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after its initial air date, there’s a tendency to be a bit more forgiving because the shooting style will not doubt be outdated and the production values very different from what they are today.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.


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