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Monday, 31 January 2011

John Barry

Woke up this morning to the news that musician and film composer John Barry has died at the age of 77; I shouldn't be taking it personally, but it's hard not to. He had a rare gift for infusing high drama with a melancholy that made it soar.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Suicide Hour

The dust is finally settling after internal restructuring at Random House - I expect you can read about that somewhere else - so with thanks to those who've gone out of their way to ask, I can tell you that The Suicide Hour is back on track.

I received a copy of the edited manuscript on Christmas Eve and worked on it over the holidays. It's a sympathetic edit, and some of the points raised have driven me to make significant improvements to the finished book. A reminder to me of how a good publisher raises an author's game. Some of my earliest paperback originals were just marked-up and printed without any real editorial or proofing stage, and the results could be pretty shabby. These past few weeks have made me cast my mind back to my first proper engagement with an experienced editor - neither critic nor reader, but another kind of creature altogether. One whose forte was finding my weak spots, the points where I'd maybe had my doubts but persuaded myself to ignore them, and exposing stuff I'd unconsciously thought I could get away with.

The Suicide Hour is set in 1912. It isn't a direct sequel to The Kingdom of Bones but a new story featuring that novel's Sebastian Becker, ex-British Detective, one-time Pinkerton man, now working as Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy.

It's a murder mystery, with locations ranging from Southwark to the Americas. Becker is sent to the West Country to establish the mental state of Sir Owain Lancaster, a discredited industrialist under the control of a personal physician. Following the deaths of two children on Lancaster's land, Becker unravels the secrets of a disastrous expedition that destroyed the man's reputation and possibly his sanity.

Life is strange. In the UK I'm a forgotten '90s horror writer (no complaints; it was a hell of a run) while in the US I'm now a literary author.

I'll post dates and cover scans when I get them.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


Thanks to friend-of-the-blog Stan for the news that Network DVD will release the complete Chiller anthology series on February 28th.

Produced and in part directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, we kicked off the series with an adaptation of Peter James' Prophecy and pulled in, as I recall, somewhere in excess of 11 million viewers. A number that ITV went on to squander by pre-empting later shows for sports fixtures.

Some of the stories were available on VHS back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, but as far as I'm aware this is a first UK DVD release. A couple of years ago I got hold of a copy of an Australian set, and that's the only DVD version I was aware of until now. I'm not sure if I checked out the transfer quality on that one - the shrinkwrap's off the box but I can be funny about viewing my old stuff. All I ever seem to see are things I want to fix.

The one that puzzles me by its absence from the shelves is Murder Rooms, which was shot in lovely widescreen Super 16 and released in the UK as individual shows in a piss-poor 4X3 transfer that mostly seemed to sell in Past Times shops, between the Celtic teatowels and candlestick holders. In case you didn't see it, Murder Rooms featured period mysteries involving the young Arthur Conan Doyle and his real-life mentor Joseph Bell, in stories that interwove fictional sleuthing, biographical points, and echoes of the Holmesian canon. Made to a high standard by BBC Films, it was a fresh take on a popular subject and the episode I contributed is one of my favourite pieces of work. A second season was planned, but cancelled before the commissions went through. I found it an inexplicable decision until I read that the word around the BBC was that it had been 'too successful for the wrong department'. In its place, BBC Drama made yet another Hound of the Baskervilles.

The US Murder Rooms complete set is widescreen but still not looking as good as it ought to; Amazon has a Swedish 'complete season' issue listed but at 65 quid, I'll stifle my curiosity over how that one looks.

What he said, yeah

After a bit of a hiatus Good Dog is blogging at length again, with an entertaining and entirely personal commentary on the movie year that was 2010. I swear to you that I'd already seized upon this sentiment to excerpt before I followed the link at the end of the piece:
Everyone probably has some gripe about trying to watch a movie in an auditorium with uncomfortable seats, sticky floors from spilt soda, poor projection and audio set–ups that really sticks it to the dialogue. Then there are the fellow members of the audience who appear to have left any good manners at home. But when the venue’s staff couldn’t give a shit, close the box–office and make you queue for a ticket at the concession stands behind social Neanderthals who can’t decide which flavour ice cream they want, causing you to almost miss the start of the film, that’s more than enough for me. And this whole enforced 3D experience can fuck right off.
And there in a nutshell is the reason why the only thing that would make me give up my big TV is A BIGGER TV.

Welcome back also to This Island Rod, after an announced hiatus so short that no one would have noticed if he hadn't announced it. Roderick Heath is an unstinting critic but one driven by love, which makes his analyses of his chosen films life-affirming and anything but dry. Find him also writing alongside the equally insightful Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films, most recently on the subject of Big Trouble in Little China.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Adding a Character

Searching through some old emails I came across this one, written as part of the to-and-fro when I was finally freed up to be able to contribute to the US version of Eleventh Hour. Just as I started pitching the story that was to become the episode titled Subway, CBS came up with the idea of adding a third character to the team. This was my response. I think there's enough distance now that it won't matter if I share it. Not least because it gives me a chance to air some long-held views on the ways in which characters balance each other in series TV.
I'd urge care over this 'third member' question as it's one of those understandable concerns but with a potential to sabotage the fundamental dynamic of the show... imagine if THE X FILES had featured a 3-person team.

A long time ago I noticed a distinction between the shows I liked best and the ones that I still liked, but which stood in their shadow. The front-rank shows were built around single lead characters or were two-handers. Where a show featured a team of 3, the characters always seemed to fall into the same regular configuration; I called them the Father, the Lad, and the Desirable Tomboy. This applied regardless of gender.

The Father is the steady one, the responsible one, maybe older. Finds the cases or receives the orders and is perceived as the head of the team. The Lad is self-assured, impetuous, energetic, a different girlfriend every week. The Desirable Tomboy is intelligent and sexy but she holds herself sexually aloof. She has an unstated thing for the father. The Lad has a barely-concealed interest in her. The Father has relationships outside the team that we only ever get hints about.

(Example: every 'two guys and a gal' team show ever made)

The threesome is stable and it always works but the price of it is a formula-feeling show.

When first working on 11thH I had some ideas about an extended regular cast but always with a view to keeping the Hood/Rachel relationship of equals intact. Add a third corner to the team, and that will go. Hood will be pushed into being the Father.

So a third member needs to be distanced slightly so as not to become the third person in a marriage. I experimented with a senior figure within government, the man who recruited Hood and who protects him politically so that he can get on with what he does. But that was too far offstage and not very interesting.

So my other thought was for a kind of field facilitator, someone who gets sent out to rendezvous with Hood and Rachel in the field and provide them with stuff they may need or make local arrangements - source them a geiger counter, find and rent an aircraft hangar, open a channel of contact with some local activist group. Kind of a cross between Q showing up in Tokyo with a bunch of gadgets for James Bond, and a junior vice-president being sent out to a distant location to crack the studio whip, only to be drawn into the adventure of the shoot. So Hood may manipulate/charm him/her into playing an unwilling part in the week's adventure - a part which forms a separate thread to the Hood/Rachel story. More of a B story running parallel, ending with the supply of some vital piece of the jigsaw for the final act. Avoiding the obligation always to make this character part of the denouement. And used sparingly, to keep them fresh and so their participation doesn't start to feel obligatory and routine.

So what I'm suggesting is; third character fine, but not a fully equal member. A Bickley to their Mork and Mindy.
Here's how it works; what the network asks for, the network tends to get. In this case the outcome was the addition of Omar Benson Miller as Felix Lee. Subway marked his second appearance, so I had some hand in shaping his character. Felix was a hit with viewers and when the show wasn't renewed for a second season, Omar wasn't short of offers. Good for him.

But had we gone into a second season and there had been pressure for more and more of Felix, I'm in no doubt that the show would have grown less like Eleventh Hour, and more like other shows.

Which, at heart, is what networks tend to want.