+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘television’

Original footage

In which we consider moving to the mountains

The other day I was rather pleased to discover, on YouTube, a documentary from the 1970s that I’ve known about for a while but had never before seen. The Campbells Came By Rail is a documentary about the everyday life of Col. Andrew Campbell.

Colonel Campbell had a long and successful career in the Black Watch, largely overseas, policing the crumbling corners of the British Empire. Coming out of the Army in the early 1960s, he became county solicitor for Merionethshire (as was). At auction, he bought an equally-crumbling manor house in the northern fringes of the county, which he had fallen in love with at first sight. Its name was Dduallt.

Map of Dduallt

If you’re a regular reader—or paid attention to the title of the documentary—you may well be ahead of me here. Dduallt,* when Campbell bought it, had no vehicular access, but it was alongside the Ffestiniog Railway. At the time, the Ffestiniog were not operating services over that stretch of track; so the Colonel bought a small Simplex locomotive and had a small siding built alongside his new house. The railway let him park his car at the nearest station, Tan y Bwlch, and run himself up and down by train.

The Colonel at Tan y Bwlch

The documentary shows him picking up his loco and a brakevan from Tan y Bwlch and heading off up the line to show the filmcrew round his home, describing it as part of his normal daily commute from the county council offices. Off he heads, past the cottage at Coed y Bleiddiau, up to his own Campbell’s Platform, where he puts the train away.

Shunting at Campbell's

Unlike a modern documentary, you get to see all the detail of the Colonel putting the train staff into a drawer lock, working his groundframe, and then a demonstration of how to use an intermediate staff instrument,** including a spin of the Remote Operator dynamo handle to make sure the section is clear and the instruments free.***

Intermediate METS instrument

As I said above, when Campbell moved into Dduallt, the railway wasn’t operating over the stretch of line past his house. By the time the film was made, that part of the railway had reopened to traffic, and it must have been difficult on a busy summer day to find a space in the timetable for the Colonel to run down to Tan y Bwlch in the daytime. Further north, the railway was rebuilding a couple of miles or so of line that had been drowned by a reservoir, and Colonel Campbell had provided invaluable help. For one thing, he allowed the railway’s civil engineering volunteers to use one of his buildings as a hostel provided they helped restore it, which they did complete with a large London Underground roundel sign on one wall. For another, he was a licenced user of explosives, so was called out each weekend to blow up rocks along the path of the new line. If you look in the background of the documentary you can see a couple of wagons carrying concrete drainpipes are sat in Campbell’s siding, no doubt waiting to be used on the new line.

Eventually, Campbell did get a roadway built to the house, zigzagging steeply up the side of the vale, but only in the last few months of his life. He died in 1982, the same year that the Ffestiniog Railway completed its 27-year reopening process. The Ffestiniog went through a number of significant changes in the early 1980s, and the loss of Colonel Campbell was one of them. He is still an iconic figure to the railway, though, so watching the documentary was a fascinating opportunity to have some insight into who he was, what he looked like, what his mannerisms were. In particular, the upper-class Englishness of his accent startled me somewhat, given he was on paper a Scot. That, I suppose, is what being an interwar colonial Army officer turned you into. There is a whole thesis that could be written on colonialism and the Ffestiniog, given that it was funded in the 1830s by Irish investors and re-funded in the 1950s by English enthusiasts—and considering the long, bitter and quixotic arguments the railway had with Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg in the 1960s and 1970s, arguments characterised by a tone of disingenuous legalistic pedantry on the railway’s side. It’s certainly far too complex a topic to be summarised within this single blog post. In the documentary, Campbell was very clear that after ten years of living at Dduallt he still felt himself to be an outsider; indeed, he gives you the feeling that he didn’t think he would ever truly belong to the land and to the house in the way that his farming neighbours did.

The Ffestiniog Railway is a very different place now, with a very different attitude to the local community. Dduallt has changed hands a few times since Campbell’s death, most recently just in 2020 after sitting on the market for some years. Its final price was a bit over £700,000, less than the sellers wanted but somewhat more, I think, than when Colonel Campbell picked it up at auction. It’s in rather better condition now, of course, not to mention rather more photogenic when shot on a modern camera. Apparently, if you go there (and the Ffestiniog will start running trains past it again next month) you can still see parts of the aerial ropeway that linked the house and its station back in the 1970s.

The documentary is certainly a moment in time, and that time has now moved on. Nevertheless, if you know what the railway is like now, it’s a fascinating watch. If you don’t, maybe it will entice you to visit. It’s certainly worth it.

* The famous-but-controversial railway manager Gerry Fiennes once said that the best way to pronounce Dduallt was by sneezing, which is cruel but more accurate than pronouncing it as if the letters were English.

** Technically speaking it’s a “miniature electric train staff”.

*** The Remote Operator handle and indicator is a Ffestiniog peculiarity, developed to enable the railway to operate with unstaffed token stations and traincrew-operated signalling equipment. There is more information about it in this video about one of the Ffestiniog’s signalboxes.

The afterlife

Or, a TV review

Recently, I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series Surviving Death, covering various pieces of evidence for the existence of an afterlife, across various themes. It was…an interesting watch, which tries to stay even-handed; but its thematic approach meant a huge degree of difference between how each topic was presented and how plausible each one seemed to be.

Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by anything paranormal—blame those classic 1980s Usborne books—and I wouldn’t say I’m a sceptic. More, I’m one of those people who almost wishes they could believe in the paranormal were it not that the evidence for it is almost universally thin and quick to shatter at the slightest glance. The biggest issue I have with Surviving Death is that its attempt to be even-handed comes across uniformly in favour of the paranormal, because of the complete lack of any sort of critique at all. If anything, this does the more plausible phenomena a disservice, as they are lumped in with others that do have straightforward alternative explanations.

The largest topic covered across the whole series was “Mediums”, with two episodes; and it also came across as the area given the most credulous treatment. This is largely because it included no critical comment at all, of any sort. On the other hand, though, it would be difficult to include any critical comment on mediumship without it quickly becoming clear that there are no aspects of mediumship, none at all, that cannot be reproduced by different magicianship skills. Indeed, Harry Houdini’s work in discrediting various mediums in the first half of the twentieth century was explained as being unreliable, because as a showman, Houdini would have exaggerated his own skills and therefore he couldn’t be trusted. I suppose it’s better than Conan Doyle’s explanation of why Houdini’s work should be trusted, but it’s not much better.*

There were occasional threads dangling, which I would like to have pulled on. A major part of the “Mediums” episodes were given over to a physical medium—one who can manifest “ectoplasm” and other artefacts. Her physical seances only took place in pitch-black rooms with no cameras inside, so the manifestations had to be taken on trust. A sitting with a mental medium was filmed; but the session did not seem to go at all in the direction the medium had wanted. The message the sitter had been hoping for certainly didn’t come through, but the filmmakers seemed uninterested in exploring what might have happened, or why it had failed. In short, the episodes on mediums were extremely unconvincing, but seemed happy to turn a blind eye at the least convincing moments.

Across the whole series, though, not everything was quite so clear-cut or shallow. The final episode, on reincarnation, was in parts both touching and uncomfortable to watch, as the programme covered a man who, as a child, had apparently had memories of a former life. Those described in the film were traceable to a real, identifiable person, and there seemed no way that the boy could have known the things he had talked about, or why he would have said them. The man he had grown up to be, though, clearly wished he could forget all the things he had said as a child; and on meeting the family of the man he might have been the reincarnation of, he seemed deeply sorry for not fulfilling all their dreams.

Overall, Surviving Death was a bit of a mixed bag. There were a lot of interesting ideas, and a lot of interesting people, some of them very damaged people. It triggered the scientist in me, though. I wanted to go poking, go investigating, answer some of the questions. I wanted to test out the haunted Polaroid camera that featured in one episode, to find out whether it would be haunted if you used it in a different house.** The programmes were so busy trying to be open-minded, though, to present everything without judgement or criticism, that any sort of questioning or investigation was completely off the menu. It’s a shame. Now, I want to go back and pull at all the threads.

* Conan Doyle apparently convinced himself that although Houdini claimed to be a stage magician, he actually had secret paranormal powers, which is how he could reproduce the tricks that mediums carried out.

** And, indeed, find out whether it was that specific camera that was haunted, and exactly what was unusual about that camera’s type of film pack.

Winter chills

Or, what makes a ghost story frightening

With winter starting to approach, it’s time to start thinking about traditional Yuletide activities. Putting up the tree, sticking tinsel around the mantlepiece, lighting the candles; and settling down in an armchair to read a scary story.

I’m not sure when “reading a ghost story” became one of the traditional Yuletide activities, but it can only have taken a few decades at most, from the invention of the literary ghost story, to them being specifically written to read to friends by the fireside at Christmas or Yule. As early as the 1840s A Christmas Carol tied Christmas and ghosts tightly together, at precisely the time that many of our Yuletide traditions were being newly-minted. Dickens’ other famous ghost story, “The Signal-Man”, isn’t a Christmas story per se but was written for the Christmas 1866 special edition of All The Year Round. Communal Christmas ghost-story-telling is the framing story in The Turn Of The Screw, written in the 1890s by Henry James; however, I suspect that this is just a device, and that The Turn Of The Screw is rather too long to actually read out in an evening.

One of the best known English ghost story writers, however, did write his stories specifically for performance. M R James was an academic who spent virtually his whole life at either Cambridge or Eton, living in the rooms provided by the colleges he served and led. Every year, more or less, so the story goes, he would write a ghost story and perform it to his inner circle of colleagues and acquaintances at Christmas; they were then published in magazines and every few years in collected editions. He must have started doing this in his mid-30s at the latest, as his first collection was published in 1904 when he was in his early 40s and he averaged just under one published story per year from then until his death. It isn’t an enormous output: most of his time was taken up with a very active academic career as a medievalist, curator and art historian, and he also found time to occasionally write guide books for the Great Western Railway too. However, nowadays, unless you’re a medieval manuscript specialist, if you’ve heard of M R James it’s because you’ve heard of his ghost stories: they are considered classics of the genre. Indeed, they’re an entire sub-genre in their own right. The typical Platonic James ghost story can be summed up as follows: a shy, nervous academic somewhat resembling M R James is either carrying out some sort of research, or is on holiday; wherever they are, they discover some sort of antiquarian artefact or, more often, fragment of manuscript. They are then haunted by firstly a sense of terror, and then by some sort of horrific spirit which slowly gains physical form, either a humanoid shape or quite often something vile and spidery. And then, the threat somehow … goes away.

That description makes his stories sound rather anticlimatic. But, that’s because the real reason I’m writing this essay is something I feel I have to whisper to you privately, as if it were a secret unsuitable to tell you out loud. Despite his reputation as a master of the English ghost story, I don’t think very much of the work of M R James.

This isn’t because I object to the narrowness of the world he portrays, the world of late-Victorian and Edwardian academia in which men spend all their time in libraries and cathedrals and women are hardly ever at all visible. That was James’s world; he strongly believed that ghost stories should be set in the normal world of the everyday, so he wrote about what he knew. There are two things, really, that have always stopped me from enjoying James. Firstly, to my modern ear his writing sounds very clunky and awkward, especially for something originally written to be read aloud. This is the opening of “The Tractate Middoth”, published 1911.

Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library, and addressing himself to an attendant, stated that he believed he was entitled to use the library, and inquired if he might take a book out. Yes, if he were on the list of those to whom that privilege was given. He produced his card—Mr John Eldred—and, the register being consulted, a favourable answer was given. ‘Now, another point,’ said he. ‘It is a long time since I was here, and I do not know my way about your building; besides, it is near closing-time, and it is bad for me to hurry up and down stairs. I have here the title of the book I want: is there anyone at liberty who could go and find it for me?’ After a moment’s thought the doorkeeper beckoned to a young man who was passing. ‘Mr Garrett,’ he said, ‘have you a minute to assist this gentleman?’ ‘With pleasure,’ was Mr Garrett’s answer.

More importantly, though, I’ve never found there to be any true terror in James’s writing, however much horror there is. The stories are always resolved, but the resolution comes quickly and without any problems. If there is a villain then he will get his just desserts; often he will be attacked by some sort of supernatural entity, and the coroner will find his heart has inexplicably stopped. In many cases, though, the protagonist is rescued and the threat just goes away.

Regular readers might remember my post recently about Robert Graves, and in it, Graves’s (or rather A E Housman’s) test for a “true poem”: it makes your hair stand on end. That’s because, in Graves’s mind, a “true poem” must invoke terror, because it is about the White Goddess, who is a terrifying character. Regardless of what you think about Robert Graves and his intensely narrow-focused view as to what counts as genuine poetry, it’s fair to say that a ghost story should be able to invoke terror. I first read James’s stories in my teens, buying a cheap reprint,* and I remember being surprised that such famous ghost stories, despite many attempts to invoke horror, didn’t seem terrifying at all. My skin stayed entirely unprickled.

As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve started to feel that the real key to the ghost story isn’t necessarily just terror: the best ghost stories are also filled with emotion and sadness, of a constant sense of loss and longing. To say the obvious, they are about death, which means inevitability, eternity and regret. Ghost stories can be the saddest stories possible, because they reflect on the impossibility of changing the past and of undoing mistakes. In a very real sense, they are about regretting the path not taken. There is nothing like this anywhere in James: his characters are virtually emotionless and seem entirely free of introspection. This, combined with the flat, matter-of-fact style of writing, produces a curiously unaffecting text. I can read it and see, on an intellectual level, what James is trying to do, how he is mechanically advancing the plot; but there is no tension, no emotion, no way to draw me into the story.

I can remember, the first time I read James, that only one story really stood out and stuck in my mind, and it did so for entirely mechanical reasons. It was “A View From A Hill”, in which an antiquarian discovers a pair of binoculars that can apparently see into the past. He then takes them into a church, and they stop working entirely: the view becomes completely black and opaque as if you had left the lens caps on. The story ends with him discovering how they were made. I was fascinated by this story purely because of the artefact, the rules by which it operated, how it was made. It’s simply not a ghost story, though, and has no suspense, drama or action of any kind. A man finds a thing, he breaks the thing, and he is still the same person he always was.

There are, to be fair, good spots and good moments in James’s stories. One of the best is a relatively early one, “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. The opening has a waspishly comic touch, with a line almost reused by Monty Python some seventy or so years later:

‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography

He does reuse the same joke again a few paragraphs down, but we can probably forgive him that. “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is one of James’s best stories, let down largely by an unnecessary final paragraph which he seems to have realised himself is superfluous, because it begins with the words “There is really nothing more to tell”. It has also benefited from an excellent and genuinely frightening TV adaptation made in the late 1960s by Jonathan Miller: he changes the character of the protagonist somewhat, but makes the ghost of the piece far more eerie and threatening than James’s writing itself conveys.

The success of Miller’s TV adaptation led to the BBC producing a regular series of Christmas ghost stories, the most famous of which is probably Dickens’s The Signalman with Denholm Elliott in the title role. More recently, in 2013, Mark Gatiss revived the idea by dramatising “The Tractate Middoth”. It needed quite a lot of alteration to turn it into a good enough storyline for modern TV, and to give the characters some sense of emotion and inner being. The female characters in the original story are barely anything more than ciphers, plot devices. As in “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You” the story ends with an extraneous additional paragraph, a single sentence, written almost apologetically to explain that James just doesn’t know how to write about male-female relationships; in the TV adaptation it turns into an entire subplot. Moreover, one of the big flaws of “The Tractate Middoth”, the story, is that in its first act the most significant events happen off the page. The main character, a library assistant, goes off-scene to fetch a book. The next we hear, he’s been taken ill. A scene or two later, we discover he was found unconscious among the stacks; and then he relates a description of the supernatural thing he saw that shocked him into a faint. The whole structure, I feel, doesn’t make sense. Rather, it feels as if James is slowly trying to introduce the sense that something wrong and frightening has happened, but the effect is to lessen, not increase, the fright. With TV, you can fix this: you can show the events as they happen, rather than describing them further down the line.

I realise, in writing this, that I’ve given lots of examples of what I don’t like in James’s writing, without really giving very concrete examples of how to write a good ghost story. That will, to be honest, have to wait for another day, because this essay is already as long as it needs to be. I’m also very aware that above I’ve criticised two of James’s stories for ending with a short additional paragraph that just doesn’t need to be there, so I’m doing my very best to avoid committing the same sin myself. Part of me thinks that, if I do know what makes the perfect ghost story, maybe I should try to write one myself at some point over the Christmas break. Watch this space, and we’ll see if I do.

* It was the Wordsworth Classics edition back when Wordsworth Classics were only £1 each.

Alternate reality

When you can't use Google as a verb

Many people are concerned just how much corporate technological behemoths have embedded themselves into our lives nowadays. A few years ago now I spent a few days in meetings with some Microsoft consultants at their main British headquarters, and I entertained myself by counting the number of times I saw a pained look on the face of a Microsoft staffer having to physically stop themselves using “Google” as a verb. “We’ll just do a…” wince “…internet search for that.”*

The people I feel sorry for now, though, are the producers of TV shows. Yes, a particular website or app might be key to your plot, it might be vital to the everyday life of your characters, but you can’t use it, because no doubt its owners will be greatly upset if you do. So, for TV, thousands of working hours are spent producing mockup apps and mockup websites for the characters to use on-screen.

An award surely has to go to the producers of Australian police drama Deep Water, a rather good drama series about gay hate murders in Sydney. Their murder victim was obviously going to be using apps such as Grindr to meet guys, but they couldn’t show it on-screen: so, they invented—or, I assume they invented—an app called Thrustr for him to use instead. Now there’s a name that’s even better than the real thing.

What really made me want to write about this, though, is the Netflix series The Stranger, released earlier this year. Its not-Google-honest website is rather tasteful and well-designed, the Google screen layout but with a logo of interconnecting blue dots and lines that could, just about, plausibly be a Google Doodle that isn’t quite legible enough to make out the words of. When it comes to apps, though: they have a whole bevy of them, to fulfil whatever magical device the plot needs at the time. A phone-tracking app that uses some sort of dark-mode map layer for Extra Coolness. An app to allow the organisers of illegal raves to, well, organise illegal raves anonymously, but that also tells you where its anonymous users are. Of course, all these tracking apps always track people perfectly. They always have a mobile data signal and a good GPS fix, even in the city centre. The map view always updates exactly in real time: I hate to think how much battery power they must be using up sending out all those continual location updates.

The Stranger is set in a genericised North-West England: Cheshire and Lancashire with the place-names filed off. Because of that, it has the usual issues any sort of attempt at a “generic landscape” always has when it uses very recognisable places. The characters somehow manage to catch a through train, for example, from the very recognisable Stockport station to the equally recognisable Ramsbottom station, despite one being a busy main-line junction and the other being a silent, deserted heritage line. Talking of trains, there was also a rather fun chase sequence around Bury Bolton Street yard, although the joyless side of me has to say that you really shouldn’t crawl under stock the way they were doing. Nor can you in real life lean against the buffers of the average Mark 1 carriage and stay as clean as the characters did. Anyway. I was saying how unrealistic the GPS-tracking apps on the characters’ phones were: the one that really made me laugh out loud was when one character says that, as a given car registration is a hire car, he’ll be able to hack into the hire firm’s vehicle telemetry and get its current location in the time it takes to boil a kettle.

Admittedly, I have specialist knowledge here, because I used to be in charge of the backend tech for one particular vehicle telemetry provider’s systems. But the whole idea: assuming that they can see from the VRN which hire firm owns the car, they then have to know which telemetry firm that particular hire firm uses, and then know how to get in. Unless you do happen to have a notebook of where every car hire firm gets their telemetry services, and then have backdoors or high-level login credentials to every system, which I suppose is just about plausible for a private investigator, you’re stuffed. Getting in without that? Whilst someone makes you a cup of tea? Not feasible, at all.

Yes, maybe I’m applying unreasonable standards here for keeping my disbelief suspended. It seemed to be a particularly bad example, though, of technology either being magically accurate or terribly broken according to the requirements of the plot at any given time. Does the plot need you to know exactly where someone’s phone is? Bang, there you go. Does it need a system to be breakable on demand within seconds? All passwords to be immediately crackable as long as the right character is doing the cracking? No problem. Oh well: at least their not-Google looked relatively sensible.

* They all used Chrome rather than Edge or IE, though. Things might be different now Chromium Edge is out.

Trains and levers

Or, a brief pause for relaxation

To the Severn Valley yesterday to play with trains, possibly for the last time in a while. I’m not on the roster for next month, and as the pandemic appears to be getting worse again, who knows what will happen after that point. The pandemic timetable makes it a quiet day, just four trains in each direction, and only one crossing move. Here it is, with one train waiting in the station and all the signals pulled off for the other to have a clear run through.

Signals off

In-between trains I sat and read a book of Victorian history, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-75 by Geoffrey Body, and almost melted in the heat. It was windy outside, but hardly any of it came through the signalbox door. I watched a buzzard (I think) circling overhead, soaring slowly and sending the crows into a panic; heard pheasants and partridges squawking in the undergrowth, and listened to the frequent sound of semi-distant shotgun fire. It has been much in the news this week that shooting parties are allowed to be larger than other groups of people,* and all of the Very Online naturally have been joking about getting the guns in for their family parties; but yesterday in Shropshire and Worcestershire it felt as if people were genuinely doing just that, so frequent were the hunters’ gun-blasts.

And in small victories, at the end of the day I was proud. For I had filled in the Train Register for the day and not needed to cross any bits out. It may have been a quiet day with few trains and no unusual incidents to record; but, as I said, small victories.

Train register

When I was going through and reviewing all of the previous posts on here as part of the big rewrite, I realised the utter pointlessness of writing about some rubbish that’s on TV purely to say that I’m not going to watch it because it’s probably going to be rubbish. So, I’m not going to do that even though “some rubbish will be on TV in a few months” is all over the internet today. If you like watching rubbish then go and watch it, I’m not going to stop you. Me telling you I’m not is really just exclusionary boasting. So that’s that.

* Obviously, if you’re reading this now, just after I wrote it, you know this already. If it’s now five years in the future, you’ll have completely forgotten.

Fourth Series

In which FP rants about Being Human’s writers not being able to coherently plot from series to series

This blog still gets quite a lot of hits from people searching for the locations used in the BBC supernatural drama series Being Human, particularly the house used in the first couple of series. Now, I wrote quite a bit about those two series on here, partly because at the time we lived in South Bristol, the series was filmed largely in South Bristol, and it was quite an enjoyable thing to watch. The last time I wrote about it, though, was to (successfully) predict one of the plot-lines of Series Three; however, when that series made it onto the screen ,I hardly wrote about it at all. I hardly wrote about it because, to be honest, I didn’t think it was very good.

Now, with at least two major characters killed off* at the end of Series Three, you might have wondered whether it was coming back. Google says that Series Four was announced back in March, but I have to say I didn’t notice. I did notice, however, more of those little pink filming location signs which used to pop up all over Bristol. Not by the Black Castle this time, so no more “Box Tunnel” plotline. Instead, this year, filming is going on in (drum roll) Newport, South Wales. Newport, the town city so good they called it Newport! Newport, on the beautiful River Usk, where you can get shot while having your hair done before getting your head stuck in a disused train. It’s that good.

Newport might be pretty depressing and run down in some parts, but Cardiff has plenty of areas like that too. So, my prediction is that the next series of Being Human is going to feature: some sort of dramatic, thrilling climax based around the Newport Transporter Bridge. It’s essentially the only unique thing Newport has; and if you’re going to feature it, you may as well be dramatic about it. Well, either that, or the Manic Street Preachers are going to pop up in the background, which is less likely.

Noticing that Being Human is coming back, and writing this post, has made me think about exactly why I don’t think it is any good any more; why I think it shouldn’t come back. The biggest problem I have with it, I think, is that its writers don’t really have any sense of how to expand on their fictional world but still retain believability. Each series might make sense on its own, but the three series that have been produced so far, put back to back, make no sense at all as a single work: each new series has introduced new elements which completely break the world already established.

If you’ve watched it, you might be wondering what I’m talking about here. So, I’ll elaborate. Stop reading now if you have never seen the programme but might want to watch it in the future.

Series one: we have Emotionally-Tortured Pre-Raphaelite Vampire, trying hard to give up on the whole “killing people” thing; and Evil Villain Vampire, who is going to take over the world and doesn’t see any place for brooding emotional types who think they can live alongside humans in his worldview. Evil Villain Vampire is working in the police, so he can keep vampires under-cover and make sure their crimes don’t get exposed. E-T P-R V learns to rely on his friends, who defeat Mr. Evil Villain — in the workplace, note — and forestall the great vampire takeover. Sorted.

Series two: E-T P-R V and friends are fighting against some religious “scientists” who are trying to cure evil, and exterminate it if curing it doesn’t work. Our vampire protagonist is still being broody because he’s having trouble with the whole not-killing-people thing again. So, introduce Morally-Uplifted Mentor Vampire, who gave up blood-quaffing as a dead loss some centuries back, and who, way back before the start of Series One, taught Mr E-T P-R Vampire how to not kill people to begin with.

Now, this plotline might all make sense if M-U M Vampire (ooh, an apt acronym) lived somewhere exotic, somewhere difficult for a Totterdown resident to get to.** Or, alternatively, if he’d*** been off on holiday somewhere, out of contact, for the whole of Series One. Touring the Amazon, perhaps, or spending three years trainspotting in Iceland. The only sensible explanation, indeed, is that that was indeed the case and it just isn’t mentioned: because it turns out that M-U M Vampire lives in a very nice house, literally a stone’s throw from E-T P-R Vampire’s workplace — where, remember, the Final Denoument took place in the previous series. Literally a stone’s throw. Not only did Evil Villain Vampire not notice, in the previous series, that an active let’s-not-kill-people mentor character was living two minute’s walk away, but E-T P-R Vampire could have popped round for some advice and a cup of tea in his afternoon break, and still got back to work before anybody noticed.

Series Three: the religious chaps have been defeated, the Core Team have moved to Wales, and the Evil Villain Vampire might not have been defeated quite so thoroughly as we all thought. But, what’s this? There are some other vampires! Who may or may not exist, of course. They might be somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, or they might be deeply under-cover in a second police team devoted to making sure vampire killings don’t get exposed. However, all the vampires are well-aware that these Old Vampires may exist, or may be just a myth that vampires pass down from generation to generation. All the vampires are well aware of the myth, even though it was never previously mentioned. In Series One, Evil Villain Vampire was planning to take over the world, was planning to become Vampire King Of The World, indeed, and nobody seemed concerned that there may, just may, be some possibly-mythical Old Vampires who might still be around and might disagree. In Series Three, it turns out, they were working in the same business as Evil Villain Vampire all along! But didn’t think it worth doing a thing about him, didn’t bother stepping in — although we’re presumably meant to assume that they would have stopped things going too far.

Basically, my point is that: Being Human hasn’t been thought through. It’s been planned one series at a time, and each time a series is made, the previous one isn’t even thought of. No doubt Series Four will introduce some other new characters: maybe a Great Pack of werewolves convinced that werewolves are going to take over the world, which everyone has heard of before and cunningly forgotten to mention. Or maybe the Old Vampires are going to turn out to include the team’s landlord from Series One, who hasn’t been seen for a while. Either way, something new will no doubt come in, and if the previous series are anything to go by, it will be something which would have made a vital difference to everything that has gone before, if we had actually known about it.

I will stop ranting, now. There are ways to do this sort of thing properly, but Being Human is probably beyond recovery. The annoying thing is, it would have been much better if someone had sat down, right at the start, and said: if we do get more than one series, what way will we go? And what do we have to do now, to make sure we can?

* Given that several characters are either dead or undead, and one has been “killed off for good” once before only to return when the writers ran short of plot, this is possibly not a useful measure of whether or not it will return.

** Kingswood, maybe.

*** There’s an essay in the implicit and deep-rooted sexism that shows itself in the writing of the female vampires in Being Human, but this is probably not the place for it, and I am not the person to write it. It is, however, no doubt closely related to the vampire-as-sexual-predator archetype. Here, at least, note that only the male vampires are given any chance of redemption other than death; and that the mentor who demonstrates this the most is gay.

And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items

Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.

The Interconnectedness Of All Things

In which a loose adaptation can be better than a faithful one

The problem with no longer having a connected-up TV, and relying on the internet for our TV service, is that we no longer get to see trailers. We no longer get to see trailers, we no longer see adverts in the paper, and so we don’t generally have much idea what’s coming soon on the good TV channels. It’s too easy to miss stuff we’d really enjoy watching.

A case in point: we only just caught Dirk Gently, BBC4’s rather loose adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and saw it on the iPlayer with a few hours to spare before it disappeared. I’m glad, though, that we did catch it. I first read the book in my early teens, and enjoyed it despite not understanding half the plot; so, when I discovered that BBC4 had done an adaptation that was merely 1 hour long, I was rather wary. And, as I said, it was a rather loose adaptation, keeping a couple of the characters unchanged, the names of a few of the others, and a couple of the best scenes from the book. One of the earliest scenes saw the titular Dirk, in his office, whitewashing a wall covered in scrawled notes – notes all pertaining to events from the book which had been scythed out of the adaptation. Symbolic, indeed.*

Watching the opening scenes, I thought to myself: that garden wall looks very like our garden wall. Ooh, the decorative stonework on that house looks very like some of the decorative stonework in our street. That street gutter they’re lying in looks very Bristolian, too. And then the camera swung round to show the disused Greenbank chocolate factory, just a stone’s throw from Symbolic Towers.** “Oh, I did see some filming was going on near there the other month,” said K: presumably, this was it. If you saw the programme and are as geeky as me about this sort of thing: most of the action took place on Camelford Road and Co-Operation Road in Easton, and around Falkland Road and Fairlawn Road in Montpelier, with one scene in St Pauls, and a nice shot of a City Farm mural on Mina Road, St Werburghs.

I said above just how loose an adaptation it was. Only the characters of Dirk and his secretary were retained, essentially, from the book; along with the names of the others, some of the best lines, and a flavour of the main plot device. Strangely, though, I thought it a much better adaptation than the one that BBC Radio did a couple of years back. The reason for that? The book’s plot is horribly complicated, and it’s set in what is essentially an alternate universe, hinted at in a pretty subtle way. It’s also, very clearly, derived directly from some of Douglas Adams’ earlier projects.***

Producing a new plot with a similar tone was, in all probability, by far the best way to create a Dirk Gently TV show. It helps with making it a modern-day production: the original revolves heavily around answering-machine tapes. It means you no longer need to know any Romantic poetry to understand what’s going on; you no longer need lots of hints that we’re not in the real world; and you don’t need to try to weld the loose plot-strands of the novel into the tighter mesh you need for a dramatic production. The tone, moreover, was spot on: you could barely spot the join between scenes and lines imported from the book and those written afresh. That matters because the new Dirk Gently very much had the smell of a pilot about it: if its writer is going to try to push things and take it further, it’s good to know that he can write the title character in a faithful style.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was always intended to be a one-off. You could read the ending either way, which in itself was probably intentional. We’d be happy, though, to sit down in front of an hour of Dirk Gently every week. All I can hope is that, if it does turn into a series, that a mathematically impossible sofa turns up at some point. I didn’t miss the book’s alien robot on horseback, or its idyllic Cambridge college scenes, but I did miss the mathematically impossible sofa. And the other thing we have to hope is: we do realise it’s on, and it doesn’t just appear and disappear without us spotting it.

* there were also, incidentally, some newspaper headlines we saw on-screen which were irrelevant to the plot of the programme, but came from the plot of the book.

** We did consider buying a house that was literally a stone’s throw from the shooting locations, but it had a rather nasty damp patch in the living room which looked, even at a glance, to be an expensive fix.

*** Saying directly where it was pulled from would probably be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the book, so I’ve put it down here: the plot is partly derived from two Doctor Who stories that Adams wrote or co-wrote. If you know this before you’ve read the book, it becomes rather obvious which character is effectively a Time Lord, and where he keeps his TARDIS. None of this appeared in the new adapatation, apart from the general plot device of a time machine, which was handled in a radically different way.

Vampire-Spotting

In which we suspect that some TV cameras might be taking the train

Regular readers over the past couple of years might have noticed that I quite enjoy spotting the filming locations of the paranormal TV drama* Being Human, filmed in a variety of easily-recognisable Bristol locations: Totterdown, Bedminster, Clifton, St George, College Green, and so on. Not for much longer, though, we thought: although the first two series were Bristol-based, the third series is apparently being moved over to Cardiff. Whether it will be the recognisable Cardiff Cardiff of Torchwood, or the generic anycity of Doctor Who, remains to be seen; but this was all clearly set up when, at the end of Series Two, the protagonists were forced to flee the house on the corner of Henry St and Windsor Terrace for an anonymous rural hideout. No more Bristol locations for us to spot, we thought.

Over the past week, we’ve been doing a lot of driving about moving house; we now know every intimate corner of every sensible route from south Bristol to east Bristol, or at least it feels like we do. So we were slightly surprised to see that, about a week ago, some more of these pink signs have popped up. “BH LOC” and “BH BASE”, as before.

We spotted them on Albert Road, near the Black Castle. “BH BASE” points along Bath Road, towards the Paintworks and the ITV studios. “BH LOC”, though, is intriguing. It points down the very last turning off Albert Road before the Black Castle end. That entrance only goes to two places: a KFC branch, and St Philips Marsh railway depot.

If you watched the second series of Being Human, you might remember that there was, indeed, a rather brutal train-based scene in a First Great Western carriage.** So, expect the third series to include, at the very least, an extension of that scene, if not a spin-off plotline. Or, alternatively, those signs aren’t really anything to do with Being Human at all, and it’s just coincidence that they pop up around Bristol a few months before each series appears on the telly.*** My money’s on that train from Series Two being the root of part of the Series Three plot; but, I guess, we’ll just have to wait, watch and see.

* Well, it started off as a comedy, and got more serious as it went along.

** I was impressed that the programme’s fidelity-to-location included shooting that scene in a genuine local train, rather than just finding any railway prepared to get a carriage soaked with fake blood. Of course, it was probably a convenient location too.

*** The third possibility, of course, is that someone in Series Three tries to cure vampires and werewolves of their respective curses by getting them to eat large amounts of fried chicken.

The Knowledge

In which we plot to go on the telly again

Regular readers of this site might be aware that, in the past year or so, I’ve appeared on telly a couple of times, showing off my inner geekiness. If you weren’t aware: specifically, I was a contestant on the 2009-10 series of Mastermind, parading my knowledge of French history (I won, hurrah!) and steam trains (lost, but not because of the trains).

It was all great fun and a grand couple of days out. Indeed, if you ever get the chance, I’d recommend going on either Mastermind, Countdown or Jeremy Kyle — they’re all filmed in studios alongside each other — because, if nothing else, the backstage food is very good* and it’s always nice to get pampered.**

Now, I’d never tried doing that sort of thing before, despite people saying “oh, you’re clever, you should enter [latest popular gameshow]”. And I don’t want to turn into one of those people who goes on every quiz show going, popping up every week somewhere across the TV schedules.*** But, even so, now the “you must not go on any other telly” bit of my Mastermind contract has (I think) expired, I’ve started casting an eye across the networks and thinking “maybe I could do that”.

I’m not sure that there’s much TV that I’m suited to, though. Definitely not that Channel 4 thing with Davina McCall, if it’s coming back, just because I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would get through their auditions. The more I look at the lists of game shows that are out there, the more I’m attracted to the ones where you don’t actually win anything material. Radio 4’s Brain Of Britain, for example — not TV but you get the point. I also quite fancy the thought of applying to Only Connect on BBC4, because I think I’m quite good at spotting links between things.**** The only problem is, that’s a team game; I don’t know anybody else who would want to do it (or even who watches it, apart from K), and I never know any of their music questions.

So — does anyone have any other cunning ideas? I will have to ponder it over, and see what I can enter. And, then, watch this space.

* Apart from their meringues, which were the worst meringues I’ve ever had – they had the texture of a stale bread roll.

** There were seeming armies of runners with nothing really to do other than be nice to nervous Mastermind contestants and their families. You couldn’t even try to get yourself a cup of water without a runner saying “oh, don’t get up, we’ll get that for you”.

*** Like the woman who beat me on em>Mastermind; at least, my mother said she’s spotted her on TV a few times before. I didn’t realise. Another of the contestants, too, was on A Question Of Genius not long ago.

**** If you don’t watch it: the aim is to spot connections between words or statements. A sample question: “12:00am, 1st January, 1970″ is one clue; “Newlyn” is another; the answer is “datum points”, because the former is the time datum for Unix-based operating systems, and the latter is the site of the altitude datum used by the Ordnance Survey. The full questions have 3 or 4 clues, but you get more points if you don’t use all of them.