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Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Return

This Saturday, January 31st, 8.00pm on NBC; the second and concluding part of the Crusoe season finale.

No, that's not him on the slab.

As far as I know there are no plans for a second season. I understand there's some debate over whether Crusoe is a cancelled show or a completed miniseries.

Miniseries is what they told me when I came on board. My brief was to deliver an arc with the satisfaction of closure, and no cliffhanger ending.

Knowing how the ground can shift in the course of production, I laid in a few strands that could serve as a starting-point for a further season. But an early network note was always to treat the show as self-contained and complete in its thirteen hours, and that's how we went on.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Moi, Robot

Courtesy of Dave Young comes this promotional footage of an awesome wee chap; I'm a sucker for a wind-up tin robot but this, the Nao robot from Aldebaran Robotics, is really something else.

While the practical school of thought dictates that the form of a robot should do no more than express its function, there's still an enormous human urge to make a machine that reminds us of us.

Of course, when they eventually look like Tricia Helfer and start killing us, then we'll be sorry.

Click here for the Singularity Hub's roundup of the best robots of 2008. They include Toyota's spooky violin-playing humanoid and the Big Dog, a stable four-legged platform that... well, just watch what happens when someone tries to kick it over.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Traveler

Well, that's how those Americans spell it...

8.00pm, Saturday, January 24th on NBC... the first hour of my two-part Crusoe season finale, in which our backstory and main story come together and I can promise you answers to all the questions raised in the Sam Neill/Jeremiah Blackthorn subplot.

No, of course you won't find them in the book. What do you think this is?

Just to note... the wedding scene, pictured above, was shot in York Minster and all of our UK material, apart from one or two pickup scenes in South Africa and some harbour stuff out in Whitby, was shot either in the city itself or in one of several amazing houses in the immediate area.

At some point in my Copious Spare Time I'll dig out the schedule and list the places that are available to be seen or visited, if anyone's interested.

On January 31st, the conclusion to the two-parter is titled The Return.

For a full episode guide, go here.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Where's Skippy?

Here's a piece of cultural history if you're of a certain age... a visit to the standing sets of a 60's TV show finds them in a state of ghostly preservation with props, sets and decor still intact...

Monday, 19 January 2009

Network DVD Sale

Thanks to Ian Dickerson for the news that Network DVD have cut their stock prices for online sales by 40% until Sunday 25th January. I'm caving in and going for the Department S boxed set now it's under thirty quid. Though for the moment I'm still working my way through forty-seven hours of Danger Man after Guy Adams nudged me into adding it to my Christmas wish list.

Danger Man was a show that I never really appreciated the first time around, probably because it was too grown-up for me then... whereas now, for my adult self, it's scratching the ITC itch perfectly!

I'm also tempted to maybe a season or two of The Sandbaggers. This is the espionage show that the producers of Spooks (US title: MI5) went to such great trouble to hunt down. Haven't seen anything of it in years, but I remember it being impressive when it first came out.

My very first literary agent, Yvonne Heather, also represented creator Ian Mackintosh for published work. I've a certain fondness for the light-touch husband-and-wife detective series that he created, The Wilde Alliance (not available on DVD, as far as I know). John Stride and Julia Foster were a kind of modern-day Nick and Nora Charles, only sober; he was a thriller writer, they were stinking rich, and they lived in a gorgeous house around the back of York Minster. If that doesn't date it, I don't know what would.

And while we're at it, has anyone ever seen or heard anything of Mister Jerico? It appears to be a TV movie starring Patrick Macnee and "produced, written and directed by some of the mainstays behind the phenomenon that was The Avengers."

Forgotten gem or lost dog?

Moving away from Network, but inspired by the contribution of director Don Chaffey to Danger Man (and rather fancying Jan Francis lookalike and guest star Georgina Ward) I started to look out his B-movie crime thriller With These Hands... a bizarre underworld number, written and produced by the equally bizarre partnership of soap creator Hazel Adair and wrestling commentator Kent Walton... only to find that it had been repackaged as Sex Clinic and released as 70s soft porn for the grubby mac brigade. It's part of a DVD double-bill with a Norman J Warren movie but now I'm waaaay too embarrassed to order it!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Edgar Allan Poe

Thanks to Stephen Volk for a reminder that tomorrow marks the bicentenary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. Doesn't matter which way you come at it, whether you see him as a giant of American literature or one of the key figures in a beloved genre, Edgar Allan Poe was The Business.

As with many a true artist, you may envy the man's achievement but you wouldn't want his life. His aim was to be a man of letters, not a master of the macabre. But his was a dark talent, that fed upon the negativity, conflict and disappointments of human existence and made from them something that is simultaneously grim and glorious. Loved ones suffered and died, his ventures mostly failed, and even after death his reputation suffered when an embittered rival managed to gain control of his literary estate; succeeding only, in the end, in contributing to the writer's growing legend.

Poe moved around throughout his life, and museums and memorials have sprung up in his wake like the Children of the Hydra's Teeth. One such stands on Seventh Street in the Spring Garden district of North Philadelphia.

We paid a family visit there during a follow-up trip to research my Philadelphia-set novel Red, Red Robin. I'd done the bulk of the work during a solo visit the previous year, and this time around there was less pressure and a chance for some sightseeing.

Unfurnished and stripped back to the bare materials, the Spring Garden house works in a way that recreated or restored properties often don't; the imaginative path from now to then is shortened, not cluttered, and the bare-bones presentation has an air of truth. Though there's no way of determining exactly which of his works were written during Poe's time as a tenant - one year out of the six or seven he spent in Philadelphia - the layout of the cellar strongly suggests a link to The Black Cat, and the story's publication date supports this.

As our tour party of a dozen or so stood in the cellar, our Ranger guide launched into a from-memory recitation of The Tell-Tale Heart and did it pretty well, too, with captivating gusto.

After the tour, as we wandered freely through the empty rooms on the upper floors, my daughter stepped on a loose board. The board lifted - and there beneath it, in the space between the joists, lay a large, realistic, red rubber heart.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Patrick McGoohan

I just heard of the death of actor/writer/director Patrick McGoohan at the age of 80, following a short illness.

A terrific and brooding screen presence, an actor of integrity and eccentricity, mad as a box of bats in the best possible way... otherwise how could he ever have become the creator and driving force of that surreal classic of British TV, The Prisoner, of which I once wrote:
THE PRISONER was a huge, flawed, sprawling, psychotic explosion centred on the personality of its producer/star. Take away the things that gave it unique life - McGoohan, the location, its 1960s psychedelic sensibility - and what you're left with is a story premise that, on its own, was good for one episode of DANGER MAN.
As it happens, I'm working my way through the Danger Man boxed set right now (US title: Secret Agent). Appreciating it properly, too - it was more grown-up than most ITC series and I was too young for it the first time around. Terrific stuff.

Thanks, Pat. Be seeing you.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Three and Out

I enjoyed this British black comedy far more than I expected to; for some reason the ad campaign had persuaded me that it was a story about a loser set on the London Underground, when in fact its structure more resembles that of My Favorite Year, with Mackenzie Crook being drawn along in the wake of Colm Meaney's suicidal former hellraiser on a final, set-things-right weekend. I won't claim it's right up there with Richard Benjamin's almost-forgotten gem, but it's made with pace and verve and features strong leads and a rather good supporting performance by Vera Drake's Imelda Staunton.

Storywise there's stuff that doesn't hold water, but it's one of those films that captures your goodwill so that all your "Now, wait a minute..." moments are held off until you start reflecting on it afterwards. It's not like, say, Kinky Boots, where even a script from the excellent Tim Firth couldn't disguise the joyless safety of every story choice. None of it Firth's fault, I'd venture to say; I can pretty much envision the meetings.

Led by colleagues to believe that a third death on his line will result in a payoff that will allow him to get out of London for good, Tube driver Crook naively goes on a search for a determined suicide with whom he can strike a deal. On Holborn Bridge he finds one, in the form of Meaney's Boudu-like down-and-out.

Meaney vanishes with his rent money and reappears the next morning, shaved, scrubbed-up and suited and driving a hired Mercedes. What follows... well, I suppose you could sit down and work out the beats. It's neither as ambitious nor as resonant as In Bruges, but it disarms the viewer with its streak of upfront bad taste. Its premise angered rail unions, who apparently put on a protest at the premiere.

Until I picked up the DVD, that protest was about all I knew of the film. The critics would have been of little help, had I read them first. Those I've checked out since are of the "Oh, thanks for putting me right; until I read your review I was erroneously thinking I'd enjoyed myself" variety. I suppose that for once, a film had caught me off-guard; with no preparation or expectations, I was thinking like the audience.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Thirty-Nine Steps (2)

Back in July I posted some thoughts inspired by a re-reading of John Buchan's The Thirty-nine Steps. If so inclined, you can find them here.

What I didn't go on to explain was that my revisiting of the book had been part of a discussion between me and producer Archie Tait, whom I've known and spitballed ideas with ever since Chimera, with a view to getting a new production off the ground.

We couldn't get anyone interested. The rights were due to expire but Castle Rock had been holding onto them for most of the last ten years, ostensibly as a directing project for Robert Towne. So we let it drop and moved on to another project, which is a horror story for another time.

Then blow me, along comes Christmas 2009 and a new BBC version of the story. Which I say without rancour; that's just how it goes. I'm assuming that this signals the novel's move into the public domain. My surprise is due to the flight of time, because I was thinking that the book rights still had at least a couple of years to run.

(Copyright in the Charles Bennett/Hitchcock screenplay is another matter, and one that complicates any thoughts of a new version. So much was added in that adaptation, and so many of the additions went on to become canonic, that to shed them is to lose the life-support system of the book's lasting fame. But lose them you must, if you have the rights to one but not the other.)

The existence of this new version (which I haven't yet seen and so can't pass comment upon) frees me to tell you the rest of the story that followed on from those ruminations. Why? Well, I won't be selling it now, will I? So I can offer it as a glimpse into the kind of process that begins when approaching an adaptation.

Here, going right back to the beginning, are those first thoughts on a move from page to screen as I expressed them to Archie.
Point one. I think you have a choice of two periods for this. You either stick to the period of the book or you modernise. In favour of period? Well, there’s the political situation of the time. There’s the fact that because of the nature of communications and everything else, the British landscape could offer us this great mythic backdrop to play out the drama. There’s the lovely narrative impedimenta of the age – the trains, the cars, the costumes. And there’s the simple fact that when you adapt a book, you should honour it and not plunder it, because if your inclination is to plunder it, you’re really just looking for a free ride when you can’t come up with a story of your own.

The advantage of going contemporary would be that you could rethink the whole thing into a smart, supercharged modern thriller. Richard Hannay is the great uncle of James Bond. I’d call him the grandfather, but I’m not sure that he’d know what to do with a woman. And THE 39 STEPS is the direct ancestor of the frills-free suspense narrative typified by THE FUGITIVE and 24.

Given that the Hitchcock/Charles Bennett version is always going to be considered as the definitive reading of the period story, an updating would free you to stand on your own feet. Sure, you could remake the Hitchcock for a new generation who won’t even look at a 1930s black and white movie. But who, with any regard for the original, could enter a remake with anything other than a gloomy feeling of humiliation? I’m sure that anyone who could would be exactly the wrong person to be entrusted with it.

Structurally, what would I do? I’d tidy up the opening. I would sweep away all the rubbish that Scudder tells him which he later finds out to be untrue when he decodes the notebook. I would preserve Buchan’s arc, but I wouldn’t preserve his plotting. I would look for the incidents and the narrative beats that he so blithely skips over. I’d work with more attention to character, particularly of the pursuing enemies, and I would look to create a role for the elusive Julia. Buchan doesn’t give us much about her, but he does give us maybe enough to justify her as an inside agent in the enemy’s camp, a kind of Maid Marian to Hannay’s Robin Hood.

There’s something not remotely convincing in Hannay’s response to being hunted being to pick on a point on a map which is as wild and unpopulated as he can possibly find. There’s all that stuff about Veldkraft, but it just won’t wash in the minds of the audience, because everybody knows that it’s easier to hide in a crowd than in an open field. Buchan gets Hannay up there because he wants him up there for the set pieces, not because a remorseless logic drives him. Therefore, we have to give him a reason to go up there and put himself at risk on the journey, and when he arrives he’s got to have something to be running to, not running from. My thought is that the visiting dignitary, Karolides or whoever, whose assassination is intended to spark the war, is perhaps heading for a conference on an estate up there. The laird of the estate is the one man whom Hannay thinks he can trust, having established that the rest of officialdom is riddled with spies and insiders. So he goes across Scotland to reach the man at the top to warn him, the only one whose integrity is beyond question, only to find in the presence of the man at the top that he has in fact walked into the lair of the leader of the bad guys. Which is not an entirely incredible scenario when one thinks back to those discussions that the Duke of Windsor was involved with, which would have put him on the throne of England in the event of a fascist victory in the Second World War.

That foiled, the enemy regroups and Hannay hurtles down to London, in the knowledge that, since they can’t kill Karolides at the conference on the estate, their Plan B is to get him however they can.

In this final act, Buchan has Hannay restored to official credibility, which to my mind ends the fun too early. The plot starts to freewheel just when it should be pedalling hard for the finish. My inclination would be to keep him on the run, perhaps with one Javert-like policeman who’s increasingly coming to believe in his innocence, and to realise the substance in his warnings. And I think it needs a final will he/won’t he showdown in which Hannay foils the assassin. The scene may not be there in the book, but I would consider it entirely justified simply because the book promises and then doesn’t deliver it.
We had other discussions and explored other versions, including a contemporary take with a set-piece chase across the moors in which Hannay's plucky British Land Rover sees off a squad of Johnny Foreigner four-wheel drives, leaving them wrecked and overturned as he yomps his way to freedom.

Yeah, okay. I know. But it's fiction, all right?

Monday, 5 January 2009

Carnival of Souls

If there's any movie that comes a close second to Jason and the Argonauts in terms of the money that I've shelled out to own copies of it, this low-budget hand-made horror from the 'sixties must surely be the one.

I saw Carnival of Souls as the lower half of a Sunday horror double-bill at the Princes Cinema, Monton, sometime around 1970 or '71. It marked me for life. I don't mean in a traumatic way, although I'm sure that a susceptible mind could find its combination of archetypal nightmare images and plain style genuinely disturbing.

No: I was gripped by the way that it seemed to strike a succession of clear notes in my subconscious. It was like mainlining essence of macabre. There's a misconception that horror in art is concerned with disgust; when in fact, done well, it produces a deep-reaching and peculiar form of delight.

The movie was released in 1962 and was made by a bunch of Kansas filmmakers with a background in corporate and industrial documentaries. Herk Harvey directed, John Clifford scripted. They raised money from local businesses and pressed friends and family into service both in front of and behind the camera. But for their lead they hired a professional actress with a small handful of TV and B-movie credits, Candace Hilligoss, and struck lucky with her Summer Glau-like air of uninflected weirdness. Frankly, with someone more expensive the film might not have worked half so well.

It starts with a road race that ends in disaster, with a carload of friends running off a bridge and into the river. Alone from the water staggers Mary Henry (Hilligoss) in the first of the film's many memorable images; mud-splattered sole survivor of a mass drowning, she cleans up and goes on to take up a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. There she finds herself becoming steadily more detached from the world around her. When she's not playing the Devil's music or struggling to be noticed in a silenced town centre, she's being haunted by a doleful apparition of a corpse-faced man. The apparition eventually leads her to a deserted lakeside pavilion, where the dead waltz and welcome their own.

So cool.

In its making and in its achievement, I tend to think of it as a counterpoint to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Both films were made outside the Hollywood system by people with a skill base in bread-and-butter, non-theatrical regional filmmaking. Both films managed, by their very lack of conventional artifice, to strike directly at the viewer's unconscious. I regard Carnival of Souls as the Jung to Living Dead's Freud.

Both films also had an equally rocky time in the marketplace, and left their makers similarly unrewarded. In my part of the UK, Carnival played that one night at the Princes' and it never showed up on TV. But boy, did it stay with me.

A few years later, when VHS had got itself established, I imported an NTSC copy from Sinister Cinema and paid to have it converted to PAL at a London facilities house. I shudder to think what it must have cost me. The tape itself was cheap, but the conversion was at industry rates. The quality wasn't great either; it was one of many variant versions of the movie floating around, all from different sources. According to Englewood Entertainment's Wade Williams, "This picture was sold outright worldwide - state rights for perpetuity. They sold rights for the life of the print. Anybody that bought them could change the title, they could do about anything they wanted to exploit them."

When a decent PAL VHS version came out shortly afterwards, I was convinced that all my trouble in securing and converting a copy had served as an act of sympathetic magic to bring it about. I upgraded anyway and it looked so much better.

After that I upgraded again, to the Criterion DVD. Yep, Criterion. In a restored and properly mastered print, offered in two versions, with commentary from Clifford and Harvey and a comprehensive overview of the rest of their oeuvre... such classics as Signals - Read 'em or Weep and (ahem) To Touch a Child (it's about education).

I reckoned that after the Criterion treatment, there was nowhere further to go. Every now and again I'd see the movie offered cheap (or, in one case, given away on the cover of a magazine), but I knew that these would be crappy versions sourced from old prints and that what I had was now definitive.

But now next month, Network are releasing a new region 2 DVD. I don't know where their print material is sourced from, but I do know that it carries a new commentary track from savvy horror stalwarts Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.

It never ends, I tell you...