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When writing about contemporary issues, there’s always the possibility that the burning subject matter will be well out of date by the time it gets aired.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).