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"

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