Monthly Archives: June 2013

Film: Man of Steel

You know there’s too much 3D in a film when a minor character gets trapped under a crumbling building and you’re desperate for them to escape because you’re not going home until they do. This is the problem with Man of Steel: after the first few scenes – where we see Superman’s family deal with the death of their planet in a more heartfelt way than ever before – there are so many repetitive action sequences that there is little time for anything else.

Gone are the comedy mix-ups at the Daily Planet as supposedly brilliant reporters fail to recognise that, behind a pair of geek chic glasses, mild-mannered Clark Kent is the man flying across their front pages in a slightly too long red cape. Instead, we have a relentless space invasion from Superman’s nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon), who predictably wants to take over the earth and kill the human race.

While Superman is determined to save hapless individuals in peril, he smashes through so many tower blocks that his death count must be vast. It’s only when he snaps Zod’s neck at the end that he does a wistful look into the mid-distance. Perhaps he’s thinking: how weird, why didn’t repeatedly dragging this bloke’s face down the side of buildings finish him off four hours earlier?

The Superman franchise isn’t great because of Superman; it’s great because of Clark Kent – and we don’t get to see him in his iconic specs until the final scene. This potentially nice twist is offset by the fact that we have to sit through reams of CGI carnage to get to it. The battle to embrace or reject our destiny, to fit in or step outside the status quo, is where the heart of Superman lies – not in the logistics of intergalactic warfare.

Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is vaguely setup as the go-getter journalist we know so well, but ends up a bystander, waiting to fall into Superman’s arms with all of the cold predictability and awkwardness of a wedding first dance. Henry Cavill is convincing as Superman, but doesn’t really get the chance to be anything more than a Christopher Reeve/ Dean Cain look-alike. “He’s really hot,” a female member of the military clumsily quips, as he flies overhead. The actress clearly finds it a painful line to say, not because it isn’t true, but because it’s a self-conscious attempt to create chemistry missing elsewhere.

Theatre: Our Share of Tomorrow

The characters in this brooding exploration of parental love, romance and bereavement are permanently on edge – pent-up, sweating and ready to snap. Catching their breath between lines, the cast – Jot Davies, Tamsin Joanna Kennard, and David Tarkenter – can seem like they’ve just run 10k. Maybe it’s because Theatre503 is boiling hot this evening – or perhaps it’s because this is such an intense little production.

Devised by the Colchester-based company, Real Circumstance, and then scripted by director Dan Sherer, it peels back the story of 15-year-old Cleo whose mother has recently died. Aided by an army veteran she meets, she tracks down her estranged father at the docks to tell him the news. Both men are torn between seeing Cleo as a daughter and a girlfriend – a surrogate for someone they’ve lost. This makes for a neat little structure where identities are constantly shifting, but also a world where a middle-aged man seemingly can’t encounter a teenage girl without wanting to sleep with her.

James Cotterill’s nautical set is eerie and minimalist but also oddly soulless. Sherer’s script has some touching scenes and Tarkenter delivers a stand-out monologue, but while the troubled group spend a lot of time talking about their emotions, a deliberately oblique style can make it difficult to really feel them.

Theatre503, London. Until 06 July

Written for The Stage

Film: The Great Gatsby

Sometimes, when I go and visit the BBC, the security people ask me if I’m there “for the audition.” One day I’m going to say yes and see what happens – mainly because I hope to get a string of non-speaking roles in period dramas that will eventually lead to me appearing in a dress made of sequins, glass and gold, dancing on a table in a Baz Luhrmann film. By then the year will be 2057, I’ll be at least 100 years old and I’ll still look better than I ever have before. This is because Baz Luhrmann makes everyone and everything stunningly beautiful.

The Great Gatsby has been pretty much written off as ‘style over substance’ by pretty much everyone who has written off every other Baz Luhrmann film as ‘style over substance’ over the years. However, in this case, it’s true: the film, adapted from F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel, is at times so slow it manages to make having an affair seem like one of the most mind numbingly boring things you could possibly do.

When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby isn’t drawling his catchphrase “old sport” like a record stuck in a gramophone, he is professing his love for Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan in the most lacklustre and dispassionate way imaginable. She feels not so much torn between him and her husband as stuck in a lift with them both, rolling her eyes at the banality of it all. Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway – one of the novel’s central characters – hovers on the sidelines like a spare part, the ‘troubled writer’ Luhrmann loves, poised to do a voiceover whenever it is least needed.

Everyone is rich, everyone is glamourous (apart a few grizzled figures who aren’t and pop up sporadically in a post-apocalyptic wasteland) but also tired out by fun and frivolity – and so they tire you out too. Maybe this is the point: Fitzgerald’s novel is famed as a critique of American excess, but when you go and see a film by Luhrmann you expect bombastic visual exuberance paired with a thrilling story of love and passion, not a bunch of nonchalant rich people hanging about, having a chat.

The best scenes are Gatsby’s notorious parties. Some have criticised the use of R&B and hip-hop, rather than the jazz music so intrinsic to the novel’s setting, but since when has Luhrmann been about historical accuracy? What he offers is his world, his vision, his style of filmmaking. When he has a simple story – ones with all the lifts and falls of a classic romance – he’s able to infuse it with additional emotion through music, dance and visuals like no one else. Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue! and Romeo + Juliet are all terrific because of this. The Great Gatsby, unfortunately, isn’t.

Theatre: Blind Date

“You may be romanced,” the programme for Blind Date not so much tempts as threatens. Increasingly, interactive shows seem to culminate with a hapless audience member awkwardly snogging an actor as their wife/ boyfriend/ lover watches on furiously from the front row. Here, there’s a bit of that, but also something much more harrowing – the chance for one (male) theatregoer to reveal his life story to a French clown called Mimi and a packed auditorium of strangers.

Tonight’s lucky winner or victim, depending on your viewpoint, is Jamie. He is an upbeat freelancer who works in music and says things like: “I don’t worry about anything.” Just as well, really, as Mimi’s creator and performer Rebecca Northan is about to delve into parts of his life that most people would tactfully avoid mentioning. As the two’s ‘date’ progresses, the audience’s uproarious laughter turns to uneasy gasps.

Expert improviser and multi-award winner Northan treads a thrillingly fine line between everyday comedy and tragedy, ambitiously attempting to weave nearly two hours of narrative out of Jamie’s life. It’s often funny and, at times, even moving. While the pace drags towards the end, Mimi is a charismatic creation (played by Renee Amber and Christy Bruce on certain dates of the tour), well supported by the rest of the talented if underused cast. However, it’s difficult not to wonder if, after his curtain call and final bow, Jamie is looking back on an exciting and cathartic night on stage or feeling violated, having given up personal information for our entertainment that he now can’t take back.

Charing Cross Theatre, London. Until 13 July

Written forThe Stage

 

Writing Soaps: Can anyone do it?

“Soap operas are rubbish. Anyone can write them.”

People are often saying things like this. However, viewing figures for soaps and medical dramas – as some should actually be called – are regularly far higher than anything else on TV. Many of the people who claim to hate soaps seem to know a surprising amount about what’s happening in them. And those who proudly refuse to ‘waste’ their time watching them are often happy to spend it explaining why, at length – for instance, on a recent Guardian blog about EastEnders. Someone, somewhere, is clearly doing something right.

Viewers watch soaps for different reasons as this interesting report by Ofcom shows. Whether you love soaps, love to hate soaps or just catch them every now and again, pretty much everyone has, at some point, tuned in for one. But does this mean anyone with a laptop and a spare half hour can write an episode? As a script reader for BBC Continuing Drama – which makes Casualty, Doctors, EastEnders and Holby City – I’d say, probably not. Along with my fellow readers, I went on a trip to BBC Elstree Centre to catch up with some of the people working on the shows and find out what they were looking for.

“Comedy!” says Doctors Script Editor Neil Irvine. “The series needs more of this.” He’s also hoping to find “compelling human interest stories that surprise us” and “writers who have something to say.” Simon Harper, Series Producer on Holby City and former Script Producer, agrees: he is looking for “high stakes emotional drama” and “fresh, authentic writing with both warmth and a contemporary spark.” However, he also says: “The best scripts are infused, where appropriate, with humour, playfulness and witty banter…Being funny is vital!” Casualty’s Story Producer Roxanne Harvey enjoys scripts with a “strong emotional impact” as well as “humour and wit.” EastEnders Script Editor Manpreet Dosanjh likes the work of writers who can create “big characters” in a “strong and believable way” and are “able to juggle both comic and gritty storylines.”

Humour is something that many writers mistakenly think doesn’t apply to Continuing Drama, but some of the best episodes and characters have elements of comedy. With soaps there’s a misconception that every scene has to revolve around relationship break-ups, deaths and/ or angry shouting but this isn’t true. For instance, EastEnders has a long tradition of comedy double-acts. Dot helping Ethel to die wouldn’t have been half as powerful if it hadn’t been for all of the entertaining and amusing times they shared together prior to this.

Another thing you might not be expecting Continuing Drama to be looking for is writers who have their own unique take on things: “an individual and original voice,” as Neil puts it. You may think writing for soaps or medical dramas means sacrificing your ‘voice’ in order to mimic someone else’s. However, talking about EastEnders, Manpreet says: “If writers can create their own distinctive original dramas, they are more likely to be successful on the show.” The rest of the group agree. It’s one of the reasons why Continuing Drama prefers to initially read original film, TV, radio and theatre scripts from writers they haven’t worked with before, rather than sample episodes that use pre-existing characters and scenarios.

Other things the teams are looking for include: “economic, sharp dialogue that’s naturalistic and compelling,” “clear multi-strand storytelling” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, people who genuinely want to work for them. Continuing Drama sometimes seems to attract writers who see it as a way of making money and little else. Did you last watch a soap in 1987? Are you struggling to get your trilogy of novels published? Have you accumulated lots of bills printing, posting and copyrighting them? If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, I’d suggest there are better ways of earning cash without spending hours of your life trying to achieve something you have no real interest in.

Roxanne explains: “Sometimes writers don’t display a passion for the show and its characters, and their scripts read as if they want to be writing something else. If Casualty doesn’t float your boat, don’t apply to work on it. You’ve got to have a love of the show.” Manpreet has similar experiences: “People often think that they know [EastEnders] when they don’t watch it and so write their own heightened, clichéd and over-the-top version of the characters,” she says. Writers getting mixed up with what the shows are and aren’t about can be a problem. Neil says: “There is a preconception that Doctors is primarily a medical drama, when it actually tells human interest stories.” In contrast, Simon says that while Holby City is a medical drama, it is often mistakenly seen as a soap.

As with all kinds writing, there is a limited amount of people who can write soaps and medical dramas exceptionally well. The fact so many episodes are produced means that, inevitably, some are more successful than others. That’s the nature of television production. However, everyone working on them aspires to make every episode great. It’s only with talented writers – ones who share their belief in the shows’ potential – that they’re able to achieve this and create the kind of big, memorable moments in television that Continuing Drama, at its best, does brilliantly.

If you’d like to write for EastEnders, Doctors, Holby City or Casualty (and you watch and enjoy them), you can either send an original script to the Script Room when it is open for submissions or, if you’ve had work already produced for stage or screen, directly to BBC Continuing Drama

Find out more about the BBC Writers Academy and shadow schemes for writers on Continuing Drama shows.

Written for BBC Writersroom

See below for full interviews, including more information on what each of the BBC Continuing Drama shows are looking for: Continue reading