, the film suffers from a problem common to both the Apatow-produced films which I've seen before; it's appallingly loose in its structure, containing entire scenes and characters who could cheerfully be removed with no effect on the plot. The film runs at about 110 minutes, and it really doesn't need to - the characters played by Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill really contribute nothing to the overall story. Because of this, the film felt slightly old somehow, as if from an era (the late 1970s or early 1980s, for example) when tightly sticking to the main plot and maybe a couple of sub-plots wasn't seen as so important.

Don't get me wrong, the film's perfectly enjoyable, and whilst you're in the cinema you're unlikely to find yourself glancing at your watch, but it's pretty forgettable; I have to admit that I was rather bewildered at the fuss surrounding 'Knocked Up', which I stopped watching after about 80 minutes and have yet to finish off (despite the reviews and people I know all claiming it was a non-stop laughterfest) and I wonder if people are likely to rate 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' similarly highly. And, in my ongoing attempts to either swim against the tide or be ahead of the crowd, I wanted to put my opinion on record.

So, it's quite watchable and fun, but it's not really worth a trip to the cinema to do so - you may as well wait until it comes out to rent. Though that does of course mean an increased risk of you stopping the film to go to the loo or make a cup of tea and not bothering to set it playing again.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Oh Come On, You're Not Even Trying Now

Sure, I don't expect all book designers to be as innovative as Chip Kidd, but if you're going to design a book jacket with a startling resemblance to another title, do at least try to make sure it's not a bestseller, eh ?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

And That Use Of The Word 'Confluence' Strikes Me As A Bit Questionable, Too

Whilst I was very much with the herd in commenting on the Olympic 2012 logo, I like to think that most of you might not have seen this yet: the logo for the Eurovision Song Contest 2008, which is being held in Belgrade next month.

Is it just me, or is that really quite unpleasant? It looks like the treble clef's struggling to stay afloat as a blood-red starfish clings to it and drags it under.

Also puts me in mind of the animated flowers in Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' film, but that might just be my smutty tendencies coming to the fore.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Can't Quite Justify Putting This In The 'Unintelligent Design' Series Of Posts...

... but it's certainly unimaginative design - especially as the train station advert for the Battles book directly refers to the main character in Lee Child's books.

Granted, you want to be sure that your marketing aims directly at its targets, but in the same way that Digimon was so obviously an attempt to copy the success of Pokemon, this is pretty blatant, isn't it?

Monday, April 21, 2008

In Which I Wonder If I Can Take It As Well As Dish It Out

I read about a new(ish) London-based Literary Agency recently, and so last week I sent off some sample chapters of my completed novel 'Human Noises' and other bits of 'please think about representing me' material to them. And so the waiting begins.

I've had… well, let’s say 'mixed experiences' with contacting Literary Agents before - to the extent that m'colleague and I used to have a running competition to see who could get the most disappointing response; he won, though whether you could consider that a victory in the strict sense is certainly open to debate.

When the novel's being mulled over, I always tend to adhere to the idea that no news, as per the cliché, will be good news - within reason. For the first couple of months, I can delude myself that people are meeting in boardrooms and banging their fists on tables as they shout about the bidding war for TV and Film Rights, but after a while I have to accept that the chances are it's a no - as the ex-Literary Agent Betsy Lerner put it, "No one reads a manuscript, loves it, and doesn't call the author". Very true.

Still, while I'm waiting to hear, I shall plug on with the current writing, can't have all my chocolate eggs in one basket and all that.

In related news: over the course of the weekend, I had the pleasure of reading a short screenplay script by Dom, which was both fun to read and an interesting exercise, as one of the first - and very worst - things which people do when commenting on something someone else's work is to automatically start thinking of how they would have written it. Which isn't even close to useful - what I want from people who read my work is a genuine appraisal of which bits work, which bits don't, what needs to be clarified or dropped, and things like that; not a wholesale rewrite (unless the grammar and structure is worse than I could possibly fear) to make it read like someone else's work.

Whilst I'm not going to delude myself that I'm likely to challenge the likes of people like Lucy and Lianne, who will both read scripts for you and give you an analysis (tell them I sent ya), I have to say that I enjoyed reading and reviewing Dom's script, as it meant trying to make sure I can use proper words and terms (though, I hope, not jargon) to explain my thoughts about something which can often seem quite nebulous and tricky to describe. Here's hoping Dom finds my remarks (which I've e-mailed over, Dom) useful.

Of course, I may well be less willing to 'take it' if the agency gets back to me with a list of brutal but true reasons why 'Human Noises' is a pile of pants, but as I say, at the moment, I'm dreaming of the early-morning meetings where high-powered people argue over who gets me as a client.

Yes, yes, I know - but let me dream for a bit, eh ?

Fragments From My Weekend, Pretty Much Verbatim

Saturday Morning, WHSmith -

Do you want to buy The Times? If you do, that bottle of water will be free.

No thanks.

Well, it'll work out cheaper if you do.

Maybe so, but it'll take more than that for me to touch The Times with these hands.

Saturday Evening, a Bar -

Quite Drunk Man:
… I mean, sometimes I just want to throw a brick through the window of Tesco's, or set the place on fire. I'm an anarchist. What do you do for a living?

Currently, I work for a branch of the Police.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Most High Profile 'I Told You So' On This Topic I've Yet Come Across…

… but an entirely justified one.

Tim Robbins, speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters, takes the opportunity to gloat about something he was very right about indeed, though you get the feeling it's without any real sense of satisfaction.

Go here for the full details, but rather than reading the transcribed bits, I recommend you download it (it's free of charge) and have a listen.

The sound quality's pretty questionable in places, but the points he makes are solid ones, I think.

(Link shamelessly swiped from Graham Linehan's blog, but as I contributed to a spin-off website from his IT Crowd show, I like to think he and I are on a link-swapping level of relationship.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Not That I'm Actually Watching It, Mind - I Think I'll Wait For The Repeats

As you've probably seen by now, ITV has decided not to show the second episode of the imported drama, Pushing Daisies, as they only allocated eight weeks in which to show the nine-episode series.

According to the news report linked above, ITV claim that the decision was due to the US Writers' Strike, which meant that only nine episodes (as opposed to the usual 22 or so in a standard US season) were made.

Could they possibly insult their audience's intelligence on any more levels if they tried?

Leaving aside the arguable idea that you can cheerfully drop a chapter in a series and it have no effect at all (especially given the increased serialisation in US TV shows in recent years), the first episode of Pushing Daisies did really well for ITV when it was shown last Saturday (beaten only by Casualty on BBC1, I think). As it's fair to say that ITV have struggled to maintain an audience on Saturday nights in recent years due to the success of the revitalised Doctor Who and the ongoing draw of Casualty, you'd think they might be pleased about actually getting some eyeballs. Apparently not.

But the fact that ITV are attributing it to the Writers' Strike is just nonsense - if the strike hadn't gone ahead, there would have been 22 episodes for them to schedule, as opposed to nine, which would surely have been worse? Nine into eight almost goes, but 22 into eight? Duh. And, you know, given that they've been playing trailers for the series for about a month with the tagline 'coming soon' (to the extent that I kind of lost interest, after initial curiosity), could they not have started showing it a week earlier? Or maybe they should have a double-episode 'finale' - obviously, they might be reluctant to forego an episode of the not-at-all-padded-out-at-an-hour-long 'All Star Mr And Mrs', but I'm sure they could figure something out.

It's frankly bewildering that ITV would shoot themselves in the ratings foot like this, and then compound it with a statement that is so utterly implausible. Such obvious idiocy reminds me of the old Monty Python line "I'd like to be in programme planning, but unfortunately, I've got a degree"...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why Yes, I Was In Soho Yesterday Afternoon. What Of It?

Well, as planned, I went to the Monastic Productions Q&A here in London yesterday, as organised by the BBC.

It was, as I'd hoped, an interesting bash, with writers Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh talking about the development process for Life on Mars and Ashes To Ashes, and taking questions. Most of the questions were interesting and, I'd imagine, informative to the broad mass of the audience and not just me (or the person asking the question).

Not many notes to share from the event - I was more busy listening than noting - but the following were a few things I scribbled down:

Ashley :
- It's vital for the conflict in any tale to be built into the premise.

- Story should be the delivery mechanism for the characters.
- You shouldn't be afraid to pitch ideas, and put your neck on the chopping board, and then put forward more ideas.
- You have to write without thinking of things like budget and music clearance.

And lest you think from the above that I was paying more attention to Matthew than Ashley, let me raise this point; talking about spending time with other writers on the series discussing plotlines and scenes, Ashley said that he loved those moments more than anything else, and that the thrill of working in that way with other writers was definitely one of the best parts of the job. Now, I've heard this sort of thing from a variety of sources now, and it does seem as if there's quite a bit of hope that the idea of the US-style Writers' Room is one which is gaining some popularity here in the UK - perhaps more as a notion or aim than a reality, but this may change in time.

However, the people I've heard it from tend to be writers, and so a part of me wonders if it might be less a case of an industry-led notion, and maybe more an appealing idea given that writing is all too often a solitary process? I'm not knocking the idea at all, but I wonder how likely it would be to take off in the UK, especially given that drama series such as those named above usually have shorter series than in the US (eight episodes as opposed to 23, for example - same for comedies much of the time). Any thoughts? Let me know.

And speaking of the solitariness of the writerly life, I didn't manage to spot as many writing bloggers as I'd hoped - though I did get to say a quick hello to Lianne, and think I saw Mr Perry in the front row, I couldn't see Monsieur Arnopp or Madame Lucy at all - were you folks there, or was it all a trick whereby you pretend you'll be in one place and then hide somewhere else and laugh at my expense?

If the latter, you really needn't have bothered; I can get that sort of treatment at home.

The Standards Of Education Today, Eh? In My Day We Wrote On A Slate With A Bit Of Chalk.

So what you mean is TWO missed calls, right? Couldn't you just say that?


Friday, April 11, 2008

Like Jeepers Creepers, Except The Monster's Only Small

It seems the monster's been waiting and planning since 1990... but now it is ready to emerge and feast!


I do apologise. I think perhaps I need to go and have a lie down.

A Heartening Story, But...

... a frankly idiotic choice of advert to plonk right next to it.

(You may need to click on the image to see the full extent of the idiocy.)

I mean, come on...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Meanwhile, In An Office In Soho, London...

AdMan1: Damn it, Jed, I've got nothing.

AdMan2: Nothing at all, Ty? That's not like you.

AdMan1: I know, I'm the most prolific young buck at this damn agency, but I just can't come up with anything to sell these fizzy mineral tablet things.

AdMan2: Tough break, Ty. Anyway, look at this funny video on YouTube, it'll help take your mind off it.

They watch the video.

AdMan1: Hey, I like that. Who's playing?

AdMan2: They're called 'OK Go!'.

AdMan1: Never heard of them. Anyway, how many views has that video had?

AdMan2 peers at the screen for a second.

AdMan2: About 30 million, Ty.

AdMan1: Is that all? Well, I'm sure no-one'll notice if we rip it off.

AdMan2 frowns.

AdMan2: Rip it off?

AdMan1: Er, I mean, make an homage to it.

AdMan2: I was worried for a moment there, Ty. You sounded perilously close to being a non-creative.

AdMan1: Not me, Jed, I'm a creative genius, and I could build brands in my sleep.

AdMan2: Amen to that, Ty.

Cut to:

Three months later, same office. This advert plays on a TV screen. In front of it, Jed and Ty high-five.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

REVIEW: 'The Tao Of Bergerac' by Will Smith

(I originally wrote this review for Channel 4, and I linked to it in this post, but the transient nature of the internet means that the location I linked to has now been overwritten. So here's the review in all its unedited glory [that is to say, before I trimmed it to fit C4's specified wordcount]...)

Will Smith (no, not that one) grew up on the isle of Jersey, which may be why he appears to be obsessed with the long-running BBC detective series, Bergerac. It was - in case you don't remember it - set on Jersey, and ran for the best part of a decade, starring John 'him off Midsomer Murders' Nettles as a slightly unconventional detective with a nice car and a troubled personal life.

However, as this CD set of his radio series shows, Smith is more keen on Bergerac than most people - having found an audiobook of John Nettles reading the ancient chinese book of the Tao, he decides to use this as a source of inspiration and advice in his everyday life. In his dealings with his lazy flatmate or with potential girlfriends, he turns to the oriental wisdom, as read in the sonorous tones of Nettles. On the face of it, a fairly ridiculous idea, but it works - and is often very funny - for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the whole thing is played absolutely straight. Yes, there's audience laughter, but other than that there's no suggestion from Smith that his decision to live his life by the Tao of Bergerac is anything other than valid. Of course, this makes it all the more ludicrous as we repeatedly see the vast gulf between his Bergerac-influenced attitudes and the world as it actually is.

Secondly, Smith doesn't hold back in making himself a figure of fun. You might think that admitting being fixated with Bergerac was enough of an embarrassment, but there's more - teenage years spent role-playing, snobbery in adulthood, and a total lack of knowledge of women and how to talk to them, all feature, as does a running joke that he might be denying his true sexuality. Granted, a lot of this is the character that he's been playing in his stand-up for a while now, so if you don't like his 'pretend posh boy' persona, this might not work for you. As the saying goes, 'your mileage may vary'.

Finally, and probably most worryingly, in each of the episodes, Smith plays 'Six Degrees of Bergerac', in which he asks the audience to shout out the name of a film, and then attempts to link it to Bergerac in six steps or less. Spookily, a quick Google makes me think he's not making the answers up, and that he genuinely does know the names of all the cast members and episodes. It's an impressive trick, no question about it - but it does make me wonder if the show might not actually be the joke that it at first appears to be.

Overall, this is a funny and enjoyable show - the basic premise is bonkers enough to begin with, but add in Smith's character and quirks, and the straight delivery, and it's even more silly. The CDs feature some appropriate extras too - for example, 'John Nettles reads the Letters to Hustler Magazine' - which show that Nettles is a good sport about the whole thing.

Well, either that, or it was the only way he could get Will Smith to stop pestering him.

Of Course, Great Minds Think Alike (Or, If You Want To Be Fancy About It, Let's Call It Morphic Resonance)

As I've mentioned a number of times before in this 'ere blog, I'm working on a novel called 'Coming Back To Haunt You' - and indeed have been for quite a while, with occasional fits and starts of productivity and dedication to it, when the mood and my free time allow.

But I've stopped writing it now.

I wish I could say that this was because I've finished it, or because I've done all the rewrites suggested by an agent and publisher and now we're just waiting for the proofs, but unfortunately it's for a more mundane reason; a friend of mine lent me a DVD several months ago, and when I finally sat down to watch the film in question (no, I'm not going to name it), I discovered that the main plot thread, and a number of the revelations in the denouement, are almost exactly the same as in 'CB2HU' (as I like to call it, even if no-one else does).

So, as I reached the end of the film, my thoughts went pretty much like this:
"Hmm, I liked that. Kind of unsettling in places, but it was all logical, and … oh bugger, it's very similar to CB2HU, isn't it? Bugger, bugger, BUGGER. What should I… actually, I think they did some of it much better than I'd thought of. Oh bum. I can't really try to push CB2HU out into the world now, it'll look like I'm copying them, won't it? Oh poo. Big, smelly poo."

Obviously, that's a vast simplification of my exact thoughts, which were couched in much more intellectual writerly terms, with references to the notion of the seven basic plots, the works of Joseph Campbell, Fort's ideas about 'steam-engine time' and all that, but the upshot of it all is that I feel I have to stop writing CB2HU, at least for now.

I'm faintly disappointed that I've expended a fair amount of time and effort only for it to be thwarted, but I'll assume it's a delay and not a denial, and that if I leave it to stew in the back of my mind, I'll be able to find a different way to tell the tale; if I'm honest, I feel that the film slightly fudged the motivations in a couple of places, so if I can find a tidier and slightly less hmm way to deal with that, I'd be pleased.

Anyway, I'm not entirely thrown off by this; the film's a much-praised one, so it may well mean the story's one which people would have been interested in (a good thing), and I know that I've learned a fair bit about novel writing from the act of, er, writing a novel (though it's not the first one, future biographers please note). And it does mean that I should get on with the next book I have in mind, 'The Body Orchard', with a renewed sense of focus and purpose, yes?

Yes. Yes, indeed it does.

Friday, April 04, 2008

If You Don't, I'll Make Some Awful Snickers Joke. Seriously.

In just over a week - Sunday 13 April, calendar fans - my friend Chris will be pounding the streets of this nation's capital. Which is to say, he's running the London Marathon.

I did it last year, and frankly it's dashed hard work, and as Chris is doing it in aid of Mind (the mental health charity), I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can sponsor Chris by clicking here. It's all secure and safe, and you can even boost your donation with the magic of Gift Aid if you're a UK taxpayer.

And, if you're one of those people who … well, let's say 'forgot' to sponsor me this time last year, you can salve your conscience by slinging some money towards a similarly worthy cause.

I've always said that readers of this blog are lovely and generous and kind, and you won't let me down, will you? Don't let the title of this post influence you or anything, but… well, I'm always inclined to think one shouldn't make threats which one wouldn't carry out, if you see what I mean.


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Monastic Productions Q&A In London

You might already have heard about this, but if not…

The BBC Writersroom has organised a Q&A session with Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham of Monastic Productions - also known as the chaps involved in creating and writing Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

It takes place at the Soho Theatre in London on Monday 14 April at 5pm, and tickets are free. Full details, including how to get on the ticket list, are here.

I'm on the list, and am planning to go along - anyone else in blogland attending this? Do let me know, it'd be good to say hello.

REVIEW: 'Speed-The-Plow'

Given that I always seem to take the longest possible route through a sentence, you might be surprised to learn I'm a huge fan of the writing of David Mamet. He's arguably best known for his screenplays for The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross, or for the semi-fuss surrounding his play (and later film) Oleanna, all of which feature a very distinctive rhythm to the dialogue - in essence, clipped sentences, frequently overlapping. I like it - it's a pleasant change from most other forms of dialogue which you see on stage or screen.

Which is why I was rather excited to see that Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum were starring in a version of Mamet's play Speed-The-Plow at the Old Vic Theatre here in London, and even more pleased when m'lady got me tickets for a performance last week by way of a Valentine's Day pressie.

Goldblum plays Bobby Gould, a rising film producer. His friend Charlie Fox (played by Spacey) brings him a sure-fire hit, an action film featuring this month's latest star - but his temporary secretary Karen (Laura Michelle Kelly) recommends he should green-light a more worthy project, adapting a novel she's very keen on. As he's taken a bit of a shine to Karen, Bobby finds himself torn between a sure-fire commercial hit (honouring his friendship with Charlie) and a film of artistic merit (the commissioning of which might well lead to some sauciness with Karen).

The first act is fast and funny - Goldblum's an enthusiastic tangle of limbs as he and Spacey exchange lines, and they're surprisingly physical as they get more and more excited about their inevitable success. I knew Goldblum could do comedy, but Spacey surprised me in doing this so well - I tend to think of him as a more weighty and serious actor, but the jokey dialogue bounces along cheerfully here. The second act slows things down a fair bit (as Goldblum and Kelly discuss the novel that might become a film), but things liven up again in the third act when all three actors are onstage for the conflict caused by Bobby Gould's dilemma and need to make a decision, though there are still laughs even here. Spacey's very much in his element here - a genuine sense of barely-suppressed anger in his performance, and on more than one occasion the audience stopped laughing dead as the mood swung from funny to tense.

And the ending? Ah, that would be telling, but trust me when I say it's a solid ending and perfectly logical given everything that's gone before.

Overall, this is a very strong play, with a good cast (I'll cheerfully admit I was drawn to it by the combination of a writer whose work I admire and the chance to see two actors I like live on stage, but Kelly does a fine job in their company, even if she is rather hindered by having to rhapsodise a book which sounds like a radiation-fixated version of The Celestine Prophecy). It's on until April 26, and you can book tickets via the Old Vic's website.

I heartily recommend it as a night out - and as it runs 90 minutes with no interval, you'll be out shortly after 9pm, leaving enough of the evening remaining to get a cup of tea (or something stronger) before heading home.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

It's Not Exactly San Serriffe, Granted...

... but in the spirit of April Fools' Day foolery, I would urge any London-based Facebook members who are free at 6pm on Friday 11 April to get involved in this.

As I've said many times and with probably inappropriate venom, I'm not a member of Facebook, but I fervently hope that those of you who are find you're able to get involved.

Or, at least, that you're able to film it and send me a link to the footage.

Declare Your Independents Part Two of Two: Claro Intelecto

Sometimes, you just have to lash out the cash, and hope the reviews are accurate. In fact, that's pretty much what I'm asking you to do here, I guess.

As you can probably guess by the fact it's linked to in the column to the right, I read and enjoy Word magazine. I like it, not least because they summarise the review using actual words, and not stars (for fun, when I see a film poster with ***** on it, I pretend it's a plural swearword).

Anyway, in the latest issue, they had a roundup review of a handful of techno and trance albums. It might surprise you to know that I adore euphoric and/or progressive trance music, but I do (Hybrid's a particular favourite), so I read the review with interest. In it, they referred to the album 'Metanarrative' by Claro Intelecto as being 'music to stare out of windows by'. Oh, I thought, hel-lo.

A quick search (engine) around the interweb produced very little info on the CD, and the usual online sources (for example: tall one-breasted warrior woman) seemed to suggest that it would be an import for about £15, which felt like slightly more than I wanted to gamble (yes, I could download it, but I wanted to have a copy in my hands, to feel and hold and smell and okay I'll stop now).

So, I looked around a bit more, and lo and behold I found this - the site of the label that the album's actually issued on, where you can get the CD, including postage, for £8.95.

I've got mine, and if you’re into this kind of music - which, as I say, I am - it's 40 minutes of classy trance, closing with a track called 'Beautiful Death' which didn't kill me (or anyone else, as far as I know) but which is indeed beautiful. You can listen to some samples at the link above, I think, and get an idea of whether it's your thing.

As I said earlier today: Go on, support the independent folks instead of giving money to Global Omnicorp Inc. You won't regret it.

Declare Your Independents Part One Of Two: Joking Apart

After I left college in 1992, I was wallowing in self-pity (or licking my wounds, you be the judge) following a relationship breakup. I was living at home with my parents, as well as doing the odd bit of stand-up comedy - unsurprisingly, relationships material featured heavily. In January 1993, the TV series Joking Apart was broadcast on BBC2, featuring Robert Bathurst as a sitcom writer whose wife had left him, and in which we'd often see him performing imaginary stand-up sets in his head, starting with the line 'My wife left me'. For some reason I can't possibly begin to fathom, my father said I might enjoy the programme.

He was, as he often is when it comes to recommendations, absolutely right; Joking Apart was a terrific combination of wordplay and farce, often with a touch of genuine emotion thrown in - though this shouldn't really come as any kind of surprise, as it was written by Stephen Moffat. Who, some of you might ask, is he? And I sneer at you and say, he's the chap who invented Press Gang, Coupling, and has written some of the best episodes of the revived Doctor who ('Blink' and 'The Girl in the Fireplace', for example).

The first series of Joking Apart was well received, shown twice on BBC2, and even won the Bronze Rose of Montreux. So the wise owls at the BBC delayed showing the second series for the best part of a year, never repeated it, didn't commission a third series, and of course never released either series on video. Sigh.

Time passed: my emotional wounds healed, I left home, and gradually stopped doing stand-up. My father and I would occasionally talk about 'Joking Apart' (partly spurred on by Robert Bathurst's starring role in Cold Feet, and our shared love of Moffat's later show Coupling). But while we merely talked about it, some people did something about it. Ladies and Gents, please doff your virtual hats to the hero of this tale: Craig Robins.

Rather than just sitting around thinking 'wouldn't it be nice if I could watch Joking Apart again?', Craig contacted the appropriate wing of the BBC and bought the rights to produce a DVD of Joking Apart. A professional videotape editor, Craig used his skills to remaster the sound and vision on the recordings. In 2006, he issued a DVD of series one, and then last month, released series two (a double-DVD set, no less).

I bought them both last week, and eagerly watched all twelve episodes over the weekend, and this post is by way of both a review and a hearty recommendation; these are extremely high-quality productions - the shows presented are still very funny and clever, but rather than just leave it at that, Craig's created extras for the DVDs - 'making of' features and new cast and creator commentaries.

As you can see from the picture above, these DVDs don't look 'home-made' in the slightest (the two DVD boxes even match when stood alongside each other on the shelf), and Craig has done what I consider to be a brilliant job of turning his enthusiasm into something that others can enjoy. So, in case you hadn't already guessed, I urge you to buy these DVDs - if nothing else, it'd be a great way for you to show your support for quality comedy DVD releases when so many huge firms seem to feel that an 'Interactive Menu' constitutes an extra feature.

Craig's set up his own firm, Replay, whose website can be found here. The site is as professional as the DVDs, and I received my DVDs within a day of ordering them, so I can't fault the service on any level. And you get a discount if you buy the complete set.

Go on, support the independent folks instead of giving money to Global Omnicorp Inc. You won't regret it.

(My thanks to Craig - obviously, for all his hard work in making a fun show available once more, but also for his permission to post about the history of the project).