Saturday, 28 January 2012

Writer Recording

At uni, for reasons unknown to myself, I was regarded as having a good reading voice. Personally, I thought the lisping, tripping over the tongue and asthmatic pauses got in the way. That didn't stop a run of healthy appearances at Word Dogs, or uni poetry readings though.

After referring to Tom Jordans reading voice, which can be heard on his podcast here, as almost "Hugh Grant like", and much earlier to poor Andy Francis as "sounding like a serial killer", it's only fair to bite the bullet and reveal some audio of this here humble writer.

There are audio performances existing of three Word Dogs readings, though none of them are here. The September 2009 reading of "Jimmy Boy" has a terrible recording. The first one - dating from January 2007 - is badly dated, and nasally. The best of the three is the "Match of the Day" recording (which also preserves Neil Williamsons joke "Oh no!" on hearing I was reading for posterity!) I don't have to hand just now.

So Daddy Kicked Doggy into the Fire it is! This poem became quite notorious back at uni, and I was often made to give mini-performances of it. It even, much to my surprise, got published all the way back in 2007 in an actual print poetry magazine: Amulet! Mandy kept threatening to get me to read it at Burns Night, though thankfully I have skipped that so far.

At the time I thought it was a Robert Louis Stevenson tribute. It turns out that Daddy Fell into the Duckpond was not actually Stevenson after all, but Alfred Noyes. So it's a tribute to a writer I didn't know I knew. How meta.

The Roald Dahl influences can also be seen from miles away. 

I like it, because its short, and you can't quite hear the breathing issues.

Be warned though. An American once claimed you might be short changed here, for they couldn't understand a word! Apparently my Scottish accent is exceptionally thick.

So yeah, warnings and all that.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Grumpy Old Men

Apparently the ramble I wrote on Tomb of the Cybermen caused a good deal of interest. Between discussions on racism, acting talent and scarcity of writing talent at this end, it didn't go too badly. Despite his far more structured critiques on film at his new blog, Gavin Mills (amongst others) kept asking me to write more.

So, only three months later, I respond. This is pretty good going, by Adamsian standards. The only Doctor Who I've seen since - bar the Christmas episode, which was suitable Christmassy - is the Tenth Planet. I may write a ramble about how brilliant that was another time, if there's a groundswell of support for such a thing. (A groundswell of support? Hahaha)

So this is more a ramble on several fronts. Some of it is TV, some of it film. All of it archival. You may note similar actors shared between them. That is not accidental. There is so much OLD TV/film out there, that it is often hard to know where to start. So if I enjoy something, I latch onto the actors I loved in it, travel to the ol' imdb and try to track down other stuff they were in. And the strands move on forever outwards!

So we'll start with the last film I saw, which, as memory would have it, might not be the one I remember best.

Grumpy Old Men (1993)
d Donald Petrie (b. 1954)
w/ Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Burgess Meredith.

It is a bit strange to think I'd never seen this film before. I remember the trailers on TV, and it's justly well regarded. Mandy went to see it in the cinema. It has The Penguin in it too, and yet I'd not seen it till two nights ago.

The story is a simple one. Two aging neighbours share a decades old grudge, and a new, younger, female neighbour is the object of both of their affections. Our main character has a living but ancient father fed up with the antics. It writes itself as a standard plot.

Then you add actors. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were lifelong friends, and appeared in eleven films together. You can tell that just by looking, their sense of timing for knowing exactly when to respond to the others lines is brilliant. You can't teach immaculate timing (as Paul Eddington might have said if everyone remembers a one off joke in A Bit of Fry and Laurie). The two aging neighbours genuinely come across as old pals with a curmudgeonly edge, as real life creeps into the performances. Certainly, it seemed little acting was needed for scenes when the repentant Matthau was concerned over the health of the seemingly dying Lemmon. Both actors coming from comedy too, when the jokes are there, they nail them.

Take this bit near the start for example:

Max Goldman: You know what Jacob said? Jacob said old Billy Hensel was killed in a car crash. Cleared his car straight off the bridge into the Mississippi. 
John Gustafson: Lucky bastard. 
Max Goldman: You bet. 
John Gustafson: Hey, how is he, anyway? 
Max Goldman: Dead! Died on impact! 
John Gustafson: Jacob, moron, Jacob! 

The last three lines aren't funny in the hands of less capable actors. Indeed, blankly that looks quite tragic. Old pal dead. This is a comedy though. Instead we have Jack Lemmon effortlessly dragging all the humour you can out of someone who might not be listening to the conversation, but quickly finds a retort. Alternatively, Matthau is swift to dive on the "Aha!", but the deadpan delivery of the line made me laugh a lot.

It wasn't till recently that I learned that the character of down-on-his-luck Gil the Salesman from the Simpsons was lifted almost entirely from Jack Lemmon's character in Glengarry Glen Ross. Then I saw the film. He's one of the few things I actually liked in it. I know him well from Some Like It Hot, one of the finest  comedies of the 20th Century. A deserved Oscar winner, he had legendary partnerships not just with Walter Matthau but Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards. He helped produce Cool Hand Luke! You can see films like this one, or GGR and find an actor, even in the twilight of his career and life, finding new aspects and elements to add to his performance. His relationships here with his friend/nemesis, dad and neighbour/lover are all unique, yet all intrinsically the same guy.

Don't let that overshadow Walter Matthau though, or my childhood confusing of him with Martin Landau. Matthau is also an Oscar winner, and alongside having one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood history, had the rugged acting greatness to join it in creating an outstanding career. The title of the film says Grumpy. Matthau excels at the grumpy part. Every second in the earlier half, even in simple lines like "Oh shut up" he drags every ounce of disdain at the world out of it. You are left with no doubt whatsoever that Max Goldman is an old man raging at life for the perceived slight he suffered many years ago.

The two have such a Tom and Jerry relationship though, and that adds to the brilliance. For all the bickering, Matthau, beneath the scorn, is genuinely saddened at how everything has gone between the old friends, and wants to make amends. He is just cut up in his own stubbornness to see things in front of him. His absolute anguish at his old pals heart attack is heartbreaking, and the film threatens to dive headfirst into pathos, especially the moment when the nurse asks if Goldman is friend or family, and he hesitates dreadfully over saying "Friend" for he has not being acting like one.

But then, it doesn't matter what happens in the previous fifty years. True friends always make up in the end.

Ann-Margret adds suitable charm to her role as love interest, though had Ariel shown an interest in me, I think I'd have skipped the country. Scary assertive women! (Rocks back and forth while wife laughs evilly) Ossie Davies is wonderful in a few short scenes, Buck Synder is a loathsome antagonist few will moan the cinematic downfall of.

And then in comes Jack Lemmons dad, Grandpa.

And it's only bloody Burgess Meredith.

You may know him as the definitive Penguin in the Adam West Batman series. You may know him as Rocky's trainer. You may know him as Grandpa, the man in various Twilight Zone episodes, or the guy from MacKennas Gold.

But lets know him as he is. As a bloody amazing actor.

Burgess Meredith just adds class to anything he showed up in. With the words of Rod Serling in The Obsolete Man, he gave one of the finest examples of civil disobedience against totalitarianism depicted on screen.

Wordsworth: I am a librarian, sir. That is my occupation. That is my profession. If you people choose to call that obsolete...
Chancellor: A librarian. Having to do with books?
Wordsworth: Yes sir, books.
Chancellor: And since there are no more books, there are no more libraries. Therefore,it follows there would be little use for the services of a librarian. Case in point,a minister would say his profession is preaching the word of God. And,of course, since the state has proven that there is no God, that would make the function of a minister somewhat academic as well.
Wordsworth: There is a God!
Chancellor: You are in error, Mr. Wordsworth. There is no God. The state has proven that there is no God.
Wordsworth: You cannot erase God with an edict!
Chancellor: You are obsolete, Mr. Wordsworth.
Wordsworth: A lie. No man is obsolete
Chancellor: You have no function, Mr. Wordsworth. You're an anachronism. Like a ghost from another time.
Wordsworth: I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.
Chancellor: You're a bug, Mr. Wordsworth. A crawling insect. An ugly misformed little creature who has no purpose here, no meaning.
Wordsworth: I am a human being!
(The Obsolete Man, Rod Serling)

If you haven't seen it already, watch it! It's on youtube, there's no excuse. It has at the heart a blistering performance of rage, desire and righteousness which explodes off the page. Never mind Twilight Zone, it's one of the greatest performances in ACTING ever filmed. And it opened my eyes to Meredith. Before I knew him as The Penguin. Now I realised how great he was. It's a blistering performance which has grounds in reality too: Burgess Meredith was a complete unabashed Liberal, and an opponent of McCarthyism. (He'd later call winning an Emmy for playing Joseph Welch his revenge on McCarthy!)

As he would later say: "All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent. If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear...In those early years I somehow came to understand I would have to draw from within myself whatever emotional resources I needed to go wherever I was headed. As a result, for years I became a boy who lived almost totally within himself."

In Grumpy Old Men, he steals every scene he's in. He swills back a bottle, then calls it breakfast. He breaks up a fight between the sexagenarian Lemmon and the septuagenarian Matthau, the octogenarian Meredith moans about "Bloody kids!" The line, read like The Penguin on a particularly bad day fighting Batman, "kids! can't live with them! can't shoot them!" is genuinely laugh out loud.

You can tell he's having a brilliant time too, the actor, which is lovely, as it's one of the last things he filmed. He died in 1997 after a long illness. Far too soon. Ok, he had Alzheimers and was ninety. So what? Isn't there a law that says brilliant outstanding and spellbindingly amazing people should live forever, so they can continue to amaze with their spellblindingly outstandingess? There should be!

Matthau, Lemmon and Davies are also now sadly now longer with us. The loss of these four fine actors might make one think the film has a sombre tone to it in hindsight. Not at all. All four are here doing the thing they loved, and the outtakes suggest, having a right ball of a time doing it. They'll live forever here, because they're too good not to.

"I think doing comedy is more difficult ... than doing noncomedic or tragic or whatever you want to call it. "Because it's difficult to make all kinds of different audiences understand what you're doing, and moving you to laughter."
Walter Matthau

"It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is."
Jack Lemmon

"Walter is a helluva actor. The best I've ever worked with."
Lemmon, on Matthau

"I am Hepburn and Lemmon is Tracy. Although when I asked Jack he told me he always thought I was Tracy and he was Hepburn. Oddly enough, I'm told that Tracy had the same problem."
Matthau, on Lemmon

"Like the seasons of the year, life changes frequently and drastically. You enjoy it or endure it as it comes and goes, as it ebbs and flows.I'll just take amusement at being a paradox."
Burgess Meredith

"Burgess was not only a marvelous actor, he was one of the dearest human beings I ever knew."
~ Jack Lemmon

Well, there's a test run. Peter Cook, Peter Capaldi, Dinsdale Landen, Robert Hardy and Eli Wallach will follow over the course of the week.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Why I Became A Writer

EpiphanyG Gavin Mills @ @KnowingNose @The_Arn @m_s_collins how did you guys start writing? Short stories? Fanfics? Articles? Blog?

 Well, this will just wind up with my spamming Twitter trying to reply, so I'll do so here. I was born, and began writing. Well, nearly enough.

My earliest memories of writing are from Easter 1990 (age - 3 and 3/4s), and concerned the wacky adventures of Me, a Stegosaur (named Steggy), an Iguanodon (named Iggy), Jon Pertwee, Sooty and the Why Don't You gang who were taking on an evil witch in an abandoned theatre and canal. I am positive it is a lost classic.

That started as a journal, in which 3 year old Michael wrote about the many trips his family took, and things I'd seen on TV. I remember a glowing review of Beatrix Potter and E.T., for example. The journal went on into late 1990, and had my first thoughts on hearing I was to have a younger sibling, who later became my sister, Cat. It got lost somewhere, though I know it existed as recently as 2005.

 This is all came about from teaching myself to read and write. I don't know how I did that, and the school were very upset when I could it by five. "It made other kids feel stupid" or something. Mum was insistent dad read me Hacky the bloody SHetland Pony - a book so bad, Google hasn't even heard of it, might I add! - every single night. I think this bored both of us. Unlike his Arthurlie v GalaFairydean incident, instead of putting me off reading for life, I just started picking up the book myself. Then one day I could read. And copying till I could write came very quickly. Can't remember when, where or how long it took. By April 90 the writing was happening though.

 As I was growing up, I had a very overactive imagination. Family would encourage me to write it all down. So I did. And kept writing. Most of it would bring laughs, as it was rubbish. One story - involving an arch criminal who bumped off 60 characters (no exaggeration) in a hotel lounge one by one in 3 pages - made Aunt Theresa laugh herself hoarse. Not quite Christie back then. But kept writing anyway. When I was 10, and Mrs Walker took over our primary class, she asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said "writer". She claimed last time I saw her - sadly she is in poor health nowadays if she is still about - she said as soon as I said that, she knew I would be.

Mrs Walker was massively into creative arts as a way of learning, and introduced us all to arts and crafts, proper writing and crit sessions and the world of Goosebumps. I was rubbish at Arts and Crafts, no matter how much Mum might beg to differ. (And 2nd prize in an national Arts competition aged 11 was a fluke!) The world of Goosebumps and RL Stine was the first stepping stone that took me in this direction. What a great guy, that RL Stine is.

 The writing sessions were many. For Hallowe'en, Christmas, any time needed. At the time I never realised I was getting specialised treatment, but looking back I certainly was. For one, I was the only kid in the class allowed to use dialogue, as I knew how to use speech marks! Mrs Walker would go over everyones story, line by line, pointing out the good and bad of every bit. And it was very noticeable, even then, how much better my writing was becoming, compared to earlier on. Of course, I was still a long way from maturity - Mandy says I'm still a long way from maturity! - so it was still amateurish. It was just considered very promising. One story got taken about by the Council to showcase as the best work by Scottish kids! I never saw it again! Another was voted Best in the Class (a take on the old Hitchhiker story complete with a Norman Bates style hotel, years before I knew of the motifs or plots of either).

 A third marked me for life. It was Primary 7, and the story was about the Blitz. Mrs Walker was reading it aloud line by line, with comments, criticisms, compliments etc. For all her support she wasn't one to bullshit you. So, she was reading this story. It had two children, during the Blitz, one winds up evacuated and tries to find their friend, a fellow evacuee housed with the same women who disappears, and who finally finds his murdered corpse in a resevoir 40 years later. (I was a kid at the right time. Then people marvelled at my imagination. Five years later, it'd have been shrinks and anti-terror police!)

 We got to the pivotal end of Act One where the Main Characters Blitz pal dies in a raid: "It was morning, and Sally was dead." A loud "Oh no!" cried out from behind me. It was Claire, one of the girls in the year.

 "Got a fan" Mrs Walker chuckled.

And something stirred inside me. Hey, I could make people react to my writing!

 I think in that moment everything changed. But it took a while. For years after I'd still write everything, but it was a hobby. Nothing got kept, or it got lost on computers. Mostly all gone now, unless Mum has hoarded it somewhere all this time.

 Then one day, I was in me and Shims flat. It was a cold November, I was ill as usual, the black dog howling at the door. Probably drunk. Someone, I forget who, had basically out and asked me "Who do you plan to achieve anything if you just let the world run by?" Sitting there in my misery, I began to doodle. I still doodle, even if I am a shit artist. I went into a haze, and the next thing I knew, I had 5 pages sitting in front of me, written down in pencil. 20 minutes had passed. It had appeared from nowhere, but I'd written it without thinking.

 That story was The Fox-Squirrel, for which a link exists on the links section at the right of the screen.

 I read it over. It was actually bloody good, for where I was at that time.

 "That's it" I yelled. "I'm going to be a proper fucking writer, and I'm going to succeed, or God strike me down!"

 He hasn't yet.

 I then texted Shim to tell him I was taking the writing seriously. He shouted back. "You know I'm in the kitchen, right?" I do kind of zone out.

 From then on I started writing everything. A vast collection of short stories began piling up, more so when, much to my surprise, people began enjoying them, and publishing them, and I started to get fans. Me with fans! The mind boggles! A recent thing I had published got a comment on that "people like you make the world worth living in." I mean - it's astounding to think even a lowly young writer at the start of his career can have that kind of effect on anyone!

 In 2004, Bob Furnell responded to my many rants on Outpost Gallifrey by asking me if I'd like to write for his magazine. Despite my skills being a bit shit back then, he's held faith and kept with me over nearly a decade. That put me into non-fiction, as did being at uni. The blog came via me being a loud mouth, needing somewhere to promote my writing, and being asked to write on several matters.

 Vamp, my first book, was finished to a readable level in 2009. It's not published yet. Still got a lot of work to be done, but it, like all others, is a useful learning curve.

 This year I hope to write my first scripts. Haven't a clue yet. Terrifying. Fear the unknown. But once you tackle anything, you'd be surprised how much easier it becomes by practice.

 Take this 600 words a day thing. The hardest bit is the sitting down and opening the Word Doc. The writing 600 words bit is a doddle. They'll be edited, easier to edit something written down than in your head, and at the end you are 600 words further down the line in your experience.

 Plus, read. Read everything. As a wise person once said, you don't need to read everything in the world ever written, but the goal should be to attempt to do so.

 Writing, it's just that thing I've done, ever since I can remember having conscience thought. It's like being called to the priesthood, being called to be a writer. If I hold off for any period of time, I get proper withdrawal symptoms, like an actual addiction. And I spent most of my time in bed through this bloody ill health, so it turns helplessness into something. Getting something done.

 So that's how I started writing. But if you want to blame anyone - blame my mum, Mrs Walker (who I hope is out and about somewhere and healthier), and the girl Claire, who cried out at the death of Sally.

 And everyone else. A writer is never an island.