Archive for the ‘brexit’ Tag

Story Structure

In recent years the word and concept of Story has become fetishised. Every dull brand has a story, every prostituted hack is a storyteller. But despite this cheapening, Story remains a fascinating aspect of human behaviour. I have been interested in the structures underlying Story for many years. A couple of landmarks were being sent, on my second job, at Melrose Film Productions by my boss and mentor the late Peter Cole (ex-BBC Panorama), on an early outing of Robert McKee’s Story course in London. And reading Into The Woods by my former Channel 4 colleague John Yorke (Head of Drama).

robert mckee story book and course

Also on the McKee course, which has since become something of a screen industry cliche, were John Cleese, Joanna Hogg and a famous British sci-fi writer, I think it was Brian Aldiss but I forget. It took place at the Liberal Club off Northumberland Avenue over a weekend and it was a profound experience. I remember writing to McKee after to thank him for a transformational couple of days.

into the woods book john yorke

Into The Woods I found a great synthesis of the various theories I’d heard over the years.

Another key experience was the first time I worked on a development with my Little Dot colleague Paul Woolf. I was a Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 at the time and he was a senior Development Producer at Maverick TV. He is now based in Philadelphia heading up Unscripted Development in the US for Little Dot Studios and we’ve been working together closely throughout 2019 – a lot of Skyping. I was struck by how Paul applied story archetypes to the factual entertainment programme we were developing at the time – not an obvious tactic but it worked really well.

I use concepts of Story Structure all the time in developing documentaries, even when derived from sources more focused on movie and drama scriptwriting. In the area I work in much of the time, short form online docs, there is a tendency to neglect narrative and default to what are in effect mini character portraits. I’m a real Story merchant, pushing all the time for narrative drive in documentaries.

violet vixen poster real stories original documentary

A good example is the recent Real Stories Original Violet Vixen. The young director, Leanne Rogers, brought me some lovely footage centred on Leo, a charismatic 11 year old exploring his gender identity. But there was little story in place. I gave her a commission for a 25-minute doc on the proviso that she add an element to up the narrative drive. I suggested she encouraged Leo (and his mum) to go see his hero. It turned out his hero was Courtney Act, drag queen graduate of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Leanne managed to pull off the encounter and the trip down to Brighton to meet Courtney (the charming Shane Jenek) gave the film a spine. Our timing was lucky too as Courtney won Celebrity Big Brother while we were in the edit – he has since been given his own show on Channel 4 this Christmas.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last year thinking about Story Structure. My starting point was reflecting on Why Do Us Humans Love and Tell Stories?

Cavemen at camp fire telling stories cartoon

My conclusions in brief can be summarised thus:

* to distract us / entertain us
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences
* to get a sense of there being order
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations
* to get guidance on how to understand other people
* to connect to others through shared experience
* to pass on information
* to pass on values
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison)

All of these seem to me to grow out of our Human Condition and the imperatives of evolution.

* to distract us / entertain us – the world is a tough place
* to find meaning / patterns in our experiences – evolution has made us great pattern spotters
* to get a sense of there being order – we need a sense of meaning and purpose
* to think about what we would do in the circumstances / rehearse situations – we’re more likely to survive if we’re well prepared
* to get guidance on how to understand other people – we’re more likely to thrive if we have insight into how our fellow bald monkeys think
* to connect to others through shared experience – we have an inherent need to belong (to the family and tribe and race)
* to pass on information – e.g. to help our offspring survive & thrive
* to pass on values – to help our society run smoothly
* to define our identity/give us common ground/bind the group – we need the group to survive
* to feel better about our lives (by comparison) – the world is a tough place.

In the same way, archetypal stories grow directly out of the human condition. Let’s start at the beginning – Birth. One of the main story structures is Paradise Lost. We spend nine months floating around in a benign place, well fed, nicely muffled sound, a steady reliable rhythm of heartbeat. And then we get ejected. Into a tough place.

When I was doing some research on that second job at Melrose I went down to the old Docklands to meet a bloke whose big theory was that the trauma of Birth was the defining moment of our whole lives. I’ve reflected on that from time to time over the years and I buy it more and more.

So what I’m calling the Paradise Lost story is: I was in a perfect place. I got ejected. I need to get back there. I reckon this is reflected in all sorts of human behaviour from people tending to drift back in their later years to where they grew up (or a place similar to it) to men spending so much time and effort trying to get back up that little birth canal. This story is intimately linked to the concept of Home.

It’s the central human story of the Bible – the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s there in The Godfather – Michael gets sent off to Sicily after tasting the forbidden fruit of illegal killing (the murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey) and works his way back not just to the family kitchen but also to the desk in the background. It’s there in Where The Wild Things Are – Max gets sent to his room and from there finds himself in that wild place, it’s fun but he’s happy to sail back to the peace of his childhood bed.

al-pacino godfather murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey

Of course it also the story of both Trump and Brexit as highlighted in John Harris’ excellent 3-parter for BBC Radio 4, The Tyranny of Story, which has been repeated this week. “Make America Great Again” – America was a great place (e.g. in the post-war 50s boom); that disappeared; Trump is going to bring it back. “Take Back Control” – Britain was a great place (e.g. when we had an empire); that disappeared; Brexit is going to bring it back. Neither Hilary nor Remain came up with an effective counter-narrative.

where the wild things are maurice sendak book childrens

Over the holidays I’m going to reflect more on the connection between the human lifecycle (both as individuals and a species) and the core human stories.

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Anthem for the Age of Brexit & Trump

Plus ca change. Better to laugh than cry…

There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner
(by Noel Coward)

They’re out of sorts in Sunderland
And terribly cross in Kent,
They’re dull in Hull
And the Isle of Mull
Is seething with discontent,

They’re nervous in Northumberland
And Devon is down the drain,
They’re filled with wrath
On the firth of Forth
And sullen on Salisbury Plain,

In Dublin they’re depressed, lads,
Maybe because they’re Celts
For Drake is going West, lads,
And so is everyone else.

Hurray, hurray, hurray!
Misery’s here to stay.
There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it’s no good whining
About a silver lining
For we know from experience that they won’t roll by,
With a scowl and a frown
We’ll keep our peckers down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread,
We’re going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.

From Portland Bill to Scarborough
They’re querulous and subdued
And Shropshire lads
Have behaved like cads
From Berwick-on-Tweed to Bude,

They’re mad at Market Harborough
And livid at Leigh-on-Sea,
In Tunbridge Wells
You can hear the yells
Of woe-begone bourgeoisie.

We all get bitched about, lads,
Whoever our vote elects,
We know we’re up the spout, lads.
And that’s what England expects.

Hurray, hurray, hurray!
Trouble is on the way.
There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon’s gloomy as can be,
There are black birds over
The grayish cliffs of Dover
And the rats are preparing to leave the BBC
We’re an unhappy breed
And very bored indeed
When reminded of something that Nelson said.
While the press and the politicians nag nag nag
We’ll wait until we drop down dead.

From Colwyn Bay to Kettering
They’re sobbing themselves to sleep,
The shrieks and wails
In the Yorkshire dales
Have even depressed the sheep.

In rather vulgar lettering
A very disgruntled group
Have posted bills
On the Cotswold Hills
To prove that we’re in the soup.

While begging Kipling’s pardon
There’s one thing we know for sure
If England is a garden
We ought to have more manure.

Hurray, hurray, hurray!
Suffering and dismay.
There are bad times just around the corner
And the outlook’s absolutely vile,
There are Home Fires smoking
From Windermere to Woking
And we’re not going to tighten our belts and smile, smile, smile,
At the sound of a shot
We’d just as soon as not
Take a hot water bottle and go to bed,
We’re going to un-tense our muscles till they sag sag sag
And wait until we drop down dead.

There are bad times just around the corner,
We can all look forward to despair,
It’s as clear as crystal
From Bridlington to Bristol
That we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care
If the Reds and the Pinks
Believe that England stinks
And that world revolution is bound to spread,
We’d better all learn the lyrics of the old ‘Red Flag’
And wait until we drop down dead.

A likely story
Land of Hope and Glory,
Wait until we drop down dead.

Enemies of the People – part 2

april-fools-day

The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?

Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy of the People (1882)

Enemies of the People

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hurrah-for-the-blackshirts

hurrah-blackshirts2german-jews-pouring-into-this-country

The roots of the Brexit

Screenshot 2016-06-25 12.48.43

Picking up from my post in the run-up to the Brexit vote about Democracy, Control & Project Fantasy I see the roots of yesterday’s dark shock as being in the same realm –  the fundamental weakness of British democracy due to lack of proportional representation.

David Cameron offered the in/out referendum in January 2013 to appease members of his own party and keep the Conservatives yoked together in the run-up to the May 2015 general election. If the First-past-the-post voting system was not so inimicable to the third party and below, we could be looking at a much fairer and more democratic landscape in the UK.

The tension in the Tory party is down to the fact that it is not really a single party. There could be a centrist conservative party and a more right-wing one.

Likewise on the Left, the Labour Party is forever jumping through hoops to get round the fact it is not really a single party. It too could exist as a Socialist party and another Social Democrat one.

And that would still leave room for a Liberal party in the centre ground, as well as narrower/more focused parties from the Greens to UKIP making up a healthier, more diverse offering.

Instead we are looking at a riven Conservative Party, a leaderless Labour Party, a destroyed Liberal Party and what was a disenfranchised UKIP, whose followers have now taken revenge.

The way many Tories in particular (largely the ones that went on to back the Leave campaign) stifled and undermined the last UK referendum (May 2011) on voting reform was disgusting and ultimately very damaging as yesterday proved.

Brexit

I’m still absorbing yesterday’s dark news. Keeping these to capture the feeling…

Screenshot 2016-06-25 09.39.53

Screenshot 2016-06-25 09.46.01

Democracy, Control & Project Fantasy

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Yesterday’s Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 was a special edition in the wake of the murder of Jo Cox. There was no studio audience and the panel was made up of commentators rather than politicians. What cheered my heart to some degree, in the midst of a moronic and deceitful referendum and a tragic assassination, was that two disparate journalists, Polly Toynbee of The Guardian and Peter Oborne of the Daily Mail, emphasised the desperate need for voting reform and some meaningful form of proportional representation.

I have voted in every election in my adult life – for 34 years – until the recent London mayoral election which I did not turn out for because I didn’t care for either of the main candidates. In those 42 years I have never elected a single person. Because I’m a liberal by nature, though even when I’ve voted otherwise/tactically, as in May 2015, I’ve still made no difference.

In Anita Anand’s Any Answers phone-in after the programme an MP’s chief of staff rang in and threw away that great cliche that in our democracy we “can always vote them out”. But we can’t. I haven’t been able to.

We have a highly overrated ‘democracy’ in which elections have boiled down to become focused on a tiny minority of swing voters in marginal seats.

We have an increasingly disempowering ‘democracy’ in which a party like UKIP gets millions of votes but one seat only, gets three times as many votes as the SNP but 1/56th of the representation in Parliament. How should those millions of UKIP voters feel in the wake of that most depressing election? I’ve no particular sympathy for the UKIP perspective but I don’t believe their supporters’ votes should be without value or real meaning.

As I was walking along the river in Winchester yesterday evening I spotted a Leave campaign poster at the back of an affluent house, with a URL  including the words “take control”. I would contend that even if we took back sovereignty from the EU we would continue to have no real control. At least ‘we the people’ would not. We the politicians, many of whom are elected on well under 50% of the vote, indeed many on under 30%, may gain even more unearned control and fundamentally undemocratic power.

UK democracy has been severely wounded and bleeding out long before the horrendous murder of Jo Cox, by all accounts a representative of great integrity, selfless conviction and beautiful character. Her death is tragic. Her killer’s state of mind is sadly poisonous. The referendum debate is toxic with hate and mendacity. I’ll go vote on Thursday – but with a deep sense of disempowerment and little feeling of hope…

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