Inside the mind of a writer www.scskillman.co.uk

Posts tagged ‘characterisation’

Dark TV Drama for Christmas 2016 and New Year 2017

This year darkness seems to be the keyword for some of our best drama offerings on TV: from Agatha Christie: The Witness for the Prosecution:cast-of-the-witness-to-the-prosecution

through Jonathan Creek: Daemons’ Roost;alan-davis-as-jonathan-creek

Sherlock in The Six Thatchers.benedict-cumberbatch-as-sherlock and the Bronte Family in To Walk Invisible.
the-3-bronte-sisters-in-to-walk-invisible

In Sherlock we discovered that Death had an appointment – with Mary Watson in the London Aquarium. Maybe London is Sherlock’s city and he knows the turf. But he was still unable to keep Mary safe, as he had promised. In the Agatha Christie drama, we were drawn in to the personal tragedy of a detective who was finally outwitted by the criminal; in Jonathan Creek we saw our lovable main character largely responsible for the horrific death of a villain; and in To Walk Invisible we were shown a tough and bristly Emily, a Branwell totally lacking in inner resources when things go wrong, a bossy and controlling Charlotte and a rather ineffectual Anne: and all of them powerless against tidal waves of blind misfortune.

I read in an interview with Toby Jones (star of the Agatha Christie episode, and also due to appear as the next villain in Sherlock) that Ten or twenty years ago, Poirot and Miss Marple were cutting edge. But the viewer’s brain processes genre faster now.

I feel this sums up well the challenge facing today’s TV drama writers, screenwriters and novelists.  We can no longer get away with anything that approaches transparency or simplicity in plotting or tone or characterisation; especially if we write crime, suspense or thrillers, we have to be at least two or three steps ahead of the viewer / reader. For us, “the game” of which Sherlock speaks has to be the game we play with the reader’s expectations, which are now razor-sharp. In our books we can only get away with characters like Mrs Hudson saying things like “I’ll just go and make a nice cup of tea shall I?” if there is some kind of double or even triple irony bound up in the package of words and character and context.

Against all this perhaps, the Outnumbered Christmas Special was refreshingly light, unless you count the darkness of 1) being led astray by a mischievous old man, now deceased, to travel a long distance to scatter his ashes in a random beauty spot 2) the abrupt discovery that your son plans to disappear off to New Zealand long term, and 3) walking away defeated from a car accident having trashed your car, totally unaware your daughter has obtained evidence that the other party was completely at fault….

All of these dramas, though, are essentially English, and all are about life, and we love them, together with their characters and situations. The darkness in some way is cathartic for us; we identify, we exercise our powers of empathy as we are drawn into the tragedy and horror and irony of the characters’ experiences… and this is why drama, and fiction, is a gateway to truth, and so profoundly important in our lives.

Philosopher Tramps, Fall-Guys and Authority Figures in BBC 2 Sitcom ‘Rev’

I’ve loved many TV sitcoms over the years and have attended sitcom writing workshops when I aspired to write sitcoms myself. I think it’s true to say that a few sitcom characters have influenced my own fiction. My current favourite is Rev (BBC 2 Monday 10pm). Our family has watched every episode of the 2 previous series and is now enjoying series 3 broadcast on BBC 1 on Mondays at 10pm.

the cast of BBC 2 sitcom Rev (photo credit bbc.co.uk)

the cast of BBC 2 sitcom Rev (photo credit bbc.co.uk)

There’s much in common between a novelist and a sitcom writer, and as a story-writer I like to ask myself why Rev is so compelling and so good on several levels.

The top ingredients seem to be authentic situations and sharp characterisation. I’ve written before about archetypal characters in fiction.

Here’s a selection of characters who particularly appeal to me as archetypes:

In Rev we have  an endearing main character (the Revd. Adam Smallbone, played by Tom Hollander) who is modest, self-effacing, well-intentioned but hapless: he’s supposed to be in a position of authority but often seems to be a bit of an underdog – the fall-guy. And yet there is an underlying message which tells a different story.

Then there’s Colin (played by Steve Evets), the unemployed alcoholic, who we often see sitting on the bench outside the church with the Rev. We love Colin so much because he’s an archetypal philosopher tramp.  Words of wisdom and insight come from the most unlikely mouth, along with foul language, tales of drug-peddling and the low life.

Then we have the cunning Mick |(played by Jimmy Akingbola), an oddball drug addict and street loafercunning and opportunistic, always calling at the vicarage door and making contradictory claims and asking for – but never receiving – money. Until, that is, he hits on inspiration – by bringing back the child Rev left in the grocery store, insisting on exchanging the child for money, and threatening to tell “the nasty Mrs Vicar” what Adam has done.

We have the Archdeacon (played by Simon McBurney), sardonic, high-handed, revelling in his status higher up the church hierarchy than Adam, and sometimes rivalling the Spanish Inquisition in his interrogations and threats to Adam that his church might be closed down; he’s the authority figure who’s always on Adam’s case, ditches him unexpectedly out of taxis, and accepts offers of tea then ends up throwing it away. And yet again there’s another message; the moments when the Archdeacon relents, the revelation and the twist in the relationship when Adam unexpectedly meets him with his gay friend out of working hours…

Then there’s Roland Wise, the media vicar, (played by Hugh Bonneville). He answers his mobile during his “Transforming Church” course and tells Adam, “Oh it’s Michael Burke pestering me to do The Moral Maze again.” and accuses Adam of having “conflicting personality blocks” on his Myers Briggs personality type indicator test; to which Adam replies, “That’s because I filled it out as Jesus.”

And finally I might mention Nigel, Adam’s Lay Reader (played by Miles Jupp), whose main problem is that he’s a bit ‘anal’ and pedantic. He takes himself too seriously, he always tries to play by the rule-book, and would really like to be in Adam’s position. Occasionally his frustration causes him to break out, but usually when he does he ends up being reprimanded or overruled in some way.

One of the most effective elements of Rev is the voiceovers. We hear the thoughts in Adam’s head as he talks to God. “People like rules. If Christianity had as many rules as Islam, perhaps my church would be full too,” and “Why does the church want me to be a businessman rather than a vicar?” and “I bend over backwards to try and please everyone and I end up pleasing no-one… maybe that’s what You want, me in a lot of trouble. Jesus liked trouble.”

And the truth is that Adam is good-hearted, caring, unpretentious and real.

I hope you too enjoy this brilliant sitcom. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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