Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Anton Get Your Gun

I’ve always thought Chekhov was funny (and no, not because of that bit in Star Trek IV- The Voyage Home about “nuclear wessels” thank you very much, Mark. Oh, we’re going to have problems here), so, I’ve been taken aback a bit of late by a few reviews of Jonathan Miller’s production of The Cherry Orchard at the Crucible expressing surprise at just how funny it is. There seems to be a reluctance to allow big laughs and big emotions to live side by side. Maybe it’s just because the “classics” are expected to be po-faced, whereas Abigail’s Party and Arcadia say have permission to mix the tones up a bit.

I often feel I’ve read a different version of Chekhov’s plays to everyone else, because they’re full of humour to me- sure, they end up sad as a rule, but hey, so did Tony Hancock, and people can still see the jokes there.
Actually, I sort of did read a different version of the plays to everyone else at university, because they all had brand spanking new Methuen translations and I had a second hand hardback from years back that was so old it called the author Tchekoff, honest, it really did, I've just checked.
It also got tricky in that my translations seemed almost always to use different names for the cast in stage directions (You know how in Russian literature everyone seems to have three names, a formal one, a pet one and their family name? It's fine when you're watching it, but a swine on the page).

Anyhow… I think Chekhov did far more gags than most people are prepared to admit, isn’t quite the grumpy old naturalist he’s often painted as (as a result of his connection with Stanislavski and the Moscow Arts Theatre), and is very keen on subverting the form he's working in.

Take the magic tricks in The Cherry Orchard- as written there’s a great big stage illusion making characters appear from thin air in Act 3 (the Crucible production plays it a deal more realistically). I think this is rather cheekily pushing the boundaries of what we'll accept in a play largely set in rooms that are unlikely to feature star trap doors under the floor, like the moment when one the characters on stage starts talking about a play he recently saw at the theatre, it draws attention to the play's theatricality.
There is also the business of Chekhov’s pistols (alright then Mark, "phasers", tsk).
Famously, Chekhov tells us that if the pistol is seen in Act 1, it should be used in Act 2. Except of course, he knows audiences are wise to this and in his later plays messes us about brilliantly.
The use of the pistol in Uncle Vanya is one of the greatest theatrical gags ever, I think- funny, sad, emotionally true and a knowing inversion of Chekhov’s earlier work and our expectations, and as for The Cherry Orchard pistol, well, he’s just being a cheeky sod, there.

He mucks about!

He’s also the only major dramatist I know of to make the comic boing of an elasticated rope snapping off stage into a symbol for something changing in the order of things.

Go and see the play if you get the chance (the chap who played Binro the Heretic’s in it, Mark).

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Northern Sky

You know this new iRiver thing is derailing my "weblog" titling (someone has to pretentiously give the full name and it might as well be me, I still put an apostrophe at the front of 'phone). Everything's a song title these days.

Anyhow, it is now officially Summertime, the height of the cotton and jumpiness of the fish 'round here confirms it, the evenings are lighter, and 'oop' here in 'the Northcountry' as them 'doon' there in 'the Smoke' like to say, this has translated into beautiful skies, (the most beautiful skies, as a matter of fact, they go on forever...) that you can get for free and are better than most of the current telly.

Now, I'll wager there's a million and one weblogs about this in the UK at the mo, but I don't care because it's marvellous, and it'll be even better when I've worked out exactly when I should be sleeping (does this get fiddlier with age?) and yesterday I had my first run since a rather embarrassing fall on the stairs a couple of weeks back that meant I hurt my ribs too much to even think about deep breathing without the aid of paracetemol.

Don't run in-doors in socks. It bears repeating. The rule is barefoot or shoes- the "oh, just a nice wool-nylon mix foot covering for warmth" compromise can be deadly if you decide to just nip up to the study for something without sufficient thought.

Anyhow, the run was fabulous, really cleared what we'll euphemistically call the 'cobwebs', because you don't want to visualise what I really coughed up from my lungs after a fortnight without a jog. Quite why you're trying to picture it in all its sticky, sickly-coloured, globular horror now is beyond me.

You're a bit contrary, aren't you?

Thanks for reading.

Ooh, while I'm here... I went to the most amazing discount place in the West Midlands at the weekend, new wool cashmere coat, casual jacket, shirt, Max Bygraves biography (just because, alright), Arnold Brown (genius!) single cassette in double cassette packing (good old Laughing Stock, they used to love doing that), and the following DVDs- the complete Robin of Sherwood series 3 (2 volumes), The Singing Ringing Tree, The Goodies... At Last, Press Gang (series 1), A Very Peculiar Practice (series 1), and The Complete Ripping Yarns. The DVDs were all between £1.99 and £7.99, and there were a fair number of other Network archive TV DVDs there too. I wonder if that means they're making next to no money at all and can't shift most of these splendid things anywhere else? I hope not.

If you're nearish-by, I'll sort you out the name and location of the place, because it was top, and should still be so even after my raiding party, particularly if you never quite got around to buying the Sykes, Star Cops, Hazell, Public Eye and Special Branch DVDs a while back and think you might want to.

I know the sadness of my audience. I think I may be responsible for some of it.

In sketch show news, I'm just completing my demo of episode 3 which (for my particularly sad audience members) includes a mention of Gabrielle Drake in lycra in one sketch that still makes me hoot aloud even though I wrote it- a rare thing, that.
Her brother wrote the lovely title song for this post that I suspect will be today's soundtrack now.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Thursday (here's why I did not go to work today)

Nostalgia, like neuralgia, is a pain you seem to suffer from increasingly as you get older. I had a great dollop of it yesterday on a trip to the old workplace to see Alan Bennett, his film ‘The History Boys’ and a lot of old work friends and colleagues.

Mr Bennett chatted amiably about film and filming for forty minutes or so and was all you'd hope really. Then he made his excuses and left us to enjoy his film.

Great '80s soundtrack, lovely performances, though, unsurprisingly, very wordy, with the play of recurring images in dialogue the chief delight in the writing. The film follows a group of rather peculiar ‘80s Sheffield 6th formers (who film doesn't really disguise are a bit old to be in school still) who all seem to be very open and liberal about homosexuality in a way I don't recall South Yorkshire schoolboys of the time being at all.

This is the where, for me, cinema really suffers in comparison to theatre and radio, which can set their own rules. We come to film with expectations of naturalism that are hard to shake, because it looks so very like real life most of the time. Movies can end up struggling to get away with the murder they might like to in terms of creating their own worlds and conventions as a result.

One can't help feeling there might be a fair bit of idealised ‘50s Leeds in this idealised ‘80s Sheffield too. Bennett, as we, know came from the 'North' to study history at Oxford, much like his heroes, and it's impossible not to wonder if there’s a hint of autobiography in the piece, no matter how wary we are about such instincts. We don’t like to think our fictions are really all made up, somehow.

Whatever, it was genuinely moving, and extremely funny. Perhaps the oddest nostalgia inducing moment for me was the prominently displayed poster for the Crucible Theatre's early '80s production of Hamlet in the school, the programme for which lurks in a drawer not far from where I sit now. Real Proustian biccie mo.
Kevin 'Curly Watts' Kennedy was one of the gravediggers, I recall.

Afterwards, to the pub with a terribly large number of people, many of whom were far too lovely to me for words. Much beer downed and lots of cobblers talked, a few hugs exchanged and gossip swapped. Home by midnight by two trains and a brisk walk, quite pleasantly beer-sloshed in a way I’ve not been for a good while. Nowadays, if aiming for that level of inebriation I’d tend to head for wine. The two forms are rather different. I think I prefer wine now, it’s mellower and less hard on the bladder when walking cold streets at the witching hour.

Like the ‘80s of the film, the workplace wasn't quite as I remembered it ( I'm at one remove from the place now, and, I suspect, see it more as its public does these days), but close enough to make me smile and remember the happier moments more than the bleak ones. The people are any organisation's best asset and most of the people there are sensational, no matter what name the place has or what structure is being applied to it, it’s nothing without them.

Eee, the Plague Years- best days of our lives. We were poor, being wiped out arbitrarily and viciously by an unforgiving and unreasoning force and covered in suppurating boils but we were happy.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Manchester, so much to answer for...

Got to see the person who's my assigned radio producer for drama yesterday, as well as the writer Gill Adams and producer Polly Thomas whose work I knew but whose entertaining manner, in both cases, was new and a delight to me, in a very interesting workshop session at the BBC in Manchester.

In the break, I also grabbed time to talk with the people in Comedy about 'No Tomatoes', and firm up some of the schedule.
The vocal recording sessions are going to be very close to delivery date, due to availability of staff and studio resources, so it's a good job I planned to demo episodes to a decent level beforehand, really. Hopefully, this'll mean dropping the final voices into my demo structures can be a fairly straightforwardish process at the end of June!
It's not ideal obviously, but it's fine, and you can't really go railing against the structure of the organisation that wants to make some of your stuff too much can you...? If it was a different kind of place, it probably wouldn't want my work!
Sketch shows don''t normally take a long time in the mix, and there should be no expectation that they might, so I'll try to get the fiddly stuff that means mine will take longer than most done before the recording dates!

After that I nipped over to the University of Manchester's Drama and Music department to see my editor on the academic book on "the children's own programme which adults adore", and gaze on and listen to in wonder, a newly arrived archive of utterly gorgeous stuff there. There's a clue in the 'listen' bit, that there's sound material in it.

It's the personal archive of one of my favourite artists (although I'm not allowed to say who yet, as there's been no public announcement of this acquisition yet) , and I got the chance in my brief visit to hear an earlier transfer of one of the tapes there, featuring the build up of the backing of one of my favourite pieces. Extraordinary, and one of those moments where a tiny insight into the process just increases your respect for the result tenfold.

It's going to be a while before the collection's accessible, transferred and catalogued, but it's going to be very special indeed. Worth trekking across the Sahara in tagelmusts for I'd say...

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

My co-writer, Mike! (Warning- Contains Pa(ren)thetic Bits)

Tee hee, what a trick! My co-writer is a mike-rophone! You thought I meant a person called Michael, what japes! This comedy business is as easy as a piece of easy cake pie, it's just telling lies with an excuse prepared for straight afterwards and using lots of exclamation marks!!!!

Do you remember, gentle reader (I know you won't, rough reader, so I'm not even bothering asking you- half the time you even skip the parentheses (and deserve a punch up the bracket for it)), some time ago I mentioned I thought comedy writing was really a game for two; like Motorway Chicken, Messy Divorce, That Cold War, Bloody Perudo and Comic Reincorporation of an Established Earlier Reference Point?!

Well, as I finalise the scripts (posh word for 'write the rest of') for No Tomatoes, I'm recording them too! This is a really good way to find the bits which work least well, are way too long or are pretty much impossible to say out loud!

You'd think you could tell this from a script, and mainly you can, but scripts are maps not landscapes and there's always some big pot hole or recent multi-vehicle pile up you don't catch using your AA Book of the Road, isn't there?
I find if I demo stuff to the level I want it (albeit just featuring my damned voice inexpertly recorded, over and over again) it produces a much better idea of the finished thing than the script alone does, and my previously mentioned critical voice finds it much easier to break it to my creative self when something is just "bleugh".

It should make the editing and sound design processes a little easier down the line too, because it means we'll have the multitrack templates ready to drop the studio re-recorded voices into for broadcast, which given how keen I am on getting a few interesting sound pictures is really useful!

It's the way I put the pilot together actually, and also works well for me, because I find script length can be a bit of a variable gauge of length of a finished piece- sometimes because my FX instructions turn into rather tediously exacting shopping lists, sometimes because I have characters who talk ten to the dozen and others who leave dangerous pauses between their utterances, and sometimes because 'floccinaucinihilipilification' counts as the same length as 'oh' in Microsoft Word's word count scheme of things.
This last one isn't strictly true- I'd never use the word 'floccinaucinihilipilification' in public, not even here! Tee hee, comedy really is just lying, isn't it!?!

Or is it actually telling a deeper truth as it were a lie (hi, Kathryn Williams (stop googling yourself- you're great, don't worry, okay?))?

No, it isn't! Tee hee! Cor, such larks!

Best go, I'm disappearing up my Ouroborous! Tee hee, that'd be as funny as funny version of 'Carry On Up the Jungle', wouldn't it?! Ooh, did I spoil the end (it's okay I reckon, they spoiled the rest of it!!!!!), and you know it'd only really spoil the end if you already knew the end or had just got a fairly good idea about it by reading the bit above or thought that Carry On films were essentially coherent narrative comedies rather than elaborate life support systems to support elderly and ailing jokes (apart from Screaming obviously which must be good because I like it).

Ian Potter is on holiday, or strong coffee, or something.

Friday, 9 March 2007

More dates, no tomatoes and fewer diversions

No Tomatoes delivery date has been set for early July, transmission dates will start from the end of August. This blog may be rather less frequently updated over the next four months! Hurrah, I love deadlines. They focus the mind like a cold vice-like crushing hand on the gonads, only in a good way.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a publication date

and prices, ISBN numbers and everything

Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press (31 Aug 2007)
Language English
ISBN-10: 071907682X
ISBN-13: 978-0719076824
Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Manchester University Press (31 Aug 2007)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0719076811
ISBN-13: 978-0719076817
Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 9.2 inches

This is the academic book on 'Doctor Who' which I wrote a chapter for some time back. It's got through all the hoops at last. I'd buy the paperback if you feel a yen for it (the hardback is extortionate...), unless you're a library- get the hardback then, eh?

Further details below -

Time and relative dissertations in space
Critical perspectives on Doctor Who
Edited by David Butler

"Time And Relative Dissertations In Space adds to existing scholarship on Doctor Who in important ways … the book brings together the work of an impressive range of writers that collectively present an engaging, thought-provoking and complex analysis of the texts of Doctor Who. "
Cathy Johnson, Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway University of London

Time and Relative Dissertations in space takes the reader on a rich and varied study of one of the greatest television programmes of all time: Doctor Who.
This book is the first study of Doctor Who to explore the Doctor's adventures in all their manifestations: on television, audio, in print and beyond. Although focusing on the original series (1963–89), the collection recognises that Doctor Who is a cultural phenomenon that has been 'told' in many ways through a myriad of texts. Combining essays from academics as well as practitioners who have contributed to the ongoing narrative of Doctor Who, the collection encourages debate with contrasting opinions on the strengths (and weaknesses) of the programme, offering a multi-perspective view of the Doctor and the reasons for his endurance.

Part I: An earthly programme: origins and directions
1. How to pilot a TARDIS: audiences, science fiction and the fantastic in Doctor Who – David Butler
2. The child as addressee, viewer and consumer in mid-1960s Doctor Who – Jonathan Bignell
3. 'Now how is that wolf able to impersonate a grandmother?' History, pseudo-history and genre in Doctor Who – Daniel O'Mahony
4. Bargains of necessity? Doctor Who, Culloden and fictionalising history at the BBC in the 1960s – Matthew Kilburn
Part II: The subtext of death: narratives, themes and structures
5. The empire of the senses: narrative form and point-of-view in Doctor Who – Tat Wood
6. The ideology of anachronism: television, history and the nature of time – Alec Charles
7. Mythic identity in Doctor Who – David Rafer
8. The human factor: Daleks, the 'evil human' and Faustian legend in Doctor Who – Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Part III: The seeds of television production: making Doctor Who
9. The Filipino army's advance on Reykjavik: world-building in studio D and its legacy – Ian Potter
10. 'Who done it': discourses of authorship during the John Nathan-Turner era – Dave Rolinson
11. Between prosaic functionalism and sublime experimentation: Doctor Who and musical sound design – Kevin J. Donnelly
12. The music of machines: 'special sound' as music in Doctor Who – Louis Niebur
Part IV: The parting of the critics: value judgements and canon formations
13. The talons of Robert Holmes – Andy Murray
14. Why is 'City of Death' the best Doctor Who story? – Alan McKee
15. Canonicity matters: defining the Doctor Who canon – Lance Parkin
16. Broader and deeper: the lineage and impact of the Timewyrm series – Dale Smith
17. Televisuality without television? The Big Finish audios and discourses of 'tele-centric' Doctor Who – Matt Hills
Afterword: My adventures – Paul Magrs

David Butler is Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Manchester

There you are, it sounds more thrilling already, doesn't it?

In unrelated news, I've been contacted today about two possible mystery projects, neither of which may come to pass... More later, but how much more and how much later I've no idea yet.
See, a mystery to me too.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

All Vogsphere's Spent

Douglas Adams did everything I wanted to do for love and money before I was ten- be funny and write for 'Doctor Who'. This was good because
a) it meant I had to concentrate on being me instead of trying to be who I very very slightly reminded people of (as a result of imitating them slavishly and incompetently to the best of my ability) and
b) it meant he got loved and monied (more for the being funny than for the writing of 'Doctor Who' obviously).

This evening though I finally did something Douglas Adams didn't- I watched the 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' movie, and a resounding curate's egg it is too.

The thing is, it's painstakingly loyal to Adams in a large number of details (and Stephen Fry is a Book so good you nearly forget the great Peter Jones) some of them quite nerdish, and yet fails to quite capture the feel I think is required. Verbal wit, black humour, digression, those are the great things in 'Hitchhiker's' and there's not enough of them in the film.

Unsurprising really, because mainstream movies need a plot, action and some feel-good all of which can and do happen in 'Hitchhiker's' but largely as an unexpected bonus that sneaks in between the more obviously good bits.

The biggest problems, a two armed, three headed man who exists for one throwaway reveal gag and a couple of follow ups and a narrator who has most of the best lines are part of the film's radio heritage, and I reckon both were better dealt with in the pretty shoddy BBC TV series, which did its best to integrate them visually as much as possible.
They don't belong in the film because they don't justify themselves visually and film is a visual medium first and foremost, and they really aren't there enough for us to just accept that they should be. They're there because fans expect them to be, not because they serve the telling of the story in the medium.

This is the second problem- story. It really isn't what 'Hitchhiker's' was ever about. It's a rambling yarn stitching together jokes which then pull a story into being in their wake. When you try to unpick it to produce a three act Hollywood drama and then try to staple the old jokes back on (along with any new ones you can think of), you end up with a lot of scar tissue, some not particularly pleasant scabs and a slightly messy and blood spattered piece of fabric, as a result of all that textile stuff and medical stuff above rubbing up against each other a bit too vigorously.

I can't help thinking that, if Douglas Adams had lived, the film would have been more of a thing of itself and of its medium, would have been less true to the source material, and probably would and should have had a lot less dialogue in it. The radio, book and telly 'Hitchhiker's' were about connecting one person to one author's vision and making them smile, snigger or even snort occasionally (ideally in their own homes and a favourite chair), I think the film should have been about how you can reinvent that to make a multiplex cinema audience laugh out loud as one, and often.
The best moments in the film we have are visual reinterpretations of the radio ideas (the bathos of the world's end is done divinely in an entirely new and cinematic way, Ford and Arthur in the airlock is a great kinetic reinvention of a dialogue scene, and the League of Gentleman/Plaskitted Vogons are a joy a world away from the originals, though recognisably akin to them) that make you wish there'd been more liberties taken. I reckon Adams probably wouldn't have allowed the let-off of a new Earth being created so easily in the last reel, if he'd still been around either, as it rather diffuses the bleakness of what had occurred just an hour before.

I wish he was here being effortlessly clever and strenuously funny about things still, his film and our world would be all the better for it. If nothing else it would mean people didn't feel they had to impersonate him so badly and loyally, so much, like I did when I was ten.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Cry me iRiver (and let rip the Doge of Venice)

My trusty iRiver iFP-190TC (or iRiver iFP-190T as I call him for short) is becoming less and less trusty. He's now I think nearly 4 years old, which in electronic consumer durables is actually pretty durable, translating as "it was taken to the vet to 'go and live on a farm' two years back, why are you still dragging its sorry carcase 'round on a lead?" in dog years.

As listening to stuff on it is my outboard stamina generator when I run, and I've just started running again, I need a new one or I'll end up too obese to be let out of doors (even really wide ones) unless its for some BBC Three/five/ITV1 piece of fat voyeurism, you know the things- those entertainment 'documentaries', like freak shows only a touch tawdry.

I've found from experience that you can't always run near old ladies or school girls who you can't let see you wheezing to a halt, so an electronic device that you can use to help cajole yourself into keeping on 'just 'til the end of the next track' or until you've done more than 30 minutes is really handy, and, when used in conjunction with a pedometer, can help you pass for someone with real backbone and discipline if viewed from a distance, and not someone with an unhealthy need to measure out everything with gadgets and compete against himself to actually get a sweat on.

I've decided to gamble on another iRiver because I irrationally dislike iPods (they're so darn popular and the lack of replaceable batteries is immoral etc.), I have already given Sony and Creative Labs quite enough of my money and because I could get the iRiver H10 20GB quite cheaply by virtue of it being a hideously untrendy bit of kit now it's over a year old, and because it seems to have a bit of a bad rep.

I suspect (and hope) this is because it was initially released with horrendously bad firmware, reports vary, but it seems to have had its teething problems mixed-metaphored out. Hopefully it'll be fine for my needs and as the last known user of a Psion REVO I'm used to finding things folk disparage nowadays more than adequate for my needs.
You shall of course hear me whinge if I have bought a pup, half-suspecting it to be one, just because it was cheap. Still if it I have, there should be a touch of schadenfreude to be wrung from reading about it, so fingers crossed, eh?

This new device is costing less than the old one and has about 40 times the storage capacity, which must clearly be wrong and a sign that the end days are upon us. I'm going to have to run marathons to bloody run the thing dry, and given the apparent proximity of the end days, I'm not sure I'll have time.