Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Cheer Up Ken

The BBC Writer's Festival in Leeds last week was fascinating on a number of levels. It's always good to talk to men and women on the same journey, it's good to learn from some of our more successful writers, it's good to shoot the breeze and it's good to hear what everyone else is going through.

BBC Writer's Festival Logo -erm, what exactly is it? 

Doesn't matter what stage your writing career is at, you will have horrors that haunt your sleeping and waking moments. The series that never was - had a few of them - the episode that got rewritten because the director didn't like it - been there, the T shirt's a little old but still smells - the producers who loved your work so much they forgot to buy it, even though you'd told all your friends you'd had a series commissioned - don't want to even think about that, still shuddering now.
But amongst all that we had a good laugh and swapped some mighty good stories - those that weren't true had been written and rewritten in our heads to sound true. Stories at a writer's festival should be the best stories ever told!
In one of the sessions the question was posed, "Is the Grass Greener...? " It was aimed at dispelling the myth that writing in America for American series is better than knocking things out for British audiences. Everyone agreed on one point - whatever the pain - the money is much, much better. The American system demands a different kind of writer, one who will pool his or her plots in the writer's room as the series is mapped out, arcs found and stories 'broken'. Breaking a story is something I've learned to do even though British writers don't really write the same way as our better paid American counterparts. The 'breaking' is working out what happens just before the commercial break. Makes sense that you work out plot points so that there's a cliff hanger of sorts at the point at which our work cuts away to adverts for diarrhoea pills and sanitary towels - we have to provide an incentive to watch all the way through the break to find out what happens (at least for those people who still watch TV in real time).
In this session we got to hear from some guys who had experienced the best and worst of the American system and also from Swedish writer Lars Lundstrom who's had his work adapted over there although he's never written in the US. Lars being on the panel opened the door to talking about whether life is greener in Sweden. Turns out there's one TV station and not many writers or actors.
Even so, rcent Danish and Swedish series have become must watch TV for so many of us - The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge - have all exerted a mighty influence on the market. Commissioners now look at dramas set in Brighton and ask "Could you make it a bit more  Nordic?" - and with a straight face.
 Lars wrote on the Swedish series Wallander, the character Kenneth Brannagh plays in the BBC series. Both are based on books by Henning Mankell (I read two last summer and they drove me mad. Hated them, which surprised me because they've sold well and provided Swedish TV and the BBC both with series. It could have been the translation - but I hated the structure and the repetitious  procedural, however..) Lars take on the British Wallander was "It's a bit glum, slower than the Swedish version and devoid of jokes". I'm  with you, Lars. Having sat through two episodes of the new BBC Wallander I feel ready to slash my wrists. The gloomy skies, the washed-out pallet, the moments when old Ken looks off into the distance whilst the director holds the shot forever and a day. I swear he was dribbling in the last episode. The plots aren't great, the characters aren't compulsive, the music drones, the dialogues clunks along - you'd never believe that this is getting a sizeable audience. 
Brannagh is such a watchable actor, so inventive and yet here he'd bringing us a character so desperately down beat you want to scream at the telly.  Comparing it with Swedish and Danish series it doesn't come out well. The stroytelling in the Swedish and Danish series may be slow but the pace of the episodes isn't. It's not MTV, whip-pans and cut, cut, cut but they keep going forward. The Beeb's Wallander clumps along in lead boots. But for me the most telling difference is that series like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have compelling caharcters that draw you into the story whilst Wallander seems hell bent on concentrating on one character hell bent on pushing you away.

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