Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Blatant Theft – The Cure for Writer’s Block

25 Oct

Blog Pic

It’s never nice to be accused of plagiarism. I’ve only had it happen once or twice, and never in the serious, “We’re-taking-your-ass-to-court” meaning of the word. Rather, it was suggested that I’d borrowed one or two elements from someone else’s work. The first time was when some character on a Doctor Who forum claimed I’d lifted – word for word – a lengthy bit of dialogue from an episode of Red Dwarf – an episode which, funnily enough, I hadn’t seen. The second time was when someone pointed out similarities between a script I’d written and a popular video game… one that was released a good 6 years after I last owned a games console.

It was one of these bad boys. I shit you not.

It was one of these bad boys. I shit you not.

In both cases, what it boiled down to was coincidence, similarity, and nothing more. In a similar way, I once asked (*NAME-DROP KLAXON*) Steven Moffat whether Borges’s The Library of Babel had influenced Silence in the Library, only to have him look at me like I’d belched in his face. He’d never even heard of Borges, let alone read the story. Again… Coincidence. If enough ideas are floating in the ether, more than one writer will grab them and use them to their own ends, resulting in similar stories by authors ignorant of each other’s work.

"You know nothing of my work. Oh... You actually know nothing of my work?" - Jorge Luis Borges

“You know nothing of my work. Oh… You actually know nothing of my work?” – Jorge Luis Borges

But while being accused of theft is a little upsetting (after the video game one I flew into a blind panic for several days), there are times when outright, blatant theft is a good thing.

Pictured: Not the kind of theft I'm talking about.

Pictured: Not the kind of theft I’m talking about.

So when is it OK to steal? Well, I’m talking about those times when you’re trying to come up with an idea, but you hit a brick wall. My advice, in this situation, is that you turn to a source – could be ancient mythology, the collected works of Shakespeare, or an author whose work is now in the public domain – and you pillage it for all its worth. If that idea plagues your conscience, and you think it sounds like cheating, don’t take my word for it. Here are some popular works whose stories seemed oddly familiar…

aka 'Hamlet... With Lions'

The Lion King, aka ‘Hamlet… With Lions’

aka 'The Odyssey... With Folk Songs'

O Brother, Where Art Thou… aka ‘The Odyssey… With Folk Songs’

aka 'Romeo and Juliet... With Jazz Hands'

West Side Story… aka ‘Romeo & Juliet… With Jazz Hands’

aka 'The Tempest... In Space'

The Forbidden Planet… aka ‘The Tempest… In Space’

And that’s just the films. Joyce’s Ulysses is – quite brazenly – The Odyssey, stripped of deities and updated to Dublin. Stephen King admits that the starting point for Salem’s Lot was “Dracula meets Peyton Place”. In his introduction to The Magus, John Fowles suggests that it was modelled – albeit subconsciously – on Dickens’s Great Expectations.

The trick, when stealing a story, is to use only its core ingredients as your starting point. Pitch it to yourself by giving it a different setting, and see how far you get. I’ll come up with one right now – I promise, this will be off the top of my head – and we’ll see how far we get with it.

The Odyssey, but set in a garage.

So how would that work? It might be difficult – but fun – trying to adapt the earlier parts of the Odyssey to the confines of a garage, so perhaps we should stick to the later parts, when Ulysses returns to Ithaca and finds his wife, Penelope, beset on all sides by a small army of suitors, eager to take his place. Perhaps our Ulysses – let’s call him Bob – is a mechanic, the previous owner of the garage. He’s been away some time (prison?), but now he’s back, only to find that some other man is trying to usurp him. As well as taking over Bob’s business, perhaps this man is making overtures to his wife, and has become a father figure to his son, our modern-day Telemachus?

Sequences like this may be harder to adapt.

Sequences like this may be harder to adapt.

Already, it feels like it could work as a kind of Get Carter-ish crime thriller, or a straight-up drama with a bit of gangster movie bubbling underneath. Actually, if anything it feels a little like an episode of Eastenders, which – given the show’s wild fluctuations in quality over the years – is neither a good nor a bad thing. Maybe you think this story is a terrible idea. Doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you have a starting point.

Obviously, this method won’t always work, and it’s always worth checking to see if someone already had the same idea as you (there are so many gangster Macbeths), but as “writing exercises” go, it’s a pretty good one, and a great means to blow away the cobwebs.

Bronze, Bard and Barbican

14 Nov

Just returned from a busy 48 hours in the quaint, historic market town of London-Upon-Thames. Strictly speaking, I was down there on business, but that sounds awfully grand for what was actually 7 or 8 hours in a recording studio in Ladbroke Grove. Plus, my total contribution to the day, in terms of hard graft, was telling the director, Gary, that it was okay to add the word “even” to a single line of dialogue. The real draw, whenever they record anything I’ve written at The Moat Studios, is the lunch put on by sound engineer and culinary whizz Toby. Never mind that, as a Doctor Who fan, I get to meet and work with actors I’ve admired since I was 4 years old. Nah… It’s the lunch, every time.

Left to right: Sean Carlsen, Lalla Ward, Barnaby Edwards, Louise Jameson, and me, all thinking, “Hmm… Lunch.”

Anyway… being in London gave me about a day-and-a-half to go off and do my own thing, so I decided to fill that time with exhibitions. Well… Exhibitions and food.

First up was the Royal Academy’s show Bronze. This was, perhaps, the most “Ronseal” of all the shows I went to, providing a fairly broad selection of bronze sculpture from around the world, from a 14th Century BCE chariot found in Trondheim all the way up to an enormous, concave bronze mirror by Anish Kapoor. Perhaps the best thing about this show was its refusal to treat the sculptures as archaeological objects by placing them in some sort of chronological order. Instead, each room was arranged by theme – Figures, Animals, Objects, Gods etc. This meant that in a single room you could find, side by side, a piece by Jasper Johns from the 1950s next to a cabinet of tiny, intricate weights made to resemble bird claws and human figures, from 14th Century Nigeria.

Plus quite a lot of cock – ‘Dancing Satyr’ – Greek, 4th Century BCE (photograph from The Times)

It was the works from Africa, and primarily Nigeria, I found most interesting of all. Now, this may be down to me being a Patronising White Twat or a serious gap in my education (or both), but I hadn’t realised bronze sculpture was such a feature of African art, and certainly not dating back to pre-Renaissance times, but the works on display here are absolutely stunning, and add a bit of welcome variety from all those gym-honed heroes, gods and Biblical characters.

Another great feature of Bronze was the room, early on in the exhibition, in which you learn how bronze sculptures are actually made. Bronze is one of those materials I’ve always taken for granted, assuming there was some semi-magical process by which it gets moulded or sculpted into shape, without ever thinking too hard about what that process was. To learn that there are several processes, and be given a basic understanding of how each one works, really adds to your appreciation of what you see in the rest of the show.

‘Head With Crown’, Nigeria, 14th-15th Century (photo from The Economist)

After spending all of Monday in the studio, I was free again on Tuesday to go exploring, so I started the day with the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging The WorldThis was one show where I may have benefited from knowing a little less. A few years ago I went through a bit of an Elizabethan phase. I don’t mean I walked around saying, “Prithee, sir” while wearing a ruffled collar and breeches, I mean I read an awful lot about the Elizabethan and early Jacobean era: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare; Charles Nicholl’s book The Reckoning, about the murder of Christopher Marlowe; Dominic Green’s The Double Life of Doctor Lopez, about Elizabeth I’s Jewish-Marrano physician; Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents, about the Gunpowder Plot.

I may have also watched a lot of ‘Blackadder II’.

As a result, there was very little in the exhibition that was new to me, and indeed some of the items on display I’d already seen elsewhere. An imaginative group portrait of Henry VIII and his children, for example, is on loan from Cardiff Museum. That said, I liked the way the show was made up mostly of historic artifacts relating to the plays’ subject matter, rather than Shakespeare himself, and there were still one or two surprises – the gold coin minted by Brutus and Cassius in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, a page manuscript from Sir Thomas More, written apparently in Shakespeare’s own hand – but I couldn’t help but think this would have been a more spellbinding and illuminating experience had I been just a little less familiar with the subject matter.

“Hello, ladies…” ‘Portrait Miniature of Edward Herbert’, from the exhibition

Still, no trip to the British Museum is ever wasted, and right now they have a great – and most importantly, free –  mini-exhibition of prints and drawings from Spain, including some brilliantly ghoulish examples by Francisco de Goya. There’s something lovely about seeing preliminary sketches and rough drawings by great artists, in much the same way as there’s something wonderful about a page of handwritten script by the World’s Greatest Playwright™, complete with crossings out and amendments. It reminds us that as indisputably great as the finished works may be, they weren’t brought into the world in a single, perfect and painless outburst of creativity; that even artistic titans have to work at their craft.

The dark truth behind the career of TV astrologer Russell Grant… ‘Drunk Silenusa’ (1628) by Jose de Ribera

In the afternoon, following my now compulsory spending spree in Cecil Court, I went over to the Barbican, for their show of 1960s and 70s photography, Everything Was MovingHaving spent much of the day walking, and after a rubbish night’s sleep (thanks to a combination of pancake-related heartburn and crappy hotel air-con), I wasn’t sure I could handle another exhibition. Even if I was able to drag my sorry carcass around the gallery, I might not take anything in, and would walk out of there having wasted £12.

‘Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background, 1969’, William Eggleston

I needn’t have worried. Everything Was Moving was the cultural highlight of the whole trip. For one thing, it’s a pretty epic show, covering both floors of the Barbican Gallery, and featuring work by twelve photographers. Some, like Bruce Davidson and Larry Burrows are well known for their images of the US civil rights movement and the Vietnam War respectively. Others, like India’s Raghubir Singh and China’s Li Zhensheng are little known outside their native countries, or in the case of Sigmar Polke more renowned for their art than their photography.

‘Below the Howrah Bridge…’ (1968) – Raghubir Singh

It’s difficult, in a show so extensive and so packed full of content, to pick individual highlights, but Davidson’s work in particular packs one hell of a punch. His picture of a beleaguered-looking Martin Luther King, surrounded by aides and a clamouring press, is a masterclass in reportage photography, while the image of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning made me physically gasp.

‘Reverend Martin Luther King at a press conference, Birmingham , Alabama, 1962’ and ‘Outside Atlanta, Georgia, 1962’

Elsewhere, and in a similar vein, the show takes work by two South African photographers, one a white Afrikaner, the other a black African, to show us their country at the very height of Apartheid. The former, David Goldblatt’s work provides an insight into the lives of black mine workers – their horrible living conditions, combined with their quiet, almost stoic dignity – in stark contrast with the infinitely more carefree lives of their white bosses, without ever resorting to caricature. There’s empathy, compassion and warmth for all his subjects.

‘The farmer’s son with his nursemaid…’ (1964)

Coming – understandably – from a much angrier place, there’s a more obviously satirical intent behind Ernest Cole’s photography. He demonstrates brilliantly just how absurd apartheid truly was, with his images of “Europeans Only” phone booths, park benches, and bank tellers, but what’s striking, in both Goldblatt’s and Cole’s images, is just how often blacks and whites in South African found themselves standing or sitting side by side, and how much affection there could be between the communities, despite the government’s best efforts to rend them apart.

Untitled – Ernest Cole

To highlight just these three is to do a disservice to the other photographers, most of whom are brilliant in their own right. Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, or perhaps the one that feels slightest and most at odds compared to everything else around it, is Sigmar Polke’s series on an Afghan bear-baiting match, but even then these are strong images in their own right. It’s entirely possible somebody else could come away from the show having been most moved by Polke’s work, or Larry Burrows’ cinematic depictions of Vietnam, or Graciela Iturbide’s surreal and striking images from Central America.

‘Panama City, 1974’ – Graciela Iturbide

I can’t recommend Everything Was Moving enough. Like the RA’s Bronze and British Museum’s Shakespeare, it reminded me of the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Except here this isn’t a distant past of bronze gods and mythical beasts, or a world of witch trials and the conquests of empire. Here, the past is familiar. We see the 7-Up logo, and people doing the twist. These are recognisably our immediate ancestors or even our younger selves, and yet the world has changed immeasurably since then. Bruce Davidson’s images of the hovel lived in by a poor black family (Trickem Fork, Alabama) look as if they should have been taken in 1865, not 1965, and the white men taunting the freedom riders from the roadside look all the more cruel, all the more ridiculous, and all the more pathetic in a world in which Barack Obama just won his second term as US President.

Don’t worry, chaps. Only another 48 years until the Tea Party Movement.

If I have one regret about my jaunt over the Barbican, it’s that I wasn’t able to check out Random International’s installation, Rain Roomthe queue for which snaked around the ground floor, and – according to a notice – would have taken up over 2 hours of my afternoon. A shame, as this looks like one of those rare occasions when conceptual art is fun, accessible and genuinely inclusive, but it’s running until March, so maybe next time!

  • ‘Bronze’ is on until  9 December 2012
  • ‘Shakespeare: Staging the World’ is on until 25 November 2012
  • ‘From Renaissance to Goya’ is on until 6 January 2013
  • ‘Everything Was Moving’ is on until 13 January 2013