Storytelling versus spectacle


Watching the trailer for I, Frankenstein I yet again feel sad that no one has so far filmed a faithful version of one of my favourite books.

While it’s poor form to slate a film you haven’t yet seen (and, in this case have very little enthusiasm to watch) the trailer does set out the stall of the movie: action, explosions and don’t-know-when-to-stop spectacle.

(As an aside, the film isn’t exactly winning the hearts of critics. Mark Kermode gives it one star – I suspect because zero stars isn’t an option – his review is nothing short of damning.)

I, Frankenstein is yet another in a long line of spectacular yet dull movies churned out by Hollywood – a neat enough idea perhaps, but with all the money going to big stars and big CGI rather than investment in the script.

It seems to me that, when it comes to storytelling, television increasingly has the edge over cinema. Television doesn’t have the same budgets as cinema (though it’s inching closer) so there’s much more of a focus on storytelling. Plus, the medium itself inherently has something that Hollywood doesn’t – oodles of time.

Take Breaking Bad, one of the best character-driven dramas ever. Walter White’s slow decline from Mr Chips to Scarface takes place over six seasons. That’s 62 episodes with a usual runtime of 60 minutes. As a film, that would be just over two-and-a-half days. Quite a commitment but one that’s manageable on television. The format allows characters to be explored, subplots to thrive, red herrings to be teased continually. How would you shoehorn that into a couple of hours?

Breaking Bad isn’t alone. Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Rome, 24 – the list goes on. At the heart of all of these is great storytelling (though, to be fair, Game of Thrones has its share of decent – if not exaggerated – special effects). And decent television dramas don’t have to be bottom-numbing epics, either. Broadchurch spanned just 8 episodes of 45 minutes each. At roughly 360 minutes, that’s still comfortably longer than an epic film such as Lawrence of Arabia (222 minutes in the original release; 228 minutes in the restored version).

True enough, the three Lord of the Rings films made for 558 minutes in the theatre and 726 minutes on Blu-ray; there are always exceptions – Lord of the Rings combines spectacle with storytelling brilliantly.

It seems to me that because television’s found strong storytelling feet in the long-form drama, Hollywood is hitting back in the only way it can: mostly with explosions and CGI. While there’s some long-form cinema (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings are just a few) there’s the inescapable fact: they have to be good stories to survive that kind of runtime. They are exceptions because they are good, character-driven stories.

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and Marvel’s other superhero films don’t really count. They’re not one long story, they’re really standalones with some connectivity bolted in; they’re also pretty hit-and-miss – typically further examples of thin plot and thick spectacle, smartly linked to create a pleasing universe in which to wallow.

By and large, enough people must be watching these vacant blockbusters to make them worthwhile – and keep the studio suits convinced that bigger, louder explosions equals audience satisfaction. Thank goodness that’s not the extent of cinema and that some good stories do make it on the big screen.

Sure, television’s not flawless. For every Breaking Bad there are dozens of tired, clichéd serials. And don’t get me started on cooking shows, makeover shows, celebrity challenges or whatever. But at least long-form television drama proves that massive audiences want great stories too.

Both Hollywood and television compete for our money, so they’ll make what mostly succeeds commercially. Yet I can’t help thinking that as a general trend, the Hollywood suits are backing spectacle over storytelling – perhaps in the hope that we won’t spot the threadbare plot in the middle of so many awesome explosions.


The Chrysalids – review


It feels slightly odd sitting down to write a review of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. I first read it when I was ten or eleven – about the same age as the book’s protagonist, David Strorm, when we first meet him. Since then, I’ve read it many, many times – and enjoyed it as much each time.

Falling for that reader’s temptation to spend time with an old friend, I’ve just finished reading it yet again – in fact, it’s one of the first books on my new Kindle Paperwhite.

The story is set at some point in the future. We don’t really know when, but it’s safe to assume that at least a thousand years have passed since today. Civilisation has fallen long ago – and is now trying to claw its way out of a largely non-technological agricultural era. What became of mankind, we’re not told for sure – but a large-scale nuclear war seems the safest bet.

David lives with his family on a farm in Waknuk, part of what we know now as Labrador. Life isn’t easy. ‘Deviations’ (mutated crops and animals) are feared as the work of the Devil and have to be guarded against, rooted out and destroyed to guarantee genetic purity. ‘Abominations’ (mutated people) are sterilised and cast out to the Fringes, a land where little grows true and life expectancy is short.

Physical deviations are easy to spot – an extra finger, long arms and so on. But David deviates in a way that people can’t see with the eye: he can communicate over long distances, with his mind. He’s one of a group with the same curse, or gift. As he grows, it becomes increasingly hard for the group to hide their deviation – and discovery can only end in one way.

In a land that is driven by religion (the Bible being only one of two books which survived the Tribulation, the passing of the old people) David’s father is one of the most fervent zealots, who wouldn’t hesitate to hand over one of his family to the authorities.

So, enough plot. I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve not read it.

To readers of science fiction, much of the above will seem like familiar territory. But remember: this was written in 1955. The Chrysalids is very much one of the first carts to cut grooves into science fiction’s muddy lanes.

It could certainly be said that some of the writing is of its time. A little formal for today’s eyes; a little proper; perhaps – now and again – a little stilted. But what can’t be said is that the book is ever anything less than absorbing – and its tale of prejudice, judgement, intolerance and fear is as relevant today as the day it was written.

If the book has a flaw, for me it’s a grand speech given towards the end – by one of the characters. Again, I don’t want to spoil things for you – but it retreads the themes of the book in a less than subtle way, needlessly repeating and reinforcing the book’s core messages. It’s not a great crime – but possibly something of a stumble.

I personally consider this to be Wyndham’s finest book. The characters are stronger than in The Day of The Triffids; their relationships more realistic, moving and engaging. The prose is wonderful. The plot keeps moving – raising the stakes until it reaches the conclusion.

I can’t deny my deep fondness for this book. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Its values and sensibilities have helped to shape mine. I’m affectionate towards it, as you would be with a loved old friend. It also was responsible for instilling in me a romanticism; a high regard for relationships based on deep love. In a time where most science fiction writers were somewhat emotionally constipated, Wyndham paints the relationship between David and his cousin, Rosalind, in a way that those of us who can’t connect with our minds – and are restricted to physical senses – can only envy.


Full Dark, No Stars – review


Don’t ask me why, I’d just not got around to reading this one, even though I’d bought it a couple of years ago. Full Dark, No Stars consists of four (loosely) thematically linked novellas.

The first story, 1992, is a man’s first-person confession of a killing – and in many ways owes more than a tip of the hat to Poe’s A Tell-Tale Heart. The second story, Dig Driver, is darker still – the revenge of a rape victim. The third, Fair Extension, deals with a pact and its consequences – though this is far from being The Monkey’s Paw. The final story, A Good Marriage, deals with the horror of discovering that the man you’ve lived with most of your life isn’t what he seems.

Stephen King describes these stories as harsh. It’s an accurate word. Although there are hints (and sometimes more than hints) of the supernatural, these are really tales of the dark that is within us all – those parts of human nature which we tell ourselves don’t exist, or occur only rarely. We may tell ourselves this, yet we know even as we do that this is self-deceit. Such darkness is around us – we only have to watch the news to know this is the truth. Sometimes the darkness is close to us. Sometimes it is inside us.

It can be the case with a collection of shorter stories that there’s one stand-out story and at least one lame duck. Not so here. Each story is as strong as the next – an engaging plot that’s driven forwards by believable, though flawed, characters in horrific situations.

None suffer from ‘clockwork plot’ syndrome (that you can tell instantly where things are going and nothing falls in the characters’ paths). None miss a step. None dawdle or linger. None flinch in the face of giving the reader the truth – the truth that’s a bone, broken, with skin and flesh torn away. These are examinations of human nature; the dark with the light – though of course mostly dark.

Yet, the stories never become salacious. This isn’t horror porn, it’s our dark selves under scrutiny. What someone might do if tempted, pushed or cornered.

King remains a gripping writer. Someone who is able to conjure characters that are as solid and believable as your own neighbours, friends and family. He’s also someone who’s a master of not just the novel but also the novella – so unfashionable elsewhere, perhaps, but here the stories are exactly right for the word count.


Kindle Paperwhite


Kindles have come a long way in a very short time. My first Kindle, not much more than a couple of years ago, was a clunky, blocky affair. My second, the previous non-Paperwhite Kindle (the one with the keyboard) was much better – but still a little bulky.

The New Kindle Paperwhite (late 2013) is an altogether more natural feeling device. It’s compact and light – very easy on the hand. Apart from the on switch, it lacks buttons of any kind, being a touchscreen device.

New Kindle Paperwhite

New Kindle Paperwhite

My assumption was that this would be a weakness – that, like the iPad, it would be a fingerprint magnet which required frequent cleaning. Not so. It takes the lightest of touches to move from page to page; even my often sticky hands don’t seem to be making a negative impression on its screen. If I’m honest, I’d still prefer the button to be at the side of the screen – ergonomically, this seems to make the most sense, as you don’t have to even move your thumb to turn a page. But the touchscreen does work well, though I seem to have a habit of moving forwards more than one page, when I’m a little careless.

The build quality is excellent. This is a sturdy piece of kit. While the plastic on the front is smooth, the reverse is matt – just enough of the sheen removed to allow you to grip it properly. As usual, adding a case gives you more protection – but adds weight and bulk.

The screen is excellent. It’s backlit, so – for the first time with a Kindle – you can read in the dark. Indeed, you can read in almost any lighting condition. You can adjust the level of backlighting until you’re comfortable. The refresh when you turn pages now has far less of a distracting flash. Type is clear and legible.

The Kindle Paperwhite’s performance is snappy – it positively zips along when moving from page to page.

Battery life is claimed to be much better. I have to say that, with the wireless turned on, I’ve not found this to be the case – I certainly didn’t get the claimed weeks of life from it. I’ve now turned wireless off and we’ll see how much of a difference that makes.

At just over £100 (without 3G) it’s also very good value – more performance and a better screen for around the same money.

Was it worth the upgrade? I’d say yes, without a doubt. It’s lighter, more comfortable to use and it’s wonderful to be able to read in the dark, or dim light, without an add-on light. I expect that many a Christmas stocking will have one of these inside it this year.


An English graveyard tells a tale


For an atheist, I have a paradoxical fascination with churches and graveyards – especially  ancient ones. It’s not so much that I get involved in avid research about them more that I find them pleasing places to visit, pass the time and take pictures.

There’s a calm atmosphere around a churchyard which is unique. I don’t especially think this is a spiritual thing. I just think that it’s rare in these modern times that any kind of space is set aside for one purpose – especially one of reflection and quiet – so they’re increasingly the most protected oasis in our fast-moving world.

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Those of a religious bent may well tell me that this is because they are ‘God’s acre’. Those with older spiritual leanings may well point out that many English churches were built on pagan sites (often wells; perhaps on a ley line too) as Christianity subsumed those ancient beliefs which came before.

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Minster Churchyard, near Boscastle, Cornwall

Perhaps it’s all of these things or none, but there’s a wonderfully calm half-hour or hour to be had passing time in a churchyard.

The gravestones themselves hand a story down from the past to the future. The gravestone is almost the purest form of storytelling: just a name, a couple of dates and perhaps a line or two to summarise an entire life.

Wandering through Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, it was pleasing to bump into Tony Wilson’s grave – just as in the past, I’d bumped into Tony himself. I didn’t know him, but I think we met three or four times. The most notorious of those meetings was at a concert of Factory Records bands, held at the Derby Hall in Bury. Notorious, because singer Ian Curtis was unable to perform more than a few songs and – for one reason or another – a pretty solid fight broke out in which both band and audience participated. I’ve read several accounts of this – and seen it twice documented on film (in 24-Hour Party People and Control). None of the accounts seem wholly accurate, but then mine is probably tainted by both memory and proximity to the event.

I wasn’t in the audience – I was one of the people responsible for organising and running the event. I took money on the door, helped move the PA, operated the lights. (Such as they were; Joy Division liked the lighting cold and minimal, I just set up a few blue gels and left things alone.) When the fight kicked up, I turned on the house lights and hid under the lighting table to avoid flying beer glasses.

Tony Wilson said to me after, in the office, that this was “just kids having fun”. At the time, I thought this was a pretty stupid attitude and said so. Although I didn’t use the word “pretty”. In retrospect, I can see that we just had different experiences running a venue – mine was an arts centre; his was closer to the epicentre of youth, sometimes notorious for drugs and minor violence.

Also at the time, I didn’t appreciate Joy Division for the band they were – original, raw, incredible. Joy Division was but one band touched by the hand of Tony Wilson and his headstone, wonderfully designed by Peter Saville (responsible for Factory’s posters and record sleeves), is one of the most original you’ll ever see. It’s almost like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey – a deep black that’s almost unnaturally reflective. It carries the words: Anthony H Wilson; Broadcaster; Cultural Catalyst (my punctuation).

Tony Wilson's grave

Tony Wilson’s grave

How incredible to so accurately sum up a life in three words. It also carries a quote from G Linnaeus Banks’ 1876 novel The Manchester Man: “Mutability is the epitaph of worlds / Change alone is changeless / People drop out of the history of a life as of a land though their work or their influence remains.”

At the other end of the scale (and almost at the other end of the country) I stumbled across the grave of a white witch, just outside the churchyard of Minster Church, near Boscastle. I say just outside and I mean it – she’s buried in woodland, just inches from the churchyard boundary. This may be because she’s excluded – but I think it’s more a matter of choice. It’s not the church mocking her, it’s those who buried her mocking the church.

Joan died in 1813, aged just 38 (probably a decent innings back then), while in Bodmin Jail. She wasn’t incarcerated for witchcraft, but for brawling; she’d suffered terribly from a tooth abscess which made her a bit more than bad-tempered. She got involved in fights and shouted insults at people. When she fought, she was unnaturally strong and was sometimes called the Fighting Fairy Woman.

She had been a seer and healer. One of the things she did was to tie clooties (strips of cloth) to trees or holy wells – as the cloth rots, so the person’s disease dissipates. It was somewhat moving to see that someone else had tied a strip of cloth to a tree, just above her grave.

A clootie, hanging over the grave of Joan Wytte

A clootie, hanging over the grave of Joan Wytte

Her headstone reads: “Joan Wytte. Born 1775. Died 1813 in Bodmin Jail. Buried 1998. No longer abused.”

The grave of Joan Wytte

The grave of Joan Wytte

She had been abused in death, her bones disinterred and used in séances. Later, they were on display at the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle and were finally given a proper burial after, it is said, just a few too many poltergeists were disruptive at the museum.

It’s both sad and touching that our lives can – and will – be reduced to just a few lines of text. But those few words count. They can inspire you to find out more about the person, or appreciate the feelings of those they touched.


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: a review


I’m sure the person who bought me this as a present has no idea that one of my fascinations in life is old photographs. Many’s the time I flick through them in junk shops, wondering, what exactly is the story behind each picture? Those two people, posing – lovers? Friends? Friends having an affair that no one ever found out about? That building – where is it? Does it still exist? Who lived there? Who died there?

Such is the premise behind the at first charming, at times puzzling and frequently dark Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Young Jacob’s fascination for his grandfather’s old, other-worldly photographs leads him into a world he couldn’t suspect existed – as he tries to come to terms with tragedy and with memories he knows must be impossible.

The prose is punctuated by the photographs themselves, giving the book not just something visual as an anchor but creating a deeper, more brooding atmosphere.

It’s a book of many different tones. Its language is efficient, keeping the reader moving. Its ideas sparkle with originality, fun and fear. Like the peat-bog in the story itself, the narrative keeps shifting under the reader’s feet – as you’re led into strange dark places that grow darker still as you read on. It’s also frequently gripping, with a real sense of jeopardy that increases in scale as the book progresses.

Jacob sets out to discover the truth behind his grandfather’s past at an orphanage on a remote Welsh island, but finds only the crumbling ruins of the past – the children long gone, the orphanage a ruin being reclaimed by nature. Yet as Jacob explores, he finds that the past may not be as far away as he thought.

That’s enough spoilers. I’ve had something of a ‘reading dry spell’ and this was exactly the right kind of book to break it. It seems light to begin with, but soon pulls you into its dark world. The children are not the prissy youths of so much fantasy fiction, but streetwise, sassy and conflicted. It’s well-written, with just one passage feeling oh-so-much like a scene from Woman in Black – but the rest shimmered with originality. It’s also a book that’s hard to categorise – young adult? Possibly? Horror? In parts. It dances between genres niftily, stealing from them what it will and deftly avoiding sinking in any of them.


Remembering Gerry Anderson


Over the Christmas break, one of the true heroes of my life sadly passed away: the great Gerry Anderson.

Like most people of my age, my first exposure to Gerry’s work was as a child. The opening bars of each of his shows called us to gather eagerly around the television, captivated in turn by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90.

Famously, Gerry was frustrated by being known as ‘the puppet guy’ – he wanted to make serious films with live actors. (Of course, that day came with UFO and Space: 1999 – both blockbuster hits.) Yet I doubt that if he’d gone straight into live action that his legacy would be anywhere near as rich.

Out of financial necessity, Gerry created children’s television shows, using increasingly sophisticated puppets. Though sponsored and trusted by the great Lew Grade, he was squeezed tightly on budget – Grade knew that Anderson could deliver the goods, but he needed to turn a decent profit too.

And, where other filmmakers might be enjoying the luxury of large sound-stages and studio facilities, Anderson had to make do with a cramped unit on a Slough trading estate.

All of these restrictions were fuel to a unique creative fire. Tight budgets meant solving problems in an inventive way. Working for children meant that imaginations could run wild. A small set meant that people worked together closely; new techniques were needed to film what were ostensibly large set pieces.

A lesser person may well have produced what was ‘good enough’. Not Gerry. Gerry absolutely did not accept that any of these restrictions meant his output should be in any way apologetic. Yes, he was out to prove himself and desperately wanted to attract a different kind of commission – but he was also passionate about his product.

As a creator of children’s tales for a more modern age, Gerry was without equal. I say that in the knowledge that other filmmakers – most notably Disney – were around at the same time. But where Disney plundered folk tales for his stories, Anderson’s catalogue was set mostly in the future – original creations.

There is a magic and charm about Gerry’s work that is not only unique but has enabled it to stand the test of time. His shows are full of cheeky humour – but sentimentality is rare. Gerry’s audience were children – but he never, ever patronised them. He created television shows that were shot like blockbuster movies – large-scale action, tightly plotted stories and (despite their puppet-nature) entertaining and likeable characters.

Pushing back the boundaries at a technical level paid off – sure, we can see the strings, but the sheer quality of the model work and special effects still looks great today. It’s said that few filming techniques used by Hollywood in disaster blockbusters weren’t created by Gerry, from his little trading estate in Slough.

In filmmaking, genius isn’t all about self. It’s teamwork. And Gerry was oh so good at selecting, working with and trusting some truly great people. The model designs of Reg Hill and Mike Trim. The special effects of Derek Meddings. The fashion designs of Sylvia Anderson. And of course the unforgettable music of Barry Gray – each theme tune a heraldic introduction that set pulses racing and grabbed you firmly, pushing you down in front of the television. All of these elements – and more – came together under Anderson’s tireless coordination to create 30 to 60 minutes of television magic, week in, week out.

Gerry wasn’t always (indeed, often) the writer, but it’s as a storyteller rather than a filmmaker for which I remember him. His ideas positively sparkled and absolutely connected with his audience – which child wouldn’t want to be a secret agent with adult mind implants, or save people’s lives with the amazing equipment of a secret rescue organisation?

He only gave up work towards the end of his life. It’s true, his career took a dip – but he regained his creative mojo in 2005 with the CGI version of Captain Scarlet (sadly hidden in the schedules and not destined to be a commercial success). He didn’t own the rights to much of his work and would have loved to have remade Thunderbirds in CGI – and was scathing, rightly so, of the embarrassing misstep that was Jonathan Frakes’s Thunderbirds movie.

I doubt that any other person has had as big an influence on my childhood. Gerry Anderson created the things which inspired me to play as a child. Even today, my office contains models of Supercar, Fireball XL5, Eagle transporters, Skydiver and Interceptors. Each is beautiful in its own right; each is a reminder of a time when stories were told with both innocence and gusto; each shows me that – even with a tight budget and limited facilities – true greatness can be created.

Gerry, I can’t thank you enough.


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