Sunday 21 March 2010

My Attempt to Overthrow the Government

I had an odd little experience a few weeks ago, which ended up with me appearing on national television, fighting my corner against the forces of darkness. Or at least a whole bunch of silly newspapers. I asked the appropriate colleagues of my feisty book agent Julian Friedmann if I should try and write a piece about it for one of the less silly newspapers. The general consensus was that it was already yesterday's news. But an old schoolfriend, Ken Goodwin, urged me to give it a go anyway and I ended up doing a piece for the Guardian. That brief account was a much abbreviated version of what appears here. (You can also read the Guardian piece on their website.) It all began on a Wednesday with an email and a phone message from my screenwriting agent, the fragrant Janet Fillingham. Janet told me that a Sunday Times journalist had been in touch with her. He was doing a piece on Sylvester McCoy for that weekend's edition, the hook being Sylvester's new comedy for the BBC. Was I available for a quick chat, to provide some background colour? Always be nice to your agent, is my motto. Janet hadn't been able to find out anything about Sylvester's new comedy, from a quick search on the internet, but at the time that seemed neither here nor there. The following day I emailed the journalist with my home phone number.I was on the way out the door later when the phone rang. I came back to answer it. In the days that ensued, I was going to have plenty of time to reflect on what might have happened if I hadn't picked up the phone. It was the guy from the Sunday Times. I spoke unguardedly and at length, about Sylvester and other things, and hung up with the smug feeling of having done a favour for a friend. That Sunday I bought a copy of the Times to look for the article. I scoured the TV and entertainment sections and found nothing. I shrugged and decided this was about par for the course. But then emails started to arrive. The first one was from my old friend Simon Butler in Cambridge. "Great piece in the Sunday Times! I particularly admire the response to the interview question, must try that one next time." What? I went online and found the Sunday Times piece. Reading it was a bracing, icy shock. I had just about convinced myself that nobody was likely to read it when more friends began to email me. And even while I was answering those emails the story began to pop up all over the internet. Like evil toadstools sprouting, was my main thought. The Telegraph and The Mail now had it. What was going on? I went back to my copy of the Sunday Times and discovered why it wasn't in the TV section. It was on page 3 of the news section. In fact, it pretty much was page 3. The chief problem was that the story was being slanted as an attack on the BBC, an institution I revere. (I mean, Composer of the Week that week on Radio 3 was 'Bebop' - what could be better than that?) It seems that I had inadvertently handed a certain section of the press a magic bullet to fire at the Corporation. The most contentious bit being I suppose that, when asked in my job interview for script editor of Doctor Who, what I would most like to achieve, I'd replied "Overthrow the government." Of course the ensuing response I'd described, gently but firmly discouraging any such action and the ensuing discussion about the parameters of the job, weren't cited in any of the articles. I felt terrible. I composed an email to my agent and sat tight. On Monday she replied saying about the story, prophetically, "I suspect this won't disappear in a puff of extra terrestrial smoke." That was just before we learned that virtually all the Monday papers had picked up the story. And just before I got the phonecall from BBC Radio Wales, who wanted me to come on at drive time and talk about the, ahem, situation. I agreed enthusiastically. I wanted to put my point across. I was quite nervous about the radio spot, until I got the phone call asking me to appear on TV that night, on Newsnight on BBC2. Right then, no disrespect to Radio Wales, my nerves about being on local radio vanished, to be replaced by apprehension about appearing on national television.A few hours later I was being sat on the sofa in the Newsnight studio where they do the "soft" pieces. "Please sit with your right thigh on the seam of the sofa, Andrew. Look into camera 2, please. Thank you." I was seated, thigh on the seam, between Gavin Esler, our host for the night, and Tim Collins, who was sort of the Conservatives' man in science fiction. All three of us were slightly orange as a result of the make up. Tim and Gavin managed to have what seemed like a lengthy conversation about the British tradition of fantastic literature while I mostly fiddled with a glass of water. But I did manage to get a few key points across, and hopefully achieved some damage limitation. You can watch a clip of the show here. Then it was back into the deserted green room, where a pile of wet wipes awaited, piled on the arm of the sofa, for us to remove the make up. I rode back in a taxi through London at midnight, looking out at the streets, feeling strangely light headed and happy, making a note never to pick up the phone to a journalist again.

Thursday 11 March 2010

The Parker Novels by Richard Stark

Okay, the first thing I should say is that Richard Stark is actually Donald Westlake. Westlake wrote priceless comedy crime novels under his own name, perhaps most famously The Hot Rock but also dozens of others, many of them filmed, including Cops and Robbers, Bank Shot and The Busy Body, which had a Frank Frazetta poster I'll try and include here somewhere. While the Westlake books are often laugh out loud funny, the Stark pseudonym is reserved for hard edged noir neo-pulp crime stories. And they're great. More tightly plotted than Elmore Leonard, more coherent and engaging than Jim Thompson, the Richard Stark novels mostly concentrate on dark, suspenseful tales of the ruthlessly proficient mononymic professional thief, Parker. Two things first attracted me about these books: the wonderful Coronet paperback editions with the die-cut bullet hole covers, and the fact that John Boorman's Point Blank, one of my all time favourite films, had been based on the early Parker adventure The Hunter. It was a great pleasure to assemble the complete adventures of Parker in those beautiful Coronet paperbacks. They had the classic design simplicity of Raymond Hawkey at his best (compare those bullet holes with Hawkey's edition of the James Bond novel Thunderball), although I suspect they were the work of someone else; Hawkey generally gets credit for his work and these classic designs remains shamefully anonymous (if you know who the unsung genius was, do share). The series was a high point in British paperback design and it was a sad day when Coronet abandoned it for a more conventional (not to mention dull) approach with Butcher's Moon in 1977. This cover was so lame I'm loathe to reproduce it here, but I will just to prove a point. Its utter lack of appeal may help explain why this is one of the scarcest Parker novels. Who would want to buy such a dull travesty of a cover, especially after a run of such magnificent editions? Anyway, copies of Butcher's Moon now change hands for silly amounts of money and the book spelled the end of the series in more ways than one. It would prove to be the last adventure of Parker for over 20 years. But Westlake is a clever fellow and he revived Parker in time to greet the new millenium. This was great news for connoiseurs of crime fiction — and news which only recently caught up with me. Last week I had the pleasure of acquainting myself with the renewed Parker saga by reading three of his latest adventures. (Yes, I really did power through three novels in a week, while busy writing my own stuff; they are that addictive.) These three novels were Firebreak, Breakout and Ask the Parrot. Parker novels, at least these days, are not so much stories about heists as about heists going badly wrong. Richard Stark — I'll refer to the writer by his pseudonym to avoid confusion — is a master of suspenseful plot complications and even though Parker is a remorseless, hard nosed bastard you will soon find your heart going out to him as he faces the seemingly endless series of obstacles his creator throws at him. Incidentally Westlake wrote a short story which depicted the last word in criminals thwarted by unexpected complications. It was called The Curious Facts Preceeding My Execution and it is deeply, darkly funny. In Firebreak Parker is embroiled in a fine art heist while contending with a loose cannon accomplice and a sequence of hit men who have been assigned by an old enemy to kill him . In Breakout Parker's heist goes wrong on the first page and he spends the rest of the book trying to deal with the consequences, including, as the title suggests, by breaking out of prison. Ask the Parrot begins with Parker already on the run as a result of a job that went sour. As he flees from the police and dogs up a wooded slope he encounters his dubous saviour, an embittered hermit who wants revenge against the race track where he used to work. He wants to rob the place — and Parker is just your man. The films based on the Parker novels deserve an essay all their own, so I'll content myself with a few highlights. Point Blank is by far the best of them, and a modern classic. The Mel Gibson remake Payback, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, has its moments, but isn't in the same league. The Outfit, written and directed by the British film maker John Flynn has many virtues, including Robert Duvall as Parker and a score by Jerry Fielding. It is also probably the film most true to the original novels. In particular it faithfully reproduces Parker's technique of asking his victims their names. So, for instance, when he orders them to lie down while he robs their bank, he can address them properly and they're more likely to cooperate. I've never tried this but it always struck me as a convincing detail. Lastly, The Split, directed by Gordon Flemying, another Brit (yes, he directed the Dalek movies) is worth a look, if only because of a cast which includes Donald Sutherland, Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine, and a score by Quincy Jones. This score is available on a CD which includes liner notes with a detailed appreciation of Stark, and Parker. As a last, quirky detail concerning the Parker novels, there's one non-existent book, called Child Heist. What the hell do I mean by a non-existent book? Well it only appears in another book. In fact, and I love this, there's a Donald Westlake novel called Jimmy the Kid, which is about the incompetent John Dortmunder, who also starred in The Hot Rock and Bank Shot. The copy of Jimmy the Kid illustrated here has a terrific airbrush cover by the great Robert Grossman who worked for everyone from Time Magazine to National Lampoon. In Jimmy the Kid, Dortmunder and his gang have a copy of this 'imaginary' novel featuring Parker and they try to replicate the kidnapping described in it, and naturally bungle everything. Donald Westlake meets Richard Stark. It's like the scene in Monty Python's Meaning of Life where the short film attack the main feature. As with the revival of Parker, I've only just learned about this book and I'm off to buy a copy now. Another fact I discovered while researching this piece was, sadly, that Westlake died just over a year ago. There's an appreciation of him and his Parker novels here. What a shame. Westlake, Stark, Parker and Dortmunder all gone... Luckily there are over a hundred novels in print which feature one, or all, of them.