Back in the early Nineties, the BBC did a five-part adaptation of Alan Plater’s fifth and final novel, Oliver’s Travels. I have long since regarded it as the most perfectly miscast series in broadcasting history. Absolutely everybody, down to the least walk-on part, was wrong. It was sort of a miracle in that respect.
Today, I’ve seen the first photos and information released about the forthcoming BBC America eight-part series, The Watch, ‘inspired’ by Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books.
I’m not used to this Netflix all-at-once bit yet (and yes, I do know this isn’t Netflix but Amazon Prime and the BBC, but it’s the same idea), and I don’t have another five lots of fifty minutes stretching out in front of me right now, but I have just watched the first episode of Good Omens, the TV series of the brilliant book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by Neil Gaiman, and I am here to tell you that it’s ok, you can watch it without thinking it’s vastly inferior to the book, and in fact you can enjoy it, and you can laugh at it. No, make that: you will laugh at it.
This was only to be expected, though I was going more along the linesof hoped for, because it’s adapted by Gaiman himself, wanting to do the very best by his friend, it has an all-star cast starting with David Tennant and Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, andit’s had enough money thrown at it to fill up a whole chain of gravel pits, but even so you have to wait and see for yourself.
Teennant is all wonderfully laid-back and with-it, but it’s Sheen who has the harder task because Aziraphale is supposed to be an angel, also somewhat unwordly, definitely unrealistic, and it’s so much easier to do bad because then you have positive traits to work with, whereas good is ethereal and altogether bland, especially when you’re tying to be funny with it, but Sheen is as good as can be, rather like Ryan Giggs running at a packed Arsenal defence.
As for the adaptation, given how much of the book’s humour is in its narration (and its footnotes), it’s awe-inspiring just how closely Gaiman manages to adhere to the exact plot, keeping scenes focused and brief without the sense of anything being rushed or pared down or letting you start to drift off and remember what’s been left out.
No, take it from me, this is one that works, at least up to End of Part 1, and I’m confident it won’t all fall apart, despite the lukewarm reviews that have appeared this week. And I speak as one of the ones who’s owned Good Omens since it came out, who’s read it a dozen times, who’s inordinately pleased that they left out that line about Manchester, and who can safely and defiantly say that for this series the Omens are decidedly Good.
Go on, read this one. It’s about Comic Fiction and whether it still exists. Read it all the way to the end. A whole essay about Comic Fiction and it gets to the last paragraph before it mentions Terry Pratchett, and then as a maybe and not even with the courtesy of his first name: Douglas Adams at least gets that.
Before he died, Terry Pratchett requested that all his unfinished work should be laid in the middle of a road and crushed out of existence by a streamroller. Last week, as several major outlets have confirmed, that very thing happened. We have seen pictures of the hard drive, before and after.
As a writer myself, albeit on a level from which Pratchett is barely visible, I understand, and approve completely, and I honour and celebrate the men and women of principle who were responsible to fulfill his wishes, and have honourably followed those wishes. As a reader who has loathed and despised Literary Necrophilia throughout his life, who believes passionately in the primacy of the author, the original author, and nobody else without his or her explicit approval and permission, I say again, all honour to those who have been faithful to the wishes of the only person with the right to decide.
But as a reader, and a fan of Terry Pratchett since almost the beginning, inside I weep, for those lines, those oh-so-Pratchett lines, those concepts and ideas, situations and insights into that vast array of friends I can never visit again. Not a word more of His Grace, the Earl of Ankh, Sam Vines, the Eternal Copper, to choose just a single favourite.
There is literally nothing left, nothing that can be produced from an archive, or a folder or a scrap of paper. Terry is finally gone in every possible sense, and I mourn again, just as much as I did over two years ago, for him and them and all of them, and the coldness and emptiness of the closed, barred and bolted door back into Didscworld.
I was going to write something about this BBC2 Drama Documentary that was trying to substitute for the autobiography that Terry Pratchett never got to finish writing but I can’t. I can’t because it’s all come back, and I’m just missing him too much, and everyone he introduced me to, and I’m like Neil Gaiman, except I wouldn’t let the camera keep running. I never knew him except by his books, and I’ve never mourned anyone so much that I wasn’t related to, and something has gone out of the world that will never come back, and this one is the one that’s too much.
The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’ is rare.
The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?
That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.
Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.
Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.
Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.
This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.
Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).
The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.
Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.
I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.
Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.
Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.
That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.
No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).
We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.
I’ve just learned of a new, forthcoming proposal to adapt the classic Dan Dare stories from the Frank Hampson era in a series of six ‘audio adventures’, i.e., radio versions, details here.
As you can see, the planned adaptations consist of the first five of Dan’s original adventures in the Eagle, plus ‘Reign of the Robots’ but without first traveling to Cryptos/Phantos.
The series looks as if it’s stripping the cast down to a core quartet of Dan, Digby, Professor Peabody and the Anastasia, which, if it’s going to be the craft that takes our intrepid heroes to Venus, right at the start, is not going to be the personal craft we all know and love.
The blurbs also make it plain that, whereas the audio series follows the Eagle chronology, excepting ‘Reign of the Robots’, there are going to be substantial changes to plots and settings. The piece speaks of ‘a great team that has respect but not reverence for the original comics’ which, whilst objectively probably the best thing you could have, nevertheless fills me with dread. As you may have noticed, I like my Dan Dare to be Dan Dare, so any variation is automatically troubling.
Besides, whilst the only reference to romance is to the ‘romance of space’, the fact that Dan and Jocelyn (will she still even be Jocelyn, since that’s such an old-fashioned name now: five’ll get you ten that the ‘Mabel’ gets dropped extremely silently) are trailing around together is like a red flag.
There doesn’t, in these brief descriptions, appear to be room for the likes of Sir Hubert, Hank or Pierre, though Sondar is name-checked and Flamer Spry’s role exists, but what we’ll get will be quite different to what we know.
B7 Media have been around since 2007 and have an impressive record. They were behind the most recent Sky adaptation of Terry Pratchett, in 2010, and are currently rebooting Blake’s 7 for TV, having already done so for Radio. They’ve also adapted The Martian Chronicles in that form, both series of which having been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra, so Dan Dare is likely to come out on that medium.