Thursday, 8 September 2016

Ghosts in the Machine.

Returning from California I was psyched up for cold weather but it was an Indian summer in Greenwich. The local street drinkers were topless and the Thames ebbed and flowed casually and calmly in the early evening haze.

The clemency of the weather certainly eased my return to London. As did the prospect of an evening in the company of Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub.

I wasn't previously aware of the speaker, Stephen Volk, or his work but the evening's title, Creating paranormal drama for film and TV, and my trust in the Skeptics to deliver outweighed any jetlag based concerns (or excuses) I had.

Which was a good decision on my part. Stephen was the creator of 1992's legendary Ghostwatch. A programme I missed at the time, probably down the Aldershot West End Centre getting drunk at a God Machine gig or something, but have long since been aware of via the testimony of friends and YouTube clips.

Stephen's softly spoken Pontypridd accent belied the fact that we were in the company of a man who specialised in making you brick yourself. He started with a clip of Awakening. A seemingly textbook haunted house tale that had Rebecca Hall dealing with doll's houses, creaky doors, and poorly lit hallways. You could see what was happening yet the chills still shot up my spine.

Stephen Volk has the tropes mastered. He spoke about his influences:- Nigel Kneale, The Innocents, Frankenstein, and most of all Don't Look Now, M.R.James, and The Turn of the Screw.

He felt these artists and works all had something in common. The idea of the ghost as an external representation of an internal fear or anxiety.

As a skeptic himself he didn't actually believe in the supernatural but felt the juxtaposition between daytime rational thought and nocturnal fear fertile ground.

He'd ploughed that furrow well. Clips of Afterlife with Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp as a kind of Bristol Mulder & Scully illustrated his opinion that it's best if one person sees the ghost and one does not. A consensus does not good drama make.

Being a good writer he let the characters, once developed, create their own narrative arcs. No point sledgehammering his skepticism (in the form of Lincoln's character) when Lesley Sharp's 'psychic' had her own story to tell. A worthwhile lesson in life as well as screenplay.

Occasionally he erred towards the luvvie. Lincoln, Sharp, and various behind the scenes guys were all an absolute delight to work with. You could tell he genuinely thought that though by the way he described two venerable figures in film history.

Having written Gothic Stephen was delighted to find out his adaptation of events at Villa Diodati in 1816 was to be made into a movie. On hearing the news he asked who the director would be. Who would you least like he was asked. Michael Winner he said. Ok, who would be the second worse choice? Ken Russell. And Ken Russell it was. Not that he was a bad director but he'd been on a pretty serious downward curve. Volk met Russell one morning and was offered champagne. He turned it down - 'a bit early for me'. 'A bit late for me' was Russell's riposte. Of course it was.

The light ribbing of Ken Russell is as nothing compared to his take on William Friedkin. So traumatised was our speaker after working with The Exorcist director that he had to undertake an intensive CBT course after a mental breakdown. Bloody hell.

The highlights were, of course, his stories about Ghostwatch. How he struggled to convince the BBC to show it. How he was confident they certainly wouldn't chance something like that now. How much of Pipes to show the audience. How they managed to run the first 45 minutes without a single scary moment. How the BBC switchboards were jammed after transmission and how a Falklands war veteran's wife wrote in to say that the airing, literally, made her husband shit his pants. A young writer in the audience claimed that, at about 5 years old, seeing that on TV inspired her to work towards being a horror fiction writer. Quite inspiring.

Ever eloquent and affable Volk chatted at length about sitting at Salman Rushdie's desk at an agency, the debt everyone in his field owes to Alfred Hitchock, and how Stephen King deserves a better rep than he gets these days. It was a veritable masterclass and, though different to previous Skeptics events, one I felt privileged to attend. And all for just £3.

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