Friday, 29 January 2010


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


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.