Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Ready When You Are...

When I saw that my current wife had ordered Ready When You Are, Mr McGill, on the Sky+ box, I wondered why ITV had decided to get out this title from 1976, which is when I first saw it. At the time I was too young and inexperienced in life to fully grasp the wealth of the characterisations contained in this little story.

But no, this was a different version, updated, lengthened and fully developed to an absolute peak of perfection that other screenwriters can learn lots from. Written by Jack Rosenthal, the story is about an ageing film “extra” who gets that which is most-coveted by such supporting artistes the whole world over – a line or two of dialogue. He is surrounded, though, by real-life characters whose actions and stories are masterfully woven into 90 minutes of chaos and mishaps.

Although made in early 2003, it was first screened by Sky Movies in September 2004 – after Rosenthal had died. The reason, reportedly, is that he had re-written the story as a comment on TV executives and ITV weren’t happy about it. Of course, this all adds to the insight into what goes on in the background of making a film and the inherent politics. Highly entertaining. I will watch it again many times.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

A great idea!

When writing about contemporary issues, there’s always the possibility that the burning subject matter will be well out of date by the time it gets aired. This doesn’t apply only to stuff on screen, but this is the area I’m concerned with.

For example, we are one year into the current economic recession and the effects can be seen to be biting hard with more shops shuttered and boarded, rising unemployment figures, bundles of old coats dumped on shopping precincts with their scrawled messages on cardboard, and a general air of threadbare about life. If you’re a bank boss, though, it’s a different story.

And there it is – the beginnings of the premise for a drama about the extent of the recession and how it affects both the victims and those who brought it about. Hmm, it sounds a bit one-sided already, doesn’t it? Well, we could sort that out in Act 2.

Of course, after the months of outlining and scriptwriting, finding a producer, getting the backing and finance, and finally cobbling together the cast, crew, locations, studio and post-production facilities... we’re very likely to be well out of it and, basking in the new wealth of the twenty-teens, these harsh times of the noughties will be just a blip in people’s memories and the toss will have no value.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Re-hashing a winning concept

The Prisoner was a popular television series back in 1968. It kept the pubs empty until after 9 pm when that evening’s episode had come to another unsatisfactory end – which is what we viewers wanted, even if we didn’t realise it.

The story concerned a recently-resigned British spy who, because of his knowledge, was kidnapped and made to live in a beautiful Italianate village where, presumably, the authorities (whoever they were) either attempted to get the information out of him or wanted to see if he could be broken. His identity was gone; he was now just Number 6. No one in their right minds would want to leave there, so you’d think, but all these years later I can see strong similarities between me and Number 6 and now I understand just why he had to attempt escape, week after week after week.

No one knew who ran the Village. In fact I doubt if Patrick McGoohan, who conceived the series, even knew who the baddies were. The popularity and cult status (even before the term was coined) took both him and the programme makers completely by surprise and he was forced to write beyond the few episodes that he originally conceived.

This morning I watched the first episode of the remake of The Prisoner Now, remakes are not the best idea and the bank statements of US film-investors are littered with horror stories of good British stuff that has been remade and blitzed in the US – The Avengers, The Italian Job, Get Carter... However, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt whilst doing this writing course, it is never to preconceive; give everything a chance. So I sat down with an open mind, willing to take this part-US production on its own merits. I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, it was good.

There are plenty of subtle references and homages to the original, which is a nice touch. The Village itself ain’t so good, being set in what looks like an African desert, but the baddies are more ruthless than the originals and will go to any lengths to contain the villagers. The concept of killing someone nicely (?) has gone out with the British upper-class accent.

Perhaps the good quality is down to ITV’s involvement and, as already mentioned, its willingness to show respect for the original that has made the company a mint over the years and whose DVDs are selling so well they have recently been released in Blu-Ray.

Now, that’s the best sign of a winning concept.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

It’s in the genres

“I’m working on the stage play,” I told Greville. I felt rather proud – not because I had skilfully negotiated a particularly traumatising piece of writing; no, this was because my romCom had been sent to my tutor for critical appraisal and so, unable to get further stuck in (and this is the crunch) I had been able to swap effortlessly – effortlessly, mind – to working on another project. Yes, I was indeed chuffed at my powers of versatility and I told him so. Not that Greville was familiar with such words.
      He thought about this whilst piling up the logs on the hearth for that evening’s great blaze when we would tell tales by the fireside.
      “That doesn’t count,” he said.
      “What doesn’t count?”
      “They’re the same genre.”
       I almost choked.
      “Your stage play is a comedy, right? And so’s that romantic thingy.” He placed the last log on the top of the pile – where I was certain it would roll down. It didn’t. “No, that’s not versatility,” he said and went to put the kettle on.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Driving me up the mall

I didn’t want to go Christmas shopping – and especially not in one of the country’s leading and ginormously massive shopping centres. But hey, there are advantages, particularly if you are a writer; it’s called inspiratorial character creation, or ICC for short.

There are thousands of people in such places; it’s like a people catalogue, and all we need to do is notice them – but more so than ever before because now we want to turn them into our fictional characters. Okay, so if they’re real, how can they be fictional? That’s because what we see will only be about 2% of them, so we’ll need to make up the rest. Only 2%? That’s my estimate, but the clues are there and you can tell an awful lot about people by noticing how they walk, how they move, their mannerisms, how they speak, what they are wearing, how they react to other people. Odd snatches of speech as they pass by can be enlightening.

Naturally, it is important to be discreet; do not stare or else they could take exception to your interest and turn nasty – but it’s interesting if they do (conflict is the basis of all good literature), so write it down quickly before making your escape.

I couldn’t find my pen in time and I was caught. My case comes up next week.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Harry Brown

With the present generation of film-goers, Michael Caine is perhaps best known for his role as Alfred in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. When I was at school, he was better known in the title role in Get Carter (1971) where he played a roughened-up character in stark contrast to his performances as the spy, Harry Palmer, in such films as Funeral in Berlin (1966) or Charlie Croker in The Italian Job (1969). But in this household, his best role has to be as Ebenezer Scrooge which, for us, has become the definitive portrayal of the character in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1991). We are not big Muppets’ fans (and are wondering why they bothered to murder Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody), but Caine’s performance with the puppet cast was faultless.

So when anyone mentioned his name, I always thought of him as Scrooge – until last night, that is, after seeing him in Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009), a story about a pensioner who is so sickened by local teenage violence that he takes matters into his own hands.

Apart from this being an example of a well-written film, there is one point that stands out as being relevant to screenwriting, which is that there is nothing new under the sun. No one story can be completely different to anything that has ever been written previously.

Some critics will say that this story has been done before. Well, the premise might be the same, but the characters are not: they have different back-stories, environments, desires and reasons for revenge. What makes Harry Brown so entertaining are the recognisable elements from today’s inner cities, the peripheral characters that form against him, the events that drive an elderly man to act, and the surprise ending – and not forgetting stunning supporting performances from every member of the cast.

This is Michael Caine at his best (well, after Scrooge).

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Seeing further

I have it on good authority that, in addition to reading the best of the books about screenwriting, the next activity we should engage in is actually watching stuff. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What may seem to others (friends, colleagues, members of the family) to be lounging around on the sofa is really serious research (and please note that I do not use adverbs lightly!).

In the past, we were always... (how can I put this?) reasonably careful about what we watched. I think this was largely because we didn’t want to waste our time and liked to think of ourselves as being... sort of discerning.

Well, do you know what? We have discovered that we have been missing some good programmes and films that, before doing this screenwriting degree, we wouldn’t have considered watching, either because of who was in them or the poor poster designs or the titles...

But now we realise we have been missing out. So by broadening our boundaries – by just a little, mind, because there’s still some dodgy material out there – we have enjoyed some amazing stories.

“A person can grow only as much as his horizon allows.”
John Powell, (date unknown)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Not beyond recognition

A number of years ago – I think it was the year I interviewed the actress, Shirley Eaton, but couldn’t swear to it – my current wife bought me a copy of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski. Although aimed at the US market, this book provided a wealth of information on the dos and don’ts of script formatting, structuring, how to work in the Hollywood industry – and there was even a section on writing scripts for the stage. To me, at that time, it was the scriptwriting bible; indeed, it was my only source of reference. Since then, thanks to the pointers made by my tutors at UCF, now I have a pile of nine similar books on the subject and I couldn’t do without any one of them.

Anyway, I digress. Mr Straczynski’s book includes, purely as an example of correct script formatting, the opening sequence of a film that had been “optioned repeatedly by studios and independent producers” (p.165) but had yet to be accepted. The script was called, The Strange Case of Christine Collins. When I read it all those years ago, I wanted to know what came next, it was so gripping and drenched with atmosphere (that’s a good thing).

Fast-forward to 2009 and we are watching the film trailers at the beginning of a DVD (we usually skip these, but for some reason we didn’t, on this occasion) when there was just a morsel of recognition that I picked out. You’ve guessed it – the film has now been made. It is now Changeling and its protagonist is called Christine Collins.

The moral of this story is that sometimes it can be many years before even established screenwriters get to see the results of their hard work.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Underground writing

‘What choo wearing big boots for?’ Sharon always spoke as if she had just walked on the set of Eastenders.
     I told her I’d been doing research for a screenplay and continued tapping away on the laptop.
     She took off her coat with the usual flourish and, as if by magic, the duster appeared in her hand. I knew what was coming next.
     ‘You know I’m not really a cleaner, don’t you?’
     I sighed. ‘Yes, Sharon. I know you’re not really a cleaner.’ Trying to get the timing just right – for once – I was about to launch into the obligatory resolution, when—
     ‘I’m really an actress.’ Damn! She had beaten me to it yet again. I can never get it right. And to release me from my usual embarrassing apologetic grunt, she went on. ‘Been anywhere nice?’
     ‘Down a mine,’ I said. Surely, that was a conversation-stopper.
     ‘You written anyfing nice?’
     I said no.
      ‘What about vat script of yours on the web?’
     I was impressed. Finally, Sharon had moved into the 21st century. She must have spotted my surprise.
     ‘Little Greville found it, not me.’ Dust, dust, dust. ‘Wouldn’t mind a part in vat.’
     I was about to explain that—
     ‘But I’m too old.’
     She beat me to it. Again.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Selling oneself

Last Tuesday’s online conference with my fellow students and tutor for the Professional Contexts course was, to put it mildly, entertaining. The workload had been turned up and passions and frustrations were running high – especially when someone asked why we Brits should use US spellings.

The answer was that the marketplace is much bigger over there. But why should we rearrange our language just to suit them? Why not the other way around?

There were two students who bitterly resented US spellings (e.g. travelling becomes traveling, centre becomes center and cheque becomes check, which is ludicrous). The other students accepted that we should, well, accept it.

I said, “So it’s down to pride or money.”

If I had dared to make the discussion actually boil instead of simmer, I might have suggested that in bowing to the US market, with its passion for simplistic spellings, we Brits are becoming “literary whores”. It seems to be about selling our national pride.

“No. It’s about selling your book,” my current wife said.

Oh, well, when you put it like that...

Friday, 13 November 2009

Blast from the past

I’m not a huge fan of short stories. I think the reason I wouldn’t go out of my way to read one is because I like to get to know the characters in some depth, which is unlikely when reading – and indeed writing – something so short.

Having said that, earlier this year I came up with one, The Trap, set in a Victorian mine in the early part of the 19th century before the Mines and Colliers Act of 1842 made it illegal, amongst other things, to employ women and children under ten working underground.

This is about a young girl who must work in horrendous conditions. I had “created” her back in 1992 when I first discovered that there had been a warren of such mines up until the early 1900s, not far from where I live. Having “carried” her, now, for more years than she has been alive at the time of the story, I know her rather well – far better than it is possible to show in such a brief window into the past.

I have now converted The Trap into a ten-minute screenplay that can be read here. There’s an enormous amount of back-story concerning this girl and I think I will be working with her again before very long.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Greville and I

Greville shuffled through the door. He never knocks.
      ‘You look knackered,’ he said. I swear he’s becoming more perceptive the older he gets.
      So how old is he? I can’t remember and it’s such a long time since I entered his date of birth on some obscure tax form or other. He was seventeen when we set him on... or was he sixteen? He must be in his twenties by now, although he doesn’t look any older than the day Sharon prompted him to ask me for a job.
      ‘Late night, was it?’ He always made it sound as if I spent eons of time out in the pubs and clubs and generally enjoying myself in a state of nocturnal intoxication. He must have caught the beginnings of an annoyed look and he added, rather hurriedly, ‘Oh, not that Falmouth thing again.’
      ‘Been learning about editing,’ I said. That should have been enough to put him off.
      ‘Oh... full stops and all that?’
      ‘Yes – and apostrophes.’ We’d had many a heated discussion in the past about those ‘uppy comma thingies’ as he used to call them. ‘And grammar.’
      ‘Oh, you mean split infinitives and copulative verbs?’
      There was an uneasy silence.
      I took a deep breath. ‘Look, Greville, what do you want?’
      ‘Just passing.’
      ‘Well, would you mind leaving my laptop and I to get on with—’
      ‘Laptop and me,’ he said.
      ‘That's Laptop and me – object pronoun.’ He winked at me and left.

Friday, 6 November 2009

A severe case of WAS

All writers are guilty of it: it’s natural and it can be a pain in the nether regions. What is it? I call it Writers’ Avoidance Syndrome or WAS for short.

It can manifest itself in many ways, for example, when you get up and the story has been bubbling away in the back of your mind (SAS: Subconscious Advancement of Story), you sit down to begin work then suddenly decide to bake some scones, wash your hair or gather up the autumn leaves.

See what I mean? Such resistance can be lethal when you should be writing but instead feel compelled to do something - anything - else and it can show itself in many forms, some of which I will mention from time to time.

So the leaves are all gone, the plastic storage boxes are crammed with cherry scones and what is left of my hair is spotless.

Any other suggestions, please...?

Monday, 2 November 2009

Leaving the view

The leaves have now fallen from the red oak that, during the summer, helps to shield our view from the lane – not that I’m trying to hide away; it’s just that I find trees are better to look at than the houses.

“But you don’t have to look at those houses,” I hear you say.

That’s right and I have tried closing my eyes, but then I just fall over. It’s a good job that I know how to land.

Friday, 30 October 2009


It’s waiting time: waiting for a call from the script department of one of Britain’s longest-running “soap operas” (I hate that term!); waiting for a production company to offer me a place in a story workshop; waiting for Study Block 2 Advanced to begin; waiting for the new year when an independent production company has asked me to apply to them for work experience.

But I’m not wishing my life away; there’s plenty of stuff this side of Christmas. I’m outlining a play, the inspiration for which came from seeing a professional production a couple of months ago. It wasn’t good – in fact, I would have said it was a waste of ticket-money had it not given me the idea to write one myself. The writer of that one, had he ever heard of Aristotle, probably thought he was the one whose bath water jumped out when he jumped in.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Empty hands

I’ve received a number of comments about my claim that a scriptwriter has nothing tangible to offer his audience except the promise of an experience. One lady said:
I have to say I disagree that scripts make dull reading. I think it's the reverse - they provide the foundation for the imagination to be set free and can be interpreted in so many different ways. My ex OU and ex theatre studies group were all keen script readers and the tutors would have us read a script...

But whilst authors can excite their following with the promise of something to buy, I still maintain that scriptwriters have nothing that their fans can actually get their hands on and fondle, caress, make notes in or even use to prop up the table. The lady quoted above loves scripts, but not many people can be bothered with them, instead preferring to experience the finished production at the cinema or on the haunted fish tank.

So here I am blogging about not having anything to blog about! Suggestions will be appreciated.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Black Hole

One of the purposes of writers’ blogs is to form a link between the writer and readers in the hope that, should the writers be successful in appearing to be normal people, the reader will feel secure in the relationship and buy the books. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and I believe this sense of friendship can benefit both parties. However, when it comes to blogging about screenwriting, I see a black hole looming.

There’s no book! There is nothing the reader can go out and buy and actually hold in their hands. With a screenplay they have nothing to keep them busy on the tube whilst feverously avoiding eye contact with other commuters. All the screenwriter has to offer is the experience of the audience seeing the script after it has been produced and broadcast. And, whilst a sample of a forthcoming screenplay could be posted on my website, I need to ask myself who but an industry professional would want – or be willing – to read it? Scripts are, after all, merely blueprints from which drama is produced and as such don’t tend to make enjoyable reading material.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

The bible

Study Block 2 is completed – for me, anyway. Working through the summer (thanks to my tutor, Jane Pugh (she's on Imdb)) has meant that I've been able to keep up the momentum and write something every day, even whilst away on holiday. A mobile broadband "dongle" is better than nothing, but in some remote areas of the country is almost as useless as nothing.

Some weeks ago I purchased the full version of Final Draft, the world-renowned script-formatting software. It's not cheap, but the industry likes it and it comes with a few useful extra features that you don't get with the free formatting software that can be downloaded from the Web.

This also means that I get the Final Draft email newsletters and one of them came as something of a shock to me. It was headed by a photograph as a memorial to someone who had died. First I noticed the year of birth and thought, 'Oh, dear.' Then I saw the name. Now, there was something familiar about that – and then it hit me: I had been reading (nay, using almost as a bible) this gentleman's book, Save the Cat! This is a superb book for learning about screenwriting and story structure. I'd like to thank Blake Snyder for his wit, his wisdom and advice. Thanks, Blake.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Writing on Notting Hill

It's the last day of July and I'm preparing next week's assignment for UCF.

So far it has been an interesting ride, despite my having come across much of this stuff when I was a member of the AOL Writers' Club around 10 years ago. Of course, in those days they used to speak in broad - almost mysterious - terms about the structure of screenplays without actually filling in any details for us. I think we were supposed to find out the hard way. Well now, thanks to the 'Writing Structure' part of this MA course, all the blanks can be filled in and I am grateful for that.

Last night my "current wife" and I watched Notting Hill, for the first time in widescreen; we hadn't seen it for around 8 years. Marvellous. Superb. The structure is brilliantly executed and it is so excellently put together. And I like happy endings, so there.

Just as a matter of interest - and speaking of Richard Curtis - last week I was speaking with the actress, Jill Freud. She has a number of claims to fame including her running of a theatre company since 1980. Then there's her famous husband, Sir Clement (who died this year); her great-father-in-law, Sigmund Freud; her daughter, Emma (tv presenter); her son-in-law (who has written the odd script or three including Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral); her niece the author, Esther Freud; her brother-in-law, the artist Lucien Freud; and the fact that C.S. Lewis based the character of Lucy in the Narnia chronicles on Jill. Phew! She didn't mention any of this, of course; she is far too unassuming, impressed me greatly and is a legend in her own right. Not bad for 82 - in fact, she's marvellous.

Many years ago, Jill (now Lady Freud) also did the voice-over for the very first television programme I can remember watching: it was one of Gerry Anderson's first puppet shows, Torchy the Battery Boy.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Scripting away...

The dedicated scriptwriting course seems to be going well, even though I am now on my own: it's just me and the tutor.

The title of this post sounds like I'm manufacturing scripts for all and sundry like some story conveyer belt; well, I'm not. At the moment (week 3) we are dealing with the basics of story-lining, which I had guessed would be necessary.

I need to be thinking about the area I want to write about; I'm tempted by comedy-drama, which would echo the success I had with my 10-year magazine stint. But whilst doing the Writing Tools and Writing Structure courses at the beginning of this MA, I have had some success with writing serious stuff, so who knows what I'll choose?

Friday, 5 June 2009


When I was looking into how they story-lined episodes of Star Trek at Paramount in the late 1990s I learned they used a wall-full of dry-wipe boards on which they wrote every "beat" for the episode being worked on.

Well, here's my single board. Although it can't be completed with a keyboard and mouse-clicks, it has the advantage of getting you away from the PC and gives some much-needed exercise.

First block done

That’s it the first study block at UCF is completed and the pace has been relentless: two 4000-word portfolios, two 1500-word critical rationales, the bibliographies oh, and not forgetting the binding. And the envelope... and the extortionate cost of postage.

So there it is; all done. I suppose four-and-a-half months isn’t too bad for getting 40 credit points (always assuming I have passed) when, studying part-time with the Open University (the acknowledged expert in distance-learning), it takes around nine months to get 60 points. When you put it like that I suppose it has been worth the late nights and all the other stuff that can go wrong.

Now it’s time to decide in which area we will specialise; I have chosen scriptwriting. Why? Partly because book sales are down and the number of new manuscripts waiting to be published is up. With a growing number of satellite and freeview channels there will always be room for new drama on television and if it’s possible to cut a deal for royalty payments for every broadcast then overall it should be a better way of earning a living than writing a book. Once a novel is out of print (and some publishers tend to shove books in for remainder even before the ink has dried) that’s it: finished; a novel can end up with a ridiculously short lifespan and authors tend not to get paid royalties on remaindered copies, whereas a television programme can be regularly aired twenty or more years down the line (e.g. episodes of Shoestring and Bergerac), each time producing a payment for the writer.

All this makes me sound as though I’m writing only for the money, doesn’t it? Well, I’m not. But maybe I should be...

Monday, 4 May 2009

The other 2 covers

Here are the covers for the other Leo Walmsley books.

The original painting for Angler's Moon is oil on canvas, whereas acrylic on 140 lbs paper was used for Foreigners. Both of these were published in 2008

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Phantom wanderings

The MA course is still commanding more of my time than is healthy, but now that the end of the first study block is in sight - and there's the promise of specialising from June onwards - the heavy workload facing all 17 of us over the next 7 weeks will seem worth the torment, I'm sure.

In the meantime, the latest Leo Walmsley book has been ordered from the printer, having "signed off" the proofs, as they say. All the work involved in publishing has had to be slotted in with other tasks and the UCF work. It's no wonder the car is dirty!

Set in the late 1920s, the novel Phantom Lobster is the story of one man's dream to make lobster fishing safer and more profitable for the inshore fishermen. Above is the cover using another of my paintings.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Juggling and publishing

The wind is howling and the bin bag, usually tucked behind the downpipe by the binmen, has blown away and the house across is having cavity wall insulation, so this will not be a quiet day for working on Falmouth assignments.

Also I need to do some more typesetting for the forthcoming re-publication of the Leo Walmsley book, Phantom Lobster, which is due out in early May. I am working with image files that I first prepared almost three years ago and, because of changes in style and presentation that have been adopted in the more recently republished books, Phantom requires a lot of extra work to bring it up to scratch.

I have asked my wife to write the 'back cover blurb' - and that's another task: the cover. The artwork was painted last autumn but the white of the canvas is showing as yellow on the computer image file, so that's something to sort out.

Oh well, between the Walmsley work and UCF, I shall never be short of something to do.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The first page

I've seen a few of these in my time. Perhaps that sounds as if I've seen too many first pages and never reached the end. Well, I think all writers have an imbalance of the first page/last page ratio, but I have to say that I've had a few last pages. My problem (one of them - you knew that was coming, didn't you? I mean, it's natural for people to put themselves down, particularly if they're English and born in the 1960s (or even before then!) so there'll be no further negatives in this post) is that... where was I - oh, yes: my problem is that... there, you see, it's gone. Typical writer!