The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Laughing Gnome

The latest in an occasional series of reprints of Blake's 7 reviews from 2002.

MOLOCH

Featuring the bloke out of The Armageddon Factor [the one who isn't Drax and who wasn't in Bob And Rose] - struggling gamely with his miscast role in proceedings - and the woman out of 'Full House' [a sitcom featuring the one out of Only When I Laugh who isn't Wilson, Bowles or Bolam and who doesn't seem to have worked much since]. It also features Deep Roy, the famous diminutive table-tennis playing actor from Peking/Rekjavik.

There's not much to say about this one. The story is poor and nothing we haven't seen before several times over. The dialogue is rubbish. The sets are feeble. The characterisation is... well, I'm not sure whether Vila and Tarrant are supposed to be mates or not. Avon certainly seems protective of Vila; not sure why, because Vila is suddenly very annoying again. Apparently Servalan's Federation - which was 'growing at a rate' last week - is non-existent again.

At its heart, the story has a big science-fiction idea - a magic box of tricks which can replicate things. Except living things, which die. Unless they're living things in a life-support system, in which case they don't. As each new science-fiction development is introduced, its inherent stupidity is explained away by ever more desperate technobabble. Until, in the end, nothing makes much sense. Oh, and Avon spontaneously deducts the whole plot sans evidence. Apparently some sort of creature from millions of years in the future is being created to live under a dish.

The most interesting thing about the story is how each successive special effect proves to be even worse than the preceding one. We begin with a Jackanory picture of a planet, so obviously we're starting on quite a low level, about Voice From The Past. Then there's some bits of Matt Irvine model-work , which is quite nice, although it's shot from the wrong angle. Then we see the dead professor floating in the fridge - he looks like a startled white gonk. Astonishing. But then it is topped by the show's big monster. The big twist. The big revelation. The ultimate evolutionary future for mankind. The Small Incredibly Feeble One-Eyed Chicken Gnome That Rules From Under A Dish On The Surface Of Sardis [*].

There isn't even a proper ending. The Small Incredibly Feeble One-Eyed Chicken Gnome That Rules From Under A Dish On The Surface Of Sardis just teleports itself, forgetting to bring its life-support-system dish with it. A bit stupid, that.

Not for the first time does a Blakes's 7 episode end with Paul Darrow saying, 'Let's get out of here.'

Moloch? Molochs, more like.

[*] Very obscure b-side by The Orb.


DEATHWATCH

You can tell it's a Chris Boucher script, because it begins with two spaceships talking to each other. 'Vector roger to tango seven, imperial cruiser ship entering quadrant space'. 'Wilco copy and over, imperial cruiser, quadrant space now matrix a-okay.' And the models float shakily by, accompanied by some booming, imperious Dudley Simpson march.

They pulled off the trick in Children Of Auron - get one of the regulars to play one of their relatives - so they decide to go for it again; this time we meet Del [*] Tarrant's brother, Ace Rimmer, space explorer. Ace is just like Del in all respects, except he has a wig on.

This episode features 'you silly young goat you' from The Green Death. I vaguely recognised a couple of the other actors but I'm not sure whether they had ever been in Doctor Who, or in an early-80's sit-com. Still, 'you silly young goat you' has been in Katy Manning, so that's quite a strong Doctor Who connection.

Deathwatch does one of those fully-formed-society-with-an-astonishingly-improbable-backstory-and-system- of-laws that Blake's 7 does so well. And so frequently. Whenever these two planets, whose names I forget, have a war, they select two champions and get them to fight in one of their space caves. And they all watch, because it's a bit like Tomb Raider / Doom - you get different levels - Derelict Warehouse From Secret Army, Redressed Space Cruiser Set etc. The space cruiser set is very good, nice big windows, looks very good in its first scene. Anyway, so Ace Rimmer is one champion, and some bloke is another.

And Servalan is an adjudicator. Let's ooooh just oooh crowbar Servalan oooh into the plot shall we. It's a small universe. I'm surprised the Liberator crew don't all slap their heads on each occasion - who is this mysterious Federation ambassador who will be adjudicating the contest? It's Servalan. Again. It's always bloody Servalan. Servalan and her costume designer and make-up artist, that's all that's left of the Federation. But she's in quite subdued form this week. No arms aloft stuff at all.

There's some very good location filming, including a great shot where we go up in a cherry picker wheeeee. Didn't recognise the director's name, presumably he was Too Good For Doctor Who. It's starting to get conspicuous, though, that schedules won't permit them to have all of the regular cast on location at once - they alternate between having two or three each time, don't they?

Of course, it turns out that Ace Rimmers's opponent is a robot, planted by Servalan, because - although there is no evidence for this - as Avon explains, it's the sort of madcap, implausible thing she would do. What better way for starting an interplanetary war than creating a robot stooge? It's elementary, my dear Vila.

Luckily Del steps into Ace Rimmer's shoes - which, unsurprisingly, fit him perfectly, because they're both the same bloody actor, the West End's glamorous Stephen Pacey - and does the honourable thing. Del won't shoot someone in the back, oh no. That would be cowardly. No, he does the brave thing. He shouts out their name and shoots them as they're turning round. Clever.

This sort-of illustrates the problem with the story - Chris Boucher hasn't quite thought through the story logic. People can use discs to read other people's minds - and yet these discs work on an android too, apparently. And they don't use the discs at all when it's Del versus the robot bloke, oddly enough. And there's some business about using Cally's telepathy powers to help Del defeat the robot, though in the end, that never really happens, so it feels like a pointless last-minute addition to give Cally something to do.

But it's quite a good one. I'm warming to Season 3 - the second half of it is all, Moloch-aside, pretty decent I think.

[*] Not really a space name, Del. But then, nor was Roj. They're bloke-down-the-pub names. Kerr, now *that's* a space name.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Staircase (Mystery)


Over the past few days I’ve been very much enjoying watching the old ATV series Thriller. There are two things I particularly like about it. Firstly, Brian Clemens' ingenious, fast-moving, twist-packed, suspenseful and extremely well-constructed scripts. And secondly, the prominent use of staircases within the drama.


You see, within the early 70’s suspense drama, the ‘staircase’ fulfils an important dramatic function. It acts as a structural motif, literally elevating the dynamic of the text; where characters previously only acted within a two dimensional space, that of the horizontal, they now gain a third dimension, that of the vertical. The ‘staircase’ acts as a bridge, a fulcrum, a gateway, an escalier if you like, between the ground, a place of safety, of ease of escape, of reality, and a higher state of being, a place of danger, of a lack of ease of escape, of dangerous sexual obsession, of crime, of the supernatural. The staircase leads from the hallway, our public selves, our ego, ergo civilisation, up to the bedroom, which represents our interior selves, our id, ergo the repressed animal within. We, the viewer, are invited to ascend or ‘go up the stairs’ to a forbidden zone where the threat of violence inevitably lurks. Danger rarely lurks at the bottom of the stairs unless the staircase is below ground level, and we are going into a cellar, where the dramatic function of the staircase is inverted, with the place of safety at the top, because that’s on ground level, and the place of danger at the bottom, which is in the cellar where the bodies are stored and the satanic masses take place.


Many of the stories are based around there being something nasty at the top of the stairs; playing on the inherent topographical superiority/vulnerability that a diametrical disunity on the vertical axis affords. We are instinctively afraid of that which comes from above, it has power over us. This is emphasized within the text by the use of camera angles, where the antagonists are shot from below, in order to reinforce their supremacy, their unknowability, their unassailability, their nostrils, and the protagonists – whether they be a young bride, an American back-packer on holiday, or a country policeman – are shot from above in order to draw attention to their vulnerability, their low status, and in the case of the country policemen, their bald patches.


The dramatic potential of the staircase is extremely rich and varied. Characters can creep up it. They can fall down it. They can pause half-way up to examine a mysterious family portrait. They can meet other characters half-way up. They can sit sobbing on one of the lower stairs. They can flirt playfully by sticking their head between the banisters. Young brides can have trouble getting their back-pack up the stairs and thus request the assistance of a mysterious young gentleman, thus breaking the ice. People can crouch at the top and peer down through the banisters, which afford an excellent hiding place. People can stand at the bottom and look up and see the person peering through the banisters because it turns out they don’t afford an excellent hiding place after all. And staircases will also, without exception, have a door underneath them, leading to a cubbyhole, cellar or nook within which bodies, murder weapons and sinister monk costumes may be stored.


The staircase can even be seen as a metaphor for death. It is a ‘stairway to heaven’, a place of execution, a sequence of evenly-spaced horizontal wooden ledges rising upon the diagonal that connect stability to instability, the known with the unknown, the past with the future, the living with the dead, the ground with the first or second floor (depending upon whether or not you are American). Within each step lurks the inevitable threat of violence, of the step giving way, of an ankle twisting, a foot slipping, a neck breaking, a crash—zooming, and a corpse lolling with wide open eyes on the hard stone floor. To me, the staircase functions in a liminal space, a space fraught with danger, serving as a metaphor for the series as a whole.


They literally work on multiple levels, usually two. But while ATV’s Thriller sees some excellent staircase work, I would suggest that the definitive staircase work would be found later in the 70’s, in Sapphire & Steel, particularly in ‘Story 4’ or ‘The One With The Staircase’ in which 83% of the story takes place on the eponymous staircase. It’s worked into the plot; ‘As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.’ The rhyme and the mystery wouldn’t be nearly so effective if the action took place on the horizontal. ‘As I was going along the hall, I met a man who wasn’t tall.’ Rubbish, isn’t it?


That’s the ATV staircase, but what of the BBC staircase? Well, during the 70’s and early 80’s, the BBC only owned one staircase, a vertical winding staircase of a modernist design made of plywood. This staircase famously featured in every single episode of Blake’s 7 as well as on numerous chat shows, pop shows, comedies and dramas. If a scientist had a laboratory, if a playboy had a penthouse, if a set designer had a whim, you can be sure this staircase – forever known as the ‘Meglos staircase’ after its appearance in the Doctor Who story Snakedance - would be on view.


But what now for the future of the staircase, I hear you ask? What place does it have in modern drama? I don’t know. I think this joke has already worn thin.

Friday, 24 February 2012

It Always Comes As A Surprise


There is a particular type of advert I hate.

Not the Go Compare ones. Everyone hates those. That is their power.

Nor do I refer to those adverts that are clearly intended to be funny, but where any humorous intent has been systematically filtered out by a process of management committee worry – I’m thinking of Paul Whitehouse’s bizarre commercials for Aviva, which seem to be the result of similar approach taken to the makers of the 60’s James Bond spoof Casino Royale, where they didn’t bother writing a funny script, but instead thought that simply hiring Peter Sellers would be enough to make it funny.

Nor do I refer to those car-crash adverts where the committee has not been able to agree on which approach to take, and have decided instead to combine several approaches into one advert, so you end up with an advert featuring a pop star, a puppet, a jingle, a song, a cartoon monkey, a CGI talking telephone, set both at home and in an exotic location, with voice-overs by three or four different actors. These adverts are, in fact, my favourite type of advert.

Nor do I refer to those adverts set in surreal CGI utopias, the British Gas people pottering about on their Super Mario Galaxy asteroids like smug Clangers accompanied by Blur’s The Universal, or the spindly folk who inhabit Lloydsland and their ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ jingle.

Nor do I refer to adverts featuring ukuleles. Whether they are plucked by stalkers at tube stations or on the soundtrack of car adverts, strummed by breathy young ladies who are barely able to squeak out cutesy sub-nursery rhyme ditties like sub-Eliza Doolittles.

Nor do I refer to those perversely zen adverts where you watch them and have no idea what they are actually advertising. One suspects they are working on some subliminal level but the likelihood is merely that they are the product of incompetent advertising agencies trying too hard to be cool.

No, the adverts that particularly annoy are ones where you have three young ladies sitting around a table, in a cafe or at work, chatting away and laughing like young ladies do, when one of the young ladies takes a mouthful of yoghurt, or a sip of her drink, or sprays a scent...

...and then suddenly, as though by magic, a man appears, usually good looking, often topless. Whereupon he proceeds to do something wacky, maybe he sings a song, maybe he dances a dance, maybe he levitates with a stream of roses emanating from his backside.

And we cut to the women. Reacting shocked and delighted, as though this is the most amazing and surprising thing they have ever seen.

But, I want to scream, you are in an advert! Nothing is real in advert land! In advert land you have CGI people living on asteroids and talking gophers! What basis of reality is this working on? And why do the women look surprised when, let’s face it, something unexpected happening is the single most predictable bloody thing that can happen in an advert. It’s like expecting the Spanish Inquisition. Which, come to think of it, is exactly the sketch they are ripping off.

The advertiser’s train of thought is simple. What this product actually does, in real life, is unremarkable. So instead we will portray a comedic exaggeration of those qualities, by having a good looking man rush in with his top off singing a song or dancing a dance. Ladies react with shock and delight.

I can’t remember what the advert is for, there seem to be half a dozen or more which take exactly the same approach, and for some reason, they particularly annoy me. Just thought I’d share.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Let's Take One More Rocket To The Moon


My 2-part 2010 Doctor Who audio Deimos/The Resurrection Of Mars is on sale today for £5 only. Click here to buy it. (Other excellent Doctor Who audios by Alan Barnes, Eddie Robson, Barnaby Edwards, Marc Platt and Nicholas Briggs are also available).

As a preview-type "tasters", here are the first two pages of Deimos (as the first page of The Resurrection Of Mars would be a bit of a spoiler!)

DEIMOS

PART ONE

(PRE-CREDITS:)

1: INT. ICE WARRIOR COUNCIL CHAMBER (VIA AUDIOGUIDE)

(FX: ICE PARLIAMENT IN SESSION. THE FOLLOWING IS ACTED IN A STILTED, OVERWROUGHT MANNER – NOT A TOP-QUALITY CAST!)

WARRIOR
Silence in the chamber! Lord Izdal to speak!

(FX: ICE WARRIORS FALL SILENT, SAVE FOR OCCASSIONAL MUMBLE.)

IZDAL
(OLD & GROWLY, LIKE BRIAN BLESSED) My Lords, the disaster facing our planet has passed the point of no return! The atmosphere can no longer protect us from the sun’s radiation! The surface temperature is rising and the equatorial ice sheet is melting! If we are to survive, we must evacuate!

(FX: CONSTERNATION. EPIC STOCK MUSIC.)

WARRIOR
But My Lord, we have nowhere to evacuate to! The world of Earth is uninhabitable during this period of history!

IZDAL
Then we must construct great catacombs on the moon known as Deimos! There, we shall sleep, entombed in ice, until such time as our world – or the world of Earth – becomes suitable for re-habitation. And then we shall awake – to take our rightful place as rulers of the Solar System!

(FX: CONSTERNATION. MORE EPIC MUSIC.)

WARRIOR
You speak false! This is only a temporary [state of –]

IZDAL
I will prove the truth of my words. Tomorrow, I shall face the Martian dawn. If I am mistaken, then I shall live. But if I speak the truth then… I shall die!

(FX: CONSTERNATION AND EPIC MUSIC, DURING WHICH WE CROSSFADE TO:)

2: INT. CATACOMBS. (CONTINUOUS)

(FX: TOURISTS WANDERING ABOUT, MUTTERING, SNAPPING PHOTOS.)


BOSTON (NARRATION)
(FX: A RECORDING, REPLAYED VIA AN AUDIO GUIDE:) … And so the next morning Lord Izdal faced the lethal ‘Red Dawn’, sacrificing his life to prove to the Ice Warriors that they must abandon Mars. (BEAT) For more information on the Red Dawn, press ‘eight’ on your audio guide now.

MARGARET
(LISTENING, EXCITEDLY) Imagine! The final resting place of the Ice Warriors!

HAROLD
(UNIMPRESSED, BORED) Yeah.

MARGARET
This bit is probably where they slept. On that rock over there. Harold, you sit on it while I take your hologram. And don’t go pulling your grumpy face, you’re on holiday!

(FX: PHOTO TAKEN.)

HAROLD
It’s just that I thought there’d be a bit more to it than a load of empty [tunnels and caves –]

(FX: A SWELL OF MUSIC, ACTIVATED BY THE CROWD REACHING A NEW POINT IN THE TOUR)

HAROLD
Oh, here we go again.

BOSTON (PUBLIC ADDRESS RECORDING; MUSICAL BACKING)
You are now in the deepest part of the catacomb to have been opened to the public. But this is merely a section of a labyrinth which extends deep into the moon’s crust. Nobody knows how many chambers remain to be discovered!

HAROLD
I suppose they’ve put all the good stuff in the museum.

MARGARET
That’s probably it. Oh, I’m looking forward to having a sit-down! We’ll do that first. A sit-down, a cup of tea, and then a look at some ancient Martian artefacts! Okay?

HAROLD
Whatever you want, Margaret. It’s your treat, not mine.

MARGARET
Oh, don’t be like that. How can I enjoy myself if you’re going to be all miserable? (BEAT) Ooh, what’s down here?

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)



My 2009 Doctor Who audios Hothouse and The Cannibalists are on sale today for £5 only. Click here to buy it. (Other excellent Doctor Who audios by Alan Barnes, Barnaby Edwards, Nicholas Briggs, Pat Mills and Eddie Robson are also available).

As a preview-type "tasters", here are the first pages of both scripts.

HOTHOUSE

PART ONE

(PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE:)

1. NEWS BROADCAST

(A NEWS BROADCAST, RADIO 4-ISH. FEMALE ANNOUNCER. SPOOKS-STYLE MUSIC – WE NEED TO HIT THE GROUND RUNNING. MODERN. URGENT)

(FX: THE FOLLOWING SPEECH SHOULD BE CUT-UP – BRIEF SNATCHES HEARD, OVERLAPPING, IN ORDER TO GIVE IT MORE SPEED AND URGENCY)


ANNOUNCER(S):
… [end] to the drought that has affected Britain for the last twenty weeks. (PAUSE) The home secretary announced today that following a number of public order disturbances, the government have declared a national state of emergency, with anyone found exceeding standpipe rations to face prosecution. (PAUSE) A mass demonstration is taking place in central London this afternoon, with an estimated one hundred thousand protestors calling for increased efforts to combat global warming. The event has been organised by the pressure group ‘The League of Nature’…

(FX: CUT TO DEMONSTRATION. SIRENS. SHOUTS. LAUGHTER. HORSES AND MOTORBIKES. WHISTLES AND DRUMS)

DEMONSTRATORS:
(CHANTING OFF) Enough is enough!/Save the Earth!/No second chances, it’s the only one we’ve got! (ETC)

MARK:
(A REPORTER, IN THE THICK OF IT) The demonstration has been largely good-natured, it has to be said. So far there have been only isolated outbreaks of violence but, following the riots in Paris and Madrid, the authorities are leaving nothing to chance. Leading the march is rock star turned environmental activist, Alex Marlow, who I spoke to earlier today…

(FX: CUT TO ANOTHER AREA – THE DEMONSTRATION IS STILL TAKING PLACE IN THE BACKGROUND, BUT QUIETER AND LESS AGITATED)

MARK:
Alex Marlow, you’re probably best known for your work campaigning to save endangered animals, yet recently you seem to have adopted a more militant stance –

MARLOW:
I wouldn’t say we were militant, we’re not the ones in the riot gear! No, I think it’s more a case that the global situation has become more desperate, y’know, and so our response, our level of response, to the situation has to… recognise that.

For more info on Hothouse click here.

THE CANNIBALISTS

PART ONE

PRE-TITLES

1: (PRE -TITLES). SPACE STATION CORRIDORS.

ECHOEY UNDERPASS TUNNEL. HYDRAULIC VENTS HISSING AND CREAKING. RUMBLING ENGINES. FLOORS MADE OF METAL VIBRATE AS TWO ROBOTS APPROACH. THEY ARE CALLED SERVO AND DIODE. DIODE IS ELDERLY AND WHEEZY – HIS JOINTS MAKE AN UNHEALTHY, LOP-SIDED SOUND.


SERVO:
Diode! Come on!

DIODE:
It’s no good, Servo – my hydraulics have had it. Seized up on me at last! You go on.

SERVO:
(CRYING) I’m not leaving you –

DIODE:
Go. Please, just (go)...!

SERVO:
I’m not going. Those things... what they’ll do to you –

DIODE:
Yes. And while they’re busy with me... you can get away.

SERVO:
No.

DIODE:
It’s what I want, Servo. Now go. They’re coming...

SERVO:
I don’t want to leave you –

DIODE:
The access duct, take the access duct, they won’t search there.

SERVO:
Diode - my old (friend)...

DIODE:
No goodbyes. Just go!

A SCRAPE OF METAL AND WHIRRS AS SERVO HEAVES HIMSELF INTO AN ACCESS DUCT. METAL PLATE SCRAPED INTO PLACE. SERVO CLANGING HIMSELF AWAY DOWN THE SHAFT, BECOMING QUIETER. THEN SILENCE SAVE FOR DIODE WHEEZING PAINFULLY.

DIODE:
At last... rest at last...

THERE’S A DEAFENING CRASH AS A BULKHEAD DOOR SMASHES OPEN. THE CANNIBALISTS BURST IN WITH A SAVAGE ANIMAL ROAR AND THE SNARL OF BANDSAWS AND DRILLS. THEIR LEADER IS TITUS. HE STALKS ABOUT IN ARMOUR, HYDRAULICS WHIRRING. A ROBOT VERSION OF JOHN LYDON.

TITUS:
Got ya now, ya little service drone! Thought ya could escape the mighty Titus, eh?

DIODE:
No... please...

TITUS:
Hardly worth the chase, to look at ya, ya grimy old motherboard! Still, I’m sure there’s somethin’ we can salvage. Gather round, lads! It’s ‘upgrade time’!

For more info on The Cannibalists, click here.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Always Crashing In The Same Car


My 2008 Doctor Who audio Max Warp is on sale today for £5 only. Click here to buy it. (Other excellent Doctor Who audios by Pat Mills, Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt, Eddie Robson, Paul Magrs and Nicholas Briggs are also available).

As a preview-type "taster", here's the first page of the script.

SCENE ONE: (PRE -TITLES). EXHIBITION HALL.

(SFX: A ROWDY ROUND OF APPLAUSE, WHOOPS, ALIEN NOISES)


GEOFFREY:
Welcome, welcome, thank you very much - you join us at the Inter-G Cruiser Show at the Sirius Exhibition Station.

(SFX: CROWD QUIETENS, STILL OCCASIONAL CHEERS AND WHOOPS)

GEOFFREY:
In today’s show Timbo the Ferret will be test-driving the new Kith Sunstorm...

TIMBO:
We’ll be deciding where it goes on the ‘funky board’.

(SFX: CROWD CHEERS AND WHOOPS ‘FUNKY BOARD! FUNKY BOARD!’)

O’REILLEY:
And I’ll be looking at the latest in quark drives!

GEOFFREY:
-and boring us all rigid. Later on we have ‘celebrity in a budget-conscious spaceship’, as Garfield Lemper feels the punishing escape velocity of the Umbriel Slipstream. So strap yourselves in, engage thrust, and prepare, for... Max Warp!

which takes us into - OPENING THEME

Monday, 13 February 2012

Sail On, Sailor

Sailor, an appreciation.

I think what changed my mind about Sailor was seeing them performing Glass Of Champagne on a repeated edition of Top Of The Pops. Previously to that, I’d barely heard of them, instantly dismissing them as being of the same ilk as Racey or Smokie. My reaction to Glass Of Champagne was, I am sure, not particularly original – I Can’t Believe This Isn’t Roxy Music – as it bears more than a passing similarity, at least in arrangement, to Virginia Plain and Do The Strand. But, even given the consistent ham-fisted shitness of the Top Of The Pops house band, I was intrigued enough to check the band out on Spotify.



And I was surprised to find they were actually very good. So good, in fact, that I listened to "The Epic Singles Collection" to death, and then bought it on CD (so bear that in mind, people who say that Spotify is a bad development, I have bought and or downloaded innumerable albums as a direct result of listening to them legally on Spotify). They are kind of like a half-way point between Roxy Music and 10CC, encompassing the virtues of both bands. I’d say the secret to writing a great pop song is to be both original and obvious, to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory things (and if I had to criticise early Roxy Music, it’s that they’re trying too hard to avoid the obvious rather than going for arrangements and musical choices that serve the song best.)



I was most impressed by Traffic Jam, an environmentalist, anti-automobile song, which picks up where the Beach Boys left off with Holland (Holland being, of course, the last remotely passable Beach Boys album, after which they stopped trying to be contemporary or relevant and instead became a retro/nostalgia band.). I’d say all their singles were very strong; Give Me Shakespeare would have been a big hit, had it been performed by XTC or Squeeze.



But the problem was, it was performed by Sailor. And despite their great arrangements and extremely clever songwriting – both original and obvious – and despite great vocals, ingenious lyrics and marvellous, inventive synthesizer parts, Sailor were, and still are, a mind-bogglingly uncool band. This is because whilst other groups may have contented themselves with knocking out the occasional concept album, Sailor were a concept band. Not only were they called Sailor, they had to dress as sailors whenever they appeared on telly, or on their album covers, and nearly all their songs would have to have a nautical theme (apart from all the ones I’ve mentioned in this article, funnily enough.) Bearing in mind also that the members of Sailor couldn’t look less nautical if they tried – they look extremely geeky* - to narrow their appeal in such a manner seems ludicrously perverse lunacy.



In addition, their other ‘hit’ – Girls, Girls, Girls – compounds the crime by the fact that although it is a great, well-constructed song, it’s also clearly an Irving Berlin pastiche and not perhaps as far away from The Theme To The Muppet Show as might be desirable. And so Sailor would be evermore pigeonholed as a novelty band, consigned to guest spots on variety shows and children’s shows, Seaside Specials and the like. I’m not saying they should have been taken seriously, but it meant that the record-buying public never got past their preconceptions, and never got past the band’s naff image and gimmicky subject matter. Although, interestingly, Sailor were successful in Germany and Holland, perhaps because their nautical nature held more appeal in those countries, or perhaps because the people buying the records in those countries couldn’t understand their lyrics and so were just judging each song on its melody and production.

So, in summary, I’d say if you like bands like 10CC, Roxy Music, Wings, ELO, Supertramp, The Feeling – all that lot – then you should give Sailor a listen.

* Not that there is anything wrong with that. One of the best bands from the 60’s, The Zombies, looked like it was formed out of all the musicians who couldn’t get picked to be in the cool bands, and yet they produced the psych-classic Odessey and Oracle.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

I Like

Nick Briggs kicked off an interesting discussion the other day, when he mentioned in Big Finish’s Vortex magazine that Paul Magrs’ story The Boy That Time Forgot wasn’t one of his favourites. Paul, quite understandably, was a little put out at this, and Nick apologised, but explained that he doesn’t want to become one of those people who is always so on-message that nobody ever believes a word he says. It’s interesting, I think, to find that balance, between being honest about stuff, and being positive.

My rule is to avoid expressing negative opinions on anything that anyone else has written in public whenever possible. The reason is simple; negativity has a habit of lingering, it gets repeated, it gets exaggerated, it gets taken out of context, in a way that positivity never does.

Which is a problem, because quite often I will change my mind about stuff, and find that I quite like things I didn’t like before. I don’t want to be beholden to opinions I expressed five, ten, twenty years ago; I don’t want opinions to be ascribed to me that I don’t necessarily agree with. Because people will always think ‘Ah, but the negative opinion is what Jonny really thinks, the positive opinion is just him saying that to get work.’ (Which it very well might be, but I’d quite like any positive opinions that I say just to get work to come across as genuine!)

The other thing is that, as a punter, I find it very dispiriting when one writer or performer I like sees fit to say something disparaging about another writer or performer I like. It’s as though I’m being asked to take sides. Blur or Oasis, both good, so why do I have to choose?

Another reason for avoiding negativity is that, in my experience, it can stop you getting work. So there is a simple formula that writers use when dealing with these questions. It has been passed around in secret for years but I will share it with you.

1) If you liked the piece of work, for goodness’ sake, just say so.

2) If you didn’t like it, lie. Say you did. What harm can it possibly do? Or say you haven’t seen/heard/read the piece of work yet, but that you are greatly looking forward to it. Lie, lie, and lie again!

3) If you can’t bring yourself to lie, then maybe you can think of someone you know who did like the piece of work? A child, perhaps, or an elderly relative? Or somebody you overheard on the bus? Then mention them instead. You’ll see writers use this one quite often; ‘My seven-year-old son thought it was terrific.’ (It's their coded way of saying, 'But personally I thought it was bloody awful.')

4) If you can’t find anyone you know who did like the piece of work, why not praise the person’s professionalism in general terms? Say that you’ve always found them very diligent to work with and that they deserve every success.

5) If you can’t honestly say that either, then you’re going to have to resort to the lowest possible form of praise possible. Say that the writer in question is a very nice person in real life.

6) If you can’t even honestly say that the writer is a very nice person in real life, then for goodness’ sake, why are you bothering to be honest? Go back to point 2 and lie!

7) I’m not sure how, if you’ve been following this formula, you’ve ended up here, but if you have, there is an old adage; if you can’t say something nice say nothing at all, and as a very wise man once said, you say it best when you say nothing at all.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Then I Go Twisting


Been thinking about plot twists recently.

What is a plot twist? It’s when a character, usually the protagonist, deduces or discovers a new piece of information that causes them (and the audience) to then re-evaluate everything they have previously been shown and told. It can be anything from somebody turning out to be a figment of the imagination to the solution to a murder mystery (i.e. once you know who the killer is, everything that you’ve previously witnessed is illuminated in a new light.)

Ideally, with a plot twist, the audience won’t guess it before it’s revealed to the protagonist, though sometimes the writer might decide to do a ‘gradual reveal’ where the audience is supposed to guess it ahead of the protagonist because they are given information to which the protagonist is not privy (and thus provide what is known as dramatic irony). And sometimes it can happen unintentionally, if a plot twist is too obviously signposted.

What I’d say is of paramount importance, though, is the logical integrity of the story itself, and whether it is believable for the characters, rather than the audience, to not guess the twist until the moment of revelation, based upon the information they have been given. The twist might be obvious to the audience, but it won't necessarily be obvious to the protagonist if the protagonist hasn’t had all the information that the audience has.

The problem is what to do when you have a very, very clever protagonist, because they have an awkward habit of guessing twists prematurely and ending the story before it’s begun. One clever solution this problem was in Jonathan Creek, where Jonathan would invariably guess the solution to that week’s ‘locked room’ mystery straight away but wouldn’t disclose it until he’d also worked out who the murderer was and how to prove they’d done it. Another solution is for one small but vital piece of information to be withheld from the protagonist until the end of the story, at which point they have an epiphany. This is how most “whodunits” work.

But what I think is clumsy writing is when your very, very clever protagonist is given all the information needed to work out the twist at the same time as the audience and then inexplicably fails to guess the twist. I mean, it’s perfectly acceptable if the protagonist isn’t a very, very clever person, they can be plausibly slow on the uptake, but I’d say it was clumsy writing if a very, very clever protagonist has all the information to work out the twist and then spends half an hour of screen-time scratching his head before finally working out the twist - without the benefit of any new information. Because I don’t believe an audience finds it plausible for a character that is supposed to be very, very clever to be slower on the uptake than they are.

You might be able to think of an example. One that springs to mind is an episode of House, where House is on an aeroplane and a traveller presents with all the symptoms of decompression sickness. But, because each episode of House is 40-odd minutes long, it takes House 40-odd minutes to make what is, I would suggest, a pretty straightforward diagnosis. Not only that, but in order for it to fill the running time, he has had behave uncharacteristically stupidly; he doesn’t check the passenger’s wallet, he doesn’t think that being in a reduced air-pressure environment might diagnostically relevant. He has, as the expression goes, been hit with the idiot stick.

Now, you may say, ah, but Jonny, you are a very, very clever person to be able to spot the symptoms of decompression sickness after about 5 minutes, and I would be hard pressed to disagree with you, but the point is that the character of House is supposed to be even cleverer than me, so that if I have worked something out, he should have already worked it out before me. It’s just not plausible that the most brilliant diagnostician in Princeton-Plainsboro should take 35 minutes longer to work out a diagnosis than Jonny viewer, based on the same information.

And that’s the thing about twists, I think. It’s not so much whether the audience sometimes works them out too early, because that’s inevitable, it’s whether or not it’s plausible that the protagonist doesn’t work out the twist based on the information they’ve been given.

Particularly if we are supposed to believe they are very, very clever.