Thursday, 22 July 2010

The place to be

"Where you will be in 5 years' time will depend on the books you read and the people you meet."

Someone in business said that to me 18 years ago. They weren't talking about writing or being a writer, although since then I've often reflected on the ability of the maxim to embrace almost any discipline – but it is particularly pertinent to doing what we as writers want to do, which is to tell stories.

So how, if you're wanting to break into writing, do you immerse yourself in the atmosphere and mindset of those who are "in" the industry or the business or however you want to term it?

Okay, so your first question is, "what are the books to read?" Well, reading widely is the first thing I'd suggest, together with some of the more serious academic books (keep away from titles such as "Become a top-selling novelist in just 30 days"), for which a university's reading list for a creative – or professional – writing course should be obtained.

Right, then, back to the question: how to rub shoulders (not necessarily in a literal sense) with those who are in there as well as those who want to be because they, too, often have something valuable to offer (morale springs to mind). Short of actually attending one of the annual literary festivals such as the Guardian Hay or Port Eliot, you can experience a sense of belonging and feel for the industry by simply watching The Book Show on the SkyArts channel. There's also Channel 4's TV Book Club.

The Book Show's 9-day coverage of the 2010 Guardian Hay Festival meant that the presenter, Mariella Frostrup, was in our living room every day with an impressive selection of writers as diverse as Kate Mosse and Bill Bryson and Robert Winston. But whoever or whichever you prefer reading, each one has his own perception of writing for a living which means that each one of us, at whichever stage we are, can learn something of value.

All good things come to an end as did the Hay Festival; it also meant the end of the series. I felt like I'd actually met the writers that were interviewed and, yes, I can say that something has rubbed off. We may not have actually walked in each other's footsteps or breathed the same air, but it feels like I have rubbed shoulders with these great names in contemporary literature. They don't know me, but I have gleaned some of the essence of their personalities, which can be priceless.

So where will I be in 5 years' time? That will depend on the books I've written and the people I have met, if only in a virtual sense.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Time travel

In the previous blog I mentioned anachronisms and since then these stray items from the future have been availing themselves, seemingly, all over the place. And strangely, all of them were for programmes made for ITV. I have nothing against ITV, but I'd be failing in my objectivity if I didn't mention this.

Here are a couple:

One major drama series set in 1952 showed a postcard that, in the story, had been posted almost 20 years before – but the card bore a Queen Elizabeth II postage stamp. The Queen was crowned in 1953. Okay, so if you blinked you missed it, but I would have thought there'd have been enough George V stamps kicking around in philately collections to satisfy the prop requirements. Or, and this is possible, the production assistant concerned didn't know any basic history and probably thinks our Queen Elizabeth has been around since the 1500s. That's probably more likely.

The second instance concerned a drama set in 1945 that had larch-lap fencing panels in the background. Now, so far as I have been able to discover by talking to industry professionals (joinery), this style of fencing was not invented until the 1970s, although a similar style – a form of inter-woven fencing also originally made from long-lasting cedar – was introduced sometime in the 1960s.

Another anachronism from the same episode showed a moulded clear plastic box for storing fishing flies. In 1945 such storage would have been in a box made of wood and with a sliding glass cover – proper glass, that is, not plastic.

You can't blame the writers for this; if every script needed detailed action directions such as:

SHE TAKES OUT A CRUMPLED POSTCARD BEARING A GEORGE V STAMP. . .

then screenplays might easily be thick as a Dan Brown novel.

No, preventing such mess-ups is down to someone on the team doing their job properly and thinking more about accuracy and less about alcohol – okay, I'm joking! But someone's attention has been misplaced, maybe even time-warped.

The point is, though, that such mistakes will be there forever.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Sinkable errors

Readers of this blog will remember that I'm not a huge fan of Amazon's Imdb – the definitive database of screen entertainment, and one of the things about it that annoys me is the "Goofs" section that accompanies most titles.

This is where those sad individuals get to write their reports after they've peered at their screens watching and noting down anything they claim is wrong. "Sod the story – let's find fault and make ourselves feel in control!"

They find continuity errors, revealed crew and/or equipment in the form of shadows and reflections (and sometimes right there in shot!), factual errors and anachronisms. I've spotted a few over the years, but I try not to let them spoil my enjoyment of the drama.

Errors during filming are not the responsibility of the writer, but the facts of the stories are (fantasy and science fiction aside).

Which leads me to explain why this blog entry is late: it's because at UCF we have been sweating over a module specifically about research – about the market, the audience we're aiming for, and the accuracy of the subject matter we are writing about.

Cameron came unstuck with one such example in Titanic where he has Rose talking about Freud's theory on male preoccupation with size, when in reality Freud didn't write about this until 8 years later.

Now, that sort of "goof" is typically spotted by someone who really needs to get out more, but at least here, in Cornwall, we are learning how to avoid writing such errors into our novels and screenplays and keeping such individuals out of the sunlight.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Some stuff comes back

Despite dramas such as Heartbeat, The Royal and The Bill getting wiped off our screens due to some indiscriminate whim of an ITV executive (both of whom have, by this time, gone on their merry ways), the power of the audience is being felt almost as if they were calling "it's behind you!" I am talking about the welcome return of Foyle's War, which began on ITV, Sunday 11th April.

Axed in 2007, the show has been given a new lease of life following the weight of public demand. I remember watching an interview with its creator, Anthony Horowitz, when it first aired and he said that each series would deal with the events of a particular war year – chronologically, of course.

But then ITV's then director of television decided that he wanted to attract an upmarket younger audience Рas if he would know what people want to watch. I mean, let's face it: such arrogance is usually some misguided and desperate attempt to pull in more advertising revenue by attracting... more upmarket viewers? Amongst the younger audience? I'll stop there before I commit the cardinal sin of generalisation and falling into clich̩ country Рa bit like the former ITV director of television did.

In its normal run, as originally outlined, Foyle's War got to 1943... and then, after being dumped, jumped to 1945 for a one-off 2-hour special just to cap it all off and make way for the wealthy youth. I don't think.

I realise that Anthony Horowitz will, at the very least, have storylined the programmes that were never made, and I sympathise with him. The new series takes over after VE-day in 1945, which is better than nothing, and I'm wondering if they'll consider a series that backtracks to those missing years.

Let's hope so.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Yippee for The Book Show

Image property of SkyArts, thank you.
As I've previously mentioned, The Book Show, which is shown on the SkyArts 1 channel, has certainly sold a number of books to this household. And whilst this blog is primarily about screenwriting and associated trivia, naturally I read books for entertainment, escapism and as a source of inspiration, so this programme is a damned useful resource.

Every week 3 authors are interviewed by presenter, Mariella Frostrup, who tirelessly gets them to reveal why and how they put pen to paper (yes, some writers still do that) – or however – and makes the meeting seem so natural it's as if we are listening in on a friendly chat. It is hard to imagine she has the time to read every book, but that's the impression she gives. Ms Frostrup is an excellent presenter.

Other weekly features include an interview with an independent bookshop, a look at the writing environments of some authors, and guest celebrities tell us what books they are reading from their bedside table.

Aimed at readers, believe me when I say that all writers of fiction should watch this programme.

The Book Show is currently broadcast on Thursdays at 7pm on Sky channel 256 and Virgin channel 284. It is repeated, just in case you miss it.

Some people tell me that their existing Sky package doesn't include SkyArts 1, which is a shame because, particularly for writers, this is a must-have channel. Now, it's not for me to flog stuff for something as massive as Sky, but they say you can add the Sky Style and Culture Pack for just an extra £1 per month by going here, so it should be worth looking at this.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Not Creeking

I'm talking about the new episode of Jonathan Creek, "The Judas Tree", that was aired on Easter Sunday. Written by the series' creator, David Renwick, this places our hero, played by Alan Davies, in the same sort of scenario as he tended to find himself when the series first began in 1997. This is a good thing. Let me explain.

Just in case you're not familiar with the series' premise, Creek is a bit of an eccentric who devises magical acts for a professional stage magician and uses his analytical mind and technical skills to solve seemingly-impossible crimes. However, in the 13 years that he's been doing this, he doesn't seem to have got any older, he wears the same duffle coat, he speaks the same way, and his luck with the opposite sex is still as frustrating to me as it must be to him.

His assistants might have changed – but only because he has outgrown them. Good for him. Even the theme music and opening titles are like familiar friends drawing you into the show, which brings me to the point: the show returned in 2009 for a one-off, "The Grinning Man", after 5 years and yet it was as if it had never been off the air, so smooth was the continuity. It was like seeing old friends once more.

However, some other programmes have blatantly disregarded the need for such conventions as familiar theme music and title sequences that helped establish them in the first place, namely Sharpe and Agatha Christie: Poirot.

Yes, Jonathan Creek is an old friend and, so long as he's there and recognisable, there's hope for the world of television.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Bill gets axe

ITV's The Bill is for the chop, I'm sorry to say.

I've never watched it, but that doesn't mean I cannot appreciate its existence just like Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat, both of which are going or gone. The fact that such dramas as The Bill are being made adds a certain security in these times of troubled financial instabilities and means that, somewhere, all's well with the world and turning back the clock to happier times needn't rely on science fiction.

But now the reliable world just got a bit smaller.

ITV says the programme has been axed due to low viewer figures, even after a recent re-hash of the viewing time and format. The BBC has recently said that viewer figures aren't important to them but, to be fair, they need to be important to commercial channels that rely on such figures to determine advertising fees for the programmes they interrupt.

What the loss of a weekly drama series such as The Bill means is that there are 50 less opportunities for writers to earn a living. Some of the other blogs and forums are rather scathing of ITV's desire to replace drama with reality TV, but in this case I'll give ITV the chance to do what it says – and that is to create more shorter-run dramas.

Let's hope it follows through.

Guardian article.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Blocked!

Finally it has happened: the very condition I never thought would afflict me has landed itself plop! right there on the mat – not literally, of course, so there's no actual mess to clear up; just a virtual expanse of nothingness that is even more frightening.

This concerns the 60-minute screenplay that I'm re-hashing into its Second Draft. The First Draft did work as a story (and I've seen much worse on TV) but, on reflection, it might have appeared too lightweight. My problem is how to convincingly get the protagonist to relent without making it seem too convenient when the story is about to end.

Since allowing myself to get bogged down with this, surprisingly I've been sleeping rather soundly, but waking up feeling like I've been doing The Times crossword all night. But if the solution has occurred to me during my period of somnolence, then why the hell can't I remember what it was?

I find myself speaking lines of dialogue in inappropriate places. I get strange looks. I'm only trying them out, but the more experimentally-bizarre the plot gets, the more space I am allowed by members of the public. My current wife says she's had enough – oh, not of me, well, sort of, I suppose, but of the characters encroaching on our lives.

"They're only pretend people," she snipes. Little does she realise that they are so real they're taking over, creeping up on me and whispering obtuse lines of dialogue for me to try out – until the day I can type "FADE OUT" and put them to rest.

Until the Third Draft, that is.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Short Seasons

I remember years ago being a fan of the BBC sitcom, ’Allo ’Allo. It was so popular, the Americans wanted it but, and this is the point, they didn't want TV series in anything less than 26 episodes.

So the BBC flogged the US all 4 series of ’Allo ’Allo bundled together as one US-sized "season" and then pulled out all the stops by going in for a mammoth 26-episode fifth series.

But, 20 years on, the norm is still 4, 6, 8, sometimes 10 episodes for a UK television series.

Is this a case of inadequate funding or simply not allowing the viewers to overindulge?

What has brought this to mind is a comment I read on Imdb written by a US fan of Kingdom. This person said that it was "a nice alternative to most American network television". After tasting the likes of... no, I'd better not fall into the trap of slaughtering the staple US TV diet; that would not be professional. Slap wrist and all that. I do, however, sympathise with this person.

But a viewer from Canada said: "What I can't understand is every television show that is shown in the UK only has about 6 episodes to them and it takes such a long time to produce them. My only guess to such little production rate is they're too busy with tea time than work time."

What a cheek! No, kind Canadian person, we make "shows" in such small numbers because we put so much care into them and, as my current wife says, "You can't have too many sweets at once; they make you sick."

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Can writing be taught?

I have a friend who says no, and a wife who says no. But I disagree.

It should go without saying that no one person and no university course can teach you (or me) how to get ideas. But they can suggest places to look. It might be just a case of pointing across the street and asking the student to imagine what that person in the smart business suit is doing with that old lady who is hitting him with her walking stick – and then to think beyond the obvious. Just teaching a concept of thought as simple as that one may be all that's required to get someone writing – that can be taught.

All stories, in whatever format (verbal, novel, script, etc.) follow the pattern of having a beginning. middle and end. There's a bit more to it than that, of course, and there are cases where the temptation to mix these up has been too great for some writers and directors, but I shan't confuse the issue by mentioning them. Let's accept that structure is important and many would-be writers start off without any planning or, indeed, having any knowledge of the form required to lay out a story – but that can be taught.

A little knowledge of the history of the English language (much of it lifted from other languages) can help in carefully choosing words to provide emphasis. You can learn that.

We were taught punctuation at junior school, yet now many 16-year-olds leave school without a clue about correct use of apostrophes and even simple commas – that can be taught.

These are just a few instances of teachable aspects used in writing.

"Ah but," you may say, "this is not teaching writing per se, is it?"

I agree that writers need to feel almost a primal urge to write – rather instinctively like breathing, eating, procreating... and not just so they can see their name in print or on the rolling credits (which, on TV, are getting faster, have you noticed?) I believe that wanting to write should not be to satisfy vanity. Quite simply, writers must want to tell stories.

And that cannot be taught.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Recommended: Up

Last night we watched Up.

I first came across the trailer for this when we went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 3D (make that the first 20-minutes in 3D, which they don't tell you about beforehand). I wasn't swept away, although the 3D trailer was entertaining enough. But that was just me being stubborn: I'd gone to see Radcliffe & and Co. battling with the forces of evil and had no time for mere animations.

But you see, once again I have been forced to change my mind, reconsider my opinion in the light of new evidence and admit, begrudgingly, not so much that I was wrong but that I'm not in a position to comment on a film until I have actually seen it.

Up is a scriptwriter's delight; the story is marvellous and "beats out" perfectly in the way taught in scriptwriting classes at many United States universities. After all, it is an American film, so why not? Unfortunately, this method of "beating out" a film is not so prevalent in UK institutions of advanced learning, I'm sorry to say.

Furthermore, it appeals to the audience quadrants as defined in Hollywood, and the story resonates. Scriptwriters, old and new, could learn a lot by studying the structure of this film – yes, I keep saying that.

We'll be buying this one on BluRay. This is one film I recommend, so remember: "Adventure is out there!"

Monday, 8 March 2010

A cavity to fill

There was some memorable children's drama when I was a kid:

  • The Battle of St. George Without (1969/70, BBC, black & white. Kids got together to save a disused church.)

  • Timeslip (1970, ABC) – brilliant adventure series.

  • Follyfoot (1970, Yorkshire Television) – okay, I realise this one was probably aimed more at the girls, but I fancied the heroine, Dora, so there. The producer sent me one of the scripts when, as a child, I asked if they were looking for new writers. He advised me to go out into the world, find new experiences and find out "what makes people tick". I think that, almost 40 years later, I might have done just that.

  • The Queen Street Gang (1968). This came with the brand new Thames Television and I have the theme music going through my head at this very moment.

  • Tom Grattan's War (1968). This was Yorkshire Television's adventure series, set on the farmlands of Yorkshire during the First World War. Amazing, and it could easily put to shame many recent offerings to children's entertainment.

Nowadays, the BBC seems to be producing the bulk of output for children, whilst ITV seems to have drastically reduced its content for the junior market. Why is this? Might it have something to do with restrictions on advertising crappy high-sugar food during the breaks of TV programmes aimed at kids?

So let me get this straight: ITV doesn't make many children's programmes, now, because advertisers aren't interested in the slots watched by children...

Perhaps, in a perfect world, ITV should see the production of quality drama for children as a moral obligation. And talking of which, the manufacturers of junk food aimed at kids should also consider their responsibilities.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A world without fiction

"Stories are an essential part of everyone's being," as one character said in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Made in 1995, this story from the show's first season describes an alien world where there is a shortage of fiction and literature, and yet some of the planet's inhabitants – a race that is obsessed with the pursuit of pleasure (– not necessarily that kind!) – are willing to risk the wrath of the elders by breaking a prime canon to satisfy their insatiable lust for stories. They will allow our heroes the technology they need to return home in exchange for... Voyager's immense catalogue of literature. And that will include Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, Blyton and even Rowling.

Of course it sounds a bit on the extreme side – or at least it sounds about as far-fetched an idea as Borg drones assimilating humankind. But now that the supermarkets have been allowed to heavily discount books (which is good if you're a buyer; not so cracky if you're an author or an independent bookseller), publishers have been forced to consolidate their finances and repel as many brilliant debut authors as possible, and both BBC and ITV have decided to drastically (make that critically) reduce drama output... well, the days when the fiction-demanding public are literally crying out for further infusions of new stories may not be so far in the future.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

As versatile as an egg?

My writing website says I'm a screenwriter. This was an attempt to focus both myself, and anyone visiting, exactly where I wanted to work. Fair enough, but was this a wise move?

The reason I'm thinking about this right now is because of what two professional screenwriters, quite independently, have recently said to me.

Each of these guys is responsible for works of fiction that are not limited to writing scripts. One ghost-writes a sports column for a newspaper, has written a novel, and is responsible for being one of a team of screenwriters for a Hollywood movie, albeit one made in the UK.

The other one, as well as being a prolific writer for such dramas as Brookside and Casualty, has written a number of plays that have toured around the country. He also writes prose fiction because, he says, wanting to write is all about wanting to tell a story. Both these writers have, strangely enough, also written plays for education. This is what I have been telling people for years – we want to tell stories!

There seems little point in reducing our potential marketplace, so I'm going to alter my site to "Writer" and keep my options open.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Three books

Here are 3 books I've recently read:

  • Falling Angels – Tracy Chevalier
  • Ordinary Thunderstorms – William Boyd
  • The Winter Ghosts – Kate Mosse

Each one combines situation and characters to make such engaging stories that, in all three instances, I never once looked at the page numbers to check my progression. I was so engrossed. Each of them would make an excellent screen drama.

Tracy Chevalier – well, it is largely because of her that I am doing an MA in writing. Just because she has been so successful, having achieved a similar MA, doesn't guarantee success for all the other MA students, of course. But I see the MA as providing an opportunity for rubbing shoulders with industry professionals, getting my work critiqued by others that don't feel obligated to shower undeserved compliments, and also to fill in knowledge gaps, both academic and practical. Until the course begins to pay for itself I'm a good few thousand quid down – but I've made some good friends and met some amazing people.

So thank you, Tracy, for pointing the way forward.

Both William Boyd and Kate Mosse were interviewed in ShyArts' The Book Show, about which I will write later. That TV programme has certainly sold some books to this household.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

A winter draft


At last the UCF portfolio for February has been completed, printed, bound and posted. Working on it has been a bit like running a marathon: tense, engrossed, pacing the emotions, alert to the slightest alien mark on the paper. Is everything included? Are all the page numbers in order? Will both copies fit in one envelope? Will the package be too big for Royal Mail? Is this my better side...?

It's not like having won the marathon; it has yet to be marked and yet the adrenaline is still flowing. What do I do next? What further project can occupy me so intensely? Will I go mad if I can't find something – anything – else?

I sit and watch television, but the only thing playing are scenes from my script and odd fragments from the accompanying critical rationale. This is the worst that can happen: I don't want to see my mistakes floating before me uninvited; the damned thing's gone, now, and it's too late to put it right. If it's wrong, then tough!

I know what's happening – and I know I had better get used to it.

And then the words of Blake Snyder come to me, "it is what it is", and I realise it's time to leave that story alone: don't think about it; pretend it belongs to someone else.

Now it's time to sit back, relax and make up for all those weeks sweating over the (unmentionable) story. But within five minutes another idea is taking shape...

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The write place to try

A mandatory component of my degree course is the preparation of an industry analysis. This is to gain some insight into the writing industry and working practices. Fair enough; it seems like a useful activity that should provide worthwhile experience and contacts.

But is life ever so simple?

There is a shortage of writers. Why? A growing number of television channels, soaps (or serialised dramas) that run into five episodes a week, long-running dramas such as New Tricks, Spooks and Silent Witness that all need new ideas, and all the new productions needing scripts means that scriptwriters are in huge demand in this growing industry.

So why is it so damned difficult to get to speak with TV writers?

I mean no disrespect to the very market I want to enter, but why is it that certain "soaps" are so cagey about "future storylines" that to enter their offices requires security clearance so strict that it puts to shame the typical CRB check that would licence you to work with children? And I've lost count of the number of stamped self-addressed envelopes I've sent off, none of which were returned, and having producers' assistants setting hurdles for me to jump whilst they do a runner in the opposite direction.

And then, just as I'm about to pack in the degree and save a year's university fees – after all, no industry analysis means no pass – I find one particular writer who has no problem speaking with new people.

He writes for a serialised drama (amongst other things), his attitude is welcoming and I see that his ideas are imaginative and diverse. In fact, his whole attitude is refreshing.

How did I find him? A contact through my son. Simple. Why didn't I think of that in the first place?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Internet Movie Data Backlog

For over twelve years I have been using the Internet Movie Database (Imdb) as a source of information regarding films (or "movies", if you're American) and their writers, actors, directors, etc. I suppose many of us do take advantage of this highly useful resource. It has loads of amazing features including the listing of actors whose names did not appear on the credits, so at least the site gives the aggrieved and those who desire attention to detail some satisfaction. There's also information about filming locations.

In fact, if you consider just how many films and television programmes have been made over the better part of 100 years, and add the number of actors and technicians, and then consider that each one requires a separate webpage, and then add another one for pertinent trivia, plot summary, full synopsis... that is a lot of web pages and one hell of a ginormous database.

And there's always a "but"...

...it is flawed with inaccuracies that, at times, can cause severe grinding of the teeth. This is because it relies on ordinary people (me, you) to submit information and, whilst Imdb hangs on to the new data for a few days, supposedly getting it checked, the good stuff can end up growing whiskers in the backlog and, inevitably (because ordinary people are not always the best source of information), stuff that isn't factually correct can actuallyget posted. In my experience, by the time you have gone through the rigmarole of freely giving data, by the time it has been – and in some cases not – posted, you have lost interest and moved on.

Since 1998 the database has been owned by Amazon and, when one considers the size of that company and the fact that it uses Imdb as a tool to further its own sales (and who can blame it?), it makes me wonder why the vetting system is so slow and so defective.

And then it expects industry "professionals" and committed film fans to fork out $12.95 per month for even more errors. No, thanks; there are other places to get this information.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Unforgiven

I know when a film or television programme has impressed me because the following morning I awake thinking about it. It's almost as if I have been playing it again whilst asleep. Believe me when I say that I am not conscious of having any choice in the matter.

This morning it was Unforgiven, written by Sally Wainwright. This was shown on ITV in early 2009 (and repeated in our living room yesterday evening) and is the story of a woman who has served 15 years in prison for killing two police officers. Set and filmed in and around Halifax, which isn't a million miles away from where I live, the script is remarkable for its mix of compelling characters, setups, conflict and a damned good story.

I'm not usually a fan of stuff "made somewhere up north" with the tendency to film amongst rows of terraced houses, council estates and other stereotypical images, but Unforgiven doesn't quite fit into that category and instead expertly mixes locations, images and social classes. It's not only the writing – it's the direction and the acting. Everyone's performance is faultless and I can only hope, if ever one of my screenplays gets the treatment, that it will be blessed with such outstanding performances.

It is amazing and – I know I've said this before and will keep on doing so – scriptwriters old and new can learn much from this excellent writing.

Sally Wainwright does not appear to have a personal website. Maybe she is too busy, which is understandable, but if you know any different please follow the link on the right to my website, choose "contact" and let me know.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The movie with everything

Can you believe that it was over six years ago when Jonathan Ross suggested to viewers of his Film 2003 programme that they vote Cameron's Titanic the "worst film ever"?

At the time I was heftily cheesed off. Why? Was I personally involved in the making of this epic? Had James Cameron asked me to invest a couple of hundred quid in it? (No, but I wish he had!)

The fact is that I was impressed with the film and I still am, although back in 2003 I had no idea why. It is thanks to this degree course, which is allowing me to discover the inner secrets of film/movie making, that I now know what it was that makes that film so special.

Quite simply, it has everything that we, as an audience, need in a story: suffering, tragedy of character and reversal of fortune – and all wrapped-up in a complex story surrounding the sinking of the ship, which is where the spectacle aspect comes in with its sets, the stunning visual elements, costumes, special effects and music. It is primal: there's sex as well as the need to survive, and you can't get more primal than that. There is just so much going on in the story... so which is the main story – the love story or the sinking? Does it matter? It works! and millions went to see it at the cinema and millions bought their own copies on VHS and, like me and others I know (we're not related, just in case you were wondering), they have since upgraded to DVD.

What I want to know is, why did so many "viewers" of Film 2003 indulge Ross' whim and effectively admit they had made a mistake by liking the film so much before they had matured? Did the Brits dislike it so much because it was so successful? Perhaps that one is wearing a bit thin, but there's still plenty of mileage in the claim of a negativity epidemic. Could it have been a predominantly male vote? I mean, I would imagine that most men (and particularly those who would count Ross as one of their drinking partners, given half the chance) would consider Titanic to be a soppy love story.

Whatever the reason for the poll's result, theoretically it doesn't stick and, in his more sensible moments – that is, when not pandering to the fickle whims of the youthful audience he craves – even Jonathan Ross must admit that it was an ill-considered nudging of a public vote.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Breaking and entering the rule book

Surely a writer's blog such as this one would benefit from some discussion of work by other fiction-masters? So far I have talked only about films and television programmes that I can be positive about.

But then, certainly at UCF, critical evaluation of fellow writers' work is actively encouraged – more so, in fact, because if we don't critique each other, then we don't pass the course.

This leaves me wondering – and I hope you can see my dilemma – about the ethics regarding the discussion of successful writers' work when I am merely learning the trade. I have already had one, unjustified, warning from a tutor who said I should not "diss the industry" in which I want to work. She was mistaken, but at the same time her admonition has acted as a kind of brake and caused me to consider every word that I write.

So is it okay for me to discuss the work of established writers? My current wife says, 'Yes, because if all screenwriting was considered to be on a par, there wouldn't be awards such as the BAFTAs and Oscars, would there?'

Then is it okay for me to make judgements? I mean, I'm supposed to be learning from the work of industry professionals and, in some cases, some of the material out there comes nowhere near the standards that, at UCF, we are expected to deliver.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Richard Curtis rocks again

Yes, I know it came out in April 2009, but I was waiting for someone to buy the DVD for us for Christmas. They didn't, but our daughter invited us to watch hers and I have to say it is superb. Of course, I'm referring to The Boat that Rocked or, for those in the US (where titles are patronisingly simplified), Pirate Radio. That doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it?

Curtis has done a marvellous job with this unusual choice of subject – hmm, perhaps unusual isn't the right word... I would say refreshingly different choice of subject. The screenplay seems (I say this because such matters are usually open to theoretical analysis) to follow the three-act principles (although his Four Weddings and a Funeral had five acts) and I was so engrossed in the plot that I missed the break into Act 2, but I did catch the Act 3 transition.

With brilliant characters, a lively plot, unusual (there's that word again) locations, twists and an amazing moment of catharsis... this feel-good film will be a favourite with so many people for decades to come. Yes, I spotted some anachronisms – but hey, it's a story, not a documentary, and those people who glue themselves to the screen with notepads at the ready are peculiarly sad and need to get a life.

The trick when studying screenwriting is how to enjoy screen entertainment whilst simultaneously breaking it up into its component parts. I suppose in some cases it just means watching stuff again and again. Education can be so cruel.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Fragility

Jack London (1876-1916) said, "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." Well, sometimes inspiration comes knocking on your door whether you want it or not, as indeed it has done here this week – on two occasions: one unfortunate, the other sad.

To be honest, it's not really inspiration; just pictures to go into the great image bank. For both instances it's the sort of experience I would rather imagine than live through. I've seen people being incredibly strong, spiritually, when they have experienced one of the worst blows that can be dealt – not the worst, perhaps, but still bloody awful.

I feel awkward because I am taking it all in: the words, the gestures, the sorrow and the strength.

And yes, should I ever need to write such scenes I may find myself calling on what I have witnessed people living through because writing isn't only about making up stuff – it is about showing life and death and how it affects people, altering their lives and philosophies and how they see the world.

Writing can also be about showing just how fragile we really are.