Okay so finally, I know breath has been baited, but am all caught up on my Christmas TV watching. There was Affinity, another Andrew Davies adaptation of a Sarah Waters novel, the Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special and of course Doctor Who. I couldn't help feel that the premise, that David Morrissey was in fact a future doctor, was cooler than how the reality turned out. I mean it was good, and I enjoyed it, and Morrissey was fantastic, but the grander, wider mythology seemed to be missing. Maybe it was because The Doctor had no assistant and there was no real follow on from how we saw him last. I'm not sure. I can't quite put my finger on it. But it was still great fun. But the two shows I want to talk about at greater length are The 39 Steps (BBC) and Caught in a Trap (ITV).
I have to say I personally find the decision by the BBC to adapt John Buchan's novel a bit perplexing. This was the fourth version of this story, with another one being planned by the great Robert Towne (although this is apparently on the back burner.) Remakes of Hitchcock films on the whole always seem a bit odd, as you are pretty much setting yourself up for a fall before you even start. Another thing that stood out was the fact that although the phrase period piece is usually the death nail, both this and Affinity fall under that category. So were there no other exciting, original scripts knocking about at BBC HQ that could've seen our license fee money invested more interestingly? But oh well. To the show. It was OK. Exciting at times, a little ludicrous in others. I know everyone does it, but nothing annoys me more than when people are chasing someone and instead of waiting until they have them in their sights, call out to them to stay where they are! In this case, German assassins were pursuing our protagonist, who was waving down their car thinking it was someone else. He had no idea. They could've driven up as close as they wanted and shot him. But no. Instead one of them leans out the window, tells him to stay where he is, and takes a pot shot from fifty yards, giving him a chance to escape. I mean come on people! This was not the only time this sort of thing happened either. It's so infuriating.
The other major problem was the voice over. A lot of scriptwriting books are anti voice over full stop, but I don't agree. Quality use of voice over can be excellent. I read a script recently that was a masterclass in this, with the voice over by a young girl telling us something completely different to what was actually occurring on screen. It made it funny and all the more poignant. However, in The 39 Steps the voice over by Rupert Penry-Jones told us exactly what we could see and knew. Stuff like "I had to get out of London" whilst we're watching him at the train station, er, trying to get out of London, or "I have to find Captain Kell before they find me." Well, yes. That is indeed what you have to do. It reminded me of The Long Firm, a few years ago, a mini series I enjoyed, but one that did exactly the same thing. It betrays a lack of confidence in either the writing, the story, the actors ability to deliver a performance, or all three. The 39 Steps was adapted by Lizzie Mickery, who wrote The State Within a couple of years ago, a thriller so convoluted that it could've done with a voice over! But it wasn't needed here and annoyed rather than informed.
Far better fare came from Caught in a Trap. It was inspired by the true story of a woman who stole hundreds of thousands of pounds from parking meter fees to fund an obsession with Elvis. Written by 26 year old James Graham, this was his first screenplay after winning awards writing for the stage. So first and foremost, plaudits must go to Greenlit and ITV for believing in this script by a relative newcomer and backing it all the way to screen. Read an interview with James here to find out more. What attracted me to this comedy drama was the fact that it featured a protagonist who committed massive theft and fraud, who gets caught, loses everything, goes to jail, but all the time you never lose sympathy with her, actually want her to succeed, and also managed to pull off a feel good ending of sorts. That's extremely smart writing and follows in the footsteps of Can't Buy Me Love (Tony Jordan), The Secretary Who Stole Four Million (Lucy Floyd) and The Storyteller (Jez Freedman. hehe just kidding)
How did he do this? Firstly, Gemma (played by Connie Fisher) was shy, downtrodden, teased by her co-workers and loved her dad whilst having a strained relationship with her step-mom. There was also something suitably weird, yet at the same time familiar, about her obsession and how she chose to spend her ill gotten gains. If she'd blown it all on bling, clothes and the usual material crap, we might have lost sympathy. But the fact that it all went on this weird sub-culture of Elvis memorabilia was quirky, funny and touching. Can I honestly say that if I had two hundred thousand quid to spend, I wouldn't blow the lot on Star Wars or Arsenal memorabilia? Well I probably wouldn't, cos my wife would kill me, but if I was Gemma, and living in a fantasy, I might well.
The tricky thing with Caught in a Trap was always going to be the ending. Gemma had to get caught, and like her real life counterpart, was sent to jail (albeit two years instead of three.) But unlike in real life, where the council was left hugely out of pocket, in this drama, we were told that Gemma's acquisitions were actually appreciating in value and that their eventual sale would in fact turn the council a profit. You were left with the feeling that oh well, lessons were learnt, she was naughty, but all's well that ends well. And it's clever writing and a smart example of where changing the facts will benefit fiction. By the end, Gemma had also connected to another (living) human being in the shape of Joe Absolom, and the final scene, of him visiting her in jail, gave the impression that he would be there when she got out.
I think this post has gone on long enough so I will finish there. But I was really pleased that like Fiona's Story, written by newcomer Kate Gabriel in September, James Graham developed this script and was given the chance to helm the project all the way to transmission.