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Are TV crime dramas seriously damaging our parenting?

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‘The Missing’, ‘Broadchurch’ and ‘Silent Witness’ are just three examples of TV crime dramas broadcast within the last few months featuring the abduction/murder/abuse of a child. Indeed, my latest novel deals with a similar theme; the investigation into the whereabouts of a missing fourteen year old girl. So are we writers and programme makers guilty of stirring up unnecessary alarm for parents and causing them to hesitate to allow their children the freedom that we ourselves once enjoyed?
I had coffee with a good friend yesterday morning and we were discussing this very issue. Our daughters are both nine years old going on ten. We are at the stage where we must prepare them for the transition to senior school which will take place in eighteen months time. However, neither of us were yet comfortable with the idea of allowing our daughters to go out and about on their own.
When we analysed our fears they seemed to boil down to a couple of latent concerns; the volume and speed of traffic on the roads, and our children’s innocence when faced with groups of older children and adults who may be able to manipulate them into doing something silly. But when I considered my worries later in the day, I would have to confess that stranger-danger is another of my key preoccupations, even if the statistics do show the risk to be relatively small.
In fact, the character Clarissa, in last week’s Silent Witness pointed out that an abduction by a stranger was literally a million to one possibility in the UK. But if we took TV drama as a yard stick, we’d think it was happening to children everyday, despite these reassurances. Surely these programmes place a seed of doubt in our minds which prevents us from injecting the element of risk that is essential to our children’s successful transition into adulthood?
Actually, I don’t think they do.
For me, it is the real life stories on the news that have lodged themselves into my brain and cannot be shifted. The tragic cases of Milly Dowler, Madeline McCann and Jamie Bulger will remain with most British parents forever. When researching for this blog, I found that the incidences of missing children and young adults was higher than I’d realised. We are right to be concerned. Of course, we must give our children freedom, but there is some kind of middle ground. The NSPCC recommends the minimum age of 12 as the time when children may be left at home alone. Sadly, there are no laws on this, but it does seem a sensible age at which a certain level of maturity is reached.
I have always imagined my childhood to have been one of great freedom and much playing outdoors. However, it was always within the confines of a cul-de-sac in which everyone knew each other and someone was at home in the house all day. We live in different times now. Most people work and possess two or three cars. The cul-de-sac is more glorified car park than play park.
Despite the use of crimes against children as a storyline in many recent dramas, I still know of parents who allow their children to wander the streets from an alarmingly young age. I think that if you are concerned about risks to your children you will be concerned whether its been featured in a TV show or not. In fact, many of these dramas point out the very real dangers that face young people in the modern world and alert us to some of the agencies out there available to assist families of vulnerable children, who are the ones most at risk from abuse and physical harm.
So when will I feel its time for my daughter to venture out into the world on her own? The answer is when she and I are ready. Children are all different and mature at different rates. It’s important to remember that a loving and secure home prepares a child far better for life than a youth spent kicking around the streets. So perhaps these dramas are actually doing some good to us as parents by making us cherish our little ones a little more? I think that can never be such a bad thing.

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Can a drama get away with anything if it’s historical?

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In the week in which The Sun newspaper suggested that the use of topless photographs in their papers was a thing of the past and then triumphantly backtracked, in what we can only assume was an unpleasant publicity stunt, I was quite startled by certain aspects of BBC2’s new drama, Wolf Hall, which I watched on iplayer last evening. The drama is based on the Booker Prize winning novels about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel. The production values are quite remarkable and the acting superb. However, there was an element of the programme which made me feel uncomfortable.
I was a History Teacher for a long while and I’ve taught the Tudor period at A-level a good few times, so the details of Henry VIII’s attempts to gain an annulment of his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon are familiar to me, as I’m sure it is to many others too. It’s general knowledge. The difference in Mantel’s story is how she concentrates on the roles of Cromwell, Wolsey and More. We get to know about their families and the behind-the-scenes power struggles at court. But one should remember that this is still fiction. We do not know that these conversations actually took place, we should bear in mind that this dialogue is created by Mantel’s literary licence.
So, I was a little perturbed to hear Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey making jokes about Anne Boleyn being ‘flat-chested’ and indicating their surprise that the king had turned his attentions to her. Indeed, later in the episode, Thomas Cromwell makes a lewd reference to the same thing with Anne’s own sister, Mary, who laughs heartily at his witticism.
I’m sure that Mantel based this observation on evidence she found in contemporary letters and accounts, but is it strictly necessary or appropriate to make it part of the drama? I’ve taught the Tudors for many years without finding the need to mention that Anne Boleyn’s breasts were small. There are a number of reasons why I would not have done. Firstly, because it could never be proved to be correct. The rumour could easily have been spread by her enemies in an effort to degrade, belittle and demean her. To me, the poor woman had had her head chopped off on the orders of her husband, which must surely be demeaning enough. Secondly, I would never say something disparaging about the size of a woman’s breasts in front of a class of students because it would result in the girls feeling incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious and the boys getting the wrong idea about how they should view women. It’s a teaching no-brainer.
So is it acceptable in a historical drama? I actually think it isn’t. When looking at events that happened as long ago as the 16th Century there is arguably no such thing as ‘historical fact’. As writers, we will always be placing our own interpretations on the piece and actually, we cannot forget the modern audience and how the work will impact upon them. I’m not a great believer in censorship but in making a judgement about what is in good or bad taste and how it will be received by a modern, literate, intelligent audience. All writers must consider this when they put pen to paper.
Later in the episode, there was a particularly nasty, violent assault on a young boy. Again, this is something that even the most hard-core of detective dramas would shy away from depicting on screen. So because it’s historical and dare I say it, ‘intellectual’, that means it’s alright?
I think that ultimately, it’s a question of judgement by the writers and the director as to what is appropriate. But I would suggest that even if your topic is embedded within the culture of the past, your audience are most definitely not, and you should approach delicate issues accordingly.

A perfect partnership; The psychological thrillers of Nicci French.

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The weather has suddenly turned colder. It feels as if we are now entering winter proper, with the threat of snow and of sharp,icy mornings. This means it is also the season of enjoying a flurry of televised detective and mystery dramas. After months of scarcity we now demand abundance. However, 2015 doesn’t yet appear to have delivered in spades on my expectations. We have Broadchurch and Silent Witness, of course and the new series of the Swedish Wallender has been airing on BBC4 to fill that notorious drama free zone that is Saturday nights. Wolf Hall is also about to begin its run on BBC 2, although I’d put this more in the costume drama category.
Call me greedy, but I’d really like some more. Luckily, a trawl through ITVplayer turned up an expected treat. The three part 2011 adaptation of Nicci French’s novel, What To Do When Someone Dies is currently available. Starring Anna Friel and Marc Warren and renamed Without You for television purposes, it is well worth a watch.
Set in cold, wintry Manchester, thirty something Ellie Manning is forced to come to terms with the tragic death of her husband, Greg, in a road accident. What complicates matters is that a mysterious woman died in the car with him, the beautiful Milena. Despite her friends and family being convinced that Greg was having an affair, Ellie soon discovers that many of the facts just don’t fit. She decides to begin her own investigation to clear Greg’s name and discover what really happened to him. Friel is always very watchable and manages to portray the grief of a bereaved wife extremely well.
I read this particular Nicci French novel whilst on holiday a few years back. The husband and wife writing team of Nicci Gerard and Sean French have always been favourites of mine. They are masters of the psychological thriller genre, unafraid to dwell on the details and intricacies of the human psyche. My favourite of their books is The Memory Game, which plays with our perception of the present and the past.
A few of French’s novels have been made into television dramas and films in the past, with varying success, but Without You effectively captures the tension of the book and the superior cast raise it above the ordinary.
Nicci French have, within recent years, ventured out with a new series of books featuring psychiatrist Frieda Klein. But their stand alone psychological thrillers remain the duo’s best work; with recent, madly hyped books in the same genre (I shall mention no names) paling by comparison.
So, if you are looking for a little more selection in the mystery dramas currently on offer, check out the ITV3 page on ITVplayer, you might just stumble upon a real gem.

This week’s Silent Witness; a homage to Barbara Vine

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You’ve got to love Silent Witness. Back for it’s eighteenth series and still coming up with strong storylines. This BBC drama has lost its way on occasion, notably in series fifteen and sixteen, when the format was tiring and the writers made up for this with increasingly ludicrous and gory plots. With the arrival of David Caves, as fellow pathologist Jack Hodgson, the programme has reinvigorated itself. What is particularly of note, is the great relationship between the character of Jack and scientist Clarissa Mullary, played by the brilliant Liz Carr. Carr is a stand-up comedian and a campaigner for disabled rights, she is also the only physically disabled actress starring in a prime time British drama. It doesn’t really need to be said that we obviously need more. I’ve always liked the fact that the main actors in this programme always get equal billing and firstly Amanda Burton and now Emilia Fox, are undoubtedly the stars of the show.

This week’s two-parter I particularly enjoyed. It immediately reminded me of Barbara Vine at her very best, even down to the setting of the London Underground, including the focus on a west London Tube stop. The story was reminiscent of a combination of ‘Grasshopper’ and ‘The House of Stairs’, focussing as it did on a pair of young, lost souls who find solace in one another. Only later do we discover that one is using the vulnerability of the other to manipulate them into carrying out their murderous bidding. There was a very atmospheric section at Mornington Crescent, where Nikki fears she is being followed through the empty tunnels, it immediately put me in mind of a similar sequence from the early eighties horror classic, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ which also took great advantage of the inherent spookiness of the London Underground system.
There was also an interesting sub-plot involving a young policeman trying to piece together the events of his father’s death twenty years earlier, only to discover a secret he should never have attempted to uncover.

Unfortunately, this series is running up against Broadchurch on a Monday night, but it is certainly worth setting the recorder for or catching up with on iPlayer. The writing is always interesting and original and the two hour format means it is faster paced than many of its rivals. Silent Witness continues to live on…

A Writer’s Little Pleasures

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Having been inspired by one of those ‘mind, body and spirit’ miniature books about life’s little pleasures, it made me consider those tiny boosts that keep us writers going.

1. Quiet Time.
The kids are at school/your mum and dads/on a play date. You’ve cleared the inbox and are ready to devote several uninterrupted hours to the word processor. Bliss.

2. A great idea.
It can come at any time of the day, when at the shops or making dinner. You’ve been vaguely chewing over a tricky element in a plot line when suddenly a great idea strikes you. It seems to tie together perfectly with what you were trying to achieve. You can’t imagine where the inspiration came from but it has resolved your problem perfectly.

3. Getting a good review.
This may not happen everyday of the week and doesn’t necessarily have to be a written review on Amazon or Goodreads. It may simply be a friend or a neighbour who tells you how much they enjoyed reading your book. This kind of feedback is what it’s all about.

4. Research.
This may sound strange, but the research stage of a novel can be quite therapeutic. Choosing a particularly good book on the topic you are gathering information on is fun and with the internet, the research phase is now relatively easy.

5. Picking up a new skill.
Writers are pretty good with words, but often a little sketchy in other departments. The modern writing world means you need to get to grips, at the very least, with word processing packages, but most likely you are also learning how to design book jackets and promotional materials. As your books become better known, you may be speaking at local events or attending book signings.

6. Discovering a community to join.
It may be in your local area or online, but suddenly you are interacting with lots of other folk who think in the same way as you. Some might even be on the other side of the world!

7. Blogging.
Sometimes, I will write a blog to take a break from the book. It’s like when you were growing up and thought you wanted to be a journalist and would set the world to rights in your weekly column. Actually, you can! Start blogging, us writers can’t get enough of it.

8. A nice cuppa and a biscuit.
For some writers, this might be a cappucino and a Danish or even a slug of single malt. But sitting down at the laptop with your favourite beverage and something that can deposit crumbs between the gaps in the keys feels pretty darned good.

9. Having a sneaky look at your own books on Amazon.
Or wherever else your novels are on sale. Us authors don’t obsess about it, obviously. But we do occasionally have a sneaky look at our back catalogue and feel a little surge of pride, something akin to gazing at school photos of your children, or admiring your herbaceous borders.

10. Reading back over a section of prose that you’re happy with.
This is a really satisfying little pleasure. Somehow the choice of words, dialogue or imagery seem to work just right and we can leave it exactly as it is.

I’m sure all writers have their own little pleasures, and no doubt frustrations too, but for now, this is a small selection of mine.

What’s In A Title?

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Watching tonight’s episode of The Great Allotment Challenge has reminded me, obscurely, of my favourite book title of all time; ‘Password To Larkspur Lane’, which is the tenth in Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries series. I loved these books as a child and always felt the titles were catchy and quite unusual and definitely played a big part in their appeal.
I’m reaching the final stage of writing my seventh novel and the new title is already decided. It’s something I settle upon right at the very start of the process. I don’t like to write a book without the title already in place and I rarely change it. But whenever I do consider what title to give my latest work, I can’t help reflecting on my all time favourites. Sometimes it’s difficult to say why a title appeals, it can be the image it invokes, or the promise of action and adventure. Occasionally, it can simply be the rhythm of the words or how they appear on the page. Perhaps these days we might be tempted to choose a title that is generic or contracted to a single word. Nah, I like something a bit different or unique. Otherwise it won’t stand the test of time.
Anyhow, here is my selection of some of the best, please feel free to add your own!

Password to Larkspur Lane by Carolyn Keene
A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundara
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh / TS Eliot
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time by Mark Hadden
A Dance To The Music of Time (series of books) by Anthony Powell, inspired by the painting of the same name by Nicolas Poussin
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Five great book adaptations for the screen

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Having spent New Year’s Eve at the cinema with my children watching the new Paddington film and thoroughly enjoying it, it got me thinking about the books which have translated best into films and TV. The subject of adaptations is always a thorny issue. My Mum is very unsure about the future television programmes, now in production, based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. When books are very close to a reader’s heart, trying to transfer that magic onto the screen can prove disastrous and be bitterly disappointing for loyal fans. But on the whole, taking a bestseller and making a movie out of it should pretty much be a banker for the big studios, which is why we get so many of them.

For what it’s worth, these are my top five choices:

1. The Box Of Delights by John Masefield was made into a BBC Two drama in 1984 and was shown on consecutive Christmases over the following years. This series is a magical memory from my childhood. I used to read the book at the same time as watching the programme, for maximum enjoyment! Although the special effects are dated now, the acting and script were terrific and very closely followed Masefield’s wonderful tale. But it was the haunting musical score, adapted from the Christmas carol, ‘The first Noel’, that made this series so special to me. The thought of it still sends a little shiver down my spine…

2. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Tolkien.
I’m not a great fantasy fan but JRR Tolkien’s books have got to be the exception. He created a whole new world within his series of books. Many had tried and failed to bring that world to the big screen before director Peter Jackson took up the challenge at the start of the 21st Century. The books were written for the most part during World War Two and published in the 1950s. Since that time, they have become amongst the best-selling novels ever written. But Jackson did the books justice. The viewer can immerse themselves as fully in these films as they could in the pages of Tolkein’s books; a truly incredible accolade. There are some real highlights in these films, even for those who don’t necessarily enjoy the action and magic. The relationship between the Hobbits; particularly the friendship between Frodo and Sam, for example, is superbly rendered by the actors and script.

3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
I had certainly enjoyed reading Du Maurier’s 1938 novel about a young wife having to live in the shadow of her predecessor and discovering that she must have confidence in herself if she wants her marriage to survive. However, this is one of those rare occasions when I think the film was better than the book. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, I first saw this 1940 film at a screening when I was at university. It seemed to capture the atmosphere of the novel perfectly and is remembered best perhaps for Judith Anderson’s portrayal of the wicked Mrs Danvers. For me, the great performance is from Fontaine, who manages to flesh out the protagonist’s character very well, despite having to take on the challenge of being the leading lady with no name. Fontaine gives her more gumption than she ever had in the novel, which is what transports the film onto a higher level. This is a story which can only ever be re-imagined effectively in black and white!

4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.
This was a novel that I studied at university and greatly enjoyed. Ultimately, it is a romance between Margaret Hale and mill owner John Thornton after their two worlds collide when Margaret is forced to move from the countryside to the industrial town of Milton in the north west. Gaskell’s novel was published in 1855 and was designed to highlight the important social issues of the day. However, the book is never didactic, which it easily could have been, and the tensions and drama created by a strike at Thornton’s mill prove to be perfect literary devices for Gaskell to make her book both gripping and thought provoking.
In 2004, the BBC adapted the book into a Sunday evening mini-series which proved to be equally as good as the novel. In fact, I used the segments depicting the factory workers to show my classes when I was teaching about the Industrial Revolution. But more than this, it was the superb love story between Hale and Thornton which was beautifully played by Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage which made this series really excellent.

5. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney.
I am not particularly a fan of kid’s movies and it’s my husband who usually takes our children to the cinema. However, we have a junior club at our local picture house which shows movies for a pound on a Saturday morning. On one particular day, the film we wanted to see was sold out, so I opted for the alternative instead. It turned out to be The Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, the second of Kinney’s franchise. To my astonishment, I really enjoyed it and found myself both amused and moved by the film. As with all great adaptations, it’s actually pretty tricky to put your finger on what makes it work, but the humour is very well played in these films and you begin to care about the main characters and what happens to them; even Rodrick. After seeing this movie, my daughter wanted to read the books and now is an avid fan, waiting eagerly for each new episode to be released.

This is my top five (at this moment in time) but I’ve no doubt others will disagree. If I’ve left out something obvious, feel free to let me know.

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