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Following #TheMissing has been an intriguing viewing experience

I was prepared to write a review of last night’s fifth episode of BBC drama The Missing once I’d finished watching it. This did not prove possible. Instead, I experienced the writing equivalent of being speechless. It took me the twenty four hours that followed to gather my thoughts together about what I had seen.

I enjoyed the episode, largely because the disappearance of young Oliver Hughes was referred to only obliquely. In fact, the episode was almost a self contained little vignette. It was in many respects an impressive two-hander between James Nesbitt and Ken Stott, by way of their characters, Tony and Ian. The strange dance that was played out by the two men to its inevitable, darkly violent conclusion left me with more questions than it answered.

It was only as I dropped off to sleep that I realised we had not been told what was found in the drain near the public pool where Oliver was taken. This nugget, we are expected to keep lodged in our subconscious until some future instalment, when it will no doubt prove to be a crucial piece of the puzzle.

We are having lines of inquiry resolved and others opened up with a dizzying pace. Yet the central story strands continue to develop. We discovered, for example, that British policeman Mark Walsh has a living, breathing ex-wife, her absence up to this point representing the eclipsing of his previous existence brought about by meeting and falling in love with Emily Hughes.

There is so much going on in this drama that it makes the competition feel flat. Nothing else on TV at the moment comes close to the intensity of watching it. When the series has finished I know I will have to get the box set for Christmas and watch it all again, so that all aspects of the story can be fully appreciated. But it will still not be a purely enjoyable experience. It actually feels as if following this drama for the full eight weeks is something of an ordeal, in the classical sense.

Scenes from The Missing float around in my head for the next week. I’m facing unpleasant truths about the world that I know I really should face and I’m holding my children a little tighter when we kiss goodnight. The experience of following #TheMissing may not always be a pleasure but, my goodness, it’s certainly remarkable.

The worrying new trend of ‘co-authoring’

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Now, I do not wish to cause offence to any of my fellow writers with this blog so I will make my definitions clear from the outset. There are plenty of authors who write novels as a pairing – Nicci French (the duo Nikki Gerard and Sean French) or the Bridgestocks, for example. Their work is terrific and their collegiate style of authoring works brilliantly. There are also some writing and editing teams that like to share the billing on their book covers. This is good practice and highlights the important role played by editors in the process of producing a great book.
What I am referring to, is a growing trend that I have noticed in conventional publishing over the past couple of years. This is to take the name of a hugely famous celebrity or bestselling author and plaster it all over the front cover of a new novel. Then, when you look a little closer at said tome, you discover that in a far smaller print, is the name of another author who apparently assisted them in the task.
I noticed this phenomenon first, when shopping for books with my children in WHSmiths. I was surprised to see a shelf packed full of books by one particular, very famous US author. When I looked more carefully, I discovered that there was another attribute on the cover, a person whose name I didn’t recognise at all.
Am I just being horribly cynical to suspect that the big name author/celebrity didn’t play quite as big a role in the penning of these novels as the marketing might lead us to believe?
This sales tactic is certainly not new. For hundreds of years, great paintings were being churned out of the ‘workshops’ of painters such as Gainsborough or Rubens. A young student of the master would be responsible for the final piece of work – Michaelangelo certainly didn’t complete the Sistine Chapel all on his own.
However, in the modern world, with the trades description act and the dangers of miss-selling, I’m not sure the practice is entirely ethical. For many years, the so-called ‘ghost-writing’ of celebrity memoirs and ‘autobiographies’ has gone on. But in these cases, we are at least getting the genuine words of the celebrities and their reminiscences, even if we aren’t always reading their prose. In the case of fiction, I think it is a different matter entirely. The reader has a right to know who wrote the majority of the book they are about to read, or certainly not to be wilfully misled about it.
I write and publish my own books and I have nothing against traditional publishers, but this trend has made me cross. Writers are an honest bunch. We can spin a good yarn, but we like to maintain a good relationship with our readers. Their feedback helps us to write better books in the future. Us writers are avid readers and consumers ourselves for heaven’s sake!
If this is how publishers are defending themselves against the rise of independent authors I really think it’s a mistake. You have to treat your customers with respect. People aren’t silly. I really hope that this trend isn’t here to stay, but sadly, I suspect it might be.

Great writing is something you can’t put your finger on

typewriterAs writers, we spend a lot of time considering what makes good writing. We read and re-read our prose to ensure that we’ve got it just right. But every so often, we are reminded that discerning a truly great piece of work defies a neat explanation. They possess a certain quality that we can’t quite put our finger on.

I have been reviewing a number of new TV crime dramas recently. The programmes I have watched have all been entertaining and well written, even if they haven’t always appealed to me in every respect. But whilst watching an old Inspector Morse episode on ITV3 I was suddenly reminded of what great crime drama can be like. It’s a perfect storm of excellent script, acting and direction. But it is also something more. The story will strike you as totally believable and the characters as real as you or I.

If someone were to ask me what creates a special piece of work such as this I would be hard pressed to give an answer. But it’s one of those things that you certainly recognise when you see it. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck. You’d happily watch or read it again and again. The experience would always move you.

This is what us writers aspire to achieve. But perhaps we shouldn’t, because producing a great novel, short story or script requires an element that we can’t always put our finger on. All we can hope as authors and scriptwriters is that one day we will manage to harness it.

The fatal flaw in series two of #TheFall

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I was looking forward to the second series of Allan Cubitt’s ‘The Fall’. It is a slow-paced, atmospheric police procedural with a strong female lead character. There were some disturbing scenes in series 1, a couple of which I averted my eyes for, but certainly nothing more graphic or alarming than you would find in ‘Luther’ or ‘Silent Witness’. The criticism levelled at the first series was that it glamourised the serial killer, Paul Spector, played by Jamie Dornan. His crime scenes were artistically laid out and he made sketches of his ideas, almost as if he were creating a mood board for some kind of art installation. This aspect of the drama was unsettling, certainly, but with a new director for this second outing, in the form of Cubitt himself, I hoped that this element would be played down.
Largely, I think this has been achieved. It was obvious in last night’s episode that more was being made of the impact of the crimes on the victims and their families. DSI Stella Gibson makes a point of emphasising that as the killer is doing the opposite, they must attempt to humanise the victims and keep them alive in the press. The tactic being to shake up the killer and encourage him to make a mistake. In fact, Spector does appear to be unravelling. Separated from his family and his beloved daughter, Olivia, he is adrift, apparently trying to square certain aspects of his past whilst, at the same time, covering his tracks.
I have every hope that this series will be superior to the last. However, there is one fatal flaw in the narrative. Because the case was not wrapped up at the end of series one, we are carrying on pretty much where we left off. This is unusual for a crime drama. If a programme returns for a second run, we would expect to get the same core characters but with a whole new case. There is a good reason for this. It is because viewers can’t possibly be expected to remember the details of the first series which aired many months or even a year previously.
In the case of ‘The Fall’, one assumes that Paul Spector was not caught at the end of the first series because of the popularity of the lead actor, Jamie Dornan. It was he would pulled in record viewing figures for BBC2. In a way, I can understand the reluctance of the programme makers to get rid of him. But this decision has left them with an almost insoluble conundrum. They tried to remedy the problem by having the first series available on BBCiplayer to be watched in the weeks leading up to the new one. But surely this is too much to ask of a viewer. I really don’t want to see the whole thing twice. I want to come into the second run and start afresh, which just isn’t possible with ‘The Fall’, which is a shame.
I believe that Cubitt should have been brave enough to end the Spector storyline and begin a new tale. The other characters are strong enough to carry it. He needed to have faith in the viewers to adapt. I’m going to stick with it, but there has to be an end to the search for Spector. If it doesn’t come with this outing, then you can certainly count me out of any more.

In the battle of the Christmas ads, Waitrose wins it for me

 

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It’s only early November but the battle amongst the supermarkets for Christmas trade is well and truly on. Surprisingly, it was budget supermarkets Lidl and Aldi who got the ball rolling. There is no subtly or overt attempts at being cute in their marketing strategy, the focus is purely upon the quality of the food and drink that will grace our dining tables over xmas. When it comes to the more mainstream retail stores of John Lewis, Waitrose, Sainsburys and Tesco, the battlefield is somewhat different. The focus here is on creating entertaining talking points that will generate social media activity whilst at the same time delivering an overall message about the brand itself.
Everyone is talking about the penguins. John Lewis always come up with a well produced, heart-rending little vignette that successfully sums up the meaning of Christmas (in it’s most purely commercial sense, of course!). But for me, it is John Lewis’s sister company, Waitrose, who have won the day. Their advert revolves around a shy, slightly different girl, who exists perhaps a little out of her time. There may be some hint that she has certain behavioural issues that make it more difficult for her to join in with and relate to her contemporaries.
But this girl is determined to take part in the Christmas fair. With the help of the assistant at Waitrose, she bakes gingerbread biscuits, carefully forming them into festive shapes. Whilst she is out, the dog destroys her creations and although bitterly disheartened, she begins again, making them even better this time. The girl painstakingly decorates the second batch and sets up her stall at the school. The biscuits are a great success and she actually finds she enjoys the process, slowly coming out of herself.
There is one biscuit left which the girl makes sure that she wraps up and takes into the assistant at Waitrose who helped her out.
I like this advert much better than the penguins, because it has a proper message. It quite clearly sets out Waitrose’s values – slightly old fashioned, good quality ingredients, possibly out of step with their contemporaries but polite, helpful and recognising what is really important in life.
Now, I don’t work for Waitrose and I don’t even shop there very often, but I can still tell that this advert is successful in terms of the way it delivers their ideals on a plate. I also like the message it conveys; it isn’t purely commercial but celebrates perseverance and how communities should strive to include everyone, particularly at Christmas time.
Will it make me buy my food at Waitrose over the festive season? Actually, it might, or perhaps just some of it. But certainly as a piece of art, it is spot on and for me this ad beats the glitter, sparkles and penguins hands down.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net by Jannoon 028

#TheMissing may just restore my faith in BBC crime dramas

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If you made it through that traumatic first episode, then you’re going to be able to enjoy the rest of this brilliantly acted and superbly written series. I approached the second instalment with a mixture of anticipation and dread, but it was much easier to watch. I’d put in the hard yards last week and now I would be rewarded.
I’m not a knee-jerk fan of James Nesbitt. Some of his work I like, some I don’t, but his acting in The Missing is undeniably excellent. His progress from the intial responses of confusion, fear and grief, into a steadily evolving sense of determination and cynicism are very well portrayed. The man has studied French in order to tirelessly examine the reports of his son’s case. He has learnt over the eight years since young Oliver Hughes’ disappearance in a small French town to trust no one except himself. We already feel as if we’ve travelled on that terrible journey along with him.
At this early stage, I sense the series will have its critics. At eight episodes long, there will be those who accuse it of being ‘slow-moving’. Yes, this may be one way of looking at it, but to me, it is building believable characters and allowing us to accept that eight years really have passed between the two time frames in which the narrative is set. The story deserves this period of time in which to properly develop. There are many strands to the investigation and many ways in which the case has affected the lives of those touched by the tragedy. We want to know why Tony’s wife left him and what he and his father-in-law did so long ago that may have caused someone to take revenge upon them.
Let’s face it, I’m already well and truly hooked. I like the way Tony is taking on the role of amateur sleuth with his reliable side-kick, the retired ace French detective. We don’t know yet who we can trust outside of these two characters and I suspect there are a myriad of twists and turns still to come.
At first, I thought ‘The Missing’ would simply be visual and audio torture for parents of the under-tens, but I am coping with it remarkably well. Of course, there are the obvious parallels with the McCann case. But this is fiction, and it is sympathetic and human. There is nothing exploitative about the series. Which is why I believe it may just restore my faith in BBC crime drama. There is no unnecessary gratuitous violence, the tragic story speaks for itself – no unpleasant tricks and shocks to get me back next week, simply an excellent, detailed, spohisticated plot with likeable characters and great acting. More of this please, BBC, and I might be tempted back…

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