George RR Martin and how I learned to love Big Bang Theory

Warning: this post contains blatant name-dropping. Look carefully see if you can spot it.

My friend and colleague Jo had for months been urging me to watch the show Big Bang Theory. Phrases like, ‘You’ll love it,’ and ‘It’s just your kind of thing!’ were regularly doled out when I interrupted an office discussion about last night’s hilarious episode. Like many people, I get twitchy when people tell me that I’ll enjoy something. How can anyone possibly know me so well as to pre-empt my tastes? Am I not an enigma? A chameleon of the arts, listening to Mozart one minute and watching Phineas and Ferb the next?

Apparently not.

So, anyway after many months of this I eventually gave in. I was slumped in front of the TV one evening and an episode just happened to be on, so here goes…

And I hated it. Why was the audience in such paroxysms of laughter? They were howling as if this was the funniest thing ever written. I remained stony-faced, waiting for it to click, to suddenly reveal its magic to me.

Didn’t happen.

Then I stumbled across this clip with the laughter removed and that did it. I was convinced that it just wasn’t for me. Me and Big Bang Theory were never going to happen.

I reported this back to Jo and she looked at me as if I’d just burned down an orphanage. She still managed to work with me and was civil in my company, but I’m sure she felt that from that moment on I was damaged goods.

Some months went by and I was invited to dinner with George RR Martin (there it is!). We’d just published one of his early novels Armageddon Rag (available now in all good bookshops!) and while he was in town to promote something called Game of Thrones (never heard of it) he was kind enough to also promote our book.

As you might imagine, Mr Martin revealed himself to be an intelligent man of great taste… and he just loved Big Bang Theory.

How could this be? Two smart people whom I like and respect both fans of a show that leaves me cold. Is it me? Do I have some kind of comedy gene missing?

This was clearly a comedic identity crisis and I decided to give Big Bang another chance. This prompted some understandable howls of outrage from Jo, ‘So you’ll listen to George bloody RR Martin and not to me?’

Fortunately, E4 had at that moment decided to start showing TBBT from episode one and I jumped aboard hitting the series reminder button and mainlining up to 6 episodes a day.

And I like it. Actually I think I love it.

It’s not the best sitcom ever and it lacks the element of tragedy that the truly classic comedies have*, but bloody hell it’s a great way to decompress after a hard day’s work.

It’s a smart as a button, with a rapid pace and great characters. And that’s why it didn’t work when I tried watching it the first time: I was watching an episode from the third series and the audience was howling with laughter because they were anticipating the characters’ foibles. This is why certain sitcoms work so well: we cringe at the tension of George Costanza going in for a job interview because we know he’s going to screw it up, we wince at Ted Crilly’s latest scheme to escape Craggy Island because we know it’s never going to happen. It all comes down to character, not gags. Gags help, they’re often the things we remember, but they’re not why we come back to these shows again and again.

Big Bang Theory is currently at its zenith, but of course, it will have to go through the usual cycle that US sitcoms go through: we’ve already had the unlikeable character who divides the lovers, next will be an overload of celebrity cameos, then we’ll have the series where fans decide that it’s not as good as it used to be, then we’ll have a final series where it has nothing to lose and finds its funny bone again.

And until then I shall continue to enjoy it, but a quick word to the show’s producers: I know that’s not a laugh track, I know the show is filmed before a live audience, but I also know that you’re not above maybe enhancing the laughter to make a point. Calm it down a bit. Have the courage of your convictions. It’s a good show. Too much hysteria can be off-putting for this reserved Brit.

 

 

 

 

*And the best sitcoms are…

Steptoe and son

Fawlty Towers

Blackadder

Porridge

Dad’s Army

Father Ted

Seinfeld**

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Friends (very much series dependent)

Only Fools and Horses

Cheers

Frasier

Taxi

The IT Crowd

The Simpsons

And I’ve recently fallen in love with Community. Not sure if it’s a classic yet, but it has all the potential to be…

If I’ve missed any, then please feel free to set me straight!

**I know far too many people (mostly Brits) who tell me that they don’t get Seinfeld and don’t like the characters, but you’re wrong and one day I’ll sit you down and explain it to you.

Spider-Man versus the dreaded sequel bait

Be warned, the following contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man then avert your gaze!

Took the family to see the Amazing Spider-Man in all its 3D glory at the weekend.

 

There were terrific performances throughout; Andrew Garfield has wanted to be Spidey since he was three and he gives his all, Emma Stone is as smart and watchable as she ever is, and Martin Sheen is… he’s Martin Sheen! When he’s not acting, he gets arrested for civil rights protests, and for that, we love him and truly believe that he’s the morally-centred Uncle Ben. Director Marc Webb wrings every drop of acting juice out of his performers, and the 3D swinging-through-New-York stuff was almost worth the extra moolah that the cinemas extort from you… almost.

But the story… The one thing that drives me nuts these days is franchise sequel bait syndrome. I watched so many threads set-up in this story, only to then see them unravelled, abandoned and left as loose ends for the sequel(s): what happened to Peter’s parents, Norman Osborne’s fatal illness, will Peter find Uncle Ben’s killer, to name but three. And had these been cut, the film might’ve been a good twenty minutes shorter, bringing it under two hours, saving my bum from numbness and my eyes from 3D strain.

This strikes me as being symptomatic of the producers being in charge of a bigger franchise. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies had his unique style all over them, he was driving the ship and he told stories that were self-contained. Yes, there were sequel hints at the end, and overriding story arcs, but nothing that bogged down the story you were watching at that moment, and certainly not to the level they do in this new movie. In Amazing Spider-Man there are great chunks – entire scenes – that have little to do with the story you’re watching now and everything to do with the story that has yet to be written. Marc Webb is a fine director, but I’ll be surprised if he’s back for the sequel as this time round Marvel’s producers are running the show and they have a master plan. I guess that’s all well and good for a mega-studio riding high on the success of The Avengers, but there’s an arrogant assumption that I’ll be back for episodes two and three, and at thirty-six quid a pop for the whole family that’s (taps calculator) a lot of money!

I’m currently working in a script that’s practically gagging for a sequel, and I know all too well the temptation to drop in all kinds of hints to whet the viewer’s appetite for future adventures. Fortunately we’ll be working to a very, very tight budget and we can’t afford to waste a word or a scene on this indulgence, so we’re obliged to tell our story and that’s that. So when in twenty years’ time I’m working on Spider-Man 15: We Finally Get Some Answers, and I have the luxury to indulge in franchise sequel bait syndrome, feel free to digitally slap me around the face with this blog post and demand a single story, well told.

Update: I was wrong! Director Marc Webb is back for the sequel. And good luck to him.

 

 

“Thag no like change.” From cave paintings to 3D

Thoroughly enjoyed The Artist the other night. A really charming film that’s basically Singin’ in the rain without the – er – Singin’. In other words it’s that old story about one form replacing another. Change creating upheaval in an artist’s life.

There’s a lot of that about at the moment. Music download sales finally overtook physical recently, and in my day job everyone’s fretting about the decline of physical book sales as eBooks rapidly become the predominant form. And just the other day I shared a cab with a screenwriter and director; the former romanticising celluloid’s organic qualities, while the director preferred the flexibility offered by high-quality digital.

Tonight I watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of forgotten dreams, the latest of his excellent documentaries. This one featured prehistoric paintings from the Chauvet caves in the south of France. Some of the paintings are over 35,000 years old and represent humanity’s first artistic endeavours. Herzog looks at one likeness of a bison, painted with eight legs blurred in a depiction of what he calls ‘proto-cinema’, and imagines how it must have looked with a fire burning and the flames throwing shadows on the cave walls. It’s an almost hallucinogenic moment in a really engaging film.

And this is is where the storytelling urge began. Our ancestors seeing something that moved them and wanting to capture it and share it with their contemporaries (except Neanderthals, they apparently showed no artistic flair whatsoever… which is why they’re now all PE teachers). And that urge is still with us now, whatever the form.

When The Artist was first released, I read many reviews wryly suggesting that Hollywood would no doubt be lining up a whole slew of copycat silent movies, cashing in on the phenomenon. But, as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened. Maybe they figured out that moviegoers went to see The Artist because of the great story and the engaging characters, or maybe it’s because Hollywood is still so mesmerised by 3D it can’t be arsed to go back to silent movies.

But it’s never the form that endures. Oh sure, 3D, Kindle, HD and iTunes will excite people for a while, but the reason they keep coming back are the stories; that little flutter in the heart when we’re moved by something. Vinyl, celluloid and hardbacks will probably always be with us, even if they become sidelined and niché, and when the apocalypse comes we can go full circle back to cave paintings. Only this time it’ll be mushroom clouds or hordes of zombies we’ll be painting. That’ll give Herzog’s descendants something to talke about 35,000 years from now.

Threads – Kes with nukes

Last night I watched THREADS, possibly the bleakest thing ever to be shown on television (and we gave the world Eastenders).

I watched this when it was first broadcast in 1984. I was 11 years old and obsessed with the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. I was a happy, normal kid most of the time, but the idea that we could be wiped out on the whim of leaders in the US and the Soviet Union did tend to make one a little jumpy. I recall sitting in class at Middle school when a siren – one very similar to the four minute warning siren – went off in the middle of a lesson. Everyone froze, even the teacher… till she remembered that some buildings nearby were being demolished and this was a detonation warning. Still, nothing like the cold chill of imminent annihilation to clear the mind for double maths.

So, would THREADS stand-up after all these years? Emphatically, yes. Written by Barry Hines, author of the magnificent novel  A KESTREL FOR A KNAVE, THREADS is combination of documentary style and Ken Loach realism. Based on the findings of Operation Square Leg, a report into the effects of a nuclear war, this seems as relevant now as it did then. Chillingly, the whole conflict is sparked by a Russian incursion into Iran, so not a million miles from today’s headlines.

There’s an ensemble cast, but for much of the story you follow Ruth (played by Karen Meagher) who has the bad luck to fall pregnant by Reece Dinsdale just days before the attack. You see the devastating aftermath of the attack on her family, the birth of her baby into an apocalyptic Sheffield, and then jump to 13 years later where society has descended into a new medieval dark age, where feral teens communicate in half-fogotten English (insert your own just-like-my-town-centre-on-a-Saturday-night joke here).

But the bit that everyone talks about is the attack itself. If you’d asked me what I remembered about the film before I watched it again, I would have said the mushroom cloud hanging over Sheffield, the woman weeing herself in the high street as everyone around her panicked, and the silent flashes of white hot light incinerating everything in its path. All incredibly powerful and quickly recalled over 30 years later.

Considering the budget and VFX available at the time, this is still an incredibly effective depiction of a nuclear attack. And the clever use of still photography works with the documentary style while also giving a scale to the destruction.

But upon viewing again, the real reason this works is it takes time to establish the characters in the real world. The Ken Loach style of realism makes you care for these people as the armageddon hots up around them (though this was directed by Mick Jackson, who later gave us Whitney Houston in THE BODYGUARD). There’s also a wry recognition of the hapless local councillors who, with very little training, try and control the chaos before falling out with each other and then suffocating in their own bunker.

Of course, this wasn’t the only 80s nuke drama. Oh no, I watched them all, including the big-budget THE DAY AFTER. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, this was like an episode of Dynasty where everyone gets vaporised. The effects were impressive at the time, but curiously don’t seem to have dated as well as the simple VFX of THREADS.

But my favourite, if one can have a favourite nuke drama, was WHEN THE WIND BLOWS. Based on the Raymond Briggs comic book, this animated film followed poor Hilda and Jim, two pensioners who put all their faith in the official government survival pamphlets. Voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, it has to be the most moving and affecting of all of these. It also has a cracking score by Roger Waters and David Bowie.

These days, movie apocalypses are brought to us by zombie and viruses, but the nuclear threat is still there, and with stockpiles of weapons piling up in places like North Korea there’s probably a greater chance of a limited nuclear conflict than ever before. So why has the nuke drama fallen out of fashion? Is it a case of been there, nuked that? Or do we just not want to think about it? Sorry if I’ve ruined your day 😉

Research, Vikings and Bernard Cornwell

I recently finished a first pass on a spec script that I’ve been working on for a few months.

I’ve been a good boy and left it alone for about a week, just to give myself enough distance so that when I read it again I might have a bit of objectivity and be less precious about making cuts and changes.

During that time I thought I’d go back and just revise some of my research. The script is a children’s adventure film set in Anglo-Saxon Britain and I did some fairly considerable (for me, anyway) research on the period, including the following books…

Out of all of them, Michael Woods’ IN SEARCH OF THE DARK AGES was by far the most thumbed and useful; it was packed with information and still seems to be the best book on the dark ages and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Just a shame the TV series isn’t available on DVD.

But the others were all very useful too, particularly for cross-referencing, and I slowly began to piece together a document with ideas that appealed to me and I would use this as a one-stop fact-checker when writing (I do a lot of writing on the move and don’t always have access to books or the net).

In addition to these books I had a whole folder full of websites, and also eBooks of TERRY JONES’ MEDIEVAL LIVES and Brian Bates’ THE WAY OF WYRD, though I refer to these less, probably because they’re not on the shelf staring at me (I find that eBooks can easily be forgotten, mainly cos one doesn’t have to dust the buggers every few weeks).

And in the last week I decided to read my first ever Bernard Cornwell THE BURNING LAND. This novel is set about 100 years after my script. Politically, his Britain will have changed considerably in that century, but the day to day grind of life wouldn’t be too different. I stumbled across it in the library and the quotes on the back boasted of Cornwell’s historical accuracy, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s a cracking read and I can see why Cornwell’s so popular and I was gratified to see that many of historical touchstones were mine too, but one thing niggled. His hero, Uthred, seemed very familiar. He’s a ruthless, heroic warrior (much like Cornwell’s Sharpe), he plays by his own rules and clashes with authority (much like Sharpe), he’s quick to shack-up with the ladies (Sharpe again), and he has dry, sardonic gallows humour (hmm…). And I know just the guy who could play him in the movie…

Still, if it works, it works. I was surprised to find that THE BURNING LAND is book 5 in a series. I had no problems jumping in enjoying the book so late in a series, but I also stumbled across the synopsis for book 6 recently and very little seems to have changed, so maybe the bigger arc is more of a slow slope.

But I learned a lot from the Cornwell book and I’ve added plenty of notes for the next draft of the script. If you’re interested I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Here are those research books in full…

IN SEARCH OF THE DARK AGES, by Michael Wood. Best book on the subject that I’ve found.

LINDISFARNE HOLY ISLAND, English Heritage book. Good on archaeology nitty gritty.

NORTHLANDERS, gritty comic book series with bloody Viking action. Good fun.

A HISTORY OF ANCIENT BRITAIN by Neil Oliver. Really accessible and easy to dip into. I have the DVD of the TV series too.

THE TIME TRAVELLERS’ GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, by Ian Mortimer. Entertaining and informative. One of the first books I read and instrumental in my decision to switch the story to the dark ages (things are too settled in Medieval times for my story).

A.D. 500 by Simon Young. Written as a guide book to Britain in A.D. 500. Fun, though too early for my story.

TERRY JONES’ MEDIEVAL LIVES – fun and informative, but the wrong period for me.

THE WAY OF WYRD by Brian Bates. Good on magic in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

THE BURNING LAND, by Bernard Cornwell. Sharpe axes!

Little League by Yale Stewart (update)

I’ve been following this wonderful webcomic by Yale Stewart on Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter.

To say it’s a kind of Muppet Babies with DC Heroes is probably doing it a terrible disservice. It starts cutesy, but I just read the final part of the current run and it ends with a stand-off as good as any you’ll see out there… That kid in the red hood… he’s going to be trouble for sure.

Quick update – due to legal reasons Little League has become JL8. Here’s the link for the new Facebook page. Tumblr and Twitter remain unaffected.

Mitch Benn’s Terra

It’s a perk, nay privilege, of working for a publisher that I often get to see manuscripts of books long before anyone else. So you may well see a few posts like this where I’ll start eulogising about a book that you won’t be able to read for months if not longer.

But I finished this one on the train home today and I’m still fizzing about it and I like to wax lyrical about stuff I like while it’s still fresh. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but if you’re the kind of person who thinks a spoiler is hearing anything at all to do with the story (and there are people out there like that), then adios and I’ll see you next time, amigo.

There’s a great story behind how Simon Spanton at Gollancz acquired this book, and being a fan of Mitch Benn’s songs on the Now Show I was definitely intrigued if maybe a tad doubtful. ‘Celebrity’ authors’ books (though I doubt Mitch would cast himself as your typical sleb) are usually an exercise in stunt publishing and a quick buck for all concerned*, but by the end of the first page I was totally convinced that this was something special.

I won’t say too much other than TERRA begins with an alien from a distant planet abducting a human baby on Earth. The story starts like a Roald Dahl classic with the worst parents in the world, and then becomes a love letter to Douglas Adams, and then becomes its own thing entirely; truly wonderful, laugh out loud funny and genuinely moving, wearing its heart on its sleeve and daring you not to blub near the end. If there’s one criticism, it’s that it has that old SF trope ‘silly name syndrome’ – all consonants and no vowels – but even that seems to be a tip of the hat to Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and you soon get into the groove.

The only downside is that it’s not out till 2013, but it’s going to be a key book for Gollancz and I’m sure you won’t be able to miss it. In the meantime, here’s Mitch’s finest 5m 27s…

*Yes, I hate to break it to you, but I don’t think Katie Price writes every word of her bestselling novels. Anne Widdecombe does write all her own stuff however, so you takes your choice…

Cosmopolis

Went to see this the other night: seven people walked out during the screening and, as the credits rolled, a guy just along the row from us leaned over to his girlfriend and pleaded ‘Sorry’ loud enough for the whole cinema to hear (and got the biggest laugh of the evening).

This film seems to be polarizing people, and I’m definitely in the ‘didn’t like’ camp. Pattinson was fine, as were Juliet Binoche and Paul Giamatti, but it was alienating and obtuse and not as clever as it thought it was. And maybe that was the point, but I’d love to have seen Pinter* or Mamet have a stab at the dialogue in these vignettes; it could’ve been poetic and enthralling, but instead it felt like a series of drama school monologues.

And I know this isn’t your typical narrative-driven cinema, and I won’t usually be this negative, I’m generally a half-pint-full, well-they-didn’t-set-out-to-make-such-a-terrible-movie kind of bloke, but this one had me fidgeting like a six-year-old.

This is the latest in a series of movies I’ve seen where a director in his dotage is indulged by a studio and the results have been disappointing: Scott with PROMETHEUS, Malick with TREE OF LIFE and now this. Fair play, they’ve earned the right I guess but I’ll definitely think twice before parting with my Odeon points again.

*Yeah, I know he’s dead…