Vague ramblings

A little light for the blind and invisible monster

Posted in Life, Personal by Ian Cundell on 27 November, 2010

It was rather nice, last week, to see that Vincent and the Doctor, an episode from this year’s series of Doctor Who was short-listed for the MIND Mental Health Media Awards in the drama category. Unsurprisingly it lost out to the outstanding Karen storyline fromShameless, but I really was pleased that Vincent got noticed.

It was a wonderful (if that is the word) look at depression, with powerful performances from Matt Smith (The Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy) and Tony Curran (Vincent). It didn’t chicken out, with Gillan’s portrayal of heartache outstanding, as Amy realises that her efforts to save Vincent from despair have failed, will always fail.

I can only assume that Richard Curtis, who wrote the script, has up-close and personal experience of depression, because even the most throw-away elements of the story felt written from truth.

It wasn’t remotely maudlin, and was wholly appropriate for the young audience Doctor Who serves, and if only a few of them come to appreciate what the monster of the week represented, then the story will have served Who‘s fans well.

Because the blind and invisible monster doesn’t care how well-off you are, how brilliant you are or how great your achievements are. When it comes after you, there is nothing more terrifying or indifferent to your pain.

The known soldier

Posted in Life, Personal by Ian Cundell on 11 November, 2010
Sarjeant G Morris, 3-9-1916

The known soldier, (c) Rob Harris, 2010

Sarjeant George Morris, of 6th Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry died during the Battle of the Somme on 3 September 1916, aged 21.

This much is known.

He was the second George Morris from the regiment to die on the Somme. Private George Morris died on 1 July, aged 29, one of the first day’s 60,000 casualties.

This much is known

He was my Nan’s beloved brother, a great uncle I never knew, the loss something for which Nan never really forgave the Germans. He is buried at Guillemont.

This much, too is known. (more…)

Knowing why we cry

Posted in Fiction by Ian Cundell on 3 July, 2010

I have been thinking about last week’s finale of Dr Who (or rather the last two weeks, it was a two parter). I know what you’re thinking: a) you sad git and b) what’s that got to do with crying?

Trust me. I am not a doctor.

The show has probably gone from iPlayer now, so if you still have not seen it then treat yourselves to the DVDs when they come out, because the last two episodes in particular are a story telling masterclass. “What?” I hear you cry, “SciFi giving a masterclass inanything. Don’t be an ass.” Let me explain. Hear be spoilers.

The crux of the story is that, for reasons too involved to get into here, The Doctor has been erased from history. His survival depends on feisty assistant Amy Pond being able to remember him at her wedding (The Doctor had already floated the notion that nothing istruly forgotten and that if you can remember someone you can bring them back). Let’s focus in three nifty elements of storytelling.

1. Near the end of each of the pair of episodes, Amy cries without comprehension, the first time because she is happy (her lost love is back, but she hasn’t quite worked it out yet) and the second because she is sad (someone is missing from her wedding). Framing and call-back.

2. As she cries, found-love Rory refers to “that old wedding saying”. Earlier, as the Doctor confronts his impending erasure, he tells the sleeping child Amy that when she wakes she will have parents (they too had been erased) and will remember him only as a story (“That’s OK, we’re all stories in the end.”). He says she will dream of the silly man who stole the magic box (“well, borrowed it really”), the box that is both big and small (a nice diversion, something every Who fan knows about the Tardis), that it is both ancient and modern and the most amazing blue.

At the wedding, as Amy’s memory begins to needle her she remembers, stands and yells  that The Doctor is late for her wedding (a nice callback to a running joke from the first episode of the season). The Tardis begins to materialise and Rory asks “What’s that?”. Cue the old wedding saying (with belting delivery from Karen Gillan), and the Doctor is back (if you haven’t worked it out, I can’t help you).

Think about the sheer craft that went into setting up that one line. And there was nothing in the last 15 minutes of the series that had not been properly set up in Stephen Moffat’s storytelling (in sharp contrast to Russell T Davies’s somewhat ‘woo something out of the air’ approach to problem solving). Set-up and craft.

3. The trouble with SciFi fans is that they have a terrible habit of focussing on the Sci at the expense of the Fi, in practical terms meaning an over-obsession with plotting and puzzle solving at the expense of character and theme. The thing is that this episode (and indeed the whole season) wasn’t really about the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, although that was a hoot. It was about people and what we mean to each other,  the ties that bind, what it is to miss somebody dreadfully, what it feels to have them back and how bloody marvellous it is when we absolutely refuse to give up on those we care about.

And then it ended with a wedding.

A storytelling masterclass.

But if you want further evidence that a vaguely daft kid-oriented SciFi show can explore deep things, then seek out Vincent and the Doctor (written by Richard Curtis) from earlier in the season. I challenge you to find a more sensitive, candid and exposition-free look at the absolute bastard that is depression in any genre, anywhere (with a a truly marvellous cameo by Bill Nighy). That it was also wholly appropriate for a young audience, once again shows the sheer craft of the story-telling.

I know writers who say they don’t like science fiction  – and so don’t read it (or don’t like poetry, or Shakespeare…or whatever – not just SciFi). To me this is beyond comprehension. If you are serious about writing, want to understand it and get better at it, if you wish to understand why we cry, then you simply cannot afford to make casual assumptions about where you might not find inspiration.

Sad git out.

Memo to fans: let the storyteller tell it

Posted in Fiction by Ian Cundell on 25 May, 2010

The past week has seen the conclusion of two popular (probably influential, arguably seminal) TV series, the BBC’s Life on Mars/ Ashes to Ashes and ABC’s Lost.

Both series dealt with strikingly similar themes (I’ll put them under the broad heading of “letting go”) and both have, in their respective runs, exhibited many of the strengths and weakness of the TV cultures in which they were created. For me, the end of Ashes to Asheswas, mostly, a model of taut economy in the handling of emotion, while Lost slightly slapped the emotion on with a trowel, but both were satisfying conclusions to their shows – well, for all but a certain type of fan.

A trundle around fans sites shows this type of fan: the type who think they own the show. Beware, sweeping generalisations to follow: This group is made up largely of those who want the mysteries solved, who want to know, for example, where Lost Island’s light came from, exactly who Nelson is at The Railway Inn and so on. People who declared that the writers “failed” in not explaining everything. In short, the people who know slightly less than jack shit about the nature and purpose of storytelling.

In even shorter: the wailing fanboys.

Sorry, is that a bit blunt? If you are going to be so damned obsessed with puzzle solving that you miss, say, the skill with which the full emotional implications of Kate’s “I’ve missed you so much” was delayed until the final reveal, then bluntness is what you deserve. Pay attention in future. And if you are going to ignore minutes on end of screen time because it doesn’t fit your “failure” narrative, it is no-one’s fault but your own if you get mocked (OK, I admit it – browsing fan forums is a guilty pleasure).

It’s not that there aren’t top quality ‘formula’ shows – US television excels at them, from police procedurals, to teen angsts dramas, to sitcoms. But such shows rarely indicate a sense of direction, driven more by the need to come up with something “new” rather than work to a conclusion. Stories like Lost and Ashes to Ashes are not that type of story (it is telling that Lost only really gained narrative focus and shook off the vague “shaggy dog story” feel after it was given a clear end date  – funny that).

So don’t presume that you own the story: If it is bad writing that is one thing, but if it doesn’t fit the formula, that is because it is not a formula story and if you thought it was then you weren’t paying attention. If the story turns out not to be the one you thought it was, then don’t tell the writers they let you down and are idiots. Not until you have given it a crack yourself, and found out if anybody gives a damn how the MacGuffin Machine works.

Because it is bad enough that writers of real talent have to struggle in an expensive and risky medium, in the face of cautious outlets; it is much worse when they have to do it to a wailing chorus making noise in gross disproportion to its insight.

Twitter writes some new rules – for writers

Posted in Business, Fiction, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 10 October, 2009

Whichever way you measure it, this has been a good week for Twitter, the social networking site for the clinically concise.

First,  libel law firm Carter Ruck tried to suppress reporting of Parliamentary discussion about its client, Trafigura, which had been caught dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast. Twitter created a furore that made Trafigura more famous that it dared hope, a PR catastrophe for it and Carter Ruck; a coach an horses through the attempted injunction.

Then, in the Daily Mail, Jan Moir wrote a particularly snide and innuendo-laden piece of homophobia, using the death of Stephen Gateley as its hook. It was thoroughly unpleasant and disreputable, even by the Mail‘s standards of bigotry.

Twitter went ballistic and, when magician Derren Brown suggested complaining to the Press Complaints Council, Moir’s bile became the most complained about article ever. Moir was forced to respond and grumbled about a “heavily orchestrated” campaign, betraying a total lack of grasp of what was happening – there were cheerleaders (Brown, Stephen Fry among others) but you simply can’t ‘orchestrate’ something on this scale, this fast. People hated what they saw and acted.

Then for me it got really interesting. Suzanne Moore wrote – in the Mail on Sunday, of all places – a fierce rebuttal of Moir, but without pointing the finger squarely at her. One Twitter post suggested that the article should be linked widely, but I expressed my disappointment at the lack of finger-pointing. Some time later, Moore popped up on Twitter and we discussed it. She was gracious and witty (and tragically resigned to being associated with the expression “fuck me shoes”, but that is a different matter), explaining that she “went a bit diva” to get what was published in the Mail on Sunday and that finger pointing would never have been permitted.

She’s right of course (I hate it, but she is) and that she got that odious rag to bend just a little is eternally to her credit.

But the thing with both stories is that they took off because Twitter is absolutely popping with journalists and writers. If you have heard of or seen the output of a writer there is a good chance that he or she is lurking on Twitter (except Jan Moir, it seems, but there are a couple of fakes). It is highly debatable if anything fundamental has changed – The Mail is still the hateful backer-of-the-blackshirts it always was, and was scarcely hurt by the rumpus,  and Carter Ruck is still a pernicious exploiter of the flaws in English law. But suddenly a new and very fast reacting tool is in the hands of those who might have a mind to do something about it.

I honestly do not know why any writer or hack is not on Twitter. Seriously, there is no excuse.


The Empire Writers Strike Back

Posted in Ace Writers, Fiction, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 8 November, 2007

Joss Whedon in thoughful mood about the Writers Guild of America strike.

The nub of the strike is that writers want a fairer share of online sales than they currently get. Ex-Disney chief Michael Eisner made a particularly dimwitted comment of along the lines of “but we haven’t made any money out it it yet!” forgetting the all important “yet”. Screw the writers when there is no cash and make damned sure they get bugger all downstream is, as ever, the industry approach.

(Eisner also made some breathtakingly stupid comments blaming Apple for the lack of money, conventiently forgetting that it was Apple who proved this new income stream was viable in the first place. It is almost as if he is angry at Steve Jobs for getting him ejected from Disney……oh.).

Last word to Whedon, in writers:

“We’re talking about story-telling, the most basic human need. Food? That’s an animal need. Shelter? That’s a luxury item that leads to social grouping, which leads directly to fancy scarves. But human awareness is all about story-telling. The selective narrative of your memory. The story of why the Sky Bully throws lightning at you. From the first, stories, even unspoken, separated us from the other, cooler beasts. And now we’re talking about the stories that define our nation’s popular culture – a huge part of its identity. These are the people that think those up. Working writers.”


Mum had a stock answer….

Posted in Life, Personal, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 16 October, 2006

….whenever I asked her how long my latest new food experience would take to cook:

“Until it’s done”.

Which is fair enough really. I mention this solely because I stumbled upon another bit of Mum’s wisdom – serving as a bookmark on an old cooking book:

Boil : Wija, Estima
Chip : Maris Piper
Roast : King Edward, Desiree
Baked : Cara
Mash : King Edward, Romano

So now you know what to do with your spuds.

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