Sunday, July 11, 2010

Building The Perfect Beast

Monday night I was back beside the Thames, this time at the BFI Southbank for a screening of the television drama Chimera. Programmed as part of July’s Film Science: Future Human season, it was followed by a Q&A session with the writer Stephen Gallagher and director Lawrence Gordon Clark, conducted by the great television archivist Dick Fiddy.

Not only did the event coincide with the release of the uncut four–part serial on DVD from Revelation Films, but as he took to the stage to introduce his work, Stephen Gallagher – who has already written about the event on his blog – noted that he had done something similar 19 years ago in NFT1, except what had then a preview was now considered archive television almost two decades on. Because the 1990s was a decade of working long hours at various animation studios for me, especially during the first few years, I made up the part of the NFT3 audience that was seeing Chimera for the very first time.

Relocating The Island of Doctor Moreau to an isolated fertility clinic in the Yorkshire Moors that acts not just as a front but an integral part in the process of creating the hybrid creatures, Chimera took the staples of genre fiction and confounded my expectations at every turn. When it comes to watching older material for the very first time, long after its initial air date, there’s a tendency to be a bit more forgiving because the shooting style will not doubt be outdated and the production values very different from what they are today. It soon became obvious that Chimera didn’t need such latitude or patronising.

In fact, if it wasn’t for the 4:3 aspect ratio that would probably befuddle younger audiences today, Chimera could have quite easily been dropped into the current TV schedules and found a very welcome audience, especially one looking to get their teeth into a rather meaty conspiracy thriller, this time involving government–sanctioned genetic engineering that goes beyond their control. After a decade of too many lousy dramas dropped into the ITV schedules, smothering the occasional gems, watching Chimera was a bittersweet experience. During the interval I found myself pacing around outside, dragging furiously on a gasper wondering what the hell went wrong with the channel, before happily going back in for more.

Interviewed onstage at the BFI a couple of years back along with Ian La Frenais, Dick Clement decided that having worked across different genres over a forty–odd year career, the work could be divided into two categories: stories set before the advent of mobile phones, and stories set after the advent of mobile phones. Chimera was a reminder of how far more inventive and intriguing dramas were before the availability of the internet, when characters running down a lead actually had to do some actual legwork rather than simply sit themselves down at a computer and scrounge all the information they need.

And when it comes to the characters, I’m now beginning to think every drama needs a prissy Whitehall wonk instructing a signer for the deaf to interrogate a laboratory monkey. With all the main characters well defined with enough quirks and foibles to introduce enough humour to balance out the drama, it was intriguing to see how morally bankrupt a large proportion of them once as the story developed, especially the scientist who condemned the experiments up until the point she discovered it actually worked. Though Chimera had been likened to Frankenstein, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass, and the writings of HG Wells, I’d simply put it in the same category as Edge of Darkness.

During the Q&A that followed, Stephen Gallagher reminded us that up until Chimera, the only television credits he had under his belt were two Doctor Who stories and an episode of Rockliffe’s Folly. After having that freedom to adapt his own work he admitted there was no way he could settle down to write for the familiar hospital dramas, instead carving out a niche in genre television that ultimately led to writing for American network dramas.

After the event I got to finally meet him after regularly exchanging blog comments, and hear about the pilots he’s readying to pitch for the new season, which sound both intriguing and entertaining. If there’s a moral to the story for new writers wanting to get into the industry, it’s write the stories you want to write rather than settle for a credit on Holby City. And if you haven’t seen it, grab a copy of Chimera the first chance you get.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Living The Dream

A couple of Fridays back the Luminous Beauty and I headed to the Southbank Centre for a screening of the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth, shown as part of the 2010 Meltdown festival. It may have seemed an incongruous inclusion to the programme of concerts and musical events but then Richard Thompson, the founder member of Fairport Convention and this summer’s festival curator, had composed the music for Erik Nelson’s profile of acclaimed writer Harlan Ellison, so that was all right.

We had invited the ever delightful Brian Sibley and David Weeks to join us, which turned out to be a very good thing because they were not only excellent company, especially when it came to looking after the Luminous Beauty while I waited to be served at the bar, but knew where we were supposed to be going. A regular at the BFI Southbank, and occasional visitor to the National Theatre and Hayward Gallery, I’d rarely visited the Royal Festival Hall or Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the staff there had so far been positively unhelpful.

Getting tickets the week before, the staffer at the Royal Festival Hall’s box office had looked decidedly put out when he discovered it was a free event, which meant that I wouldn’t be handing over any money. Arriving early on the night for a drink and a smoke out on the terrace, I’d asked the initial barmaid that served me where the Purcell Room was and she directed me upstairs when it turned out to be next door. Luckily Brian had given talks there in the past and showed us the way otherwise the pair of us would have been wandering about, hopelessly lost.

Almost the whole of the central section of the auditorium had already been taken, leaving us pretty much at the back row, but when we eventually sat down the four of us found we had an uninterrupted view of the back of the heads of the folk right up front. Maybe it was the arrival of the unexpected inclement weather that evening, or the fact that the England team were aimlessly kicking a ball about in Cape Town, but all the ninny lobcocks who had booked those seats failed to make an appearance, which was a shame because they really missed something special.

Erik Nelson had flown over specially to introduce his work, which, over the course of ninety–odd minutes perfectly captured the vitality and enthusiasm of his subject. An almost relentless barrage of bon mots, creative expletives, and testimonials from his contemporaries, the material had us all either howling with laughter or stunned into silence, particularly when, in an astonishingly affecting sequence, HE got to view and commentate on home movie footage of a family trip to Niagara Falls when he was a boy.

Meanwhile excerpts of readings from a number of his short stories also help dispel the misconception that HE is simply a science fiction writer. When I first came across his work back in my early teens, the UK paperbacks had erroneous cover illustrations, usually featuring nondescript spaceships, that didn’t correlate to any of the short stories included therein. When I first met him a decade or so on and we talked about his writing he explained:

[T]he great triad of writers who I worshipped were Poe, Kafka and Borges. It is in fact Borges who first taught me where my literary family resided. Until that time they had been calling me a science fiction writer, a fantasy writer, and I never wore the mantle comfortably and real science fiction writers were very uncomfortable with me... very uncomfortable. And I despised having those kinds of covers put on my books because I knew very well I wasn’t writing science fiction and I didn’t like flying under false colours and I also didn’t like encountering an audience that thought that was what I was writing.

When I first discovered Borges it was in The Library of Babel. It’s the story about where all the unwritten books are. It’s a great and classic story and I think it’s in the book Labyrinths. I read that story and I said “This is what’s... But this is what I’m doing?!” This is the resonance. I suddenly heard that one note, that one collusive note that exists in the universe: pure, clear, absolutely unsullied. And went from Borges to Luisa Valenzuela, who I met subsequently and just desperately fell in love with – a wonderful writer and a wonderful woman personally and she and I still communicate – Garcia Marques and Jorge Armado and Julio Cortázar. And I read these people and wept, wept like a child because at last, at last, I had come home.

My family was not Henry James. My family was not Jane Austen. My family were the writers of the Latin-American boom of the late-forties, early fifties. Ever since then I have written with more assurance and less self-conciousness the kinds of things I want to write. Like this story just this last year, 1993, I finally got into The Best American Short Stories. It’s a great honour, a great honour. In the whole field of fantasy there have only been five writers in all the years of The Best American Short Stories. There are only five writers who have made it into that collection and I am the most recent. And I did it with a story that is pure magic realism. Its pure Borgesian writing: The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.

Once the credits rolled every stayed in their seats as, for an extra bonus, Mr Nelson took to the stage along with the writer James Moran and, through the wonders of modern telecommunications, briefly interviewed HE from his home in Sherman Oaks. Even more astonishing for anyone who has either seen him speak on the lecture circuit or spent any time in his company, HE kept his answers remarkably short and sweet.

Though the documentary may not have played to a packed house it satisfied a small, dedicated audience who were more than happy to be there, and was the perfect primer for people who are only aware of “the dark prince of American letters” from his various credits on television shows like Star Trek and The Man from UNCLE. At least for those who couldn’t be bothered to come along to the Purcell Room Dreams with Sharp Teeth is available on Region 1 DVD. If HE had appeared in person I’d like to think it would have been a sold out event, but with today’s fickle audiences who can tell.

This month at the BFI Southbank, the Film Science: Future Human season includes a screening of four-part drama serial Chimera, followed by a Q&A with writer Stephen Gallagher and director Lawrence Gordon Clark on Monday, 5th July, starting at 6:00pm. Later on the Brian Clemens: Auteur of The Avengers season features two live events: Brian Clemens on The Avengers on Thursday 22nd July at 6:20pm), which is preceded by a screening of The Avengers episode A Touch of Brimstone, and then Brian Clemens in Conversation a week later on Wednesday 28th July at 6:30, where he discusses the rest of his film and television career. Amazingly there are still tickets available for all three.

Granted neither writer will be able to help people wanting to break into the industry by giving them tips on how to get a commission for the typical load of toss like Doctors or Holby City, but given that they both worked in genres that don’t seem to exist in television any more, what they’ll have to say should be nothing less than fascinating.