Film review: Official Secrets.

‘Are you sure you want to watch this one?’ Ray said. ‘I mean, what about a film where we don’t know the outcome?’

I said, ‘But look at the cast list, Keira Knightly, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Grieg… it’s a who’s who of British talent. Can they all be wrong?’

Ray shrugged, ‘It’s your choice.’

‘We can watch another, if you like. You choose.’

‘No, no,’ he said. ‘Official Secrets it is. I just can’t see how it’s going to be entertaining to watch when we know that it ends with a war. I mean where’s the story?’

‘That’s what I’m curious about,’ I said.

I turned off the light, pulled the curtains on the torrents of summer rain pouring down the window, and Ray hit ‘play’.

A courtroom, paneled in dark wood, with Kenneth Cranham high up on the bench in his wig and gowns, was the grim face of British justice. Keira Knightly walked nervously up from the cells and into the dock to be faced with that eternal question, ‘How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?’

There was a pause. The camera panned closer to her face. What did it say? Which way would she jump? All I could read was apprehension.

Then the opening titles came up.

‘Did she do it, though?’ Ray said.

I couldn’t remember much. I vaguely recalled some of the lead-up to the trial, the headlines and the furore. But there had been so much anger, back then, so much heated debate, everywhere. I’d even witnessed it surging over into classrooms where I’d had to improvise ways to divert it into something creative.

‘We’ll just have to let it all unfold,’ I said, as the story flashbacked to 2003. That’s what we did.

There was nothing lazy about the way the story was delivered. It began with some brief orientation scenes when Ray and I played do-we-recognise-that-location, because these events began not far from our own doorstep.

Soon we were inside one of the most secret buildings in the country. As we number friends and neighbours who do or have worked there, but say nothing about it, this was also fascinating, even if fictional.

Katharine Gun’s dilemma was the first email she opened. We knew that she was going to end up in court, charged with breaking the official secrets act, and yet, the film kept both of us gripped. This was not about action, it looked at motivation, and not just Katharine’s.

Equally fascinating were the discussions about her email release in the newspaper office, and amongst the legal teams. Characters argued with conviction for each side of the debates that led up to the invasion of Iraq by British and American forces, and from a variety of stand-points.

In a way, watching with the knowledge that Katharine’s actions would not achieve their intended actions, added to the tension. It was not the story Ray had dreaded, a predictable rehashing of recent events. There may not have been guns, car crashes or bloody action, but there was drama.

It was personal, and believable. Strengths and weaknesses of arguments and motives were explored. We saw, close up, how actions impacted on relationships.

At the end, I found myself thinking about the way we understand events, and wondering about the kinds of impressions we store in our memories. In retrospect, I could see how important this story had been, yet I’d remembered so little of it. Only as I watched did I realise I’d conflated a couple of similar cases with this one.

No doubt, a contra version of this story could be told. That is, after all, the way history should be written.

It may be that I liked this film so much because I it reflected my own sympathies. What this fiction of true events, this docu-drama, did for me, was to make me think about justice, and how lazily I accept the winning version of where and how it is presented.

Even if there was a clear slant to this version, back then, at the times of the document leak, and the trials, my view of Katharine had almost certainly been tainted by powerful voices on the mirror side of this story.

Official Secrets is a film I want to watch again, soon. In part, for the convincing characters, but also because it was about me. I’ve been left asking the question, ‘how would I respond to a similar test?’

Daphne du Maurier: truth and fiction.

I picked up Margaret Forster’s 1993 biography of Daphne du Maurier looking for a little background on My Cousin Rachel, nothing more. I quickly discovered that you can’t just drop into the middle of Daphne’s life and then walk away. Or rather, when you look up 1949 you’re faced with a lot of statements that imply a mass of missed backstory.

Ellen was rightly worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward. But what saved her friend was what had always saved and rescued her: the very work she saw as fatal to her human relationships. In Florence, Daphne had felt the first faint stirrings of a novel about a woman, a widow like Ellen, who would have many of Ellen’s characteristics and even look like her: the point of the novel would be that this woman was the source of great torment to others.

I’m nosy. I found the simple answers I’d hoped for, but they carried with them a lot more questions. Who was Ellen? What kind of torment was she to du Maurier? What did ‘distorted view‘ mean?

Here was a writer who’d been on my shelves since my young teenage. I can still remember being gripped by, The Loving Spirit. She’d rarely let me down. I particularly liked the strand of Gothic that threaded it’s way through so much of her long and short fiction.

Some of her books carried her photo. It was a rather lovely, kindly, face, I thought. Other publicity, of her sailing with her husband, or playing with her children, left me with an impression of a sun-lit, sea-bound, model family. For years, if I imagined her life at all, it was one of endless summers.

I know, how impossible is that? Still, it didn’t necessarily follow that the alternative would be anything significant, or ground shaking, did it?

How wrong I was. The story of du Maurier, according to Forster, is a very modern one. It includes a dominant father, a strong but distant mother, and questions about gender identity and sexual freedom. All of this is played out in the early years of the twentieth century, largely in London.

A biography written by a novelist might be expected to explore character, to look for the motivations and inciting incidents that lead to a career as a successful and prolific writer. I found myself caring about Daphne in the same way I cared about Rachel and Philip in, My Cousin Rachel.

There were moments when I pulled back from the biography and reminded myself that du Maurier was a real woman. Then I began to ask myself questions about her right to privacy.

Like any other narrator, Forster had chosen which scenes we would see, which fragment of diary or letter to share. If I was questioning the narrator in My Cousin Rachel, shouldn’t I also question Forster?

When I look again at my first quote, I have a perfect example of where my discomfort comes from. It’s the occasional inclusion of a word, like ‘rightly‘. Take it away and I feel less pushed.

Ellen was worried by Daphne’s increasingly distorted view of her life and tried to console and put an alternative, more attractive hypothesis forward.

I probably seem niggly. This kind of direction is so slight, it’s questionable whether there is an intention to direct. But then there’s:

It was as though she…

Or even:

The whole tone of her letters was one of outraged distress…

As in any biography, there are gaps in the evidence. Sometimes because du Maurier had written about the same event in contrasting ways, to different people, at others because nothing had been written at all, and yet other people had supplied details of actions.

This is the point at which hypothesis has to take over, however unsatisfactory…

I wish Forster had trusted me to draw my own conclusions. Worse, were the times when Forster insisted on summing up a situation after she’d presented the evidence.

If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.

My favourite moment? It’s from a letter written by the senior editor to Victor Gollancz, about the manuscript of her novel, Rebecca.

…brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense… I don’t know another author who imagines so hard all the time. …the spelling is quite incredible.

I take heart any time I find an author who has struggled with spelling, aside from the typos, mine seems to get worse and werse.

*Photo on header, of Fowey, Cornwall, by Alan Hearn

Mythical Maps

Sometimes, I leave Emily-the-sat-nav on, when I’m returning from my destination on a known route home, just to see if I can annoy her.  It’s purely in the interests of education, you understand.  I have a feeling she’s been repressed, and requires exposure to the frustrations of everyday modern life.

So, when she says, ‘Recalculating,’ I reply, ‘Please wait, while we try to connect you.’  She remains calm, despite my continued refusal to turn right at any of the several next junctions. 

I’ve never quite trusted her ability to maintain such calm.  Somewhere under that po-faced-tone is a sense of humour, I’m sure. If there is no personality, why has she been given a human name?  

The Urban Dictionary says that: 
A girl with the name Emily can be very shy at first, but she doesn’t show it. Once an Emily gets to know you, she may get a little crazy. An Emily is usually artistic. They tend to hide their emotions, they’re good problem solvers and very flexible with schedules.

Clearly, sat-nav-Emily needs encouragement to reach her full potential.  So, I keep a tatty old map book behind the seat, and periodically, I do Observation Reports on Emily’s navigation skills.  Her potential gradings are ‘Exceptional’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement,’ or ‘Inadequate.’  

Up to now, there’s been little change in my feedback:  While Emily is technically competent, she lacks zing or charm.  Accuracy is all very well, but her delivery is dry.  I’m not suggesting she needs to go so far as, ‘here be monsters,’ but a little colour might liven up a delivery that borders on monotony.  There have been times when Emily has failed to put her point across effectively, even at full volume.  Hence my grading is: Requires Improvement.

Suggested Actions: Emily should familiarise herself with some A-Zs, which are rumoured to contain jokes, and even some of the older maps, which demonstrate charm, imagination and artfulness while still maintaining their basic accuracy.

*Image taken from: No Mean Prospect: Ralph Sheldon’s Tapestry Maps, by Hilary L. Turner.

Watching Marlon Brando: thoughts about story.

Saturday evening I watched a documentary about Marlon Brando.  The program, presented by Alan Yentob, used a lot of private Brando footage as well as the usual publicity material and film excerpts.  He was a more reflective man than I’d expected.  I suppose what I remember, aside from the iconic films, are the flamboyant marlonbrandomj096ftnews-stories that surrounded him.

I’ve never really thought about the human side of his life-in-the-headlines, until I listened to what he had to say, not only about his private life, but also about his acting.  What I heard were doubts and fears I could identify with.

It wasn’t one of those destructive, feet-of-clay shows that revel in demonstrating how flawed our best-loved celebrities really are.  This felt more like the rounding out of a character that I’d never quite been able to see.  At the end I had insights into a way of life beyond my usual experiences, and sympathy for a lifestyle that I’d viewed as shallowly flamboyant.  Those ideas may or may not be accurate: what matters is that my perceptions shifted…perhaps widened?  I hope so.

I didn’t stay up to watch On The Waterfront that night, but I will go back to some of his films.  I have an idea that knowing more about him will affect the way I view them.

I’m reminded that at the heart of most good stories is character, flawed, to lesser or greater degree.  What dictates where the empathy of the reader, or viewer, will be placed is how the story is presented.  Thinking about fiction particularly, aren’t some of the most interesting, and memorable characters the ones whose behaviour we find challenging, even scary – or offensive?

One of the theories about why we read, is that we read to understand.  I like that, both from the angle of writing and reading…both work for me.



Why don’t we tell people, you’re special, more often?

David Bowie as Ziggy StardustI never bought a David Bowie record, but when I look back I find that his songs illuminate some key moments in my life.  It’s not something I was conscious of until this week, when I’ve been hearing fragments of his songs most days and found myself washed over with nostalgia.  Judging by the quantity of tributes across the media I suppose something of the same effect has been experienced by many of us.

Suddenly, we are discovering how artful his life was, even the ending, as it coincides with the release of his latest album.  Critics are analyzing his lyrics, thinking about the significance of who he was and what he created.  Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

Crumpling a newspaper to set up the fire this morning, I read fragments of scandal about this or that celebrity being proved to have the same clay-like feet as the rest of us.  For the successful, it seems this is the only alternative story to the reports of their death.

After all, this is journalism.  The definition of News is newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent events.  A problem for journalists is that they can only write the surface of a character.  Bowie seemed able to exploit this.  I’m amazed by how much I seem to know about him.

Alan-Rickman-by-Andy-GottOn the other hand, the actor Alan Rickman, who also died this week, and is someone I have looked out for in films and trusted to deliver quality entertainment, I knew nothing about until after his death.  Whether villain, hero or support, he convinced.

What made these two artists special for me, was their ability to convey characterizations.  To see either man perform was to believe them.

With Bowie, I’m reminded that scandal for the artist, is not about shock in the sense of a newspaper, which tends to reinforce our prejudices, it is about pushing us to look beyond narrow and easy perspectives.

Here’s an Alan Rickman quote that seems to sum up something of what the lives of both men stand for to me:

“The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.”


Keepsakes and Treasure Seekers

You see this box?DSCF6030It was a thank-you gift.

Someone who noticed how I like boxes thought I would appreciate it

I did.  It was not a big box, being shorter than a penguin paperback, but deeper.  If you look closely you’ll see that it’s made from good quality materials; that the surface has a linen-like texture and the edges are beveled.  I liked the solid design and the simplicity of the logo, though I didn’t know who Jo Malone was, or what they sold.  DSCF6031

What made it really special was that it was offered filled with mementos.   It told the story of a writing weekend, but here was a different view of where we’d been and what had happened.


For nearly a year this box has been on the edge of my desk.  Sometimes I open it, but mostly I remember what is inside.

I haven’t put this with my other boxes, because this one does something different.  It doesn’t just transport me back to another time and place, it also paints a portrait of the person who selected the contents.

Potter, on truths in fiction, and where that takes me…

It’s a function of fiction to tell truths…Documentaries don’t tell truths…they show you what is there, but they don’t mediate it through the truths of all the complications, all the inner subtleties of why this person is like that, why that person is like this.  What drama is for [is] to tell truths.

Dennis Potter, p11, Potter on Potter

Ah yes, Dennis Potter, remember him?  TV dramatist, master of the lip-synch drama, where actors mimed along to popular songs as part of the plot.  His plays were neither classic musical, nor standard play format (is there one though?).  The Potter works I remember best are The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, Lipstick on Your Collar, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.  In different ways, I found each of them magical.

Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis Potter

Blue Remembered Hills
by Dennis Potter

Want to know why we write?  Watch a Dennis Potter play and see where it catches you: if it does. He was considered controversial, so you don’t have to ‘get’ him, but it’s worth thinking about what he did and how.

To ‘tell truths’ was no idle boast for him.  Much of his material came from his own experiences, and he didn’t mind us knowing that.  Sometimes it was uncomfortable watching, often humorous, occasionally sentimental.  He didn’t stick closely to  events for fiction, though, that’s the thing that struck me when occasionally someone from his past would appear in a newspaper with the ‘real’ story of what had happened.  Potter said, ‘The way you think you know about the past is like the way you remember a dream on waking’.

It’s a useful idea to hold on to, for those of us who create fiction from the stories of our pasts, and these days there seem to be an increasing number of faction writers.  It might help keep us from getting stuck in the rut of, ‘Yes, but that’s the way it was,’ justification when someone queries a story event. That’s never happened to you?  Well done.  For the rest of us, at some point, haven’t we found ourselves in a workshop situation, defending a story rather than looking at why it hasn’t worked?

When you’re writing, it can be tricky to see what’s wrong.  After all, you know what happened, because you were either there, or told about it by someone who was.   You would seem to have a framework to write to, and that’s what most of us wish for, isn’t it?

Clipart-creative caveman chiseling a light bulb, royalty free vector illustration

Clipart-creative caveman chiseling a light bulb, royalty free vector illustration

Well, yes and no.  Sorry to be so imprecise, but it really does depend on the writer.  Some are mappers, plotting things out on postcards or computer programmes and writing easily within the framework we create.  For others, following structure rigidly can lead us astray. Why?

I’m going to be audacious here, and make a sweeping diagnosis of characterisation problems.  Because when our focus is too firmly on touching each event on the way to a given goal, we risk losing sight of who we were writing about, and most stories, even those that are full of action, are really about character.  Each of the Potter titles I’ve mentioned involve complex characters interacting with each other.  The technical term is, fully rounded.

Fully rounded characters are so well formed that you can find yourself writing something other than the well planned plot you thought they would fit into.

‘Hang on,’ I think I hear you say, ‘isn’t that thing about characters taking over their stories a writing-fairytale?’

Not for me.  I’ve had it happen both on the page and when I did a story performance.  And I found that second incident by far the scariest and most rewarding to recover from, but that’s another story.

I think most successful stories build from a fully rounded character.  So we’re not just thinking physical details here, height, weight, colourings, clothes, these are superficial descriptions.  If you’re writing about something that really happened, chances are you’ve built a character based on a real person.  But, how much do you really know about anyone else? I believe that we need to know our main characters at least as well as ourselves, perhaps better.

Do you know what you would save if your home was on fire and you had two minutes to grab something?  Do you know why you’d have chosen that thing?  Do you know what you would do if that thing became lost to you?

A lot of the time we work by instincts, don’t we?  Somewhere in our subconscious there is probably a logic to what we do, but we don’t always need to chase that up.

I’m not advising that you should start psycho-analyzing your character either, but if they are going to act and react naturally in the story, they need to be rounded enough to have their own instincts.  What would they save?  It might not be the same thing that you would, and if you’ve based your character on a friend, I doubt whether you’ve picked the same item they would name, no matter how close you are.

So it stands to reason, surely, that if your fully-rounded character cannot be quite the same as the person who was your inspiration, they might act differently at some point, and therefore, re-direct your neatly arranged plot.  That’s a good thing, honestly.

Here’s another thought too, could it be that those writers who plot everything out in advance don’t necessarily stick rigidly to the original plan?

Keep writing and it should happen.