Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Day Of The Triffids: BBC Drama

Following on from last year’s remake of SURVIVORS this year’s dip into the BBC’s post-apocalyptic remake hat reveals an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids (aka When Plants Attack!)

As a child I was a big fan of John Wyndham’s sci-fi books. My runaway favourite was The Midwich Cuckoos, but the Triffids still had the desired effect and scared the bejesus out of little me, and even once became an excuse for me leveling a patch of daffodils with a tennis racket. “Sorry mum,” I said, as I handed over my trusty yellow-stained Excalibur, “but you can’t be too careful these days.”

One obvious problem with adapting a book with such a fantastic premise is imagination over spectacle. Books leave the work of visualization to the reader - literature’s great storytellers excel at stimulating mental imagery with their words - but cinema spares the spectator such effort and instead packages up and spoon-feeds us someone else’s vision. They do the work for us, but at their own peril with adaptations, as what we imagine as fantastic or terrifying in a book can turn out to be, either by design or bad luck, ludicrous on screen. Especially if it’s a film about walking plants. The Ents worked in the Lord of the Rings because they belonged in a fantastic world populated by fantastic creatures with a fantastic budget, but DOTT presents itself the enormous challenge of being set in our normal world and because of this needs careful preparation if it hopes to suspend disbelief. In my opinion it failed from the off.

It opens with several staggering moments of whoosh bumping. The first being when the plant expert dude is stung by a plant (in a very contrived and highly implausible incident involving Spud from Trainspotting) at a factory that has been specifically designed and built to cultivate lots of dangerous plants that sting - yet for some reason they have no facility for dealing with, er, plant stings and so he has to be raced all the way to London to get the required medical attention from the plant sting experts who work, er, nowhere near the plants that sting. Right. Well, at least that gets the plant expert dude to London where he’ll soon be needed to do stuff, right after --

-- the much-anticipated solar flare! Which we are shown being watched in London, Paris, Sydney… er... eh? Sydney? Yes. Sydney! In fact all over the world in a variety of faraway places that surely wouldn’t be able to simultaneously see the sun rising on account of the small issue of the planet Earth blocking their view during that ancient phenomenon Galileo identified as bedtime. And even assuming the solar flare did flare all day, I’m thinking by the time it hit sunrise in London we would already know enough to put the shades on before breakfast.


Meanwhile, 50,000 feet up in the clouds and unfazed by waking up in a plummeting plane surrounded by blind passengers, Eddie Izzard’s panto villain proceeds to calmly lock himself into the only plane toilet in existence that’s ever been vacant when needed and surround himself with half a dozen inflated lifejackets. The plane then falls out of the sky, crashes into London, explodes on impact, and when the smoke clears Eddie strolls out of the burning wreckage with a smug smile on his soot-stained face and the remains of a burst lifejacket clinging to his torn and smoking trousers. That scene inspired the kind of laughter commonly heard at Eddie’s stand-up shows and that was just from my cat. Maybe Arnie as The Terminator and an extra $100 million can carry off that kind of conceit, but a popular comedian in a TV drama about humans running away from plants?


Our plant expert hero wakes in a hospital bed to discover a world where practically everyone has been struck down with Solar Stupidity Syndrome, a terrible affliction that would appear to inspire normal everyday folk, who have recently been suddenly blinded by a solar flash, to want to try and walk absolutely everywhere all the time in the hope that they can find a sighted person to kidnap. Right. Cue everyone bumping and crashing into each other and tripping over everything in sight (or not as the case may be). Would that really happen? Do people suddenly struck blind immediately try and walk everywhere? Constantly. All the time. Wouldn't you at least crawl, y'know, just for a bit, maybe see how that goes?

And why is everyone blind anyway? I accept that all those people staring at the sky at the time of the solar flash would have been struck blind, but what about all the other people who weren’t looking at the sky at the time, who were either asleep, otherwise engaged or simply not interested? As someone who has been a shift worker, I know full well there’s a whole other city out there that sleeps through the day ready to work through the night (which in itself would make a much more interesting premise: if the city’s lowly unseen workforce became the eyes of the city’s blinded leaders), which makes a mockery out of the mass blindness. Terminator Eddie wakes up on the doomed plane with his eyesight saved by a simple sleeping mask. If that’s all it takes then there would be millions of people also unaffected who were either asleep or just not near windows, huddled over computers glued to Twitter, not to mention the thousands of Londoners who would have been underground en route to work on the tube. How come the plant expert’s love interest, Jo, finds herself all alone in a deserted subway? Has anyone had the joy of traveling on London’s tubes lately?

All this painful whoosh bumping before we even get to the pièce de résistance, the stars of the show, the BBC’s very own shuffling pantomime trees, the triffids! Stumbling around like Steve Bell inspired purple-headed geriatric bishops making noises like cows eating apples. They looked ridiculous. I couldn’t help thinking the mass blindness simply saved everyone from pissing themselves laughing when they saw swathes of mildly psychotic rhubarb wobbling towards them.

“Ooooo, look, angry plants, coming this way. Quick, run!"

"Wait. Hang on. Are they coming this way?"

"Yes! Over there! Look! Run!"

"They've kind of been there for a while, though, haven't they."

"Have they?"

"Sort of just standing around."


"Are they even moving?"

"They’re swaying a bit. I think."

"Could be the wind."

"Yes, it has picked up a bit. Should have brought my cardigan."

"We can always grab a coffee and sit inside."

"That would be nice."

In a recent interview, the writer, Patrick Harbinson, explained how he tackled the problem of plants being plants and not being perceived as all that threatening. “Do the Jaws thing,” he said. “Hide them as long as you can.” Right. I get what you mean, Patrick, but here’s the thing. Sharks, whether you can see them or not, are already… prettyfuckingscary. We know what we’re getting with a shark, no matter how well hidden it is. A hungry plant somewhere in your back yard versus a hungry shark somewhere beneath your surfboard? I think the shark just shades that one. Mind you, I suppose I can understand the triffids being a tad coy and wanting to stay hidden for as long as possible. Being constantly mistaken for a giant turkey on roller-skates can’t be easy.

Why are the triffids attacking anyway? (I use the word attacking in its loosest sense). Are there no animals on this island to eat? Shouldn’t there be thousands, millions even, of blinded animals stumbling around bumping into each other practically begging to be eaten by these starving pansies? Or were they all on the tube with Jo? Or wearing welders’ masks? And on the flipside, why are the few remaining sighted humans desperately seeking out food supplies in stupid places immediately after this crisis has happened? They’re suddenly reduced to searching small London pubs for bar snacks when there must be thousands of supermarkets stocked with food that the majority of people have been unable to find because they’re too busy being blind and bumping into each other in the outside world.

It was just all too painful to take in. From little girls in quaint English villages carrying machine guns, to the plant expert dude killing a triffid with a candle (yes, he killed a triffid with a candle - just how dangerous can these things really be?), to people building walls to keep the triffids out even though they’re already surrounded by massive concrete walls on account of them being in London, to the constant flashbacks to Africa and the mask… the mask… the mask… okay we get it, the mask! Something about the mask! That ludicrous ending was risible. If we all wear eyeliner the triffids will leave us alone! No wonder Terminator Eddie threw in the towel. Mr. Guyliner himself discovers to his horror that he’s slap bang in the middle of a BBC production where everyone is suddenly wearing eyeliner except him. That’s gotta hurt.

The BBC’s 2009 production of The Day Of The Triffids was a real disappointment. It had so many problems with plot, continuity, reality and characterisation, many of which reeked of its previous post-apocalyptic effort and the purple pineapple-headed villains of the title were just not at all scary and gave off the unfortunate impression that an enthusiastic child with a tennis racket could lay waste to the lot of them in no time at all. 

There was a moment towards the end when the plant expert dude opens the front door to what looks like a billowing snow storm, except he's not looking at snow flakes raining down, they’re spores, triffid spores, millions of them spreading over the countryside. He stands there open-mouthed as the shock registers, then looks to the sky and cries in horror, “The triffids are sporing!”

I couldn’t agree more. The triffids really are sboring.

Blinded By The Light

PS. I got stung by a triffid the other day. He wanted £20 for a jar of honey.

PPS. I apologise to the bees for stealing their joke.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Anyone Getting A Signal?


"97% nationwide coverage and we find ourselves in that 3%"

Jeez, buddy, who'd have thunk it? Looks like you're on the menu tonight!

Most of these films are horrors (quite literally) with their common genre themes of isolation and loneliness highlighting the cell phone’s beepingly buzzingly annoyingly omnipresence in our everyday lives, to the point that filmmakers now feel almost forced to justify their exclusion [as working phones] and subsequently compete to come up with increasingly ridiculous excuses and stupid things to say.

As ridiculous as these clips look when bundled together, I am intrigued by what this string of edited excuses say about our technologically driven existence. We are now more than ever reliant on gadgets and gizmos to help make things easier and get us out of trouble. Cell phones morph into detailed street maps of wherever we alight and talking boxes in cars ensure we’ll never do battle with stupidly folding maps again. It’s now becoming increasingly common to read amazing stories like this: 

“Off the coast of Bali the boat had engine problems and they were stranded without any GPS or emergency radio. Rebecca sent a text message to her boyfriend in England, he called the Thames Coastguard, who called the Falmouth office, they called their counterparts in Australia, who contacted the Indonesian authorities via the embassy in Canberra and eventually an Indonesian Navy gunboat was dispatched from Lombok to look for the stricken tourists.” 
Also, following last month’s Sumatra earthquake, a victim texted friends to say he was buried under his house and could someone please come and dig him up. Thankfully they obliged. There’s also this mental story about how two surgeons carried out an operation by text and subsequently saved a young man’s life. 

All amazing, fascinating stories… unless of course you’re a seasoned horror flick writer, left wringing your hands in despair as each new cell phone story rears its heroic head in the news. Let’s face genre facts: isolation builds tension, and the reliance on ticking clock psychology, with death as a threat, flags up the phone issue much more regularly than in most other genres, and if we’ve now got people texting from lost boats in the Indian Ocean, texting from underneath rubble in earthquake-ravaged Indonesia, and texting from the dense jungles of Western Africa, what hope does any horror screenwriter have in justifying why his endangered charges simply don’t send a quick text and avert the impending mass slaughter that’s about to fill our screens for the next 40 minutes.

Of course, everyone knows there are plenty of places where we can’t get a phone signal – I can’t get one at my place of work, a place ironically most likely to be the setting for an epic slasher biopic real soon – but the problem is that these publicised rescue stories, combined with the leap-off-the-screen awkwardness of many cell phone caveats, just don’t sit well with an audience brought up to unconsciously adhere to the Aristotelian wisdom that a believable untruth is much easier to accept than an unbelievable truth. The cell phone 'problem' and subsequent excuse in contemporary horror has become a bit of an elephant in the script.

“We gotta be in some kind of sun spot or something, there’s no signal getting out!”

Forget not having a signal. The majority of times I need my cell phone for any length of time, no matter where I’ve gone, it’s more or less guaranteed I’ll have hardly any battery left, especially the further from home I am. Fact. The lack of useable cell phones in those film clips, at least the ones where the phones suddenly choke and die, is without doubt the most realistic part of any of those movies from my point of view. My phone is always dying on me when I’m out. My friends, thankfully, are not. But just because it happens in real life, it doesn’t stop it threatening to be a big stomping elephant, trumping away whenever the phone issue is raised. What to do?

The repeated issue with many of these films is the lack of creativity. We see time and again phones dying or being dropped at the very moment they’re most needed. In most cases, the filmmakers should flag the issue before the audience identifies it; place the get-out clause before the conflict and give the audience an answer before the problem appears. Hence the "No phones allowed on this trip!" as if by acknowledging it beforehand they’re saying to the audience, "You can't accuse us when we were the ones that flagged it before you even thought it!" It’s always better to know there are no bullets left in a gun than to find out when the gun goes click... click... dull ... and we’re left feeling cheated. Bring it forward, foreshadow, and use subtle plants and payoffs to at least give yourself a fighting chance.

Or maybe even remove them altogether. Is the problem with half of these cell phone issues the fact that they are even mentioned in the first place? Is the fact that the filmmakers highlight an issue that's common knowledge, yet having highlighted it they do nothing new or convincing with it? Is the pain of a terrible excuse – “Jesus, you’d think what I paid for this thing I’d get more than one bar service!” - any worse than the potential for a question left hanging over why they didn't have a phone?

I juggled with CPD (cell phone dilemma) in a thriller script that involved a situation in a jungle where medical assistance was needed. I opted to not even mention or involve cell phones and instead had characters head to a village they knew had a radio transmitter. It suited the plot, felt natural and I don't think the piece suffered because of it. Not one person who read it flagged it as an issue and my feeling is that if I had opted to write in some dramatic disclaimer as to why these guys couldn’t use their phones then I’m sure those same readers would probably have raised a knowing eyebrow at that point. 

Cell phones are now such a part of everyday life that they increasingly put pressure on writers to explain them away, especially when their working presence, or lack of, is highlighted by an endangered or terrified character’s inability to reach out to those better placed to save them. How you overcome or address that problem in your own work is a combination of creativity, calculated risk and pot luck, but my fascination with this being an issue nowadays is that for all the serial killers and cannibals out there living in teen-friendly no-signal zones, the real monster highlighted in these film clips is the technology itself. The threat of everyday technology failing us, deserting us, leaving us stranded to the ravages of nature. That’s where the real horror lies... what happens when everything stops working?

Then again, what if all movies had cell phones? Bonjour?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Welcome to the BBC, where the Thought Police are alive and kicking

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain recently issued a press release following the BBC’s rejection of Caryl Churchill’s 'Seven Jewish Children', a play criticising Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Radio 4’s Commissioning Editor for Drama, Jeremy Howe, said that although he thought the play was a “brilliant piece” the BBC could not broadcast the play “on the grounds of impartiality”. Howe went onto to say, “It would be nearly impossible to run a drama that counters Caryl Churchill’s view.”

Somebody should have told Jeremy to break the pills in two. It’s utter lunacy that a commissioning editor for drama would read a piece of drama that he considers a “brilliant piece” and subsequently reject it on the grounds that he would need to find another piece of drama to offer a counter argument to justify the commission? Huh? Exactly what planet do I send my license fee to? How rare must it be for a drama commissioning editor to discover a piece of drama they actually deem to be brilliant? And to then not commission it? It’s a decision that makes no artistic sense whatsoever. Exactly what kind of play is Radio 4 looking for, if not brilliant?

One year ago, Jeffery himself answered that: "At its best Radio 4 is challenging, curious and mischievous. And is content rich. [Radio 4 are looking for] a good story told in a fresh and original way. It is that simple. Good dialogue is pretty crucial. Because it is a single it has to stand out, it has to grab us.” Right. So there’s your BBC submitting guidelines: aim for all the above but just make sure it’s not brilliant. Oh, and also don’t make it controversial and also not anything likely to upset the government, please.

As worrying as this blatant censorship is, unfortunately it comes as no surprise when you consider the BBC’s shocking refusal, in January 2009, to broadcast a charity plea for Gaza by the Disasters Emergency Committee on similar grounds. The decision on its own was abhorrent, but for them to cite impartiality as a motive is ridiculous. Impartiality to what, exactly? The charity DEC cited that “at least 412 Children have been killed and 1,855 injured” and wanted to broadcast an urgent plea in a desperate attempt to slow, and ultimately halt, the continuing deaths of more children in Gaza. Unfortunately that route of publicity was denied them by decision makers whose motives are founded on the importance of upholding an institution over the less important lives of children.

Is this the same due diligence to impartiality that, following our government’s brutal and illegal assault on Iraq in 2003, saw the BBC’s then Political Editor, Andrew Marr, on the steps of number 10 Downing Street, gleefully telling BBC viewers that Tony Blair had “said they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating, and on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right.” That’s the height of BBC impartiality, is it? With Amnesty and UNICEF having publicly estimated over half a million Iraqis dead, children dying from chronic malnutrition and diarrhoea (one in eight dying before their fifth birthday), a contaminated water supply and crippled energy grid, over four million refugees, and whole regions practically glowing with the promise of cancer as a result of non-stop Allied bombardment with depleted uranium. Yep. Let’s all hear it for BBC impartiality.

The BBC produces an internal free newspaper run by its own staff for its own staff. They're stocked in reception for us all to grab a copy and read what's going on inside our place of work. In the edition published after the blocked Gaza appeal, the letters page was titled “In blocking Gaza appeal we are taking sides” and each letter voiced strong opinion against the decision not to broadcast the charity appeal. BBC producer, Jonathon Renouf, said: “There is a smell of fear about this decision. Fear of controversy, fear of criticism, fear of repercussions. Perhaps this is the true fallout from the Hutton Report, Queengate and Jonathon Ross; an organization so mired in fear that it finds itself able to sacrifice aid to the victims of war for a principle that nobody (outside the BBC higher echelons) seems to believe was at stake.”

If that is the case, which it increasingly looks to be, it would suggest some tough times ahead for those writers hoping to push boundaries and inspire change. Not quite so tough, though, as the future of those children denied a chance by a public service broadcaster whose primary motivation is a commitment to a hypocrisy that assumes God-like precedence over a child’s suffering and survival.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Reading The Future

Have you often fantasized about reading a book but were put off by their bookiness? Have you always yearned for that intimate reading experience but just couldn’t get over the booky hurdle of bookiness that most books exude? Well Amazon has come up with just the solution for YOU.

“At half the thickness of Amazon's first e-book reader, the Amazon Kindle 2 ($359) is pretty inviting. It's a, sleek, curved tablet that you can easily hold in your hands.”

My God! This revolutionary invention is so book-like that you can actually easily hold it in your hands! Like a book!

“The first-generation Kindle weighed 10.3 ounces and offered a paperlike E-Ink display that keeps eyestrain at bay.”

And it has a paper-like quality! Wow! Just like books!

“The first Kindle was readable in sunlight…”

Hallelujah! Like books!

“… it also had long battery life…”

Brilliant! Who doesn’t hate it when you get to a good bit and your book stops working?

“… and allows you to highlight passages at will.”

What, like a pen, on paper? AT WILL? It’s a miracle I tell you!

“The Kindle 2 retains all of those capabilities, in a slimmer form. In my tests with the device, it felt easier to hold, especially one-handed.”

My God AGAIN! This new not-book is SO book-like it’s even like one of those books you can hold in one hand. Like a paperback. A paperback BOOK? Brilliant!

“And the slim form made it easier to pack alongside my ultraportable laptop and other devices in my gear bag.”

It IS like a paperback book! Brilliant. It’s SO paperback book-like you can put it in bags! Genius! And the pièce de résistance of this God-like-genius invention? Drum roll… PERLEEZE!

“The Kindle 2 turns pages 20 percent faster than the original Kindle does. The faster refresh allows you to navigate the screen in real time, at least.”

It… turns… pages… as… fast… as… a… REAL BOOK! Genius!

I had a quick scan of the Amazon reviews but couldn’t get past the first amazed customer's review:

“I've had the Kindle 2 in my hands for almost a day and have carried it on one commute.”

Monday, June 08, 2009

Cat Straw™

So, why is it that cats can’t pour water down their throats?

Other than not possessing opposable thumbs and having access to small cups, surely if they just lowered their heads into a bowl of water far enough so their bottom jaw is fully immersed in the water, then all they’d then need to do is open their mouth and suck and they’d quench their thirst a lot quicker than THE HALF A FUCKING HOUR IT TAKES MY CAT AT SIX O’CLOCK EVERY MORNING TO NOISILY SLURP WHAT MUST AMOUNT TO NO MORE THAN A THIMBLE FULL.

I don’t see it being that intellectually challenging. It’s how my tortoise drinks, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, he just lowers his little head into the bird bath and sucks away, yet my tortoise can’t operate the cat flap or quietly open the bathroom door to unravel an entire toilet roll, or stealthily stalk squirrels through the branches of a tree, and he certainly doesn’t come bounding down the garden having recognized that I’ve just called out his name (not for want of trying on my part), so what is it that’s stopping my more-intelligent-than-a-tortoise cat from taking a few silent gulps of water in the morning just like my tortoise does?

Is it simply that cats don’t like getting their chins wet? I know most domestic cats generally don’t like getting wet, so maybe that’s it - they’d rather spend half an hour dipping their tongue in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out (see?) of a bowl of water than risk the horror of getting a damp chin. But I wonder. Can cats suck? Is it because cats can’t suck that they don’t suck, or is it because cats are so blissfully unaware that sucking even exists that they have no concept of the suck?

They don’t smoke. They don’t drink milkshakes. They’ve certainly never needed to siphon petrol or remove snake venom from a bite wound. So maybe it’s just down to the fact that because they’ve never had anything to suck, they've never had to evolve a sucking system (neither have tortoises, I hear you cry, but tortoises smoke. Constantly. Why do you think they’re so slow?) so it could be that sucking might be the answer to the cat drinking problem. I appreciate cats might not think they’ve got much of a problem with drinking, but, hey, our ancestors used to think drinking warm beer was normal. Helloooooooooo. Progress. Things change.

So, can cats suck if they're encouraged to do so? And if so, what about straws, can cats use straws? Has anyone even thought to ask them? The straw would certainly be the natural solution to any damp chin concerns, plus a lot of resources and money go into researching cat foods and if we establish cats can suck then there’s a whole other industry out there. Isotonic cat drinks for the active moggy. Diet drinks for the less active. It all comes down to the straw and whether cats can use them. Even rabbits can use straws and they’re hardly rocket scientists, they understand the principle behind the ‘suck a straw-sized tube and get a drink’ scenario - they suck on those upside down water bottles that look like small versions of cyclists’ water bottles, or even just small cyclists’ water bottles, and quench their thirst. My dear old rabbit, Miffy, would always have a glug on his water bottle to wash his fish and chips down. No problem for him, he understood the concept of suck. So why not my cat?

This could be the start of something big. Or at least something long, thin and straw-like.

The Cat Straw™. In shops now!

"When your cat wants more...

... use The Cat Straw™"

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009



It’s pointless me charting a path to what you’re about to read because you already pretty much know how I arrived at this point. If in any doubt, just substitute the previous bureaucratic madness about trying to get someone to come and make a phone work, with something similarly ridiculous about how to get someone to come and get a desk powered up, and then simply apply the same RIDICULOUS timeframe, chuck in half a dozen disinterested people who each think everyone but themselves should be sorting this out and then add magic mushrooms.

Allow me to make the introductions.

POWER MAN (40s) smart new boiler suit, a confident swagger to his walk, saunters through the open-plan office. He stops at a desk, puts his surprisingly clean and very shiny toolbox down on the floor, straightens up and winks at me.

Alright. Got a couple of desks need powering up?

(It still really bothers me that I failed to initially note two massively glaring pieces of characterization: the smart boiler suit - it even had ironed creases - and a shiny clean toolbox.)

Anyway, I pointed out that indeed these were the two desks that needed powering up.

Let’s see what we can do for you.

(The royal plural, eh? Pluralis maiestatis. Unless he actually means a hoard of them are about to turn up similarly dressed in brand new boiler suits? Maybe enacting a synchronized saunter across the office to musical accompaniment. “MEN AT WORK - The Musical: it’s men working, but with songs!”)

He drops to his knees (mind those creases) and crawls under my desk.

I back away a little, trying to determine what should be a respectful distance in this kind of scenario, somewhere between not too far away that it seems I’m not interested in the work he is doing on my behalf, but also not too close for him to think I’m somehow checking up on his work. The result, I think, must have been maybe a little too close, because when he reappeared from under my desk I stupidly pretended to be surprised that he had just appeared from under my desk. His head popped out, my eyebrows shot up and I gave a little “Oh! Hello!” and consequently felt a right twat.

Why did I do that?


Yeah. The problem is your desk isn’t plugged in. You’ve got no power to your desk.

(If only this genius had thought to study the great diseases of our time or famine prevention instead of desk plugs, then the world as we know it might be a different place. I stress might.)

I know. That’s why I called you.

There’s nothing powering it up. It needs connecting to the mains.


You see, what you’ve got, you got the power block attached to your desk, that’s those plugs you see under there. See? That line of plugs?

I make a point of looking under the desk to look at the plugs. I nod my head.

Well they’re your plugs. But they’re not plugged in themselves. What you need is a lead to plug into your power block, that block there, that also plugs into the mains via that floor box.

I continue to stare at my powerless plugs, sagely nodding my head as if I’m finally being allowed in to the inner sanctum of plug knowledge.

That’s how you power it.


Basically you’re gonna need a lead. A lead and a plug.

Right. A lead and a plug.

Yeah. You’ll need a lead and plug.


Power Man gathers together his shiny toolbox. I take note of this worrying action but remain rooted to the spot unsure of what to do or what say to him. The gormless concern etched across my face prompts him to reiterate by way of reassurance --

You need a lead and a plug. You’ll need to put in a request for a lead and a plug.


You’ll need to put in a request for a lead and a plug.

I stare at Power Man. I look around at the surrounding desks, all inhabited by silent strangers beavering away at whatever it is they do. I can’t find one person to make eye contact with in the hope of exchanging a knowing smile, or maybe even a Valium or two. I look across to the window, half expecting to see Jeremy Beadle grinning back at me. Except he’s dead now. Although I’m not convinced seeing him standing there would make any less sense.

It turns out that there are four different departments involved in the installation of my desk. Of course there is. Firstly, naturally, there is the actual desk department who deliver and build my desk and kindly throw in a wonky chair for good measure but not good posture. Then there’s the floor box department who install holes in the floors under desks for plugging things into. Then there’s the guys who wire up the holes in the floors and make them work. Then there’s the department who supply power leads and plugs. They are four separate departments, each owned by separate independent contractors, who each bill the BBC for each job they carry out. They do not appear to communicate with each other or have a good word to say about each other. 

I should also point out that Phone Man is not employed by any of the above departments as the phones are also a separate outsourced service. Fun, eh?

In summary: Power Man informs me our desks are without specific leads and plugs required for power. I point out that we had already worked out that bombshell, hence the request for someone to come and power us up. He then points out that the actual supplying of leads and plugs are not his area of responsibility, his area of responsibility is simply to ensure that there is actual power available but stops at making that power accessible through the unusual and outdated practice of supplying an actual power cord and an actual plug. Or as he succinctly put it:

Look. I can confirm your desks have the ability to get power. That’s not a problem. But as to whether you can actually access that power, well, that’s not my area of responsibility. You need to speak to the building facilities department to get a plug and a lead. They can supply you with the route to the power but not the power itself, that’s my department.


… having known for six months that I was due to start here on a specific date and would need a desk on arrival, it still took one month after I arrived to actually get a desk, and having got that desk it then took a further two weeks to get a working phone and power to that desk. Brilliant.

Once this Millennium Dome of desks was finally complete, with all the different departments having contributed their expensive bit to the jigsaw, the first item I plugged in, of course, didn’t work. No power. Nothing. Which, it turns out, wasn’t such a bad thing as it meant I avoided electrocution when I repeatedly smashed my skull into my monitor screen. Eventually they/someone/not sure who at this point, returned in my absence and diagnosed the fuses in my desk plugs needed replacing. Yet it wasn’t because I was told about the fuses that I knew they had been changed. Oh no. Nothing that obvious. It was simply because when I returned to my desk, planted my arse and moved my mouse, the resulting sharp pain and subsequent smear of blood across my desk was revealed to be the result of smashed fuse glass imbedded in my palm. I discovered more small pieces of glass generously scattered across my desk, as if a mouse juggling act had gone terribly wrong in my absence.

A kind soul from a neighboring desk advised me where the first aid box was kept. I thanked him for his concern, and then apologized to his colleagues for screaming “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” at the top of my voice. I'm sure they heard my apology from under their desks.

My hand wrapped in tissue paper, I trotted off to the kitchenette area, as instructed.

What a marvelous sight to behold…

I found this Telegraph article written in 2002: Suffering Succotash! which has since left me with with one eye on the ceiling and the other browsing Ebay for secondhand Miner's hats.

It looks like I picked a bad year to give up glue.

Working At The BBC - Part 3

Saturday, April 11, 2009


(a tragicomedy in two acts)

So, after patiently ‘hot-desking’ for one whole month (one of those annoying sugar-coated expressions that attempts to pointlessly garner excitement from the miserably dull and supremely uninspiring practice of sharing desks with everyone and their empty coffee cups) my buddy and I, working together on our latest broadcasting caper, finally manage to get our very own desks. Hurrah! Two empty desks. All ours. Not anyone else’s desks. No seats left uncomfortably warm by unknown bums. No mysterious coats over chairs. No dirty mugs beside keyboards smothered with buttery breakfasty fingerprints. Nope. Two fresh, clean, empty desks devoid of any suggestion of previous habitation and intended for the sole use of us both. Time to plant a flag and claim these babies as ours - one twelfth of a year later and we finally got them. And considering the insane bureaucracy we’ve been privy to during this time maybe we should consider one month as being quite an achievement.

Yeah right.

We got no phones. Well, we got phones, two of them, one on each desk, but neither of them actually in working order. A condition compounded by the fact we’re also in an area that has no mobile phone coverage, we’re basically on the dark side of the moon. Except on Earth. And the desks have no power. Like the phone situation, there are plug sockets in attendance, several of them smiling away under the desk, but they don’t work. Nothing works. Nothing actually works.

So we mention that neither of our desk phones work and that our desks have no power. We mention this to several people. Repeatedly. A lot. We repeatedly mention this a lot. To a lot of people. And finally it gets “elevated to a higher level” and we’re told that we need to put in a proper request to the relevant people.

Let’s start with getting these phones working…

Okay. How do I do that?

Phone them. Here…
(writes number down)
… here’s their number.

I stare at him as he holds out the post-it note with the number on it. He smiles, nods, and holds the number towards me. Embarrassed for him, I take it.

You want me to phone them?

Yeah. Just mention my name as a reference if there’s any problem.

Right. Thanks. You want me to phone someone to report my phone isn’t working?

(I’m thinking to myself as I’m looking at him, "Well, I’m no psychic, but I can already predict there being one massive problem with that suggestion." But I’m looking at him and he just isn’t getting it. I should point out that this is also the same bloke who one month ago suggested I email the IS department to tell them that I wasn’t able to log onto my computer.)

Yeah. Seriously, if you get any hassle just put them onto me.

I won’t be able to phone them. My phone doesn’t work. I can’t phone them.

I follow his lead and stare at the defunct phone on my new desk, both of us willing it to do something to get us out of this mess…


I’ll phone them.

It was a further TWO weeks before the smiling phone man appeared and my phone was networked to the BBC system and finally up and running. But only my phone, not my fellow workmate’s. Once the phone man had finished pressing my buttons and explained some phone functions that I can’t imagine anyone ever needing, I then pointed him towards our other phone that needed doing, a phone less than three feet away on a desk opposite and attached to mine.

You’ll need to put in a request for that one.

We did.

For that phone. You’ll need a request for that phone.

We did. That’s why you’re here. We already put it in.

No. I only got a job request for one phone. This phone.

But we got these desks at the same time. Two weeks ago. And neither phone was working. That’s when we put in the request. Two weeks ago.

I only got a job request for one phone. You’ll need to put in another request for that phone.

I’m sorry if it wasn’t made clear. It was BLOKE who put in the request for us, obviously we couldn’t because we didn’t have a phone, and I’m sure he would have put in a request for both phones because he knew we needed both --

I only got one job request for one phone.

-- so maybe he got it wrong or didn’t explain himself properly, and if that’s the case I do apologise, but --

You’ll need to put in another request for that phone.

(one… two… three… four…)
Can I put in a request now, then? To you? Whilst you’re here? The phone’s right there. Please? We would be really grateful. Really. It only took a couple of minutes to do this one.

We look at each other…

He looks towards the other phone…

Looks back to me…

The suspense is killing me...


Sorry. I only got one job request for one phone. You need to phone a request in for that phone.

An internal primal scream threatens to blow my eyeballs out of their sockets. Thankfully, years of regimented study in several Japanese martial disciplines has taught me well. I take a deep breath and instantly calm my inner psycho. It’s only a phone. A phone. It’s not as if it’s anything actually important. Yeah. I'm cool.

Do you need the phone number?

I decide right there and then to kill him.

Tune in soon to WORKING AT THE BBC - Part 2 where you’ll find out all about POWER MAN: the man in charge of powering up my new desk. He’s a real hoot, that one, a right barrel of laughs.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Screenwriting Gurus

Contrary to popular belief, I think many of the popular screenwriting books and self-styled screenwriting gurus can be responsible for holding back promising hopefuls by shackling burgeoning writing potential before its allowed to flourish. 

I accept that any book or teacher that offers the best/easiest/guaranteed route to success will always attract customers from both the lazy and inquisitive camps, but once they have your cash and your attention, then what? Most of us have only been schooled in the ways of reading and writing literature and to throw ourselves suddenly at drama, via a book or course that guarantees success, can easily end in confusion when we’re presented with a new language, new set of rules, and an assortment of scientific formulas.

It’s easy to see why, after several miserable attempts to grasp these new doctrines, so many enthusiasts fade into disgruntled oblivion. Wasn’t this meant to be easy? A thought further exacerbated by examples of successful screenplays.

A screenplay should be slick, succinct, and easy to read and understand. But we put so much time and effort into researching, structuring and writing a screenplay, to ensure it looks simple and is easy to read, that the finished product looks like anybody can do it, which naturally leads everyone who reads a screenplay into thinking they can do it. Take the recent critically acclaimed release, The Reader, as an example. The very talented playwright and screenwriter David Hare took Bernard Schlink’s complex 224 page novel and crafted it into an 82 page non-linear narrative, telling two stories fifty years apart, that reads ever-so simply and must have been a dream for both director and actors to work with - and was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Anyone reading that script with aspirations to dabble in dramatic writing could be forgiven for initially thinking “Only eighty-two pages? Cool. Not many words on those pages, either. Groovy. Hmmm, this looks pretty easy.” Add to that the promise of a book/guru/course pretty much guaranteeing success and you can understand why most wannabe writers end up nonplussed when they repeatedly fail to create a winning screenplay.

We do not need to be spoon fed how to write stories, basic storytelling technique is instinctive. Many moons ago I was on a beach with my young nephew. He's a quiet, sensitive little chap, not one for pouring his heart out, so when he began telling me how he was being bullied at school, I didn't make a fuss, I simply continued to look for stranded mermaids in rock pools and let him get on with it. As I listened, I realised we are all born with the ability to tell stories, it's just that as we grow up those who become the storytellers tend to have a more natural ability to successfully convey those stories.

He set his little world up for me. He told me about school, about a particular lesson, about the teacher, the kids and what they were all doing. I knew who the bad guy was, although he didn't initially tell me, then he threw in the inciting incident and the effect it had on him, swiftly followed by the subsequent plot point which seemed to tie in with the end of his Act I. Although hardly a riveting story, it was still a story, and one that was structured pretty traditionally. But ask my nephew who McKee is and he'll probably suggest that's what Ronald McDonald uses to get into his house every night. So what miracle occurred to gift him the power of story?

I firmly believe we are all born with an unconscious understanding of the basic principles of story. Combine that with years of being told stories, reading stories, watching stories, and it’s easy to see how we develop an unconscious appreciation of drama - a perfect platform to experiment with writing drama at a later stage. I also believe that those formative years, spent unconsciously absorbing valuable dramatic information, can be quickly rendered redundant by opting to become disciples of books and gurus rather than having faith in our own natural ability to work things out ourselves. Learning by writing through our own mistakes, rather than being told what those mistakes might be before we even know they exist, is what contributes to us developing our voice and becoming individuals in a field awash with imitators.

Novice screenwriters should read scripts instead of books and avoid the gurus, concentrating more on writing and telling their own stories, in prose, in their own way, without the restrictions of previously unknown dramatic rules and principles. It is a much more organic fertile environment and will allow any potential to happily flourish. Once a writer has become more confident and established in his/her ability then it makes more sense to dabble in the informative arts of gurus and their offerings, as these resources are much more useful to those already familiar with a basic understanding of drama in practice.

In positing this theory I fully accept I’m now off the Christmas card list of most gurus, their agents and publishers.

Mind you, maybe that’s not such a bad thing: once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. 

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thought For The Day

Cambozola is good
it's better than wood
coz it's easier to spread on your bread.
But it's hard to believe
that a full fat soft cheese
would make a strong four poster bed.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Preparation... It's All In The Sauce

Images 2

Plants & Payoffs

When a writer introduces a specific detail into a story, she/he needs to examine whether that detail will be unconsciously believed by the audience. If it isn’t, the writer runs the risk of alienating the audience and undoing all the hard work that went into the script. To avoid that happening the writer should subtly foreshadow the specific detail so it feels completely natural when it eventually happens. The writer has to prepare.

Subtle preparation starts with our darling characters: how we set them up and how they subsequently behave. For example, if we know a character is a former soldier and gets jumped by three heavies and easily overpowers them, the audience are ready to accept that as a possible outcome. Yet if the character is a mild-mannered accountant who still manages to ninja his way out of his predicament, unless the audience have been prepared to think otherwise, they could be sceptical of the outcome and might snap out of the story. A mild mannered accountant who also boxes as a hobby could at least be a good starting point.

Likewise, imagine that same accountant, off work with a broken leg, watching his neighbours from his apartment window. Thinking he’s just witnessed a murder, he opens a drawer and produces binoculars and various telescopic lenses to zoom in for a clear view. Might that be just a little too convenient? If we were to establish earlier in the narrative that he’s a bird-watching enthusiast or, even simpler, change his profession to that of a photographer, then the groundwork has been laid for unquestioned audience acceptance.

This may all seem very obvious to read, but so many films and their audiences suffer because of a failure in preparation. It could be a result of the filmmakers being too involved and losing perspective or simply through complacency or maybe even arrogance, but the fact remains even seasoned pros fall foul of poor preparation.

In the David Koepp-penned, Steven Spielberg classic, Jurassic Park, poor preparation results in a disappointing finale, made all the more disappointing by how simple it would have been to avoid. Following a tense chase scene, the two kids, Timmy and Lex, find themselves trapped in the computer room with Dr Grant and his fiancé, Ellie. Earlier in the film, a computer breach results in all security doors being automatically unlocked and disabled, which now poses a serious problem for the kids as the one and only door to the computer room cannot be locked manually and a velociraptor is about to get in. They are trapped. They are dinner.

Dr Grant and Ellie are fighting a losing battle to hold the door shut against the raptor’s superior strength and weight. It’s surely only a matter of seconds before the raptor bursts through and massacres them all. We hold our breath … the kids cower … any moment now … and then something miraculous happens. Lex sits down at the recently rebooted computer system, speedily navigates through its operating systems and promptly activates the security systems. The door slams shut and locks, the disappointed raptor peers dolefully through the glass and the kids breathe a sigh of relief, safe and sound within the locked room. WHOOSH BUMP! That’s the sound of me returning to reality. Suspension of disbelief has just been suspended until further notice. How I hate those whoosh bump moments.

I invested time and emotional energy rooting for these kids only to be rudely affronted when one of them (who up until this moment has spent the majority of the film crying and screaming) morphs into a high-security computer systems analyst in the nick of time and saves the day. Where on earth did that come from? Poor preparation.

Lex using her computer skills was a specific detail that should have been a payoff moment. The problem is there hadn’t been a significant plant earlier in the script to make that payoff acceptable. All we had were a few lines of dialogue, very late on in the film, where Timmy calls Lex a nerd because she’s always on her computer at home. Lex responds to Timmy by saying she’s a hacker. Timmy again calls her a nerd. And that’s it, a brief dialogue exchange in which a nine-year-old boy tells us that a twelve-year-old girl likes computers, and from that we are expected to accept her elevation to heroine über-geek status as she speedily navigates her way around a state-of-the-art complex computer system while a terrifying monster breathes down her neck.

What’s even worse about that scene is that in Michael Crichton’s original draft, adapted from his novel, it is Timmy, not Lex, who saves the day in the computer room. Crichton having an off day turns bad preparation into an art form by failing to plant even a whiff of Timmy’s technical prowess. I assume Koepp and/or Spielberg, in reading that draft, figured it a bit far-fetched that a nine-year-old would be so au fait with computers and so, in the new draft, they changed the nine-year-old boy to the twelve-year-old girl, and for good measure threw in a line about her being a computer nerd to plant a seed in our minds. It’s a real shame that having identified a problem, the resulting fix was too weak.

I’m not sure why they were so keen to have Lex using the computer as a tension-building moment (let’s face it, in a story involving dinosaurs and children there’s hardly limited options for creating tension) but having decided to include that element, why not prepare it properly?

We are first introduced to Lex and Timmy in an amusing scene that is a payoff for Dr Grant’s character. We are shown early in the film that Dr Grant hates kids, yet his fiancé, Ellie, wants kids. When Dr Grant is about to embark on the much-anticipated tour of the dinosaur park, he discovers to his horror that two children are to accompany him. This is the first time we realise there are children on the island. It’s a surprise that instantly annoys Grant, which amuses Ellie and in turn amuses us. That joke is a payoff for the earlier plant but unfortunately it’s included at the expense of the ultimate payoff scene towards the end of the movie.

Any number of options could have been used in this instance. They could have introduced Lex in the computer room being given a systems demonstration by the resident computer genius. She is the owner’s granddaughter, after all, and if he’s happy for the kids to drive around a park full of dinosaurs, surely he’ll not mind a little tinkering in the engine room? The sibling rivalry can still be used as a tool to disguise the plant. The computer guy could be impressed by how quickly Lex picks up what he’s showing her - specifically, the park security systems – and say, “She certainly knows her way around a computer.” This would prompt a smile from the proud grandfather, which in turn would be swiftly followed by Timmy’s, “She’s a nerd! She’s always on the computer at home.”

It’s still subtle yet establishes a more effective plant to help us accept the plausibility of a twelve-year-old sussing out an automated security system at the end of the film. Furthermore, rather than show us an effective plant, they use a nine-year-old boy to tell us a weak plant. Whoosh bump. Bad decision in what is otherwise an extremely well-written script.

For this kind of subtle preparation to work, not only is it important for the plant to establish enough information to justify the payoff (as above), it’s also important the plant appears as an insignificant detail, nothing to arouse excitement or suspicion. It’s only later during the payoff moment, when the critical detail has been introduced, that it all falls into place and the relevance of the plant pays off. When this works, it’s a great moment because the audience feel they have participated in the story. They’ve had to work for it, plus they know you’ve trusted them enough not to spoon-feed them exposition. You’ve connected with your audience.

In M Night Shyamalan's Signs, the young girl, Bo, believes that all drinking water is contaminated. Whenever she’s given a glass of water, she takes a sip, turns her nose up and puts the glass down. As the film progresses, more and more glasses of abandoned water collect throughout the house. Her family indulge her, knowing it’s just a harmless childhood phase, and we all smile at what is a very cute little girl with a very charming character trait. At no point do we suspect these actions to be anything other than good characterisation. It’s only at the end of the film that we discover the perfect combination of great characterisation with a well-crafted plant.

Shyamalan offers further examples of great preparation for all his main cast, giving them subtle and believable character traits that never feel forced or telegraphed yet all serve as great payoff moments at the climax. The script is a masterclass in preparation, as well as a great example of low-budget scriptwriting.

Good preparation isn’t always about being subtle. Telegraphed preparation - flagging information to the audience - can serve as a good tension builder simply because the audience are aware there’s a payoff coming. One of the more common forms of telegraphing is through variations of: "If you do this, then this will happen." When Little Red Riding Hood is warned, "Do not stray from the path!" we are immediately on high alert when she eventually does stray from the path because we’ve been told to expect trouble.

Where this type of preparation can suffer is not necessarily with the original plant, but with the expected payoff, and to demonstrate here's another Spielberg classic, Minority Report and another well-written script, this one by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen.

A policeman, John Anderton, is on the run in a futuristic society where everyone is tracked and identified by eye scanners wherever they go. There is no avoiding detection and because it’s only a matter of time before he will be caught, Anderton takes the only route left to remain a free man: he has an eye transplant to remove his ‘fugitive’ eyes and replace them with those of an average Joe. It’s this scene that lays down two pretty heavy plants that both result in unnecessary whoosh bump moments.

With the Jurassic Park example, we saw a weak plant fail at the payoff due to shoddy preparation. With both the examples in Minority Report we see two blatantly telegraphed plants fail miserably because there is no pay off in either instance.

John Anderton’s fugitive status forces him to visit a shady back-street surgeon for the eye transplant. Just prior to the operation, Anderton is given an anaesthetic that quickly renders him physically useless, although he can still speak and hear. It’s at this point that the surgeon reveals he and Anderton know each other. Many years ago, Anderton arrested and locked up the surgeon for the shocking crime of setting female patients on fire. Anderton remembers him (not one to forget) and as Anderton lies there paralysed, trapped in the surgeon’s chair, the surgeon recounts his prison experiences, even alluding to the fact that he was raped.

As Anderton struggles with the grim reality that this nutter is probably after some serious payback, the surgeon lifts a laser gun to Anderton’s face, thanks him for sending him to prison and then says, “Let me return the favour…” and as the laser gun moves in, we collectively recoil from what must inevitably be this madman’s gruesome retribution.

The script then cuts to another scene and when we eventually return to Anderton, he’s in the same place, post-op, with his face and eyes wrapped in bandages. The surgeon is still with him and explains that it’s imperative he waits twelve hours before removing the bandages otherwise he will go blind. The surgeon stresses this several times, to the point that Anderton even repeats it back to him, demonstrating that he (we) understands he will go blind if he removes the bandages before twelve hours have passed. This is the second telegraphed plant. The audience are still waiting for the payoff on the first one. What has this nutter done to Anderton’s face and eyes they wonder? Also, why isn’t Anderton wondering that, too?

The surgeon gives Anderton a timer and some recreational drugs. An alarm will sound in twelve hours letting him know he can safely remove the bandages. The surgeon exits, Anderton takes a hit on the drugs and settles down to wait the allotted time. Unfortunately for him, the police are closing in and with six hours still remaining on his “gonna-go-blind” timer, Anderton is forced to uncover his newly transplanted left eye so a scanner can read it. He peels back the bandages, forces open his eye and the scanner strobes across it. Ouch! The new eye fools the police. They think it’s a different guy and the audience breathe a huge sigh of relief at the end of an extremely tense scene. The pain and suffering and ultimate blindness in one eye were worth it because he’s still a free man.

The next scene shows Anderton in public wearing sunglasses. We sympathise with him and his recent sacrifice, that is until he removes the glasses and can see perfectly well with both eyes! Whoosh bump.

If you telegraph this kind of detail you have to follow through with your promise and deliver, otherwise the audience will feel cheated and you could risk losing them. If Little Red Riding Hood defies her mother’s warning and strays from the path, something pretty rotten must happen to her. Failing to realise telegraphed preparation deprives the audience of expected payoff. It’s part of the deal. Chekhov said it more succinctly: “do not show a rifle on stage unless you are planning for someone to use it.” This is exactly what happens in Minority Report. What about the mad surgeon? Where’s the payoff there? Exactly what did that warped, woman-burning psychopathic surgeon with a chip on his shoulder do to our hero’s eyes? Is something yet to come? No. Nothing.

Anderton’s face is unscathed and his eyes work perfectly well for the rest of the film, despite the surgeon heavily hinting it was payback time, and despite the fact that Anderton exposed one eye within the timeframe that we had it drummed into us he would go blind. That’s a double whoosh bump moment. Two massive payoff scenes that should have been written were deafening in their absence.

Although both preparation problems in Minority Report are the same type of problem - telegraphed plants with no payoff - their differences lie in accountability. Whereas in Jurassic Park the problem is created at script level, with Minority Report the honours are even, with both writer and director demonstrating a shocking lack of vision. (I think it’s safe to say I’ll never work for Mr. Spielberg.) The first problem, the telegraphed threat from the lunatic surgeon, was a poorly-executed attempt to create even more tension in a succession of scenes already crammed full of tension.

In continually trying to up the stakes for the already beleaguered protagonist, the writers overlooked the required payoff scene. The result? Audience distraction and disappointment, the very opposite of what they were after. It’s a great example of where less would have been more. Throwing more and more problems at your protagonist just for the sake of it doesn’t equate to heightened tension. Allowing the scene to breathe and for the audience to focus, allows for existing tension, of which there is plenty in this example, to take root and build, making the eventual payoff that much more rewarding.

The second telegraphed plant, the warning not to expose his new eyes until twelve hours have passed, was originally followed by the required payoff scene but only in the script. In Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s script, when Anderton exposes his left eye after only six hours have passed, the eye actually turns white and for the rest of the script, as promised, he remains blind in that eye. That is the payoff scene that should have been seen, has to be seen, but unfortunately didn’t materialise in the finished film.

For whatever reason Spielberg decided to remove the element of Anderton going blind from the film. That’s fair enough; it’s the director’s prerogative, scenes are dropped and chopped all the time. However, having made the decision to drop the blindness element, Spielberg failed to remove its preparation, which left a gaping hole where there should have been a payoff scene, resulting in confusion, frustration and ultimately a betrayal of investment for the audience.

A similar problem occurs in Kieslowski’s Trzy Kolory: Bialy, where a confusing and disappointing finale is the direct result of specific preparation, present in the script, being cut from the finished film. Rejected husband, Karol, decides to fake his own death in a ploy to bring his estranged ex-wife, Dominique, from France to Poland for his funeral. Karol’s best friend, Mikolai, is in on the plan and after Karol’s ‘death’, arranges for a new identity, a new house and a new life for Karol in Hong Kong. Karol is due to fly to Hong Kong the morning after his own funeral.

Spying on his fake funeral, Karol is both moved and shocked at Dominique’s genuine grief, which prompts him to visit her at her hotel that same night. She expresses enormous relief that he is alive and they make sweet beautiful love and fall asleep in each other’s arms. It’s unclear why, after yearning for her for so long and going to such extreme lengths to induce her to come to Poland, Karol then sneaks off early in the morning before she wakes.

The police suddenly arrive and Dominique is surprisingly arrested for Karol’s murder. She is subsequently convicted and imprisoned leaving a sad Karol to pine outside her Polish prison with no further mention of his proposed Hong Kong plans. THE END. Whoosh bump.

The script reveals all. It turns out that Karol faked his own death to deliberately implicate Dominique as payback for the hell and humiliation she put him through in France. What we don’t see in the finished film is Karol arranging the set-up by having one of his men pinch Dominique’s passport whilst she’s at his funeral and replace it with one containing a new airport stamp that proves she was in the right place at the right time for his murder, the plan being that as Karol takes off for Hong Kong in the morning, his friend Mikolai will tip off the police about Dominique and all will be wrapped up nicely.

But it isn’t wrapped up nicely, at least not in the film, because the audience do not see any of that significant preparation and so when the police unexpectedly arrive at Dominique’s hotel and question her about her passport, we have no idea it has been faked and cannot understand why she has been arrested.

The script further reveals that following their night of passion after the funeral, Karol decides he can’t go through with the frame-up and he has also changed his mind about going to Hong Kong. So, the next morning, he leaves Dominique asleep in bed and hurries to the airport to cancel his ticket before phoning Mikolai to call the whole thing off.

Unfortunately, his arrival at the airport reveals that the clocks have gone forward. He tries to get hold of Mikolai but it’s too late; Mikolai’s already phoned the police and there’s no going back. And so we get the bittersweet ending. But only in the script, because in the film Karol sneaks off without explanation and Dominique is bizarrely arrested for Karol’s murder. We then see Karol seemingly devastated about Dominique’s arrest and imprisonment yet still allowing her to be wrongly accused of his murder, and there is no mention whatsoever of why Karol’s planned new life in Hong Kong hasn’t materialised. It’s about as clear as mud. Whoosh bump.

Kieslowski recognised this and admitted the ending was not clear. He agreed with the criticism but still defended his decision to cut the film saying he didn’t want to burden the viewer with a longer story. It seems very strange to cite audience welfare as his reason for cutting a film’s length when the subsequent result is mass audience confusion, especially when you consider the film is only an hour and a half long and the actual time cut from the finished film, according to Kieslowski himself, would have extended it by only “at least another ten minutes”.

Let’s suppose that is the case and for whatever reason he was against breaking the ninety-minute barrier. Director’s prerogative. But why did he choose to remove critical preparation that would undoubtedly lead to audience confusion and disappointment when he could just as easily reclaim that time from other areas of the film and sacrifice less important material? There’s plenty of opportunity to do that, plus he could have perfectly adequately foreshadowed the climax in less than “at least another ten minutes”.

All Kieslowski needed to do was show the all-important set-up with the passport forgery, then show Karol, after leaving Dominique in the hotel, discovering the time differential and trying to stop Mikolai from making that fateful phone call. That’s it. No longer than a few minutes. Instead we’re left with an intriguing and amusing film that ultimately confuses and disappoints at its climax. With all due respect to another brilliant director, I think he simply got it wrong. I think he made a mistake, an error in preparation, something none of us is immune to, neither the gods of film nor those of us who aspire to lie at their feet.

Of course, it’s always easy to pick holes in others’ hard work, but despite the problems highlighted above, all the examples have been consciously chosen from films that are recognised as being both critical and commercial successes. I just believe they could have been better. I fully accept that it’s extremely difficult to craft a work of drama without any holes, but we have some wonderful tools at our disposal to help do that, and by respecting just how delicate those tools are and understanding that even the greats can sometimes get it painfully wrong, hopefully we can be aware of our own fallibility and never become complacent.

First published in SCRIPTWRITER MAGAZINE issue 43 November 2008
Little Red Riding Hood by the very talented Annie Rodrigue