A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

Month: October, 2009

Peace

Well, various gas and energy-related companies are ‘vacuum excavating’ holes in the pavement outside our living room this morning, so peace is in short supply around here.

Maybe Barack Obama could help? He has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and no one is quite sure for what. It could be this – bringing genuine lasting peace to my corner of Stoke Newington.

But no, it seems the Swedish committee, so wracked with the thought of Obama not being a deserving recipient when he leaves office, have decided to screw everything and give him the damn prize now, so he’ll either be inspired to attain the Nobel laureate state of secular deity, or so we won’t have to accept the horror of him not ever delivering on the hope and joy that really did seem to sweep through 97% of the world upon his election.

But of course, what has really happened is that the Nobel committee knows its West Wing, and is giving Obama a helping hand in his quest to mimic the story not just of Mathew Santos, but of Jed Bartlet to boot.

For while Obama’s story is fairly tightly based on the Santos storyline in Season 7 of the West Wing, it also pays homage to the Seasons 1-6 story of Bartlet, who, an unashamedly intelligent professor-type – and, crucially, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics – won the Democrat nomination from nowhere and proceeded to have 8 years of political struggle but, you know, all-round general liberal trying-to-do-the-right-thing-ness.

So they’ve given Barry O his Nobel Prize. You know, by all accounts, they could have given him the Literature one (Dreams of my Father, etc etc). But Peace it is, and peace it will have to be. Good luck with that.

Family to Future

After a wee break, the Discreet Dictionary is being populated with discreet definitions once again. Now there are some F’s there to read about if you like.

The conjunctions of words marking the start and end of each session of dictioneering is very pleasing to me, and reminds me of the not-long-for-this-world delight of the spines of encyclopedias (sp?). One such in our bookcase at home – it is the only volume we have that I’m aware of – is ‘From GLADIATOR to PERSIMMON‘.

Merlin

Merlin is the BBC’s flagship autumn family drama. I have a soft spot for it, and the story of King Arthur more generally, but there are things that I would do so differently were I in any way connected with the show – which, of course, I am not.

I remember reading Stephen Lawhead‘s series of books when I was in my teens. He took the Arthurian legend and made it his own and in a very Romantic, appealing and moving way (for me, aged 14). His first book was Taliesin, and took the conceit of telling Merlin’s father’s story. The second book was Merlin, and the trilogy, which was grounded in historical research, I believe, concluded with Arthur. [Apparently he has subsequently written another 2 books in the Pendragon series.]

I think it is with these books in mind that I am fond of the new TV series, and I mostly enjoyed the first series. Not for any particular resonance in the details and certainly not in the dialogue, but more that spirit of taking the ancient narrative and having fun with the characters and overarching storylines.

We are in the second series now, but it was with the finale of the first series that my dissatisfaction was sown and in the second series, my frustration grows with every episode (I have seen but 2 thus far).

The first series had a local witch as the recurring nemesis of the young Merlin. The series culminated with her defeat and some climactic guff that involved Merlin’s mentor, Gaius, dying or not dying or whatever. What was my problem with this? Mainly that it meant series 2 was going to be series 1 repeated – a series of episodes of calamity befalling one of our young heroes and Merlin’s wizardry, Arthur’s strength or Gwen’s humanity saving the day. Week after week after week.

It seems to be that this is a decision taken to prolong the life of the programme as far as possible, to work out this formula until it is beyond tired, at which stage the BBC can finally permit it to translate to the next stage of the story. For we all of us watching know the basics of the story. Arthur grows up to become king, he goes on a quest for the Holy Grail, marries Guinevere (or Gwen), gets a sword with a name, rebuilds Camelot, makes a round table, etc. (not necessarily in that order).

So how weak to dwell in this one manifestation of the story for more than one series. My feeling is that the bolder decision would have been to give one season to this ‘young heroes’ phase, getting relationships established, characters familiar, and setting set. But the next series should have taken the opportunity afforded by the grand sweep of the legend to be something different. Break free from the soap opera mentality and transform the story every year.

[Skip the next 9 paragraphs if you’re in a hurry — Ed.]

Series 1 should have concluded with the death of King Uther (Arthur’s father) and the fall of Camelot into disarray / political in-fighting / barbarism, and the fleeing of young Arthur, his life in danger, accompanied only by Merlin. It would have been a darn sight more dramatic than everything getting neatly and sweetly resolved to how it was before the start of the last episode of series 1 and only the baddie having been lost as a result. And it would have meant no one having any idea where series 2 was going to be set or who would be in it or what. The start of series 2 could have been genuinely thrilling for returning viewers.

What could it have been? Well, off the top of my head, series 2 could have seen Arthur and Merlin in exile – they could still be getting into jolly scrapes and developing their relationship, but it would have seen Arthur getting to grips with concepts like humility in a lot more style and substantial ways than the current offer where, oh the fact that a servant girl he fancies tells him he shold be more humble. So he is. A bit. When it suits him.

Then series 2 could have culminated in Arthur and Merlin separating – either falling out or befallen by catastrophe. And Merlin finds a Lake. With a Lady in it. And maybe she has a sword. Lady Morgana could have been maturing herself towards becoming an evil enchantress – maybe she spilts up the boys, maybe not entirely out of spite, since we are clearly interested in seeing her journey to the dark side – it’s Anekin all over again.

Series 3 – are we with Merlin or Arthur, or both? I say Arthur. It’s called ‘Merlin’ – we know he’ll be back. Arthur returns to Camelot. It is a mess, being ruled by a venal little man who knows the price of every bribe and the value of no moral thing. Arthur vows to restore Camelot. But how? Or when? Details, details, but maybe he decides to find this Holy Grail that someone mentions as being terribly powerful and capable of toppling venal little men and restoring true honour to thrones.

So series 3 is the quest for the grail. Maybe Morgana is looking for it too? No matter, Arthur gallivants around the country, using up the BBC’s regional drama budgets, and by the by, recruits new knights to help him in his quest and generally uphold chivalric values. Brilliant – every episode, a new knight who must overcome some obstacle and then decide whether or not to ride with Arthur. Some will refuse, bound to protect their village or a girl, but others will join him and it becomes a bit like Robin Hood, but actually very different.

Oh, and Merlin is around in series 3, looking out for Arthur, observing him and occasionally protecting him – maybe in disguises. Merlin should also stay in touch with Morgana and be wracked with pangs over how to help her from falling into absolute EVIL. Merlin holds the arc of the story while Arthur fills in the time.

Series 3 ends with Merlin revisiting Camelot, as Arthur did in episode 1. Arthur is not in this episode, as Merlin was not in the first. Merlin sees that Camelot has been downgraded even further. But Merlin has power now, has learned his craft and carries authority when he needs to. He hurls the sword (give it a name, I don’t know, Excalibur) into a convenient stone and delivers the key prophecy of his television programme. He who draws the sword from the stone etc etc. And of course Arthur did not find the Grail – it was just that by searching for it, he learned so much about being a leader, and Goddammit, being a Man.

Series 4 – Merlin is in Camelot. He has an odd position, buoyed mostly by the fact that everyone secretly tries pulling on his sword and fails to get it up out. He is dismissed by the venal little man (it is probably a different little man by now but that’s part of the story too, you see), but only because the little man (or men) has also failed to extract the sword. But when Camelot (or Camelittle as it could now be known) is threatened, Merlin acts – using his magic openly now, since Uther is dead and no one else cares. Gaius probably died somewhere along the way as well. Morgana’s very much alive and is staking her own claim to Camelot – maybe via her son, who has grown into a fine man in his two years of life (some kind of withccraft, surely…). Well it’s all getting a bit far in the future, but maybe Series 4 climaxes with Arthur’s return to Camelot and grasping the hilt of Excalibur.

Series 5 – Arthur is in charge, kind of, but the venal little man is still there too, and no one likes the title of King anymore, so that’s a bit sensitive. But Arthur is de facto King and Merlin is his adviser and Gwen is back form wherever she went, and the knights are there to be called on but not actually in Camelot … yet. But series 5 will crescendo until Arthur is crowned and the people say three cheers and Morgana says I’ll get you next time, Merlin.

I’ve gone on far too long for anyone still to be reading, but the fact is that Merlin could have been very special and aware of itself being a multi-series drama but structured throughout its entire lifetime as well as within each series and within each episode.

As it is, the BBC is cynically milking it at each stage for as many series as it can; I think they will wait for each soap operatic element to die into a dusty, venal blandness (a la Camelittle) before they try to resuscitate the franchise with a facelift. Series 2 has become a carbon copy of series 1 – even the dragon got rehabilitated into the story after some ultimate break-up with Merlin towards the end of series 1: but it all got forgotten very quickly and neatly enough to keep John Hurt’s box-office voice in the credits (got to keep selling it to the States, you know).

But by then it will be under pressure to deliver, and I expect they will try to cram the questing, the sword-finding and stone-setting and sword withdrawing and king-making and table-rounding into one measly series and rush it and not have fun with it but tie up all the loose ends they purposely unravelled thinking it could go on for decades.

I would prefer them to have recognised that great TV has a shelf life, that Fawlty Towers is still talked about despite there only ever being 12 episodes, that great TV has to be wise with its form as well as entertaining with its content. I think Merlin could have been historic in its ambition and execution. As it is, I fear it will be epic only in its length.

Home

We are home from our holiday and feeling much refreshed. It was a lovely break in a quiet vale in the south Cotswalds.

Preparing to come home, both Sophie and I experienced momentary flashes of thinking of our old flat as home. We still made it back to the right flat in London, but it seems it takes more than two months to make a home a permanent fixture in one’s psyche – or at least, a fixture that can withstand four nights away.

It makes me think what I consider to be home, or where I consider myself to be ‘at home’. I spent a lot of time at home as a child and teenager – my family wasn’t one for big days out, or evening entertainments, and I wasn’t sociable or cool enough to get invited to lots of parties. But although home back then wasn’t a very nice place to be, I am comfortable being at home, or more accurately, I am uncomfortable if I have not been home for a while.

But ‘home’ in this case is perhaps more a piece of mind. The familiar acts as an anchor around which the vague seas of chance and spontaneity can surge and pull, but only comfortably – for me – when home is in sight.

Of course, I’d like to think that I am at home where I am right now – writing, at the keyboard. I’ve lost that sense in the past few years, as I have written less. But I hope my new job, which starts in November (“Science Writer”, did I mention that?), will help rehabilitate my sense of writing as my home.

This got me thinking about returning home, going back. I can’t go back to my family home. My family moved often as we grew up, and my parents have separated, divorced and separately, divorcedly, moved many times since I left home. I don’t feel at home at my mother’s home, and I have never been to my father’s current home. Of course, I have my own home now, but that is now – I don’t have to go back to get there.

I have in mind a play/script about a young man who – after some traumatic event in someone else’s life but in his childhood – returns home to confront his surviving parent. The drama rests on the idea that his life stopped – or paused – when he left and he has to go back to pick up the thread and continue.

Tonight, I think I will double that premise, and develop a new script with two characters going back – in whatever different senses – to pick up where they left off. And it is my hope that, after about 5 (maybe more) years of searching for a sustainable way to sustain my living (i.e. find a decent job), I will be able to go back to the last chartable point at which I was a writer/playwright and pick up from there; press forward with my development as a writer of scripts as well as press releases and science-based writings.