Thursday, March 27, 2008

Cyclical nature

Sounds like an ad for software piracy: Get Photoshop for Free.

But you can, to an extent, as Adobe's just launched a free beta of the image editor online called Photoshop Express. I've only piddled about with it but I use the real Photoshop a lot and can see that this is no replacement. However, it's easily the equal of your basic PC photo editing tools or even iPhoto on Macs: you can crop, alter exposure and saturation, fix red-eye, a great many things.

Only, it's online. If you don't have an internet connection, you can't use it. This may not seem a big issue since if you haven't got an internet connection, you aren't reading this.

But I have Sky Broadband: I know what it's like suddenly having no internet.

There's a strong argument that the future of applications is online: Google Docs is at least a fair replacement for Microsoft Office (apparently: I've never used the Google apps), for instance.

I think I sit on the opposite side; I'm willing to be proved wrong but I just feel I've seen this before. Most recently on iPhone: there are now thousands of web-based applications but I find them all too slow. And back in the day, working on computer magazines at Ziff Davis, everybody ran Microsoft Office but they did so across the network: the apps really belonged on the server and a fast connection let everybody work.

Until the server would go down.

Everybody would swear - and that's when I'd know. Because I ran those apps locally, I was always testing/reviewing the next Office release, and carried on working normally.

'Course, there was one time when everybody else in the office went home early because of this and I was left there until I managed to hook my foot around the mains plug...

I have no idea why I wanted to tell you that. But have a look at Photoshop Express, won't you?


Friday, March 21, 2008

Holbyier than thou

Radio Times, where I work a lot of the time, says this week that it was odd how sister series Holby Blue and Holby City had not seriously crossed paths before, that effectively it was about time. And it said so because this week a Holby City story was resolved in the first of the new Holby Blue series.

I completely disagree.

Now, I'd have watched this new run of Blue anyway, because I liked the last one, and I don't follow Holby City so I wasn't the target audience here. But what seems obvious to RT and what I totally agree was a necessary stunt to raise Holby Blue's profile was a chalice that maybe wasn't poisoned, but shouldn't become a regular tipple.

Follow. Holby City's palest registrar, Jac (Rosie Marcel) is accused of attempted murder in her own series and Holby Blue begins with her being taken into custody. Sold: what Holby City viewer wouldn't want to see what happened next? But then what Holby City viewer would not already know what would happen next? The only thing that could happen?

Jac is a popular character - or there wouldn't have been any point crossing her over - and she's introducing us to a Holby Blue that, it's hoped, we will like and continue to watch every week. So what's going to happen? Will the coppers of Holby Blue prove that Jac is guilty and be the bastards who get her put away? Not bleedin' likely. But if they don't, if they cannot have any chance of doing that, where exactly is the police drama?

The problem is that characters belong in their own series. Doctor Who pulled off a very rare, I'd even say perhaps uniquely successful trick with the Peter Davison/David Tennant crossover but that had to be in a ten-minute short, it wouldn't have lasted an episode. And we know that because we've seen it: The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors, none of them are anything but novelties. I suppose I'm saying there can only be one hero.

I do bridle at the idea of heroes: even Holby Blue whose creators directly stated its characters were heroes has allowed for the lead John Keenan (Cal Macaninch) to be a git savant. (Holby Blue's "dedicated heroes".)

But in straight dramatic terms, the protagonist is the protagonist: Keenan is the lead in Holby Blue, although Luke French (Richard Harrington) is strong and will be brought forward more if this show extends to Casualty-like 50-odd episode series. Everything services the protagonist, it's the way that Sherlock Holmes only ever finds clues that Sherlock Holmes can understand; it's why nobody ever has any problem whatsoever that doesn't need a $2m Bell helicopter and its pilot in Airwolf. "My council tax has gone up!" Whop-whop-whop, de-diddle-de-diddle-ee-dee... )

Taking a character out of his or her artificial surroundings is extraordinarily risky. Why does EastEnders struggle when it sends its characters to France or Brighton or anywhere outside the Square? Why do you know to groan when a US series has a special set in the UK? It's not because the characters are unbelievable or exaggerated, necessarily, it's because the character is so much a part of its constructed environment. It ought to be fantastic to see them in a new situation because situation is illuminating of character but as much as shows flounder when they do it, we fight them back when they try. There is a wonderful episode of ER called Day for Knight, one of the first shows I reviewed for BBC Ceefax, in which everything is still set in the hospital, all the regulars are there but the entire episode is from the point of view of a brand-new doctor, Lucy Knight. The regulars come out very mildly badly and ER's fans loathed it.)

You can see the problem most acutely in a crossover like the one that happened between Magnum pi and Murder She Wrote. Honest. "Magnum on Ice part 1" aired on Don Bellisario's Hawaiian detective show and part 2 was on Peter Fischer, Dick Levinson and Bill Link's series about crime writer Jessica Fletcher. You'll never guess where she went on holiday that year.

This aired recently on whatever UK digital channel is churning through Murder She Wrote. Part 1 is typical Magnum and in fact in syndication it isn't part 1 of anything, it's a standalone Magnum, pi episode with a pretty rushed ending. As originally aired and on DVD, part 1 has our hero Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) being our hero, and part 2 has him not being our hero at all. He cannot solve the crime, he cannot clear his name, it must all fall to Jessica (Angela Lansbury). The lead character of the series always wins: Peter Davison's Doctor is the one who does all the work in Doctor Who's The Five Doctors because he was the incumbent.

If that doesn't happen, the lead character in the host series is weakened, even denuded. If it does happen, the character from the other show is weakened, even denuded.

You don't have a choice which character is damaged: it is invariably the one from the other show or you're actually shooting your own entire series in the foot. And you cannot change the outcome of the story: Jessica couldn't fail to rescue Magnum, Keenan and French couldn't find Jac guilty.

So I argue that what appears to be a golden episode, a gift from Holby City to its new sibling, is actually murderously difficult. So much so that Holby Blue was gambling with the viewers it already had: I don't follow Holby City, I've no investment in its characters, I liked Blue and could have felt cheated with a substandard episode.

You've already guessed that I didn't feel cheated. I think I watched it more with my writer's hat on than my viewer's one but that was probably inevitable given how interesting I think the whole crossover concept is. And there are bits that didn't work for me: it's funny how UK series are not as able to use pop music as US ones are, or at least how we are more ready to accept it in American drama than British; similarly Homicide could've got away with its police officers impersonating a dog.

What Holby Blue did well, I think, is keep Jac and other characters from Holby City in a little bubble: we predominantly saw Jac in her cell or in the interrogation room. It was the most important story and we never felt it wasn't, yet minute-by-minute it didn't appear to get as much time as all the rest. In truth it did, we just didn't know that until we saw how the other story strands came together and affected Jac's, but it didn't seem to get the majority of the time. And yet it didn't feel cut back, I didn't feel robbed of the headline story: I don't know how writer Tony Jordan pulled that off but he did.

And Jac, stuck in her bubble, got to argue with the police and thereby be as strong as she apparently is in City while the police got to be persistent buggers. We were taught how interviews go, seeing them stone-faced asking the same questions of witnesses and not reacting to the wildly different answers, so we knew when they faced Jac that we were seeing a performance. Well, kind of: it was a character-revealing performance, but still not a face-on character study. And though it wasn't original, having Keenan and French decide which would be the good cop, which the bad, it did work when they seemed to fall naturally into the opposite roles.

Was that a requirement of protecting the show from crossover? French took the lead and was the bad cop, our primary Holby Blue guy was the good one even though we'd been told to expect it to be the other way around. So we like John Keenan but we know he can be tough when necessary. Even typing that sounds cliched, but signals are sent in drama and we receive them.

I don't know how much we saw in Holby City but within Blue the key detail of the case was held back to the last second that it could be and then tried to be hidden. But as soon as we knew Jac had seen a patient, we knew that patient was the murderer.

Similarly, equal weight was given to what I believe was a new Blue story involving a woman who had been beaten up. I think it should have been obvious she was the patient, but I didn't see that, I didn't make the connection. I would rather the reveal had been more than coincidence - Jac was being processed at the custody desk when she happened to see this patient leaving the station on a security monitor - but it was a surprise to me.

And that tied off the whole Holby City storyline: Blue just needed to do what it could to keep us. So we saw several police storylines, we were re-introduced to all the returning characters and most of the rivalries, there was sex and intrigue to set us up for coming back to see episode 2.

And, quite brilliantly, there was a birth, an overdue baby.

This must be just about the sole medical story Holby Blue could possibly come up with, and it came up with it for the episode that crossed over with medical drama Holby City.

You have to applaud and compared to any crossover episode I've ever seen, Holby Blue Meets Holby City got away with it.

But there are teeth and skin marks all over it.

I'll bet you money Tony Jordan did not work this all out on a graph before writing the script. He's too experienced to have not seen the pitfalls. But if he did write it by the numbers, solution-by-solution, then he's annoyingly good at hiding the scaffolding.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Arthur C Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama was great, 2001 wasn't remotely as confusing as advertised, I can't remember Childhood's End. But I couldn't bear Arthur C Clarke because of "2010 The Odyssey File".

It was a Making Of the film, and I've read a lot of these, I also liked the novel 2010 and at the time I bought all the hype about 2001 and the importance of its sequel. I also liked how this Making Of was predominantly an exchange of emails (very exciting back in the early 1980s) between Clarke and the 2010 film's writer/producer/director Peter Hyams.

Each person's messages were printed in a different typeface and after a few pages, I started skipping Clarke's and only reading Hyams's. Hyams was deep in production, the hugh machinery of making a big budget film, and Clarke was picking his nose in Sri Lanka. Hyams was fighting financial problems, juggling myriad production difficulties and managing to stay funny. Clarke was just back from the shops where he'd run into the President of NASA, hang on, there's the door, oh, another parcel from Queen Elizabeth, a request for an autograph from Jesus Christ, a party invitation from Anthony Minghella.

But he was easy enough to ignore and I had a good time with the other half of the conversation.


I can see this chapter clearly even now, 20-odd years later: the final chapter was a new piece of padding, written especially for the book by Clarke and was called "MITE for Morons". You don't even know what MITE is, do you? Clarke was an immensely patronising about this MITE and how all of us thickos that didn't use it would have learn how to do so eventually, we'd best take this opportunity to learn it from him right now.

MITE was some kind of email system and Clarke laboriously detailed precisely how to use it, down to which key to press when, what filenames you should use, which disk should go in which floppy drive.

He has this reputation for seeing the future but here he was blind about the present: I was already using email and my system bore no relation to his. I considered sending him instructions on how to use my particular toaster.

I think he always had this blindness. I remember years later a claim that he now said fax was better than email (sure, so long as you're not the poor sod at the publishers having to retype an entire book off one fuzzy roll) but I don't know, I don't want to believe that one.

Nor do I want to believe what I read directly in a novel of his. Um, can't remember which. But it was another with his far-sighted vision of the future, this time with him foreseeing that digital technology would let people remove cigarettes from old movies. Yes, he was right: it can be done, it is being done. But the ignorance in his example: he wrote about Bogart movies having it done. So, follow: picture Humphrey Bogart smoking, now picture the cigarette erased from the picture.

What are you left with?

Humphrey Bogart sticking two fingers up at us.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anthony Minghella dies

I met him at a party a couple of years ago: if you never did, this may mean that the difference between you and me is that I admired his dress sense as well as his writing.

I remember being at the buffet, turning around and being immediately introduced to him. Did I have time to put the plate down? Can't remember. And I do know the conversation turned quickly to football, which meant therefore I was instantly bewildered, but he stopped me feeling lost. Funny thing: I talked to someone else there who I admire far less but who blanked me far more. It may have been how I was dressed, that affected how I was addressed.

So Anthony Minghella seemed a very good bloke, I liked him on the spot and I did not ask him a single question beyond "And which team is the Tigers again?" or the like.

I think I'd be shocked by his death regardless; his television work as much as his film, his writing and his directing. And he was just 54. But I'm reeling, and also feeling like a name-clanging prat for reeling at you like this: he was a friend of some friends of mine and the connection is enough to make me stagger even though I have no doubt he'd forgotten my first name by the end of my surname.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

An Unnamed Magazine in Another Part of the Forest

Just read Jason's blog on how to write for magazines and Danny's on many things but in part memories of approaching Empire film magazine.

And I've got to tell you this, but I'm going to claim this is about An Unnamed Magazine.

Years ago, I pitched a feature idea to AUM and the response was pretty good; it was a not-now-but-maybe-later response. These days I'd take that as a straight no but I was young, I was new, I believed AUM and was encouraged. After a suitable interval, I tried again.

Same thing.

I was beginning to see the light but three months later or something, when I had no one else to pitch to, I figured, what the hell? I gave 'em a call, fully expecting to get an answering machine, rattle off some rubbish into it, and then never think of AUM ever again.

You're thinking they commissioned me, aren't you?

And you're right.

But not only did they commission me, they had already commissioned me. My copy was due in less than a week's time, they just hadn't ever mentioned it to me.

I took time off whatever else I was doing, did all the legwork, wrote the feature, filed the copy bang on time - and learnt that the issue was dropping a few pages. Happens all the time, though usually you know when in the year it's going to happen so you're not often caught out over-commissioning pages. But my feature was bumped back to the next issue and since AUM is a monthly, I could've had about five weeks to write this quite involved feature instead of five days.

The feature went down very well and actually did me some good outside AUM too. And for a little while I would call the editor, pitching further ideas. None of them ever sold.

Well, not so far as I know.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Shoestring budget

The last time Shoestring was repeated on TV, a few years ago now, it was screened in the Diagnosis: Murder slot on BBC1 weekday afternoons. If you're an anorak, you may be thinking that, hang on, Diagnosis: Murder is a US series so its hour probably only runs 42 minutes or something, but Shoestring was BBC 1979, it's a full fifty minutes and change.

You're perfectly correct and, may I say, remarkably well informed. Plainly, 50 into 42 doesn't go all that well, but the BBC wasted no time thinking about it, they just chopped eight minutes or so out of Shoestring. That's what, 16 percent? You can argue all you like about how that would be vandalism if they'd done it to someone else's show, it's astounding to do it to your own, but you wouldn't argue that it really made a difference to the series.

You wouldn't argue it at all because it there's no counter-argument: take nearly a fifth out of your story and it isn't going to survive. And, yes, the episodes that aired then were incoherent messes; I watched the first couple and walked away.

But BBC4's just been celebrating Shoestring with a repeat of one episode and a half-hour documentary. In between the last screening and this I've interviewed Trevor Eve and don't ever wish to do that again, so maybe my old fondness for the show had been a little bit scorched. I still expected to like it more than I did.

I did like the feel, I did like the characters, and I liked how it reminded me of so long ago in my life. (Just as an aside, I vividly remember listening to the last-ever episode of Shoestring. Listening. Not watching. The tube had blown in our TV set. Do you even remember tubes? And why did "the Tube" become a nickname for television in the States but not the UK? Was YouTube's name a mystery before you read this?)

But the actual mystery in this detective episode wasn't much cop. Trevor Eve was good, I'll give him that, and the steps, the process, the characters along the way, it all worked well. Only, you knew who the baddie was right from the start.

I dug out an ancient VHS copy I've got of the first episode, Private Ear by Robert Banks Stewart, and it was actually much the same. I'd like to have written it, there was a lot going on, but you were also just waiting for Eddie Shoestring to join enough dots that he could leap to the baddie we'd spotted at the top of the hour.

Is it inevitable on a TV budget? You've got your regular characters, the victims of whatever the crime is, the villain and - if you're lucky - enough money left over for a red herring, but that's it. If you believe plot is all that matters then you and I part company here, but I'm back with you if you're arguing that an hour of watching characters do nothing is enough to make you watch The Bill. I'm almost with you, anyway.

I never try to figure out the crime. I rarely need to guess the baddie. The tale is in the telling, and I don't know how it's done.

Sure, there's Columbo: the open book mystery is immensely refreshing both because that show was really about pitting two great characters at each other's throats for 90 minutes, and because it also meant the series completely erased the whole problem of hiding the baddie. And then there's Homicide, the wonderful Homicide: Life on the Street. That worked because the show was usually not about the murder being investigated and it was invariably never about the psychology of why someone murdered someone. Seriously: it was in the format, otherwise known as David Simon's original book. Forget the why, find out how and you find out who, case closed.

But in a straight police procedural, a precinct drama, how do they successfully juggle a mystery with a budget that's incapable of hiding the guest star baddie?

I can think of ways, I can think of misdirection, but they're not ways that seem to get used - and they're not ideas that could work week after week.

I'm looking at my shelves where without turning my head very far I can see DVDs of Campion, Magnum PI, The Rockford Files. I'd like to say that I'm seriously analysing a tremendously popular and often fantastically rewarding genre of television drama, but maybe all I'm really saying is that I fancy a Remington Steele marathon.

Wadday say? Want to join me?


Saturday, March 08, 2008

Blog off

There's no easy way to tell you this, but I've been blogging with someone else.

I'm sorry. It didn't mean anything.

And it's over, it's all over, I promise.

Well... when I say over... For the past little while I've been blogging merrily away on a secret, closed site. I've been a bit more newsy than in our chats, I've been considerably more regular and organised. And I think you'd even enjoy some of the blogs, but that's a shame because you'll never see them. I imagine the project will go further ahead but even if it does, when it goes public it will need new blogs, not ones tied to the events of the last week or two.

Not sure yet whether I'll be continuing with it; I enjoyed doing the writing, but this has been a period of feeling each other out and it all depends fairly equally on what they think of my writing and what I think of the various future plans.

Whether I do it or not, though, it won't take me away again quite so completely. After all, where else do I talk to you? And what newsy blog would let me brag that I've just today had a great response from BBC writersroom about a script of mine?

Feeling very good, trust you are too,