Monday, 23 February 2009

Freedom of Expression (Part Two)

When I wrote this post at the end of December, about freedom of speech and expression and how it impacts on writers, I wasn't responding to anything in particular. It was just something that had been on my mind, mainly because of a project a friend was workshopping that some may deem controversial or even offensive, but that I did not. That tension, as well as being able to stay objective whilst giving feedback, was something worth thinking and writing about. It's also true to say that I was pretty shocked and dismayed by Channel Four's choice of that man to give their alternative Christmas message. But a couple of months on from my post, another, far more contentious example of the difficult balancing act we can sometimes face when writing has surfaced; this time from Caryl Churchill and her 10 minute play, Seven Jewish Children.

Written as a so called response to the recent conflict in Gaza, and staged free of charge at London's Royal Court Theatre, Churchill has stated that she will allow anyone who wishes to produce the play to do so gratis, "so long as they do a collection for people in Gaza at the end." According to Churchill, the play is not just a theatre event, it is a political event. Churchill has offended many in the Jewish community and has been accused of historical inaccuracies and outright anti-Semitism. I have not seen the play performed, but you can download the script so I've read it. And I'm not sure if she's guilty as charged.

There are a few things to consider. What's very clear are Churchill's politics, of which she makes no secret. Being a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (with other luminaries such as Tony Benn and Jenny Tonge, you know the ones who attend rallies with placards threatening to behead people and smashing up London) it's clear where her political beliefs lay. That's fine. That's no problem. She is free to believe and write what she wants. But predictably, what you then get is a totally and utterly one sided view of what most right minded people acknowledge is an extremely complex situation. But are historical omissions the same as historical inaccuracies? If a Nazi was to write a history of the Third Reich, recalling how it put Germany back on its feet and solved unemployment in the thirties, and then glossed over the rest, is that historically inaccurate or just a selective memory? It doesn't make it right or wrong, but we have to be careful how we label things. But when do historical inaccuracies become out and out lies? In college we did a study of In The Name Of The Father. It's a good movie, right? But when we were made aware of the historical innacuracies, it was staggering. It's virtually a work of fiction.

Do people going to see or read Seven Jewish Children know they are getting a completely myopic view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict or do they assume this is a balanced drama? Do they care? Does Churchill care? She has stated it's a political event, not necessarily just a piece of drama.

My MA feature project was based on the true story of The 43 Group. They were an organisation of Jewish Ex-Servicemen who had returned to London after the war only to find Oswald Mosley's fascist supporters still operating and preaching on East End street corners. This group fought them in no uncertain terms, often outside the law. The script certainly concerned itself with issues of free speech, but also, the main antagonist was a far right politician, inspired by someone living at that time. Early feedback was all the same. The goodies were all whiter than white, the baddies were bad all over. There were no shades of grey and for it to be a compelling drama, there needed to be. So I worked very hard trying to get into the mind of a fascist leader, reading literature and the 'real life' man's autobiography. It was uncomfortable to say the least, but for me to write a better character, I had to understand what made these guys tick, and what made them believe unquestionably that they were right and acting in Britain's best interest. It took a year but I did pretty well, and it was this script that was shortlisted for the Red Planet Prize 07. But maybe I needn't have bothered. Maybe if you call something a political event, you can write what the hell one sided stuff you want and the rest be damned?

Issue number two with Seven Jewish Children is the charge of anti-Semitism. There are two classic responses to this charge. Many, including Churchill, state that legitimate criticism of Israel does not make it anti-Semitic. Whilst this may be true, it ignores the counter argument that many hide behind that to covertly make anti-Semitic statements. Certainly, many make no distinction between anything that happens in Israel and the British Jewish community. Just look up the enormous spike in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews, Jewish buildings and graves (yes, graves) since the turn of the year. I also find it interesting that Churchill decided to call her play Seven Jewish Children... not Seven Israeli Children. Maybe she could explain that? But, as I suggested in my previous Freedom of Expression post, it all comes down to intent. Only Churchill knows what her intention was, but by the same token, there are laws against incitement to racial hatred and if she has contravened any of them, she should be charged as such.

Funnily enough, it's the third issue, and one Churchill is not directly responsible for, that is perhaps the most troubling. When asked whether he would put on a play critical of Islam, Ramin Gray, the Associate Director at London's Royal Court Theatre, answered, 'you would think twice, if you were honest. You'd have to take the play on its individual merits, but given the times we're in, it's very hard, because you'd worry that if you cause offence then the whole enterprise would become buried in a sea of controversy. It does make you tread carefully.'

What the hell does that mean?? Well, it means that the worry of causing offence and the need to tread carefully did not bother him with Seven Jewish Children, but would to a play of similar tone about Islam, or I assume any specific Islamic country. I don't think that post Salman Rushdie and Theo Van Gogh that I need to go into why these fears are perhaps justified. But it's clearly artistic bias and cowardice to willfully offend thousands of Jews, whilst openly admitting you would not take that risk with Muslims. Where does that leave freedom of speech and expression? The loudest advocates of those tenants, those on the liberal left and belonging to the arts, have been betrayed by one of their own. Shame on him and the Royal Court Theatre.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 23 (spoilers)

In recent weeks we've spoken here about how some dramas are more plot driven and some more character driven. For example, I suggested that Hunter (BBC1) worked well as a conventional, race against time, whodunit kinda thing, whereas Unforgiven (ITV) worked very well indeed as a slower character study of why people do the things they do. I think we've seen another example of this at 9pm on the last three Monday nights. It was a shame that they clashed, but thanks to technology I was able to watch and enjoy both Moses Jones and Whitechapel.

Moses Jones
(written by Joe Penhall) was a brooding, dark, intense crime drama set amongst the world of Ugandan immigrants in London. We often hear about multi-cultural Britain but actually very rarely get to see it on screen. I have no idea whether this was an accurate portrayal or not, but it certainly felt authentic! Moses Jones, with his Ugandan ancestry, is brought in to investigate a grisly murder seemingly purely because of his race. His sidekick, the equally colourfully named Dan Twentyman was younger, white, and was very clearly on the stepping stone to promotion. But although these two were essentially the protagonists, particularly Jones obviously, it was as much about the secondary characters like Solomon (magnificently played by Eamonn Walker,) Joy and Dolly. A closed community still ruled by powerful men from back home, it asked questions like when is the right time, if ever, to raise your head above the parapet and embrace the institutions of your new home? If seeking citizenship here, are you then obligated to respect the laws of the land, and those who enforce them? For people seeking a new and better life than the one back home, do they actually find it? And what must they do if they don't?

Moses Jones was very firmly about why people do the things they do. Plot wise, it was a slow burner with very few twists and turns. It simply didn't need them. We as the audience pretty much knew who had done what and why. We just had to sit back and watch the drama swirl, the melting pot stir, and see who was going to crack first. Sometimes looking away was the only option, as Dolly had her teeth smashed in for example for talking to the police. There were moments of surprise though. Dennis Waterman's former boxer, now TV personality, was as much the villain as former soldier Matthias Mutukula. In some ways even more so. But there was also a certain satisfaction of him punching out Mutukula. At least someone wasn't afraid of him? But in the end, the bad guys were punished, the good guys did ok, and Moses even got the girl. Interestingly, as often happens with slow burning stuff, the end then felt a bit rushed. We got this weird 'oh crap we better end this quickly and tie everything up' scene when Moses tells Joy what happened to everyone, some of which she surely would've known anyway, and besides it wasn't really necessary. One other minor complaint was the rather too neat revelation that Jones's family also had a history with Mutukula, making it nice and personal - again not really needed. The whole point was the re-connection of Moses to his community and it worked quite well through his relationship with Joy. It didn't need to be forced. But overall this was a good piece of drama and although uncomfortable viewing at times, was never less than absorbing.

The same can be said about Whitechapel (written by Ben Court and Caroline Ip). Amassing huge viewing figures and continuing ITV's mini revival, it was violent, bloody, but pretty damn gripping. It also, as I've suggested, functioned differently from Moses Jones. Whitechapel was all about plot. It was built on clues, twists, red herrings and all the other usual stuff you get in crime thrillers. In fact I've just realised I described Moses Jones as a crime drama and Whitechapel as a crime thriller - the same can be said about Unforgiven and Hunter - so that may be a clue as to where priorities lie! In Whitecapel, it has to be said that this was evidenced by some pretty familiar, seen it all before characters. Rupert Penry-Jones played uptight, obsessive compulsively clean, fast tracked DI Chandler, who was surrounded by working class, 'real' coppers, all skeptical of their new boss, and led by DS Miles (played by Phil Davis who has nevertheless made it an art form.) Of course, by the end of the three episodes, Chandler had proved himself, been turned away by his former mentor for supposedly botching the case even though he had saved the last victim, and stayed on to lead his now loyal crew. There was also some pretty ropey dialogue, especially in the first episode, but what really worked well was the pace of the script and the tone (excellently directed by one of my faves and iemmy buddy SJ Clarkson. Ok just kidding. We met once for like a minute. But I do think she is a very good director) Therefore the key to this series for me was that I was genuinely intrigued and always wanted to know what would happen next. Like many a good idea, the concept of a Jack the Ripper copycat in present day Whitechapel seems so obvious, and yet correct me if I'm wrong I don't recall seeing it done before quite like this. Of course the handicap was that Jack was never caught, and so too neither was our killer! Anonymity and mythology were kept intact. But it was a very compelling thriller, and despite what I said about the characters, ITV could do a lot worse than find another story to put them in to.

So there you have it. Another two examples of the different ways to skin a script, as it were. I think the key to all this is to work out what best serves your story. It might be to focus on one or the other, or could very well be both. Sometimes you can fall back on archetypal characters when you want to crack on with a fast plot. Sometimes, a slower plot will give more interesting characters space to breathe. Know your story and be confident about what you want to achieve. There will be times that someone will not quite get it and may say oh but your characters are too familiar or your story isn't fast enough. Maybe they are right. But maybe they haven't quite understood what you are trying to do.

Monday, 16 February 2009

A Writer's Tale

I had a couple of meetings at companies in or around Soho today - the TV/Film heartland. I love going to Soho, and thanks to a brief work experience stint at Working Title seven years ago (omg was it that long) I know the area quite well. What's cool is that as you walk around you get a certain industry vibe, might even see a couple of people who work in it (I think I saw two actors today!) and even overhear industry related conversations. This is even more likely now as people congregate in front of company buildings having fag breaks!

So as well as the people who actually work in the companies I visited, right through to the lovely receptionists, today I overheard a couple of guys talking about the music that was going over a well known sitcom. Clearly on the technical side of things, these guys were nevertheless creative professionals who cared deeply about things turning out the way that was best for the show (I gather there was a problem of some sorts but not making eavesdropping a habit, I didn't loiter!)

But it occurred to me, in a very non arrogant, look at me the big I am kinda way, that if writers weren't sitting somewhere and coming up with stuff to be made, none of these people would have jobs. Again I want to stress that this is not a post about how great writers are and we should rule everything. That is stupid and pointless. The script is the first stage and only that. Tons and tons of brilliant people then take it on and make it work on screen. But it's worth remembering that the script is indeed the first stage. Without that the industry has nothing. Well okay that's not entirely true, we could all go off and make documentaries, even though most of them need some writing, or heaven forbid, reality TV. (Shoot us now.)

But TV drama, comedy, feature films. Forget about it. All the other people, staff, technicians that get to work on the script blueprint would instead make it another hundred, million, billion, trillion unemployed in this country. So I'd like to echo Danny Stack today, talking about the broadcasting of the Baftas.

It was a good idea from the BBC to divide it into two parts, with BBC2 hosting the craft or lower profile awards, and BBC1 stepping into gear for the big prizes. However, Best Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay were on BBC2, while Best Visual Effects got the BBC1 treatment. Come on Bafta/the film industry! Stop paying lip service to how important the script/writer is, and actually give them the attention they deserve.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Haven't I seen you somewhere before?

The remake of Minder, starring Shane Ritchie on Channel 5 on Wednesday (and repeated on Saturday) has reopened the debate about what writers are writing, what commissioners are commissioning, and what viewers wants to see.

I've only seen the first episode of Minder, and wasn't overly impressed, but it's early days so my focus is not specifically on that show. But following other remakes like Survivors, and with more to come like The Day of the Triffids, the argument that writers are not coming up with good enough original drama has surfaced again. This is an argument I have never really understood. For one thing, the ultimate decision on what gets broadcast is down to commissioners, not writers. If you speak to producers and companies, they want to be more adventurous, not less so, but when push comes to shove consumer tastes are underestimated, everyone is scared for their job, and viewing figures are the bottom line. I should say however that I am not against remakes. I enjoy any show that's done well, regardless of the source material.

But one of the great pleasures of being a reader is that you get to see what's being written out there. And even in the little pile that comes my way, I've seen some really exciting, and very original stuff. Was it 'ready?' Well no, it wasn't. Is anything ever 'finished?' Probably not until it's actually on TV! So development is definitely needed. But if the same companies are going to the same pool of writers every time, is it not likely that you are going to get similar stuff?

I'm not completely naive. It's a bold move to commission a six part series from a new writer and one very rarely taken. But to claim the ideas are just not out there is not true. One possible solution is to team up a new writer, with a fantastic idea and spec pilot, with a more experienced one. I know that if I was lucky enough to get a series commissioned, I'd be thrilled, excited, but also pretty nervous! There's only a certain amount of work to go round, so finding an experienced hand to guide a younger one would probably not be so hard. Yes the money would have to be worked out. Companies are hardly going to want to pay two writers when they can just pay one. But I can only speak for myself when I say I'd be quite prepared to take a hit financially to get my first series on screen and be mentored by a seasoned pro.

If we want TV drama to survive in these testing times, some original thinking may just be what everyone needs. Commissioners like remakes for the same reason companies like to adapt novels. There's a perceived safety in having something tangible to see, that has already worked, to cling onto when taking the plunge into spending a lot of money on making something new. Go ahead, make them if you want, and if you do a good job I'll certainly be watching. But don't claim writers aren't coming up with good enough new ideas. They are, I've read them. And maybe I've even written a couple myself!

Monday, 9 February 2009

Things we noticed watching tv this week 22 (spoilers)

What the hell has happened to Skins? Boldest of bold moves to chuck out your cast after just two seasons, and start again with a completely new one. Or just plain foolish? I'm not sure. I guess it can work if you come up with half a dozen characters as good as the last lot. But at the same time you can't just mimic what's gone before. We might want to see more of Tony, Sid and Cassie, but if it's not actually them, we certainly don't want a pale imitation. So you are basically creating a brand new show and have to win over the audience all over again. Brave indeed. For me the first two episodes in the new series were a disaster. They represented all the worse bits about Skins, teenagers having sex and doing drugs, ooooh, shocking. Er, get in line behind Hollyoaks, Eastenders and every other soap. Tonally it was all over the place too. A teacher farting into a megaphone in a school assembly, James dropping his trousers nonchalantly in front of everyone, another teacher almost having a breakdown as a result - was this Carry On Skins? By the second episode we had James (again!) initiating a food fight between two rival gangs (one led by the disastrously miscast Mackenzie Crook) and other shenanigans at a brothel, which involved James getting one over Crook. There was slapstick everywhere! And it was all a little odd and annoying. By the end of it, even James' best mate was fed up with him, My only question was how did it take this long?

But then, but then. Then came episode three. Then came Thomas. Thomas has given Skins its soul back. Here was an episode about a guy we actually cared about, who was charismatic, gentle and fascinating. It lurched into silly slapstick only once, when to settle their dispute, Thomas and big, bad gangster Crook had a chili eating contest (why the hell would you give 300 quid to anyone who settled their disputes this way?) My other concern is that Thomas was sent packing by his mum at the end! But surely, please, he will come back soon. I think the best praise a screenwriter can give a show is when they come away and say, I wish I'd written that.

Speaking of which, we're half way through Toby Whitehouse's Being Human over on BBC3. The pilot last year was simply wonderful so expectations were high for the series. I've got to be honest, I preferred pilot Annie to series Annie. No disrespect to Lenora Chrichlow, but she was so awesome and alive in Sugar Rush, it's hard to see her as a ghost! I'm also missing Adrian Lester as Herrick but mostly because I have a bit of a man crush on him (he's just sooo smooth.) But anyway, back to the series and there is plenty of good writing to enjoy. The genesis of the show is that Touchpaper wanted a series about flatmates, which Toby thought was a bit This Life - so came back to them with the flatmates being a vampire, werewolf and a ghost. What a simplistic and absolutely fantastic example of taking something familiar, and totally freshening it up. And once again, it's not really that the stories are breaking new ground, but that the characters are so enjoyable to spend time with. It's probably no coincidence then that my two fave shows at the moment then are this, and Hustle.

Okay time to go, because I have an enormous book to read and critique for a company (I kid you not, it's over 700 pages!) Don't forget to watch Moses Jones and Whitechapel tonight so you know what I'm talking about this time next week!!

Saturday, 7 February 2009

self harming

Why do we do things that are no good for us? Smoking, drinking excessively, gambling with everything from our money to our health (yeah, yeah I know, all the good stuff.) Psychologically, it's great fun as a writer to dig deep into the flaws of our characters. Professionally, we are at our best when exploring why characters do things that are not in their best interest

But Friday I had to fight through the snow, ice and slush to get to Harley Street to see my new physio. And I was read the riot act. I don't sit properly, stand up properly, exercise properly or work in the proper position. And she was absolutely right of course. But what's more, I knew she was right. Because I'd heard the same things many times before. But for some reason, this physio brought a lot of things home. For some reason, she seemed smarter, more articulate, more empathetic and explained things better than anyone else I'd seen previously. And enough is enough.

My back has been rubbish for over a year. And the last four months of that time have been worse still. Now, I have a medical condition that probably contributed to kicking all this off, and has certainly not helped with what little recovery there has been. But without a doubt, I have not been helping myself either.

What's this got to do with screenwriting? Well, a lot of people nowadays work long hours, sitting at desks, working on computers. But writers may be the worst of the bunch. We like nothing better than to write into the wee small hours of the morning. And for those starting out, who write in their spare time whilst holding down full time jobs; those guys can be doing their sitting at a desk on a comp both at work, and then again for a few hours at night at home!

We've got to look after ourselves better. Plain and simple. There's no moral, no cloaked and clever screenwriting tip here. Just that. Work at a table, not with the laptop on your lap (why the hell are they called laptops! Should be a warning attached) or on the arm of a sofa. Get a decent chair, it's as much as a work investment as screenwriting books, Final Draft or even a computer itself. Sit properly on it. Lengthen spine into its natural balanced position, keeping head held over the shoulders and in line with the buttocks. Tilt seat forwards or level according to comfort/medical requirement. Adjust seat height so hip joint is slightly higher than knee joint.

And that's just the basics. Take it or leave it. What do I care. Except that if you leave it, I know the name of a good physio.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A plague on laptop houses

My laptop finally kicked the bucket. Do laptops have bucket lists? If so I cannot possibly imagine what was on mine. He's been a lazy, slow, good for nothing machine for quite a while now. But no, not good for nothing. Not entirely. As I only now realise. Oh how I miss him.

So now the search begins. Fortunately I have this cute little netbook for emails and so forth so I am not cut off from the world. But hardcore work will probably have to happen on the good ol' pen and pad until I sort out a new machine. Recommendations will be gratefully received on the understanding that this laptop hunt will be the low budget, guerrilla style, no one gets paid ever making this thing, version of laptop hunts.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Things we noticed watching TV this week 21 (Spoilers)

ITV's 9pm Monday night 3 part thriller slot (we need a shorter name for that) continues to be rather interesting. Unforgiven was written by Sally Wainwright and directed by David Evans (who always picks interesting projects and who I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of years ago when he signed my Fever Pitch DVD and we shared our love of subbuteo!) It was the story of Ruth Slater (played brilliantly by Suranne Jones) who was released after serving 15 years for killing two policemen. They had come to evict her and her sister from their home, because their father had died and their mother long gone. (An interesting side point that was barely touched on by the show - is it right that a convicted double murderer gets just 15 years??)

But anyway, Ruth was out and as well as adjusting to society, her main concern was finding her sister, who was just six when she was sent down. A leap of faith was needed to buy the fact that not only was Ruth re-settled in the same town she grew up in, but kept the same name too. Both are seriously unlikely and very easily resolved which always irks a little as it seems sloppy. (Her name for example was never important and would it have harmed or enhanced the drama to have her live elsewhere but defy social services and travel back to her home town?) However, once you got past that there was a very engaging, tautly constructed story. It once again demonstrated the importance of character. What I was particularly impressed about was that everyone in this drama was soundly motivated. From Ruth, to the adoptive parents of her sister, to the sons of one of her victims. You may not have always agreed with what they were doing - but you understood it completely.

There were a couple of problems though with the finale as I saw it. Firstly it felt really rushed, compared to the slow burning drama of what had gone before it. And it was a shame that the first conversation between the two sisters was mixed in with the plot about the abduction that had gone awry, and you had people passing around mobile phones and everyone talking really fast to one another, all frantic, frantic, frantic. We'd waited almost three hours of screen time for Ruth and her sister to be reunited and when it came it was almost a side issue to the main action. Having said all that, the final scene, when the two actually share a quieter, more intense moment, was one of the most emotionally powerful I have seen in a while. The other thing was, the big twist pay off was that it was not Ruth after all who had shot the policeman - it was the younger sister (who had blocked out this trauma) and Ruth took the blame for her. The shame was that the drama had asked us to root for Ruth, even though she had done this terrible thing, and had largely succeeded. It now backed away from that with this get out clause.

Equally absorbing over on BBC1 was Hunter. A spin off from Five Days, it brought together again DSI Iain Barclay and DS Amy Foster (Hugh Bonneville and Janet Mcteer) Shown as two one hour episodes on consecutive nights, this was an old fashioned cop drama with an interesting case at its heart. Despite the showcase for the two leads, I felt it was more about the plot, (clues, evidence, twists etc) than it was about character. Basically we knew that Barclay was cranky and Foster (who didn't do much) was an alcoholic - and their relationship may or may not be more than just professional. This is not to say that the drama didn't work - it was just another route of how to get there, and so provided an interesting comparison. The case in question was the abduction of two seven year old boys, connected by the fact that their mothers had at one time had an abortion. The abductors were pro lifers (an odd term - are pro choicers anti life and if so what does that say?) who wanted a broadcast of a damning video they had made about abortion, otherwise they would kill the children. Their reasoning being that are these two lives worth more than the hundreds and thousands that are aborted every year? Yes I see the oddity in pro lifers threatening to kill young innocent children, but in the context of the drama it actually did work. (I don't want emails accusing me of suggesting that it's ok - I am merely talking about the script and character motivations!)

So anyway, meaty stuff. It didn't really seek to answer any questions, merely pose them, which is probably how it should be with drama most of the time. The closing scene for example had Foster admit to having had a couple of abortions, being extremely thankful for them as she can barely look after herself let alone kids, and that they would've messed up her life. Barclay's understated response was something like "would they?" And we understood that her life was pretty screwed up as it is and having kids may have been just what she needed. It's a controversial subject and one that I have never really understood. Jewish law is pretty clear that abortion is prohibited apart from exceptional circumstances (rape, incest, serious danger/illness both to the mother and baby.) Aborting a baby because of inconvenience has always struck me as appalling. (Again, easy on the emails, I like to stick to screenwriting on this blog.) But the topic clearly has many passionate arguments and sides and here it was wrapped up in a cop show, whodunit, race against time thingy - which worked well. However I'd quite like to see it tackled as straight drama, maybe a little bit like the excellent Tony Marchant series, The Family Man, did about fertility treatment three years ago. Anyone?

But anyway, back to Unforgiven and Hunter, and for me what I took away from it was the old debate of character over plot or vice versa. Of course as we all know, the argument is essentially redundant because ideally you want and need both. But these two shows were examples of how drama can still work when the focus is clearly on one rather than the other.