The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

It's A Crime

Over on the Big Finish website, they’ve announced the forthcoming release of another Doctor Who audio adventure by me, The Crimes Of Thomas Brewster. It’s also mentioned in the current issue of Doctor Who Magazine, which also features part 2 of a comic strip I wrote called The Golden Ones.

The play was written in late April/early May of this year and recorded on the 12th and 13th of July. It features the Colin Baker Doctor Who and Maggie Stables as his companion Evelyn (both of whom I last wrote for back in 2000 with Bloodtide) plus John Pickard as Thomas Brewster (a character I created back in 2007 in The Haunting Of Thomas Brewster) and Anna Hope as DI Menzies (a character created by Eddie Robson, also back in 2007, in The Condemned). One Doctor, three companions. Or is there more to it than that? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to buy the CD or download the files, okay, there’s two ways to find out, I’ll come in again, there are only two ways to find out, and both of them involve waiting until it is released in January 2011. It also stars David Troughton as the gangster Ray Gallagher. David Troughton has been in loads of things – most memorably, as Bob Buzzard in the sublime A Very Peculiar Practice – plus a few Doctor Whos over the years. Apparently he’s related to one of the Doctor Who actors.

The most unusual, and for me interesting, thing about writing this one was that because I had included a character Eddie had created (I’d written a synopsis including a female police officer character in the hope that it would occur to the producers to suggest I replace her with DI Menzies) and because Eddie’s story would include a character I’d created – Thomas Brewster – that rather than have us both write several drafts of our own stories, we’d switch, and write the second draft of each other’s story. Fresh pair of eyes, objective distance and all that. And then do the third and final draft on our own stories ourselves. The result being that the story that no-one is yet abbreviating to TCOTB is about 75 per cent me and 25 per cent Eddie, and Eddie’s story, Industrial Evolution, is about the same ratio but the other way around. So fans of Eddie can attribute all the good bits in both plays to him, and blame me for all the rubbish bits. Of which there are, of course, none.

Anyway, the point is, I think both plays were much, much improved as a result, with us both punching up each other’s dialogue, fleshing out each other’s characters and spotting and solving each other’s plot holes. As an experiment in co-writing, I think it worked, and one I’d be happy to repeat.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Popped into Greenwich to see Metropolis, by Fritz Lang. It’s a buffed-up version, with footage lost for 80-odd years reinserted and the original score on the soundtrack.

Hadn’t seen the film, but of course many elements of it were familiar, from the titles of Tomorrow’s World, the pastiche of the machine-going-out-of-control scene in Doctor Who And The Sun Makers, and most of all, the Queen video for Radio Ga Ga, in which a scene from Metropolis where a guy is forced to spend a 10-hour shift moving dials towards glowing light bulbs is transformed into a camp dance routine. Top fact about the video for Radio Ga Ga – when it was filmed, the Queen boys hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months, and were having a who-can-grow-the-biggest-hair competition. Imagine everyone’s surprise when the winner turned out to be Roger Deacon, sporting the largest afro perm in the history of mankind. Freddie Mercury, of course, didn’t take part in the competition, though he did grow extensive armpit hair by way of a concession. Watching the video, there’s a bit where all the Queen boys are sitting in a flying car which looks like Freddie Mercury surrounded by three privet bushes.

Anyway, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is an absolutely stunning, magnificent film. The special effects are awe-inspiring, but the most impressive effect of all are the choreography of scenes with a cast of hundreds of extras, as hunched workers dragging themselves to work, or working on the Moloch machine, or in Biblical flashbacks building the tower of Bable.

That was one of the surprises of the film. It’s very Christian. And the Biblical analogies aren’t really analogies, as we get them pointed out, with flashbacks to the Tower of Bable to illustrate just how similar the Metropolis situation is, and to the Whore of Babylon to illustrate just how similar the evil Maria robot is. And the Mediator between Head and Hand is like Jesus. There’s also a marvellously freaky bit with a skeletal death reaping the destruction of the city with a big scythe.

The plot is operatic with all the sensationalism and lack of plot logic that entails. It’s a big story, but one held together by coincidences and larger-than-life characters having extremely demonstrative emotional crises. The performances, as it’s a silent movie, are pure melodrama – the wild-haired wild-eyed scientist clenching his fingers, the willowy heroine always on the brink of a fainting fit – though to be honest they are nowhere near as distracting as the hero’s enormous trousers. The expressionism gives everything a sinister, gothic edge, and there’s a couple of dream sequences of Dali-esque surrealism.

Being a silent movie, the expectation is for something slow-moving, but – just as when we went to see Battleship Potemshopboys in Trafalgar Square – it turns out to be not the case. The climax in particular is gripping. What helps as well, though, is that a couple of sub-plots have been reinstated, which actually make the story more engrossing, as there are several threads to follow – whereas the truncated, simplified version of the film is paradoxically less fast-moving because you’re not as involved with the characters or the situations. The other thing that keeps the film exciting is the Wagner-esque soundtrack, amplifying each moment of drama to a point of unbearable armrest-clutching tension.

Of particular delight is the reinstated sub-plot featuring the incredibly sinister Thin Man, masterfully played by Ron Mael out of Sparks. Also of note is a young Gene Wilder in the dual role of good Maria and evil robot Maria. Except the word robot hadn’t caught on that point, so she’s a Man-Machine.

The visuals are stunning, though what’s interesting is that aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot of a rocket ship, the technology is very much of the 1920’s – the planes and cars seem incongruously old-fashioned. There is a form a Skype but it’s valve-based. The mad scientist’s lab is, of course, full of Tesla coils, and there’s an intriguing lamp based around a coiled fluorescent tube. But it’s not so much set in the future as an exaggerated – expressionist – version of the 1920’s, like the way Brazil is set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’. The architecture, though, is Futurist with a capital F.

One other fascinating thing about this film is it illustrates where Germany’s head was at this point in history (not to mention its hand, and its heart). On the one hand you have the decadence of the 20s and the Weimar Republic, all casinos, top hats and flappers in outrageously naughty clothes. And on the other you have the oppressed workers, in drab clothes, living drab, slave-like existences in the factories, a tinderbox awaiting the spark of Marxist Revolution. The film’s message is to find a way of reconciling the ruling and working classes, of peace through co-operation and responsibility, and the workers not allowing themselves to be roused up by a militant speaker preaching destruction. Which is ironic given that the film was co-opted by the Nazis as a fascist parable. And watching scenes where hundreds of children are caught in a flood, I can’t help thinking what became of those youngsters.

Click here for more info on the film.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Theme From Casanova

Just watched Dennis Potter’s Casanova series. Obvious thing to do is to compare it with Russell T Davies’ more recent series; how they approached the same subject matter. There are similarities; both writers tell the stories in flashbacks, both Casanovas are haunted by having lost their one true love, and both dramas pretty much avoid going down the historically-accurate costume-drama path, instead using the character as a hook upon which to hang various themes and ideas. Neither of them bothered with Casanova’s autobiography, preferring instead to simply elaborate on just the essentials.

The difference is in the authors, and the Casanovas. Russell T Davies’ series, and David Tennant’s Casanova, is flamboyant, cheeky, romantic, in-jokey, dashing, funny and adventurous. Dennis Potter’s series, and Frank Finlay’s character, is brooding, self-doubting, driven, philosophical, but ultimately quite cold and detached. The play depicts him as a man who seduces women quite dispassionately, calculatingly, as a game to relieve the boredom of life. He’s a womanizer, but a curiously joyless one; for a man whose philosophy is pure hedonism, he derives little pleasure from it. His laughter, when it comes, is uproarious, but always mocking and harsh.

In a religiously and moral corrupt society, Dennis Potter’s Casanova is driven by a desire for personal freedom; to do whatever is taboo, to be amoral in all things, to flout convention. To not be a hypocrite like his fellow ‘gentlemen’. The irony is that he is mechanically dishonest in everything he does; he finds he says the words ‘I love you’ so often he is incapable of meaning them honestly. He yearns for beauty, and yet spends much of his life in squalor.

Which makes it a very clear commentary on the time it was written; after the sexual and artistic liberation of the sixties, there was the hangover the next morning in the seventies, as liberation turned into exploitation; sex, drugs and DH Lawrence seeming a little sordid in the cold light of day. Casanova is all about the sixties; the character is an archetypical sixties swinger, only a brief visit to costume away from being Jason King, and the play is effectively about a late-sixties lothario finding himself in the 18th century with a powdered wig and a bottle of champagne. “Me, Giacoma Casanova, here, in a French maids' finishing school? With my reputation? Haven’t they considered the consequences? Oh well...”

This was Dennis Potter’s first drama series, and what’s interesting is that it’s pretty radical in terms of structure. The opening episodes are set with Casanova in prison, having flashbacks to his past adventures. This then shifts to Casanova’s life post-prison, having flashbacks to being in prison. And then finally we get Casanova in old age, having flashbacks to both earlier times.

It’s more complicated than that, though. The series makes use of flashbacks as dramatic motifs; a Venetian skull mask, or his one true love running towards him, or all the girls in a montage... there are lots of these. Scenes cut abruptly in order to create juxtapositions or show parallels. Whole scenes – several minutes long – are repeated in different contexts. Episode four contains barely half an hour of new material in a hour’s running time.

It’s the first attempt at the structure that would work so brilliantly in The Singing Detective. Each episode is self-contained, effectively its own story, not progressing the plot linearly but shading in more details. As though each episode is a re-mix, a re-edit, of the story, filling in more information but changing the emphasis. The Singing Detective is the ultimate Dennis Potter series; it shamelessly revisits ideas from most of his earlier works, from Casanova it takes the structure; an unreliable narrator trapped with nothing but his memories to keep him company.

That said, for a first attempt, the flashback gimmick is over-used. Sometimes there seem to be flashback montages just for the sake of it, rather than for any dramatic point; watching all six episodes, it becomes repetitive, as certain scenes, lines and shots are replayed two or three times per episode. I mean, I enjoy seeing naked women, but you can have too much of the same thing.

And speaking of repetition, if I ever hear the 3rd movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’ again I may kill someone with a brick.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Cold As Ice

Just finished reading ‘Anti-Ice’ by Stephen Baxter, my favourite living science fiction author. I’ve included a list of his most excellent books at the bottom of this blog by way of a recommendation.

Anti-Ice, though, I would hesitate to recommend. It’s one of his first novels, and for some reason it has never been published in the UK. I can only guess it’s because of either contractual reasons, or because SB wasn’t altogether happy with it and would prefer it not to be generally available. That doesn’t seem very likely, though, given that he links to it on Amazon on his website.

The premise of the book is extremely strong; in the mid-19th century, British explorers have discovered some debris at the South Pole, a strange substance with the explosive force of Uranium but which acts as a superconductor when frozen. This discovery has sent history off onto a different course, as the anti-ice leads to developments in transport, industry and, of course, weapons. It’s not a ‘steampunk’ novel exactly, because SB has tried to make the science plausible, but nevertheless its main conceit is what-if 19th century technology and politics were supercharged?

But unfortunately that premise isn’t really fulfilled. The book starts well, in the Crimean war, and we get some enjoyable ‘world-building’ as we visit the Great Exhibition... but even then, SB’s prose is not as vivid as in his later work. Part of the problem is that the novel is written in a rather formal, rather dry 19th century style. An approach that SB would pull off extremely well in The Time Ships, but here, it has a distancing effect, as so much of the novel is characters talking exposition in a very stiff and unrealistic manner.

The other problem is that the middle three-quarters of the book concerns a rocket flight to the moon, which is hard work for two reasons. Firstly, it means the characters are locked in a tin box for much of the story, so – as I just mentioned – a lot of the world-building is off-stage and talked about rather than seen. And secondly, it’s that the rocket flight isn’t particularly exciting; it reminded me of CS Lewis’ Out Of The Silent Planet, in that it basically reprises From The Earth To The Moon and The First Men In The Moon without adding anything new. Admittedly the science is more up-to-date, and the character of Traveller is an entertaining pastiche of Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, but there’s still a very dull space-walk scene, a very dull weightlessness-scene, a very dull how-we-navigate-in-space scene...

Eventually they do return to Earth and things liven up a bit, but by that point I get the feeling that SB was getting a bit fed up with the novel. Indeed, my generally impression is of an author who has come up with a synopsis, sold it, and then found, in writing it, that he’s locked himself into telling a dull story. Because this book doesn’t really give SB an opportunity to show off his imagination; there’s a few pages on a strange, anti-ice-based crystalline-mushroom-clam species that has evolved on the dark side of the moon, but which turns out to have very little to do with the rest of the book, and even then, isn’t particularly clearly-described. I sense SB’s impatience with his own plot when, after having spent 150-odd pages describing a trip to the moon, he dispenses with the return trip – and a descent through the Earth’s atmosphere – in a couple of paragraphs. And having characters deduce the novel’s closing plot-twist half-way through suggests an author realising that perhaps that closing plot-twist is a touch on the extremely predictable side, and he would be better off lowering expectations than building up to it.

Still, an interesting novel, but if you want to read a great SB book, choose one from this list:

The Time Ships
The Light Of Other Days
The H-Bomb Girl

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Currently watching Secret Army c/o LoveFilm, the drama series about a Belgian escape line for British airmen in World War II broadcast by the BBC in 1977. Described as ‘The single greatest popular drama series ever produced by the BBC’ by TV experts Paul Condon and Jim Sangster (although they wrote that before the broadcast of The Deep) but which is now generally more famous for being the inspiration for ‘Allo ‘Allo.

It’s not hard to see why. Every episode of Secret Army is so remorselessly downbeat, the idea of making a parody is obvious. Plus there’s the fact that the complications of characters living double lives and bizarre escape methods is pretty much a farce generation machine; just set the engine running and add another character or another complication whenever it starts to run out of steam. There’s also the incongruity that in Secret Army Bernard Hepton has managed to get an attractive young mistress, despite having the face of a weary bloodhound; clearly a prototype for Rene Artois. (Artois being the drink they serve in the bar Candide in Secret Army. I note also from looking at the website that John D Collins will become a Secret Army regular – yes, that’s John D Collins of John D Collins and Nicholas Frankau fame. Hilary Minster is in ‘Allo ‘Allo as well, playing pretty much the same role.)

Back in the 70’s, TV drama – particularly on the BBC – was a more sedate affair. Scenes would be allowed to play out at a leisurely pace over several minutes. Characters would enter, say hellos, decant themselves a brandy, pull up a chair, discuss recent plot developments, their backgrounds and motivations, before downing the brandy, saying goodbyes and leaving.

Which sounds tedious, but it’s to Secret Army’s credit that despite this, it’s absolutely compelling because each storyline is incredibly well-constructed and full of tension – in each episode, the lead characters are making life or death decisions, and facing extraordinarily dramatic moral dilemmas – who can they trust, and, in particular, who are they prepared to have killed in order to protect the escape line.

Because with Secret Army, there’s no guarantee you’ll get out alive. In fact, having watched the first eight episodes, the escape cell have pretty much failed to rescue anyone, but have had allowed several British airmen to be killed in order to keep their secrets, or deflect suspicion, along with several civilians who have made the mistake of Knowing Too Much and being about to betray our heroes to the Nazis. I’m tempted to keep score – so far it’s about Dead British Airmen 15, Dead Belgian Civilians 7, Rescued British Airmen 0.

While most stories seem to be concerned with escape attempts that are doomed to fail and people having to make terrible moral compromises, we also follow the Nazis; Kessler, the rigid, authoritarian from the Gestapo and the Luftwaffe Major Brandt. Theirs is a relationship of simmering sexual tension and extremely poor project management; both of them constantly questioning the others’ authority and competence and blaming the other for the extraordinary number of dead British airmen that keep turning up in the backstreets of Brussels.

The cast are uniformly magnificent – it’s fun spotting the BBC character actors and before-they-were-famous-es and the oh-which-episode-of-Doctor-Who-were-they-ins. Special applause, though, for Clifford Rose as television’s greatest ever Nazi, Christopher Neame as the ever-suspicious Flight Lieutenant Curtis (he was also in Colditz in a not dissimilar role, and was in the Doctor Who story that the BBC never finished and so never broadcast. He’s brilliant, but seems to have pretty much vanished from UK telly since the early 80’s. Oh, he went to America, thank you Wikipedia.), the legendary Bernard Hepton as the bar-owning bloodhound, and the stunning and marvellous Jan Francis as Lisa Colbert who runs the escape LifeLine whose polite, calm manner belies a heart of ice and a fierce determination.

It's an incredibly predictable thing to say, but I'll say it anyway - this is exactly the sort of TV show the BBC don't make any more. But really should.

Anyway, the next four episodes have arrived from LoveFilm. Who will survive this week? Can only watch one episode at a time, though, it’s too depressing otherwise.

Unless you’re on the Germans' side, of course.

For more about Secret Army, this website is very good.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Art For Art's Sake

Yesterday popped into the National Gallery to catch the Fakes, Mistakes & Discoveries exhibition. Very interesting stuff. Forgeries – or copies – of paintings that no longer exist. Copies made by the original artist, where the only differences are that the x-ray reveals that one painting has working-out pencil sketches underneath the oil, and one hasn’t. Paintings which were modified by dealers to make their subject matter more fashionable and commercial. Paintings misattributed, and paintings made in the studios of famous artists but not by the artists themselves, or only in collaboration.

All very interesting, and it gives each painting another story to tell, as their origins are shrouded in often mystery but they have been subject to detective work, as connoisseurs study the paintwork, the subject matter and the historical context, comparing with other works, while the boffins scrape away at the paint for anachronistic or time-specific or region-specific materials and zap each canvas with x-rays to reveal what’s hidden under the paint.

There’s also the restorations which have been... creative. We Doctor Who fans like to moan about how sometimes the versions of the episodes on the DVDs aren’t quite the same as the episodes that were broadcast on the telly (largely because the episodes on the DVDs look better). But imagine the situation where art dealer Vitale Block met with Theodore Dumler who he had hired to restore the damaged painting Il Tramanto...

Block: Theo, a word.

Dumler: Yes, boss. How do you like the finished painting? Good as new, eh?

Block: Yes, that’s what I wanted to speak to you about. I hired you to fill in all the mountain bits on the right that had been damaged by the ravages of time.

Dumler: Yep, I remember, had to buy a job lot of grey paint. Very grey things, mountains.

Block: Yes. And I remember specifically asking you to make sure you followed the intentions of the original artist, Giorgione.

Dumler: You certainly did. Why, is there a problem?

Block: You could say that. You see, if you look very carefully here, you’ve painted Saint George killing a dragon.

Dumler: Yes.

Block: In a painting called Il Tramanto. ‘The Sunset’.

Dumler: Yes.

Block: Not a painting called ‘Saint George Killing A Dragon’.

Dumler: I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at.

Block: What I’m getting at is this. If Giorgione had intended for the painting to include Saint George killing a dragon, he might have mentioned it in the title. He might also have made Saint George more central to the image, rather than tucking him away on the far-right next to some grey mountains.

Dumler: You think so?

Block: I do think so.

Dumler: Because, you see, I think that was probably what Giorgione intended. And that if he had had the materials available to him at the time that we have now, he would definitely have included Saint George killing a dragon. Look. I did it just how he would have done, I drew a preliminary cartoon and everything -

Block: I’m sorry, but I will not have cartoon-generated imagery in my painting! I asked you to restore the painting, not to include random knights hacking away at mythical lizards.

Dumler: But who is to say that there the painting didn’t originally feature Saint George killing a dragon?

Block: I’m the guy paying your bloody wages, so it’s for me to say. Giorgione did not paint dragons. He painted bloody sunsets and bloody mountains.

Dumler: You don’t think he would have been painting away at the mountain, do-de-do, do-de-do, and thought, I’m bored of just doing grey rocks, I know, I’ll stick in a bit of action.

Block: No.

Dumler: Only my feeling is that when he got to that section of the painting, he would have probably wanted to joosh it up a bit.

Block: Joosh it up?

Dumler: Yes.

Block: Is that an authentic word for this mid-twentieth century conversation we’re having?

Dumler: Authentic-ish.

Block: I’m not even sure that’s how you spell it. Joosh.

Dumler: Well, mate, if we’re going to get all pedantic about authenticity, can I point out that this sketch contains a number of conspicuous similarities to the Monty Python Michelangelo Sketch?

Block: No it doesn’t. It is an entirely original piece of work.

Dumler: Entirely original my arse.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)

Following up on Eddie’s post about Sergeant Pepper, and his point that the album doesn’t really contain famous songs or standout tracks.

I think Sergeant Pepper is regarded as a significant step forward for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the first pop album which the main musical instrument is not the guitar, or the piano, but the recording studio itself. It’s about hearing songs that could never be recreated live. Of course, ever since the first time John Lennon double-tracked a lead vocal the recordings were never exact representations of a live performance, and with Revolver several of the songs, such as Tomorrow Never Knows and Yellow Submarine, are clearly ‘synthetic’ recordings. But Pepper takes that a step further; it’s not merely using studio trickery to enhance the songs by adding effects and instruments, but it is celebrating the synthetic and artificial –songs that sound like they come from another world, deliberately made to sound as far away from conventional studio recordings as possible. With Revolver you have the band using the studio to overdub string quartets, trumpet solos, but still striving to sound ‘real’, to mimic a genuine recording; Pepper is revelling in its own studio fakery.

Which of course builds on albums like the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, where despite the fact that most of the backing instrumental tracks were ‘live’ recordings, because of the way they were arranged, and instruments were combined and mixed, don’t sound like a conventional band at all. And that’s part of the appeal of Pepper, I think – the sense that ‘you haven’t heard these noises before’.

It would not be particularly original to describe Pepper as a triumph of style over substance, but the point is, it is a triumph and that is more because of what the songs sound like rather than the strength of the individual songs. Each song is a trip into an atmosphere, a colourful fairground ride, but tune-wise songs like Getting Better, Fixing A Hole and particularly Lovely Rita are conspicuously lacking. But that was the great thing about the psychedelic era; the idea that songs were journeys into strange places and magical kingdoms, of Victoriana and childhood whimsy, or even acid-eyed distorted perspectives on real life – like Good Morning, Good Morning and A Day In The Life.

Of course, this all started on Revolver, as did the second thing that’s significant about Pepper is that for the first time, more or less, the Beatles were setting out to record an Album with a capital A rather than a collection of songs which might be released as singles. They would be freed of the pressure to come up with upbeat, commercial, catchy tunes, and could indulge wilder flights of fancy, try out different styles, because each song would be part of an album, and it would be the album that would be the product, not the individual songs. Never mind if song A is a bit weird, or that song B is barely more than an advertising jingle – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

McCartney says in interviews about this album that the concept was that he and Lennon would be freed of the obligation to write songs that sounded like the Beatles. Not songs that sound like a specific other band – some of the songs fit the idea of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being a sort of 1920’s vaudeville troupe, but most of them don’t – but simply to not sound like the Beatles any more. Because I think maybe it was important for them to dissociate themselves with the suddenly-sounding-very-out-of-date mop-top style of song-writing and performance that was the Beatles up until to 1966 (a dissociation that begins with them releasing a greatest hits album in 1966 but calling it A Collection Of Beatles Oldies. Hence also why the waxworks of the old Beatles are on the cover of Sergeant Pepper – to make the distinction – that was us then, but this is us now.

You could also link this with them taking LSD and the idea of destroying your own ego i.e. freeing oneself from one’s own identity. But then the Beatles would face the problem that, having moved on from being ‘The Fab Four’, there no longer was a cohesive ‘Beatles’ identity, and they became not so much a group as four individuals doing their own thing with the backing of three very good session men.