Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Wow Factor

Waterstones and Faber and Faber have launched The Wow Factor (PDF file), a competition for aspiring children's writers.

The closing date is 31 July 2005.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

TMA rates increase

The Writers' Guild has agreed a 2.9% cost-of-living increase in the minimum rates for writers under TMA (Theatre Management Association) and Scottish Society of Playwrights agreements.

The details of the rates, and other theatrical agreements for writers, can be downloaded from the Guild website.

The Culture Commission

In the Sunday Herald Chris Ballance, Guild member and MSP, assesses the report of the Culture Commission into the future of the arts in Scotland.
The Cultural Commission report was finally published last Thursday, after a year of consultation. It is more than 500 pages long and has a standard structure. On issue after issue there is a brilliant and passionate appeal for the potential of the various sectors to be realised, an authoritative analysis of the problems – followed by a call for another review, another strategy and/or another new institution.

Commission chairman James Boyle champions the arts magnificently, but depressingly misses the point. Support for the creative individual is not, as Boyle says “a key factor in delivering cultural opportunities” – it is the key factor. The issue is not the delivery structure, it is the centrality of the artist within that structure.

Variety Night

Another enjoyable Writers' Guild Variety Night in the bar at RADA last night.

Where else could you hear poetry (Dave Morgan, Jonathan Asser), an extract from a screenplay about Robert Burns (Barry Grossman), comic songs (Julie Spitler), a short story (Mathew Friday) the opening scene of a one-act play (Benita Cullingford) and a darkly comic memoir (Janice Day) all in the same evening?

In the interests of shameless self-promotion I should also mention that Madeleine Howard performed an extract from my one-woman play, Katherine (opening at the end of July at The Finborough Theatre, tickets available now...)

Variety Nights happen every few months, and are open to all. Keep an eye on this blog and the Guild's e-bulletin for details.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

US Supreme Court rules against file-sharing

In a decision that surprised many commentators, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the firms behind file-sharing networks are responsible for what people do on these systems, reports BBC News.
The US Supreme Court has said that Streamcast Networks - which created the software behind Grokster and Morpheus file-sharing systems - can be held responsible for the rampant piracy on those networks.

Streamcast had argued that it could not be held responsible for the uses its software was put to, but the Supreme Court justices did not agree. They said there was "substantial evidence" that Streamcast had profited by promoting copyright infringement or piracy.

The Supreme Court has not outlawed legitimate file-sharing. It has simply called Streamcast to account for encouraging the infringement of copyright.

The case will now be sent back to a lower court where the media firms that filed the original complaint are expected to press for substantial damages.
While most focus has been on illegal sharing of music, it is a rapidly increasing problem for TV drama and films. It remains to be seen what the ramifications of the US Supreme Court ruling are, but it looks like a strong below in defence of copyright holders (including, obviously, writers).

Monday, June 27, 2005

Monsterist manifesto

Led by David Eldridge, a group of playwrights is campaigning for theatres to commission more large-scale work from new writers. They call themselves the Monsterists. David Eldridge explains why in The Guardian.
Monsterism may have started out as a moan but it is a positive, forward-looking campaign by writers to ask British theatre to raise its game. [Moira] Buffini speaks for all of us when she says: "Deluded though I may be, I am an optimist. If we playwrights work together we may effect a change. If we are allowed to give our imaginations free reign, if we have use of the same resources, the spaces, budgets, casts and directors that are usually reserved for the deceased, we may write the kind of plays that will attract a new audience. We all moan about tired old productions and dead theatre. We can only try to bring it back to life."
Like all good revolutionary groups, the Monsterists have a manifesto.
Monsterism is a theatre writers' campaign to promote new writing in the British theatre. It is a positive, forward looking movement that aims to create opportunities for British theatre writers to create large scale plays, for large stages.

The key aesthetic tenets of a monsterist work are:

· Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast

· The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling

· Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)

· Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)

· The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)

· Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)

On a practical level the implications of the manifesto are:

· The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage

· Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)

· Use of the very best directors for new plays

· Use of the very best actors for new plays

WGAw campaigns for reality writers

The Writers Guild of America, west (WGAw) is going public with an industry-wide campaign to organize reality TV writers, producers, and editors. "This is the most aggressive organizing effort the Guild has undertaken since its founding," said Daniel Petrie Jr., president. "The secret about reality TV isn't that it's scripted, which it is; the secret is that reality TV is a 21st-century telecommunications industry sweatshop."
The full story is on the WGAw website.

JG Ballard on CSI

Author JG Ballard thought TV was an "ageing theme park, which we visit out of habit rather than in hope of finding anything fresh and original" until he discovered C.S.I: Crime Scene Investigation. In The Guardian, he examines the shows appeal.
Given that there are no interesting characters, no car chases or shoot-outs, no violently stirred emotions and no dramatic action, why is the C.S.I. series so riveting? What is it that grips us to the end of the episode, which is scarcely more than an elaborate crossword puzzle with human tissues in the place of clues? My guess is that the answer lies in the inner sanctum at the heart of all three series - the autopsy room. Here the victims surrender all that is left of their unique identities, revealing the wounds and medical anomalies that led to their demise. Once they have been dissected - their ribcages opened like suitcases, brains lifted from their craniums, tissues analysed into their basic components - they have nothing left, not even the faintest claim on existence.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Film Archive Action

A report in Private Eye (not online) last week highlighted concerns among National film and Television Archive "insiders" about new policies by The British film Institute.

A campaign group has been set up, Film Archive Action.
Film Archive Action is the website of the Custodes Lucis Group.

The Custodes Lucis (The Guardians Of Light) are campaigning against the changes being imposed on the National Film and Television Archive by its parent body, the British Film Institute.

These changes mean that the NFTVA will no longer be the national heritage moving image collection, but is being reduced to the status of a film library to be used by the BFI for its own purposes. Acquisition and preservation policies will be designed to suit the BFI's as yet undefined 'cultural plan'. The needs of researchers will be ignored: cataloguing the Archive's holdings in order to provide good documentation has already been reduced to virtually nothing. A third of the film technicians at the Archive's Conservation Centre were made redundant last year; the BFI has not yet replaced their work with any alternative procedures for conserving and preserving the films. This world-renowned collection is now threatened with destruction through ignorance and neglect.

Catherine Bailey interview

Producer Catherine Bailey interviewed by Nick Smurthwaite in The Stage:
In her quiet, unassuming way, Catherine Bailey has become a dynamic force in British drama. As well as 150-odd radio plays and serials, including this year’s gold and silver award winners in the Sony Radio Awards, she has produced the feature film Spider, directed by David Cronenberg, a dozen or so TV documentaries, a children’s TV series, and now looks set to launch herself into mainstream TV drama.

Elaine Sperber to leave CBBC

From the BBC Press Office:
Elaine Sperber has decided to leave the BBC after six and a half years as CBBC's Head of Drama.

During her time with CBBC she has been instrumental in producing and commissioning some 53 series, serials and single dramas including the highly successful Tracy Beaker, Kidnapped, Feather Boy, Stig Of The Dump, Pig Heart Boy and Mark Haddon's original comedy, Microsoap.

Elaine said: "When I arrived at the BBC I wanted to make children's and family dramas which were more contemporary and reflected the lives of the audience who watch our shows.

"I was committed to expanding the range of content and style for the viewers, treating them as the sophisticated consumers of programmes they truly are. I think I have achieved that."

Friday, June 24, 2005

In praise of short books

William Grimes in The New York Times looks at a growing trend for bite-size publishing.
The Modern Library, in its Chronicles series, expands the short-take concept to just about everything. It has included titles by A. N. Wilson on London, Jeffrey Garten on globalization, Colin Renfrew on prehistory and Pankaj Mishra on the rise of modern India. My introduction to the series came with "The Company," the snappily told history of an idea that today rules all our lives. The authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who both work for The Economist, begin with simple barter exchanges in ancient Mesopotamia and in a little less than 200 pages arrive at their final destination, the multinational corporation. In a couple of hours, the reader travels through all of recorded history and comes out the other end, stuffed with valuable information and pointed toward the future.

Give me more. I mean, less.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Writing for computer games

More than 150 people packed into BAFTA last night for a Guild event looking at the role of writers in developing computer games.

On a panel chaired by Andy Walsh (who has written for games, TV, film, radio and stage) everyone agreed that writers were, or at least should be, central to the process.

Lydia Andrew and Guy Miller

Lydia Andrew (Sound Supervisor) and Guy Miller(Creative Director for the Harry Potter games franchise), both from EA, kicked off by arguing that computer games need scriptwriters for:

  • original stories
  • structure
  • character depth and evolution
  • high quality dialogue
  • to assist with adaptations

Ideally, they said, the writer should be involved right from the start helping to develop original ideas. But this doesn't happen much at the moment.

Lydia outlined some of the difficulties of writing for computer games:

  • non-linear narrative
  • the amount and type of dialogue
  • the need to learn a new set of techniques and technologies
  • the undpredictability of the player
  • the constantly evolving nature of the game development cycle.

The challenge for the future, Guy argued, was to redefine the process of storytelling. Games needed to be more emotionally compelling, while retaining gameplay. No one quite knew how it would be done, he said. But writers will be in the lead.

Chris Bateman

Chris Bateman, Managing Director of game design and scripting company International Hobo, began by stating that the overall quality of narrative in the games industry is currently poor. But it is improving.

The script budget is normally about 2% of the total, he said. Which, although low, is still an improvement on the 0% of a few years ago. The problem is that writers are still being brought into the process too late.

Chris suggested that writers without prior experience in the games industry were most likely to find work either writing 'cut-scenes' (the set pieces where the narrative is spoon-fed to the player) or technical writing for documentation that accompanies games. The more complicated narrative design required more understanding of how games work, he said.

As examples of games with competent narrative he suggested:

James Leach

Next up was James Leach, Head of Writing at Lionhead Studios.

His main concern was that professional writers who get involved in computer games should stand up for what they believe in. Too often, he argued, story points get over-explained and repeated. Stories get cut to pieces and actors, rather than recording dialogue together, never meet.

Less is more, he insisted. With dialogue and plot points, the key is to get as much information over using as few words as possible.

Katie Ellwood

The final speaker on the panel was Katie Ellwood, Narrative producer and director on Sony's The Getaway and the forthcoming The Getaway 2.

As an example of a game where good writing supported the gameplay, she suggested Ico, a game so emotionally involving that it can make players cry.

At Sony, Katie explained, they have been spending a lot of time thinking about the role of writers in games and on The Getaway they had a writer involved right from the start.

Katie ended by showing a scene from The Getaway 3, running on a PS3. It was an almost photo-realistic recreation of Piccadilly Circus. Apart from the people. Who, as several panel members commented, can still not be rendered convincingly.

Writers and theme

A questioner from the floor suggested that writers should be used more to generate the theme of a game - that, after all, is what writers do in other mediums.

Guy pointed out that for Harry Potter games they use JK Rowling's themes, and Andy Walsh said that in four of the last five games he has written the question of theme has emerged in discussions.

However, talking to writers in the bar after the event, it was clear that many felt that the industry was still not looking to writers to pitch original ideas. Why shouldn't it be more like film, when spec proposals are submitted, options bought etc? That, several people said, is what would really take the games industry forward.

How writers are found

While Chris and James said that they have plenty of CVs sent to them by potential writers, Lydia said that she had never been approached (writers flocked to her in the bar afterwards). Katie said that she tended to use agents to find writers, but there was a lack of knowledge about the games industry among agencies.

Where next?

As Chris pointed out, story and dialogue are worth 10-15% in the all-important games reviews, so producers should be willing to invest in writers and story development. If they don't, Katie said, they will be left behind.

The Writers' Guild is keen to represent the interests of games writers as their role in the industry develops and, as a starting point, has designed surveys for games writers, aspiring games writers and games producers.

Guild Events and Communications Manager, Naomi MacDonald, said she was hopeful that more games writers will join the Guild and that last night's event can be followed up with more in the future.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mumbai in Mokum (Amsterdam)

Some of Mumbai's most notable names appeared in a small auditorium in Amsterdam, which sometimes goes by the Yiddishe nickname of 'Mokum'. A few passionate Dutch fans of Hindu descent tried to talk their way in, but the meeting was strictly aimed at Dutch film professionals. Co-organised by the Dutch screenwriter's guild, the Netwerk Scenarioschrijvers, the idea was to bring Indian industry professionals in touch with their Dutch counterparts, as part of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) which had descended on Holland as part of their goal to celebrate Indian Cinema around the globe.

That's right, Indian (or Hindi) Cinema. No 'Bollywood' please, we're Indian. Early into the seminar it was established clearly by director Karan Johar that Bollywood is seen as a derivative term, suggesting that Mumbai intends to emulate Hollywood. "Why call us anything that mirrors something else? Our movies have a soul of their own. Why not call it Sholay?" Too bad the term has already been embraced the world over and that non-Hindi cities like Kolkata and Lahore are calling themselves K- and Lollywood respectively.

Also present was veteran screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar, responsible for some of the 70's groundbreaking classics like Sholay and Deewaar launching Amitabh Bachchan's acting career as 'angry young man'. Faced with a Dutch audience reared on the Calvinist model of 'less is more', he went on to explain the inner workings of a typical Indian film, which mostly operates on the basis of 'more is more'.

Javed Akthar: "European films tends to deal with one emotion, or one problem. You can see them as short stories. Whereas an Indian film is more like a novel. If you would make a film in India called It Happened One Night, people would feel cheated! They want larger than life stories. Indian sagas have to have every emotion in the book. We took movie cameras from the West, but our epics are thousands of years old. Other influences are Urdu poetry and Parsi theatre, which used songs and Victorian novels. It's a strange synthesis of East and West. In our first talkie from 1933 there were fifty songs! There was never any doubt that we wouldn't use songs. As a lyricist, I write to an existing tune and I try to solve a narrative problem in the content of the lyrics. But I'm always dependent on whether a story is conducive to writing a song, whether it has certain sensibilities. Language is becoming more urban. Life is speeded up by technology. The tempo increases and the words become less important." Akhtar went on to pick up the award for best lyrics for the film Swades at the IIFA awards ceremony three days later.

The evening was moderated by Dutch film scholar Marijke de Vos, who co-edited the book Behind the Scenes of Hindi Cinema that was launched simultaneously. Indian critic/screenwriter Deepa Gahlot describes the role of the Indian screenwriter as follows: "In Hollywood, the writer is an important part of the filmmaking process: a novelist may receive millions of dollars for the movie rights to a book, and a scriptwriter is paid to develop an original or adapted screenplay. The Bombay film industry treats the writer as a lowly hack. More often that not, the producer wants to copy a foreign film, in which case the writer simply 'Indianises' the names and situations, and passes the work off as his own. Frequently, scenes and lines are written on the set, and often changed to suit a star's mood. [...] This disrespect for intellectual property is apparent in the poor quality of most commercial films. Scriptwriters who have made names for themselves are Wajahat Mirza, Akhtar Mirza, KA Abbas, Sachin Bhowmik, Prayag Raj and Salim-Javed (=Javed Akhtar)."

Yes, a handful of writers in Hollywood might be making big bucks, but unfortunately greenbacks alone do not prevent one from getting treated like a lowly hack, which is a more universal phenomenon than Deepa Gahlot might think. There were a few Dutch writers in the audience that night who could have confirmed that statement. But the night ended on an exuberant note with the screening of the Karan Johar-written smash hit Kal Hoo No Ho, which is so visually dazzling and drawing tears to the max, that even Dutch screenwriters forgot their troubles such as bad meetings, unenthusiastic script editors and late payments.

The Writer (a sculpture)

A table and chair the size of a house has been captivating visitors to north London's Hampstead Heath.

The 30ft (9m) sculpture, The Writer, [by Giancarlo Neri] will be on Parliament Hill for four months before returning to Italy.

The tribute to the loneliness of writing is meant to inspire visitors to the heath, which has associations with writers Keats and Coleridge.
More from BBC News.

Sky buys Artsworld

Sky, often perceived as the champion of low-brow, has bought the very high-brow Artsworld TV channel, reports The Independent.
Five years on [from its launch], Artsworld is still widely regarded as filling a gap unserved by any other channel in the market. True, arts and culture play an important role at BBC4, but, the BBC is quick to stress, BBC4 is not and never has been an arts channel. From launch, Artsworld's commitment to an eclectic - often high-brow - mix of arts from around the world gave it an elitist reputation in some circles. But the arts world embraced it with open arms. "An absolutely brilliant channel: wonderful and courageous," is the view of Victoria Todd, director of the National Campaign for the Arts. "It has touched nerve-endings that the BBC has long forgotten in its arts programming."

All3Media buys Mersey TV

Independent production company All3Media has snapped up Hollyoaks and Grange Hill producer Mersey Television in a deal reported to be worth £35m.

All3Media, headed up by former Granada CEO Steve Morrison, completed the deal to buy Mersey TV, which produced the now-defunct Brookside, after its chairman Phil Redmond put the business up for sale earlier this year.

All3Media, set up by Morrison in 2003, started buyout talks with Liverpool-based Mersey in April.

Redmond will remain involved in the company as executive producer of BBC children's drama 'Grange Hill'. His wife Alexis will step down as managing director of Mersey TV.
More from Brand Republic.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Alan Clarke's Work Celebrated

The London Film Academy is launching Under the Influence, a series featuring the world's filmmaking talent, starting with ALAN CLARKE, described by fellow British film director as 'the best of all of us' .

To mark the 15th anniversary of his death and celebrate his work, Riverside Studios and Curzon Soho is hosting events over two weekends in July (14-17 and 21-24).

Under the Influence - Alan Clarke examines his most significant work through a series of masterclasses and panel discussions with many of his colleagues and collaborators, filmmakers and actors alike including: producer Sandy Lieberson and Lesley Sharp, who worked with Clarke on Rita, Sue and Bob Too; Corin Campbell Hill (director and Clarke's First AD; writer David Rudkin (Penda's Fen); Vertigo magazine editor, Gareth Evans; director/writer/actor David Leland; Margaret Matheson (producer of Scum); actress Lesley Manville (The Firm) and actor Ray Winstone.

For those of you too young to remember Alan Clarke, this is a chance to catch up with the work of one of the most exciting, and visceral directors Britain has produced. David Hare described Clarke as a 'profoundly anti-establishment artist, that's his stance, and that's his glory'

For further details, contact the RIVERSIDE STUDIOS. Tel 020 8237 1111
or the CURZON SOHO. Tel 020 7734 2255, or log onto their websites.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Richard Curtis and the G8

Guild member Richard Curtis is one of the guiding lights of Comic Relief, and now he's training his eye on the G8 summit with a new drama for the BBC about poverty and politics, The Girl in the Café.

There's an interview by Adam Sweeting in The Times and interesting analysis from Mark Lawson in Media Guardian (free registration required).
A favourite competition idea in literary magazines is the collaboration between unlikely writers and The Girl in the Café frequently feels as if Richard Curtis has been locked in a room with Trevor Griffiths: a sequence of floppy-haired confusion over the hotel booking for the couple will suddenly give way to a stretch of electrifying dialectic about dirty water supply.

Ireland considering end to writers' tax exemption

The Irish government is considering ending tax exempt status for writers and other artists, reports The Guardian.
The scheme was dreamt up 1969 - the year Beckett won the Nobel prize for literature. It was the brainchild of Charles Haughey, then finance minister, now better known as the disgraced taoiseach who once spent £6,000 of public funds on Parisian shirts and took up to £8.5m in payments from businessmen. Haughey wanted to be seen as a patron of the arts.

All income from a "creative" work such as a novel, play or song would be exempt from tax, he decided. He told the British bestseller writer Frederick Forsyth, who had moved to Ireland and availed himself of the scheme, that his plan was "not so much to bring you bastards in, but to stop the outflow of Irish talent".

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Third series of Doctor Who commissioned.

Jane Tranter, BBC Controller of Drama Commissioning, has confirmed that a third series of Doctor Who - plus a second Christmas special - has been commissioned. Filming of the second series is due to begin next month.

The early announcement about the third series is part of a new policy at the BBC to make longer term commitments to successful shows (as seen recently with New Tricks).

The latest Doctor Who Press Pack has an interview with lead writer, Russell T Davies.
One of the things that makes me laugh is when I read something which says 'gay writer of Second Coming, Casanova and Queer as Folk has made family viewing an event'.

It just shows that anyone can write anything. All that pigeon-holing that goes on is nonsense. No writer should ever sit there and think – I'll only write gay things.

I used to work in children's television and it was harder to move from children's telly and break into adult television. I was a young writer and no-one knew my name. People would just sit there and say, but you’ve only done children's.

I knew I could write anything. I knew I could do adult drama, but everyone pigeon-holes everyone.

What I love about Doctor Who is that it has come full circle, it's for adults and children; it's doing everything I like doing.

High court rejects Springer legal review

The Christian Institute's bid to bring judicial review proceedings against the BBC for its broadcast of Jerry Springer - the Opera has been rejected by a high court judge.

The Newcastle-based evangelical group vowed to take the action after the broadcaster refused to apologise for the expletive-strewn opera. The BBC was issued with legal papers in early March.

It applied for a judicial review claiming the BBC had violated its royal charter and hoped to win a hearing which would examine how responsibily BBC bosses executed their responsibilities.

But the high court has refused to grant the Christian Institute permission to bring judicial review proceedings against the BBC.
The full story, by Chris Johnston, is on Media Guardian (free registration required).

Steven Knight - polymath

Steven Knight tells Lyn Gardener in The Guardian how he manages to create gameshows (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) and write novels (The Movie House) plays (The President Of An Empty Room) and screenplays (Dirty Pretty Things).
"There's nothing I can do about it," he says. "If an idea for a game show comes up, it comes up. It's all writing, just with a different emphasis. I see everything I do as being quite unified.

To get a game show into production is as challenging and as intellectually demanding as it is to write a novel or screenplay. Getting Millionaire right was as hard as writing Dirty Pretty Things. Harder. In the pilots, contestants kept wanting to take the money; we had to find ways - the lifelines - of keeping them in the seat, answering the questions. But there is so much snobbery about popular culture. A game show just isn't valued as much as a novel."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Halliwell's top 1,000 movies

John Walker has compiled a list of the 1,000 best ever films in order of merit for Halliwell's Film Guide. He tells The Times about his choices and why he made them.
The book wasn't intended as a symptom of delayed adolescence, though I did find myself chanting the mantra of Trainspotting's Renton "Pain and craving. A need like nothing I've ever known will soon take hold of me" in brief moments of daylight before plunging back into a darkened room for another fix of cinematic delight.
His Top 10 are:
1. Tokyo Story
2. La Règle du Jeu
3. Lawrence of Arabia
4. The Godfather Trilogy
5. The Seven Samurai
6. Citizen Kane
7. Raging Bull
8. Vertigo
9. Some Like It Hot
10. 8½

(If you really like this kind of thing, you can read the full list)
A few similarities with Guild member's Top 10, but rather more international.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

And the winner is... not you (again)

Novelist Justin Cartwright in The Independent shares some of the literary prize winner's speeches he didn't get to make.
I found this collection of speeches in the inside pocket of an old jacket of mine, a black Armani jacket, bought at a knockdown price, from an Oxfam shop in l986, the year I was nominated for the now defunct Sunday Express Prize. The jacket has been worn about six or seven times; in an attempt to look writerly, I have sometimes worn it with a Nehru shirt, sometimes with an open neck. It has doubled as a dinner jacket when the occasion absolutely demanded. None of these speeches was ever delivered, because, although shortlisted, I did not win any of these awards.

Blackpool triumphs at Banff

BBC One series, Blackpool, written by Peter Bowker, has won the Global Television Grand Prize at the prestigious Banff 2005 Rockie Awards. This best of festival award came in addition to winning Best Mini-Series.
"Blackpool stood out in an excellent competitive field by virtue of its highly creative and innovative synthesis of music and drama in the exploration of human relationships," said [jury chairman, Fil]Fraser. "What emerges in this production is nothing less than a new genre of television programming, a major step forward in advancing the kind of quality television that this festival was born to celebrate."

Searchable database of theatrical productions

The Theatre Museum, Covent Garden, has launched a project to set up the UK’s first searchable database of theatrical productions, following a £22,000 grant from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the national development agency which advises government on policy for the museum sector.

The project will attempt to unite the cast lists from every recorded theatrical production, currently held by separate theatres across Britain. The information will then be stored on a database that will be made accessible to members of the public.
The full story is in The Stage.

24-hour plays at The Old Vic

Creating and staging a play in 24-hours can be a great fundraiser as well as a lot of fun, reports Aleks Sierz in The Stage. The Old Vic will create and stage six ten-minute plays next weekend, produced by Kate Pakenham.
The way The 24 Hour Plays work is that “everyone comes together in the evening. You bring a prop, a piece of costume and declare a special skill. Last year, for example, Shaun Parkes said that he’d get naked, which no one took him up on”.

Penelope Wilton brought a cycling helmet as her prop and said she’d been learning to tango, but no one had ever asked her to dance. So in Michael Wynne’s short play, Cuba, there was a final moment in which Alex Jennings asks Wilton to tango. Jennings brought a piece of turf, and Abi Morgan wrote The Little People - a short about David Kelly (played by Bill Patterson) - which starts with him watering his lawn.

At 6am, the writers deliver their plays, giving the actors and directors just 12 hours to learn lines and put the work on its feet. “It’s amazing to see the trust among actors, how they help each other if they lose a line,” says Pakenham. “And the audience is really onside too. Last year, I was sitting right at the top of the Old Vic and it was like a Mexican wave of excitement coming off the stage.”

Serious games

Video games producers are increasingly powerful players in Hollywood, reports The New York Times. When Microsoft auctioned rights to a script based on its hit Halo game, may studios balked at the terms.
Aside from the $10 million upfront fee, Microsoft was asking for 15 percent of the studio's first-dollar box- office gross receipts. The budget could be no less than $75 million, not including the fees for the actors and director. If the studio did not make the movie, it would forfeit the $10 million fee.

Microsoft also wanted creative control, with the script and characters unchanged. The studio would have to pay to fly a Microsoft representative to watch all cuts of the movie, and the studio would forgo merchandising rights.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Tony Wood to leave The Street?

Just when Coronation Street was riding the crest of a wave, with BAFTA wins and Oscar-winning guest stars, troubles seem to be mutliplying.

First the mutiny from writers unhappy with schedule changes, now news, reported in Media Guardian (free registration required) that Executive Producer Tony Wood could be heading for Phil Redmond's Mersey TV.

Belated Listowel update

First off, apologies for the delay in getting my post up on the blog. Here's how it went:

Big gala launch night at the Listowel Arms Hotel, for the 35th annual Listowel Writers' Week. The sun was setting over the town's race course, visible through the windows of the ball room, as the speeches began. I turned up, hoping I wasn't overdressed (sparkly shoes, lip gloss) but Ireland's glamour revolution has definitely reached the southwest, the fake tans and posh frocks were out in force. Minister for Art, Sport and Tourism, John O Donoghue officially opened LWW, and festival Chair Joanna Keane O Flynn used her own witty opening speech to make an entirely justified plea for more funding for next year.

Neil Jordan's novel Shade won the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Previous winners include John McGahern, William Trevor, and John Banville, and this year's other shortlisted authors were Ronan Bennett, Gerard Donovan, David Park and my favourite Irish contemporary writer Colm Tóibín. (Seriously, the man can do no wrong - wonderful essayist and travel writer and a subtle, unobvious novelist - I must never, ever meet him or I'd end up fawning and making a total eegit of myself.)

The proper Writers' Week business began on Thursday, with workshops, book launches, film screenings, theatre shows, kid-friendly events, a book fair, and readings. (I should declare an interest at this point - I was running the screenwriting workshop.)

Billy Keane's book launch was the talking point for Thursday night- I didn't make it as I was double booked but I did hear him reading an amusing extract from his novel The Last of the Heroes at Poets' Corner on the following night. The other talking point on Thursday was Pauline McGlynn and Ross O Carroll Kelly's session on comic writing - a highlight not to be missed, by all accounts (I missed it).

Another highlight I heard about second-hand was the Ronan Bennett reading on Friday, June 3rd. A lot of my students made it, however - they told me it was excellent, and they seemed utterly charmed by the way he skipped over a rather explicit love scene in the extract he was reading as he was too embarrassed to read it out loud in front of so many strangers.

I did, however, make it to the book launch for veteran crime writer Laurence Block's new novel All the Flowers Are Dying on the Friday (and a big thank you to my parents for babysitting so I could go out gallivanting). He read an extract from the new tome, cleverly managing to avoid anything that would made him blush.

Then on to the Listowel Arms for a reading by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I'm more of a pop-culture girl than a high-culture girl, but I have to admit, this was the high point of the festival for me. The hotel ballroom was a magical venue, with the poet silhouetted against the setting sun and the race course. He read for well over an hour - his Anglophone son started things off, reading a selection of better-known works. Then the man himself recited a poem in Russian, explaining that there are 25 times more rhyming opportunities in his mother tongue than in English, so it was important for us to hear the rhythm that his poetry has before it's translated. He was right, it was. Yevtushenko doesn't stand still when he reads - he prowls the stage like a panther - and he's sexy and funny, with a stand-up comedian's timing. I won't list everything he read but the greatest-hits selection included intimate personal works Sleep, My Beloved, Sleep and I Love You More Than Nature, comic poems such as Metamorphoses and a recent piece, Kissing in the Subway, inspired by recent Chechen attacks in Russia, and an attempt by Moscow puritans to ban public displays of affection. Nobody was surprised when Yevtushenko told us he took part in a mass kiss-in to protest this dour and silly measure.

The Q & A session must have felt like an ambush, with endless questions from the floor about politics, Putin and the state of the Russian Federation. His delight that the Cold War has ended got a big cheer, as did his wariness at both Putin and Bush, though his views on the world and its leaders are overtly expressed in his poetry, so I'm not these questions were entirely necessary (and where were the wannabe poets to ask questions about stanzas and structure?)

Distinguished Malawian poet, Jack Mapanje, who read at five o clock on Friday, had a similar experience - an enthusiastic response to his lively and accessible poetry, followed by a Q & A session where members of the audience asked him to explain Africa (no small order). From all accounts, he did his utmost to oblige. Perhaps in a world where we no longer trust politicians (Mapanje himself was imprisoned without trial for four years by dictator Hastings Banda) and we no longer trust mainstream media, writers are once again seen as eyewitnesses, or less tainted sources of information.

My father's highlight from Listowel '05 was the Robert Fisk lecture on the Saturday, moved (like many of the other events that sold out) from the Seanchai Centre to the ballroom at the Listowel Arms. The ballroom was packed, the conference room upstairs - linked by a video link- was packed and even then, people were still clamouring to get in.

My friend from Tralee felt that the DBC Pierre reading on Sunday morning at 11 was her personal highlight.

But, if Listowel '05 had a theme, I'd say it's that the bookloving public is once again hungry for "the real truth" - postmodernists may scoff but I think it's a Good Thing.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Edinburgh Fringe programme launched

The 2005 Edinburgh Fringe programme has been launched. There will be a mere 26,995 performances of 1799 shows in 333 venues.

The Writers' Guild is going to be running awards at the Festival, in conjunction with The List. We're also planning to blog from Edinburgh.

Corrie writers unhappy with time change

Coronation Street's writers have arranged a meeting with ITV's Director of Programmes, Nigel Pickard to express their concern over the amalgamation of two half-hour episodes into a one-hour block from 8.30pm on a Monday night, reports Digital Spy. The move, apparently aimed at boosting ratings for Celebrity Love Island, has seen Coronation Street lose audience share.
Chief writer John Fay told Broadcast magazine: "Moving Monday's episode is the straw that broke the camel's back. It's madness to hobble a tried and tested thoroughbred by tying it to something heading for the knackers' yard."

He added: "Many of us have worked on the show for years. We feel we are the custodians of its future and we feel that it risks being damaged."


In partnership with the Oxford English Dictionary, the BBC is launching a new attempt to find the origin of 50 words and phrases. The results will form a new series on BBC Two, Wordhunt.
To join the word hunt, you might find an earlier appearance of the word in a book or a magazine, in a movie script, a fanzine, or even in a private letter. The most important thing is that it can be dated.

Sometimes the OED can't tell how a word was invented - so if you can fill us in, so much the better. We've indicated next to these words that they are 'origin uncertain'. If you have a convincing theory, we'd like to hear from you. If you can prove you're right, you might help in rewriting the dictionary.

Words and phrases under investigation (their earliest known usage is in brackets), include:

  • back to square one (1960)
  • balti (1984)
  • Beeb (1967)
  • boffin (1941)
  • bog-standard (1983)
  • bomber jacket (1973)
  • bonk (sexual intercourse) (1975)
  • bouncy castle (1986)

And that's just the b's!

Comma Press

Ra Page from Comma Press, one of this country's few (only?) dedicated short story publishers, interviewed by David Constantine on WriteWords.
How do you find your writers?

By reading. The first batch of Comma projects came from knowing a store of writers in the North West, who were either unpublished or not published as short story writers – in many cases their Trusthouse Forte. I also knew the quantity and range of talent in the poetry world (as a closet poetry fan), so it was a no-brainer to do a book like Hyphen, which invited a whole tribe of poets to storm the No Man’s Land of the short story, wailing and screaming, tearing their hair and howling at the moon.
Since then, more and more of the good stuff comes to us by recommendation from others and directly, unsolicited. Our new writers series, which started with Bracket, and continues this year with Parenthesis, is bringing in more and more writers we want to do larger books with.

Orange Play Writing Prize - Scotland

The Orange Play Writing Prize is being run by the Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland for two age categories, 14-18 year olds and 18+. The main prize for each category will be for the play to be professionally produced and be shown for a week at Oran Mor, Glasgow during the 2005 autumn season of lunchtime plays. Short listed entrants will receive high quality professional support to develop their plays, as required.

The plays must be 30 to 40 minutes long, have no more than 3 cast. The only entry restrictions are that the playwright must not have had a play professionally produced before and must be Scottish or live in Scotland.

Story of a book

Fittingly for a book that one internet reviewer said felt as if it had been dreamed up by two mates in a pub for a wheeze, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists was dreamed up by two mates in a pub for a wheeze.
The story of Gideon Defoe's first novel, from conception to publication, told by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.
[Editorial director of Weidenfeld & Nicholson, Helen Garnons] Williams quickly read the manuscript, and liked it, but the days have gone when an editor can make such a financially significant decision alone. She immediately consulted Joanna Carpenter, head of Orion's sales department, for an impromptu forecast of how many copies the book might sell. "You never want a manuscript to be your 'rope book'," Williams says - the work you passionately campaign for, only to see it fail in the marketplace. But even Carpenter makes her judgments primarily on gut instinct and experience, not scientific market research. "It's enthusiasm," she says. "When Helen comes down here with her eyes shining - if you can replicate that in front of a book buyer, you've got it made. It's only with that that books work. Without that, it would be a dreary process." Williams punched Carpenter's forecast into an in-house spreadsheet that uses the estimate to compute a suggested advance to be paid to the author. "The problem is that it almost always comes up with a figure of about £4,000, so you have to ignore it," says Williams. By Monday morning, she had made a low five-figure offer.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Novelists in pods (2)

Four weeks ago we reported that four writers in New York were attempting to complete novels in full view of the public in specially designed pods. Now, as The New York Times reports, they have emerged.
"The time pressure and unexpected attention were incentives," said Mr. [Ranbir] Sidhu, interviewed a few hours before the experiment was over. "People were expecting you to finish a book, something you weren't utterly embarrassed by."

Putting the "litter" into "literature"

Inspired by finding novels littered on Manhattan subways by authors trying to create a word-of-mouth buzz, [Robert] Chalmers devised a scheme to help promote his new book, East of Nowhere.

"It's putting the litter back in literature. I had this idea of bombarding a small town with books, so they end up everywhere and can't be avoided." But why Otley? "When my novel was serialised in a newspaper," he explains, "there was a credit-card hotline number which was actually an answerphone in my bedroom. Only three people called, but all of them were from Yorkshire. So Yorkshire seems to be lucky for me."

On account of its size, shape, and the fact that it competes for the national title of having the most pubs per capita, Otley was chosen. Known chiefly for its portrayal of the town of Hotton in TV soap Emmerdale, Chalmers has come to town with 1,000 copies of his novel and is hoping that handing them out to 4 per cent of the 25,000 residents will give him a slightly more realistic chance of local fame than he has had in London or New York.
The full story is in The Independent.

Baby Cow and Channel X move north

Top independent TV companies Baby Cow and Channel X are opening offices in Manchester, reports The Stage. The move was assisted by funding from film and television development agency North West Vision as part of an initiative to attract production houses to the region and to support indigenous talent.

Leicester Haymarket Theatre gets go-ahead

Multi-million pound plans for the replacement of the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester have been approved by the city council, with work now expected to begin on the site before the end of the month.

The local authority gave the project final approval earlier this week, despite council leader Roger Blackmore previously expressing reservations over the scheme’s rising costs. The new performing arts centre, designed by world famous architect Rafael Vinoly, is now priced at £48 million. This is nearly double its original estimate of £26 million, making it one of the most expensive theatre projects in the UK.
The full story is in The Stage.

The Stage also reports that there is to be a new theatre in the West End - the Sound Theatre on Leicester Square will open on 21 June.
The 200-seat venue will be run by KIT Productions, which will produce its own work as well as transferring productions from London’s fringe circuit into the theatre. There will also be a programme of late-night events for cabaret, music and live art.

Ofcom calls for BBC to link to other broadcasters

The media industry regulator Ofcom has called for the BBC to become more closely linked to other broadcasters as part of its future development. In its response to the Government’s Green Paper on the Review of the BBC Royal Charter, it says:
Ofcom believes that - if the public service system as a whole is to continue to have wide influence and impact in the future - it is essential that the BBC is not allowed to become isolated in a growing - and exclusively commercially-focused - sector.

If the BBC were to become the UK’s sole public service provider, there is a risk that audience tastes would be conditioned by the commercial majority rather than the public service minority; and that producers, writers, editors and other talent would be heavily conditioned by the needs of the commercial sector alone. This would leave the BBC vulnerable to a decline in market share and loss of viewer, industry and political support.

Cliff Hollingsworth - from rags to riches

Cliff Hollingsworth, the writer of forthcoming Hollywood movie Cinderella Man, has spent his career being ignored, reports the WGA. Until now.
I made the decision to sit on [my other] scripts until Cinderella Man came out. Had I known it was going to take this long, maybe I would have made a different decision, but I guess now I'm glad I did. I've always been told it's a night-and-day difference between a produced writer and an unproduced writer in terms of how [the industry] treats you … That's why these new scripts I've written haven't gone out anywhere.

Comedy - Solved

Excellent. Comedy has been solved.

Comedy website Chortle reports that Dr Helen Pilcher and Timandra Harkness have identified the formula that determines a sitcom's success.

It is: (F(RD + V) + S) / A

Where: R is the recognisability of the main character, D is their delusions of grandeur, V is the verbal wit of the script, F is the pratfall factor, S is the difference in social status between the highest- and lowest-ranking characters and A is the success of any scheme.

And with that, we comedy writers can puff our cheeks out, clap our hands together, emit a satisfied "good!" and then head down the pub. Forever.

We have uktvGOLD to thank for that, apparently.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Soho Theatre - five years on

It is five years since [Soho Theatre] artistic director Abigail Morris and an equally intrepid board and staff officially opened the venue in Dean Street, London. The building remains the only one to be bought on the open market by an arts organisation using Arts Council England money. It had been a synagogue in its past and perhaps something still resonates that causes it to be such a community-driven venue, run with an almost religious devotion.
Jeremy Austin in The Stage profiles one of the country's leading new writing theatres.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

What is Alan Yentob for?

According to the BBC's Press Office:
Alan Yentob is Director of Drama, Entertainment and CBBC, a position he has held since April 2000. In June 2004 he also became the BBC's Creative Director.

Alan is at the creative helm of the BBC and has overall responsibility for BBC drama, entertainment and all aspects of the BBC's children's output across all media.

He has responsibility for a significant film division and is the focal point for talent management across the whole of the BBC.
But what does all that actually mean? Rachel Cooke in The Observer spent a day with him in an attempt to find out.
I would say that the greater part of his job involves talking: on the phone, in meetings, at parties. In some respects, he is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up ideas as if they were so much dust. In others, he is the great soother. Perhaps because he can be sensitive to criticism himself, he is adept at making others feel good about their own contributions. In an organisation as huge, political and potentially bitchy as the BBC, I imagine even a bit of this goes a long way. He genuinely wants to make a difference and the idea of doing so, after all these years, still excites him.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Dracula blogged

Bram Stoker's Dracula re-told in a real-time blog. Thanks to The Guardian Online for highlighting this link, as well as one to a discussion of what they call metafiction.

Ismail Kadaré wins International Booker

Ismail Kadaré is today has been named as the winner of the first ever Man Booker International Prize.

Kadaré, born in 1936 in the Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster near the Greek border, is Albania's best-known poet and novelist. He has lived in France since 1990, following his decision to seek asylum stating that: "Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible... The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship." Harvey McGrath, Chairman of Man Group plc, said:
"Ismail Kadaré's novels shine a light on the mores of his native Albania. His writing reflects not only the complexities of a nation coming to terms with its freedom, but also his own personal experiences, and make him a worthy recipient of the inaugural Man Booker International Prize."
Ismail Kadaré will receive the prize of £60,000 and a trophy at the Award Ceremony on 27 June 2005 in Edinburgh.

In accordance with the rules of the recently announced separate prize for translation, Kadaré will choose a translator or translators to receive an additional prize of £15,000.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Comedy - Sitcom Writers At War

I like to think of writing as a noble, elegant and largely solitary pursuit. When a writer does go to meet other humans they may also be writers and, unencumbered by professional jealousy, they have the satisfied understanding that they are in accord and privileged to share conversation with another writer (as opposed to a Labour Party press officer, a convicted baby smuggler or Princess Michael of Kent).

Unfortunately, writing is now about going out into the world with a stack of paper under your arm marked "writing"; finding someone else with a similar stack of paper; and then kicking each other violently in the shins. The one who drops their stack of paper first is clearly not as good a writer as he thought he was.

I'm talking about a tendency to make writers battle it out head-to-head (or head-to-head-to-head-to-head... as the case may be).

I was reminded of this by a press release from the USA about Bravo TV's Situation:Comedy.

Bravo's new series will allow viewers to go behind the scenes of national television as neophyte writers will earn the opportunity to produce and sell a sitcom - but the eavesdropping audience will give the final thumbs-up by choosing the winning entry that will be broadcast on Bravo.

[...] the lucky five writers were flown to Los Angeles, where they were thrown into the deep end of the creative pitching pool. They then submitted their ideas to NBC network executives who green-lighted two of the scripts to go into production as 15-minute presentations [...]

The final two "wannabe" writers (or writing teams) were thrust immediately into the high-energy, high-stress world of television production. Viewers will be with them as they meet their staffs and find that they have to share many of their key staffers.

In addition, audiences will watch the entire process through casting, set design, rewrites, rehearsals, taping and post-production. In the end, they will see each completed presentation and can vote online for the sitcom they believe should get a shot for broadcast on television. The winner will receive a cash prize of $25,000 and exclusive representation for one year with a major Hollywood talent agency to further help launch a successful writing career in film or television.

I think it's time I took up knitting.

This form is already with us in Britain where the BBC's Last Laugh competition will involve the winners in television appearances. In fifty years we've managed to conjure up Hancock, Steptoe & Son, Fawlty Towers and the mighty Cilla's World of Comedy without reducing writers to dancing media monkey-boys.

The next writer to join the ranks of Galton & Simpson could be someone you first saw completing an obstacle course to win a treacle tart or soaping their genitals in a glass walled latrine.

LBC book club

A new book club run by London radio station LBC has been criticised for selecting titles on the basis of payments made by publishers, reports Jack Malvern in The Times.
Books that appear on the Book of the Month feature on Daisy Sampson’s drive-time show on LBC are selected not by a panel of experts, but by the books’ publishers, who pay £10,000 to get a book on air. Despite criticism from authors, who believe that readers will be misled by the book club, LBC said that it had no intention of informing its listeners of the five-figure fees.

Mostra, the marketing agency which set up the club, said that although it would allow a range of views to be broadcast on each book, LBC would not broadcast any review featuring severe criticism.

Antony Beevor, the author of Stalingrad and chairman of the Society of Authors, described the LBC book club as a “deeply cynical” exercise. “It puts complaints about bungs given to booksellers to get them to put books in their windows completely in the shade,” he said. “Obviously it is just a way of buying publicity. If you are buying an advertisement it should be made clear that it is an advertisement.”

Book Slam

When Ben Watt, one half of the dance duo Everything But The Girl, told the author Patrick Neate that he wanted to put on a bookish event at his west-London bar Cherry Jam, Neate wasn't very encouraging. "I told him it was a stupid idea," he says. Two years later, Book Slam - a monthly night hosted by Neate - has become the brightest example of a new trend in live author events. The scene has its origins in the slam poetry scene and the concept is simple: authors known and unknown read extracts from their work and DJs and bands play in between.

Literary festivals and author readings have always been a staple of British literary culture, but Book Slam is different. It's just like a night down the pub, only with story-telling thrown in. "I wanted to put on a night that I actually wanted to go to," said Neate. "I could be really highfalutin' about it, but Book Slam is just an excuse to listen to good music and literature and not worry that I'm 34."
The full story from Claire Allfree is in The Independent.

Power-cut at the Guild

The Writers' Guild offices have suffered a complete power-cut. Please be patient if you are trying to contact the office. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Guild chair backs BBC unions

Graham Lester George, Chair of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, has added his support for the action that broadcasting unions are taking against cuts planned by the BBC. Speaking at the Euro-MEI General Assembly in Budapest, where an emergency resolution supporting the unions was backed, Graham said that "We [the Guild] believe in the BBC and in its virtues".