Tuesday, 17 July 2012

It's Alive?

On Saturday night I found myself at a screening of a very old, and very wonderful film: The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This screening happened to be part of a “Hammer Festival”, organised in celebration of the successful revival of the studio, which began in February with the release of The Woman in Black. The event, which included a discussion and Q&A session with Mark Gatiss and Jonathon Rigby (who collaborated on a History of Horror series back in 2010), took place at the Phoenix independent cinema in Leicester - a wonderful place that I'd never heard of prior to booking my tickets (I see they have a sci-fi fest coming up soon too! :D).

For me, some of the most interesting comments of the evening were the relatively off-topic remarks given in response to one audience question. Rather aptly, given the “risen from the grave” theme, the discussion came round to the question of remakes, adaptations and continuations of older films, shows and stories. Mark Gatiss was asked at one point which Hammer horror film he would most like to remake if given the choice, to which he responded, quite reasonably, that he wouldn't. Too much of what we find on television these days, he observed, is covering the same old ground – there's a relative absence of fresh, exciting new material. Much as I'm sure he loves them, he made it quite clear that he'd much rather have created something fully his own than have spent the last few years helping to re-do Sherlock Holmes and revive Doctor Who. The problem is, unfortunately, that even well established and respected writers like Gatiss apparently find it very difficult to get original work commissioned.

Of course it's perfectly believable, and understandable, that this should be the case. TV companies simply don't have money to throw around any more. What with DVDs and downloading (both legal and illegal), hardly anyone really watches television any more, with the possible exceptions of sports and reality shows. If you want news, you can find it on the internet. If you want to watch a good film, you can buy or borrow a blue-ray. If you want to watch a good TV drama, you can stream it online. Where students and young people probably used to be some of the prime consumers of television programmes, having more time to kill, particularly during the day, it's now become relatively unusual to even see a TV set in a student flat or household, since they can get everything they want on their computers much cheaper – so, less money for the BBC. TV advertising, too, now generates a fairly negligible revenue, since we're bombarded constantly by much more attention-grabbing (and rather more irritating) advertising all over virtually every website we visit, often deliberately obscuring the information we're actually looking for so that we have to take note of them whether we like it or not – so no money for ITV et al either. Distinctions in quality between the output of the license-paid BBC and other commercial channels are rapidly disintegrating, as both sides are forced to compete for ratings by showing more and more of the same: the sort of reality talent shows requiring very little thought and aimed at a mass audience, because these are the only things people can't get elsewhere.

Of course, it's rather disheartening for a budding writer to be told just how difficult it is to sell your work, even when, as in Gatiss's case, your reputation precedes you. What all this made me realise as much as anything, however, was just how incredibly lucky I've been so far. Not that I've had any original material commissioned, of course, but my experience of working in television was an encouraging one. I found an environment that fostered creativity, and people who were willing to put their necks out to get me a break – who still are, in fact. People who wanted to pay me to sit and play around with ideas, to give me time to figure things out before I came up with something, even though they didn't know me, and had no clue that I even would come up with something, let alone anything good.

But, I suppose, to have any hope of breaking out of the vicious circle, you have to take a chance: it's short-sighted not to invest in new people, in new work. And I feel desperate now to prove myself an investment, not to let people down – not just for my own sake, but for the sake of whoever comes next as well. And, of course, for the sake of good television. Because if I fail, and if others who are given the same opportunities fail, what are we left with? Piles of long worn-out and homogeneous wreckage, in amidst which the only creative impulse is a Victor Frankenstein, robbing from the graves of formerly glorious series to piece together some uncannily familiar creature which, in the end, is never quite the perfect new species they had hoped for.

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