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Ross Smith on his book about the reality of working in the creative industries…

Amazon.co.uk divides its books into various categories. At the weekend, I got an email from writer Ross Smith telling me that, just four days after publication, his new book See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz was in the Number 1 position in the ‘Hot New Releases’ of two of those categories – Playwriting and Screenwriting. It is now on sale on every Amazon site in 190 countries worldwide. I obviously chatted to Ross in – not-so-obviously – St James’s Park in London. We chatted in early November. I have only just pulled my finger out. Look, I’ve had plumbing problems…


“The first interview I’ve done in 25 years”

ROSS: This is the first interview I’ve done in 25 years. The last one was with Time Out. I used to write a BBC Radio 2 show called Steve Wright at the Movies. My producer Barry Littlechild was very forceful; you didn’t argue with Barry and he forced me into doing that interview.

JOHN: Why the 25-year gap?

ROSS: I stopped doing interviews after the movie Revenge of BillyThe Kid because I had a couple of bad experiences.

JOHN: But you have interviewed people yourself.

ROSS: I did nearly 300 interviews back in the day.

JOHN: At college, I studied radio, TV, journalism and advertising. The one that was most satisfying was radio, because you have total control over the result. But I went into television  because there’s no money in radio.

ROSS: Radio is notoriously badly-paid. I used to write for Radio 4’s Week Ending; for a while as a staff writer.

JOHN: You’ve done it all.

ROSS: (LAUGHS) Everyone’s written for Week Ending. This is what the book is about. I could make myself sound like Steven Spielberg but to do that I’d have to cut out all the heartache and all the projects that didn’t happen and all the debt I got into. All the awful experiences I had just to get to the next one.

There were gazillions of things that didn’t happen and I had to pay my bills at the end of the month. A couple of times I failed and I had to get kicked out of my home.

An exposé of life in the Arts end of showbiz

JOHN: The book originally had a different sub-title.

ROSS: Yes. The original sub-title was Memoirs From the Fag End of Showbiz…

We know what ‘Fag End’ means in Britain, but our American friends have got a different meaning. So I thought: OK, how about Life at the Arse End of Showbiz? And now I prefer Life at the Arse End of Showbiz. It sounds more funny, more resigned, whereas Memoirs From the Fag End sounds more like I’m really bitter, which I’m not.

I didn’t want to write a book about me per se, because I’m a nobody, although I’ve got a few credits. 

JOHN: More than a few!

ROSS: Yeah, but I’ve never been able to monetise my career… Indeed, that’s one of the key things about the book. I am in the area where 95-99% freelance creative people are.

You can be creative and go work for the BBC and have a job for life, going from project to project. But 95-99% of us are in this area where we’re not necessarily hugely successful and earning loads of money but we’re not complete arseholes. We’re stuck in the middle and that voice never gets heard. 

The only people who get interviewed by the broadsheets and the Graham Nortons of this world are people who are ‘successful’. And that gives a one-dimensional view of the Arts – acting, writing, whatever. As a result, the punters – the public – think Oh! Everyone in showbiz is earning a fortune! And it’s just not true.

My book is about the sort of guy who plays the waiter in one scene in a film. Looking at his career. 

That is the career, frankly, that most young creative people are going to have. They are not going to be the next Benedict Cumberbatch. They are going to be that waiter and try to make a living.

It is not a How To book per se; it’s more. It’s basically about all the shite that young people who have aspirations to be creative do not want to hear but need to hear if they want to monetise their talent and – far more important than that – maintain the monetisation of their talent.

It is all about the importance of agents, the importance of hustling, the importance of just keeping the fuck going.

This is a spade (Photograph via Pixabay)

There’s no bullshit in my book. I call a spade a spade. If you really wanna know how difficult it is – and all the pitfalls – read this book, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about how difficult it is to establish and maintain a freelance career. It goes a long way to explaining why so many freelance creative people haven’t got a pot to piss in.

JOHN: You wrote the movie Revenge of Billy The Kid under the pen name Richard Mathews. It has built a big cult following over the years.

ROSS: It’s un-fucking-blievable that film. We had never made a film before and no-one in the British film industry would give us a break and, in those days…

JOHN: When?

ROSS: 1988. It’s all in the book. The only wannabe movies that got made then would be like Privileged which was produced by students, but it was executive produced by John Schlesinger – an icon of British cinema – he godfathered the project and made sure ‘the kids’ did a good job. We had nothing like that.

Director Jim Groom, his business partner Tim Tennison and I wrote four scripts together. One was turned into a movie; the rest just didn’t happen. In the book, I talk about the ones that did NOT happen as much as the one that did. The one that did was Revenge of BillyThe Kid.

“Old MacDonald had a farm… and on that farm he HAD a goat…” – Ooh, missus!

Jim had lots of experience in editing commercials and trailers. Tim had been a First Assistant Director on many films – Little Shop of Horrors, Wetherby, Dance With a Stranger. I had written comedy sketches for TV and stuff like that. But no-one would give us a break.

It was a very anarchic production every step of the way. About 20 of us worked on the film and our average age was about 24. We went away for four weeks to Wales and Cornwall to shoot.

It’s something people love or hate. If you go to IMDB and scroll down the headlines of the reviews, it will go from ‘The Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen’ to ‘Utter Dogshit’. There is nothing in the middle. Which is what we wanted.

The News of the World gave it its first ever No Stars review.

I suppose I turned my back on the film industry in the mid-Noughties. I gave up because of all the shit, although I had a very good production rate. I wrote 30 scripts and got 4 movies made out of it. My fourth film came out – The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby – in 2006. It took sixteen years to get made. (Ross again used the pen name Richard Mathews.)

Invasion of the Cathode Rays, in which Ross played a robot

JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…

ROSS: Yes. In 1995, my friends and I took a midnight show to the Edinburgh Fringe Invasion of the Cathode Rays. It was set in the 1950s and was a parody of public health warnings, TV commercials. We were getting about 20 people a night in the audience. It was great fun, a great show, but we didn’t find our audiences. Fair enough. Classic Fringe story.

My second Fringe show – a two-person sort-of family show called One Small Step (written under the pen name David Hastings) – was the story of two people in an attic who discover all this ephemera from the 1960s and they start telling the story of the space race.

They hold a beach ball up and say: “Sputnik!” It’s that sort of play. The on-stage budget – costumes, sets, props – was £136.

One Small Step – 2 actors, 60 characters and 35,000 people.

The two actors played about 60 characters, including Laika the dog.

We were on at the Assembly Rooms at 5.00pm in the afternoon and got about 20-40 people daily for the first week. We had websites and fanzines writing wonderful things, but the mainstream press didn’t give a shit about us. Unless a show has ‘someone off the telly’, they’re not interested. That’s not a reflection on journalists; it’s a reflection on their readers.

But one day a guy called Malcolm Jack, a critic for The Scotsman, came to see it. There were 8 people in the audience that day. He wrote a 5-star review. The review was published on a Saturday morning. By 3.00pm in the afternoon, even the actors’ friends couldn’t get tickets. On the Sunday, it sold out again.

His review ended with the line: ”It’s hard to imagine a play fuelled by a more profound and spellbinding sense of sheer wonder”… Remember this is a play with two guys walking around on a stage with buckets on their head pretending they’re spacemen! It’s just two actors sitting around with junk on a stage; they play Also Spruce Zarathustra, the 2001 theme, on a stylophone!

Next thing we know…

The Sunday Times – 5-star review. 

Daily Telegraph: “One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”

The whole run sells out.

It gets a 10-week UK tour the next year. 

At the next year’s Fringe, the Assembly Rooms puts it in a bigger venue. The whole run sells out.

The British Council come on board: “We want to take you on a world tour starting in Sydney, Australia, for three weeks. It’ll take 11 months and end up in China.”

It was the world’s most-toured British play of 2010 – 22 countries in 11 months.

And all that started from that one review.

JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…

ROSS: Yup. It has been seen now by around 35,000 people worldwide – it toured America in 2019.

JOHN: So you made pots of money…

ROSS: Over-all, over the whole journey of all those shows over about two-and-a-half years, I only made £5,500. But the point is – as William Goldman famously wrote -“Nobody knows anything”.

Nobody KNOWS what is going to work and what isn’t.

You might think: Oh, come on, Ross! It’s been seen by 35,000 people! You’re getting your royalties and being flown all over the world!

No. This is the REAL reality. I went to see it in Washington, but I had to pay £600 for my flight and my own accommodation.

This is the world where most of us are. And that’s what this book is about. Readers who want to get into the Arts may not want to hear this, but it’s going to be the world they may (if they are lucky) enter.

They are NOT going to be the next Michael Caine. They might be the next Ross Smith. (LAUGHS) And, if so, good luck to you!

(CONTINUED HERE…)

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A sixth book and multiple film(s) from the indefatigable Jason Cook’s mind…

You need grit and determination – and nowadays, ideally, the potential for sequels – to get movies made.

The indefatigable Jason Cook turns up occasionally in this blog.

His new novel Euphoria – Pirates of the South – was published yesterday.

Jason Cook and his four gangster books…

So, obviously, we had a chat.

Jason, who is dyslexic, has previously written four linked semi-autobiographical gangster novels:

– There’s No Room for Jugglers in my Circus
– The Gangster’s Runner
– A Nice Little Earner
– Cocaine: The Devil’s Dandruff

…plus a children’s book Rats in Space.

His latest book is not for children…


The 1980s and 1990s – the Rave scene

JASON: Euphoria – Pirates of the South is a book I wrote during the Covid lockdown last year.

JOHN: There’s semi-autobiographical stuff in it?

JASON: Well, there’s bits of autobiographical things I experienced in Borehamwood and South London…

JOHN: South London?

JASON: …thus the title Pirates of the South.

It’s about a young Indonesian girl who gets involved in an abusive relationship within a family environment but finds solace in the male-dominated music industry of the time. It’s set in the 1980s and 1990s – the Rave scene, the pirate radio scene – people finding a platform in their bedroom to catapault them within the music industry. Urban music wasn’t played on mainstream radio at the time. So people took risks to put the pirate stations together to create a platform for the music.

JOHN: It was originally conceived as a film?

JASON: Yes. Pirates of the South. It was planned about ten years ago with Mark Straker who has since, sadly, passed away. I continued to work on it as a book. The script had already been written by Lisa Strobl.

JOHN: You still plan to make it as a film?

JASON: Yes. Next year. Made by Djonny Chen’s Silent D Pictures. The idea is to have a well-known Indonesian actress in the central role.

JOHN: So the Pirates of the South film would get a release in Indonesia?

“People took risks… to create a platform for the music…”

JASON: Yes, under the title Waiting For Sunrise.

JOHN: Why change the title over there?

JASON: If you call it Pirates of the South in Indonesia, people might expect some Johnny Depp type pirates to be in it.

JOHN: And you also have another film waiting on the blocks…

JASON: Yes. Silent D Pictures are interested in making Pirates of the South AND a film called Cookster, which is going to be the back story of my four gangster books.

"The Cookster is based on myself when I was young"

“It is based on myself when I was young…”

JOHN: So the Cookster back story chronologically happens before the first of the four gangster books?

JASON: Yes. We got everyone together to talk about doing a film of the first book, directed by Peter Field. But he said there was something missing from the books – the story of how the Cookster became who he is in the first book. The Cookster film explains the back story.

JOHN: And The Cookster is…?

JASON: The Cookster is based on myself when I was young – a dyslexic teen misunderstood by his family, abandoned by the system and desperate for respect. Then he becomes a drug dealer and struggles to balance his addiction and his debt to local gangsters, driving him apart from the woman he loves and the boyhood he’s never known.

JOHN: And, of course, you’ve left that world now.

JASON: Yes. Yeah. I’ve left it all behind and moved on to better things now.

JOHN: So The Cookster movie would be a prequel to the four semi-autobiographical gangster novels…

JASON: Yes, with two unknown actors playing earlier versions of me. It starts with me aged about six, moves up to me at 17 and then There’s No Room For Jugglers in my Circus takes it from there.

JOHN: You’re going to do the film Cookster and simultaneously write the book of the movie?

JASON: Yes.

JOHN: Who is going to play you in your prime in the movie?

JASON: An actor who’s just come off The Batman Craige Middleburg. He’s very good.

Craige Middleburg and Jason Cook

 

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No Time To Die! – again!

1958 movie:

Produced by Albert Broccoli, producer of the James Bond films.

Directed by Terence Young, director of 3 James Bond films.

Scripted by Richard Maibaum, involved in scripting 13 James Bond films.

Re-titled Tank Force in the US.


2021 movie:

Produced by Barbara Broccoli

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The birth of the movie industry’s admirable Toad of Shame award…

Certain bursts of original thinking should be celebrated.

One such is ‘The Toad of Shame’.

There is a private Facebook group called Crew Stories for members of film & TV crews. 

Someone posted on it the question: “What ‘traditions’ have you started or taken part in??”

Prop person Manuel John Baca replied a propos the TV series True Blood:


Until Covid hit, I was in charge of The Toad of Shame. An actual toad (but probably a frog) that I found flattened and dried while in the Santa Monica mountains filming. 

Rutger Hauer with his Toad and Manuel Baca…

I laminated and attached a lanyard to it. 

If anyone did anything to impede the filming process such as phone ringing, being late, breaking something, snoring while rolling etc…, that person would have to wear the Toad for the day, or until someone else did something wrong that day. 

It has its own Instagram page with lots of cast and crew wearing it. Rutger Hauer wore it!!… 

I believe his phone rang while we were rolling.


Actor Stephen Moyer, who played a vampire on the True Blood series, confirmed:


Our assistant property master @Truebloodhbo Manuel Baca found a flattened toad up at Greer Ranch in Malibu. (This is where we shoot most of our exteriors.) 

The three of them “did what any self respecting ‘toad finder’ would do in the circumstances….”

The poor little toad had all the air and blood and gubbins squashed out of him. So Manuel, Mike Horn (on set dressing) and Greg Manke (first assistant property master) did what any self respecting ‘toad finder’ would do in the circumstances. They laminated it. Within a few days it had a lanyard on it.

And before long… When any member of the cast or crew were late, or broke something, or their phone went off… They would be awarded with the ‘Toad’. 

At the end of the season, the crew member with the most ‘Toads’ throughout the season would be awarded a rather hideous trophy adorned with golden toads and be forced to make a speech.

The aim is for our fabulous toad to become an industry standard.


Digital Spy, reporting on a True Blood panel at Comic Con 2014, wrote:


Kristin Bauer van Straten got the Toad of Shame twice in her last week, once when her phone alarm went off because she was trying to bid on some plates on eBay! 

Deborah Ann Woll believed she committed a toad offence…

Deborah Ann Woll says she asked for the toad – she believed she committed a toad-worthy offence when she knocked over a prop beer barrel and got the floor all sticky. 

Everyone said it was okay, but she replied: “I’m not made of glass, give me the f**king toad!”


On Instagram, Rachel Bloom, co-creator and star of the TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend added:


This tradition continued when Manuel joined #crazyexgirlfriend. In our final season, the whole show went a little toad crazy, with numerous people getting the toad every day and friend turning on friend to throw someone under the toad bus.


Let us hope the Toad can survive Covid and be revived…

Some of the proud former winners of the Toad of Shame award on Instagram…

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Godzilla vs Kong: People are voyeurs – interested in re-action not just in action.

When I was at college, I read some research about movie violence.

By studying viewers’ eyes when watching violence on screen, they found that people do not watch the action, they watch the re-action.

So, when one man punches another in the stomach, the viewer does not look at the fist hitting the stomach, he (or she) looks at the face of the man being hit. 

When one man shoots another and a special effects blood capsule is exploded to spectacularly simulate the bullet hitting the body, they do not look at the spurting blood, they look at the face of the person being shot.

Human beings do not watch the action, they watch the re-action.

People are interested in people, not things.

This was brought to mind again when I saw the movie Godzilla vs Kong last night.

I can see why it made a fortune in China – the casting and plot are aimed to attract a Chinese audience. But… But…

Well, OK, it is a wonderful piece of film-making. The Special Effects should possibly be nominated for an Oscar and the Editing certainly should. Technically it is wonderful; but I was totally uninvolved. It was like watching a complex machine that had a lot of moving parts doing lots of complicated things. It was endless action (1 hour 53 mins) with almost no emotional involvement. It was about things happening, not about people experiencing things. It’s a nice distinction but I think it’s an important distinction. Movies at their best are about emotional voyeurism. 

Oddly, Godzilla vs Kong seemed, to me, a bit similar to another film I saw last week – Peter Rabbit 2. Which was not helped by the fact they seemed to attempt to graft a Guy Ritchie plot into a cute children’s situation.

Lots of things happening but emotionally uninvolving.

I have advised I think four people about writing their autobiographies and, each time, I have told them not to make the mistake of listing everything that has happened in their lives.

There is a limit to the amount of space they have. If they just list what happened in their lives, no matter how action-packed, it gets to be uninteresting.

People – ordinary readers/viewers – are interested in people not facts. They read autobiographies – and see movies – to get vicariously and voyeuristically involved in events which they have either experienced themselves or in events they could never themselves experience. In both cases, they want to identify with what the central character or central characters experienced.

With autobiographies, no ordinary reader is interested in ploughing through a long superficial list of brief ‘things that happened’. It is much better to find one event that epitomises what the central character was going through at a particular time… then expand on that event – make it more not less detailed; more vivid, more relatable.

With movies, 1 hour and 53 minutes of constant fast-cut action palls after a while. Godzilla vs Kong has no real central character (not even Kong). It is about things happening, not people.

And it also seems to be at least two – possibly three – different film plots sticky-taped together to appeal to too many disparate groups. The script was reportedly cobbled together by a writers’ room of at least eight people, with three credited for the story and two for the screenplay.

More is not necessarily always better.

Variety‘s review coined a good phrase for what I experienced last night – “actively bored”.

But what do I know? At the time of writing this blog, the movie has made around $436 million at the theatrical box office on a relatively low production budget of $160 million plus a low $70 million promotional budget (Forbes‘ estimates) and the YouTube trailer has gathered over 93 million hits.

Variety reported that break-even would be $330 million, so expect a sequel…

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My Top Fifteen Favourite Films…

It’s that time of year when people start posting lists.

But I never fully realised until I made this one what an old fart I am…

Here are my Top Fifteen favourite films in alphabetical order…

Well, as far as I can remember… I’ve probably missed a lot out…


THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

FIGHT CLUB (1999)

GET CARTER (1971)

THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974)

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM (2019)

JOKER (2019)

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006)

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR (1969)

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968)

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)

SALT (all three versions, 2010)

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1972)

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

THE WILD BUNCH (1969)

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Books, films, songs, big toes and Trump – John Fleming’s Weekly Diary No 37

… CONTINUED FROM DIARY No 36

SUNDAY 27th SEPTEMBER

Until my illness in May, I never really remembered my dreams. Maybe once every six or nine months, I might wake up and remember what I was dreaming.

But now, because I wake up maybe six to twelve times during the night, dehydrated, I remember – or, at least, I am aware of – some dreams and I am amazed by the detail, though reality can be more surreal.

Today, Kunt AKA Kunt and The Gang said he was about to release two new limited edition Bumface Poohands books: Bumface Poohands – A Day At The Park and Bumface Poohands and the Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown.

With reality like this, who needs dreams?

MONDAY 28th SEPTEMBER

I have a low heart rate. Adults normally have a resting heart rate of 60-100. Mine is usually around the low 50s, sometimes the high 40s.

As I write this, it is 53. But my cousin Muriel also has a low heart-rate, so it must be a hereditary thing.

My medical problems in May (still continuing) were caused by a still-unexplained high calcium level resulting in a sudden drop in kidney function from 62 to 19.

My cousin Muriel says that, years ago, she was told she would get kidney problems as she got older because of very poor circulation in the base of her spine, bottom and back thighs. This has not happened.

My sticking-up big toes are not at all sock-friendly

And, fortunately, the circulation of my nether regions is, as far as I know, fine.

But, if memory serves me correctly (which it seldom does), Muriel and I both have a funny quick in our middle fingers, where it goes higher in the middle making it less easy/more sensitive to cut the nails.

We can both be easily and literally cut to the quick.

And we both have big toes that stick up.

Yes, I think it’s a bit odd too.

She tells me: “Finding comfy walking boots has been a problem through all my walking years.”

TUESDAY 29th SEPTEMBER

Ariane Sherine‘s latest serious-but-with-a-lot-of-humour-added-in book How to Live to 100 is published on Thursday and she has found that she is already selling well in unexpected quarters. The book is already, two days before publication, at No 174 in the Cheese & Dairy section of Amazon UK.

Mind you, for several years, Amazon UK listed comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake as an academic textbook and could not be persuaded otherwise. Amazon UK is currently listing it as being published on 1st January 1638 and as being available at the bargain price of £45.60 (used) or ‘new’ at £995.36.

In other shocking news, my eternally-un-named friend lost her silver ring in the street in Borehamwood tonight. A search by iPhone torch and proper torch failed to find it.

WEDNESDAY 30th SEPTEMBER

Always be wary of what you say to plumbers. A good one is hard to find.

This afternoon, a plumber told me he had been doing the job for over 20 years. I told him:

“Wow! You know your shit, then.”

He heard it as: “You know you’re shit, then.”

Who knew the power of a single apostrophe?

I also got a handwritten postcard shoved through my letterbox today from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a bit worrying when they do not put their trust in the Lord enough to knock on doors and try their sales pitch face-to-face.

This follows the incident earlier in the year when the healing waters of Lourdes were closed because of the risk of visitors catching coronavirus.

It is all somewhat counterproductive for the sales pitch.

THURSDAY 1st OCTOBER

I’m honoured to be mentioned disparagingly…

I got a copy of Ariane Sherine’s much-anticipated book How to Live to 100.

It turns out I am mentioned in it halfway through, somewhat disparagingly – I had been asked before publication if the reference was OK and had, of course, forgotten.

Fortunately, I am not in the index, so you will have to buy it and read it to find where my image is wantonly crushed. Which you should do anyway.

I mean you should read it, not wantonly crush me.

Charlie Brooker says: “This book will probably save your life… Unfortunately“ and it includes interviews with Clive Anderson, Derren Brown, Bec Hill, Konnie Huq, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Osman, Lou Sanders, Arthur Smith, Jeremy Vine sans Uncle Tom Cobley et al.

FRIDAY 2nd OCTOBER

I slept from 7.15pm last night to 7.30am this morning and woke to the unsurprising news that Donald Trump has developed coronavirus: but he should be OK as he has long said it either doesn’t exist – it’s a hoax – or it is simply like a mild flu.

More interestingly, I got an email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, who lives in Vancouver. She had seen a Facebook post of mine: showing the Academic Song and Dance Ensemble of the National Guard of the Russian Federation singing “Sex Bomb”.

Anna wrote:


I REALLY enjoyed the Russian military police choir video (If only all the military could concentrate on music).

I have been having a somewhat difficult time here with the combo of COVID measures and inhaling wildfire smoke from the California forest fires (it was really bad here in Vancouver – worst air quality in the world for a bit – for ten days mid-September), then an enormous local pier caught fire… They couldn’t put that out for ten days. I was inhaling burning creosote… lovely…

Burnt California tastes way worse, though possibly we are also inhaling dead bodies too… it tastes metallic… maybe its all their cars and appliances.

The smoke has returned but it’s not as bad as it was…


SATURDAY 3rd OCTOBER

This afternoon, in a near miracle, my eternally-un-named friend was walking along the pavement in Borehamwood and saw, lying on the ground, the silver ring she had lost on Tuesday. It was about 15 or 20 feet away from the spot where she thinks she must have dropped it.

Spot the ring…

Let’s hope the luck of the British continues…

Tonight, a fascinating documentary about musical comic Robert White is being screened (and is up for an Audience Award) at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles – It’s an online virtual event this year because of COVID-19.

I think I am pretty safe in saying that Robert is the only Aspergic, dyslexic, web-toed, cross-lateral, gay, quarter-Welsh, gluten-intolerant professional musical comedian in the world who made it to the final of Britain’s Got Talent and came runner-up AND won the highly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Autistic Comedian gives an extraordinary insight – warts and all – into what it’s like for a hyper-sensitive performer to grow up, undiagnosed, in the 1980s and 1990s, then feel his life spiralling out of control but then learn to deal with the challenges totally on his own.

It gains from the fact that director Joe Bor is also a comedy performer and Robert’s friend – so there is a unique access and insight. It reminded me of the 1997 Elton John documentary Tantrums and Tiaras, directed by David Furnish.

Both films manage to be an emotional rollercoaster with unique psychological insights.

 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Why “TENET” was incomprehensible…

Christopher Nolan: a great movie director (Photograph by Photo Georges Biard)

I saw TENET last night.

Christopher Nolan is a great movie director.

The Dark Knight was a wonderful piece of movie-making: direction, script, acting.

Dunkirk was amazing on a big screen with a good sound system.

TENET looks all of its $200million budget.

But it is bollocks.

Like Inception – which was also unecessarily impenetrable – he should have gone back to an earlier, simpler version of the script – perhaps Draft 2 or Draft 3. It was probably a great idea back then.

Although I hope it didn’t include the thrown-in-quite-late bit in TENET‘s plot which echoes the six Infinity Stones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and JRR Tolkien’s twenty Rings of Power. Maybe that was detritus left over from some discarded earlier version of the plot.

It is all very well to make intelligent or even mindless pure entertainment films which, with modern home technology, can benefit from being watched and re-watched several times, seeing more in them each time.

However, if the movie’s plot details are not intriguingly intricate but actually just bloody incomprehensible for stretches, then there is something wrong with the script.

And the problem with TENET is not just the labyrinthine impenetrability of the final script – It is the soundtrack.

Here you have the labyrinthine impenetrability of a script plus occasional added mumbling.

Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie (The Dark Knight Rises) had the main villain mumbling through a mask. But this time it is not just one person but loads of people mumbling semi-incomprehensibly through masks and over radios and phones and, at points, having to compete with very distracting overly-complicated music which interferes with the clarity of what’s being said.

And I saw TENET in a bleedin’ IMAX!

There was a fair amount of occasional unclear muttering in TENET, but I think that was mostly because of the sound mix at those points, not the acting.

I swear Christopher Nolan probably heard everything clearly in his super duper sound mixing suite but he should maybe do what Stanley Kubrick allegedly did – go round suburban cinemas with a light meter (though there’s nothing wrong with Tenet’s visuals) and hear the soundtrack through less good speakers.

Even in IMAX, there was unclear mumbling going on.

This morning, someone who saw TENET last week in a different cinema told me: “I thought I needed a hearing aid after watching it. Couldn’t hear all the vocals. Really spoilt it – or was it done on purpose so you have to watch it more than once?”

“It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day”

On the good side, Kenneth Branagh was wonderful, possibly deserving of a Best Supporting Actor (or Person) Oscar nomination.

This was maybe because Branagh rarely – or relatively rarely – had to be heard through a mask, a phone or sheets of glass.

So he could be (usually but not always) clearly heard.

Clarity should be one of the main tenets – yes, tenets – of film-making – clarity of script, clarity of diction, clarity of… well, everything.

In an interview in Total Film Kenneth Branagh said he constantly had to re-read the script in order to work out the storyline: “It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day.”

Robert Pattinson told Esquire that, during filming: “There were months at a time where I’m like: I actually, honestly have no idea if I’m even vaguely understanding what’s happening“.

If even your cast have trouble understanding what the hell is going on, pity the poor audience, especially if they can’t hear some of the muffled dialogue.

If you wanna write a novel, write a novel. But a movie ain’t a novel.

Apparently, Christopher Nolan developed the ideas and plot of TENET over the course of twenty years and had been working on this version of the script for about six or seven years. Well, that is part of the problem.

I remember, years ago – last century – having a conversation with a fellow TV researcher about good interviewees. We agreed that the best interviewee to explain something clearly to a general audience was not an expert but a fan. If you know too much about a subject, you can’t communicate it simply and comprehensibly. You know too much. If you are a fan, you know what the key features are and why a stranger to the subject could get hooked.

In the first two or three drafts of a script, there is the raw enthusiasm for the concept.

After six or seven or twenty years into it, you are fiddling with the detail, not communicating the raw originality.

My advice. If you have been refining something for twenty years, maybe go back to the original script which had the passion and simplify your 200th draft, don’t make it even more complicated.

And, when you sound-mix, counter-intuitively, listen to it on worse speakers.

Clarity in all things.

Give the punters half a chance.

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There’s more to Richard O’Brien than the Rocky Horror Show’s Riff Raff…

Three weeks ago in this blog I mentioned the sad death of Douglas Gray of The Alberts, the extraordinary surreal brothers little remembered by ordinary punters now but whose influence on British comedy was so great that Douglas got a full-page obituary in The Times.

Richard O’Brien – creator of The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – commented on the blog: “I had the great pleasure of working with Tony and Douglas, plus Tony’s son Sinbad, in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid theatre in 1969. Each day was a delightful excursion into organised chaos…”

So obviously, I had to ask him about it. He now lives in New Zealand…


Richard O’Brien with a statue of him as Riff Raff erected in Hamilton, New Zealand, at the site of the barber shop where he cut hair in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

JOHN: New Zealand? Why on earth New Zealand?

RICHARD: Well, my parents emigrated to New Zealand in 1952 when I was ten and I was brought up there – went through puberty, adolescence, all that kind of stuff – the BIG bit of growing-up, basically.

JOHN: New Zealand seems a very sensible place. Not surreal or anarchic or OTT…

RICHARD: What was really nice about it was that it was a middle classless society. Nobody was your social superior. It was an egalitarian meritocracy, about as good as it could get. Not ideal but still wonderful.

JOHN: So when you came back to Britain in 1964, you found they couldn’t socially classify you because you had not been brought up here?

RICHARD: I had a great card to play. If I was with people who were a bit snobby, I was out of the equation. I had a go-anywhere card because England at that time was a deeply class-ridden society – still is to an extent – look at Boris and his chums.

BBC reported that Richard “delighted in shaking up the conservative sexual attitudes of the 1970s”

It was wonderful. I could go absolutely anywhere and I was not on any level of their thinking. So it was wonderful.

Being under-educated and unsophisticated, I kept my mouth shut and I wasn’t a bad-looking boy, so I was invited to places because, well, we ARE so fucking shallow, aren’t we? And, as long as I was well-mannered and a good listener, I was welcome anywhere. It was great.

JOHN: One of the first things you did over here was work as a stuntman on the movie Carry On Cowboy… Whaaat? 

RICHARD: It was simply because, in 1965, there was an opening to do that. I did three movies in 1965: Carry On Cowboy, The Fighting Prince of Donegal and that early version of Casino Royale which nobody understands. But I didn’t really want to be a stuntman. I wanted to be an actor.

JOHN: Which you became…

“Delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: And, in 1968, Sean Kenny decided to direct and design Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and he got together an incredible cast. A huge range of actors. It was quite wonderful. Some real ‘characters’. And, of course, The Alberts were part of that.

JOHN: You said that the Mermaid show experience with The Alberts was “a delightful excursion into organised chaos”

RICHARD: Douglas would turn up in a kilt and in all kinds of uniforms. They might come on stage with a wheelbarrow but there was bound to be an explosion somewhere. They would wear pinafores with naked bodies painted on the front. Quite childish; very childish. You couldn’t really call it professional. It was like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick. But it was delightful.

“I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs” (Photograph c 1964)

JOHN: You are an actor/writer/musician/TV person. Which one did you want to be when you were 16?

RICHARD: I am ‘musical’. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I play the guitar a little and I sing and I have a good ear.

I wrote songs when I was in my teenage years: mostly derivative rock n roll stuff. I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs.

I wouldn’t have minded singing folk songs – going round the world learning different countries’ folk songs.

I like writing songs, but mostly because I like storytelling. I love narrative poetry. I think probably my strength more than anything else is writing lyrics. Dressing-up and making-believe was always a kind of joy. Acting is not really a job for grown-ups. It’s a childish kind of thing to want to dress up and make-believe. But it’s a very enjoyable one.

…as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show…

JOHN: Your obituary in The Times is inevitably going to have “Rocky Horror” in the headline. 

RICHARD: Well, of course it will. It’s one of the longest-running movies ever in movie history. It’s a silly piece of adolescent fun and nonsense. You can’t take it seriously and yet it’s had an incredible effect on a lot of people. It’s given a lot of people hope in their world if they’re lonely and lost. Rocky Horror’s got a sense of Well, you’re not alone.

It would be perverse for me not to acknowledge Rocky Horror.

JOHN: Rocky Horror re-routed your career?

RICHARD: It probably took me away from acting. I maybe thought I should stay at home and be writing more. The nice thing was I was successful without anybody knowing who I was if I walked down the street.

Willie Rushton was a lovely man whom I got to know – he was in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid. He was on television all the time and I would walk down the street with him and everybody would come up to him and I would stand beside him and, in monetary terms and in theatrical terms, I was doing as well as he was but nobody knew who I was. I had this wonderful anonymity… but that disappeared when I started doing The Crystal Maze on TV. The anonymity all went out the window.

Richard’s anonymity disappeared doing The Crystal Maze

JOHN: Everyone wants fame and fortune…

RICHARD: I didn’t want to be famous. Honestly. And I didn’t want to have a lot of money. Luckily, something went wrong and I achieved both those ends. But I wasn’t searching for it. Never was.

JOHN: What is the least known or least appreciated creative thing you have been involved in that you are most proud of?

RICHARD: Proud of? I don’t like pride. It comes before a fall. 

Even with Gay Pride… I think it’s really silly to be proud of something which you are by default… Be glad. Over the moon. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes. Deliriously happy. Fantastic. Yes. 

Proud to be black? Proud to be white? Proud to be straight? Proud to be what you are by default?… Proud to be blond? – How stupid would that be?

JOHN: But, if I pushed you on what is most underestimated…

RICHARD: I adapted The Dancing Years by Ivor Novello which we did with Gillian Lynne (the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of The Opera). I think we did a wonderful job on it and we had two stagings of it upstairs in a rehearsal room at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London – lots and lots of people there – and grown men were crying at the end. They were weeping. I think we did that very well but we weren’t allowed to go further with it, which was a great, great shame.

JOHN: You’re knocking on a bit. Old blokes cannot be creative…

RICHARD: Well, I’m 78, I’ve just had a stroke, but I’m still working… 

JOHN: On what?

RICHARD: A satirical fairy tale.

JOHN: And then?

RICHARD: I’m going to go and have a sit-down and maybe a cup of tea.

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The ‘lost’ Aardman Animations feature film and a new type of storytelling…

In yesterday’s blog animator and director Derek Hayes talked about his early career.

Here, he continues and updates… 


Derek Hayes talked to me from his West Country home via Skype during the coronavirus lockdown…

JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?

DEREK: Yes and no. I got to be a director before the computers came in so, when they did, what I did was just stand there and tell someone technical: “Make it do that…” All I need to know is what it CAN do. I don’t need to know how to press the buttons to make it happen. I just need to know if the operator is bullshitting me about what it can and can’t do. 

I can use things like PhotoShop, but don’t ask me to get into the technicalities. It is just a tool. At the beginning, you had to have a big desk with big machines and you needed an operator with it and you had to sit there and point at the screen and say “Could you put it there” or “Lower it a little bit” or “Make it a little bit more red”. It was really frustrating. But, as things got smaller, you could start to use it yourself.

JOHN: In 2000, you helped develop The Tortoise and The Hare at Aardman Animations. But The Tortoise and The Hare never happened because…?

DEREK: It disappeared when Dreamworks and Aardman separated. That had, I think, a 5-picture deal. Chicken Run was the first one, which did pretty well at the box office.

They were just coming to the end of production on Chicken Run and Dreamworks was insistent they should get straight into the next feature – just keep ‘em turning over and keep all the crew on board. They were still six months or more before the end of production on Chicken Run and they asked me to come in and chat to Karey Kirkpatrick, who had been a writer on Chicken Run.

He was going to develop a new idea and they wanted me to come in, help develop it and maybe then direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had just agreed to do Otherworld.

When we discussed the idea, there was nothing really except that it would be a cross between Creature Comforts and Brookside. 

JOHN: (LAUGHS) Run that Elevator Pitch past me again…

DEREK: A domestic story set in some normal city but with animals as the characters… and what came out of that was The Tortoise and The Hare.

The Tortoise and The Hare – Aardman’s ‘lost’ feature film

JOHN: The Greek fable?

DEREK: Yes. They developed a script for it and actually went into production. This was while I was doing Otherworld. They were making sets, doing all kinds of stuff. But, pretty soon, they realised the script wasn’t right. So they had to stop it, get rid of everybody; and they then pushed on with the first Wallace & Gromit feature.

The basic problem was that, with The Tortoise and The Hare, you only have two outcomes to that story. If you use the Aesop one, the hare loses. And the other is where the hare wins.

No-one is going to sit watching, waiting for either of those – because it’s just too obvious. That was the main problem and they didn’t solve it for quite a while.

But, when I had finished Otherworld, they came back to me and said: “We have sorted it out. Do you want to come on board again and carry on developing?”

JOHN: How had they solved the problem?

DEREK: They had basically put the race at the beginning. They had Harry the Hare, who was the fastest athlete in the world and really big-headed and stuck-up and was really getting on his manager’s nerves. And there was the Park Keeper, Maurice the Tortoise. They had known each other as kids.

So Harry the Hare is coming back to his home town for this race and the manager, who is sick of him, decides he is going to sabotage him, make the tortoise win and the tortoise will be a much better kind of client because the manager can manipulate him and what is bigger and more interesting than The tortoise that beat the fastest animal in the world?

It’s just a ‘changing places’ story after that.

Harry the Hare gets fatter and Maurice the Tortoise goes on to fame and fortune, until they finally realise that they are being manipulated and they have to get together to sort it out.

So we were just developing that… 

Chicken Run had done well at the box office, but Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-RabbitIt did really well around the world EXCEPT in America,

JOHN: Too British…

DEREK: Yeah. That’s right. Basically, it was all a bit too British for the Americans. They were asking weird things like: “So there’s this guy and he lives alone with a dog?? What is he? Weird or something??” They couldn’t make him into an ordinary family man and all the rest of it.

JOHN: The Americans want ‘family’ all the time…

DEREK: Yes. I always felt it was really weird that Dreamworks would take on Aardman for what they did and then try to change what they did.

JOHN: That’s Hollywood. You buy something original and you try to change it into ‘normal’…

DEREK: Yeah.

JOHN: According to the Falmouth University website, you are currently “researching different models of storytelling”. Is this just waffle?

DEREK: Well, I am making a film, which may never see the light of day, that basically tells one story through lots of different films.

JOHN: Lots of different full-length films?

DEREK: No, I usually describe it like… Well… You could make a new Western out of all the old ones, because they all have the same structure. You have the bar room fight. How many times have you seen that? Someone smashes a chair over someone else’s head. Somebody falls on the table and it collapses. Somebody jumps off the balcony.

You could make a bar room fight out of all the Westerns you’ve ever seen. One actor could throw a punch and a completely different actor in another film would get punched.

So the idea was to marry that idea with another idea I had about scratches and dirt on film. Inside every scratch and on every piece of dirt, there would be a different movie… So you could go through a scratch and you would find yourself in a different movie or scratches would transform into other movies. 

They would all be different genres. Some would be animation; some live-action. But they would all star the same people. You could have a period drama that had a scene relevant to the story and you would have a science fiction film that carried the story on and you would be able to collapse it down and tell a story quite quickly.

You could use existing footage. A guy could put the McGuffin – a holdall – into the station locker. How many times have you seen that? So why re-shoot it? Just find an existing film with that scene in it.

JOHN: Copyright problems?

DEREK: (LAUGHS) Well, yes, of course, there IS that. But, if you think about something like Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the number of films in that – the copyright must have been hideous but he got over it.

JOHN: Maybe there’s some legal loophole. Like sampling songs…

DEREK: If it’s a work of art… maybe you can do what you like, pretty much…


Two of Derek’s early animation collaborations with the late Phil Austin are currently online…

Skywhales (1983) is on YouTube… 

…and The Victor (1985) is on the BFI website

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-victor-1985-online

 

 

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