Saturday, 13 May 2017

Reading the Telly - an interview with Frank Collins

Frank Collins is best known for writing extended reviews and critiques of modern media - particularly cult television and cinema - insightful musings that take-in a much broader canvas than many of his contemporaries would attempt. 

Frank Collins aboard the TARDIS
He is the author of Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens - an in-depth and inspirational book exploring the worlds of the Eleventh Doctor - a regular contributor to Frame Rated and to books for Arrow Films accompanying their acclaimed specialist movie releases - including Bruce Robinson, Woody Allen and Hammer Films collections. He also writes for online magazines such as Wow 24/7 and MovieMail and readers with an interest in cult television, and classic British cinema, may remember Frank from his influential review blog Cathode Ray Tube... Frank Collins talked to Remy Dean for The Scrawlabout writing, reviewing and making wider cultural connections!

What does Frank think is the function, or responsibility, of the reviewer and cultural critic?

If I’m reviewing anything I always try to strike a balance between praise and criticism. I couldn’t cynically rip anything to shreds and leave it at that. That isn’t my approach. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of it. It can be counterproductive. On the other hand, there are many reviewers out there whose humour often provides that balance and there is certainly room for all sorts of views. I always try to find something interesting to say.

He opened a recent Doctor Who review with references to Italo Calvino, John Donne, Rembrandt, memory and reflection… not what may be expected from a review of a popular telly series...

Doctor Who, like any television programme or film, isn’t perfect. Some stories work for one particular audience demographic and others don’t. The series takes risks – perhaps trying out a writer new to the format or shooting the episode in a particular style – and often it falls flat on its face.  As a reviewer, I always aim to find the good in what might be perceived as a bit of a duff episode. If a story doesn’t work for me then I’ll try and constructively explain what I perceive as the faults.

With all the references I use, then that’s really my own perception of that episode. The episode’s writer did not consciously or deliberately refer to Italo Calvino but the Rembrandt portrait was in the episode. For me, a certain piece of dialogue may set off cultural connections and Calvino was one of them. The Rembrandt, I believe, was included either on the part of the writer or the production designer. It was a visual comment in the background. John Donne was a metaphysical poet interested in science and there’s a lot of analysis that ties together his poetry and quantum physics, for example. So, I did a bit of research and I felt it reflected the Doctor’s role as a Renaissance figure in the story that sees the poetic rhythm of the universe. Therefore, the John Donne stuff went in.

I have been - and I’m sure I always will be - criticised for seeing things in episodes that were, on the surface, never referred to, and for reading them in an ‘arty-pretentious’ manner. In the end, my way of seeing a story is in finding the wider cultural connections. The episodes don’t exist in isolation, they constantly refer to other genres and art forms and by tracing the connections, I hope I bring a different perspective to how the viewer may receive the episode.

Frank Collins gets to know the 11th Doctor!
[click cover for reviews & to buy the book]
His extended reviews always enrich and enhance re-watches and are of great service. Recent contributions to books to accompany special DVD releases also rely on plenty of in-depth background research...

Film reviewing is slightly different. Working for Arrow Video on some of their releases allows me to mix together a film’s production history – a story that may well yield interesting cultural references – with contemporary analysis. So, for example, when I was commissioned to write about the two Count Yorga films, I did the research on the films but I also read about the connections between the counter-culture occult scene of the late 1960s and the Manson murders because that’s the milieu in which those films were made. The essay for Arrow’s release of Woody Allen’s September was again, a combination of what was available about the production history and an analysis of how the film reflected Allen’s appreciation of Chekhov, his metaphysical view of the universe and how the film embodied a number of genre tropes, particularly melodrama. It also looked at editing, shot composition and use of lighting.

The wider the field of analysis is, the better for me. That’s fun research. That’s finding out about writers, artists and filmmakers, many of whom you may only know about in passing. You end up exploring an entire body of work as a result and it makes your writing that much richer.

Frank has been involved in the wider visual arts since his student days, either as practitioner or facilitator. He is a talented artist and also works as an illustrator and archaeological sketch artist – does he think that his art-training and sensibilities have influenced (and informed) his writerly engagement with (and use of) words?

The best thing I ever did was to train as an artist. I may not have ended up as a professional artist but the paths I took to study for the qualification were worth it. I greedily absorbed the history of art and design and learned how to interpret art and understand an artist’s intentions without prejudice to my own taste.

But beyond that, you learn how to articulate the ideas in your own practice. It is not simply a process of making the art. You need to be able to talk about your work, to transmit the ideas in it. Again, like writers, artists do not work in isolation. They accumulate references and connections and visually interpret the world around them.

Trench 4 - a sketch by Frank Collins recording an archaeological dig
When did he ‘wake-up’ to being a writer?

My work as an artist ran the gamut from installation and photography to performance works. The latter were not random, ad hoc pieces. They were written as monologues and performed live. All of it leads back to words for me, whether written or spoken.

If I have a ‘style’ as a writer then it was first cultivated in the monologues and poetry that went hand in hand with dissertations and catalogue statements.

Prior to that, I’d dabbled with writing about telly and films and cobbled together magazines at school so that was always there in the background.

My current phase as a writer started about ten years ago with the [Cathode Ray Tube] blog. I realised at that point that it was much easier to get your voice out there. There were so many ways of publishing instantly and if enough people liked it you’re on to something. From that blog came the books, invites to guest review on other sites and the commissioned work.

Talking of the past, what was the first book that really grabbed him and carried him off to another place?

Oddly enough, I’ve been revisiting a lot of the books I remember reading as a youngster.  So, I’ve recently just re-read Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Alan Garner’s Elidor. It’s a cliché but Terrance Dicks and his Doctor Who novelisations also had an immense effect on my generation. He made us read. I recently revisited his Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion novel. He is an astonishingly vivid prose writer.

Who have been his favourite writers and what can be learned from them?

Derek Jarman was a key figure. A brilliant film-maker, a poetic writer and a man unafraid to challenge the status quo during a very difficult time for the LGBT community in the 1980s. He taught me to not be afraid of being myself. His diaries are incredible and the book about his garden in Dungeness is still inspiring me. A lot of my work as an artist owed much to him and to Neil Bartlett.

Bartlett was an amazing performance artist and wrote a hugely influential book about Oscar Wilde, Who Was That Man? that is always worth returning to. He made me aware of how much, at the time, LGBT history was hidden away and that it was a story that had to be told. He now writes wonderful novels that all seem to be about finding the truth beneath the accepted social conventions of post-war England. He unconsciously led me to Sarah Waters whose later novels come from a similar standpoint.

Influences beget influences. Bowie’s cut-up method for song lyrics led me to William Burroughs and Kathy Acker. Jarman is in direct lineage to Powell and Pressburger. Hammer Horror turned me on to folk-horror like Witchfinder General and then to writers like David Rudkin. Genet took me to John Rechy and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This just scratches the surface. We are all built out of such influences and connections. And they are there to be used.

...but is there a favourite book or one that he has returned to more than a few times?

Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That’s ground zero for me. I first read that when I was about 14. I’ve still got the edition I bought then. It’s falling to pieces. From that book radiates my interest in the whole horror genre and beyond. I wouldn’t say Stoker was a 'good writer' but Dracula’s influence is enormous. It spurred me on to Poe, M R James, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Aikman.

In addition to being both insightful and eloquent, Frank is a prolific writer and is capable of structuring long-read pieces that remain fascinating, entertaining and informative throughout. Does he have a preferred writing approach, method or regimen?

Find the angle. Once you’ve got that you can get started and build around it. If I’m doing a film piece then it usually starts with the research. I might find a wonderful anecdote or story and then I’ll start with that and work back and forth. For a tribute I did on John Hurt a few months ago, it started with an anecdote where he described his choice of work as him being the victim of his own imagination. That was the springboard to talking about the types of characters he played.

An image can often give you the opening to a piece. If something strikes you instantly then start there and work outwards.

I tend to collate all my research and then start to assemble based on that. It’s often about trying to create a narrative. So it may start with a good quote about a film or an interesting anecdote. Then, I’ll construct a history of the film or the director and finally I’ll find a jumping off point to put across my view of the film in context with a particular genre or era.

For pieces with longer deadlines I do all the research up-front. I’m just in the middle of researching The Naked Civil Servant, the television film about Quentin Crisp. I won’t start writing until a few weeks before the deadline and then I’ll do that over a couple of weekends. I used to be able to write late at night but I don’t have the inclination now to do that and I’m very much reduced to writing at weekends because I work full-time.

The Doctor Who reviews are done straight off the mark on Sunday morning. The last one took all day Sunday writing solidly from about ten in the morning to about five in the afternoon. There’s some pressure to get those done, as the sooner they’re posted, the better, but I’ll keep refining those until the last minute. With those reviews the episode’s theme and ideas are usually the initial spark but I can get side-tracked by researching something. Last time, I ended up digging through a lot of analysis of Rembrandt’s portraiture.

What is the beverage of choice when writing and being creative?

I’m always fuelled by too much tea and coffee.

...and what is the view like from his usual writing space?

The garden. It took me ten years to get round to actually creating a garden at our current home but I finally turned the disintegrating tarmac and weeds into a gravel garden last summer. Gradually, it’s filling up with plants and flowers and it’s lovely watching everything you planted a year ago emerge. If I get really stuck writing I’ll nip out and have a wander for ten minutes.

So, what advice can he share with all those ‘fan-boys-and-girls’ who may envy his position as a leading commentator on all things cult and cultural?

You have nothing to be envious of. I don’t consider myself special at all. I do a lot of work for free and rarely get paid, so if you really want to be in my position then that’s the reality.  When you do get paid that’s when you realise that just perhaps you might be quite good. I don’t like working for free but that’s the nature of the beast.

You have to want to do it. I must really want to write because despite the ups and down I still do it. So, if you want to write about films and telly and you think you have a particular voice you would like to share then just go and do it. The hard work is getting people to read it and to build an audience.

Thank you very much, Frank!

Frank Collins was talking with Remy Dean

You can read all of Frank's contributions to Frame Rated here

Check-out a wide variety of past projects on his tumblr pages

For news, updates and 'asides', follow Frank on twitter @CathodeRayTube

...and check-out the (now mainly archival) blog Cathode Ray Tube 
- "the quintessence of British Pop Culture blogs"

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Culture and Cruelty - an interview with Iain (M) Banks from The Scrawl archive

It is 30 years since the groundbreaking epic science fiction saga of The Culture began with Consider Phlebas and went on to span ten volumes. Three years prior to that, Ian Banks' debut novel, The Wasp Factory, had shaken up the literary scene and left an indelible mark on a generation of readers (and writers). The time seems right to delve into The Scrawl archives and share our interview with the late, great Ian (M) Banks, conducted during 1998 (between Excession and Inversions)...

Iain Banks in a publicity photo for The Bridge
One of the UK's most wildly imaginative authors talks to Scrawl about sex, space and smugness...

Iain Menzies Banks is Scottish. He was born and raised in and around Dunfermline, Fife, educated at Sterling University. Along with fellow Scot, Irvin Welsh, Banks has become known as one of the most startling of modern British writers. Scotland seems to be producing more than its fair share of literary talent and recently that talent has began to make a notable impact on British SF, with Iain M Banks and Ken MacLeod pushing the vanguard. Is there something north of the border responsible for this top-heavy distribution of word-wielding talents?

‘I think it’s mainly just coincidence,’ Iain conceded, ‘But it is true that a good proportion of good British writers are Scottish... A cultural divide does exist and most English people don't understand the breadth of it. Writers in that situation develop a different voice and are more determined to express it.

‘I think Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is a landmark - the best Scottish novel this century! Scotland has been producing more than its fair share, in terms of literature, ever since - we’re just ten per cent of the UK, but we've got more than ten per cent of the best writers...’

His first novel, The Wasp Factory, after causing a furore in the literary world on its publication in 1984, is now held as an iconic modern novel. In much the same way as Irvin Welsh’s Trainspotting, The Wasp Factory is held up as a ‘yardstick’ - new books are often promoted as ‘the best since,’ or heralded as ‘a Wasp Factory for the nineties,’ and so on... It was a provocative and stunning debut and certainly made the name of Iain Banks instantly famous and infamous, was it a battle to bring it to print?

‘It was rejected by six of the big publishers...’

The Wasp Factory - a stunning debut!
Although it was the first Iain Banks novel to see publication, it was not the first he had completed...

‘I’d written about five novels before The Wasp Factory was published, but I’d written three or four before that one, mainly science fiction. Two of those novels were eventually published as part of the Culture series, one of them being The Use Of Weapons, partly due to some intervention from Ken MacLeod.’

The Culture is a broad concept that links the bulk of Banks’ widely read and acclaimed SF output. It is a vast intelligent culture of sentient machines, including giant living space vessels, which have become so advanced that they have exceeded the full understanding of humans and now look after the human population in a cosmos-spanning, multi-cultural future society... Is this a future that Iain thinks we may be heading towards, and would that be a good thing?

‘Is the Culture a possible future...’ Iain mused, ‘Probably, eventually, but not for us. It will be the future for another species perhaps, different from us as we are today. We’re too tied up in bigotry, hatred, war, economics, oppression, competition... The Culture would only work with people who are nicer than us - less prone to violence and genocide. Perhaps aggression is necessary to achieve sentience, consciousness, space travel, and we don't know if we're a particularly violent species or a relatively mild one compared to others out there...’

Iain had stated that he would want to be in the Contact division, which is the section of the Culture that would deal with First Contact scenarios...

‘Contact is the most interesting bit - the Culture’s saving grace - and joining it is about the only ambition available within the Culture. Because not everyone qualifies for Contact - whereas the Culture goes out of its way to accommodate nearly everybody, even those who don’t like it...’

‘The Culture is my vision of exactly the place I would like to live. I can’t imagine a better place - it’s a utopian society.’

Some readers have criticised the Culture for being 'too smug'...

‘It knows it's smug. The price of perfection, I'm afraid. It’s smugness is one of its best points!’

It has been suggested that the Culture should be destroyed, because it is too perfect.

‘I can understand that urge. As a boy, I used to enjoy building dams in the sand on the beach, irrigation channels and little castles, and of course the real fun was knocking them down or watching them fall as the tide came in...’

Would he ever take notice of such reader feedback and compromise in any way?

‘No - I write what I enjoy and even I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I let it flow and the plot takes control... I started out writing Excession with the idea of destroying the Culture and it could have gone that way. There is an element in the story which could have initiated its downfall and if the plot had wrestled the book from me and it had gone that way, I would have let it - I would have destroyed the Culture... It happened to turn the other way.'

The Culture continues...
So are there any more Culture novels in the pipeline?

‘Out of my current four book deal, at least one of them will be a Culture novel...’

Does Banks have a writing ritual or regimen?

‘Oh, I’m very strict with myself... During the summer months I have fun and think about books and I find myself looking forward to the time of year when nights draw in and the weather turns bad... I write nine to five, every day during the darker winter months, and often into the night also. I write directly into an AppleMac. Listening to Radio 1, usually, though I always have a CD cued up and ready to go also. I enjoy music very much.’

Does the genre-hopping, from SF to 'mainstream' and back, cause any problems from publishers or marketing departments?

‘Not at all. I think, perhaps, I don’t get nominated for science fiction awards because they think I’ll get them for my other books and the people giving out the mainstream awards think I’m a science fiction writer, so I’ll get awards in that category. But no pressure at all to write one kind of book over another.’

Are Iain's novels primarily driven by their themes, or their narrative?

‘I don’t really think about it. I would never try to work out how I write, I write because I enjoy it. I just let it come to me and go with the flow. Sometimes I don’t know if a book is going to be science fiction or not, I just start out with a bunch of ideas and run with them...’

One theme that seems prominent throughout Iain's mainstream and SF novels is that of gender identity. Of course, this is a central motif in The Wasp Factory, then in Excession we have the concept of both sexes being able to become pregnant, Whit is told from the first person point of view of a female and Song Of Stone is told in the male first person. There is a strong element of sexual discovery and the formation of gender identity running through the flashbacks in Complicity... Is this a personal fascination that asserts itself or is it an intentional exploration of these ideas?

‘I can recall when "Women’s Lib" was in the news - before it became "Feminism"... It made a big impact at the time I was being brought up. Then, the media portrayal of women was very clear cut and gender roles were set out for you.

‘When I was a child, I remember noticing that women in films couldn’t run unless the male hero placed his hand in the small of their backs and kinda pushed them along, as if this was what made them go. And if the plot demanded that the villains caught them, then it was the woman who fell over or sprained an ankle and the man had to stay in order to protect her. So you thought you had it all worked out and the difference between men and women was very clear cut... Then you realised that perhaps it wasn’t true - in fact it was all nonsense.

‘So it is something that fascinates me, to this day, and I am aware of it. It is a theme that runs through my writing, intentionally, but it’s not the major theme and I wouldn’t like to think that readers see that as one of the most important themes. I think the more important element is humanism and the definition of the individual.’

The treatment of male pregnancy in Excession implies that personality defines gender more than physical attributes...

‘I think there are definite male and female aspects to personality that define gender more than the outward appearance - though I wouldn’t like to say what they are...’

Another recurring trait is the often extreme cruelty in his novels... Is that due to some dark subconscious tendencies or is it a reaction against the happy ending cliché?

‘Well I certainly wouldn’t want to be a character in one of my own novels! But is it due to something in the murky depths of my subconscious? God, I hope not! I think it’s more to do with avoiding the cliché and making things a bit more unpredictable.

‘Many people seemed to think that The Wasp Factory was horrendous and pretty bleak, but I actually thought it had a happy ending and was an upbeat sort of book.’

In Complicity, after you get to know the central character and quite like the guy... Banks gives him cancer when it has nothing directly to do with the plot...

‘Well, he’s not dead, he has cancer. It up to the reader to be pessimistic or optimistic about the outcome of that. Otherwise I think that’s also an upbeat book.’

Complicity was adapted for the screen
Song Of Stone, seemed to be a bit of a departure, quite a gentle read, all very lyrical except for the regular interruption of the short sharp set-pieces of blunt brutality and violence...

‘Gentle!? It’s horribly violent! The whole book is about the lead character’s inability to affect his own destiny - he has no outward control and cannot seem to change anything. He’s just swept along by events. And all he can do is think. His mind is his only freedom, and the language he uses tends to be overly flowery in parts, because all he can do is try to prettify the horrible things that are happening around him - try to make something beautiful out of them in his own mind. He does this by retreating into his thoughts and seeing things in this rather flowery fashion...

‘If you're writing from the point of view of someone who doesn't share your own beliefs it makes you think, you start to question your own beliefs and that's always a progressive and good thing to do.’

The science in the Culture novels seems convincing and the whole vision of the future is well filled-out and holistic, are you aware of the science facts behind the fiction?

‘I read New Scientist and that's about it. As little research as possible! A lot of my research is just reading other people's SF and nicking their good ideas! I never let it get in the way of a good story.

‘I'm not really introducing any new absurdities, just taking up old ones. But you read New Scientist, and you see stuff which may imply that hyperspace and faster-than-light travel aren't as absurd as all that. They’re not possible right now, but for scientists to say that we’ll never travel faster than light is just as daft as saying we’ll never get into space - which people were saying only a few decades ago...’

...The Wright Brothers stated that flight was possible, but not in their life time. Then, the very next year, they achieved the first flight in the Kittyhawk ...Does banks really think we’ll find life out there?

‘There is life out there. If there isn't, I'd find that thought incredibly worrying... But we wouldn't know about it, unless they wanted us to.’

So cruelty and existential angst aside, would Iain Banks describe his own overall outlook as optimistic or pessimistic?

‘Optimistic. I’m a long-term optimist.’

Here's to you Iain Banks - fondly remembered by legions of fans,
he lives on in his many words... and in many worlds.
Filming for the cinema adaptation of Complicity was completed during 1999. The novel has been adapted for the screen by Bryan Elsley and directed by Gavin Millar, the team also responsible for the screen adaptation of The Crow Road, which, in the opinion of Iain Banks, was ‘Excellent’. Gavin Millar has a long and distinguished directorial career, which includes the, also excellent, adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild.

Complicity was filmed on location in and around Edinburgh and stars Jonny Lee Miller, who played ‘Sick Boy’ in Trainspotting and ‘Crash Override’ in Hackers - Jason Hetherington, who among other roles, appeared with the late Jeremy Brett in Sherlock Holmes: The Last Vampyre - and Rachael Stirling, who can be seen in the movie, Still Crazy.

Iain Banks was talking with Remy Dean