Sunday, 13 September 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 31 (spoilers)

Once upon time I wrote a period piece. It's set in London in the forties. I wrote it as my MA script and it's a cracking story inspired by real events. (Well, :-) I would say that wouldn't I.) It's also frighteningly relevant to a modern day audience, and it's been well received by people in the industry. But the overriding response has always been the same. Period is the taboo word, they are too expensive, and they never find an audience.

And yet I like them, they pop up every now and then, both on the big and small screen, generally seem to do well, and depending on how you make them, don't actually cost as much as you might think. So when one does come along, I tend to check it out with interest.

5:15pm everyday seemed like a good time to take a break from writing. And wouldn't you know it, that was same time Land Girls was on BBC1 all last week. Set during WWII, it focused on the girls who had been left behind by the men who went off to war, and kept the country in food by working the land. The time slot was indicative of who this drama was going to be aimed at, and it was not me. But I was really interested to see what had been done with it to entice the age group coming home from school that once upon a time would've tuned into Grange Hill or Biker Grove. And initially, I was pleasantly surprised. The first episode seemed quite daring. There was that traditional, genteel country feel to it. But at the same time, the episode addressed racist segregation (African American soldiers were not allowed into certain places) and by the end of it, young Bea (Jo Woodcock) had been seduced by an American GI under declarations of love, when of course all he wanted was a quickie in the woods. I personally feel that period pieces should, by and large, have something contemporary to say. These two issues did that. So I was interested to see how this would continue.

Unfortunately, the black GI’s bizarrely did not appear again in the entire series and Bea, of course, fell pregnant. So here was a drama, aimed squarely at a young audience, dealing with teen pregnancy. Oh Lord. Even teens must be fed up with this. That’s not to say that teen pregnancy is not a contemporary issue. Of course it is. A massive one. And one of my favourite films of recent years, Juno, focuses on exactly this. But there was very little new on offer here. To make matters worse, and to make the most out of this storyline, the series had weird time jumps that I could just about keep up with. But overall what this meant was that the narrative didn’t make much sense. Because the rest of it felt like it happened within a small time frame. When you then learnt that three months had gone by, for example, you were just left wondering how and why things had not changed at all since we last saw them! I could go on, but frankly it was all a bit dull, and I was left with the feeling that the pilot promised far more than was eventually delivered. Then again, I accept I’m not a teenager anymore. So if anyone out there has one or is one, and feels different, I'd love to hear your comments.

It did get me in the period mood though, and a few weeks ago I recorded Breaking the Mould: The Story of Penicillin (BBC4). Now, this wasn’t exactly high concept stuff. It didn’t smack as obvious screen work material. And for about an hour, this was perfectly reflected in the drama. Because at the end of the day, there really wasn’t any. Alexander Fleming had already discovered penicillin. But this was the story of the far less familiar, Howard Florey (Dominic West) and his team’s efforts to develop it into a functioning drug to save lives. But this development process, with all its scientific jargon, and even explanatory voice over’s from Florey, sailed comfortably over my head. I neither understood it, nor cared about it. I was waiting for some human drama. And waiting and waiting and waiting. Throwing in the odd scene of Florey’s troubled marriage just didn’t cut it.

Then, finally, things got interesting. Fleming effectively stole Florey’s thunder and announced the development of penicillin. Politics, economics and morality came to the fore as questions about whether to paten the drug, who should get there first and who should it be available too were all grappled with. And then just as quickly it was all over. Bummer. I was left with the feeling that there was drama to be had here, but that for some reason no one had mentioned to start the film about sixty pages into the script. There was even contemporary relevance to be had, with health care at the forefront of American politics, it’s ramifications resonating over here, and the pervading influence of one of the evils of the modern world, large pharmaceutical companies, all very much hot topics. Unfortunately, this kind of botched the lot.

I remember an old lecturer of mine (I forget who so whoever it was, forgive me for stealing this story,) telling us that when they had written the first draft of their MA script, it had gone off to then head, Phil Parker, for a read through. It came back with the simple note, “you can start three scenes in,” (or something to that effect.) Early on we often write scenes setting up the story that we then don’t need in subsequent drafts. Later drafts want to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, with Breaking the Mould, it felt like it had a great many scenes that could be cut for a much, much, later start.

I still like period pieces though - and just wish a few more companies and broadcasters would be a bit braver!

No comments: