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…


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…