Friday, October 30, 2009

3B Animation

Of all the bookshops on Charing Cross Road the one I’m least likely to frequent is Foyles. It may be seen as an institution, and has managed to stand its ground while other stores have come and gone, but that whole rigmarole of purchasing anything there, which entailed receiving an invoice then being sent off to pay for it before coming back to collect the book, seriously put me off. Even though, since the death of Christina Foyle, everything has been modernized and simplified, I’m still liable to stick to the competition across the road.

Last night I pitched up at Foyles because their penultimate event of the month featured Richard Williams promoting the updated, expanded version of his book The Animator’s Survival Kit, which should be essential reading for anyone who has even an inkling that they want to be an animator. Canadian born, after winning a BAFTA for his animated short The Little Island, Williams eventually set up shop in London and went on to animate countless award–winning commercials as well as title sequences for the likes of What’s New Pussycat? and titles and animated sequences for Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Little Brigade.

After all that success, one day he decided he was a fraud who didn’t know anything about animation. In the following years he brought over animation veterans Ken Harris, Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick and Milt Kahl, tapping into their many years of accumulated experience and “drinking their blood,” to retrain himself as well as provide schooling for the younger animators working at his studio. All that wealth of knowledge has been distilled into the book and a 16-DVD box set using material from the animation masterclasses he has given around the globe.

In Foyles’ third floor Gallery, he talked about his background and years in the business, showed clips from the DVDs to demonstrate various animation techniques, and answered questions with typical candour. Having gotten out of the game years ago and since then not been too complimentary about some of the folk I worked with, it might seem strange to have found me there. Obviously I wasn’t after a signed copy of the book. Back in the day, once I was let loose from The Esteemed School of Art, Dick Williams was the first animation director I worked for, initially by default when I signed up to work for The Mouse, and then at his own studio in the months leading up the finance coming through for The Thief and the Cobbler.

The work was exacting but it was a fun time to be there. With only just over a dozen folk working at the studio I’d usually end up having lunch up the road at the local sandwich bar with Dick and the animators, trying not to choke on my food as I listened to him tell tales out of school. His irreverent sense of humour appealed to me and we got on well together. He made it clear to the studio producer that even if they didn’t get the money he wanted me to stay on, which was nice. When a budget was finally approved, just before Christmas, I had a long think about it and decided to move on.

It might have been a big mistake, but from my experience during the last months on The Rabbit it was quite apparent that the moneymen were simply after profit while Dick was more interested in perfection. I figured it was one train wreck that I didn’t want to watch. Going back a year later to fill in for someone on holiday there was a big difference now that the once free–range studio had turned into a battery farm. With all the pressure he was under at that point Dick certainly hadn’t looking his best, which was why it was so gratifying last night to see him look fitter, more energized, and back to his old self.

Asked about the secret to animation his response was simply that it’s a lot of very hard work. As with everything there are various shortcuts, but when you look at the end result they show, so the only things that should stop you from doing your best are, as always, time and money. When it came to his thoughts on CGI he made the telling point that 3D animation was more about puppetry and manipulating a marionette. While some 3D animators he knows are talented artists, others had never drawn a thing in their lives but had the talent to bring out the performance inside the computer.

That said, one problem facing any CG animators who haven’t had any real schooling in the tradition art of animation is they don’t know how to properly define a character’s centre of gravity or get their weight distribution quite right. Other directors, most notably Ted Rockley at Klactoveesedstene, had commented about this failure in the past. Anyone who watched the computer–generated Captain Scarlet series some years ago will have seen various characters and even objects that had no weight to them. It didn’t mean that they floated but there was little or no emphasis of any shift in mass when they were in motion.

Amongst the many clips shown last night, one included a brief snippet on Dick’s guide to animating a horse walking. Apparently, because of the joints in the legs, animating a horse is “an absolute swine”, which probably accounts for how so many restaurants have been getting away with it all these years. The short sequence was cut in with a human walk cycle that, when it came to a foot moving forward with each step, showed the initial contact point with the heel touching the ground, immediately followed by the weight as the sole of the foot flattens and the body shifts downwards.

Although it doesn’t specifically highlight each specific weight point – which comes directly after contact – this is a fascinating clip to explain the process, and should serve as a taster for what both the book and the DVD set will teach you.

To advertise the book, and to use as the opening titles for the DVD set, Dick took the dozen characters that appeared on the cover and animated them each making an entrance and then continuing on a walk cycle. Employing thousands of drawings, many of which are reproduced in the book, when he was touring the West Coast to promote the new addition, animators at a 3D house asked him what piece of kit he used to come up with the individual images. “3B!” he said, which threw them a bit, wondering what this new system they hadn’t heard of was. Finally he had to explain it consisted of a 3B pencil and paper.

Some of the animators that used to be on staff were in attendance yesterday evening, most of which I hadn’t seen for the best part of two decades. Afterwards we took a few minutes to catch up. They were getting together for a drink once the signing session was over but I figured it was best to just have that brief moment in their company and go. Instead I had a chat with Dick’s wife, who I’d last seen at an event at the Cafe Royal sometime around the turn of the century, told her how pleased I was to see him back on form and looking so well, and then I headed off home. When you’re remembering the good times, sometimes it’s best not to push it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sworn Statements

One weekend, maybe five or six weeks back, I was flipping channels late in the evening and accidentally stumbled upon a couple of godawful new sitcoms on BBC3. The first featured witless students, the second moronic office drones, and the one thing both shared was that they were just utterly useless.

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised to discover two more massive turds floating in BBC3’s stream of effluent. Around the same time the BBC Trust announced it was launching a service review of BBC1, BBC2, BBC4 and the red button service. Seeing the headline, I figured they’d come to the similar conclusion that the third channel was simply beyond saving. Reading further it appeared a review of BBC3 had already taken place. As it was designated one of the Corporation’s channels for “young people”, obviously for those weaned off the tit of CBeebies, it’s no wonder that the youth of today are such feckless, clueless retards.

Catching sight of each, it was my own fault for not paying attention while thumbing the remote and getting arse while looking for arts. Whenever the other channels come up woefully short, there’s always arts and culture on BBC4 to fall back on. Sunday’s schedule, for instance, kicked off with documentaries celebrating the work of Tamara de Lempicka and Jacques Henri Lartigue. Both half an hour in length, neither was padded out nor felt like it was outstaying its welcome, which makes a change from many current programmes. They were followed by A Tale of Two Britains, a fascinating look into the prosperity in the United Kingdom during the 1930s, and then, later on, the next episode of the French policier Spiral.

Last week, as an added bonus, there had been late–night repeats of The Rise of the Nutters and Spinners and Losers, The Thick Of It’s two hour–long specials from 2007. Obviously being shown again in the run up to the new third series, in the wake of the success of In The Loop, Armando Iannucci’s award-winning political satire had been poached by BBC2 and dropped into the Saturday night schedule. Arriving in the wake of the new BBC production guidelines, implemented to crackdown on “intimidation and humiliation”, luckily those rulings don’t apply to fictional characters.

While the Taste Standards report demanded that any kind of maliciousness should never be “celebrated for the purposes of entertainment,” a lot of new comedy – those BBC3 sitcoms included – doesn’t actually seem to have been made for the purposes of entertainment. Which is probably why, pretty much at the same time, the report also highlighted the fact that audiences want the BBC to take more creative risks, even if that means causing offence to some sectors. In the end it all comes down to context, and whether people take to The Thick Of It depends on how they would react to knocking on Malcolm Tucker’s door and being told to, “come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off!”

People may be turned off by the language but at least as a political sitcom that doesn’t attempt to be politically correct, the show is inventive with the invective, most of which comes courtesy of Ian Martin, The Thick Of It’s special “swearing consultant”. As much as I love the near constant barrage of offhand or particularly piercing insults volleyed at the ineffectual ministers and their woeful advisors, oddly enough, while re–watching Spinners and Losers, I laughed just as hard as, following a brief food fight, Jamie MacDonald, the demonic Press Officer, went after pompous Whitehall wonk Julius Nicholson screaming, “Eat the cheese, Nicholson!”

For the new series of eight episodes – lasting longer than the first two series combined – a new PM at No.10 and the Cabinet reshuffle that follows means a new minister taking over from the absent Hugh Abbot at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. It’s a great idea to bring in somebody new and unfamiliar, especially since Nicola Murray MP was so far down the list of candidates that Malcolm Tucker’s only alternative to run DoSAC was his ball sack. Unable to “fuck the i’s and fist the t’s” before she takes over the appointment, the ferocious Downing Street enforcer doesn’t quite know who he’s up against.

Though Murray isn’t going to stand for being the sort of verbal punchbag that advisers Glen and Ollie have become, Tucker still manages to convincingly win the first round. It takes a certain kind of writing for a comedy to round off the episode with the lead character merrily announcing, “I’m off to wipe my arse on pictures of Nick Robinson. I’m getting good at giving him a quiff!” It’s not exactly something you’d hear from Tom or Barbara Good. Larry David, though, might give it a go.

Of all the returning shows thumping down into the schedules, the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was the one I was looking forward to. Admittedly back when it initially appeared on the BBC, who then inexplicably gave up on it, the show took a while to get going. But as the first season came to an end with an embarrassing typo in a newspaper obituary and then LD accidentally finding himself participating in an incest survivors group, I figured this was a show to stick with.

Though I was wary of some of the later themed seasons – while Larry David investing in a restaurant was a triumph, bringing the third season to a terrifically potty-mouthed triumph, his role in The Producers the following year probably wasn’t successful – but this new season certainly piqued my interest because it revolves around the Seinfeld reunion. With that beginning in earnest in this Thursday’s episode, LD first had to wriggle out of his relationship with the cancer–striken girlfriend in preparation for winning back Cheryl.

Whatever the storyline, and however excruciating the situations LD finds himself in, the comedy never swamps the big questions that always need to be asked. In last week’s Vehicular Fellatio, the poser was: How long an interval do you wait to be kissed by a woman that has recently given your friend a blowjob? Genius!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Forward Pass

A long time back, when I was working like a dog to make sure that breakfast cereal commercials and their ilk looked tip–top, it was a bitch to watch any new American television drama that pitched up in the schedules. With every job deadline–driven, and sometimes overlapping schedules meant multiple projects on the go in various stages of production, most days I had no idea what time I’d be able to power all the computers down and push off home.

The problem wasn’t that I expected to miss a particular show while I was stuck in the studio catering to the whims of a couple animation directors who confused art with commerce and whose demands went far and above what the client was happy with. So even if I had got back in time, and even managed to throw a few things into a pot on the stove rather than picking up some take–out on the way back from the station, it was doubtful I’d be able to sit and relax and thereby give the show my undivided attention.

Eventually I bought a stack of blank tapes, labelled them for each individual programme, and left it in the hands of the VCR. Set on long play format, thereby getting the first half dozen episodes on each tape, when a free weekend came my way I’d and sit down and work through them. It may have seemed like a lot of fuss and bother but in previous years there had been instances where I was either too tired or distracted to appreciate a particular series pilot, not bothered catching the following episodes, only to come back later in the run and realize I’d been missing something quite special.

Nowadays, with iPlayer, 4 on Demand, Demand Five (even with it’s irritating buffering issues), on top of DVRs, and in some instances multiple repeats throughout the week to help pad out the schedules, it’s pretty hard to miss a show unless you really make an effort. But instead of those four terrestrial channels and satellite television, which was just beginning to get a foothold back then, now there are just too many damn channels showing too many damn dramas and comedies and documentaries and whatever the hell else, all of which are vying for your attention.

Whereas most of those older US shows would be dropped into the schedules throughout the year so that there would be an hour or two of decent drama amongst the usual dross, now a good majority of imported programmes appear in the UK pretty much as soon as the end credits are rolling on their home network. In a way that’s understandable. Channels that have no doubt paid over the odds to see off their competitors for the first-run rights now have the double jeopardy of getting the product out to the viewers before they can find their own way of watching the programme through means fair or foul.

With that window of opportunity shrinking all the time, without a delay in transmission, there’s no way of knowing ahead of time whether a new drama will take off of be ditched early on, especially when its fate depends, in large part, on the whims of American audiences. Towards the end of 2003, Sky One sent out a press release trumpeting their acquisition of five new dramas that would be transmitted in January of the following year and form “the cornerstone of Sky One’s primetime winter schedule.”

Unfortunately, that quintet consisted of the then-titled Tarzan and Jane, Nip/Tuck, Fearless, Skin and an “Untitled Jerry Bruckheimer–Meredith Stiehm Project” (which would eventually reach the screen as Cold Case). Before November was out, the WB’s Tarzan was dead in the water, having lasted only eight episodes. Skin too was cancelled after eight episodes of which only three aired in the US, and Fearless, initially pushed back a year to iron out the kinks in the story, never even saw the light of day. Hopefully Sky got a refund.

To plug the sudden gaps in their schedule, Sky snapped up The Handler, starring Joe Pantoliano, and Jake 2.0. If those titles don’t sound at all familiar it’s because they didn’t fare much better either. So from five shows only two were a success. Not only did Nip/Tuck and Cold Case make it through their first year unscathed but both are still going six years on. Were they the best of the bunch? I’m sure there are people who would say otherwise, but that’s the way things turned out. As Artie would say, “Tough titee!”

So when a new drama pitches up, making a concerted effort to elbow out the competition, unless you’re a dedicated coach potato happy to watch any old cock, you have to ask yourself is not only, do I want to watch this but do I have the time to watch this? With that you have to juggle not just will it last but, more importantly, will it be worth it? After what seemed like weeks of annoying trails, BBC2 finally coughed up Defying Gravity on Wednesday, which, rather handily, already came with a resounding FAIL! stamped across it.

Having one of the stuffed–shirt Mission Control characters explain that this was the start of a six–year mission, visiting the planets in the solar system, sounded like remarkable optimism when the continuity announcer had already declared that it was only a 13–part series (thanks to an early cancellation). After struggling through the first couple of episodes, shown back–to–back, it was easy to see why. Inspired by the BBC docudrama Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, which I vaguely remember as being unexpectedly dull, this definitely was the wrong stuff.

There is the danger that this sort of subject matter, playing space travel relatively straight without the gormless whiz–bang fantasy nonsense that younger audiences have been force–fed for most of their lives, will only attract a select portion of viewers. But to make it more accessible to a wider audience, did it really need to be made so fucking touchy–feely? Because the balance between plot and character was hopelessly out of whack, it was like watching a futuristic 90–minute commercial for feminine hygiene products.

Whereas there was some inkling at the beginning that it wasn’t simply a routine mission, no doubt meaning that somewhere out there is the solar system’s very own “smoke monster” that the crew would eventually have to confront, any intrigue was drowned out by the bloody useless women and their “issues”. If there were any vital plot points I undoubtedly missed them because I was sat wondering how awful the candidates that washed out must have been for these yahoos to get a spot on the spaceship.

If it was bad enough that the producers decided to concentrate to putting the characters between the sheets rather than out amongst the stars, worse was how Defying Gravity dealt with the science part. Years back when ER decided to treat its audience with some intelligence, rather than have the professionals explain the procedures they were performing viewers simply had to pay attention and try to keep up. Instead of taking that approach, the writers decided it was best to spell every goddamned thing out.

To get the information across they hit upon the notion of having the astronauts record their experiences onboard the ship, whereupon I can only assume the video was beamed directly to an audience of retarded children. As for that irritating woman with the camera, who I think might have been a fucking God–botherer, how come nobody amongst the rest of the crew didn’t drag her kicking and screaming to the nearest airlock and boot her out?

Maybe it gets better. Frankly, I doubt it. But watching Defying Gravity, like Stargate Universe a couple of weeks back, highlights one simple fact. With so much competition being splashed onto the TV screens there simply isn’t the time to give every show a chance if it doesn’t quite manage to sell itself in those first forty–odd minutes. If it doesn’t immediately click with the viewer, that can only lead to an instant dismissal.

That said, if a new drama does introduce an interesting premise in a compelling pilot, how many more weeks should you give it if the following episodes don’t match up to that opening? Obviously I’m talking about FlashForward, which has been slapped across Five’s schedule for the past month. Four episodes in, I’ve become more irritated than intrigued, and what makes it worse is that I can’t quite put my finger on why it simply isn’t working for me yet.

Even though the producers have confirmed the is story mapped out, and with the network giving it a full season commitment at least we’re going to see it through to the end of what will no doubt be the setup for the next year, but so far the combination of plot and character development in each episode seems to be a little bit off. So far every inch of forward momentum has been steamrollered by either repeated flashbacks to the FBI’s big board or weeping and rending of garments at the hospital.

Certainly it’s necessary to have a division between characters happy to embrace the future they saw for themselves and those who got a sharp poke with the shit end of the stick and are eager to change their destiny. Otherwise the people might as well just shrug off the event and getting on with their lot in life. But in drawing that particular line in the sand too much time seems to be wasted. And how come there’s been no mention that since Joseph Fiennes’ character is merrily necking back the contents of his hip flask at the time of his flash forward he’s close to being an unreliable narrator?

If we have to compare it to Lost, because it appears that’s what ABC desperately wants us to do, that drama set up the predicament the 48 survivors of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 found themselves in by demonstrating there was more to the island than meets the eye, then, after the two-part pilot, started to establish the key players. By the fourth hour we had the beginnings of John Locke’s backstory, with a final reveal that became one of the signature moments of the show’s first season.

FlashForward may have ended its fourth episode with a reveal that frankly wasn’t all that surprising but to get there we had to endure a whole chunk of story that revolved around the calm guy on the bus. Maybe he’ll come back and play an integral part of the narrative further on down the line, but at this point he was simply a happy–go–lucky cipher put in place to convince the FBI guy’s wife that the future is written.

The problem there is if I wanted hackneyed relationship Sturm und Drang in a hospital I’d get a vagina and go watch Grey’s Anatomy instead. Also, why are all these incidental characters being pushed to the fore when I don’t know enough about the leads? I still don’t even know their names for Chrissakes! So far I’m labelling them FBI guy and his surgeon wife, their daughter and wigged–out babysitter, dead FBI partner walking, FBI chief and the soon to be pregnant FBI woman, alcoholic telephone repair guy, suicidal intern, bad Jack Davenport and his autistic son, and a still criminally underused Barry Shabaka Henley. So far I’m blaming that on the show rather than the onset of senility.

It may be that with such a large canvas the producers aren’t making the wisest choices in deciding which area to concentrate on. Or maybe by treating the show itself like a mosaic we’re just going to be thrown a collection of diverse elements that don’t form a coherent whole until the very end. But at the moment FlashForward certainly looks like the kind of show that in the past needed the first six episodes recorded and viewed altogether before deciding whether it was worth carrying on with. Or maybe I should simply quit now and wait for the inevitable DVD box set.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Gauging the reactions of the pals to the Edge of Darkness trailer and the expert way that a Hollywood studio will take a wholly original piece of drama and reduce it down to a horribly generic thriller, one response was that next up should be a remake of Boys from the Blackstuff. With Steven Seagal cast as Yosser Hughes, they could promote it with:

They took away his job.
They took away his home.
They took away his children.
But one thing they couldn't take away...
was his MIND!

The next day he came back with the addendum that Boys from the Blackstuff really should be a “bunch of guys on a mission” movie. I put forward the idea of a select group of road workers, having lost their homes and families in the Blitz, volunteer for a secret mission that will see them parachuted into Nazi Germany with forged orders to repave the road leading up to the Wolf’s Lair. Craftily planting mines under the tarmac, all they have to do for the plan to succeed is convince Hitler to drive the steamroller.

That sounded idiotic enough to make it a winner for the dead-eyed, popcorn munching numpties. Putting the whole of the BBC back catalogue up for grabs, what else can we making a killing with?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Reading the news item on Variety magazine’s website announcing that Columbia Pictures has acquired the rights to remake Channel 4’s astonishing adaptations of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet left me frankly bemused, especially when a follow-up piece from The Guardian noted that the three films, directed by Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker are going to get a theatrical release in a number of countries around the world, including the US.

Even with Ridley Scott onboard as director, frankly I don’t see the point. Sure, we’re accustomed to seeing film adaptations of classic and contemporary literature, TV series, video games and even theme park rides, not to mention toys, but taking a narrative that has already been presented on screen in long form and then squashing it down to around one third of its original running time seems rather a pointless thing to do, especially when it usually means jettisoning all the subplots, character moments and nuances that make the original so memorable.

Worse, because it has been bought by an American film company the story has to be relocated to American shores. Will that work? Well, here’s one they’ve made earlier. Have a watch and decide for yourself. In the meantime I’m going for a lie down.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chinese Burn

I missed Sunday’s episode of The South Bank Show, delving into the phenomenon that is Pixar. Apparently the documentary repeated Walt Disney’s edict that “for every laugh, there is a tear”, which seemed wholly appropriate for the get-together I had been invited to attend that afternoon.

The Bath House at the northern end of Dean Street was one of the pubs the circle of friends would meet up in. If it wasn’t always top of the list, a few of the chaps had made a point of holding their book launch parties there over the past years, so when news came that it was closing and the block would eventually be razed to the ground to accommodate the Tottenham Court Road exit for the coming Crossrail link, they decided to hold one last shout.

One pair had written their first book after being greatly encouraged by Troy Kennedy Martin to put it down on paper. They had been preparing to invite him when news of his passing was announced. So as well as saying goodbye to The Bath House, the party was a chance to remember him, along with scriptwriter and all round loveable rogue Tony Hoare who sadly died unexpectedly this time last year. In their stead a number of actors and actresses, writers, directors and producers who had worked for Euston Films turned up.

After a couple of hours at the bar, the party adjourned to the upstairs room where a spread had been laid on. Once everyone was sated a short clip reel celebrating Troy Kennedy Martin’s distinguished career in film and television was played. Before it ran the writer Trevor Preston, who had just come back to London from Kennedy Martin’s memorial service, which had taken place on the south coast on that one gloriously sunny day we had towards the end of last week, stood up and, with a tremor in his voice, said a few heartfelt words about his dear friend of well over thirty years.

Our good pal Dick Fiddy, a BFI archivist with a terrifyingly encyclopaedic knowledge of British television who had also attended the service, turned up and I fell into conversation with him, discussing the pros and cons of the new crop of US dramas. When we found ourselves at a table with Trevor Preston and directors Tom Clegg and Bill Westly. In that situation the wise thing to do would be to keep quiet and listen to them swap stories about the old days at Euston Films and beyond, so that’s exactly what I did.

Seated there, in no particular order, I heard about Bill Westly, back when he was First AD on Sweeney 2, picking up a shotgun used for a brief insert and being arrested by a passing plod because he didn’t hold the appropriate license. As the remaining crew jokingly denied knowing him and retired to the pub, producer Ted Childs was left to go and bail him out. Then one time the police liaison officer attached to The Sweeney looked down their list of stunt drivers and pointed out that most them had been, or still were, infamous getaway drivers.

Meanwhile, Tony Hoare, who would go on be the lead writer on Minder long after being nominated as the worst getaway driver ever, found himself behind bars when he was supposed to be writing an episode of The Sweeney. Although creative writing was encouraged, the fact that the prisoners weren’t allowed to write about their life of crime meant his script pages had to be smuggled out by a future president of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. For Trevor Preston, the success of his serial Out saw him return to various manors to thank the criminals who had helped with his research. In turn each of the underworld bosses who oversaw that particular patch were pleased to see he had based Tom Bell’s Frank Ross on them.

Though Ted Childs and Chris Burt, the producer of Reilly, Ace of Spies, might have been ready to raise a glass to the slow and painful demise of the once mighty ITV, I suspect they couldn’t help smile at the fact that, as Dick Fiddy mentioned to me after the event, with ITV1 dying on its arse compared to the success of their other channels, it must be embarrassing for the management that the archive programmes on ITV4 – many of which were produced by Euston Films – are so much more appreciated than the current output.

While it would have been ideal way to see out the afternoon, sitting and listening to their reminiscences, there were other people I needed to see. If the majority of Euston’s work had delved deeply into the worlds of police and thieves to bring a sense of verisimilitude to the work, the same couldn’t be said for Terry Gilliam’s singular flights of fantasy. At the bar I ran into André Jacquemin who had worked as the sound designer on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Back when I was working for an animation company that rented space in Prominent Facilities in Camden, André’s recording studio was practically next door and we were always running into each other.

The facilities manager at the time would regularly get prints of new movies and screen them mid–week in the small preview theater, sometimes months before their UK release date. There would be a lot of Hollywood action thrillers like Point Break and The Last Boy Scout and Gilliam, for whom these films would appear to be an anathema, would always be there, sitting in the front row, staring intently at the screen. When the credits rolled he’d leave without a word and I always wondered what he thought of those sorts of movies. Reminding André of this, he didn’t have an answer either.

After catching up with a couple of actress friends, I gravitated around to the writing partner and her assistant. With a new schedule in mind they saw the benefits of what I proposed and agreed to it far quicker than I expected. With that done it left me with more time to periodically sneak outside for a crafty gasper in the company of Rox, our wonderful Persian Princess, who I hadn’t seen since the birthday bash earlier in the year.

Although the party had been expected to wind down come early evening, the landlord was more than happy to keep it going well into the night. After all, The Bath House had served everyone well over the years. It didn’t pack everyone in like sardines or bombard them with music cranked up so loud that conversation was near impossible. Though I didn’t stay out long past my bedtime, for once I wasn’t actually the first to leave.

And while the title might appear to allude to the comment I made a couple of posts ago that was purely coincidental. Instead it refers to something Dick Fiddy told me that happened to a friend of his – an event that definitely mixed pleasure with pain. If you know a way of “unhearing” something, please get in touch. Because that was one story I’d very much like to get out of my head.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rough Justice

Amongst all the new dramas beginning this week past on the various terrestrial, cable and satellite channels, there were a few I was interested, if not exactly eager, to see. As things turned out, having gotten so utterly engrossed in the second of Peter Moffat’s five-part Criminal Justice, stripped in across BBC1’s post-watershed schedule this past week, I held everything else back until this weekend simply because, by comparison, it was quite obvious that in most instances they would fall tragically short.

I hadn’t seen all of the first series of Criminal Justice when it was broadcast last year, and hadn’t exactly paid attention when the few episodes I caught were on, simply because I planned to watch the whole run on iPlayer. For reasons that are beyond me now, I missed that window of opportunity. This time I was glued to the box. Having gone out with a couple of lawyers in the past, by midweek I emailed The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo to ask whether the overt sexism, bordering on outright misogyny, on display was representative of life in chambers. She replied that sadly it was a pretty good depiction of the law.

Throughout the week Moffat’s script, in tandem with the perfectly judged direction had presented the experiences of Maxine Peake’s emotionally and physically abused housewife as an almost out of body experience. Rather than delivering some gormless polemic at any point, tossing out easy answers, the rhythms of the scenes always left it to the audience to pass their own judgement on the characters motives. After a succession of utterly harrowing episodes, the finale was simply devastating as the trial reached its conclusion.

From a production point of view, the drama benefited by a quite remarkable sound design that helped evoke the central character’s of mind. Perhaps even more remarkable was the subtle use of music, which was especially welcome after having to suffer through the amped up cacophony regularly bashed out by Murray Gold, or that stupid exorcism drama starring Martin Shaw whose score sounded like the whole percussion section had gotten into a massive knock down, drag out throughout its recording.

One evening during the week I caught a trailer for Holby City that featured a clip of two surgeons having a lifeless argument in an operating room. After one told the other to get out, the indignant rebuttal was along the lines of: “You can’t tell me to leave, I’ve just joined this patient’s spine back together!” Faced with that kind of useless drivel, the arrival of Criminal Justice was a reminder of just how brilliant UK drama used to be, and on those rare occasions can still be.

Recovering from Moffat’s gut-wrenching drama, waiting for me on the weekend was Stargate Universe. Oddly enough, the original Stargate movie was on one or other of the channels not that long ago and I caught a few minutes of it. Of course to call it “original” would be a misnomer because at best the film was the end product of blitzing familiar ingredients like Star Wars, Chariots of the Gods and the “Star Gate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although looking back at it now, the production seemed remarkably restrained compared to all the exaggerated disaster porn that the idiot German director has since inflicted upon cinema audiences.

Developed for television as Stargate SG-1, the series very rarely amounted to much and always looked like what would happen if UNIT had taken command of the TARDIS, with all the inevitable predictability that would entail. Back in the 1970s, the BBC or possibly ITV imported short-lived science fiction series like The Fantastic Journey and Logan’s Run, which would follow a motley collection of characters through different environments each week. When Stargate SG-1 first appeared it was quite evident that some writers who worked on those older shows had simply recycled their earlier scripts for this new one.

Because these off-world adventures rarely broke new ground, naturally the series was embraced by the hordes of sci-fi geeks that gladly embrace this sort of fantasy whiz-bang, with all its shiny-shiny bells and whistles, in preference to real human drama. As the years go on and these sorts of shows begin to construct an ongoing, and usually over-complicated, mythology to distract from the inherent emptiness that lies at the heart of this spectacle, the only saving grace usually comes from developing an interesting byplay between characters.

If they could subvert the clichéd archetypes, so much the better, so that rather than using the traditional heroes, who in these shows are always puffing out their chests and striding forward into battle with a look of grim determination, the stories put the onus on someone whose first instinct in a crisis was to run and hide in the nearest broom cupboard. Previously that kind of character would take a backseat to begin with as one of the supporting players, gradually coming to the fore based on how the actor took to the part and, to some degree, audience feedback. Watching Stargate Universe it was immediately obvious who had been lined up for that particular role.

I suppose the one reason for watching the show was simply to see how this next instalment in the franchise had been developed in the wake of Battlestar Galactica, which had shown that television science fiction could push beyond the accepted wisdom of clearly defined heroes going about their daring do-does against villains weighed down under piles of latex. Yes, Stargate Universe was certainly darker in tone than any of the episodes I had caught from the previous incarnations, and one of the military men was introduced banging a subordinate in what looked like a supply cupboard.

But once I pressed play my eyes were taken off the screen as I finished reading an article in The Times’ Saturday Review section and listening to the first couple of bars of the opening music made me think I had put on some original Star Trek by mistake. Perhaps it was meant to be a playful nod to Alexander Courage’s distinctive theme tune, but as the story progressed and the survivors of a surprise alien attack find themselves stranded on a rickety old spaceship billions of light years from home, I suddenly realized I was watching a dull retread of Star Trek Voyager.

I shouldn’t have been surprised because it made perfect sense given that the previous Stargate Atlantis was obviously the franchise’s version of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. With that in mind it kept making me ask why I was inflicting this nonsense upon myself. It looked likely that Battlestar Galactica had influenced the change in style if not the storytelling, but that simply made the show appear at odds with its earlier shows.

Suddenly trying to act all grown up was one thing but it left the characters looking like a bunch of dour-faced kiddies who had been reprimanded for messing about on a bouncy castle. Seeing it through to the end, this was a case of curiosity sending the cat into a vegetative state, and in the end it was criminal to think that was two hours of my life I will never get back.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Peace Of Mindless

I’ve only crossed paths with my new neighbours a couple of times in the months since they moved into the apartment above me, but on both occasions I’ve been nice and polite to them. So my question is, can I have a Nobel Peace Prize, please?

Then again, today’s news is no more idiotic than the plan, backed by those upstanding gents Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, to elect Tony Blair the new President of Europe. Surely his only connection with mainland Europe is when he’s smacked around the back of the head, thrown into a sack, and delivered to The Hague?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Time For Change

Deciding that the abrupt change in the weather meant it was far preferable to stay indoors rather than venture out and get soaked through, I spent this morning at the computer. Everything went well until I was stopped in my tracks, trying to find the best way to round off the particular chapter.

Skimming through the nearby stack of reference books, ruled pages of scribbled notes and printed interview transcripts in search for the answer, nothing particular came in mind. Even after a quick sandwich break the block of white at the bottom of the Word document stymied the impatient cursor, remained stopped in its tracks. Frustrated by having nowhere to go, I figured it was best to simply step away from the desk and find something else to do.

At times like this, in need of a distraction, there’s always the danger of doing something rash. So I went into the bathroom and shaved off the unruly beard that had, over the past couple months, given me the appearance of an extra from Deadwood. I suppose the time had come, particularly with the party this coming weekend – although I had planned to trim it back some to make it look more presentable. What was meant to be only a brief diversion stretched on longer than expected as I remained staring in the bathroom mirror, puzzled by the unfamiliar reflection.

Finally back at the computer and still not ready to get back to work, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to decide on a new look. Earlier today the BBC had made a big deal of revealing the new logo for the next series of Doctor Who. I didn’t get out the bunting. What they’re going to do with it I frankly neither know nor care, but at least what Red Bee Media has come up with is an improvement on the previous design. What I did find interesting was the accompanying graphic in which the D and W form the sides of the TARDIS. Apparently this is going to be used on all new merchandise and “brand extensions”. And there was me thinking it was simply about making television programmes.

Still, it’s a whole lot better than our godawful Olympics logo, which thankfully hasn’t been making that many appearances of late. Some people may be underwhelmed by the new Doctor Who identity but I doubt they’d like the see the designers thrown into a deep pit whereupon the entire population line up to take a shit on them. I’m still crossing my fingers that that’s to be part of the 2012 opening ceremony.

Monday, October 05, 2009

"Get Me The F**cking Dog!"

Amazingly I’ve reached my 600th post, although the last few months – during which time I missed the blog’s third birthday – have been something of a struggle to even make it this far.

Putting all those past distractions aside, it’s time to celebrate the DC with a triple treat of classic LD. On a soggy, overcast Monday morning, I can’t think of a better way to start the week. What that says about me, well, I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Who Knows Where The Time Goes

I’d be more than happy to blame my recent malaise on the changing season, and in particular the recent Autumnal equinox. But it would be too easy to apportion the blame elsewhere, thereby neglecting any or all the contributing factors involved. To blithely ignore them would no doubt leave the way open for the Black Dog to come snuffling back around, and I can do without that intrusion now or some time in the foreseeable future.

Strangely enough, as we enter the new month things are turning out quite well. Thanks to a new combined zeledronic acid and celecoxib drug trail the earlier bad news from home isn’t as bad as initially thought. If the writing has recently fallen into a rut due to a wayward writing partner, a couple days back I was invited to a party she’s going to be attending, and her assistant is already helping devise a plan where we hold her down and administer Chinese burns until she promises to adhere to our revised schedule.

As a bonus, a producer and a couple of directors it would be worth talking to are also expected to be there, along with a few other industry herberts. No sooner had my RSVP gone out, I received an email from an American jewellery designer I met a long time back in a bar on the Upper East Side and sadly lost contact with over the last few years. Much as I don’t see the point in people posting their Scrabble scores of whatever the hell it is they’re doing with some nonsense called FarmVille, facebook has finally proved useful for something.

So all things considered, things are on the up. Whether everything goes to plan remains to be seen, which I suppose brings me to FlashForward. Gradually purchasing less and less newspapers and magazines over the years, instead reading whatever interests me on the various publications’ websites, I’ve reached the point of pretty where I now only buy The Times on Saturday – and that’s specifically for the Samurai Sudoku, which isn’t available online, and the television listings in the Playlist supplement.

So unless I’ve read an article promoting an upcoming drama, comedy or documentary, it’s only at pretty much the last minute that I discover what’s on the television. That really wasn’t much of a bother during the summer months, where for most of the time turning on the set was the equivalent of staring into a bathtub filled with raw sewage, but now that the nights are started to draw in a few diamonds have begun to appear amongst the usual turds, like the recent chilling three-part documentary series The Last Nazis.

Then there was the return of Waking the Dead and Spiral, both of which I had expected to have at least got wind of in one of the many press releases regularly posted on the BBC website. But obviously they were more concerned with trumpeting the bunch of gormless, leaden-footed D-listers about to be squeezed into glad rags, spunked with sequins, and sent out onto the dance floor to aimlessly clomp around with all the graceless precision of a tranquillized water buffalo. So seeing the pair of dramas suddenly being tossed into the schedules was a welcome surprise.

This past Monday, Five sprang FastForward upon us, less than a week after it had premiered in the US. I knew it was coming but didn’t realise it would be so soon. Missing the initial broadcast because the grim concluding part of Waking the Dead had precedence, I tried watching it on the channel’s website. Foiled by repeated buffering issues, which wasn’t that surprising since the internet here had been playing silly buggers for the best part of the week, I simply waited until yesterday’s repeat.

After stumbling during its third season, when Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof had the smarts to explain to the network that they needed an end date for Lost, asking for two more years, it’s obvious that the suits at ABC got them to agree to the same number of episodes spread over three years just so they had the extra time to find its replacement. Even without the Oceanic Airlines prominent in the background during the FBI stakeout, from just the first act of FlashForward it was obvious that the drama got the green light because it met the brief of being like Lost but different.

To be honest I could have done without the kangaroo and the overdone devastation wrought on downtown LA following the collective blackout. Given the importance of the arterial freeways running through the heart of the city, all manner of car crashes and extensive pile-ups were to be expected. But since the twisted steel of automobiles wasn’t as cinematically sexy as, say, the remnants of a commercial airliner spread across the virgin sands of a tropical island, the programme makers seemed to feel the need to set a fair number of buildings on fire as well.

However briefly the dancing tongues of flame brightened up the screen, they ultimately proved to be a distraction, simply because I found myself taken out of the drama to wonder what had started the more isolated fires, especially since with the enforced smoking bans in the workplace they couldn’t be explained away by a dropped cigarette. Obviously there was the news helicopter that had flown into the side of one skyscraper, proving that either wounds have sufficiently healed or that TV waits for no man. It was just a shame that the company Digital Deeds Done Dirt Cheap seemed to have been hired to carry out the effects work.

With those occasional misfires aside, it certainly appeared to be an intriguing premise. Whereas Lost could take its own sweet time during the first year to establish the connections between the not so disparate strangers exploring the strange land, hopefully FastForward will see the lead characters get on and concentrate more on the investigation of the global event rather than have characters get all touchy-feely as they try to come to terms with the aftermath. With a due date already fixed there’s liable to be less fannying around as the pieces gradually start to come together.

Obviously the characters have to have their doubts and I liked that Joseph Fiennes’ FBI partner didn’t experience a future vision, suggesting that he’ll be dead by season’s end. Of course it could be that the chap finds himself either asleep or knocked unconscious at the time, or it could be that in casting John Cho in the role creator David S. Goyer was on the phone to JJ, asking how long they had before the actor was needed for the next Star Trek movie.

Whatever his outcome, it’s obvious that the answers the first season finale provides will instigate an event that leads into the next year, and that can cause problems with certain plot-driven dramas. While characters on screen indulge in scenes of weeping and rending of garments, for the audience at home there’s always some trepidation investing in a new, untried show.

If viewers tail off further down the line there is always the danger that the ratings drop leads to the show’s cancellation before it reaches its resolution. Not having the prescience to know whether FastForward will be a success, the danger is in buying into the drama now only to find it has all been a waste of time.