Monthly Archives: February 2013

Film: I Give It a Year

Few films manage to be simultaneously heartless and laugh-out-loud funny. I Give It a Year is one of them. It’s got great jokes but incomprehensible characters and an odd mix of dry cynicism and fairytale endings smaulch. A story that initially feels like an attempt to subvert the rom-com genre ends up more formulaic than a McDonald’s milkshake.

Rose Bryne’s Nat and Rafe Spall’s Josh have recently got married, but are completely unsuited to one another. Rather than spend the entire film trying to get together, they spend it trying to split up. They should clearly be with someone else – for instance, Simon Baker’s Guy, a high-flying American executive, or Anna Faris’s Chloe, the ubiquitous crazy chick with a heart.

Nat seems to work in the only office in the world run entirely by women. It’s a bold and progressive environment – the kind of place where she must flirt with hunky prospective client Josh in order to get a new contract. But look, everyone’s wearing suits and carrying clipboards, so it’s all OK.

Meanwhile, Chloe goes on a shopping spree in an underwear shop with her former flame Josh, who likes embarrassing everyone by getting drunk and dancing like Beyoncé. They try on a bra together. Or at least Chloe does. Josh, unfortunately, just watches.

If I’m making it sound dreadful, that’s because at times it is. But when it’s not being dreadful, it’s very funny. An unstoppable digital photo frame leads to one of many moments of the painful/ hilarious comedy, as popularised by The Office. Stephen Merchant also has a cameo, as does Peep Show’s marvellous Olivia Coleman, who plays a marriage guidance councillor wielding an increasingly disturbing doll.

Writer/ director Dan Mazer (best known for his work with Sacha Baron Cohen) has a talent for observational humour but is being slowly suffocated in a vat of Working Title syrup. Peppered throughout the script are references to the company’s back catalogue and other British films just in case you’re thinking of ever straying to, say, Disney. A scene of a rain soaked Josh telling Nat he wants a divorce in a packed restaurant mimics Hugh Grant asking Andie MacDowell to “not get married” in Four Weddings and a Funeral. You can almost hear producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner laughing in the background at how gloriously post-modern they’re being. Four Weddings might not be as obviously funny, edgy or self-referential as this, but at least it feels genuine – like someone actually cares about it.

The only Northern characters in I Give It a Year are grateful factory workers in hairnets, babbling about how wonderful Josh, a man who appears chiseled from gold coins, is to work for. As is the norm in Working Title films, everyone is casually rich. They slouch about in houses no one who works in generic office jobs would ever be able to afford – certainly not in these credit crunching times. I know the building Nat and Josh are supposed to live in well. Sometimes The Other One and I walk around Chelsea and look through its windows as a cheap day out.

Wanted: decent female characters for long-term relationship with writers

“Jane is simultaneously beautiful yet plain, assertive yet vulnerable, and strangely charismatic for a woman who has very little to say.”

“Tara is a gently hysterical, workaholic drone – a highly intelligent woman held back by nothing except an exceptionally plain face.”

“Erica is surprisingly attractive considering she is in her mid-40s and has recently had half of her thin, but not too thin, body torn apart by a werewolf.”

These are a few examples of the way female characters are described in many of the scripts sent in to the BBC Writersroom that we, as script readers, get to read. They are frequently derogatory, incongruous and judgemental, and range from the hilarious to the horrific – sometimes within one sentence. In many instances they focus heavily on physical appearance in a way that is neither useful to know nor possible to film.

You may be disappointed (or relieved) to learn that I made up Jane, Tara and Erica. Much as I would like to, I can’t show you real female character descriptions submitted by real writers. These can only be viewed by trained readers wearing industry standard protective goggles. Instead, I have created some far less extreme imitations to a) demonstrate what the problem is and b) gently encourage those who need encouragement to write women in a more insightful way.

During the last Script Room sift – where we read 1780 scripts – a few of us readers copied the most bizarre female character descriptions we came across onto post-it notes and stuck them on the wall (see the picture above). Some descriptions of male characters also worked their way in. The latter tended to go something like this:

“Dave is an everyday bloke with no sense of fashion, but a cracking sense of humour. He is likable slacker, neither attractive nor unattractive, but very good at writing.”

Dave is a familiar figure to us. He often appears in sitcoms. Often he is called Dave. Sometimes it’s Steve.

The female characters on the post-its – women like Jane, Tara and Erica – were described less sympathetically with a combination of reverence and disgust. They were good looking but thick, glamourous but old, hot but vain. However, worst of all, they inevitably ended up dating Dave.

If all of the above sounds like predictable male fantasy stuff to you, that’s because a lot of it is. Using equal opportunity forms, we can estimate that two thirds of the writers who submitted scripts to the last Script Room were male – and although not all of the dubious female character descriptions were written by men, a lot were.

You might ask whether it really matters how a character is described. Isn’t it what they do and how they behave that counts? Yes, but a nonsensical and hackneyed character description invariably leads to a nonsensical and hackneyed character – one that is underdeveloped and difficult to care about and understand. Characters that are defined predominantly by their looks are not interesting to spend time with. What might fulfil the needs of a magazine shoot is unlikely to sustain a ten-part television series.

An ideal character description is probably simply a short summery of need-to-know information. For instance, The Girl by Gwyneth Hughes contains one that goes like this: “His wife ALMA brings him a final dirty cup as he finishes his perfect clearing up routine. She is 61, small, bright, determined, unglamorous, and English.” What Alma does is more important than what she looks like. Indeed, most of the scripts in the Writers Room Script Library choose to show the characters in action rather than describe them at all.

Writing recently about the excellent second series of Danish TV show Borgen (which has just finished airing on BBC Four), The Sunday Times’ AA Gill said:

“The female characters are strong, attractive, independent, flawed, both sexual and businesslike. But they’re not exceptional: they’re simply equal, which is surprising, and reminds us how stereotypical most English-language drama still is.”

If English-language drama is stereotypical (and is it?), can writers be blamed for copying what they see in comedies, dramas and films that get made? It’s true – you don’t have to do more than turn on your TV or visit your nearest cinema to find clunky, predictable depictions of women worse than any I could make up. Yet creating your own versions of these won’t make them to go away. The world isn’t perfect and neither is every script ever produced. Rather than emulate mediocrity, why not aim to get rid of it?

There are interesting female characters out there – and Scandinavian dramas, such as Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge, are currently a great place to find them, as is the Script Library. If you think, like me, that there should be more – and your imagination isn’t filled with a giant ‘hot or not’ list, but believable women with interesting stories – perhaps you could write about them for the next Script Room? The window for submissions opens today.

***

Quiz

Here are some questions to help you test the originality of your female characters in the form of a women’s magazine quiz because, as everyone knows, this is the most scientific way to test anything.

1. How would you describe your female character?

a). A maverick detective with a rubbish personal life and obsession for wandering around forests at night with a torch

b). A vivacious brunette with eyes like saucers who thinks she’s cleverer than she really is

c). A 95 year-old chess champion secretly taking performance enhancing drugs

d). A kooky yet crazy fun-loving chick, good looking but wearing glasses.

2. What is she most likely to say?

a). “Tak”

b) “Do you think I’m pretty?”

c). “Check mate”

d). “Sometimes, I just want to run forever!”

3. In what clothes does she feel most comfortable?

a). A chunky knit jumper with snow flakes that is more expensive than you would think

b). A hot pink bikini – and she’s not even on the beach!

c). A plastic gold crown

d). Neon leggings, a tutu and a blazer from the 1970s

4. Where does she spend most of her time?

a). Parliament – when she’s not solving triple murders, she’s running the country

b). Socialising with the rich and famous

c). A 17th-century castle bought with her winnings

d). Reading comic books and talking about superheroes with her male friends

5. What makes her different?

a). She can mend a bicycle

b). She’s a bitch

c). She’s an alien

d). She’s a complex hotchpotch of every woman you’ve never met

***

Results

Mostly As

Your character is Slorgen, a cross between Sarah Lund from The Killing and Birgitte Nyborg from Borgen. Both of these characters are great, but they already exist. Maybe it’s time to step away from the sandwich cake and think of someone new

Mostly Bs

Oh dear. Your character is the familiar and often nameless ‘sexy babe’ – someone defined predominantly by what she looks like who, over the years, you have clearly come to both desire and despise. Please return to the start of this blog.

Mostly Cs

Wow – your character is certainly unique. It’s always refreshing to read about an interesting older woman, but perhaps you could still develop her some more. Why does she play chess? Why does she cheat? Are you avoiding such questions by turning her into an alien?

Mostly Ds

Ah, the kooky, crazy chick. She might seem super original, but I’m afraid she is also a familiar character – one who has so many traits she often ends up being defined by none of them. You may well be in love with her. If so, try watching Ruby Sparks.

Written for BBC Writersroom 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/posts/Wanted-decent-female-characters-for-long-term-relationship-with-writers

Film and Theatre: Les Misérables

“Think you’re poor, think you’re free? Follow me. Follow me!” It’s stirring words such as these, aimed at rabble rousing an audience which probably contains more wannabe peasants than real ones, that has made Les Misérables one of the most successful stage musicals ever. Even if your ticket cost £85 and you lost track of the story after Jean Valjean transformed from a convict to a factory owner (or is it mayor?), who can resist a giant red flag swooshing across a revolving stage and a group of angry people dying on a barricade for something they believe in?

If your idea of rebellion is refusing to put the bins out on Tuesdays, Les Misérables allows you to imagine, for three hours, what it might be like to be a part of a proper revolution – one sufficiently far back in history to be glamourous and glorious, dazzling and heroic, rather than, say, a worrying interruption to a holiday in Egypt.

Now it’s a film, so even more people can see it. That’s democracy for you. The thing everyone seems to say about it is that Russell Crowe’s singing is bad. I’ve never really liked Russell Crowe, but was expecting his singing to be so dreadful that it actually sounded OK. Yes, he’s stoic and brick-like (isn’t he always?) but so is Jarvert, the dogmatic policeman he plays who is on a mission to thwart Hugh Jackman’s infinitely richer Valjean.

Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-nominated Fantine spends most of her brief appearance crying to camera. While this is initially moving, once two or three more characters have deployed the same technique, you begin to think there are only so many tears and so much snot one movie can take.

Most of the best stuff – Javert and Valjean’s sing-offs, the uprising and great songs such as “At the End of the Day”, “Master of the House” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” – happen in act one or at the beginning of act two. This has always been the problem with Les Misérables – the second part of act two is relatively dull. Who cares about sappy lovers Cosette and Marius when there’s a revolution going on? The sassy and tragic Eponine, who disguises herself as a man, or the charismatic leader of the mob, Enjolras, are much more interesting. Unfortunately, after the barricade is stormed, they are also much more dead.

I’ve always wondered if the pretty downbeat final part of the musical – the portion people invariably complain about being “too miserable” – is a deliberate attempt to make the ending, where everyone comes back from the dead as ghosts, all the more uplifting. The revolution has failed on this occasion, but look! Everyone’s not really corpses impaled on broken furniture. See, sacrificing yourself for a cause is worth it after all, even if it might not seem like it at the time.

Les Misérables isn’t about being miserable, it’s about being free – free to love who you want (Cosette and Marius), free from the ruling classes (Enjolras and the revolutionaries), free from your past (Jean Valjean) and free from your job (Javert). Pretty much all of the characters can only achieve freedom by dying for it – something that always feels noble, at least in dramas.

Theatre: Pericles

Rarely do you get a chance to Shakespeare play above a pub that is this ambitious and this good. Exciting young company Pistachio Choice has come up with the madcap idea of staging the lesser-performed epic in the Drayton Arms’ intimate space with only four actors and hardly any set. It’s part of a double-bill along with the similarly under-produced Cymbeline. It shouldn’t work. It should be tedious – but it isn’t. It’s delightful.

Drew Mulligan’s modern interpretation is imaginative and slick, and he directs stand-out performances from Emma Carroll, Stephen Connery-Brown, Ruth Rogers and Tim Wyatt. It’s the kind of production that lives or dies on the strength of its cast and they morph from one touchingly well observed character to the next with the lightest of touches and some well-timed dashes of humour.

Valentina Ricci’s punchy design – where a tweed jacket becomes a suit of armour and a transparent sheet the swirling folds of the ocean – makes everyday objects profound and beautiful. Lighting from Jack M Weir, music from Jamie Reid and hauntingly sung sea shanties richly evoke the atmosphere of life at sea.

Violence, prostitution, incest, attempted rape and magic make Pericles’ adventure from ancient Greece to distant lands a salacious and thrilling tale, but not one without heart and morality – as this stunning little production effortlessly shows.

Drayton Arms, London. Until 02 March

Written for The Stage

TV: Take Me Out

Put on your slanket, crack open the mini cheddars; it’s time for Take Me Out. Like Blind Date but with more innuendos that make less sense (“let the sugar see the puffs”), it revolves around thirty glammed-up women hoping to get a date with one of the single men who comes down the ‘love lift’ each week.

If the women don’t like what the men say, do or look like they can turn off lights situated on stands in front of them. “No likely, no lighty,” the audience chant, whenever host Paddy McGuiness gives them the cue (approximately every two minutes). If the men are too fat, too bald, too posh, live with their mums, or have hobbies like swing dancing or collecting No Doubt albums, off go the lights: piu, piu, piu…

In the final round, the tables are turned and the single man gets to turn off the lights of remaining women until there are only two left. Then he asks them a question – normally something stupid like “if you were an animal what kind of a noise would you make?” – and picks the one who gives the most rubbish response to go on a date with.

If all of the women turn their lights off, the man becomes a ‘blackout boy’ and gets to appear on the spin-off show, Take Me Out The Gossip, where he is  given a make-over by Zoe Hardman. Otherwise, he walks off with his date, while the rest of the women do a dance (often to a song that goes “hurray, hurray, it’s a holi, holi-day”), before they head off to the Isle of Fernandos.

The Isle of Fernandos isn’t a real place. It’s Tenerife – I know because I’ve been there – but no one ever mentions this. The contestants also never get to go anywhere else – like Tuscany or the Algarve.

All dates start the same. The women admire the men’s toned chests (they are always toned) and the men say that the women look great in a bikini. Invariably, there is a water sport and an awkward conversation while sipping neon coloured cocktails and watching the sun set.

My sister, Nopes, calls Take Me Out “Single and Regional”. It’s tempting to call it “dreadful”, but then you start watching it and it becomes strangely addictive. Unlike Blind Date, the men and women never swap places. It’s always one man and thirty women, never thirty men and one woman. Unless the women end up on a date, they come back week after week, sometimes series after series, to resume their place in the line. They always stand in the same place. You get to know them.

The new series hasn’t been as good without Lois Barnett. Lois was a Riverboat Skipper studying Japanese who could make the noise of a fog horn and play the theremin. Unlike most of the other contestants, she looked uncomfortable in glitzy club wear – the show’s uniform – and had a deadpan sense of humour that you couldn’t make up (although cynics have suggested otherwise). She frequently kept her light on for the men. They invariably turned it off. “Seven times!” she cried at one point from the corner of the screen.

When Lois was finally picked to go on a date in the Take Me Out Christmas Special, what should have been a great moment was marred by the fact the person picking her was Joe Swash; a ‘celebrity’ who was clearly only there to promote himself. When it came to the post-date discussion, Joe appeared via video-link to tell Lois how great she was and insincerely apologise for the fact he couldn’t be there in person. Not only had a man who has eaten a crocodile penis in order to be crowned ‘King of the Jungle’ robbed Lois of the chance of a proper date, he had robbed us of the chance of ever seeing her again.

Smashing Up Slides in Battersea Park

No matter how many cuts the government have to make, no one should ever have to watch a children’s slide being crushed by a bulldozer. Wandsworth Council clearly agree. Before sending in heavy machinery to tear down Battersea Park’s adventure playground they sealed off the area so neither TV crews or dog walkers, nor the Occupy London protesters who had been there for the past three weeks could get anywhere near.

Since dogs have no regard for the law or places they’re not supposed to go, I sent in Rufus the beagle – who I was walking – to investigate. Unfortunately, he is more interested in eating rubbish out of bins and it was impossible to understand what he had to say with half a Cornish pasty in his mouth.

A group of evicted protesters were hovering about outside the park’s fence, trying to poke camera phones through more police tape than you’d see at a murder scene. I asked them what they were going to do next. “What can we do?” they replied, despondently staring into their Boden flasks of coffee. “Whatever the outcome, you’re doing a great job,” I told them. That seemed to cheer them up. But was it really true? Surely, if they were doing a great job they wouldn’t have been chucked out. They’d be still chained to a climbing frame or laid with arms interlocked in front of the rapidly approaching teeth of diggers.

The council is apparently going to install new playground equipment. This will be cheaper because it won’t require staff to supervise it – something that hardly makes it sound ‘adventurous’ like the zip wires and rope bridges that were there before and used by older children and teenagers.

The protesters suggest that the council are all white and middle class, but from what I can see, so are they. Pretty much everyone who comes to the park is. Maybe that’s the problem. The people who use the adventure playground like it, but they don’t really need it. If they did they’d be shouting ‘scab’ at the workmen knocking it down and forming a picket line to prevent them from getting past. What kind of a person goes to work to knock down a playground anyway?

Theatre: A Little Bag of Christmas

It’s hard to know which is more painful in this Christmas-themed burlesque show – the half-hearted faux sexiness or the forced audience participation.

While compere Astrid Martin is more likeable than the raucous man-eater she’s keen to portray, you’re unlikely to appreciate opportunities to ‘practice clapping’ and ‘join in’ with sea shanties from a man called Admiral John unless you’re a primary school child.

At times having as much in common with pantomime as cabaret, the series of rotating acts tonight includes the winner of Burlesque Idol 2012 Violet Blaze. She has more polish and better costumes than everyone else – including breathy singer Vesper Fontaine, who has to make do with rolling around on the floor in shiny red nylon – but a fan dance with ‘disappearing’ clothes does little to reinvigorate a style of performance that was tired ten years ago.

Harvey H Hendricks, self-defined ‘Stage Kitten’ is more fun – a Michelangelo of La Clique-inspired gent who opens the show with a comedy strip that is more amusing than anything else that follows. Little Lady Luscious is also bright and bubbly, although her routine is the familiar stuff of 1950s seaside comedy. Quite what the well-dressed older Chelsea audience think of it all can only be guessed at from their sympathetic laughter and unsure cheers.

Drayton Arms, London. Until 22 December

Written for The Stage