Friday, 23 January 2015

Gotta kiss a lot of frogs

‘We need a writer for an animated TV show. It’s from a concept by Viv Stanshall – ’

I was off like a shot. Viv Stanshall? The Bonzos. Do Not Adjust Your Set. Sir Henry Rawlinson and Cumberpatch the gardener – not to mention Old Scrotum the wrinkled retainer. Work on something cooked up in that great rambling, fecund greenhouse of a mind? You bet.

Well, even the best of us fires a blank from time to time. Viv’s “concept” was of a bunch of kid tadpoles living in a canal. The leader’s name was Walthamstow. That was the first red flag. It was where Viv grew up, but dammit, I don’t call any of my characters Stoke Poges, do I? The first gag in the script was a pun on Henry Ford’s comment that “history is bunk”. In a show for 7-10 year olds. A writer, they said they needed? I had to explain I’m not qualified to administer the Last Rites.

Other characters in the original pitch were Taddy Boy, complete with frock coat and Chris Isaak quiff, and a frog called the Wise Old One. Along with the name of Walthamstow’s gang (the Telstars) that rather stamped an expiry date on the whole package. There was also a Scottish tadpole who wore a Tam O’Shanter and always carried tartan bagpipes. Let’s not even, as they say. To help sell all this there was an animatic for which the production company had somehow managed to rope in Stephen Fry and Neil Innes. (Innes isn’t too big a surprise, admittedly, being Viv’s old mucker and therefore bound to do it for Old Times’ Sake, but what Fry was thinking I don’t know.)

The guys at the production company were excited because they had shown the animatic to a BBC exec and he had expressed a flicker of amusement. I wasn’t there, but I’m familiar with those Matrix-like halls and I’m willing to hazard that it was really just a hiccup after a long lunch. Encouraged as they were by this apparent evidence of approval, the production company nonetheless realized that the whole thing needed to be torn down, sown with salt, and rebuilt in pristine materials.

‘That name Walthamstow…’

‘Yeah. No. That’s shit, obviously. You can get rid of that.’

‘So what do we have to keep?’

‘Well, it’s got to be called Tadpoles.’

That’s what you want in a brief – ie, it actually was. I had just finished working at Elixir Studios, so I was familiar with the canals of Camden Town and liked the idea of dropping an edgy feeling of urban clamour and detritus into the canal – a development that I don’t believe Viv would have objected to.

As it often helps to have a writing partner when you want to spin up the levels of energy needed for comedy and/or animation, I roped in a friend of mine. (She is quite well-known these days, though wasn’t back then, and as I haven’t sought her permission to talk about this, I’ll be a gentleman and leave her name out of it.) We knocked out a script (this is one of several versions) after first changing all the characters:
TADPOLES Aquatis Personae

Finzer – aka (only to himself) "The Finz". Desperately wants to be cool, so the fact he's a tadpole AND a kid really gets him down.

Bino – Finzer's cousin. An albino tad; big and tough (for a tadpole).

Izzy – a wannabe tad. Don't call him a newt to his face.

K8 – pronounced "Kate". She’s sweet on Finzer, although she's in heavy duty denial about that.

Sprat – brainier than the rest and boy does he like them to know it. Sprat is a fish and, brainy as he is, he still can't figure out how come he and Finzer are half-brothers...

Dad Pole – dumb as ditchwater, but doesn't realize it.

Massy – Dad Pole’s girlfriend; the mother-figure of Finzer's household.

Mrs Todpuddle – the gang’s teacher. The longest suffering tadpole in the canal.

Spikey – the local bully/menace. He’s a mean-eyed fish and he’d like to eat you, but not before he’s sold you a dodgy timeshare in the Norfolk Broads. Think Arthur Daley at 78 rpm.

The Frogs – three grand old figures who are only glimpsed at the water’s edge, turned half away in profile like brooding Easter Island statues. Everyone thinks the Frogs are enormously wise and the source of all good fortune, but they never speak to tadpoles and might very well not even know they exist.

What came of Tadpoles? I’m not sure. I was busy with Leo Hartas preparing our comic strip Mirabilis: Year of Wonders to appear in The DFC, as well as developing book concepts with Jamie Thomson such as the Dark Lord series. Meanwhile, my Tadpoles writing partner had projects of her own. And the production company that hired us went out of business with the new animatic only half-finished. So, shrug. You get a lot of things like this to work on if you’re a freelance writer, usually for no money up front, and most of them deserve to be deep sixed. It’s not like it was a project very dear to my heart. The only regret is that it would have been nice to do something in memory of Viv Stanshall. Maybe this show, though, would have done him no favours.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The sleep of reason

Three years ago I rewrote Frankenstein as an interactive novel. Establishing a timeline was my first task; Mary Shelley didn’t tell us anything about the historical background to the story but I like to know that kind of detail even if it ends up in the part of the iceberg the reader doesn’t see. We know that Walton’s framing narrative is dated sometime in the eighteenth century, but presumably a reader in 1818 would feel the narrative lacking in impact if it all took place back in the days of Newton, Voltaire and Bach. So it seemed reasonable to opt for the 1790s, and I sketched out dates placing Victor Frankenstein’s story alongside the events of the French Revolution.

That was a gift. That great hopeful experiment of the Revolution, the epiphany of the Age of Reason, degenerating into unreason and terror, then into a backlash of conservatism and fear. How perfect a backdrop for what Victor is trying to achieve. You don’t need to know that the monster is murdering William Frankenstein just as Danton and Desmoulins are being guillotined, or that he is born just days after the start of the decimal calendar, but I found it added a little frisson to my imagination as I wrote.

If I were updating the Frankenstein story to the present day, I’d have a still better metaphor in the legacy of French colonial policy. Victor brings a man into being in the midst of our society only to leave him outcast, disadvantaged, alienated. The creature – in my interactive version it’s possible for Victor to name him Adom, but the story always works better if he isn’t granted even that much – attempts to learn from his neighbours, who profess high ideals, but when he puts their liberalism to the test they reject him just like everybody else he’s approached. And so he turns to killing as the only way to exercise any agency in the world.

Justifiably or not, many French citizens of Algerian origin apparently feel much the same way towards the republic as the monster to his creator. Crammed into banlieues, they get to watch the glittering life of Paris always at arm’s length, like the monster in his hovel adjoining the De Laceys’ home. They do not necessarily feel thankful for living in one of the richest and fairest civilizations in history.

Am I saying, “Muslims are monsters"? Of course not, but thank you for giving me the opportunity, so necessary in these dumbed-down days, of repudiating that. The term monster is used with some irony and ambiguity in the novel (in my version, anyway; who is the monster?) and in any case all labels are fluid. The lesson of the story is that you can soon turn others into Others if you treat them as such. Salman Rushdie recently pointed this out on Bill Maher’s Real Time show. Radical elements may whip up their followers to become matyrs, because the martyrs of one side in a struggle are the monsters of the other – and it’s that cycle of blood, fear and reprisal that fuels the maelstrom of unreason that some would like to see us sucked into.

Nor, when I evoke North African immigrant communities in France as a metaphor that could apply to a modern version of Frankenstein, do I trivialize the political situation that led to tragedies like the Charlie Hebdo murders. Transplanting a political idea into fictional form doesn’t trivialize it; it universalizes it. Social mobility even in modern Western societies is such that it can take many generations to break out of poverty. If the downtrodden class tends to be of a recognizable racial type, the injustices that invariably descend upon the poor will begin to look like prejudice. It could be Algerians in France, black people in the southern USA, Dalits in India. Simply legislating the caste/class boundaries away doesn’t solve the problem, as you will still have many generations who are left on the outside looking in. But if I tell the story of, say, an impoverished aborigine in 1960s Australia, then I am telling only that story, and there’s a risk that the reader’s existing preconceptions will turn it into simply a confirmation of what they already believe. Politicians do that every day. It’s up to writers to do something more. We need to challenge beliefs, unsettle people, shake them up, change them.

Literature’s strength is in provoking questions, not providing you with ready-made answers. If you read Frankenstein with the events of Paris, Syria, Ferguson, and Pakistan in your mind, you may see that Mary Shelley’s two-hundred-year-old story still resonates powerfully today. Which side you come out on – if indeed you think it helps anybody to pick a side – is entirely up to you.

Monday, 5 January 2015

A near-perfect scene: great writing in Black Mirror

There's so little really good writing on UK television these days that when we come across something exceptional it's worth shouting about. Here's an example of some very clever writing by Charlie Brooker from his disturbing SF series Black Mirror. (Regular readers will know that "disturbing" is a compliment around these parts.)

In an early scene in “Be Right Back”, the opening episode of season two, Ash and his wife Martha are moving into the house where he grew up. Ash tweets a photo of himself as a kid and Martha comments that it’s sweet. He tells her that it was taken on the first family trip after his brother died. They went to a safari park and “there were monkeys all over the car and nobody said anything.” The smile in the photo was fake, he says, but Martha says that doesn’t matter; his mother didn’t know that, and that’s why she kept the picture on display. That leads Ash on to talking about how his mother took down all his brother’s photos when he died. And the same with his father – “They all went up” (to the attic).

I'll come back to what's so good about that scene, but first let's look at how Brooker handles the nuts and bolts of plot development. This is going to get spoilery, by the way, so go and watch the episode first. Ash is killed in a car accident. Martha is told about a service that helps people to deal with grief by giving them a simulated version of the deceased to talk to. The simulation is based on all records the dead person left – social media, emails, blogs and so on.

A lot of that will have been in the publicity copy for the episode. It would be hard to come to it without already knowing that it's about a wife who deals with her husband's death by getting an AI simulation of him. So how does the writer get us to go along with that without just seeming to go through the motions? The base-level technique is always resistance; if the character resists, the viewer is forced to root for the change. So, naturally, when first told about the service she refuses to listen. Her friend signs her up and she gets an email from “Ash”, which she immediately deletes. But Brooker is too good a writer to let resistance carry us through on its own...

Martha discovers she’s pregnant and, unable to reach her sister, she logs on just to tell “him” the news. She finds that consoling enough to agree to talk to him on the phone after uploading private emails and other documents to help round out the simulation.

Leaving the surgery after an ultrasound scan, she drops her phone while playing the baby’s heartbeat to the Ash AI. Of course the AI is in the cloud, but the broken phone scratches open that raw wound of grief. When she gets home and can speak to him again, she agrees to move “to the next level” – an android body into which Ash’s simulated personality is downloaded.

Notice how each step in this progression is tied to the secondary plot development: Martha’s pregnancy. Without that, we’d just go cycling through the stages of the relationship from text to speech to physical body. Even with token resistance from Martha, that would feel like jumping through inevitable hoops. But the even more predictable progression of the pregnancy grounds the current of expectation, so that the consequent development of the relationship with the Ash AI (right up to a kind of home birth in the bath, incidentally, to get the android started) feels uncontrived.

Back to the first scene. A great scene is always loaded with meaning, and this one achieves a number of things with subtlety, economy and clarity. First and most obviously, it shows us that Ash is very active online; he’s barely in the house before he’s tweeting the photo. But that’s just a plot set-up for later. More importantly, the scene introduces the theme of how to deal with grief. “Nobody said anything,” and the photos that were packed away in the attic. From which it’s clear that denial is regarded as unhealthy, and the drama that follows will explore the diametric opposite: keeping the deceased in your life.

There’s also a story seed planted here. Does it matter that young Ash’s smile was faked for his parent’s sake? Martha thinks not, and she’s about to have a relationship with an android who is faking its whole identity for her sake.

Finally, the scene foreshadows the very end of the story, where we come back after the birth of Martha’s daughter to find out what she has done with the Ash android. He’s in the attic, just like those photos.