Chris Trengove

Writing about writing

‘FLASH CHORD’ – PROLOGUE AND 1ST. CHAPTER

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PROLOGUE

It’s late afternoon, an overcast day in a South London cemetery. Stone memorials stretch into the distance – a few pristine, garlanded with fresh flowers, most neglected and crumbling, their etched assurances of eternal life forlorn and fading.

One of the gravelled aisles is blocked by a gaggle of expensive cars – Mercs, Jags, a Bentley – as well as several undertakers’ limos. The cars’ drivers, bulky men in suits and shades, lean back against their vehicles, grim-faced, watchful. A couple of them surreptitiously smoke, cupping their hands over the glow of their cigarettes.

Around one freshly dug grave there’s a straggling group of mourners, gazing at an ornate coffin. Most are old men, grey-haired but hard-eyed, their ageing bodies camouflaged by well-cut suits. Some are accompanied by well-preserved wives their own age. Others by younger, thinner, blonder women. Several are in wheelchairs, but they too share the grim-faced look of the others.

Also among the mourners are several older women, clearly on their own. There’s something about them that says they’re not cut from ordinary cloth. Whatever they might have in common, they stand apart from each other, looking stonily ahead.

A young priest nervously intones the melancholy words of the Book of Common Prayer.

“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord…” but he hesitates as one wheelchair-bound old man thrusts himself forward, trying to get a better view. It’s Wheelchair Harry. Even at his age, and even in a wheelchair, he’s an intimidating figure.

The priest continues: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

The wheelchair bumps into another old man, Fat Frank. Not so fat these days, age and illness having taken their toll; skinny arms and legs frame a still enormous pot belly. But he’s just as scary as Wheelchair Harry.

Harry’s wheelchair spatters mud on Fat Frank’s immaculate shoes and trousers. “What the f…?” Frank hisses, biting back the imprecation as the priest looks nervously over at the commotion. “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me,’ he continues, ‘yet shall he never die.”

“Move your fat arse, Frank,” says Harry. “Let the dog see the bone.”

A woman standing next to Frank gives the two men a sharp look. Dolly, approaching seventy and still a striking woman, though now heavier than in her Soho prime. She holds a single rose in one gloved hand. The old men quieten down, muttering ominously, and the priest continues.

“We brought nothing into this earth and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Suddenly the altercation escalates. Fat Frank shoves Wheelchair Harry, hard.

“Wanna stand up and say that to my face?”

Harry laughs coarsely. “Are you blind as well as fat, Frank? In case you’ve forgotten, I’m bloody paralysed!” Dolly frowns and shushes the two men, who again subside, muttering. She smiles reassuringly at the priest, who nods at her gratefully. He clears his throat, and declaims “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.”

But, like a dormant volcano returning to terrifying life, the spat between Wheelchair Harry and Fat Frank explodes furiously. “Paralyzed my arse!” yells Frank. “Too lazy to learn to walk again, if you ask me!”

Harry’s face is a mask of rage. “Oh yeah? I wasn’t too lazy to shag your wife, was I?”

The priest blinks, turns up the volume: “My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled: and at last I spake with my tongue.” But Frank and Harry are now speaking so loudly with their tongues that there’s a rustle of alarm among the other mourners. They peer round at the geriatric combatants.

“You bastard!” yells Frank, as he pulls out a large handgun. With a concerned murmur, the crowd shrinks back from the confrontation, but the priest ploughs gamely on: “Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live.”

Now Harry snarls at his tormentor. “You and yer bloody guns. Go on then Frank, shoot me. What do I care… I’m eighty years old.” Frank, face purple with rage, veins in his neck pulsing dangerously, wipes saliva from his waistcoat. He jabs the gun into Harry’s ribs.

“Right, that’s it, I’m gonna swing for you.”

Dolly finally snaps, turns on the warring old men. “For Christ’s sake, you two! This is Enrique’s funeral! Show a bit of respect!” The mention of Enrique brings them both up short, and they look abashed. Fat Frank puts the gun away. “Sorry Dolly, bit emotional, know what I mean?”

“Yeah, sorry Dolly,” mutters Harry. Dolly shakes her head, turns back to the priest. He gives her another grateful look, and starts to intone the final part of the service. “In the midst of life, we are in death…”

It starts to drizzle, and the pall bearers prepare to lower the coffin into the grave. The priest is about to go into his final peroration when there’s another commotion, involving the drivers and bodyguards by the cars.

They’re holding a man back, preventing him from approaching the grave. He’s carrying a sports bag in one hand and he’s arguing with the drivers and bodyguards.

The priest continues: “Of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased?”

The mourners notice the disruption. The funeral seems to freeze as everyone turns to Dolly. Will she be justly displeased? With Enrique gone, she is the key figure – not just the funeral’s organizer but the heir to Enrique’s power.

How will she exercise that power?

 

CHAPTER 1

A greasy Wimpy bag blew haphazardly along the street. It had travelled from down-at-heel Acton, through dodgy Shepherds Bush and was nearing nondescript Hammersmith. Had it ever contained anything edible, it had long been stripped of it by foraging pigeons and sparrows.

A Routemaster double-decker swished by, its slipstream wafting the bag up onto the dirty pavement. There were few feet to avoid along the Shepherd’s Bush Road, just a half-drunk couple exiting the Hong Tin Chinese restaurant. They’d been tossed out of the pub at eleven o’clock, hungry enough to chance the Hong, and were now scooping chow mein from tinfoil containers, laughing and shouting, as they headed back to their two-room flat just off the Green.

The Wimpy bag was quite at home as it blew into the foyer of Blarney’s, where it found several others of its kind, as well as a scattering of empty Players packets and spent Swan Vestas. Blarney’s was once a big Irish pub, but had been converted by a local Larry Parnes into a venue, with a stage, a bar and along the sides of the dance floor, a few dozen tables and chairs. On most weekend nights a few hundred young men and women would blow their wages on tickets for a show that might include Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Vince Eager, even American imports like Jerry Lee. Lonnie had appeared there, and all three of the trad ‘B’s: Ball, Barber and Bilk.

Tonight, third on the bill under Del Shannon and Brenda Lee, local Billy Fury sound-alike Johnny Rage poured heart and soul into Billy’s big hit Jealousy.

Jealousy

Was only through jealousy

Our hearts were broken

And angry words were spoken…

Johnny wasn’t just a sound-alike, he could have been Billy’s twin brother though, close up, not quite as beautiful and his hair more obviously dyed.

Johnny straddled the mike in front of a three-piece band, The Stormers. They were good – two experienced musicians, bass player Cyril and drummer Stewie, and a seventeen-year-old organ player, Paul Henley, who looked even younger but played like a New Orleans veteran, making the best of the bulky Hammond with chunky chords and bluesy licks. Johnny Rage and The Stormers were semi-pros – Johnny was a gas fitter by day – but they had a big local following and were a popular choice to fill out the bill when national tours came to London.

But no one took any notice of The Stormers when Johnny Rage was seducing the microphone, mock-kissing it, thrusting his hips in Elvis-style moves, driving the girls into a frenzy of swooning and screaming. Their boyfriends were caught between envy – resentment that this skinny show-off could have any of the girls he wanted – and hope that by the end of the evening, those same girls would be primed to let the boys do what they wanted.

Most of the girls were beehived and winklepickered and most of the boys slim-jeaned and bequiffed, even a few Teds among them.

It was 1962, but it felt like the fifties.

In the wings, Richard Upsdell – known to all as Stuttery Dick – looked on proprietorially. He was a lean and self-confident youth, despite his terrible stutter. He was the band’s manager.

Now Johnny Rage went one stage further, making love to the mike, leaning it back, caressing it, his hips spasming, bringing the girls to the outer reaches of knicker-throwing hysteria.

Paul chose the moment to interject a tricksy lick, which brought a glare from Johnny. He didn’t want any fancy stuff, just the chord changes. Paul shrugged, but took it down a notch. Now Johnny laid the mike stand on the floor and lay on it, his hips gyrating over it.

The heartaches I caused you

No wonder I lost you…

… was all over my Jealouseeeeeeeeeeeee…

 The crowd – the girls – surged toward the stage as Johnny reached the climax, of both the song and his simulated sex act.

At the moment he seemed to orgasm, he convulsed.

At first the audience was goaded to new heights of hysteria, but Paul and the musicians had seen Johnny’s act many times and this was different. Not an orgasm, even a pretend one.

A heart attack!

Paul was the first to react, to understand that Johnny was in real trouble. He sprang out from behind the Hammond, the other band members and Stuttery Dick close behind him. Paul fell to his knees beside the dying singer.

“Jesus Christ, Johnny! Johnny!” But, befitting his role as manager, Stuttery Dick took charge. He grabbed the mike. “G-get a doctor. For Christ’s sake, someone get a b-bloody doctor!”

A moment of dead silence fell over the audience as the reality set in. They milled around, uncertain what to do, the girls with their hands to their mouths, some crying. Five minutes seemed like five hours, until finally everyone heard the wailing of an approaching ambulance. Hammersmith Hospital was only minutes away, and by chance one of its ambulances was navigating the Hammersmith roundabout when the 999 call came in.

 

As the ambulance men did what they could for Johnny, an old Ford Popular bunny-hopped down the main road of a nondescript housing estate in Norwich. Gripping the wheel tightly was Suzie Geale, a beautiful seventeen-year-old who, like Johnny’s audience, was dressed in a style closer to the fifties than the sixties: knee-length skirt, winklepicker stilettos, dark hair in a beehive.

Nothing could disguise the fact that she was gorgeous. A solid gold knockout.

Morris McDonald, known as Skinny Mini, nervous in the passenger seat, was trying to appear calm. As the bunny hops threatened to turn into gazelle leaps, he half-closed his eyes.

“Whoa, whoa, clutch, Suzie! Clutch!”

Suzie managed to depress the clutch and the car came to a jerky halt. She turned to Skinny Mini beaming. “So? How did I do?”

He expelled a relieved breath. “You’re no Stirling Moss, but you’re getting the idea.”

“Thanks, Skin. For letting me drive, I mean.” Impulsively she leaned across and kissed his cheek.

Suzie’s father, behind the living room curtains, saw the kiss. He grimaced, clenched his fists.

Suzie climbed out of the car, smoothed down her skirt and waved to Morris as the old Pop accelerated away. With a nought to sixty time of about a fortnight, it took an age to reach the end of the road, but Suzie watched till it disappeared round the corner.

Now Suzie turned and faced the house. Took a breath, walked up to the front door. She let herself in, slipped off her winklepickers and, carrying them by the heels, crept towards the stairs. The streetlight through the front door cast her shadow on the wall, a tiptoeing silhouette like a Loony Tunes cartoon. But she stopped dead as the lights flicked on.

Standing before her was her furious father.

“What time do you call this?” he hissed. Suzie calmly checked her watch. “Half past eleven, dad.”

Her father slapped her hard across the side of her head, his big hand sending her flying. His face betrayed something brutal, primitive, then, as the blow connected, a kind of relief.

Suzie reeled back, seeing stars, trying hard not to cry out. It wasn’t the first time her father had hit her but this time he’d almost knocked her out.

She regained her balance and sprang forward, slamming a winklepicker heel into her father’s face, tearing a deep gash in his cheek.

He screamed as he fell, slapping a hand to the wound, the blood spurting between his fingers. Suzie leaned in, careful to stay out of reach.

“That,” she whispered, “is the last time you touch me, you bastard.”

oOo

 

 

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Written by Chris Trengove

April 5, 2018 at 12:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

CLAWS OF VENGEANCE – PROLOGUE & CHAP. 1

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ONE YEAR EARLIER

Scarab fought hard, bringing into play every Man-Jee-Do move she knew. She landed some telling blows, but she was outnumbered five to one – and clearly her captors knew she was a master of the Mangy martial art. The snatch squad carefully kept their distance, using weapons rather than paws to subdue her, finally laying her low with a scything sword slash to her left shin. Scarab went down with an anguished howl, and the squad – masked and covered from head to toe, could have been Katzers or Mangies – grabbed and manacled her, quickly and efficiently. As she struggled and lashed out, one of them rammed a gag into her mouth.
Without a word, her captors dragged Scarab out of Tantamount’s house and into the street, where a covered farm wagon was backed up to the door. It was unremarkable, just a battered wooden cart of a kind used by both Katzers and Mangies. The leader quickly looked up and down the street – it was empty. The hooded driver of the wagon held his whip at the ready, as the sturdy farm rat between the shafts shuffled its paws, awaiting the signal. The squad bundled Scarab into the rear of the wagon and pulled the covering across. As the crew piled in after her, the leader signalled to the driver, who lashed at the rat with his whip. With a jerk, the wagon set off, and the leader leapt up on to the driver’s bench alongside him.
The rat and wagon picked up speed and quickly reached the T-junction by the mouse butcher. Here it took a left turn, just as Mynx appeared from the street on the right. She glanced at the rat and wagon with little curiosity – they were a common sight in Katzburgh – and continued on her way home to Tantamount’s house. But as she approached the familiar thatched cottage she started to have a feeling that something wasn’t quite right – the fur on the back of her neck was ruffling.
Moments later she’d reached the front door – and now every muscle in her body tensed, ready for action. For on it, daubed in crude red letters she saw the words:

MANGY LOVER

oOo

CHAPTER 1

‘I can’t believe it’s been a year since Scarab was taken,’ said Tabith. ‘There was a time you’d have been glad,’ replied Ninelives. ‘That was when I first met her. I hadn’t got to know her. I just thought of her as a Hunting Poodle. A Mangy. But now… it’s hard, not knowing what happened to her.’
Ninelives shrugged, put his arm round Tabith’s waist, drew her towards him as they padded towards Katzburgh’s main gates. ‘We did the best we could Tab. We followed up every lead. If she was taken by Katzers, they either killed her or smuggled her out of the city. It was as if she disappeared into thin air.’ ‘I just can’t believe that Katzers would do such a thing. Everyone liked Scarab. I went to her Man-Jee-Do classes. Everyone thought she was cool.’
‘I know,’ said Ninelives. ‘But some Katzers just saw a Hunting Poodle. A Mangy. They couldn’t accept it.’
The two young Katzers strode arm-in-arm through the gates, acknowledging the guard who watched all those who came or went. His name was Maxwell Tibbles, latest of a long line of Tibbles called to be gate guards. His uncle, Rampart Guard Marvel Tibbles, had laid down his life a couple of years previously, defending the city against Warrod and his hordes.
Ninelives and Tabith had to shoulder their way through crowds, for it was the day of the Festival of Fish – a Katerwaul, one of the many Katzer festivals that divided up the year. There was nothing the citizens of Katzburgh liked better than a chance to eat, drink, sing and dance. Today most of the traffic through the gates was heading outwards, as the Festival was held just outside the city walls.
Ninelives and Tabith were more solidly than ever a couple since they’d both almost died in the Upriver territory a year previously. But they were still close to Mynx, Ninelives’ sister, and Spacer, their enigmatic psychic friend, and it was those two that they were now hurrying to meet.
They reached the edge of the Festival ground and surveyed the colourful stalls and wooden rides that covered a half-mile square. Looming over the area, a massive dark presence, was The Flat Rock, a local landmark. All around, there were tents in which rough wooden tables groaned with bowls and platters of Katzer favourites: smoked carp and roach, eel fingers, crayfish and snails, as befitting the ‘fish’ theme – but also starling kebabs, fillets of mouse and all kinds of milk, cream and yoghurt dishes.
Although it was a cloudy day, the Festival had attracted a good turnout. Young kits rode brightly painted roundabouts and swings, squealing and purring with pleasure as their parents whirled them round or pushed them higher and higher. Over the whole festival floated the joyous sound of music, played by a dozen bands, as well as individual singers and players. Closest to Ninelives and Tabith was the teenage band Skratchers, whose screeched vocals and pounding beat made conversation almost impossible.
Tabith leaned into Ninelives, shouted into his ear: ‘Where did you say we’d meet them?’
‘By the salt fish stall.’ Ninelives pointed ahead. ‘There… next to the helter-skelter.’
Mynx had already arrived, and was munching on a snail-on-a-stick, the garlicky smell detectable yards away. Ninelives hugged his sister, as did Tabith, warmly but a little less enthusiastically. Ninelives and Mynx were bound by ties of family, but Tabith and Mynx had had their differences in the past.
Now the trio gazed around them, trying to locate the fourth member of their crew: Spacer.
‘Did he say he was going to be late?’ asked Tabith.
‘Not really. Well, not as such,’ replied Mynx. ‘You know Spacer… he can be hard to pin down.’
‘Where’s he been anyway?’ asked Ninelives. ‘It’s been weeks since I saw him.’
‘He’s been doing some kind of class,’ said Mynx. ‘He told me he wanted to use his powers to help people.’
‘Spit and screech!’ laughed Ninelives. ‘Really? Spacer? Is he learning or teaching?’
Mynx shrugged. ‘I dunno. He didn’t say.’
Ninelives looked around the milling crowds again. Still no sign of their friend. He checked the sun, now starting the descent from its zenith. ‘We could be waiting for hours. Let’s check out the Festival – Spacer knows we’re here, he’s bound to catch up with us at some point.’
‘All right,’ said Mynx, ‘let’s go on the helter-skelter! Last one to the top’s a furball!’
Pushing and shoving each other, laughing and squealing, the young Katzers rushed to the stairs that led to the top of the wooden tower.

oOo

If Scarab stood on the tips of her hindpaws on the one chair in her cell, she could just see out of the high barred window. There wasn’t much of a view – just the scrubby courtyard in which she and the other the prisoners took their exercise, the high wooden fence that surrounded it, and, beyond, a gaggle of drab and indistinguishable wooden buildings. Still, she occasionally made the effort to peer out, if only to get a glimpse of the sky and, if she was lucky, the sun.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been captive, although she thought it was about a year. Her captors hadn’t told her why she was locked up, or what they wanted, or what her fate was to be. Her cell was positioned in such a way that she could only communicate with the occupant of the cell across the corridor from hers, whispered exchanges through the food slots in the heavy iron doors. She found out that the prisoner opposite, an ordinary Upland citizen, didn’t know why he’d been imprisoned either. Not that it mattered now – he’d been taken away months ago, and she hadn’t seen him since.
Apart from twice-daily visits by guards – first to deliver a bowl of almost inedible food, second to allow her access to the small exercise patch – she was in solitary confinement. She spent her time doing mental exercises and, when she was sure that she was unobserved, practising Man-Jee-Do. Her cell was just big enough to allow her to carry out the complex manoeuvres.
Already a Man-Jee-Do Black Collar, being able to practise for so many hours a day had enabled her to develop several new moves, unique in their daring and complication. She was also developing extra strength in her claws, hooking them one by one into the wooden headboard of her bed and forcing herself to lift it with one claw. She worked her way through these exercises for several hours a day, and was confident that if anyone tried to grab her today in the same way they did a year ago, she would prevail, whether they were armed or not. Trouble was, her captors didn’t allow her anywhere near them. Food was shoved through the slot, and at exercise time the door was opened by some sort of remote control mechanism, leaving her to walk the enclosed corridor to the courtyard. While she exercised – fast walking or gentle jogging, enough to raise her heart rate, nothing that could cause suspicion – they looked on from a gallery above.
Now Scarab relinquished her vantage point on the chair. It was a dull day, and she couldn’t even enjoy a ray of sunlight on her face. She sprang down, landing lightly and silently. She decided to spend the next few hours, until the arrival of food, developing a Man-Jee-Do move that she’d started to work on a few days earlier. It was a work in progress, but she had high hopes for it. In any event, she had nothing to lose, and it passed the time.
Suddenly, a commotion: doors banging, shouting, an angry yell. Scarab padded to the door and looked out of the food slot, but couldn’t see the end of the corridor where the noise seemed to be coming from. She put her ear to the slot: more noise – screeching now, thumps and bangs. Scarab’s brow wrinkled. There was something familiar about that screech…
Scarab peered through her food slot again, desperate to see what was going on. But the corridor was dark, and clearly the four guards had either drugged or stunned their captive, for they were carrying a limp body, taking a limb each. The bodies of the guards were between Scarab and the unconscious prisoner, so that she could make out nothing, not even whether the body was male or female. One guard reached for his keys, allowing the prisoner’s head to fall to the stone floor with a crack. Scarab winced. If they hadn’t been unconscious before, they would be now. Another guard got the door open, and Scarab saw all four throw the prisoner into the cell like a sack of grain. There was a thump as the body hit the floor, followed by a clang as the door was slammed shut.
There was nothing further to see. Scarab abandoned the food slot, paced up and down. This was the first new prisoner in… what? Must be months anyway. Of course there were other captives in other cells. She saw them looking at her on her way to exercise… rheumy, hopeless eyes peering at her through their food slots. But this one was different. She knew she could communicate with the occupant of the cell opposite, or at least had been able to, until he was taken away. Briefly, Scarab allowed herself a glimmer of hope. Two heads were always better than one… and she at least had nothing to lose. Scarab went back to the food slot, looked left and right, even though she could see no further than a few feet either way. Nothing. No one. She put her mouth to the slot and whispered: ‘Hey!’
Nothing.
She whispered again, a little louder: ‘You, in the cell. Can you hear me?’
A moment passed. Then, a moan… barely audible, the sound of a creature in pain. From its timbre, Scarab could ascertain only one thing: that it was uttered by a female…

Written by Chris Trengove

April 12, 2017 at 4:06 pm

COMEDY WRITING: THE DIVINE ART

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I’d never claim to be a comedy writer. It’s a hard row to hoe, whose best practitioners are among the finest writers in any genre, but who also suffer from chronic lack of respect – after all, it’s just a laugh, isn’t it? Still, I’ve written plenty of funny stuff in my time, including loads of animation and, with co-writer Peter Lawrence, several well-received comic novels and a bio of Keith Moon (not without laughs.) Equally to the point, I’m a lifelong comedy buff, the sort of person who’ll watch a TV sitcom if he’s familiar with the writer.

In a desperate attempt to hold back the effects of gravity and pizza, I row regularly. Not on the nearby Thames, but in the living room on a Water Rower, with a telly on the wall opposite to stave off tedium. Recently I acquired, via EBay, a collection of ‘classic’ British sitcoms on DVD, originally giveaways with the Daily Mail. Swallowing my natural aversion to the Rothermere product, I settled down, over the course of several weeks, to work my way through some landmark BBC comedy. I was interested to see which series stood the test of time and which didn’t. Were the seventies and eighties the high water mark of British TV comedy? Or would the water cooler shows of those times now seem dated, corny and irredeemably naff?

In some cases, my suspicions were confirmed, in others I was pleasantly surprised. Hancock is still great, due to the genius writing team of Simpson and Galton and the lad from East Cheam himself. Only Fools and Horses is still pretty funny, in spite of some rather iffy of-their-time racial references. One Foot In The Grave stands out for its superb plotting, the ability of writer David Renwick to drop surprise comic bombshells. I still enjoyed Hi De Hi – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum not so much. While comedy often deals in stereotype, Perry and Croft kept just the right side of the line in HDH, but went too far in Hot Mum. (Generally, they’re pitch perfect – witness the perennial appeal of Dad’s Army, still running forty-odd years after it was first shown.)

CHARACTER STUDIES

It’s been said that sitcom only works if everything works – script, cast, production – but watching these old shows made me realise how much good comedy relies on character. Plotting is great, gags are fine, but it’s the characters that reliably make us laugh. That’s usually why catchphrases work – they’re an integral part of the character that says them. Which leads me to Are You Being Served? This is a show that has attracted equal parts praise and opprobrium, both then and now. Does camp character Mr. Humphries present an unacceptable ‘mincing queen’ stereotype, or is he bravely out and proud in an era when the tabloid press routinely referred to gays as ‘poofs’ or worse? I always found the show funny (partly because I’d worked in a store very much like Grace Brothers) and looking back, I realise that again, it was the characters that made the show. The actors went to town on them, and in most cases it was their finest hour. Mollie Sugden was a fine actress with an impressive body of work, but she’ll always be remembered for her versatile and much-loved pussy.

Recently the BBC made a new ep of Are You Being Served?, with the show supposedly updated to the eighties. I tuned in without much hope – in my book, most remakes are pointless exercises – but was pleasantly surprised. I laughed quite a lot, and later, reviewing it in my mind, realized that writer and actors had again concentrated on the characters, sticking as closely as possible to the original template (and props to John ‘Boycey’ Challis here – his Captain Peacock was almost superior to Frank Thornton’s original.)

INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

But what of the modern product? Do we have anything these days that stands up to comparison with the so-called ‘golden age’ of the seventies and eighties? Here goes – and I’m aware that comedy is the most subjective of all the art forms, one man’s hilarity being another man’s knuckle-gnawing tedium. First of all, much of the comedy from that era often wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I never found Till Death Us Do Part that funny (and a lot of it is wince-making now, despite writer Johnny Speight’s intention to satirise working-class Toryism rather than celebrate it.) Nor Steptoe and Son, nor The Good Life (although I loved Bob Larbey’s far less successful The Other One.)

Over the last couple of decades we’ve had the sharp satire of Ab Fab; the game-changing mockumentary style of The Office; the demented and often semi-surreal Father Ted; and the retro homage of Miranda. Which leads us to now. If you were to believe the pundits, TV comedy is currently a desert. I beg to differ. Plebs – writers Basden and Leifer – is sharp, filthy, and crucially, very funny. It’s been largely ignored, perhaps due to its berth on ITV3. Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner has got funnier and funnier as the series have progressed (in passing, Mark Heap’s loony neighbour is superb.) Greg Davies’s Man Down is consistently entertaining, and occasionally hilarious.

But to me the current reigning monarch of TV comedy is Sharon Horgan. A few years back Pulling raised the bar for anarchic, female-centric mayhem, and recently Catastrophe confirmed that Horgan has staying power. But with the recently broadcast one-off The Circuit, documenting a dinner party from the deepest abysses of hell, she staked a claim to Mike Leigh territory and established herself as a major comic writing talent.

Denmark has apparently got the happiest population in the world, and it does sound like a nice place to live. But it’s never going to produce a B B King or a Lenny Bruce, or for that matter a Hancock. Too happy, see? By the same token, the UK is full of miserable exploited bastards who are scraping by on fourpence a week and spending tuppence of it getting off their heads. But we’ve always produced great comedy, from music hall stage to the age of the podcast. In my opinion TV sitcom is in rude health, only matched by our reputation for stand-up. Nice to know we lead the world in something.

Written by Chris Trengove

September 5, 2016 at 5:06 pm

BREXIT – FADE TO BLACK

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Going back a few years, I was a mentor on a two-part scriptwriting workshop that took place in Poland and Germany, with Polish, German and British involvement in its funding and organisation. Between the first and second halves of the workshop, the British funding was suddenly pulled, so abruptly that the British organiser was unable to pay for the flight to attend the second session. It turned out to be a sign of things to come, with successive workshops lacking British funding entirely and the British contingent of students getting fewer and fewer. Since the Brexit vote, I see this as a metaphor: as Britain becomes more and more a hard-right, market-driven society – as will be the inevitable result of this turkeys-voting-for-Christmas event – the ideas of co-operation, internationalism, all that hands-across-the-water crap that sustains the likes of us creative types, will wither and shrivel even further.

Take a look at the leaders of this revolution: Johnson, Gove and Farage. Johnson’s a hard-right ideologue in buffoon’s clothing, who has pursued a career as a Murdoch lackey. Gove as Education Secretary famously pulled To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men from the school curriculum. While Farage… well, what can I say? He is on record as saying that he doesn’t listen to music, watch TV or read books. Of course at presstime there’s no saying who, if any, of this gruesome trio will end up in positions of power (Farage is already whining that he’s being excluded from the negotiating table – apparently, hard-right politicians are not very nice, who knew?) But in setting a general tone, it’s not looking good.

Back in May I wrote a blog outlining what I thought the result might be for writers and other creatives if the UK voted this way. I wasn’t sanguine about our prospects then, and now it’s actually happened, I’m even less sanguine. With successive right-leaning governments since 1979 (and I’m putting the New Labour lot into that category) there has been a progressive erosion of support and funding for the arts and creative industries, to the extent that it’s a wonder that our creative people have managed to survive, let alone hold their position amongst the world’s finest. They – we – have somehow managed to thrive in spite of official and governmental indifference. Now, with an incoming regime which will probably make the Thatcher era look like some kind of hippy-dippy love-fest, the situation looks blacker than ever.

Although at presstime there’s no certainty as to what’s actually going to happen post-Brexit (clearly there was no Plan A, B or C in place) there’s a pretty good likelihood that there will be some cobbled-together alliance of – I nearly said crypto-fascists, but that’s a bit seventies-ish – right-wing ideologues, steering the ship of state. For us, the creative community, it’s likely to be a catastrophe (and I know this sounds like a classic ‘first world problem’, but hey, we live in the first world.)

Leaving aside the lack of empathy at state level, in practical terms the only way is down. Clearly, while the new government is busy building a hospital a week and giving everyone in Sunderland a thousand quid, the arts and creative industries are going to have to take a back seat, and by back seat I mean a small fold-down just behind the guard at the back of the guard’s van. One of my colleagues, a long-time pan-European creative consultant, is already talking about relocating from London to Berlin (and that’s probably going to be difficult enough.) For people involved in animation (another area in which we’re among the world leaders) it’s as though a rug has been whipped out from under our feet. Most of the work I’ve done over the last ten or fifteen years has been either been directly for European production houses, or for European co-productions, in some case involving four or five different countries (could be a nightmare to work on, by that’s another story.)

At the very least, the layers of bureaucracy involved are likely to reduce the possibility of such co-productions if not eliminate them altogether. We’ve all got used to European co-operation, we’ve taken it for granted, as can be seen by the reaction of other creative industries: advertising for example, with big players reporting large chunks of business being pulled. The music industry, the ultimate cross-border business, had its say in a pre-vote Twitter poll, with a resounding 91% saying it would be bad news.

I could go on, but you get the general idea. What can we do? Well, individual writers are often at the bottom of the food chain (I once heard a producer describing us as being ‘two a penny’) but at times like this, we probably need to put that commission (if we’re lucky enough to have one) aside for a moment and have our say, in blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, any medium in which we can make our voices heard. I’ve already seen a handful of posters on windows proclaiming “Brexit – not in my name!’ We need to make it clear that’s where we stand too.

Written by Chris Trengove

June 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm

IN OR OUT? A WRITER’S P.O.V.

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11th May 2016

In a quiet, leafy area a mile or so from the centre of Brussels, there’s an imposing period building that houses a number of businesses and enterprises. One entire floor is taken up by an arts organisation, which, judging by the elegant panelled rooms and up-to-date equipment, and the fact that it’s situated in Brussels, you might think is the hub of some vast pan-European, or even international organisation. In fact, it houses Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, aka the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. This is an organisation devoted to supporting and funding the audio-visual arts in Flanders.

Here’s an extract from the VAF’s manifesto: “The aims of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund are threefold: to develop a sustainable audiovisual industry, to encourage and support upcoming audiovisual talent and to promote a vibrant audiovisual culture in Flanders. VAF accomplishes four main tasks. It provides financial support for audiovisual productions (1) and promotes these in Flanders as well as abroad (2). The Fund also grants scholarships, finances professional training and supports/organises workshops (3) as well as carries out surveys on the audiovisual field (4).”

Impressive, eh? I think so – and I have to emphasize that this organisation is for the benefit of Flanders, not the whole of Belgium. Flanders is about the size of the West Country, and although it’s densely populated, it’s home to no more than about 6 million people – half the population of London. I know all this because a couple of times now, the VAF has invited me to conduct short scriptwriting workshops for students of animation. Good fun on both occasions, and judging by the feedback, the students seemed to get something out of the sessions.

However, bear with me; I’m not just blowing my own trumpet. The point I’m leading to is that here, young people working in the visual arts are being supported. Not just by being able to pick the brains of a ‘veteran scriptwriter’ (as one of them described me) imported from the UK, but by a whole range of support services, particularly financial. Not long after my last session I heard that one of my students had received the funds to have their (excellent) project fully produced.

This nurturing culture is not confined to Flanders, or to Belgium. Over the last few years I’ve led many European scriptwriting workshops, and again and again my students – whether they’re from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden or Poland – have mentioned that they’re developing their projects with a view to gaining funding. Even if they’re developing projects for their own pleasure or satisfaction, there’s a chance that they may be able to apply for, and receive, financial support. What’s more, funding bodies are often local, even more local than the Flanders fund.

Nice work if you can get it – and in the UK, by and large, you can’t. There are few funds available to support creative projects, and what there are aimed more at the ‘fine arts’ end – particularly writers of novels. Although Britain is still a world leader in the creative arts, particularly television, it is in spite of rather than because of encouragement and support by the state.

Why does this matter? Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The French film industry is often derided for its pretentious, self-consciously ‘arty’ output, the result, critics say, of its sucking at the government teat, of not having to stand on its own two feet. Of course, there’s something in that argument, but counter to it is the fact that France retains a thriving industry that is distinctively French, and that regularly manages to turn out artistic and commercial successes alike.

By comparison, the British film industry, always oscillating between boom and bust, seems doomed – with a few honourable exceptions – to churn out either ‘diamond geezer’ gang movies or period toffery. Meanwhile, publishers’ lists are filling up with ghost-ridden celebrity drivel, while actual writers find their incomes in freefall. (Just today I read about an elaborate launch party for the debut novel of ‘Lady’ Victoria Hervey – a woman hitherto known mainly for falling out of her clothes on various red carpets.)

The official British attitude – more so than ever with the current government – is that everything must have a monetary value. Ideally, an immediate monetary value. Long-term cultural strategy? Nah. Wellbeing of the artistic and creative community? You’ll be lucky. All right then – how about ‘it’s the duty of the state to foster an educated, aware and questioning population, who in the long run are likely to be happier and more productive?’ I should coco. With a Culture Secretary with no apparent interest in culture, who seems more interested in whipping the BBC into submission and having a professional dominatrix do the same to him, this situation doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.

Back to my headline question – in or out? I’m not going to pretend to offer a balanced view – I’m a lifelong internationalist, and don’t think there’s a single good reason for cutting ties to Europe. But as a writer, I’d naturally like to see opportunities for people in the creative fields expand rather than contract, and as things stand in the UK – and as they are going – I think this is unlikely to happen. I doubt that the environment for writers and creative will radically improve if we do stay in the EU, but I think that they’ll get worse if we don’t.

It’s a question of tone as much as anything else. It’s already feared that the government will make a bonfire of workers’ rights if we pull out, and I suspect that Brexit will also make things worse for creatives. The market will become even more of a free-for-all, and it will become ever harder for writers and their like to make a living. (Just as an aside, look at the leading lights of the Brexiteers: Johnson, Duncan Smith, Gove, Galloway, Farage – every one a potential book-burner if you ask me.)

Having worked for several French production houses over the years, every month or so I get a handy payment, sometimes for shows that I worked on more than a decade ago. These payments are courtesy of the SACD – the Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a French organisation that takes the radical view that scriptwriters and authors should be properly paid for what they do. As I understand it, there’s a pot of money that producers and other ne’er-do-wells (just kidding, producers) can’t touch. It’s purely for writers, and gets distributed when shows get repeated, sold abroad and so on. Of course the ALCS performs a similar role in the UK, but I can’t help noticing that, script for script, the SACD is the organisation that coughs up the more serious funds. In my view, France has got the right idea.

Overall, I doubt whether the UK exits or remains will make much material difference to writers, at least not in the short term. Times will probably be hard, and continue to get harder, whether Britain stays in or decides to go it alone. But in terms of setting a broad cultural agenda, I think Brexit would send a signal to the free marketeers and the cultural deadheads, and that message would be something along the lines of ‘thank God we’re rid of those continentals and their poncey, artsy-fartsy subsidizing ways.’ Which is why, come June 23rd, I shall be marking the box marked ‘remain.’

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:13 pm

CAN YOU LEARN TO WRITE?

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19th April 2016
No. Not really. But you can learn to write better, if you have some talent, or flair, to begin with. As the actor Steve Martin famously remarked: “Some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, uh, not have way.” You need that way, and if you haven’t got it, no amount of creative writing courses or workshops is going to make much difference (although your grammar and spelling might improve, which is always good.) It’s the same with most branches of the arts: you could (probably) teach a chimpanzee to play the piano if you gave him enough time and enough bananas, but the end result wouldn’t be art, or even entertainment. Because by and large, chimps don’t have a flair for music.

So, flair, talent, call it what you will – what else do you need? Something else that can’t be taught: the ability to come up with ideas. Good ones, preferably. A young acquaintance recently sent me some fragments of her writing, just a few hundred words each, stream of consciousness really. They weren’t poems, they weren’t journalism, they didn’t fit into any recognizable format, so weren’t publishable. But they had an energy and rhythm that showed that the writer did have a way with words. Even better, there were the beginnings of original ideas swimming around in there, unformed and undeveloped, but ideas nevertheless.

My old friend and long-time writing partner Peter Lawrence has recounted how, as showrunner, he picked new writers for the iconic show Thundercats. He was prepared to overlook inexperience and unfamiliarity with the format, provided the script had an imaginative idea at heart. Scripts can be edited for structure, style, dialogue but you can’t edit in a good basic idea.

Flair, talent, ideas, they all coalesce in the creative imagination. It’s not a coincidence that people proficient in one branch of the arts often excel in another form: Steve Martin (again) is an interesting writer and a banjo player of professional standard; funny man and movie star Dudley Moore was an internationally recognized jazz pianist; writer Henry Miller was an internationally exhibited artist, as was ‘godfather of punk’ William S. Burroughs. There are many more examples. Flair, imagination, ideas, these guys had them all in spades.

So if you can’t learn to write, what can you learn? I have to go back a few years, to 2004, when I was first asked to mentor at a scriptwriting workshop. I was a little sceptical, as my writing career had been firmly based around the principle of ‘write; then write some more; then write some more.’ Honing my craft, I’d worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter. I wrote a lot, and over the course of the years worked out what was bad and what as good, and bit by bit impressed enough people that I was able to make a living at it. Workshop? A word that I’d hitherto only associated with piles of old tyres and an ailing Ford Mondeo on a ramp. However, I said yes, as I was curious, I was going to get paid, and I make it a professional rule to say yes to everything.

Truthfully I had no idea what to expect, or even what I was supposed to do, but over the course of the first week, at a big old house in the Kent countryside, it slowly became apparent that I wasn’t expected to be a teacher of writing – the participants all had at least some professional experience – but a kind of roving counsellor-cum-sounding-board-cum-sympathetic ear. I was able to help not by commenting on paragraph structure or the minutiae of dialogue, but by talking, guiding, suggesting, throwing ideas at the participants that they might not have thought of themselves.

What I was offering them was the practical expertise that I’d built up over the course of a couple of decades, helping them out of holes that y might have written themselves into, working with them to make their projects as good as they possibly could be. Often, it was simply a case of pointing out a way forward that hadn’t occurred to them: “why don’t you try this?”, “why don’t you try that?” In the end you have to teach yourself, and a good educator is someone who gives you the tools and inspiration to do just that.

I also quickly realised that what I was doing was what a good editor does: clearing a way for the writer to best realize their ‘vision’, without compromising their creative signature. Like most writers, over the years I’ve edited and I’ve been edited, and I’ve come to realise that the greatest gift the good editor can bring to a project is simply a second pair of (informed, interested, expert) eyes. When you’re working on a project, there’s always a point at which you can’t see the wood for the trees. To mix metaphors, you’re so involved in nurturing your baby that you don’t notice that it has an extra couple of toes. It takes someone else to do that, to gently point the fact out, and to suggest solutions. Many psychiatrists see psychiatrists: to quote a fictional example, in The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi regularly sees a psychiatrist herself, colleague Dr. Kupferberg, to maintain and tune her own mental balance.

What else? Well, interest is all. I’m a lifelong jazz fan and occasional musician, and if I can’t play something, at least I know how it should be played, because I love the music and have spent countless hours listening to top players. But from talking to music teachers, I know that many come to jazz playing without any real history of listening – they’ve heard Norah Jones in a wine bar and think they like jazz, whereas what they like is something that sounds a bit like jazz. If you’re not into it, why would you want to play it? Same with writing – if you’re not a reader, you’ll probably never be a writer, and why would you want to be? Again I, and others in my field, report that many would-be writers seem to have read little. Or, if they’re scriptwriters, they don’t have a working knowledge of the classic movies or TV shows, even in the field they’re working in.

So, to go back to my original thesis – can you learn to write? No – but if you’ve got the spark, the basic skills, the right help can make a difference. Help you speed the process up. Perhaps help you bypass some of the heavy lifting that writers had to do before the advent of creative writing courses and the like. My experience of workshops over the years has shown me that overall, they provide a positive and inspiring experience for both mentors and participants. The people who take them already pretty much know to write; but by listening, trying this, trying that, experimenting within a nurturing environment, they can learn how to write just a little bit better.

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:11 pm

SAT NAV FOR WRITERS

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16th March 2016
The great thing about writing rules is that they’re there to be broken – just ask Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and any number of others. In any event, these aren’t even rules, they’re just a rough guide, a sat nav if you like, that can get you onto the right road, and, most of the time, get you where you want to go. However, if you wanted to go to Hampton Court and ended up at a block of flats in North London, well, you should have glanced at a map too. By which I mean that these are just tips that I’ve worked out for myself over the years. Mostly, but not always, they’re useful…

1: Keep going

Don’t be discouraged if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’ve just written is rubbish. All writers know the feeling, however long they’ve been at it. Just press on. Don’t look back. Get to the end. Then go back and assess what you’ve done. Chances are that what you wrote first time wasn’t so bad, and if it was: so what? As the old Hollywood saying has it, writing is re-writing.

2: It’s in there somewhere

Whatever you’re writing – book, TV ep, screenplay – don’t think of it as linear. Instead, consider it as a whole, as if you’re starting off with a block of stone and creating a statue. Somewhere in that block is the story you want, you’ve just got to chip off the rest of the stone. As you’re writing, think forward, think back, make the connections that turn a sequence of events into a coherent story.

3: Set yourself a target

Set yourself a daily word or page goal. 1000 words or 7 or 8 pages of a script is a reasonable target – although some can write much more (and some less.) At 1000 words a day, in a couple of months you’d have most of a novel.

4: Make a plan

Everyone who works in TV or film is familiar with writing to an outline, sometimes provided by others. Literary novelists may scoff, but it’s generally useful to map out a narrative in advance. At the very least, it’ll provide a rope and tackle to help climb that mountain of a first draft, and you don’t have to stick to it rigorously (or at all.)

5: Cut and cut again

When you’re getting close to final draft stage, analyse every line. What is it doing? Why is it there? Is it funny? Is it dramatic? Does it illuminate character? Is it advancing the story? If it’s not really doing anything, cut it. Very few pieces of work have ever suffered by being made shorter. As Truman Capote said ““I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Written by Chris Trengove

May 12, 2016 at 3:09 pm