Thursday, January 31, 2008

What's Going On

Time for a brief, but well overdue, update. As previously noted the new year resolutions have not had a particularly life changing effect so far. In fact I've managed to be less productive than I was prior to the new year if anything. No mean feat.

The reason, or the excuse if you're feeling charitable, is that another move looms. Unexpectedly we spotted a likely home over the holiday season and we're in the process of sorting out all the endless gubbins involved in buying a house.

Without intending any offence to the picturesque City of Worcester we will not be staying on in these parts. Whether because it was such a trial finding somewhere to live here, or because the place we found was not really adequate for our purposes I can't say. Whatever the reason we've not been very comfortable during our stay. I think we may be regular visitors in the future however as I am very fond of the Cathedral, the river and The Swan with Two Nicks.

I don't want to jinx the new home so I'll not go into too many details yet. I will reveal that I already have a writey room (or study as I believe more professional persons describe them) earmarked (and a shopping list for kitting it out Cork board - check, multi-coloured post it notes - check, flip chart - check, one of those little basketball hoops to clip on to the bin - check...). This will be a vast improvement on the situation in our current home where I balance the laptop on my knee.

We're not likely to move before April so I've revised my writing objetives somewhat. As long as I complete the one project I've been working on by the time of the move then I'll be happy. I can then start off in the new place with all fresh projects. That'll feel good. I still believe 2008 is going to be a make or break year for me - and I oddly feel more and more positive about the future. In the mean time I've been reading and viewing extensively.


In other news I've been enjoying some quality drama over the last month. I've watched the first series of Survivors, which has agressively asserted itself amongst my favourite television programmes ever (Abby Grant is my new hero). We've also been watching the first three series of Dad's Army. When a series is repeated so often, and usually the same episodes over and over, it's easy to forget what great scripts they had, and what a brilliant cast they had. I recommend settling in with a Dad's Army DVD as an excellent way to spend an evening and a masterclass in television comedy.

Similarly, having received the complete Blackadder collection for Christmas I scoffed the lot in a couple of weeks (well, apart from Back and Forth. I'm going to leave a bit of a gap before I watch that - about ten years I think). I may not have watched the potato episode for fifteen years but I still remembered every line, to the endless delight of my wife.

The redoubtable Torchwood is back and, as expected, better than last year. If I'm totally honest I found the first episode slightly overcooked but the last two have been very, very good (particularly the one by Mr Moran of this parish). I also guess it should lead straight into series four of Who so yee-harr!

I've also been very much enjoying the second series of Primeval, just as fresh and fun as the first series was, but a bit dafter!

All this and Ashes to Ashes starts next Thursday. Not completely sure it needed to be made but I am sure I'll enjoy it. I certainly like the Radio Times covers!

I'm sure I'll have more to say about Survivors, Torchie and Ashes soon.

Until then...

Monday, January 14, 2008

Charters and Caldicott

I'm a bit late with this as I'd forgotten all about it but the following article appeared in the Guardian on 29th December.

Although my favourite Hitchcock could only really be decided following a wrestling match between Rear Window and Rope I have a special fondness for his early British thrillers. Few are older or more British than the Lady Vanishes. The first time I ever saw it I was mesmerised from that first incredible model shot right through to the final shoot out. It's a lovely film. One of the most memorable elements of the film is the double act of Charters and Caldicott, two stuffy, stoical Englishmen. I've often thought it would be fun to borrow the characters and put them in a genre setting (should I have kept that to myself?).

Anyway Mathew Sweet wrote a smashing article about them which I have included here. The piece can be read 'at source' on the Guardian Unlimited website.

"The Nazis might have dreamed them up to make us feel foolish. A pair of well-fed Englishmen - snobbish, blimpish, sexless and self-regarding. Careless of everything but their petty obsessions. Careless of everything but cricket. You can imagine Lord Haw-Haw offering them as exemplars of British complacency and amateurism, enumerating their stupidities from a bunker studio in Berlin, sneering their names into the microphone: Charters and Caldicott.

Charters and Caldicott are the two chronically unimpressed Englishmen among the cast of foreign crooks and conspirators hurtling westwards in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. Charters was played by Basil Radford - sleepy bovine eyes, roast-beef figure, a scar from the trenches on his right cheek. Caldicott was played by Naunton Wayne - slight, sulky, insouciant. Radford was a clergyman's son from Chester who collected china bulls, dreamed of playing Henry VIII and lived on Old Burlington Street in a house once occupied by Lord Byron. Wayne was a solicitor's son from Llanwonno, Glamorganshire, who had risen from the concert party on Barry Island, through the non-stop variety at the London Pavilion, to a starring role in a British film musical called Going Gay. The Lady Vanishes turned them into a double act. "As inseparable in the public mind as mild and bitter or mustard and cress," as one newspaper put it.

Charters and Caldicott sauntered into the culture in September 1938, a few days before Neville Chamberlain landed at Heston airport with a fateful piece of paper in his hand. They struck such a chord with audiences that the characters - or this pairing of actors, in copycat roles with suspiciously similar names - bumbled through British films and radio series until the 1980s. Odd, when you consider how obnoxious they are for so much of their debut film.

In The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott are the men who hold the key to the mystery of the title - and yet refuse to yield it and save the heroine. Iris Matilda Henderson, played by Margaret Lockwood, is a young socialite travelling back to London to be married to a drearily well-connected fiancé. A few hours into the journey, she suspects that her sanity has deserted her. She's certain that she has just had tea in the dining car with Miss Froy, a friendly septuagenarian with oatmeal tweeds and a pleasantly crumpled face. But now the old lady has gone missing, and nobody on the train will admit to having seen her. Miss Froy has become the victim of a kidnap plot. She is a British spy couriering a clause of an international treaty, encoded as the first few bars of a Balkan folk song - but now she's trussed up in bandages inside a closed compartment, guarded by a sour-faced nun in high-heeled shoes. It's that kind of picture.

Charters and Caldicott know that Miss Froy was on the train. They met her in the dining car, when Charters was using sugar cubes to plot out a contentious moment from a legendary England-Australia test match. (The names of the players suggest that it's from the notorious "Bodyline" tour of 1932-33.) Asked by Iris to recall the incident and prove that Miss Froy was more than a figment of her imagination, Charters and Caldicott play dumb, afraid that any admission will delay their progress to view some leather-on-willow action at Old Trafford. "We were deep in conversation," snaps Charters. "We were discussing cricket." Iris is baffled and disgusted. "I don't see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people," she protests. Charters's portcullis crashes down. "Oh, don't you?" he bristles. "Well, if that's your attitude, obviously there's nothing more to be said. Come, Caldicott." They disappear - and Iris is consigned to hours of mental agony.

The Lady Vanishes is one of the least analysed pictures in the Hitchcock canon; critics have always preferred to pick over the railway-bookstand Freudianism of his American films. When Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol wrote their pioneering study of the director, they concluded that the film "requires little commentary". The critic Geoffrey O'Brien has argued: "The Lady Vanishes is the film that best exemplifies Hitchcock's often asserted desire to offer audiences not a slice of life but a slice of cake." Watching the film again, in a bright new print struck by the British Film Institute, that seems to me to be an unsupportable position. The Lady Vanishes is the most political film that Hitchcock ever made. It is a parable about Britain during the appeasement years. It is also Hitchcock's guilty farewell to his homeland - the work of a man who suspected that war was coming, and had already decided to sit it out in Hollywood drinking orange juice.

Geographically, the journey on which Charters and Caldicott are propelled is a train ride through the Balkan state of Brandrika, but the critical history of the film shows that many viewers thought they were watching a story set in Austria on the eve of the Anschluss. Spiritually, the pair's journey is from self-absorbed triviality to uncompromising engagement with the enemy. At the beginning of the picture, they are models of insular indifference - by the last reel, their revolvers are blam-blam-blamming away as soldiers surround their stranded railway carriage, and Charters is nursing a bloody gunshot wound. It's a version of the journey made by many British people at the end of the 1930s - and it was one on which Hitchcock himself, much to the disgust of many of his friends and colleagues, refused to embark.

The Lady Vanishes owes its place in the Hitchcock canon to a misfortune suffered by a second unit director called Fred Gunn. In 1936, Gunn was despatched to Yugoslavia to gather some location shots for a new film thriller about a group of English tourists caught up in political upheaval in the Balkans. The script - then called Lost Lady - had been adapted from Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins. The adaptors were Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, a smart pair of screenwriters under contract to Gainsborough Studios. Roy William Neill, an American expatriate who had been working in Hollywood since 1917, was assigned to direct. Just before Gunn departed for Belgrade, Gilliat urged him to tear out the first few pages of the script, which outlined a mischievous moment of associative montage. The plan was to cut from a gaggle of Nazis goose-stepping across the screen to a gaggle of geese doing more or less the same thing. Gilliat explained that if the authorities in Belgrade were permitted to look at those pages, the crew would be forced to forage elsewhere for nice shots of peaks and lakes and forests. But the pages stayed.

Then, early in the shoot, Gunn tripped over a length of railway track and broke his ankle. Somebody in a peaked cap had a gander at the first few scenes, and Gunn found himself on a train back to Calais. Neill moved on to another picture. The project was abandoned. And then, the following year, Hitchcock, searching around for one last film to make before boarding the boat to America, picked up Launder and Gilliat's script and announced his intention to film it - if they would write a new opening and add some violent twists to the last reel. As rewrites progressed, all three men realised that the film was being colonised by two minor characters. Two Englishmen with a cricket fixation.

Charters and his friend - named Spanswick in the 1936 draft of the script, after Gilliat's gardener - are the invention of the screenwriters. At first, they were just a pair of act one exposition devices - like the servants who hugger-mugger in the footlights at the top of a Shakespeare play and fill you in on what's going down with the rich folks. We would have clocked them chugging across a mountain lake on a steamer, discussing the ghastly political situation and grumbling about the inadequacies of the transport system. ("We order things better on Windermere, old man.")

"They were intended to walk round the steamer and through the customs and that was it," Gilliat told the film critic Geoff Brown in the mid-1970s. "But of course they stuck."

They stuck, I think, because if there was one prediction that could be made about the kind of country that Britain would have become under Nazi occupation, it's that there would have been no place in it for men as trivial as Charters and Caldicott. And that made their casual clubroom banter, a meandering, throwaway humour, into a weapon of war - one that was deployed with enthusiasm for the rest of the 1940s.

They returned in another Launder and Gilliat script, Night Train to Munich (1940), helping Rex Harrison to stay undercover in Hitler's Germany; passing secret messages under doughnuts; attempting to buy a copy of Punch at a newspaper stand, but finding only Mein Kampf. "I understand they give a copy to all bridal couples here," declares Radford. "Oh," replies Wayne, "I don't think it's that sort of book, old man."

The following year, Radford and Wayne had their names above the title in Crook's Tour, in which Charters and Caldicott blunder from Baghdad to Budapest, pursued by Nazis who mistakenly believe them to be British agents intent on blowing up an Iraqi oil pipeline. Launder and Gilliat gave them a cameo in Millions Like Us (1943), seeding a British beach with landmines. ("Must remember not to bathe here after the war," notes Caldicott.) Film companies without the rights to use the characters cast Radford and Wayne in roles with the same shtick and the same cultural resonance. They were golfing rivals in Ealing's portmanteau horror picture Dead of Night (1942) and a pair of blabbermouthed travelling companions whose careless talk costs lives in The Next of Kin (1942). They were Major Bright and Captain Early, two slow-witted former intelligence officers who set up as private detectives in It's Not Cricket (1949). The characters even survived the deaths of Radford and Wayne in the 1970s remake of The Lady Vanishes and a 1985 BBC comedy thriller serial by Keith Waterhouse. By then, Charters and Caldicott were a vague nostalgic memory.

When Radford suffered his final heart attack in October 1952 - reaching for a beer in a Mayfair restaurant - British newspapers printed daily bulletins on his progress and saluted his skill in portraying "the stoical stupidity of the tweedy British character". His obituary in the Times described his customary role as "the Englishman of a popular romantic convention. No great shakes as a thinker, this Englishman never lost his sense of values, and in the thick of fearful hazards was less dismayed by the likelihood of imminent capture than by the news that England had collapsed in the second innings."

It sounds irresponsible - repulsive, even. Unless, perhaps, you recall that David Low cartoon in the Evening Standard in which Chamberlain was depicted as a nervous batsman at whom Mussolini and Hitler are bowling a hand grenade. Or reflect that if German tanks had ploughed up the grass at Lord's, or German troops goose-stepped by the gates of Old Trafford, then fusty middle-aged clubmen might have been this country's last line of defence - dusting off their service revolvers to make one last stand from the bar of the cricket pavilion.

During the war, Lord's was requisitioned by the RAF. The Oval became a prisoner of war camp. Cricket grounds up and down the country were ploughed and planted. It's said that the war killed class deference, in cricket as much as in the rest of national life; that it created the possibility for a more just and equal society.

But if the second world war was a battle to preserve the British way of life, that means it was also a battle to preserve British complacency, British snobbery, British amateurism, British silly insularity. And while swastikas flying over Whitehall were a real and frightening possibility, it's easy to understand why these two characters became so attractive to audiences sitting in the dark of the Essoldo, dreaming of peace - dreaming of living in a country fit for fools like Charters and Caldicott.

· The Lady Vanishes will be screened at BFI Southbank, London SE1, on dates throughout January. Details: 7928 3232.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sequel Rage

Not the best start to the year in terms of resolutions then. Although for all you know, dear reader, I may have been unable to update these pages due to my incessant scribblings elsewhere. It could be. It isn't, of course. Once again real life has crept up behind me, put it's clammy hands over my eyes, spun me around five times and set me off in a different direction.

In fact I have done some work. I need to quite drastically restructure one script (following advice from the reasonably priced and damn clever
Bang2Write script reading service) and have done very well in doing so.

I've also finally started using Final Draft, an event so epoch marking that it could probably be compared to the first caveman hefting a rock in his hand for a moment before bashing his brothers head in. What a fantastically useful tool.

Emma and I are in the middle of sorting something incredibly exciting but which I refuse to talk about here due to my crippling fear of jinxing myself. More on that soon.


After years of hearing lots of people going on about how bloody marvellous the new Battlestar Galactica was I finally got around to watching the initial miniseries last week. It's excellent, full of interesting characters with complex relationships and hidden agendas.

Incredibly it's hardly about the Cylons or a war between species as much as it's about the last humans struggling to survive near-genocide. Great performances too, especially from Edward James Olmos and Katee Sackhoff. I'll be tracking down the first series imminently.


On the other hand I finally watched 28 Weeks Later last night and how I wished I hadn't bothered. Oddly Chip seems to have watched it at about the same time and has mentioned pretty much everything that was wrong with it.

The frantic, confused camera work (something which seems to be a feature in almost every new film I watch these days) meant that I was so frustrated at not being able to tell what was going on that I was probably poisoned against the film within the first twenty minutes anyway.

Robert Carlyle's unthinking zombie was a lucky old fella wasn't he? When the army locked up all the survivors (forgetting about the unguarded door at the other end of the room - d'oh!) he managed to find a find a way in. When the US army decided to kill everyone - infected or not - he managed to escape a bullet and even when they napalmed the Isle of Dogs, and not before time, he still eluded death. Oddly his strain of the rage virus made him lurk about staring at his kids a lot when every other infected ever seen could no more stand still than I could resist a bourbon cream to go with a cup of coffee.

There were some good ideas and a few nice scenes that I liked (mainly the section where the two kids escape and go back to their old house) and Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton were compelling as the children; in general though the ham-fisted direction and lack of subtlety rendered the film virtually unwatchable. It's more an insult to 28 Days Later than a sequel.


That's all for now, dismissed.