Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

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Writing – a spectator sport ?

November 21, 2013

A friend recently sent me this link to news of MASTERPIECE, a “reality show for writers” soon to be broadcast on Italian television. I read the article with mounting amazement, wondering, who on earth would go in for something like that?  And then I remembered.

It started with a conversation over the wine and peanuts one evening at a friend’s dining-table, when someone said, “Is anybody going in for this BBC thing?”

“This BBC thing” turned out be a competition called END OF STORY. Half a dozen famous writers had each written half a short story and the public were invited to submit their own endings. Someone did note that the small print obliged entrants to take part in a TV programme, but there was no need to worry: it was a national competition so the chances of that happening to any of us were infinitesimally small. Several of us agreed that finishing someone’s story seemed like a fun thing to do, and then we moved on to the business of the evening: the struggle to write something fit to be read aloud in response to whatever writing exercises this month’s leader had brought.

I had completely forgotten about END OF STORY when the phone call came. I was on the long-list for the Fay Weldon group! I had won a mug, a t-shirt and, better still, lots of kudos! The excitement of this news was slightly tempered by the memory of the small print, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. TV appearances were like accidents. They only ever happened to other people.

Until the next phone call.

Day later I was in Glasgow, one of a row of shell-shocked wannabe writers seated on chairs under studio lights.  Cameras were poised to catch close-ups of our reactions as the panel of judges delivered their verdicts on a screen in front of us. Professional writers, we were told, must expect to have their work critiqued. They were treating us like professionals. It was too late to point out that I didn’t really want to be a writer after all: that despite the encouragement of a very patient agent, my attempt at a novel set in Roman Britain was headed for the bonfire. That I’d decided it was time to stop wasting time with words and find something useful to do with my life.

I’m told I looked very calm, but that may have been something to do with the painkillers. It certainly wasn’t the Buck’s Fizz on offer in the dressing-room. I’m still not sure whether that was a sign of the BBC’s generosity or its need to get us to relax in front of the cameras. Either way, I’d turned it down.  I had enough trouble walking in a straight line as it was: earlier that week I’d managed to fall off my own shoes and crack a bone in my foot, and had to lurch into the studio on crutches. Maybe that’s why I didn’t run away.

After it was over they took each of us into a side room and asked, “How do you feel?” Since then I have watched hundreds of people being asked this question in front of cameras and to my amazement they all seem to know the answer. Whatever I managed to stammer evidently wasn’t interesting enough to broadcast. What I should have said was, Stunned. We contestants had begun to feel that we were all in this together, but now three of us had been eliminated. I wasn’t one of them.

 Setting up for filming at the foot of stairs.

Somebody’s bum looks big in this, but for once it’s not mine. Made it down the stairs on one crutch!

 Two of the objections to the idea of a ‘live’ writing contest are that writing is neither easy to do with an audience, nor very interesting to watch. Mercifully the BBC had thought of that, so the putting together of words was firmly in the past by the time we got anywhere near the cameras. However, being a professional writer involves all sorts of things that are nothing to do with writing. In the interests of entertainment and education, the producers came up with new challenges for us.

By some twist of fate the one who hated having photographs taken was sent for a professional photo shoot.  The one who was in the slough of despond because not only was her novel headed for the bonfire but she’d just failed an interview for her own job was to be given… an interview! I don’t think they filmed the moment when the production crew thought I’d done a bunk down the back stairs on my crutches, but it would have made good telly.

Finally we got to meet Fay Weldon, whose story we’d all attempted to complete, and who was both kind and generous with her critiques.  And then it was all over. I was alone on the way to Euston with a fresh challenge: how to manage an overnight bag, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of champagne and a crutch.

Endofendofstory

It’s all over. Still hoping they don’t film my feet. Only wearing those sandals because nothing else will fit round the bandage. (Yes, that is Big Ben outside. The finals were filmed in London.)

 Six END OF STORY programmes went out on BBC3 back in 2004. As I understand it, the twin aims were to encourage writers and to entertain viewers.

Did they succeed?

They certainly encouraged me. Shortly after it was all over they rang to say they were thinking of making a follow-up programme about the finalists. Could they send a camera crew round to ask about the writing?

Now the writing, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been paying attention, was on the road to destruction. (Destroying stalled novels was so much more fun in the days when we had paper. I had enough failed drafts in the bottom drawer to make a merry blaze.) But of course I still couldn’t say that to the lovely people at the BBC. They had pushed me through the streets of Glasgow in a wheelchair when the crutches got too much, and been enormously kind about my terror of interviews. So when two chaps turned up with a camera I burbled vaguely about working on a Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in January to see how it’s going!”

I did my best to keep smiling.

Did they entertain the viewers? Maybe not as much as they’d hoped. It wasn’t until January had slipped into February, February into March that I began to look up from the frantic efforts to produce something – anything – to talk about next time, and to wonder if they were coming back at all. By the time I realised there would be no follow-up programme, the first draft of the Roman novel was almost complete.

That book later became the first in the Ruso series. The sixth should be published next year. The one contestant with whom I’ve kept in touch is also still writing.

My best wishes go to all the brave contenders on MASTERPIECE. I have much to be grateful for, and I hope it works for them as well as the BBC’s rather more restrained approach worked for me.

As for that foot injury – not even the humiliation of falling off my own shoes was wasted. Ruso suffers a broken metatarsal in rather more heroic circumstances at the start of the third novel. Believe me, those scenes on crutches were written with feeling.

For more thoughts on MASTERPIECE, here’s a debate in the Guardian. Anyone else care to comment?

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A sad loss

June 20, 2013

We woke this morning to the news that James Gandolfini had died. It felt like losing an old friend of the family.

We came late to The Sopranos in our house. We missed the start of the first episode and it was a while before we realised that behind the violence and the overweight men swearing at each other, there lay a sharp script complemented by marvellous acting.

As the stories unfolded, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Mafia is a spiritual descendent of ancient Roman ancestors. Roman society was deeply hierarchical: everyone was dependent upon someone higher up – apart from the Emperor, who was at the mercy of the gods and sharp knives. In the absence of a police force or a public prosecution service, you hoped that in return for your loyalty, your superior would also be your protector.

The brilliance of the Sopranos script was that we saw behind the façade of the Great Man. We saw a character who could terrorise his business associates but couldn’t control his children, and was paralysed by the impossibility of ever pleasing his ghastly mother. We sat in on Tony’s secret visits to his therapist, who of course could never do much to resolve his problems because he could never tell her the truth. Yet when the therapist was the victim of crime it was Tony, her powerful ally, who administered justice.

It was wonderful writing and Gandolfini, a man with the body of a bear and the innocent grin of a child, was ideally cast.

Rest in peace, James Gandolfini.  We remember your work with great pleasure, and – as Tony Soprano would have wanted – with respect.

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Bettany Hughes invades Britain in the U.S., Semper Fidelis will be on audio, and…

December 19, 2012

Sorry about the title of this post but I couldn’t think of a cunning way to join up several completely disparate pieces of news. (It’s been a long day.)

Firstly – Thanks to Linda for getting in touch “to alert folks to the fact that Bettany Hughes’ television series “the roman invasion of britain” is currently showing in the U.S. I believe it was produced a few years ago… it’s a nice–if brief–overview of romanized britain, and…  she is an engaging narrator.”  Catch it while you can!

Secondly – several people have asked whether there will be an audio version of SEMPER FIDELIS and hooray, yes, I’ve just heard that there will be!
No news yet about when it will be released or who will be reading it, but it’s being produced by the company who did the previous US versions (Tantor)  so I’m sure it will be of the same high quality.

Meanwhile, a quick reminder to friends in the UK and Ireland that it’s not too late to enter the draw to win a free copy of SEMPER FIDELIS (see the 2nd post below), and for anyone who’s planning to celebrate the holidays in true Roman style, this great post over on Caroline Lawrence’s blog will give you plenty of ideas.

I think that’s everything. I’ll leave you with the traditional greeting of the season.  Io Saturnalia!

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Rome’s enormous rubbish dump

April 20, 2012

I’d heard of Monte Testaccio. I’d seen photos of it. But I’d never appreciated how truly enormous and wonderful it is until Mary Beard took us to Meet the Romans on Tuesday evening and clambered down a ladder into the middle of it.

This is what it’s made of:

Olive Oil amphora in Winchester City Museum

Yes, really. This one is in  Winchester City Museum, and I propped a leaflet against it to give some idea of how big it is.  (You can just see it peeping round the corner on this panorama, too.) Apparently these things weighed thirty kilos when empty, so moving them around when they were filled with olive oil must have been quite some feat. Here’s a sketch of how it was done. (I think it’s from the museum at Nimes. Or maybe it was Arles.)

Two men carrying an amphora slung under a pole

The burly lads on the docks might have been able to handle that kind of weight, but nobody was going to carry one of those things home from the shops. Once off the boat, the oil would have been decanted into smaller containers. The empty amphorae were  apparently too rancid to recycle and it certainly wasn’t worth the effort of shipping them back to Spain, so they were broken up and dumped. Over the years, the pile grew, as rubbish piles do. Eventually it was fifty metres high.

What really interested me about all this was that Spanish oil amphorae often turn up on British sites too – and not just in places where you might have expected to find soldiers or Imperial officials. For the supergeeky, there’s a distribution map here, and it includes a dot in Northamptonshire.

One of the points made in the programme was that ‘Roman’ was not necessarily a description of your birthplace. With good luck and a lot of determined effort, it was something you could become. Standing in a sunny Northamptonshire field, as I frequently do on a summer’s day, it’s easy to imagine the ancient residents gazing past their smart new bath-house and across the valley to where their neighbours’ villas adorned the distant hillsides. And it’s easy to imagine them feeling a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

“We are Roman. We do as the Romans do. We have made it.”

(How many rubbish dumps have their own website? Here’s more than you ever wanted to know about Monte Testaccio.) 

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Meet the Romans – with Mary Beard

April 12, 2012

‘Meet the Romans’ seemed a more dignified title than ‘Rome from the bottom up,’ but that’s what Mary Beard is promising in her new BBC2 series, which I’m really looking forward to watching. It starts next Tuesday (17 April) at 9 pm, and here she is talking about it to Classics Confidential at the kitchen table.

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The Classics Confidential post has more links, including one to a pic of the tombstone Mary mentions. (They also have a delightful interview about The Flashing Midwife,  which I confess is what tempted me there in the first place).

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More Romans in Wales

March 14, 2012

Seems the Romans were more successful than their descendants at defeating the Welsh.  Here’s another BBC video, with some nice footage of  Caerleon amphitheatre ‘then and now’, and some shots of sunny excavations that make me eager to get back in the mud with a trowel. Watch out for the boat being rowed by zombies.

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Let battle commence!

March 6, 2012

Thanks to the excellent Ben Kane, who put this on the Historical Writers’ Association forum.

How I love the BBC.

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