The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Northern Lights

Just been on a brief holiday in Bonny Scotland. I don’t like to mention these things in advance because burglars might be reading.

Went up to Glasgow on the 19th. Pottered around the Necropolis, as seen in almost every episode of Sea Of Souls. Lots of interesting examples of tomb one-up-man-ship.

The next day we visited the Gallery of Modern Art, a small and not particularly inspiring collection which made such an impression on me I can’t remember a thing about it six days later. Then onto the wee underground railway they have there to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Lots to see, including stuffed animals, a mass of floating heads, suits of armour, and a lovely collection of Dutch paintings. I wasn’t totally won over by the Glasgow Boys paintings – my main impression was that you came away with a strong sense that the cheapest colours of paint were dark green and brown, so Scottish painters tended to concentrate on painting things that were dark green and brown i.e. bleak scenes of poor people eating mud under overcast skies.

Then across the park to the Hunterian Collection, which includes such marvels as Isaac Newton’s Death Mask. Then back onto the dinky train (actually constructed by Hornby) to pootle around the riverside development before meeting friends in town and heading to a rather lovely pub called Oran Mor, built in a disused church. Made me think of all those other empty, neglected churches around the country that could be converted into pubs.

Next day, we tootled off to Stirling, to look at the marvellous castle they have there. It was something to do with the Battle Of Bannockburn which, I’m afraid, I’ve only heard of because it’s mentioned in the ‘University Challenge’ episode of ‘The Young Ones’. We all have to get our knowledge from somewhere. Anyway, did a tour around the various halls, and saw a very good talk about Margaret Tudor. Oh, I am so middle-aged, with my visits to old castles and being interested in history (insofar as it was mentioned in episodes of 80’s sitcoms).

Next day, off to Edinburgh for the festival. The Royal Mile was a vision of hell. After dropping off bits, our first show was Kevin Eldon Is Titting About at The Stand. To digress briefly, last time I was at the festival I’d seen a show there and had a really miserable hour. The reason being, the comedian was someone I’d seen at university ten years previously who’d been very good – and now, here he was, ten years later, doing exactly the same material. Mentioning no names but it was Boothby Graffoe.

So with these shows there’s always the sense that they can go either way. You can see people you’ve never heard of being totally brilliant and people off the television die on their arses.

Or, in the case of Kevin Eldon, you can see people off the television being totally brilliant. His show was lots of bits of things stuck together – poetry, characters, songs, stand-up – but performed very, very accurately, and extremely tightly-written. Five stars out of five.

Next we saw Stewart Lee's Vegetable Stew. Stewart Lee’s one of those comedians who can go either way, sometimes he’s very good, and sometimes he’s one of those comedians who like to point out that Bible stories/English idioms/pop music lyrics don’t bear rigorous logical scrutiny at great length. And who likes lots of repetition. However, I thought this show was extremely good. I can’t remember any specifics but I recall quite a lot of it seemed to be about crisps. Anyway, that’s good, means I’ll laugh at all the jokes again when they turn up in his TV show. Five stars out of five.

The following day would up the comedy ante, if that makes any sense to you, as we would see five shows in one day. Five. Five shows out of five!

First we popped into a free show, because it was raining, and it was free, a revue-type-thing by three students (I assume) in a basement called Making Faces. For a free show, it was a basement bargain, and surprisingly good. I’m not sure the three students’ different styles really meshed together at all – one deadpan, one sweet, one excitable – but in maybe five years or so, after life has knocked them around a bit, they’ll write better material – basically, it came across as a show written in a week, when really you want each show to be the result of months of writing. They came across well, though, and had a great sense of fun. Five stars out of five.

Next it was time for education, and It Is Rocket Science at the Gilded Balloon, with Helen Keen. An hour-long potted history of rockets, from the first guys with beards writing down equations in a Russian university to the V2 rockets and the Apollo missions. All delivered with enthusiasm and a little, but not too much, home-spun whimsy. Have to admit, I fancied Helen Keen a great deal, but I’m married so ignore I said that. She could be the straight man’s Brian Cox. I enjoyed it a lot – and it was good for a show to concentrate on a topic, rather than just being about ‘space’ in general – so I award it five stars out of five.

After that down the hill to the Pleasance Courtyard. Someone once told me – probably Davy – that if you spend five minutes in the Pleasance Courtyard you will see everyone you have ever known walk past. Or is that a cafe in Paris? I forget. Anyway, within minutes of arriving I was getting flashbacks of people I’d worked with in the past, or been in BBC comedy meetings with. It’s a strange thing, and probably why I don’t like going there.

But we were there, to see Adam Riches Rides!. It was billed as character sketch comedy, but to be honest it was more like an hour of free-wheeling madness – it begins with Adam coming on as a centaur Pierce Brosnan and basically gets stranger from there. Lots of audience participation – oh dear god no – but thankfully someone else was victim-ed who not only took it in fun but also added to the show (a show which is reliant on the audience participants being willing and good-natured). I get the impression that a lot of sketch comedy nowadays involves comedians showing off how many accents they can do and how they can do an impersonation of their grandparents; Riches’ approach is to treat sketch comedy as a succession of fairground rides, or comic strip interludes, where it’s all about the props and the slapstick (which is great fun live, but unlikely to transfer well to TV). If I had to quibble, I’d say the PA system was annoyingly incoherent, and the routines could have had more variety beyond talking animals and cowboys, but I was laughing my face off throughout so I give it five stars out of five.

Then down the hill and to the left a bit to the Underbelly to see my mate Toby’s show Now I Know My BBC. I’d already seen a preview, but after a month the show is much tighter and more focussed, and moving and nostalgic and all those things. You come away from it remembering why the BBC is so lovely, and why having something that brings people together (unlike newspapers trying to make people fear each other) is something for us all to be proud of. There’s also a rather good Noggin the Nog joke. Five stars’ out of five.

And finally back to the Pleasance for Tim Vine’s The Joke-Amotive. One hour of puns, like watching your friend’s dad showing off at a children’s birthday party. I love Tim Vine; like Tommy Cooper, he makes a virtue out of the groanworthiness of some of his material, warning the audience that there’s more to come, letting them know when they’ve reached the half-way point and so on. But the relentless barrage of wordplay has a cumulative effect; the end result is that you feel quite punchline-drunk. Five stars out of five.

So there you go. If anyone wants to quote these reviews, my name is Tim Eout, make sure you get the spacing right.

And then we came home again.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

We Are Golden

What’s this, another plug? So soon after the last one? Will this blog ever escape the swirling vortex of Jonny’s ego? No.

Latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, the one with Sylvester McCoy on the front, is something of a Jonny Morris special. Not only does it include news of my second Jago & Litefoot: The Theatre Of Dreams and not only does include a very lovely review of Cobwebs (‘Pick of the month!’) but I have taken over a fair proportion of the rest of the magazine with my comic strip and a feature on the brilliant Doctor Who story, ‘The Shakespeare Code’.

The feature basically points out all the clever historical and literary references in the episode, including a dozen or so subtle ones that to my knowledge no-one has pointed out before. It also includes at least one glaring inaccuracy, so Shakespeare scholars will be able to read it with a warm sense of intellectual superiority. (Cross-dressing only leading to sexual attraction between women in Shakespeare and never between men? What about The Merry Wives Of Windsor, you fool!)

Anyway, it’s intended as a tribute to the marvellousness of the episode, so hopefully any glaring errors will be forgiven in the general spirit of positivity.

The comic strip is called ‘The Golden Ones’ part one of a four-part story (my first true epic!). At the time of writing, I’ve written the first three parts – schedules and availability of artists meaning I’ve written the story after it, and half the story after that, before finishing this one. It’s also possibly my very first comic strip to not feature a flashback sequence three-quarters of the way through. Must stop doing that.

The artwork is by Martin Geraghty, who has done a superb job, particularly on the last couple of pages which include some absolutely terrifying images. I just write down what I’d like the pictures to show, I can take no credit for the end results. In fact, I think I may just pause to admire it again...


Not wanting to spoil any surprises, I won’t go into too much detail, except to say the ‘influences’ for the story are clearly ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ by David Bowie (hence the title), ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, a recent single by Mika, ‘The Ring’, and ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. I can tell you what the story is not; it was originally pitched as a story set in a comprehensive school in Leicester, a sort of sci-fi parody of the government’s current witless policy to allow private organisations to take over or set up state schools. That was the starting point; the story then went on a journey as it became clear that any Doctor Who story set in a comprehensive school is going feel like it’s re-treading ‘School Reunion’ and it was felt that, lovely as a Doctor Who story set in Leicester would be, that’s the sort of thing they do on telly, while in the comic strip we can afford to go to more exotic and visually-interesting locations. And it’s always good for stories to change and grow – writing down the first thing you think of tends to lead to quite predictable stuff, but throwing some other ideas into the mix, and writing down the fourth thing you think of results in something, hopefully, more surprising and imaginative.

The magazine also includes news, reviews, a charming interview with Sylvester McCoy, a feature about a range of Tom Baker audios that I have nothing to do with (envy!), a feature on the Doctor Who prom, and an extremely mind-boggling article about how time travel works in the Doctor Who universe (pity the poor sod who wrote that, I’d go out of my mind).

Available from all good newsagents and supermarkets from Monday, a bargain at £4.20

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

A Walk In The Park

Over the weekend, visited Bletchley Park with Mrs Wife and various chums. Bletchley Park – or The World Famous Top-Secret Bletchley Park, as the guide leaflet paradoxically described it – is where Alan Turing and various other Boffins spent the second world war cracking Jerry codes, famously – and top secretly – the Enigma cipher, starring Kate Winslet, which was solved using the Bombe, and less famously – but even more secretly – the Lorensz machine cipher, solved using Colossus, the world’s first computer.

You get to see all this stuff, apart from Kate Winslet. There’s a museum full of Enigma machines, which are like small portable typewriters but with a lit-up letter display instead of somewhere to stick the paper, and then you can visit the mansion, where the code-crackers worked at the start of the war before their numbers grew so large they needed dozens of huts to be built. You can also visit the actual hut where Alan Turing worked, which now houses a display on War Pigeons awarded the Dickin Medal.

We also did a tour of the park, which was interesting, being guided into the various huts – some of which have been restored, some of which have been destroyed, but a few of which are in a pristine state of dilapidation, which is kind of what you want to see, the original buildings, no matter how tatty they may be now. The Bombe was housed in a cramped, dark, hot, stuffy room, and visiting it you get a sense how nightmarish it must have been to have been stuck in there for 8 hour-shifts. When asked about Turing’s suicide, our tour guide described him as being ‘naive’ for assenting to mood-altering hormone treatments for his sexuality; probably not the best word to have chosen.

I’d recommend a visit, though with a couple of provisos. As it stands, Bletchley Park is already more or less at capacity, visitor-wise – the huts are small and cramped, and our tour party was too large for comfort – so goodness knows what the place will be like if they increase the number of visitors. It’s kind of at that tipping point between being the actual place, in its original condition, and being a tourist attraction with all the slickness and artificiality that entails.

And secondly, although much of the museum is lovely, I’m rather at a loss as to why it includes things like model boat and railway collections – they give the impression that the place is being run without a clear sense of purpose and is being used as a repository for the random contents of some well-meaning donors’ attics.

The National Museum of Computing was shut.

BTW I have switched off comments for this blog, because I have a rule about not arguing with people using pseudonyms on the internet, and because if anyone who actually knows me wants to comment they can do so when these blogs appear on my Facebook.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Watching The Detectives

Sherlock-mania has gripped the nation, and such is the severity of my Sherlock-fever, in the past few weeks I’ve watched Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and, a few minutes ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes aka The One With The Fat One Out Of Torchwood In It.

Have to say, the version I enjoyed least was the Guy Ritchie version. I fell asleep twice, and whoever Robert Downey was playing, it wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know whether he was into bare-knuckle fighting in the books, but it seemed out of place in Victorian London somehow. Plus the script was utterly garbled, Downey’s dialogue was utterly garbled, and in fact the only one to come out of the project with any credit was Jude Law, miscast as Doctor Watson but at least giving the producers’ their money’s worth. The rest of it just felt like a Comic Strip parody of what a bad US attempt at Sherlock Holmes would be like a la The Strike, GLC and Churchill: The Hollywood Years.

Anyway, what about The One With The Fat One Out Of Torchwood In It. Just how bad is it – and is it so bad that it’s good? Well, it certainly passes the time, it’s entertaining. It’s utterly derivative to the point of being brain-dead, but what it says on the tin, it does. It has a giant squid, it has a dinosaur, it has a man in a robot suit, and it has a flying robot dragon. Why a dragon? Why, because the dragon is the symbol of London, of course. Who can forget the famous Dragon Of London, the London Dragon? The tale of Dick Whittington, going to London to seek fame, fortune, and kill the Dragon?

The dialogue is abysmal, but fortunately much of it is muffled, and all of it is irrelevant, so it doesn’t matter too much. It’s all cod-Victorian speak – at one point, Lestrade warns a criminal not to ‘do a scoot’ and later opines about ‘bloody guns’ – I imagine all of the writer’s time was spent researching the legend of the London Dragon to bother with any accurate vernacular.

I mentioned the robot suit earlier, and one of the most notable and compelling things about this film is the number of silly walks featured therein. The robot suit guy walks around like an embarrassed gimp that’s had an unfortunate accident, whilst Lestrade opts for the arms-behind-back, stomach-out saunter of your typical Victorian Inspector. But the best walk of all is that adopted by The Fat One Out Of Torchwood, an awkward, strutting lurch, accompanied throughout with what I can only describe as a constipated scowl. He spends the whole film looking as if he Really Wants To Go But Can’t.

You may think I’m being cruel in referring to The Fat One Out Of Torchwood as The Fat One Out Of Torchwood but, like most people, including quite possibly the actor himself, I can’t remember the name of the character he played. He was the guy who made the coffee, phoned out for pizzas and who had a Kylie Minogue backing dancer locked in the Torchwood basement. To be serious, he’s not a bad actor, but obviously his ‘Costume Fitting’ was anything but, as he spends the whole film in a bulging waistcoat, the seams of his trousers in a constant state of being-just-about-to-explode.

He’s not too bad in it, though – as when other professional actors appear in what are essentially ‘fan films’ – I don’t think he’d count it as his greatest ever performance. However, he shines with the brilliance of a thousand suns compared to the guy they’ve cast as Sherlock Holmes. He looks like Rob Newman, who almost everyone has forgotten because he’s the one out of The Mary Whitehouse Experience who isn’t on television any more (no, not Steve Punt, the other one) but that’s not the problem. The problem is that he speaks with a fey, high-pitched nasal whine, with all the gravitas and authority of a competition winner. Again, I’m sure this project hasn’t shown him at his best, but I never thought I’d see Sherlock Holmes as played by Joe Pasquale.

The film was shot in Wales, doubling as Vancouver, doubling as London, and from the making-of documentary you get the impression it was a troubled and extremely rushed shoot. The similarity with other Wales-based productions doesn’t end there, though – the film’s climax is pretty much a steal of the end of Doctor Who And The Christmas Cyberman. And apropos of FA the film ends with the revelation that Sherlock’s first name is actually Robert. Robert Holmes? Who’s he?

In the film, Sherlock deducts that there must be a link between the giant squid and the dinosaur because they are both so improbable; later we learn that the squid attacked a boat transporting gold in order to pay for dinosaur, which was used – not sure how – to gain control of the water supply – which is forgotten because the bad guy – and I won’t reveal his identity, because you’ll guess it within the first five minutes, I wouldn’t want to spoil the lack of surprise – wants to blow up London using his robot dragon. Because to destroy London with a Dragon would be the greatest irony of all!

That said, you could argue that this is very much in the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and that gaping plot holes, moments of convenient idiocy, and incredibly circumstantial deduction are part and parcel of the adventure genre. The Guy Ritchie film has someone running through a sewer from Westminster to the southern end of Tower Bridge; this film has TFOOOT managing to out-pace a train on horseback. (And even the mind-bogglingly fantastic and beautiful BBC Sherlock had a head-slappingly stupid bit about the world’s top forger accidentally including an anachronistic supernova in the sky of a forged painting. Apart from that it was stunning, though.)

So would I in all honesty recommend you add this film to your LoveFilm list? Yeah, go on. If enough people do it, they might make a sequel.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Only After Dark

It’s delightful having things to plug. Today I shall be mostly plugging my most recent Big Finish Doctor Who audio play, ‘Cobwebs’.

The brief, back in July 2009, was to write a story featuring the 5th Doctor, with his companions Nyssa, Turlough, and in exciting development, Tegan (the actress playing Tegan having only been in one previous Big Finish story).

The normal Doctor Who story structure tends to favour just having the Doctor and his companion, so they can split up and each get paired up with other characters who can explain the plot/situation to them. Juggling three companions and a lead would be more challenging, particularly as it would please neither the fans nor the actors to have any of the characters side-lined, knocked-out or locked-up for the duration. So that kind of dictated, or at least indicated, what sort of story it would have to be – small-scale, with as small an additional cast as possible, where the plot was more about the dynamics between the Doctor and his companions than about the guest cast.

The brief changed a little – originally the plan was to have my story set between ‘Mawdryn Undead’ and ‘Terminus’, with us contriving some way of covering the fact that those stories seem to follow on directly from each other and that Turlough would be working for the Black Guardian (who would not be featuring) and constantly sneaking off to chat to his crystal. My original suggestion was to do a story with Nyssa returning to a seemingly-not-destroyed-after-all Traken. But then the brief changed to being set around 'The Five Doctors', with Nyssa (who had left by that point) returning and/or summoning the Doctor to help her with some problem.

I then suggested a list of possible historical settings – including having the TARDIS crew involved in the Falklands War, as an ‘historical’ – and during the colonisation of Australia – but the brief was to follow on more directly from the events of ‘Terminus’, in which Nyssa departs to treat people with Lazars’s disease on a sort of Nordic space station. Inarticulate grunting monsters and bleeping robots were suggested.

I came up with a story set immediately after ‘Enlightenment’, partly as the brief was now to explain why the Doctor stops trying to take Turlough home and partly because there was no way on Earth I would be writing a story featuring the robot Kameleon. A friend of mine, Craig Hinton, had a theory that the character was cursed and that anyone associated with that character always had bad luck, which sadly seems to have been the case for Craig.

By mid-August I had a vague synopsis, called ‘Cobwebs’ which was more-or-less used as the basis for the story (after going through a second draft) but which began, I think excitingly, with Nyssa in spaceship being attacked by a swarm of SPACE SNAILS. A good idea which I shall have to re-use at some point. The synopsis had a byline ‘A story which out-Moffats Moffat’; I don’t think I succeeded, but it’s good to have a mission statement. It would be ‘timey-wimey’ but it would also MAKE SENSE and have some sort of clever twist at the end which tied it all together.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my original idea was for Nyssa to have a pet robot called ADRIC, a robot that would be cowardly and clumsy and cause problems. I thought it would be hilarious, if only for the scene where the robot is introduced to the Doctor – ‘You’ve called it WHAT?’ – and also just to for the reaction when the cast list was announced – a story featuring the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa, Turlough AND Adric?!? But for various reasons, I was persuaded this wouldn’t be such a good idea after all, so the character was re-christened Loki (tying in with the Nordic theme).

I suppose I can come clean and admit that the setting, a claustrophobic research base, a la Aliens, with scientists experimenting on a creature which might provide a cure for an intergalactic plague, was me finally getting to use the basis of a Doctor Who story I’d come up with around 1991 called The Fear, my great novel proposal that I never got around to sending in. But I’m sure my 18-year old co-writer would be delighted that all his work has finally seen the light of day.

The other element I really wanted to include was to write something Philip K Dicky, as I was in the throes of reading all his short stories, and in particular things like artificial intelligences, implanted memories and predestination paradoxes, because, well, because I was trying to out-Moffat Moffat. That element developed during the writing; I named a character Valis as a little acknowledgement.

I delivered a first draft at the beginning of November, and a second draft at the beginning of December (the main note of the first draft being to make Tegan bolshier!). There was a bit of back-and-forth over a scene in episode three which didn’t really work and was far too say-what-you-see, and some more back-and-forth as I was persuaded to cut a scene in which Tegan and Nyssa discuss Nyssa’s love life. A scene which I shall no doubt foist upon this blog at some point.

The recording took place over two days, one at the end of 2009, one near the beginning of 2010, two very cold and snowy days as I recall. Barney had assembled a great cast – I was particularly delighted to meet Raymond Coulthard, star of numerous dramas and comedies of film and television but, to me, he’ll always be Young Scrooge from A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Anyway, it was released a couple of weeks ago, and so far I’ve heard the first three parts, and I think it’s turned out exceptionally well, I couldn’t be happier with it, the characters seem strong, the story feels fast-moving, and there’s a suitably grim atmosphere to the proceedings. It seems to have gone done fairly well, which is always lovely to hear, particularly from people who I didn’t know listened to the Big Finish audios but who chose to pick up this story.

To buy the play, click here. Plug over.