Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Doctor . . . Why?

I tried to like it. I really did. I recorded the Dr Who Cmas special on Wednesday and stretched out on the sofa yesterday to watch it, the Other Half sprawled out beside me. The Other Half lasted five minutes before pulling out his phone to text and FB. I forgave him. English isn't his first language and he didn't grow up with any of the Doctors, so he doesn't have the emotional attachment that brings me - and millions of other Brits - back to the series long after we've become adults.

Nevertheless, he's watched other episodes, particularly enjoying the brief Eccleston oeuvre, understands what's going on and often enjoys the story. But this time, confronted with Matt Smith in ultra-frenetic mode, a pointless foray into nudity and various villains whizzing onto and off our screens, he was confused and bored; it was easier to return to the reality of cyberspace on the screen in his hand than to make sense of the space adventure on the screen on the other side of the room.

I should have done the same. But I am child of the sixties, a sci-fi fan and a writer. I wanted to know what was going to happen, how the transition from Smith to Capaldi would be handled. And so I persisted, becoming increasingly irritated by the utter waste of talent - the actors, the sets - that was unfolding before my eyes. What I wanted was a thoughtful, illuminating transition from one doctor to another, a careful building up of plot and emotion that would lead to a climax of tears (well, why not?) and wonder. What I got was a script and direction that relied on one principle and one principle only. Throw whatever you've got into the pot. Who cares if it's a mess? Who cares if it has no form or substance? Who cares if it tastes of nothing? If we've got it, we have to use it.

And so daleks and cybermen and stone angels all the other villains passed across our screens, with all the threat and drama of strangers on a 73 bus. We had a double helping of Christmas - a family home out of Little Britain and an alpine village with cardboard characters who spoke in cliches. We had nudity to appeal to naughty nine-year-olds. We had the Church of the Papal Mainframe (please!) which, it appears, runs the universe. An rapidly aging Matt Smith waved his magic wand (sorry, sonic screwdriver, but let's be honest, the screwdriver owes more to H Potter than to Gallifrey) every few minutes and another enemy bit the dust. (One wooden cyberman threatening the universe? Please, scriptwriter Steven Moffatt, credit us with a bit more intelligence than the average four-year old.) None of this mish-mash gave depth or coherence to the plot. None of it slowed down enough to allow us to get involved in the story.

As for the regeneration? Well, there was a bit of guff about how many doctors there were and how somehow Smith/Capaldi was going to start a whole new cycle of regeneration (at least I think that was what was said - like most of the script, details of plot rushed past at lightspeed) and then very old Smith become young Smith and then a tie was dropped and there was Capaldi. And when the words came out of his mouth "how do you fly this thing [the TARDIS]?" I began to feel sorry for the man who now finds himself in this mess.

It is, however, all inevitable. The revival of Dr Who with Christopher Eccleston was inspired and for the first few episodes all went well. The series even survived the transition to David Tennant, but it went seriously downhill with Tennant Mark II (sorry, Smith). The problem - as I see it - is that the series became a franchise and brought in writer after writer, each of whom added clunky plotlines and took the Doctor on increasingly portentous episodes, leading to the end of / resetting of the Universe, the death(s) and revival(s) of major characters, tears in the space-time continuum, alternate Universes and so on. Each new episode had to build on previous episodes; once you have destroyed the universe there really isn't anywhere else you can go.

Which meant that Moffat was faced with an impossible task - taking the Doctor higher when there was nowhere higher to go. All he could do was take everything that had gone before and throw it at the Doctor, but because it happened so quickly and we had seen it all before, we didn't care any more.

William Hartnell as the first Doctor
I wish Capaldi could save the Doctor - he has that aged William Hartnell (the 1st Doctor) face that promises intelligence and empathy where Smith could only act the clown. If Capaldi heads off into space and has quiet, introspective adventures on planets that bear no resemblance to Bristol and Cardiff and where the aliens are not human beings in special effects (how about aliens as patterns of light, as slow-moving rocks, as forms of radiation etc?), then we might see a Doctor Who that was as original and exciting as it was in November 1963.

Peter Capaldi in still optimistic mode
Almost certainly, however, the new Doctor will be burdened by scriptwriters who can see no further than variations on human history and by a BBC establishment that dares not lose the lucrative franchise it has created. Capaldi is doomed to revisit Torchwood and Queen Victoria and daleks and the appalling Church of the Papal Mainframe (how little imagination that concept reveals - even the Mother Superious sounds like a refugee from Hogwarts) and go round and round the same old plotlines for year after year until he finally escapes back into real drama. Feel sorry for him - he's a man sent to do a boy's job. In the meantime, all we can say is, Doctor . . . Why?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Re-signing myself to six months of discomfort

Why does anyone bang their head against a brick wall?

Because it feels so good when they stop.

Which is roughly the position I find myself in as I sit at my desk with two (count 'em - two) theatre contracts waiting to be signed. The first is for a new production - a double-bill of one-man plays, featuring Christopher Peacock and Christopher Annus - in mid-March. The second is for a revival of another production in July. More details than that I cannot give until the respective theatres sign their half of the contract. I can, however, give you a taste of what's to come in this mysterious logo...

Am I excited? Mildly. I usually don't do excitement. Pleased is about as strong as it gets for me. Pleased that my work is returning to the stage and new audiences will get a chance to see it. Apprehension is the stronger emotion at present. Not apprehension that the plays will do badly - strange and contradictory as it may seem, it wouldn't bother me too much - but apprehension at the fact that I have once again mortgaged weeks and months of my time. Instead of quiet mornings going to the local Lido, followed by a relaxing day at my desk cataloguing and selling books, I will be traveling to and from rehearsals, managing budgets and - horror of horror of horror of horrors - dealing with promotion and publicity.

Promoting my work is the most emotionally painful part of producing and writing. I loathe every minute of selling myself to the wider world - the general public or reviewers or listing editors or whoever. I loathe making up press releases, designing leaflets (the old British term for the now ubiquitous US "flyers") and I find it almost impossible to call someone on the phone to tell them about the production I'm putting on. I do it because I have to do it, which means I do it badly - never creating exactly the right message, never reaching exactly the number of people, never persuading enough of those people to come to my plays. And each moment that I spend doing it is mental torture.

Of course I have confidence in my work. I know I am not Shakespeare, but I also know that I offer emotional and thought-provoking insights in a language and settings that hold audiences enthralled, that sometimes make them laugh and occasionally reduce them to tears. I know that both from my own judgement and from the spontaneous reactions of audiences both in the theatre and afterwards. The problem is that I have always considered that only frauds, those whose work is poor or who have no confidence in their own abilities, promote themselves. Frauds promote themselves because their work is not good enough to stand up on its own. The best art needs no promotion because it is widely recognised as such. Only the worst art needs to stand up and draw attention to itself.

Don't bother telling me the flaws in that argument; I know them already. The best art is not recognised if no-one knows about it etc etc. If I don't promote my work, no-one else will (at least not without being paid for it and there is only the barest minimum of budget to pay someone to do so). So I have to gird my metaphorical loins and grit my British-yellowed teeth and stick my courage to wherever it is that courage is stuck and go out there and tell the world how wonderful my writing and direction is. Which means after a period of quiet my life will once again be mildly manic-depressive - high in rehearsal bringing my creations to life, and low each time I have to tell the world how wonderful those creations are. In signing these contracts I am re-signing myself to another six months of discomfort.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Now We Are Pope

What do you think? A good title? Does it intrigue you or baffle you?  Does it help if I add the strapline: Frederick Rolfe in Venice?

The question arises because we (Arbery Productions) are planning our schedule for next year. We have already booked three slots for a week at the Space on the North Bridge in the middle of August for the Edinburgh Fringe and the middle slot is reserved for a one-man play, written by yours truly and featuring Christopher Annus, about Fr Rolfe. We had given it the provisional title In the Palazzo Marcello, the Venetian residence where Rolfe (pronounced "Roaf") died in October 2013, but we realised that such a title said almost nothing to the general public. So, on Sunday, aided by a bottle of Tesco's finest red wine, we came up with Now We Are Pope. It's a definite improvement on Marcello, but not yet set in stone. Whaddaya think?

Sunday was also the day when we went through the first draft of the script. I was already aware that the ending was weak and wondered what other changes would need to be made. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to realise that what I had created was Not Bad, and even the ending needed no more than tweaking. There will be changes, of course, when we start rehearsing in the New Year, but we both felt that we have a good strong play that brings out Rolfe's many idiosyncrasies and which will keep the audience absorbed as more and more layers of his character are revealed.

Frederick Rolfe 
Who? I hear you ask. Of my acquaintances fewer than one in ten have heard of Rolfe, a writer who died in 1913. A slightly greater number have heard of his most famous work - Hadrian VII - in which an Englishman becomes Pope. It was made into a play in the 1960s (and, apparently a short play on the BBC in 1968). This was wish-fulfilment at its most extreme, since Rolfe, a convert to Catholicism, had twice been rejected for the priesthood and never forgave the Church - or rather the Church's servants - for denying him the cloth.

Rolfe's life was almost as eventful in reality as in fiction. A would-be painter, a writer by default, a man who delighted in creating enemies yet who longed for one true friend, a long-term celibate who offered to procure young men, an impoverished self-styled nobleman who wandered the British mainland from the north of Scotland to Southern England, from Oxford to London, to Wales and was most at ease in Venice, where he might be found, homeless and starving, trying to sleep through winter nights in a gondola.

That is the man whom Chris and I are bringing to life. Before Edinburgh there will be try-out performances in London in the spring, as part of a double-bill with Christopher Peacock in another one-man play. Even as you read this, details are being discussed and will be announced shortly. It's good - exciting even - to be back in theatre mode again...