Cinema VS Netflix: A World Of Difference
In my files I have around 20 projects that have been abandoned. Many of these are adaptations of my own published stories and novels. Some are written intended to be feature films, because that’s what we all wanted to do, write films. It’s a fantasy still entertained by British writers; believing that there’s an infrastructure for feature films in the UK. The idea is outmoded, but like ageing singers clutching to the idea of making it big in music, we go on fantasising.
British cinema is, as Truffaut suggested, an oxymoron. The UK has an astonishing history of innovative filmmaking, from Lean and Hitchcock, Powell & Pressburger through the Hammer films (which now play out as delightful fairy tales – it’s hard to imagine that anyone was ever offended by them) to the recent delightful re-imagining of David Copperfield by Armando Iannucci and the terrific ‘Rocks’ (above) about a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together in London.
But at the end of the last century the industry suffered a crash brought about by the dominance of Hollywood product, the collapse of funding and the dominance of mega-budget films. Now the European and UK emphasis is on neo-realism and kitchen sink dramas. Many films are still made but most are barely seen. There are small budget neo-realist dramas, but too many misery-fests like the downbeat drama ‘Saint Maud’.
Films of wonder and the fantastic have always explored the power of cinema, from ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘The Innocents’, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, ‘Brazil’, ‘Franklyn’, ‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ and ‘In Fabric’. And this is the sector that has suffered most.
The BBC fitfully (and often very badly) attempts to make up the shortfall with Dr Who, Phillip Pullman’s books and unsuccessful forays into HG Wells, while Netflix buys in works destined for the lower levels of cinema and churns out endless soft-SF series. The UK terrestrial channels make ‘telly’ stories about nuclear families and cheating spouses.
This leaves writers like us with few places to go. Bryant & May books seem defiantly the opposite of everything the programmers want. Who needs fantastical comedy-dramas about older people? Again and again I become aware that producers don’t see the books I and my readers see. My main characters were chosen precisely because they satirise traditional attitudes – but few programmers want that. I’ve always been drawn to satire, but as they say, ‘Satire closes on Saturday night’.
An ideal streaming series is a seemingly SF concept that isn’t. An apocalypse forces us to leave the planet, but we’re not interested in what’s out there so much as what’s in us. The SF element is a device to explore the self and becomes solipsistic, weepy mirror-gazing.
In the pile of stories-to-scripts I have in my cupboards, there are projects like ‘Bloody London’, a portmanteau film in which a cabbie’s passengers tell him strange tale of London. I adapted a tale of mine, ‘Down’, for the film and brought in director Tom Shankland (who made the excellent ‘The Children’) to work with me on it.
The first thing he did was remove 80% of the dialogue. He was right to do so. The story was extremely visual and the intentions of the characters were clear without extra banter. Trimming away the dialogue is what most directors do.
But wait, haven’t Armando Iannucci and yes, Aaron Sorkin, built a career on exactly the opposite? It can be done if there’s confidence in the script. The early decades of British film are filled with filmed plays, stodgy, flatly shot and dull, but now the opposite, sensation and atmosphere, has triumphed over smart storylines. Trying to watch and understand terrestrial TV I alight on something called ‘The Sister’. Russell Tovey was in the far-sighted and powerful ‘Years & Years’ but after watching two painfully drawn-out episodes in which secrets are revealed at a miserly pace, I can see this isn’t about unfolding a drama but keeping viewers on the same channel. It’s why so many series feel padded out.
Now a new question presents itself. Will there even be a future for the big screen? I hope so; there was a wonderful feeling this summer when I was finally able to go to a London cinema and see a film (‘Tenet’ – arrant bollocks I know, but most definitely Cinema). Films like, say, ‘Peninsula’, ‘Parasite’ and ‘Zama’ are big movies that push you out of the house. TV is always there, always available, and very often terrible. And perhaps during lockdowns we rely on it too much.