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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Joan who? The fragility of fame.

My wife went into a bookshop in Ealing, London, the other day. She wanted to buy an easy-read book for a friend who was incapacitated and feeling a bit down after a bad fall. She asked for a copy of Passion for Life, the new book by Joan Collins. "Who's Joan Collins?" asked the young sales assistant.

It reminds me of a similar sort of experience several years ago when I went to a large bookshop in central London seeking a copy of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. When I failed to find it in the Drama section, I sought help from a young woman behind the counter. "Have you checked in Business?" she asked.

Understanding God's Triangle

I very rarely get upset if I get critical comments about my book God's Triangle or any of my other writings. Sometimes the criticism is not to be taken too seriously, such as when a woman in Sydney told me that my book was rubbish without having bought or read it, but often criticism can be very constructive. By that, I mean that it can expose the fact that I have failed to get my story across successfully, either because of a poor choice of words or an unnecessarily complicated sentence.

When I first wrote God's Triangle I arranged to have test readings by people I either didn't know or whom I was convinced would not flinch from telling me the truth. The feedback was immensely useful and resulted in my shortening of some chapters while expanding others. Since the first edition went into print I have been heartened by the number of readers who have taken the trouble to tell me how much they enjoyed the book and the extraordinary story it revealed about Florence "Florrie" Cox, who was a missionary and my great aunt. I was particularly thrilled yesterday to get this message unprompted from Jennifer Chamberlain in Auckland, New Zealand:

      A great read. Very compelling with good build-up to the high drama of Mr Justice Beach’s back down and the author finally getting to open those divorce files after a determined 18-month battle.

      The story has all the elements of a great movie: modern-day journalist sleuth who won’t be thwarted -- not even by Melbourne’s Supreme Court; the love triangle in its exotic setting; the objectionable Olga and her hapless target; the interesting syndrome (which I had never heard of before) and the poignancy of what poor Florrie endured; the missionary/religious/Masonic themes and the details and colour -- which help conjure the settings. It’s a real journey towards enlightenment narrative and all the more fascinating because we live in an age where nothing is secret any more and yet this potent secret was so well kept by generations of very determined people … and it all happened not so very long ago.

      I also liked the way Ian put himself right into the tale and offered his personal thoughts and reflections. That always helps people clarify their own thinking. It’s going to make a great Aussie film. 
Thank you, Jennifer. It has lifted my spirits.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A journalist's life in film

I'm pleased to know that the film Philomena, based on a book written by a former BBC correspondent, Martin Sixsmith, is doing so well. I am also amused that his fascinating investigation makes him a central part of the film, although he is played by someone else, in this case, the unlikely Steve Coogan.

Martin and I were not friends, as such, but rather friendly colleagues. He was employed by BBC domestic radio and television, while I worked for BBC World Service.

When Martin was stationed in Moscow during the Gorbachev era, I spent a few days with him sorting out plans for World Service coverage of one of Gorby's summit meetings with (I think) Ronald Reagan. Also visiting at that time was the BBC's first staff correspondent in Moscow, Erik De Mauny.

Martin invited Erik and me for dinner in the BBC apartment, but the only food he could find in the Gym store on Red Square was pudding rice and something described simply as "meat". Still, with the aid of some imaginative cooking and reasonable red wine, it proved to be a most enjoyable and entertaining meal.

The reason I mention this is that several years ago, an Australian film company briefly showed enthusiasm in doing my book and film God's Triangle until one of the partners discovered that religion was a feature of the story. "I hate religion," he said and used his veto to block his company's involvement in the project.

As a modest consolation prize, the partner took me out to lunch and got talking to me about how I stumbled across the scandal that destroyed my Great Aunt Florence "Florrie" Cox's life. I summarised how I had turned detective to discover the truth behind the scandal. "Well," he exclaimed, "that's the film!" It should really be about you and your determination to expose what happened and how it was covered up.

For a few seconds, I thought he was going to re-open the negotiations, but no such luck. He still didn't like the story I'd uncovered because it was about missionaries.

Since then, there have been a few others who rather fancied the idea of God's Triangle being a detective story, but we always have come back to it being a rather special and visually-dramatic period saga, set mostly in India in the early 1900s.

We shall see.

Meanwhile, God's Triangle is now in the hands of two enthusiastic and experience Melbourne producers, Ros Walker of Walker Films and Julie Marlow of Deep Rock Films, who are getting moral and financial support from Film Victoria.  So things are looking up, whatever the final structure of the film.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

What's a Kodascope?

While doing some research into one of my Australia Baptist missionary relatives, the Rev. Hedley J. Sutton of Melbourne, I came across an article in a 1928 edition of the Launceston Examiner in Tasmania. It referred to a lecture being carried out with the aid of a Kodascope "a moving picture machine which is all the vogue in depicting missionary work in India".

I have to confess that I had never heard of a Kodascope -- not least, perhaps, because it was in use long before I was born. I was curious to learn more and came up with this fascinating photograph and description: http://bit.ly/1aJt56E

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Why do "factual" feature films often tell lies?

I'm grateful to Simon Hoggart of the Guardian (see below) for pointing out that many "factual" elements in films are pure fiction. Sometimes, of course, events have to be conflated and simplified in a feature film, but that is no excuse for gratuitously creating myths, some of them dangerous, that run counter to the truth.
Apparently Saving Mr Banks, the Disney film about the making of the Disney film Mary Poppins, is wildly inaccurate. The prickly relationship between Walt Disney and the author, PL Travers, did not end in kisses and hugs. She hated the film, and especially loathed the Dick Van Dyke part.
But Disney has form. In White Wilderness (1958), he perpetuated the old myth that lemmings commit mass suicide and staged the event. While we're at it, even Cinderella's slipper was probably not glass, or "verre", but fur, or "vair", which seems more likely.
And in other studios, the Americans broke the Enigma code, Braveheart was a noble freedom fighter, and in Argo the Brits refused to help refugees from the Tehran embassy siege. All rubbish.
In the film version of my book God's Triangle it is inevitable that many scenes will have to be guess-work. Also, no-one can be exactly sure what the main characters said to each other as the scandal unfolded. But that said, I want God's Triangle, currently at the pre-production script development stage, to be true to the spirit of my book, a true story.

It was for this reason that I strongly objected to a proposal by a young (male) director that Olga Johnston would discover the truth about my great aunt Florrie Cox when the two of them had a bath together.

Why did I object? Because both women were missionaries and the event was to have taken place in 1917 or thereabouts. I told the producers that it was ridiculous to suggest that any women back then -- let alone sexually-inhibited Christian missionaries -- would have seen each other naked and casually shared a bath. To include a scene like that would undermine the credibility of the entire film.

The producers agreed and the director went off to look at other projects.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Are writers a danger to other road users?

My car has had to go into a local garage for repairs and as part of the deal I was to be supplied with a replacement vehicle for a week or so.

All was going swimmingly with the hire car arrangements until this happened...

HIRE CAR AGENT: Oh, I see, sir, that you are a writer. What sort of writer?

ME: Well, I write screenplays and books, mostly.

HCA: Mmm. That could be a problem, sir. We are not sure that we can get insurance for a writer.

ME: Are you joking?

HCA: No, sir, I will have to get this cleared.

ME: That's ridiculous. I've been driving for decades and no insurance company has ever raised this as an issue before. After all, I am not a stunt driver. I just sit in front of a computer most of the day trying to write and go out in the car from time to time like any other ordinary person.

HCA: Are you a "mainstream writer" sir?

ME: I'm not sure I know what you mean by that, but if you mean "am I a best-selling author?", then I have to admit that I'm not -- not yet anyway!

HCA: Well, sir, I'm afraid I will have to get you cleared before we can release the replacement car.

Three hours passed by before I learned that the insurance company was willing to let me have the car, but I was unable to get any explanation why my employment had been an issue.

Have other writers or any sort had a similar experience with car insurance? I'd be interested to know.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Does God's Triangle make readers uncomfortable?

Earlier this week I met a friend I hadn't seen for a few months. We got discussing my book God's Triangle and he confessed that he hadn't been able to read all of it. The reason, he told me, was that he thought it was intrusive.

I was interested, rather than offended, by his admission and wanted to know more. My friend, who is approaching his 80th birthday, said he felt uncomfortable about the sexual element of the story -- particularly because he knew that what I was recounting was true.

My friend's wife said he was rather naive and embarrassed about sexual matters, despite having been married twice and having had several long-term relationships.

It is always interesting to see how people react to sex. My friend's comments, although providing me with useful feedback, are fortunately very much a minority view, as far as I can tell. The overwhelmingly number of people who have contacted me have expressed sadness and understanding about what happened in my Great Aunt Florence "Florrie" Cox's marriage. That was my intention when I wrote the book. Here is a selection of reader comments and newspaper reviews.

If after scanning these comments, you would like to read God's Triangle, a Kindle version is currently available at a special reduced rate here.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The making of the film Wicker Man

The film Wicker Man was a truly astonishing film, although it was clearly not to everyone's taste. Indeed, the first time I saw it I thought it was seriously weird. Now it is being re-released on its 40th anniversary.

The London Daily Telegraph has his report that is worth reading. Go here.


Here, the Guardian examines how remarkable story of how the film was made:

How we made The Wicker Man

Director Robin Hardy and musical director Gary Carpenter remember a descent into paganism that started in a Manhattan hotel room and ended up with the film company rubbishing their own work

Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man

Incantations to the gods … Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

Robin Hardy, director

I was making commercials in the US and doing very well. Then a film company sent the writer Anthony Shaffer out to lure me back to the UK. When I opened my door in Manhattan, he said: "I am with the FBI and we are investigating you to see if you have communist sympathies." It was the first of many jokes.

We spent a weekend devising the plot, about a policeman called Howie who is lured to a Scottish island to investigate a missing girl; he is ultimately sacrificed by the pagan locals to save their apple crop. Paganism gave us lots of ideas, like the little girl being given a frog to put in her throat to stop it hurting. Essentially, one must think of The Wicker Man, as a game, with clues gradually suggesting Summerisle is not run in accordance with Christian values of Howie. Setting it in Scotland was crucial: in the early 1970s, Christanity was still widely practised, and it had a very puritan aspect. It might not have been as believable set in Woolwich.

Read the full story here

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Women problems

In a democracy, most politicians know that they must have the support of women to stay elected. But the prime ministers of Australia and the United Kingdom either don't get that, or don't know how to rectify the problems they have with female voters.

Take newly-elected Aussie Prime Minister Tony Abbott: Despite being taken apart in parliament by Julia Gillard for his sexism and misogyny < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihd7ofrwQX0  >  he has chosen a Cabinet with just one female member, prompting this viral Internet photo composite:


 As for British Prime Minister David Cameron, he also has his women problems, although his sexism is not as blatant as that demonstrated by Tony Abbott. Nonetheless, he can't shake off his all-boys-together years at Eton and his patronising view of women MPs. This is demonstrated by a new Mumsnet survey < http://www.mumsnet.com/politics/general-election/2015  >

A Guardian writer has this assessment of the survey: < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/17/david-cameron-rejected-women-our-turn  >

PS: I guess David Cameron can take some comfort from the fact that Opposition Leader Ed Miliband has a much worse rating.