…and I wish you all a VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS. As I’ve done for the last couple of years, in my final newsletter of the year, here’s a rundown of the scripts – whether in TV, film or theatre – that I enjoyed most in the past 12 months. And I’d love to hear back from you with your additions and disagreements!
Probably the theatre show I enjoyed most this year was the wonderful OUR LADIES OF PERPETUAL SUCCOUR, a National Theatre of Scotland production at the National Theatre in London. A semi-musical (mostly old ELO songs) performed by a completely unknown (to me!) teenage, female, Scottish cast, this was theatre at its very best – joyous, filthy and ultimately moving and uplifting. Adapted for the stage by LEE HALL from a novel, ‘The Sopranos’ by Alan Warner.
LINDA by PENELOPE SKINNER at the Royal Court was right up there too. Another show with some serious messages leavened by a wonderful sense of humour – and a great cast (including multi-talented 4Screenwriting alumna Karla Crome). In the eponymous role, Noma Dumezweni gave a stellar performance. Theatre is at its best when very important subject-matter – in this case gender politics and female empowerment – is part of an entertainment – a gripping story, characters you really care about, with laughs and real drama. A play for the big stage.
ALLIGATORS by ANDREW KEATLEY – which I saw at the start of the year at the Theatre Downstairs, Hampstead. In contrast, this was a play for a smaller stage – but in a good way. A microscopic, intense study of a schoolteacher whose life is destroyed when he is accused of unspeakable acts many years previously. Another wonderful character story, this tapped into many issues that are prevalent at the moment – the unstoppable power for bad (and good) of social media and the media in general, as well as being a tremendous piece of story-telling.
Early in the year there was a bit of a flood of highly enjoyable films – the wonderful ROOM (which was included in my 2015 list),
THE BIG SHORT – a hugely creative and entertaining examination of the financial crisis, that was a screenwriting master-class in how to use all sorts of stylistic devices to grab an audience’s attention – flashback, voiceover, direct address to camera, use of captions, intercutting documentary / news footage with fiction, it was virtuoso screenwriting and film-making – and it had something really important to say, written by ADAM MCKAY & CHARLES RANDOLPH.
BROOKLYN – in complete tonal contrast, a lyrical, poetic piece of story-telling about the physical and emotional journey of an Irish girl trying to make her way as an immigrant in 1950’s Brooklyn – a brilliant adaptation by NICK HORNBY of Colm Toibin’s novel.
JOY – a funny, moving, inventive piece of story-telling by DAVID O. RUSSELL. A story that unfolded with real flair and imagination. In some ways his work and career is comparable to RICHARD LINKLATER, whose EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!, while equally joyous, was more of an out-and-out comedy (and a very successful one). Both specialise in character driven stories that are informed by a real sense of humanity.
Very similar in subject-matter but diametrically different in tone was GOAT – very bleak but very brilliant. Written by the film’s director ANDREW NEEL, DAVID GORDON GREEN, and MIKE ROBERTS, this was an examination of the phenomenon of hazing of freshmen amongst frat houses at US universities. It was graphic, shocking, compelling and very instructive. I saw this at the very poorly-marketed London Sundance festival in June and, as far as I know, it hasn’t got a UK cinema release date. But if you get a chance to catch it, I really recommend it.
At the London Film Festival in October the best films I saw were Oliver Stone’s excellent SNOWDEN – a great companion piece to Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning doc CITIZEN 4; NOCTURNAL ANIMALS – a really smart, stylish but also involving film about story-telling itself, directed and written by TOM FORD; AFTER LOVE, a claustrophobic but utterly compelling examination of the breakdown of a marriage written byJOACHIM LAFOSSE, MAZARINE PINGEOT, FANNY BURDINO & THOMAS VAN ZUYLEN; THEIR FINEST, a traditional UK movie set during WW2, with a familiar but excellent British cast – in particular a wonderful comic performance by Bill Nighy. Charming, funny and touching, the film is adapted from a Lissa Evans novel by experienced TV dramatist GABY CHIAPPE – and the central characters are screenwriters writing a populist propaganda film – a rose-tinted but nevertheless thoroughly enjoyable portrayal of war.
In contrast Danish film A WAR was an intense, disturbing examination of the affects of warfare on a UN Danish military unit operating in Afghanistan – and the repercussions on their lives of a death in combat. Written by TOBIAS LINDHOLM.
THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING (Netflix) written and directed by ROB BURNETT. I’m a sucker for sentimentality, and this is undoubtedly sentimental. (Why has ‘sentimental’ become an exclusively pejorative adjective?!). A classic road movie, it conformed to many recognisable movie tropes – but also had a voice and personality all of its own. Funny, moving and very engaging. It’s also part of the new viewing phenomenon – a Netflix Original – a show that exists somewhere between traditional film and TV.
I could mention many more films – but I’ll end this section with a few feature documentaries. To my mind, this is becoming an increasingly productive narrative strand, with so many lessons, so much inspiration for screenwriters –
BATTLE MONTAIN – all about obsessive champion cyclist Graeme Obree (see THE FLYING SCOTSMAN), this was a compelling character study.
As was THE FALL, a film about the story leading up to and the aftermath of Zola Budd tripping Mary Decker in the women’s 3000m race at the 1984 Olympics in LA. Two very different characters, both with hugely competitive natures – their clash, and their eventual, moving reconciliation 30 year after the race that had shaped their lives.
WEINER – so inspiring in the way it dramatised such a complex, flawed, charismatic central character.
GLEASON – a traumatic, moving character story of a formerly celebrated US football player, struck down by illness, striving to make the best of his life. Will melt the hardest of hearts.
Exodus – a brilliant BBC documentary series about the ongoing refugee crisis. Both hugely moving and educational – a really important piece of work that is also gripping.
The Missing 2 – highly impressive in the way it even bettered series one. Again, a great example of compelling story-telling. Complex, multi-layered – but very rewarding. (JACK & HARRY WILLIAMS)
Fleabag – an adaptation of the stage monologue, this expanded version worked equally well but in a different medium. Funny, dark and very original. (PHOEBE WALLER BRIDGE)
Stranger Things – worked on several different levels – as affectionate pastiche, schlocky horror – but also involving, highly entertaining character-driven story. (The DUFFER BROTHERS)
Better Call Saul2 – probably my favourite TV show of the year. Some of the three-handed character stories between Jimmy McGill, his brother Chuck, and Jimmy’s colleague / lover Kim – were just the most brilliant, multi-layered, rich and intriguing character writing of any series. A complete joy, I can’t wait for series 3. (VINCE GILLIGAN, PETER GOULD, THOMAS SCHNAUZ, GENNIFER HUTCHISON, etc)
Line Of Duty 3 – JED MERCURIO delivered again. Another cracking, adrenalized ride with some of the longest, most static – and best – scenes in any UK drama of this or any other year.
Black Mirror – CHARLIE BROOKER’s show now on Netflix, which once again cut to the heart of so many of the issues of contemporary life. My favourites in the new series are SHUT UP & DANCE and NOSEDIVE.
Flowers – WILL SHARPE’s completely original, very dark and very funny comedy series
Love – a Netflix series (JUDD APATOW, LESLEY ARFIN & PAUL RUST) – the lowest of low concept shows – 10 episodes about the on/off relationship between a boy and a girl in contemporary LA, this proved that if you create rich, credible, compelling characters, we don’t need car chases, aliens, zombies or whatever.
Mum – STEFAN GOLASZEWSKI proved the same thing with his latest BBC series. The stories are so slight they’re almost non-existent but it works anyway. The characters and the dynamics between them are so well-drawn that you just love spending time in their company.
Happy Valley 2. Written and mostly directed by SALLY WAINWRIGHT – as good as if not better than series 1, which is saying something.
Last Tango In Halifax Xmas special – delightful and so different in tone to HAPPY VALLEY – SALLY WAINWRIGHT is such a good writer, but the breadth of her range also is incredibly impressive.
Finally THE CROWN. I’m no royalist – but I’m so caught up in the lives of these characters because PETER MORGAN is such a consummate story-teller. Like BETTER CALL SAUL, this is a master class in how to construct compelling scenes. So many beautifully nuanced, character-driven scenes.
OK, I’m going to stop there – but I could go on for pages more. So much great, inspiring writing! I’ve referenced so many great writers here whose work you will enjoy researching and following.
The next newsletter will be on Friday Jan 13th. Have a great Christmas and New Year. And I hope 2017 is a BIG writing year for you.
And can I say a massive THANK YOU to all of you who take the time to respond to this newsletter with comments, opinions and thanks – your input, responses and interaction are what make this process fun and interesting for me,
All the best
Dec 23rd 2016