Saturday 26 September 2009

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks to its naked greed and breathtaking business acumen, my local yoga centre decided to respond to the credit crunch last year by doubling its prices. This proved to be the absolute definition of a blessing in disguise when, monumentally ticked off with these jokers, I quit the centre for good and began practising yoga at home — every day. The net results of this new regime was not only that I made more progress in six months than I had in the previous six years (look Ma, I'm doing the full wheel!) but I also I found myself listening to a solid, and enlightening, seven hours of internet radio a week, while practising said postures. The latest fruits of this routine have included an outstanding dramatisation of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five on BBC Radio 3. I only just caught up with it and it will only remain available for another two days (click here) but if you miss it, don't despair. A work of this quality is bound to be repeated and I will keep you posted. Admirably adapted by Dave Sheasby, the novel works surprisingly well on radio. But what struck me most of all was how beautifully written, casually profound and bitterly funny the book is ("Anti-war novel? You might as well write an anti-glacier novel"). There's a full cast of Vonnegut's regular characters in attendance, including Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You Mr Rosewater, which I think was the first Vonnegut novel I read; Howard J Campbell Jr from Mother Night, which I re-read recently, and which was another compact masterpiece (also an excellent film starring Nick Nolte); and of course the pervading presence of hack science fiction writer and fellow peddler of casual profundity, Kilgore Trout (a name which is an obvious play on Theodore Sturgeon, though unlike Trout, Sturgeon writes very well). Listening to the radio play also brought back startlingly vivid memories of seeing the movie with my mum. At the cinema in Grant Park Plaza, I believe. Mum enjoyed the movie, but she was a little upset by the cruelly pointless death of Billy Pilgrim's sweet, loving wife, Valencia. So it goes.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Troy Kennedy Martin 1932-2009

In my, admittedly idiosyncratic, view the three greatest British screenwriters to work significantly in television (Dennis Potter is a near miss) are Nigel Kneale, Simon Moore and Troy Kennedy Martin. This week I was saddened to hear that Kennedy Martin had died. The only up-side of his loss is that we might get a BBC4 retrospective devoted to his work. I first became aware of Kennedy Martin's writing, although I was already an admirer without knowing it, through Edge of Darkness. When I started working at the BBC as a script editor in television drama that influential six part serial had only recently been made. There were still posters on the wall and scripts lying around the offices in Shepherds Bush. I never met Troy in person (we'll use his first name to avoid confusion with Ian Kennedy Martin, his brother, creator of The Sweeney and another considerable British screenwriting talent) but after Edge of Darkness I watched everything I could find by him. I mentioned above, somewhat cryptically, that I'd been an admirer of his without knowing it. That's because I'd seen and appreciated Kelly's Heroes, the Clint Eastwood feature which Troy had written. His other famous movie, from much the same period, is the cult favourite The Italian Job. Both Kelly's Heroes and The Italian Job are marred, in my view, by undistinguished direction which encouraged some broad slapstick and hammy performances. But both films rise above their deficiencies and the essential brilliance of Troy's writing shines through. Add to these The Sweeney 2, a crackling, sardonic and salty big screen version of the police TV series his brother created, and you have the best of Troy's big screen work. His other feature credits consist of co-writing the Walter Hill mismatched buddy-cop movie Red Heat (a proficient and engaging thriller fatally compromised, I think, by some questionable casting, while the great character actor Peter Boyle languishes in a minor role), adapting the South African suspense writer Gillian Slovo's novel Red Dust (an intelligent and mature but strangely under-powered script) and The Jerusalem File (an obscure thriller which I have never seen; roll on its DVD release). The highlights of his later television work are Edge of Darkness and Reilly Ace of Spies. I can't tell you about his early TV dramas, because with exception of one episode of Z-Cars (which he created) I haven't seen them. Fingers crossed that the BBC4 retrospective materialises soon. A big screen adaptation of Edge of Darkness is in the works, starring Mel Gibson, but Troy did not have a hand in the script and I suspect it will have as little resonance with his original as the recent Italian Job remake. If you want to catch the original, classic version of The Italian Job it's worth noting that the latest DVD has a new commentary featuring Troy Kennedy Martin himself. There are some interesting website postings about him here and here.

Saturday 12 September 2009

What I'm Reading on Buses (and Trains)

Paperbacks used to be called pocket books. (Stick with me kid and you'll learn something.) This was for the very good and simple reason that they were of a size to fit comfortably into the pocket of a jacket. You could carry the book around with you and read it whenever you wanted, cancelling out those mind numbing waits for (or on) public transport. Such books had been specifically designed with this in mind. So, the lucky reader had the choice between these frangible pocket books, or paperbacks if you will, and hardcover books. The latter were more permanent and durable than our easily destroyed little paperback friends, but also a lot bigger and heavier, and wouldn't fit into the pocket of even Andre the Giant's jacket. But that was cool, because you always had the paperback option. Then some marketing genius got the idea that there was money to be made in making paperbacks bigger and classier (and more expensive, natch) and altogether more like hardcover books. These mutant aberrations were called trade paperbacks. This scam, I regret to report, worked only too well and today most paperbacks are these bloated hybrids. The point I'm getting at — they won't fit in my fershlugginer pocket any more! So when I head out on public transport I always go through my vintage paperback library (and baby, it's quite a library, believe me) and select a proper pocket book. Sometimes it might even be a Pocket Book. Recently, as regular readers of this blog (both of you) will know, my pocket-stashed reading has been William Golding's Lord of the Flies. I'm very familiar with this book, having read it more than once over the years and seen the film what seems like dozens of times when I was a kid. That film, written and directed by Peter Brooks, made quite an impression. But it is a perhaps feeble shadow of what might have been if Nigel Kneale's adaptation had got made. The creator of Quatermass, Kneale was a stone cold genius, a formidable screenwriter and a dangerous mind. In his version of the film there would have been both girls and boys stranded on the island, a more valid microcosm of society. It's a tragedy that film never got made. Anyway — I thought I was familiar with the story. But I was in for quite a surprise. My first impression of the book was that Golding is a very good, vivid writer. He has a strong visual sense and a good turn of phrase. His tropical island is also very convincingly evoked. So much so that, knowing he'd served in the navy during World War Two, I assumed he had been posted to the Pacific and encountered such places at first hand. In fact, a bit of painless research (very painless, since Peter Carey's biography of Golding was serendipitously serialised on the radio recently) revealed that the author had in fact spent his war service in cold Atlantic waters. Which makes his achievement all the more laudable. So far so good. My problems with Lord of the Flies, and they are substantial, begin with the Beast. Allow me to back track. As I opened my battered Penguin Modern Classics copy (nice cover by Andre Francois) and began reading it, sitting on a train bound for Waterloo, I had a clear idea of how the story went — or at least, I thought I did. It begins with an admirably terse and eliptical reference to a nuclear war that has swept the globe. A passenger jet full of schoolboys, refugees, has crash-landed on an isolated tropical island. Soon they begin to descend into savagery, ending up finally pursuing one of their own number in a hunt to the death. Well, in all of those particulars I was correct. But I'd completely forgotten about the whole stupid "Beast" subplot. Which goes like this. Some of the smallest kids ("littluns") have bad dreams at night, and believe a menacing beast stalks the island. The older kids poo-poo this. But then one night, unseen by any of them, a dogfight takes place in the sky over the island. Two jet fighters duelling to the death. (This is all quite nicely and economically described. Golding, I'm sure he'd be pleased to hear, can write.) Then one of the pilots comes floating down from the sky on a parachute. The trouble is, he's dead. He lands on the highest hill top of the island, where the boys try (and often fail) to keep a signal fire going. Some of the kids spot the strange, billowing, vaguely supernatural shape of the parachute, which has snagged on an outcrop. In the darkness they think they've seen a monster, and flee. Powerful and convincing? Nope. Sorry William. It's bunk. And it gets worse with a couple of other encounters between Gullible Kids and Parachute Corpse. Soon word on the island is that the Beast really exists. All this nonsense about the Beast is contrived and thoroughly unconvincing and seriously damages the book. It's like all that crap about Vietnam and Daffy Duck in Alex Garland's The Beach (I notice it was the first thing that screenwriter John Hodge filleted out when he adapted the book for the screen). I wish some editor had had the brains to say to Garland, "This is a great book, just lose all that tripe about Vietnam and Daffy Duck. Oh, and do try and think of an ending. There's a good chap, Alex." Because that's the way editors talk. And I wish even more emphatically that someone had said to Golding to lose all the Beast bollocks. The worst part is, he kind of uses it as a device to explain, or at least hasten, the degeneration and growing violence of the kids. I'm all for a powerful account of the descent of civilised children into murderous savagery. Bill, you're playing my song! This is the most powerful and enduring aspect of the book. But you don't need the boring bloody Beast to justify it. This subplot weakens and diminishes the whole book (it sold a mere ten million copies. Imagine how many copies it would have sold if he got it right!). Good book, though. Anyway, having just finished the book and reflecting on this, I sat down for coffee (hot chocolate, actually) with Phil O'Shea, a writer buddy of mine from Dark Knight days and all round nice chap. Phil knows that I'm a vinyl nut and always ordering LPs (mostly jazz) from all over the world. These LPs arrive in specially designed LP boxes and, because I have what some would call an unwholesome penchant for music, there are a lot of these lying around the place at any given time. And any given time is usually when Phil O'Shea turns up, with a bag of pastries to bribe me, and takes away my precious boxes. He uses them to ship the records (mostly classic rock) he sells all over the world. This is a sideline of Phil's and at the moment there is probably more money in it than there is in writing for television. End of digression. As I sat there with Phil, sipping the superb hot chocolate I'd made for us, kvetching about writing, he happened to mention this new biography of Golding. And he told me that the original draft of Lord of the Flies had apparently been full of quasi-supernatural doings and accoutrements. Oh, and that beautifully terse and elliptical reference to the nuclear apocalypse? Apparently in the original there was reams of stuff about this war and its aftermath. But, thanks to the cleverness and taste of Charles Monteith, a tyro editor at Faber, most of this stuff was cut. How fascinating. If only Monteith and Golding had gone that extra mile, and got rid of the Beast, too. Still, it provides a nice excuse for that Andre Francois cover. If you look carefully you can see the face of the Beast looming in the background over the boys, cleverly composed of the signal-fire smoke which is such an important element in the story.