Tag Archives: TV

Charlie Brooker on why he hates writing, warp factors, Twitter and Transformers

11 Nov
Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters' Festival, by Chris Floyd)

Charlie Brooker (photo from London Screenwriters’ Festival, by Chris Floyd)

My sixth despatch from the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival is the fearlessly acerbic critic-turned-creative Charlie Brooker. You don’t need any commentary from me – just sit back and enjoy the rant.

On why he “f***ing hates” writing: If I appear to write a lot, that’s interesting. I have a terrible fear I’m not doing enough. I f***ing hate writing. I love the ideas side, and I love having written, but I hate the process of writing. There’s occasionally a eureka moment, but my life is a constant struggle to enter that and avoid the myriad distractions, like an acorn rolling by. I love my job, but it’s also like a fucking curse. The biggest high of it is “thank God I’ve finished that”. It’s just like the feeling of having done a massive poo.

On Touch of Cloth: I was going to say it’s like Airplane for cop shows, but I realise that’s Police Squad! So it’s The Naked Gun, but for Britain. It’s a collaboration – we run a writers’ room for it. We bought a script by the man who made Messiah, which was very bleak, and then used that as a basis for drawing knobs on, basically, because we were aping those dark Sunday night dramas that everyone seems to love but that I think are pornographic and weird, and dull.

We also got a compilation made of scenes from crime dramas, like morgue scenes, and when you watch nothing but these similar scenes, you spot the same tropes and clichés and become inherently funny. It was vital that in our world, none of the characters could acknowledge that what was going on was at all weird. Like in Naked Gun, where Leslie Nielsen takes it all seriously. The director would shout before every scene, “Don’t forget, you’re doing a serious drama – this is a real body, it’s the body of a child.”

On Black Mirror: The kind of sci-fi I like is allegorical, like The Twilight Zone. Not people with croissant-shaped foreheads talking about warp factors. Rod Serling did The Twilight Zone because he wanted to do plays about racism and McCarthyism, and couldn’t get them on air. That was my focus for the show.

Technology is never the villain in Black Mirror. It’s always, here’s a powerful tool – I don’t mean the character! – here’s a powerful technological tool, and we let the character pick it up and hit themselves repeatedly on the head with it.

We’ve just been shooting a Christmas special, with three episodes, like a Twilight Zone anthology. Jon Hamm’s starring in that because he’s a big fan of the show. It’s about what if you could block someone in real life like you do on Twitter, so they just become an anonymous blob – they can’t hear you or talk to you; and you play out the consequences of that. What I like is TV shows where you get to the end and you feel f***ing devastated. Now they’re all about easily entertaining people. How dare they!

On Nathan Barley: Oh god, writing with Chris Morris was terrifying. I was terrified he’d show up like his Day Today persona, and tell me to f***ing shut up, but he was jolly and friendly and very collaborative. But he’ll interrogate every aspect. He takes ages. We had a meeting before 9/11 and it actually went on air in 2005. We had meeting after meeting to discuss how to do it.

On Twitter: There’s this babble of voices, everyone feeling they have to chip in their two pence worth on how awful it is that Ed Milliband’s just done a poo on the High Street. And I do the same – why? Then everyone feels they have to outdo each other and exaggerate, and it all piles on top of each other, and before you know it everyone is performing, badly, and you’re struck by the existential pointlessness of it… So I wrote a column about it, going “here’s what I think about this! Look at this!”

On why it can be more creative to work on a low budget: The last 20 minutes of every big-budget movie is like you’re staring into a washing machine full of cars and robots and things all smashing together.

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Top ten writing tips from Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect

30 Oct
lynda-latest-small

Lynda la Plante: currently working on a prequel to Prime Suspect

After a diversion to report on the Brixton Ritzy strike, it’s back to my daily reports from the London Screenwriters’ Festival. One of the giants of crime writing gave a hugely entertaining talk: Lynda La Plante, creator of Prime Suspect. Here are her ten tips:

1. Write like a transvestite trucker. I was an actress [in cop shows like Z Cars and The Sweeney] before I was a writer. I had a role with dialogue that made no sense, so I thought, Can I have a go? I went off and wrote three short treatments. They were all rejected, but there was one, Widows, where someone had scrawled across it, “This is brilliant.”

So I sent it to [veteran producer] Verity Lambert, but decided I wouldn’t put my acting name on, but instead put “Lynda La Plante”. When she called me in, she looked up and said, “Oh no, you’re not Lynda La Plante, are you?” Because she knew me as an actress. “We thought it was a transvestite trucker!” She told me to write episode one.

2. Make sure you have a killer treatment. My treatment for Widows started like this: “Four men planning a raid blow themselves up with their own explosives. These men left four widows: Dolly Rawlins, Shirley Miller, Linda Pirelli and Bella O’Reilly. Bereft by the loss of her beloved husband, Dolly Rawlins finds weapons, money and a detailed map of the robbery, and knows where it went wrong. She approaches the other widows and says ‘I will pay you to work alongside me and do the robbery.’” But I didn’t know how to write it from there.

3. Do your research. So I went to source.  On every TV unit there’s always someone who’s done a bit of time, so I contacted one and said I needed to find some criminals. He’s like, “Oh yeh darlin’? What sort?” “Bad ones.” “Murderers?” “Yes.” He took me to the Thomas A Beckett pub, where the Krays hung out. He said, “Do you remember that bloke who fed the bodies to the pigs on a farm?” I said yes, not knowing at all. He said, “Right, here he is. John? Come and meet Lynda.”

Then I went to prison visits, met prisoners’ wives, widows. There was one who was tough, worked a greengrocery, and Dolly began to shape. I went to the police, they said they’d help me – I had no idea of police procedure. You show respect, and just ask.

4. Know how to keep your mouth shut. I’d had one big hit with Widows, then had various commissions that had all fallen down so was feeling a bit bruised. I was learning another big lesson – to keep my mouth shut in meetings. Instead I started off, I really need to know what you’re looking for. She said, “What we really want is a woman in a leading role, working on a murder investigation.” I said, “I’ve been working on that!” Which I hadn’t. She then said, “And we want her in plainclothes.” I said, “Yes, I’ve been working on just that!”

She said, “What’s it called?” The gods were on my side: I came out with, “Prime Suspect”. She said that sounded perfect, just what they were looking for! So I agreed to bring in a treatment.

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren as Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison

5. Do still more research. The first thing I did was phone the police and ask for a high-ranking woman detective. “No problem, we have three.” Only three! That was the first insight. So I go in to meet one, and in comes my prototype for Jane Tennison: DCI Jackie Malton. She would say the male officers were so desperate to elbow her out that when they got the call to scramble the squad cars, her rank would put her in the front seat, but she got her hand caught in the door three or four times because they didn’t want to let her in.

6. Keep one step ahead of the audience. People love crime fiction, because it’s a game. They say, “I know who did it – now trick me.” I will outwit you again and again. You think you know who the killer is? No you don’t. That’s respecting an adult audience, not decapitations and blood everywhere.

7. Break the rules – for a reason. I went for a split screen on Trial and Retribution because I had become so involved in forensics [La Plante is the only non-scientist to have been given an honorary fellowship by the Forensic Science Society], and was fascinated by the process of removing a single hair from a button, unwinding it bit by bit so as not to snap it, because the bulb at the end of the hair has DNA. How do you put that on screen, without the viewer making their cup of tea and going, “What, are they still on that button?” So that’s why I did the split screen, so the action could carry on. I did not copy 24. They came to me to find out how I was doing split screen.

8. Be prepared to fight your corner. When I suggested the split screen to the head of ITV, he said, “No, most people have 16-inch screens.” So I said, “Most old ladies watching this can also have eight cards of Bingo and do them all at the same time.” He said, “You’re bloody right, let’s go for it!”

9. Someday, you may want to set up your own company. It’s depressing for writers sometimes when they present a script, and they just go thank you very much. Then editors, producers and actors all have a hand in it. Towards the end of Prime Suspect, there were too many voices telling me where the character should go, which I didn’t always agree with. Then there’s the budget – you’ll write “four patrol cars steam up”, and they’ll say in the meeting, we’ll just have one.

10. And of course, know your characters’ background. I was at a book signing and this fan asked me in a Q&A, where did Jane Tennison come from? And I didn’t really know! It was astonishing. I had no idea. I kept thinking of this: where did she get that cold, aloof exterior, that iron will? So I’m working on a Prime Suspect prequel [book out in 2015, with TV series to follow in 2016] where Jane Tennison is aged 22, a probationary officer working in Hackney police station, fresh as a daisy. Ha ha!

For Tony “Life on Mars” Jordan’s equally entertaining tips from the festival, click here.

LSF report #1: Tony Jordan on going from Albert Square to Life on Mars

27 Oct
Tony Jordan

Tony Jordan at Dickens’s home in Kent, for a BBC4 programme on Great Expectations. Jordan’s 20-part drama Dickensian will air on BBC One next year.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival was an incredible three days of talks, events, seminars, pitches and networking. Each day this week, and probably well into next, I’ll post a new nugget from the festival. These include wildly entertaining chats with Lynda La Plante, Charlie Brooker and Tony “Life On Mars” Jordan; commentaries on Lost Boys, Finding Nemo, and Silence of the Lambs; and some “how-to” classes on scriptwriting.

I’ve kicked it all off with a news story in The Times today. It’s mostly about Tony Jordan’s forthcoming BBC One series, Dickensian, so let’s start off here with more life-lessons from the irrepressible Tony:

1. You have to blag it: EastEnders was my very first job as a writer. I wrote a script by accident – that is, I was chatting to a friend who was trying to get into television, and if he was collecting butterflies I would probably have collected butterflies, but as it is, I wrote a script. I had a pitch in a market so they somehow thought I was an East End barrow boy, even though I was raised just outside Liverpool. So after that I was Dick Van Dyke, I had to pretend to be Cockney. It stuck for 15 years until I was told there was a magazine wanting to do a feature about me growing up in the East End and I had to come clean.

2. You must hold on to your voice: We all have a unique voice as a writer. The problem is, when you go to soaps, they say “we want your voice”, but they don’t really; they want all the episodes to sound the same. So I did what any writer would do: I watched an episode, paused it, counted the scenes. Dissected it. After a few episodes I realised the structure was always the same.

There’s always a cliffhanger at the end, and that’s your North Star, you’re aiming for that. That then gives you your first image, because it has to be connected in some way. Chuck in another three or four narrative staging posts, and you can cover all that in about ten minutes. I worked out that left me 20 minutes to myself. When you see an episode with all the men in one corner of the Queen Vic having conversations that begin “The trouble with women is…” and all the women in another corner going “The trouble with men is…”, and juxtaposing them in an interesting way, that’s me.

3. You will have to deal with twats like Andrew. There was this twat [at the BBC] called Andrew, I can’t even remember his second name he was that much of a twat. He had me, a 34-year-old father of three, used to fist fights at 6am to safeguard my pitch, sitting on my back doorstep sobbing like a child. I very nearly gave up EastEnders at that time, after about eight scripts [he went on to do about 250]. On his first script meeting with Ashley Pharoah [who later co-created Life on Mars], Andrew picked up his script, held his nose, dropped it in the bin, and said “Shall we start again?”

When you recognise the twats, you have to get away from them as soon as you can. Or strike them physically.

4. Just write the truth. I was expelled from school at 14, so I didn’t understand the frames of reference when they’d talk in meetings about Brecht or Shakespeare or Dickens. But I eventually discovered there is no secret. It’s just writing down the truth on a bit of paper.

Hustle

Hustle: breaking the fourth wall

5. You can break the rules – for a reason. When I was writing Hustle, I got stuck. I had to explain all the cons to the reader and it was just pages and pages of exposition, like wading through treacle. I phoned Jane Featherstone at Kudos and said “It won’t work,” and she said okay, if we can’t make it we can’t, but just have a Bacardi and a bit of a think; relax.

So a couple of days later it hits me: when we have exposition, we just freeze it, and have the actors talk directly to the audience. Jane had the imagination to say, “That sounds pretty f***ing weird, but you know what, let’s do it. We’ll either make history, or we’ll never work again.”

6. Rejection is not the end. I had this great idea, and gave it someone, and they said, “We can never make that. It’s too silly.” Too silly. Right. No getting round that. But someone else later took it on. That was Life on Mars. So it’s not necessarily that the script is bad, it’s just not right for someone.

I also had this idea for a show about the making of a soap, which would be paralleled on alternative nights by the soap itself. It stayed in my bottom drawer for 12 years until a new head came in at ITV, and said they wanted to break the mould and take risks. I said, funny you should say that, I have just the thing…

Life on Mars

Life on Mars: dreamt up in Blackpool with £1,000 in carrier bags

7. There is life on Mars. At EastEnders we used to do these away-days, 14 writers in Badminton House playing poker and getting drunk. That’s why I stayed so long, to go to the story conferences! So I pitched to Kudos that they give me £1,000 in expenses, in three carrier bags, for me and two writers to go to Blackpool. We would work till 4.30pm, then our time’s our own. So we arrived at Blackpool train station, and found this poor runner standing there on the platform, who gave us our carrier bags full of cash.

One of the ideas to come out of this session was Legion [which Watch has now commissioned as ten hour-long programmes], and another was Life on Mars. I recently found a photo from those days and it has a flip-chart with “’70s cop show” with a big ring round it. Life on Mars came about for one simple reason: we wanted to write for The Sweeney, but it wasn’t on anymore. We thought we could never sell a ‘70s cop show, so we thought “let’s put a spin on it”. Doing a time-travel cop show wasn’t done because we saw a gap in the market, it wasn’t ground-breaking, it was three pissed writers who wanted to write for The Sweeney.

8. At some stage, you may want to set up your own production company [Tony’s is Red Planet]. Sometimes, when I created a series, they wouldn’t want me involved in anything but the scripts. I don’t want to just put the script up someone’s arse and the DVD comes out their ear.

Before Gotham: interview with original TV Batman Adam West

6 May

Fox announced yesterday that it had commissioned Gotham (click on the image above to watch the trailer), a TV series which will tell the childhood origins of Batman, along with The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin. Alfred will be played by Sean Pertwee, son of Jon Pertwee, who played Doctor Who in the early ‘70s, which makes Gotham feel like some Hadron Collidor of primal geek forces. It will air next year, nearly half a century after the TV series played with the new spread of colour TV sets to produce a hallucinatorily vivid show inspired by pop art.

It’s also more than a quarter of a century since I interviewed its star, the original TV Batman, Adam West. Having been obsessed with the show as a small kid growing up in Canada, it was unbelievably weird to hear him drawling my name, “Dahminic”. Let alone to hear him say ‘f**k’.

There’s a whole generation out there who know the 85-year-old actor only as the voice of Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. So for those newbies, and the old guard like me who watched it (nearly) first time around, I’ve rescued my 1988 interview with Adam West from the vaults. It appeared as a two-page feature in Time Out magazine, where I had recently started work as a sub-editor:

Having devoted half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I tell him I am interviewing him for Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when Batman folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, f**k it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood!’

Modest though he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on Night Network and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

Adam West and Frank Miller's Dark Knight comic -- how the interview first appeared in Time Out

Adam West and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comic — how the interview appeared in Time Out

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, Return of the Dark Knight. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

Ah, the Batman movie. Ever since Dark Knight appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to Batman, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of Return of the Dark Knight, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of The Killing Joke, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo Wild Bunch. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!’

But West isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: Doing Time On Planet Earth, an off-the-wall comedy; Mad About You, a romantic comedy; and Return Fire, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run (the show was produced and directed by John Gore, now a major producer and CEO of Key Brand Entertainment). West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of Dark Knight nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like Star Trek and Man From UNCLE. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the Dark Knight era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’

 

LSF #7: Graham Linehan on the Meaning of Laugh

4 Nov

Graham Linehan is an insanely talented comedy writer. He not only created Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd (and now Count Arthur Strong, which I haven’t yet seen), but co-created the Ted and Ralph characters on The Fast Show and wrote for Chris Morris. I met him once, in the early ‘90s, in a Soho media watering hole. He struck me as very serious. Funny, in a dry way, but essentially very serious about what he does. Which so many very good comedians are – always picking apart the Meaning of Laugh and the Theory of Fun.

Which is lucky for aspiring comedy writers, if he is giving a panel at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Here were some of the highlights:

On his new production company: “I’m setting up a production company. Whoops, I shouldn’t say that in a room full of writers – try to space it out, don’t all send me stuff at once. Write a pitch; if we like it, then you write a draft. I want to get excited about a project so I can go in with the writers and help them sell it.”

On now directing his comedies as well as writing: “When you’re on set, you watch what the director does. One thing I realised quite quickly is that you don’t really need any skills! And when I’m writing, I see it like on a television screen in my head anyway. So if you want to direct, try to get in on a set and observe the director.”

On script gurus: “I think I screwed myself by going to a Robert McKee lecture too early. He does a terribly dangerous thing, which is to teach you to write a classic, not to write a first draft. You have to give yourself the freedom to be terrible on the first draft.”

On creating characters: “I’m not a fan of the character profiling thing – what their eye colour is, or where they went to school. I find lines of dialogue that suggest an attitude. There’s a great piece on this by Dan Harmon on his blog: his suggestion is to go through your phone contacts and stop on someone who provokes a strong reaction in you, then start writing down things that you associate with them or that describes them.

“I always make a distinction between above the line and below the line. ‘Above the line’ character traits are how that person sees themselves, and ‘below the line’ is how they really are. It’s brilliant when those are opposites.”

On the three moments: “Geoffrey Perkins said a great thing to me: you really need three great moments in an episode; the rest is filling it with gags. Three things that the next day people will say, ‘Did you see that?’ So any episode I ask myself, are there those three moments?”

On the trap: “Griff Rhys Jones said all sitcoms need a trap, a reason why the characters don’t just up and leave.”

On how, even if you’ve created something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll consult the writer (yikes): “If I had to do The IT Crowd again I wouldn’t put it in a basement. It was a hook, an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of thing, but it made it hard to get people down into the basement plausibly. I found out about the American version of The IT Crowd online, and by the time I did it was shot, nearly, and it was an absolute carbon copy, including all our mistakes – like setting it in the basement. [The US series was commissioned in 2007, was written, and was to have starred Richard Adeoye again, but was cancelled before production by a new incoming head honcho.]

“Why did no one tell me about it? It was when Talkback were getting really big, and the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. Also they just thought of it as a property that could be sold, like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; but no, it’s not just changing ‘arse’ to ‘ass’, there’s a whole lot of tweaks you need.”

For the first of my London Screenwriters’ Festival blogs with Joe Eszterhas, click here. Tomorrow: Steve Pemberton of Psychoville and League of Gentlemen.