Sunday, December 28, 2008

RIP Harold Pinter

Although I've never been a particular fan of Harold Pinter, I found myself curiously moved by his death. His work, it appears, affected me more than I realised, so I thought I might perhaps take a moment to reflect upon the man, and his life.

The exact time and place of Harold's birth remains unclear, and although his upbringing by his father's brother sister after the tragic loss of both parents (in an incident that would scar the young Pinter for the rest of his life), has been described as less than ideal, Harold appeared to deal with his situation in a particularly stoic manner. Yet his teenage years were in many way tempestuous - perhaps the inevitable result of bottling up the emotions of his early life. This would, of course, affect his work, although it is arguable that without such a dramatic start to his life, Pinter would never have made the considerable breakthroughs in his field for which he became justly famous -and in some quarters infamous. His acceptance into noted public school Hogwarts certainly moulded the young Pinter into the man he would become, even if for such a tragically short time.

Pinter stamped his mark on the cultural and thaumatological scene as a suburban brooder and as an irate iconoclast - his work on the Crucio incantations alone have earned him a place amongst Britain's finest magicians. Yet it was his stance against the war that gave Pinter most fame towards his final years, perhaps undeservedly overshadowing his earlier, more theoretical work in the area of Imperious Curses.

In recent years, he had seized the platform offered by his 2005 Triwizard Tournament prize to denounce Dark Lord Voldermort and the war in the Wizarding World that was to claim the lives of so many, Muggles and non-Muggles alike.

On a personal note, I rather lost track of Pinter's work somewhere after the Prisoner of Azkaban, which I found well-plotted, but rather lifeless, and stuffed full of sub-Dahlian whimsy, which sat rather uncomfortably next to the over-cranked teenage angst and blatant use of plot tokens. Still, Harold did the best he could with what he was given, and one can ask no more than that. He touched all our lives, whether we knew it or not, and our thoughts must certainly go our to Ron and Hermione, who will need all our support in this difficult time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I don't know why this is funny, it just is.

Ah, apparently it's Steve Carrell's bit from 'Bruce Almighty' stuck on the soundtrack of a small dog barking. Well, that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Also, who's doing all the clothes washing?

I am enjoying Survivors, and the final episode next week looks properly epic, but one or two questions have raised themselves during the unfolding storyline.

1. Where do the main characters get their unending supplies of hair conditioner and makeup from? If they are making regular trips to some cosmetics warehouse, and fighting regular running battles with groups of disenfranchised post-apocalyptic WAGs, I feel this warrants an episode, at least.

2. Where are they going to the toilet? Again, just a single shot of one of the characters clutching a bog roll and saying a cheery 'I'm off to that tree behind the lake now' would have been fine.

3. How come the middle three episodes seem to have turned into a cross between particularly dark episodes of Casualty and Peak Practice, without much of a reminder that the rest of the country has pretty much ceased to exist? I'm afraid I also disapprove of what I refer to as 'Lassie Episodes', where the characters wander off, get caught up in someone else's story, help them resolve it, then get back to the country house in time for tea. I like getting the snapshots of other peoples' experiences, but it does sort of imply you could just watch the first episode, and then the last, without missing much in the middle.

All that said, Max Beesely is turning out to be pretty damn good (and having read some early drafts of the scripts, it's interesting to see his character has become rather more ambiguous than originally planned, which is no bad thing), and next week we get to see an abandoned, flooded-out and burning city -hurrah!

This is one of those shows that definitely needs a few more series, partly because I want to write an episode SO BADLY, but also because the further the show gets from its starting point, and starts to build up its own societies and characters, the more interesting I think it will get.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The crossbow/nudity story

(given a post of its own now, for the purposes of neatness)

So, I was working at Waterstone's in Canterbury, about eightish years ago, and came down from lunch only to have Paul Grigsby, who was writing a novel about a frog, thrust a piece of paper at me.

'Some bloke said you'd agreed to make a film with him,' he said, sounding rather doubtful.

'Hmm', I said, because I had absolutely no recollection of such an event. But I rang the phone number on the piece of paper, and got chatting to a man with a Kentish dialect, who seemed reasonably certain we'd had a big chat about fantasy novels, and scripts and so on, around the SF section of the bookshop, the previous Saturday. This sounded quite likely, and indeed in many ways, my impact on the lives of the humble folk who entered my section of the bookshop must have been somewhat akin to a meteor: a flash in the sky, a single moment of visual brilliance, the sonic impact of my latest insight ('yeah, the early Dragonlance books were okay, but they went off the boil after the second trilogy, I reckon'), and a hushed silence as the life-changing moment passed - but is the meteor aware of the lives it's changed forever? No. I suppose also it's been smashed to bits by that point, but right up to then, the comparison holds.

Any-old-way, Kent Man was having a film meeting over at his house for a weekend, and asked if, bearing in mind my previously-expressed, if now utterly forgotten enthusiasm for the project, I fancied meeting some of the other participants.

I said yes, for a laugh, and that weekend was met at one of Kent's more bleakly remote train stations by a man who looked exactly like someone who repaired television aerials for a living. This insight was backed up by the van he was driving, which advertised his television aerial repair business on the side, and when I got in, proved to be full of spiky metal bits, which could have been bits of television aerials, or could have something else entirely. I chose not to investigate too closely, which with retrospect, might have been an error.

It turned out I was the first person to arrive, so was shown a preview of the work done so far, which turned out to be not exactly a film, in that it was shot on handheld video. In it, ninjas in cloaks jumped out of woods, men with swords and cloaks jumped out at other men with swords, and haunted-looking women in cloaks peered furtively from between trees, presumably wondering where all the ninjas had got to. Occasionally, dialogue threatened to break out, at which point Kent Man would fastforward the video to get to the next bit of action, which suited me fine.

Not that I was taking much of this in anyway, because the front room of Kent Man's semi-detatched home was festooned with medieval weaponry, the reflected light of the television glittering off so many buffed and shining claymores, maces, morningstars and daggers, I could barely make out a thing. Pride of place above the wooden television cabinet were two curved Japanese swords on a special wooded stand that, I'm pleased to say, was carved to look like another sword. The weirdest thing was how the layout of the semi was almost exactly the same as my parents' house in Cornwall. If I'd won the lottery at around fourteen, then had my parents shipped overseas so I could decorate any way I wanted, this was exactly how it would have looked.

However the on-screen events were showing no sign of coming to any kind of conclusion. In fact, the pace seemed to be picking up somewhat, with the cast now decamping to what appeared to be some kind of small electronics warehouse in the woods, where ninjas now had the opportunity to jump out of doorways, while the haunted-looking women could now peer furtively out of actual windows.

'We'll put the turrets and stuff in post-production', said Kent Man idly, in a manner that suggested adding post production turrets was but the work of a moment for one such as he. 'Might put some magic effects in as well, like fireballs and stuff'. I nodded wisely, and at this point, the other contributors appeared. Their faces and voices are lost to me now, in the mists of time, although I do remember Kent Man's wife bringing a tray of teas and coffees round in that slightly absent way I'm sure is present in the spouses of the more cosily middle-aged serial killers. They know hubby has a little hobby, but they also know better than to ask for too many details.

Once Mrs Kent Man had left the room, we were able to look at footage from the previous weekend, in which the hero (who I think was one of the cloaked men with swords) had to seduce the wife of a prominent baron, or possibly a ninja, or perhaps the owner of the small, woodlands-based electronics warehouse. The wife was a fairly large woman in her late forties, wearing one of those sort-of-Middle Ages dresses, and a rather blank expression on her face, which turned out to be for the best.

'None of these people are professional actors,' said Kent Man proudly. 'That's Enid, who works down at Tesco.' On screen, the hero sat Enid down on a large bed, which had been carefully laid out with a medieval-style duvet, looked briefly at the camera for guidance, and then began unlacing her top.

'Hmm', I thought to myself. 'Righto'. But he kept on unlacing, and then suddenly the top half of the dress was hanging down, and it became increasingly apparent that Enid was wearing no support garment. The hero placed his hands upon Enid's mighty charms and began a seduction technique that involved a sort of listless kneading the like of which I have never seen before, although to be fair, I gave up watching Big Brother quite early on. The kneading continued for some time. Enid's expression did not change at any point.

'Meep,' I said quietly, then the hero looked sideways at the camera, and suddenly we were back to ninjas.

'Well that's just more of the same,' said Kent Man, turning off the television. I sat frozen in my chair, aware of the other people sitting next to me on the sofa, and wondering what exactly was going to happen next. What actually happened was Kent Man telling us the rest of the story, which apparently we were only a third of the way through. There was one big baddy to turn up yet, in a manner that involved time travel, possibly using items rigged up from the electronics warehouse. This opened up a whole new series of events linked together by the phrase 'and then', which was to be used approximately a thousand times in the next sixty minutes.

'The thing is,' I said, when Kent Man paused for breath, 'I've sort of got to be getting back.' I didn't dare look at the people next to me on the sofa, in case they were already winding soft velvet ropes around their hands, while eyeing up the nearest edged weapon. Kent Man shot me a terribly disappointed look, but was kind enough not to question this, and we went out to his van.

We didn't talk much on the way back to the train station, although we had one last touching moment just before I got out the last television aerial repair van I would ever exit.

'The thing is,' said Kent Man, with a touching shyness, that still makes tears well up in my eyes, 'We need a baddy for the next bit of the story. And he's supposed to be a bit sort of... dashing, and everyone I know has short hair. So how would feel about, you know, taking on the role?'

There passed a horrible, horrible moment of silence while I shuffled through the one million excuses I had started preparing around the time the first ninja had leapt out of that first clump of saplings.

'I'm sorry,' I said, finally, 'The thing is, I've got a Bob The Builder episode to write, and I just don't think I'm going to have time for projects of this scale. Thank you very much for asking though.'

And then Kent Man played his trump card.

'I've got a crossbow,' he said. 'It's in the back of the van. Do you want me to get it out?'

I thought about it. Kent Man hadn't just thrown this thing together. His sales pitch was so designed to hook into my very soul I wouldn't even have had to consider it, were it not for Enid's blank dead gaze that haunts my subconscious still.

'No thank you,' I said firmly, and walked away forever.

The Greatest Music Video Ever Made, or 'Oh Noes, He's Grabbed The Pointy Ends!!11!eleven!'"

This is going to be all over the internet soon, and peope are going to be queueing up to take the piss, but I genuinely think there's something glorious about this video. The guy who made it knows EXACTLY what he likes, and you have to respect that. Well, not 'respect' exactly, but something very close.

Also, if I could play the guitar, I would play it exactly the way Chris Dane Owens does at 2:13.

It's also brought a deeply repressed memory back of a strange incident in Kent, about ten years ago, involving Waterstone's, female nudity, crossbows, and a television repair man. But there's no time to go into that right now.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Why do female comedy writers tend to be writer/performers?

Some interesting responses to the post about the Screenwipe TV writing special. It hadn't occured to me that the writers Charlie was interiewing were all male, but when I tried to think of some female television writers as well-known as RTD, Paul Abbot, Bain and Armstrong or Tony Jordan, I simply drew a blank. After a bit of a struggle, I came up with Kay Mellor and Lynda La Plante, although I can't pretend to be that familiar with the work of either of them.

Yet if we're specifically talking about comedy, there are of course, plenty of female comedy writer/performers: The Bearded Ladies, Sharon Horgan, French and Saunders, Ruth Jones, Meera Syal, Catherine Tate and Julia Davies to name but some. So why is this?

1. I think mainly because comedy-writing as a profession is just terribly terribly geeky, which has to be combined with a sort of misplaced rage that women don't seem to suffer from in quite the same way as do men. It's quite a macho little world, in a seedy, sad sort of way.

2. Performer to writer is quite a natural sidestep. This annoyed me terribly when I first started out. These people already have careers of their own, why would they want mine as well? But it actually makes perfect sense: all that time sitting around doing nothing while you wait for people to fiddle with lights means you often have time to think 'surely I could write better than the load of old rubbish masquerading as a script in front of me?' Plus, comedy's a small world - if you already have a living, however meagre, as a performer, you're well placed to get your material to agents, producers and commissioners, in a way you simply don't if you're just starting out.

UPDATE: also, lest anyone think I'm having a go at writer/performers here, people who regularly have to read out their own lines, or those written by other people, usually pick up a load of skills directly transferable to writing: dialogue written by those used to performing is often much more convincing than that written by someone who's never actually had to say their own words aloud. Comic timing translates to the page better than you'd think: think of Victoria Wood, for example. Writer/performers can often fall down on structure (which I often think is overrated anyway), but they usually know how to write dialogue that sounds like something someone would actually say, rather than a bit of speech that just bridges a gap, or fixes some other minor technical problem.

3. Comedy seems to be more and more geared towards writer/performers generally. There really isn't that much cash on offer for writing a half-hour episode of comedy (the starting rate for a channel four sitcom is about seven grand, which may sound a lot until you realise that has to cover month's worth of writing and rewriting, and often you'll be put on a Comedy Lab or similar scheme, which can pay about half that). There's more money in performing, so many actors write scripts almost at a loss, knowing they'll make back the cash if they cast themselves.

4. Female writers just don't seem to do that sort of 'snappy one-liner auto-cue here comes a joke about John Prescott being fat' sort of thing that gets so many comedy writers started. Not to say that they couldn't if they wanted to, but for most of the female comedy writer/performers I know, their material seems to be more complex than that, less reliant on kneejerk 'lol Will Young is teh gayz' type stuff. Thankfully.

5. I suspect quite a few women comedy performers are pushed into writing almost solely because good material for women comic actors is so thin on the ground.

But that's just off the top of my head, and I'm not a) female, or b) a performer, so they could all be completely wrong. Any other points of view, please feel free to comment below.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Always Back The Writer

Idiot Comedy Actor A heckles, then throws a succession of increasingly heavy and dangerous stuff at Comedy Writer B, who is accepting an award, culminating in quite a cool moment at 1:14.

Okay, I know it's not that dramatic or anything, but for a writer, that's pretty amazing, taking into account the standard writerly lack of physical coordination alone.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

'It's like doing a big poo'

If there's anyone who hasn't seen it yet, Episode Three of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe is still available on iPlayer, including interviews with Russell T. Davies, Paul Abbot, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, Tony Jordan, and Graham Linehan. Fifty minutes long, and well worth it for anyone who's ever wondered about the ins and outs of writing for television. General consensus seems to be: procastination is fine, don't write scenes set on aircraft carriers if you can't afford them, and think twice before throwing David Mitchell into a freezing cold lake, but basically do it if you think it'll get a laugh.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Blue Cat Blog Meet 2008: The Post-Match Analysis:

1. Boz is surprisingly chiselled in real life.
2. Jayne is v. slinky with great hair.
3. Billy looks as good as ever.
4. We all drank too much.
5. Ow my head.