Downturn Abbey

TA122Laughs aplenty this week on Telly Addict, although not, to be honest, from Downton Abbey on ITV, whose fourth series continues to play out like a Smiths song; elsewhere however, comedy abounds: The Wrong Mans on BBC2 (already reviewed in great detail on this very blog), London Irish on C4 and the comeback farewell of The IT Crowd on C4; also, while we’re about it, By Any Means on BBC1, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on C4 (nice importing!) and a lovely Culture Show special on Northern Soul on BBC2 that allowed incoming Channel Four News culture editor Paul Mason to spin like a twisted wheel.

PS: I hadn’t seen the final episode of Breaking Bad when we recorded this yesterday. I have now. But I doubt I’ll be able to meaningfully review it on Telly Addict for fear of spoiling it for law-abiding citizens of the UK who don’t subscribe to Neflix. I may blog about it here instead, in a safe zone.

Writer’s blog: Week 18, Friday

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A quick bulletin from my daily life. It is the end of the working week, Friday, although I gave myself a day off on Tuesday, as I worked on Sunday. As usual, the lack of blog entries reflects the urgency of the work I should, by rights, be doing. (I should be doing it now. As you’ll have spotted, I’m not. I’m in the coffee shop of a department store where I have come to buy a bag.)

Without giving anything away, I’ve been hard at a pilot script these past couple of weeks for a terrestrial broadcaster, via an independent production company with whom I’ve worked before. I think I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s a comedy, based on an idea I had in an office when I was in a meeting to pitch ideas but had no ideas that I hadn’t already pitched, so I sort of improvised one and it turned out to be a goer. Fancy that! I’ve stated this for the record before, but some people still don’t seem to know, so I’ll say it again: I no longer write for Not Going Out, which is enjoying its sixth series on BBC1 currently, and although I wish it well, I find it odd to watch it now for personal reasons. The last episode I co-wrote was Debbie for series four, after which the writing team was streamlined down to a number that didn’t include me. (I’m still friends with Lee; he was kind enough to namecheck me on The One Show the other week.)

The reason I bring it up, is because as much as I will be forever grateful to Not Going Out for giving me the chance to write a broad, studio-based audience sitcom for BBC1, and to work on it from the ground floor up, what it made me want more than anything was to write a sitcom on my own. Now, I’ve done that for radio with Mr Blue Sky, which is now cancelled, and I’m rather hoping that one of the three – count ’em – three pilots I currently have in development will catch fire and get a full commission. This latest one feels like the most likely. As I mentioned on Twitter, teasingly, the script today required me to “research” (ie. look up on the Internet) a number of seemingly random subject areas which included:

  1. England-Scotland Home International games
  2. Job vacancies and job descriptions at a local council (for which I happened upon the website of Essex County Council)
  3. Progressive rock lyrics that mention “time” (for which I alighted, happily, upon the Marillion song Wrapped Up In Time)

My online history would certainly baffle future archaeologists, I like to think. And I’m afraid it will have to baffle you, as I can say no more about it. Writing comedy is hard. It is not the hardest job in the world, and would in fact not make the Top 100, but when you have decided that your best chance of earning a decent living is to write scripts, I would argue that writing comedy scripts is harder than writing drama. Which is why I dream of writing drama and not have to think of jokes.

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Talking of comedy, a smart black, leather shoulder bag I bought almost a year ago to the day stopped working the week before last, when two of its zips went. I tried to get it mended, first of all, but neither of the menders I visited could fix a zip on a leather bag. But having ascertained that the bag – quite a pricey one for miserly old me – was under a year old, I decided to take it back to the shop. I really liked the bag and was sad that it had become inoperable. The man in the shop, a department store, was very helpful and took the bag from me to send to the manufacturers to be repaired or replaced. I left the shop with a spring in my step; he had by definition agreed with me that an expensive bag’s zips shouldn’t break within a year, so I felt vindicated.

However, he called me back when I was on the train home and told me that the manufacturers could neither repair nor replace the bag, as they no longer sold that particular model. I was sad again. The store offered me a credit note which I could spend on another, similar bag. I looked at the bags and didn’t like any of them as much as the one I’d had for almost a year. So I asked, firmly, for a refund, not a credit note, and again, no resistance was offered.

I won’t mention the make or the shop, in case it looks like an invitation to exploit their decency. But when you go into a shop with a complaint you go in having rehearsed all the arguments first. When you don’t need those arguments, it’s almost a letdown. But isn’t it nice to get good service occasionally, when most commercial outlets seem to be out to fleece and humiliate you if you rock the boat? The blue bag in the picture above has become my temporary shoulder bag. As you can see, it looks cheap and cheerful, has no special pockets and gives me the air of a schoolboy on a games day. It also says “BADULTS” on it. This is the new, official name for the Pappy’s sitcom I script edited, and which airs on BBC3 in July. The bag – a free, promotional gift of the type I rarely get sent any more – couldn’t have arrived at a more convenient time.

The great thing is, I was carrying it when I went to see Spring Breakers at the Curzon Soho one afternoon last week, and who did I bump into, in the gents? Matthew Crosby of Pappy’s! Not only was he going to see the same matinee of the same film as me, so we could sit together like pals, but he was carrying a red BADULTS bag. Sometimes life is planned out for you by a higher power who can’t be God as God doesn’t exist, but there’s something out there pulling the strings.

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In case you’re interested, I am reading a bracing non-fiction book called Going South by the Guardian‘s economics editor and his friend Dan Atkinson, who is the Mail On Sunday‘s economics editor. (As literary aside: I had a meeting at a production company two weeks ago where the head of development I was pitching to recommended a George Orwell book called Coming Up For Air, which I’m looking for a secondhand copy of presently.) Going South is explained by its subtitle: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014. Although I am a bit shot on economics, I’ve been educating myself on this vital area of all our lives – not least by reading the Guardian‘s correspondents, and the New Yorker‘s unstoppably readable James Surowiecki. Elliott and Atkinson paint compelling if gloomy pictures of political, social and financial life in Britain today – in that sense, it’s a kind of self-hating book, but I like those.

I was particularly taken with a passage about the attitude to a car alarm going off. They write that the “common occurrence of the ignored wailing of the car alarm” encapsulates much of what’s up with our society. The alarm is ignored “partly because it is assumed it is sounding in error; partly because, even if the car is actually being stolen, no call to the police is thought likely to produce much in the way of response; and partly because any attempt to confront the suspected car thief immediately puts the citizen in danger.” They conclude that ignoring the alarm is “an entirely rational response to the way the world works.” How depressing, and true, that is.

I am reminded of “broken window theory”, which I first read about in The Tipping Point (how quaint and gradual the examples in that book now seem in the age of YouTube and Twitter). Basically: if a broken window is left broken, it will lead to a decline in the area where the building is, and to worse crime. So fix the window. Here’s the passage from the original 1982 Atlantic Monthly article where the theory was first aired by two criminologists:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

I think of this theory often, when I see bags of rubbish left outside charity shops overnight, or on weekends when the shop is closed, or when I see an empty shampoo bottle left on the floor of the showers at my gym, just dropped there by a previous occupant as if perhaps their mum will be round later to pick it up after them. If we don’t pick up our own detritus, we may not complain when crime occurs on our doorstep.

IRON MAN 3

I saw a preview of Iron Man 3 in 3D last Wednesday but reviews were embargoed until this Wednesday. I think it’s pretty good, considering it’s the third part of a franchise – and when Iron Man has been seen in the Avengers movie, too. I still hate 3D, but the film itself, under new management with Shane Black at the helm (he co-wrote it with a British writer Drew Pearce, who wrote No Heroics for ITV2, which just shows that dreams can come true), has a certain wit and verve, and its story is one where all that has been built in the previous two films is destroyed, literally, to bring Iron Man back to basics – and then allow him to defeat the baddie in an even more spectacular way at the end of course. It’s a shame that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, who is now a CEO of Iron Man’s company, becomes little more than a standard damsel in distress in the end. This happens to Rosamund Pike’s assistant DA in Jack Reacher, which is out on DVD.

Compared to Jack Reacher, which starts promisingly and collapses into boring gunplay and car chases by the end, at least Iron Man 3 has the common decency to sag in the middle and then improve for the climax. And I can’t say why, as it’s a spoiler, but there’s a scene with Ben Kingsley which is almost worth the price of admission alone. That’s all I’m saying.

Have a nice weekend. (It’s been sunny, hasn’t it? I’ve actually worn a soft M&S jacket rather than a big M&S waterproof coat four times this week. I give thanks for the belated arrival of spring. I much prefer not to look like Liam Gallagher between my neck and my knees, but practicality dictates. Not that he’d be seen dead in M&S.)

Origins are the only fruit

Again, the Curzon cinema supplements its diet of arthouse, foreign and independent films with a garden variety blockbuster, albeit not exactly a dumb one: X-Men First Class, which I have been looking forward to not because I am a Marvel nut with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the source comics, but because I liked the first three films. (I’ve never seen the one about just Wolverine, as he was always my least favourite X-Man. Let me know if I’ve made a massive tactical error.) The new one, directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was all set to direct X-3 but had to pull out – regretting it ever since – also has Jane Goldman’s name on the credits, which further enhances her reputation of one of this country’s hottest screenwriters, particularly in the fantasy/sci-fi/comic book genre. If she keeps this up, pretty soon they’ll have to start calling Jonathan Ross “Jane Goldman’s husband,” which I’m sure he would welcome.

Although US-sourced, X-Men has a deeply English root, namely Professor Xavier, Oxford-educated young gentleman whose estate where the mutants are fostered and schooled, is in upstate New York but may as well be in Berkshire. First Class, an origins story to match Batman Begins and, although vastly superior, the second Star Wars trilogy, opens with Xavier as a boy, meeting Raven/Mystique, in his Westchester kitchen, the same year, 1944, that the future Magneto is being tortured by the Nazis and discovering what his unlocked anger can do to nearby metal. From these beginnings, it shifts forward to 1962 and the Cold War, and cleverly presses the actual Cuban Missile Crisis into service as a plot device to unite the seemingly unready young X-Kids in battle, and to test out their mutant superpowers off the Cuban coast. This film is drenched in special effects – there were so many technicians and digital wizards working on First Class, the closing credits were forced to stack them into five columns in order to cram them all in before the music finished. There are a number of money-shot set-pieces, all of which build to the nuclear stand-off on the cusp of the blockade, but strip away all the binary code, and you’re still left with a decent script, some good gags (James McAvoy, as the young Xavier, on being granted his professorship, says, “I’ll be going bald next” – a sly reference to the fact that Patrick Stewart will play him in much later life), and a credible narrative jigsaw which lays all the key pieces out on the table, such that not only do we understand how the gang got together, but leaves plenty of room for further adventures with the handsome actors before they turn into theatrical knights.

A fine cast includes Michael Fassbender, whose move from indie hunk (Hunger, Fish Tank) to mainstream hunk has been seamless, the aforementioned McAvoy, Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence (who I recognised but couldn’t place until the credits rolled), January Jones off of Mad Men (who, as has been pointed out elsewhere, was mainly bra), Nicholas Hoult from Skins, and Jason Flemyng, another Brit who seems to be taken very seriously by Hollywood. Sometimes I wonder if actual American actors feel a bit threatened by the current influx of Brits, going over there, stealing their jobs – and probably their women. (Great to see Michael Ironside as the captain of the US Navy warship charged with firing on the Russians during the Missile Crisis, though.)

Under the aegis of Bryan Singer, it seems that X-Men is one of the more reliable comics franchises. You have to suspend your disbelief a bit – I mean, how come the X-Men could appear out of the sky in a black stealth jet to prevent Russia and America from starting a nuclear war and not get blown out of the sky? – but it present an alternative history that almost hangs together. And of course, in the mutants, it reaches out to nerdy teens everywhere and tells them to be themselves and not be bullied into conforming. Not that they’ll listen.

Glasses, ref!

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Thor is one of the better Marvel comics adaptations, in that it’s directed by someone with a more … let’s say it … Shakespearean take on the source material – Kenneth Branagh – and it’s faithful enough to the original comic to keep the fanboys onboard. I think if it has a trump card it’s the clever way it expects you to take the portentous, echoey Norse mythology scenes seriously, and then expects you to giggle at the fish-out-of-water scenes down on Earth, when Thor is stripped of his powers and banished to New Mexico in order to fall in love with Natalie Portman. Such mood-swings are dangerous in a big, fat film like Thor, But somehow, Branagh and his team of screenwriters pull this off. It’s almost two films for the price of one. Chris Hemsworth, an Australian beefcake whom I understand was in Home & Away, fills out the role of Thor very well, both physically (he’s like two Jamie Bambers squashed together) and in terms of the light comedy.

It’s a set-up story, with lots of set-up to set up – cue: portentous voiceover from Anthony Hopkins’ Odin – and it carefully tees up The Avengers, which is coming soon to a cinema near you. But for me, it was ruined. By the 3D.

I have nothing against 3D per se. It enhances Pixar movies. And in Pina it finds its true calling: bringing clarity and depth to physical artforms. But being chucked at every new blockbuster, as it now is, can only devalue it as a gimmick. Apparently the non-CGI footage in Thor was shot in 2D, and put through the machine in post-production. This, I think I’m right in saying, is what happened with Clash Of The Titans and I’m sure countless others leaping pathetically onto the bandwagon. I hate the way it’s becoming a default setting for noisy action movies. In fact, I admire any big blockbuster that feels confident enough in its own 2D merits to put itself out there naked, as it were. The 3D in Tron: Legacy was horrible, and detracted from the film. And I had the same demoralising feeling when I watched Thor, at the huge Odeon Leicester Square no less. The glasses were fresh from the packet, so my bad time wasn’t as a result of smeary lenses. It was the 3D itself: murky and blurry, and impossible to follow during fast-cut action sequences. Unlike in Pina, it subtracted clarity and depth. Result.

Why would a studio do this to its own product? It’s vandalism. I don’t much like putting on eyewear in a cinema, but when the 3D is good, you are transported away from the plastic wrapped round your head. I am told that 10% of us have a minor eye defect that means we can’t “translate” modern 3D anyway. I’m not one of those people, as I can appreciate the effect; I just don’t like it. Millions of dollars will have been spent creating the parallel fantasy universe of Asgard for Thor, but it is a dark world, and dark worlds become muddy and indistinct through 3D specs. Subtle effects still work well, such as floating fragments of ash or snow. (The best bit of Avatar in 3D was when the flecks of ash came down after they blew up a tree. The rest … well, I could take it or leave it. Actually, I saw Avatar in 2D on Sky Movies: it gained nothing from the third dimension except the ability to deceive with smoke and mirrors; in 2D it was just a so-so jungle movie.)

Can we just stop this now, then, please? Thor is not a bad movie. It’s actually a “solid” three-stars. But I have yet to see it in a form I can truly appreciate it in. Better wait for it to come on telly, then.