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According to reports, racist abuse is on the increase – I’m even aware of it happening to someone I know. Some say it’s an effect of the Referendum campaign, but I don’t feel informed enough to make that judgement.

Where the solution lies is far from clear, but it’s something that needs addressing.

Thinking about it reminded me of something that happened in 1990 when I was working in a direct sales team.  The mix of people was, for the time, pretty diverse.  We ranged in age from early twenties to sixtyish, there were two women, a bloke with a disability and the youngest was a British born Asian.

To this day, I have no idea whether his family was Indian, Pakistani, Ugandan Asian or “other”. Nor do I know his religion. It never came up and, frankly, I didn’t care. To me he was Shamir (or, more often, Sham) and he was a colleague and friend.

For the most part, the whole team got on well, socialising as well as working together, and whenever we met there was banter, innuendo, strong language and laughter.

During the 18 months I worked there, I even wrote a series of stories about us, creating alter-egos with a theme around drinks (don’t ask – it’s a long story).  No Justice League or Avengers for us – we were Captain Ribena and the Beverages Superheroes (CRABS).  These stories were shared and – as far as I can recall – enjoyed by pretty much everyone.

There was one bloke, Tony (The Ovaltony – I didn’t say it was Booker Prize winning stuff, did I?) who didn’t fit in.  His social skills were limited to trying to impress with tales of past exploits, both professional and otherwise – always a crowd-pleasing tactic…  (Did I say we did sarcasm as well?)

Shamir was 21 at the time and, at 27, I was the next youngest, so we naturally spent a lot of time together – even our desks faced each other.

The phone rang one morning and Sham answered.  It turned out to be Tony, who wanted to speak to our manager.  After transferring the call, Sham looked at me. “You won’t believe what he just said.”

Apparently, after hearing Sham’s greeting, Tony had responded: “D’you know, Shamir, over the phone you sound just like one of us.”

Take a moment for that to sink in.  I did.

Like a lot of people, when I’m confronted with something I don’t know how to handle, I resort to humour.  (To be fair, it is my default setting.)  So, after a long pause, I made a comment that doesn’t look good on paper.  All I will say is that it was intentionally racist, but the intention was to mock Tony’s attitude to my friend.  My facial expression and tone of voice made that clear at the time and, in the moment, it was funny.

But my success at breaking the tension led me to turn it into a running joke that went on for weeks.

As time’s passed, I’ve realised it was wrong.  Not because Sham at any point gave any indication that I’d offended him.  The thing is, I don’t know if I did.  I didn’t think so at the time, but now I’m not so sure. He may have been too polite to let me know I was upsetting him.

As a public speaker, one of the first rules I learnt was never to offend.  You want an audience on your side when you’re giving a speech, so why go looking for things to upset them.  Because you don’t always know what your audience will be offended by, the trick is to be as neutral as possible – without being bland (easy, then…).

I’m not saying you should apply that way of thinking to every aspect of your life, but there are certain areas where you really don’t need to go.  My comments to Sham fell into that category, regardless of their intention.

Sometimes political correctness can go too far but when we should be treating each other simply as fellow human beings, it makes no sense to use offensive remarks and language, regardless of the context. Because there really is no need to offend someone for the sake of a cheap joke.

I said earlier that the solution isn’t clear, but if people like me just think for an extra moment before we open our mouths, we certainly won’t make the situation worse.

 

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After giving some feedback to Marje (find her on the delightfully quirky blog site Kyrosmagica) about the prologue to her current WIP, she suggested I write a post on the subject.  I suspect my enthusiasm for prologues came across quite strongly.

To be fair, I think that enthusiasm stems from a misspent childhood. (Sadly, when I say misspent, I mean my life revolved around the TV rather than getting up to any more interesting shenanigans.)

You see, a lot of the TV shows of the 60s and 70s opened with a scene to set up the rest of the programme. That set-up might be a crime being committed, a pursuit (surprisingly often in the case of The Avengers), or even an incident unrelated to the rest of the story, but demonstrating the hero’s abilities.

The bottom line, though, is that prologues are basically pre-title sequences.

I was talking to another author a couple of years ago who’d read Ravens Gathering and felt I should get rid of the prologue.  I can’t recall her exact argument, but the sense I had was that prologues were no longer considered either necessary or (for want of a better word) fashionable.  Never having been noted for my fashion sense, this wasn’t an argument I was ever going to agree with.  What matters to me is whether it works.

So here’s what I think a prologue can do:

  1. Introduce a significant character
  2. Create a question in the reader’s mind – e.g. I wonder what was really happening in that scene?
  3. Set the tone or theme for the rest of the story

I don’t mean they need to do all of them, but at least one.

Let’s look back at some examples from the TV of my childhood.

Every episode of The Saint introduced Simon Templar.  There would often be an opening monologue, sometimes action, then the inevitable halo.

A lesser known series, Department S has fallen off the radar for a lot of people, though more will remember its spin-off Jason King. While the production values of the programme would be laughed at now, the openings were always very good at drawing you in.  Watch this one up to the titles and I dare you not to be left wondering “How did that happen?”

Also drawing you in, but really setting the tone for what happens next was this short prelude to an episode of The Sweeney.

I’ve picked on those examples because you can watch them in a couple of minutes (unless they really worked and you were dragged into watching the whole episodes). Do you see what I mean, though?  They’re a hook.

And, if you use a prologue in the same way, unlike the first chapter, they don’t have to be directly part of the narrative. What I mean by that is that the prologue doesn’t have to fit sequentially into the timeline of the rest of the book.  Events there can take place:

  1. At some point in the dim and distant past – an event that foreshadows what will happen in the story
  2. At the climax to the story, but shown as a preview – a teaser, if you like, of what’s to come,
  3. At a significant turning point in the story, which may well be part way in – again a preview/teaser

To the reader, it won’t always be clear which applies – that’s part of the mystery that they’re looking forward to unfolding.

Obviously, these are my interpretations of what prologues need to do for the story. Their ultimate aim, though, is to leave the reader wanting to read more.  If they don’t do that, they shouldn’t be there.

So when you’re deciding on the next book to read, look at the sample on Amazon or, if you’re still supporting bookshops, pick up a hard copy. If it has a prologue, read it, and ask yourself if it fits into any of the criteria I’ve mentioned.  If it doesn’t, but it still hooks you in, let me know.  I’m not claiming this is an exhaustive list, so I’ll be happy to add to it.

If anyone wants to give me feedback on my own prologue, follow this link and click on “look inside” for a free sample.

And, if you’re writing a prologue yourself, ask yourself whether it meets the criteria. But consider something else as well: how would the ending blend into theme music and a title sequence?

 

 

 

 

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Getting home last night, I was feeling pretty peeved. As it was past eleven and my partner was already settled down in bed, this probably wasn’t a great state to be in. I’m sure the last thing she needed was me ranting at the side of the bed.

So what had brought my irritation on? The Man From UNCLE.

Believe it or not, I’m too young to have seen the TV series when it was first aired. But I do remember seeing re-runs and the movie versions in the 1970s. As a boy, I lapped up the excitement and adventure in the same way I did watching The Saint, The Avengers and James Bond.

It’s been a while since I last saw The Man From UNCLE , so I’m sure my memories are fragmented and imbued with a rosy tint. That was certainly the case when I watched old episodes of The Avengers recently. But there were certain characteristics of the franchise very familiar to fans.

Without exception, none of these were present in the new movie. In fact, the only similarities were the names of the key characters. From that point of view, I’d have enjoyed the film more with a completely different title and if there’d been no Napoleon Solo or Illya Kuryakin.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re going to make a movie based on an old TV series you are, by default, appealing to the fans. But what the fans want is to see more of the stuff they saw in the past. Of course, you need to freshen things up a bit (frankly, you wouldn’t get away with some of the storylines from ‘60s TV shows these days), but you still need to feed the nostalgia.

Funnily enough, the week before I’d been to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and that was brilliant. Probably not a lot of plot, but all the elements were there to make an exciting film, with enough nods to the original to pander to us nostalgia freaks.

To be fair, the Mission Impossible films haven’t always worked for me, but that’s been down to the style of filming rather than a lack of appeal to the nostalgic in me. But in the main they’ve worked, so I wondered last night why MI worked and UNCLE didn’t. After all, at least the main characters were still in place for UNCLE.

Spoiler alert for the few who haven’t seen the first MI film. If you don’t want to know a key plot point, stop reading now.

The character most associated with MI is Jim Phelps, and he appeared in the first movie. But in a neat twist he became the bad guy. This was a master stroke. It made seeing a different actor playing the part more palatable, whilst allowing the introduction of a new main character.

More importantly, the films retained core elements of the series – the lit fuse, self-destructing messages, ingenious masks, breaking into impregnable vaults (the impossible bit) or the instantly recognisable theme music.

So MI brought the concept up to date, whilst pandering to the nostalgics who love to be reminded of our childhood.

UNCLE, on the other hand, missed everything that I loved about it. Henry Cavill’s Solo lacked the easy amiability Robert Vaughn brought to the part. Armie Hammer played Kuryakin as a giant blunt instrument with feelings, while David McCallum’s version had an underplayed sensitivity, but was also more of a geek. There weren’t even the little references that would tickle the old fans’ fancies – no tailor’s shop fronting UNCLE HQ, no THRUSH, no “Open Channel D”. They didn’t even use the theme music.

I appreciate you’ve got to bring the thing up to date, so it’ll appeal to current audiences. I also recognise that, because of the way the film ended, it’s intended as background to show the formation of the United Network Command for Law Enforcement (just in case you weren’t sure). For that reason, UNCLE wasn’t even mentioned until the closing lines of the film. Even so, the producers needed to give us something familiar to latch on to, otherwise they may as well have just started a new franchise altogether.

To be fair, UNCLE isn’t the first such film to miss the point. The aforementioned Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel, not Tony Stark and cronies) was a complete disaster, as was the Val Kilmer version of The Saint. In the case of The Avengers, the whole concept worked in the ‘60s but just doesn’t fit make sense in any other era. The Saint really just missed the whole point, abandoning Leslie Charteris’ vision and that of any previous film and TV adaptations.

I know you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Hell, I know from my experience with Ravens Gathering that some people love it, some hate it. So I realise my comments simply reflect my opinion. I also appreciate that bringing an old franchise back means walking a fine line to get it right. But personally I think anyone trying to do the same thing in the future should look at what went right for Mission Impossible and, by the same token, Doctor Who. Change it by all means, but keep well-loved key elements.

So, because it wasn’t included, I’ll close with something that might bring back memories. If it doesn’t, and you’ve seen the new movie, just think how much better it would have been with something like this as a soundtrack…

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Brian Clemens is dead.  I only just spotted that on the BBC News website.  To be fair, a lot of people won’t even know who he was.  Why would they?

When you think about a TV series you enjoy, it’s easy to remember the stars, or recall the brilliant action sequences, the stunts and the special effects.  We’ve even got caught up in the dialogue.  One of the key ingredients of The Professionals was the banter between Bodie and Doyle.  It felt natural, so much so that the actors often took credit for it.  Not just the easy manner in which they spoke, but the words themselves.

The reality, though, is that – however good the acting was – they wouldn’t have had anything to work with if it wasn’t for writers who put together the storylines and provided the dialogue.

That point aside, as I’ve matured, I’ve realised how important men like Brian Clemens were.  Without their creativity, we wouldn’t have had (in Clemens case), TV shows like The Avengers and The Professionals.  Perhaps a little dated now, but they certainly captured the imaginations of those of us around to witness their heydays.  Of course, he had other successes as well, regularly writing for other major TV series in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as well as being involved in film and theatre.  But, for me, that period was a particularly creative time.  And he was among those whose writing could have me on the edge of my seat.

I was a child when I first encountered the Cybernauts (not to be confused with Doctor Who’s Cybermen, who came along later).  I was transfixed by their steady pace, unchanging regardless of how fast or slow their prey was moving, underlining the conviction that their victim’s fate was sealed.  Without showing any gore, they were simply terrifying.

Not that we should dwell on what turned out to be only a couple of episodes from the 150+ total.  But they do represent one of Clemens’s great characteristics.  The Avengers started out as a show about crime-fighting borne from a need to avenge someone’s murder.  By the time the series ended, elements of sci-fi and fantasy had been played with as well as a lot of humour.  Not one to be pigeon-holed, our Brian, which really appeals to me.

And let’s not forget one of my favourite parts of any TV programme – at least where we’ve got adventure, action, crime, mystery, horror or suspense (are there any other kinds?) – the pre-title sequence.  The key word in my list just now was suspense.  For a pre-title sequence to work, it had to finish at just the right moment, leaving the viewer desperate to know why something just happened, or what happened next.  And that’s down to the writing, isn’t it?  Okay, the director can decide how long he wants to leave a camera lingering, but they’re still going to be guided by the writing.  The Avengers did it brilliantly, as did The Professionals.

That sense of drama was prevalent in many TV series of that period – The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk (deceased), Department S (oh, yes, I know the really random stuff…).  And Brian Clemens was one of the leading writers of that time, setting standards that we should all aspire to now.  Yes, some of it was OTT and it’s true that some production values wouldn’t pass muster nowadays (have you watched an episode of Jason King recently?), but for escapism and sheer entertainment, they offered great value.

More importantly, in those early days of TV they set new standards, bringing new ideas to the screen and triggering imaginations all over – mine certainly.  So we owe Brian and his fellow writers a lot.  They must’ve had a lot of fun – and they took us along for the ride.  For that, I’ll always be grateful.

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I was out on Saturday evening, so had to wait until Sunday to watch Death in Heaven, the series finale of Doctor Who. Strange, isn’t it? I’m a 51 year old man who watches Doctor Who. What’s even stranger is that I know I’m not alone. And I suspect I’m also not the only non-geek or -Whovian (I believe there’s a difference, but you have to look closely) who watches it.

Clearly there is an attraction for viewers who didn’t see the Doctor in his pre-nineties incarnations. And, yes, I am ignoring Paul McGann’s brief visit, but that’s only because he wasn’t around long enough for us to really buy into his character. Like many other series (TV or movie), part of its success is that, at one level or another, the viewer identifies with the characters. But, and here’s the point I wanted to make, there are an awful lot of older people like me who tune into a programme that is essentially a kids show.

Now, before the dedicated Whovians throw their sonic screwdrivers out of their prams, do hear me out. I know I’m being somewhat cavalier with your feelings here, and appear to be dismissive about your chosen allegiances. Please don’t take it personally – it’s only banter (and I will talk more about “geeks” and “anoraks” in a separate post that’s coming soon). Instead, let’s focus on the serious point I want to make.

I watch Doctor Who as a means of recapturing something from my youth: a sense of excitement and expectation; the sense of wonder I felt when turning the TV on, knowing creative minds would take me to worlds I’d never experience in reality.

The big irony here is that I didn’t actually watch Who much when I was a kid. So it’s more the association with my youth than actually replaying it. And yet, if you watched the finale and you are a certain age, you’d have experienced several moments of nostalgia that were nothing to do with the Doctor.

The reference to Cloudbase will have struck a chord with Gerry Anderson fans, many of whom would have been shouting at the screen to correct the idiot who seemed to think it featured in Thunderbirds. Of course, that was just the writers playing with us, getting us involved. Clever writers.

Then there was the sequence where the plane was breached and characters were sucked out of it. Cross-reference Goldfinger, shortly followed by the pre-title sequence from Moonraker as the Doctor freefalls to the TARDIS. (Did I mention there were spoilers in this post?)

And talking of pre-title sequences, didn’t this one grab your attention? Just like they’re supposed to, like they did in the days of The Avengers, and Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. When Clara told the Cyberman she was the Doctor and the camera closed in on her face, you just knew it was time for the theme music to start.

So, although I refer to Doctor Who as a kids show, I know it’s more than that. It’s a show that appeals to anyone who enjoys escapism, action, adventure, strategically placed humour and clever writing (did I mention that last one already?). And, of course, people like me who remember their formative TV years as being filled with more of that creativity than the “reality” dross that requires limited imagination and presumably even more limited budgets.

I’d be lying if I said I thought Doctor Who was perfect. It doesn’t always work for me, but it works more often than not, which is good enough to keep me watching when it returns. In the mean time, I’ll look elsewhere for my nostalgia fix.

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Katrina Marie

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