Sunday, 20 November 2016

Dystopia: Not a place I want to visit

I was sitting in a pub a few nights ago and the subject of favourite comedy films came up. And as we chatted, various candidates surfaced and were discussed ... Withnail and I, Groundhog Day, Life of Brian, Airplane, This is Spinal Tap, Beetlejuice, Home Alone, Galaxy Quest, Dumb and Dumber, Blazing Saddles, There's Something about Mary, The Jerk, Carry On Screaming, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Trading Places, Dr Strangelove, School for Scoundrels, The Three Amigos, Way Out West, Return of the Pink Panther ... and many more. And I was struck by the fact that almost none of the films we discussed were made in the 21st century.

Was it possible? Has there really not been a great comedy movie made in 16 years?

We racked our brains. 'Dodgeball wasn't bad', said one person.

'But is it destined to be a classic?' I asked. 'It's 12 years' old now - do people look at it in the same way as they look at The Blues Brothers or The Lavender Hill Mob? Will people still rave about it in 20 years' time?'

'Fair point', he said.

'The Men in Black films were quite funny,' said another.

'They were', I said. 'Though the first one was 1997.'

'The Naked Gun films?'

'1988 to 1994.'

'Ah! What about Napoleon Dynamite?'

'Yes, and Anchorman?'

They had a point. 2004 was an exceptional year for comedy films. It also gave us Sean of the Dead, Meet the Fockers, Mean Girls, The Incredibles and Team America: World Police. But barring this anomaly, has there been a genuine future classic since?

In January this year, Time Out magazine published its list of the 100 best comedy films of all time. There were just 17 post-millennial pictures included: Borat, Hot Fuzz, Superbad, School of Rock, Old School, The Royal Tenenbaums, Best in Show, In the Loop, Elf, Zoolander, Bridesmaids and Four Lions, plus the 2004 films already mentioned (The Incredibles didn't make the cut). How many of those could be called classics? Some, I would say, but not all.

The Top 5, incidentally, were Groundhog Day (1983), Annie Hall (1977), Life of Brian (1979), Airplane (1980) and This is Spinal Tap (1984) at Number 1. All made within a seven year period.

I kind-of assume that the list was composed by people younger than me because there were just a handful of black and white films and they were by big hitters like Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers. No mention of classic British comedies such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, I'm Alright Jack or Whiskey Galore! for example.

Now, to be fair, there's no right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding a list like this but I still stand by the fact that over 75% of the entries came from pre-2000 films. And even if we have had a few good 'uns since, the number of broad appeal hilarious comedies does seem to have dropped dramatically. Meanwhile the number of films set in some kind of dystopian, horror-filled post-apocalypse future Hell seem to be increasing exponentially.

How many more zombie movies do we need? How many more young adults do we need to see fighting to survive Hunger Games and Maze Running adventures? How many more alien invasions, earthquakes, floods, transport disasters? I'm fed up with it.

How about a little levity? I want to go to the cinema and roar with laughter at a new Trains, Planes and Automobiles. I want to be cheered by something with the cosy feel of Towed in a Hole or The Music Box. I want to hoot at terrible puns and bad jokes like I did with Young Frankenstein.

Am I really the only one who misses a gut-bustingly funny feelgood movie?

A few weeks ago (here) I wrote a similar whingeing tract about comedy in publishing. There's a real dearth of good mainstream humorous writing at the moment. Maybe that's why there's nothing to be made into good comedy movies?

The world is miserable enough without paying to see more, surely?

Oh and my Top 10?

10 - There's something about Mary (1998)

9 - Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

8 - Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

7 - National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)

6 - Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

5 - Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

4 - Withnail and I (1987)

3 - Trading Places (1983)

2 - This is Spinal Tap (1984)

1 - Way out West (1937)

Not a post-millennial among them.

Friday, 4 November 2016

The smokes you can't buy

What links the feature films The World's End and Hitchcock's Psycho? And what links them to Dick Van Dyke, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files? The answer, surprisingly, is a packet of fags.

The cigarettes in question are Morleys. And you can't buy them in any shops although you may find the occasional packet turning up on ebay for prices in excess of $150. And that's because Morley is a fictional brand used in film and TV to avoid problems with product placement or litigation. The packs you can buy are former props.

Morleys have a long and noble history. Here's a young William Shatner breaking open a packet in the classic 1963 The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. 

And here's Darrell finding a box of Morleys in a recent episode of The Walking Dead

That's at least 50 years of media appearances. The first I've been able to find is in the psychiatrist's scene at the end of Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960. They then pop up on TV in an 1961 episode of The Naked City. The following year they appear in an early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show in January 1962 as chocolate cigarettes given to a child, bizarrely. From then on, they were everywhere.

The original pack featured just the name and a horse logo but they soon morphed into something resembling the well-know Marlborough brand (often called 'Marleys').

There are hundreds of films and TV shows that feature Morleys but they really came to public notice with The X-Files when they became the brand of choice for the mysterious 'Cigarette Smoking Man'. Then Spike smoked them in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Simon Pegg's character smoked them all the way through The World's End.

So there you go. Arguably the most ubiquitous prop in TV and movie history is a packet of tabs. And Morleys aren't the only fake brand to have popped up across a range of shows. Quentin Tarantino films feature Red Apple cigarettes, Heisler beer has appeared in shows like Weeds, My Name is Earl and many others, Oceanic Airlines has appeared in shows like Lost, JAG, Fringe, Chuck and goes all the way back to an episode of dolphin-based TV show Flipper in the 1960s.

But perhaps the most regularly used fake item is a phone number. The area code 555 was reserved by phone companies for books, movies and TV shows. It's a good solution to the problem of a fictitious number becoming real one day. I wonder if there's a British equivalent?**

Have you noticed any more?

Oh, and if you like the whole 'surprising connections' thing, do consider getting hold of my first two books - Joined-Up Thinking and Constable Colgan's Connectoscope. Both contain chapters where every fact is connected to the one before it and the one after it. The facts also connect to facts in other chapters and even between the two books! Both books can be obtained from the usual online outlets (see links on the right of this page) and bookshops.

** Just an hour after posting this, a splendid chap called Tony Evans pointed me towards this link. How useful for writers and TV/film makers!

Monday, 24 October 2016

Never mind the fuel efficiency, look at the curves

As part of the research process for my novel A Murder To Die For I've been spending quite a lot of my time in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the novel is set in the present day, the plot centres - to some degree - around the life and works of a fictional crime fiction writer called Agnes Crabbe and her lady detective, Miss Millicent Cutter. Their story pretty much takes place between the wars and I've been immersing myself in the style and the fashion of the era to get a sense of it. And from a very early stage in the writing process I knew exactly what Miss Cutter would look like.

Model, actor and socialite Louise Brooks was sassy, tomboyish and seductive. She had an amazing life - hedonistic, scandalous and enigmatic (there's a nice Arena documentary about her which someone has kindly put up on YouTube here) - but ultimately tragic towards the end of her life as she was forgotten by Hollywood and ended up almost in penury. She was an icon of 20's 'flapper' society and the silent movie era and she is exactly how I see Miss Cutter.  

I quite fell in love with Ms Brooks during the novel's progress. But I also fell head over heels for the gorgeous Art Deco curves of 1920s and 1930s transport. Now, I don't know much about cars or bikes or trains and, whenever I think about those decades, all I see in my head are Model T Fords. What I hadn't expected was to find was vehicles of such staggering beauty as this 1930 Henderson KJ Slimline motorcycle:

How beautiful is that? It looks like Batman's spare batbike. And how about this 1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster?

Or this 1939 Bugatti Type 57c cabriolet:  

Even the trains were gorgeous. We all know the Mallard in the UK but how about this New York Central Mercury engine from 1936? Oh my.

These were vehicles designed to be streamlined ... but sexy as well. I look at today's diesel trains and utterly boring hatchback saloon cars and I long for the days when money wasn't the primary method of valuing something. In my last book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? I recount a story told by advertising guru Rory Sutherland:

'Eurostar wanted suggestions on how to improve the service. Engineers came up with a £6 billion solution that involved laying a whole new set of tracks and faster trains that got you to the coast 40 minutes earlier. It strikes me that it’s a pretty unimaginative way of improving a train journey just to make it faster. They could have put on decent wi-fi and had all of the world’s top male and female supermodels wandering up and down the carriages serving Château Pétrus for the entire journey instead and they’d have saved around £3 billion. I’m pretty sure passengers would see this as an improvement and people would actually be asking for the trains to go slower.’

Yes, petrol is expensive. That's why your car is shaped like a jelly mould. But one glorious day, when renewable energy makes vehicles cheap to run, maybe we can have some style and elan back again. And maybe our vehicles will once again be as beautiful as those they enjoyed nearly 100 years ago.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

And we're funded!

Hello blog-o-nauts. I do apologise for the lack of communication for a week and a bit. Things have been crazily busy at Colgan Towers. However ... it's all been worth it as A Murder To Die For has reached the heady heights of being 100% funded! The book is going to happen!

(That's a colour doodle I drew some time ago. It doesn't form part of the book (although it is a scene from the book) but I thought it would add some colour to an otherwise wordy post).

Crowdfunding a book is hard work. There's no denying it. It means tweeting about the book three or four times a day. It means creating Facebook pages and posting photos on Instagram. It means doing talks and making personal appearances and sending out targeted emails ... all of it aimed at pimping your wares in a most un-British way while shouting 'Give me some money!' at all and sundry.

As I said, it's hard work.

But, like most things in life, hard work pays off. And here's a quick reminder of what all of this work was for.

A Murder To Die For is a book that I've wanted to write for a while. As I explained in an interview on Jennie Ensor's excellent blog recently:

'The idea for a comedy murder mystery grew out of a pub discussion (as all the best ideas do) with some non-police friends (I was a cop in London for 30 years). I was explaining why I don’t watch cop shows – procedurally they are nonsense and their accuracy is usually appalling - things like ‘good cop/bad cop’ during interviews for example. That breaks the rules of evidence as any information gained under threat or duress will be inadmissible at court. However, I do love murder mystery because it’s a world removed from real life. It’s generally very silly and melodramatic, like a game of Cluedo made real. And it suddenly occurred to me that there might be a great deal of humour to be milked from throwing the two genres at each other – real policing versus murder mystery.

'One of my favourite TV shows is Midsomer Murders because it does just that; it straddles the two genres. It’s filmed around where I live on the South Bucks/South Oxon border so it’s fun to spot the locations. But what really attracts me to Midsomer is the ingenuity of the crimes. While Det Ch Insp Barnaby appears to be a modern cop investigating a homicide, the circumstances of the death are nearly always pure golden age murder mystery. My favourite ever is an episode called Hidden Depths where the murder is committed by a man being staked out on his croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by his disabled wife firing his wine collection at him with a replica Roman trebuchet (a kind of catapult)! Or that great episode where Martine McCutcheon is crushed by a giant wheel of cheese. Or the episode where Phyllida Law is killed when a towering pile of newspapers is pushed on top of her by her dotty husband Edward Fox. Genius!'

I wanted to write a comedy because there simply isn't enough mainstream comedy in fiction these days. There's plenty on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. And there's a lot on the women's fiction shelves too. People like Douglas Adams, Marian Keyes, Terry Pratchett, Helen Fielding, Jasper fforde, Sophie Kinsella etc. are some of our bestselling authors. But the middle ground has been somewhat sparse in novels since we lost some of the great humorists. In recent years we've said goodbye to Tom Sharpe, George MacDonald Fraser, David Nobbs, John Mortimer and so many more. There are people keeping the flame alive - John Niven and Jonathan Coe being two of my favourites - but there's room for a lot more comedy. We're particularly lacking in farce. I love a good farce, me. Farce is comedy that involves situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant and improbable but grounded in the real world. Think Fawlty Towers, for example. What could be more mundane than a mid-range seaside hotel? But throw in a series of misunderstandings, some decent slapstick and a cast of eccentric characters and you have comedy gold. Tom Sharpe’s books are all classic farce. I guess the most famous is Wilt – the story of mild-mannered Henry Wilt who is so dominated by his wife Eva that he acts out a fantasy of murdering her by dumping a fully clothed sex doll down a hole on a building site. Unfortunately the doll is spotted just as thousands of tons of concrete is poured on top of it and, with perfect bad timing, Eva goes missing. A simple - if disturbing - drunken act quickly degenerates into delicious farce. Farce makes me laugh. And, with everything going on right now on both sides of the Atlantic, don't we all need more laughs?

The final thing to say about this book is that it's a tribute to my late father. Dad died in 1991 - 25 years ago this year - at the cruelly young age of just 51. A retired homicide detective and just turned pro writer, he was part way through writing his first novel, a murder mystery called The Chief Constable Regrets, when he suffered a massive and unexpected heart attack. My first thought was to try to finish the book off but, unfortunately, he didn't leave enough notes behind for me to do so. So I've done the next best thing; I've incorporated some of his book into my book.

A Murder To Die For is a murder mystery set during a murder mystery festival and the action takes place in the village of Nasely, home of the reclusive golden age crime fiction author Agnes Crabbe. The plot of one of her most celebrated novels, Swords Into Ploughshares, becomes relevant as the story progresses (no further spoilers will be issued!) so I used Dad's writing as Crabbe's writing. Therefore, whenever an extract or a quote from Crabbe's book is mentioned, it's actually from Dad's unfinished novel. It was a nice way to incorporate his writing within the context of my novel and I hope that I've done him justice.

So there you go. A murder mystery. A farce. A tribute to Dad. And now fully funded and ready to start its journey through the production process.

Exciting times!

Thank you SO MUCH to all of you who took a chance on me and pledged your hard-earned money to make the book happen. You are the very best kind of people - true philanthropists and patrons of the arts - and I couldn't have done it without any of you, no matter how much or how little you could spare. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Oh, and in case the rest of you missed my subtle hyperlinks, you can pre-order A Murder To Die For here!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Murder at 134,000,000 Miles Per Hour

Today's bloggage is a guest post by Damon L Wakes who has written a somewhat unusual murder mystery ....


Ten Little Astronauts is a murder mystery in space.

Ten astronauts are awoken from suspended animation – chosen from a crew of thousands to repair their steadily freezing ship – only to discover that one of their number has been killed, and that the murderer is now amongst them. In order to survive and repair the ship, they must work out who is responsible, because if the impostor doesn’t kill them, the cold will.

There are a whole lot of ways to write a murder mystery. If there weren’t, the butler would always do it, and nobody would ever bother reading more than one book. However, though there are a whole lot of mysteries, there are also a few rules. It is generally expected that it should be possible – at least in theory - for the reader to work out whodunit before the murderer is revealed in the book. It would be terribly unsatisfying for the solution of the mystery to be that the murderer was not, in fact, a guest at the hotel, but an opportunistic burglar named Chad who snuck in without anybody noticing and only got caught because his DNA was found at the scene. Page 304: Chad dunit. Everybody go home.

In order to avoid Chad ruining everybody’s fun, most murder mysteries follow a range of conventions:

• There are a limited number of suspects.
• The murderer is a character the reader is already aware of.
• The mystery is solved only by rational and scientific methods.

Some settings are better suited to this sort of scenario than others. Agatha Christie’s mysteries often take place in a small village or a country house, or on board a moving vehicle. These places all make for a small cast of characters to begin with, and lend themselves to a “somebody in this room is the murderer” scene at the end. I began writing Ten Little Astronauts with these points in mind – a spaceship is more or less the ultimate moving vehicle – but once I got started, I realised that I would have to borrow more than just a handful of Christie’s tricks. The premise of my book – a small cast of characters, hopelessly isolated with a murderer in their midst – overlapped so heavily with And Then There Were None specifically that the only way I could avoid writing a rip-off was to make it an homage.

Nevertheless, shifting the setting to a tin can in a vacuum demanded a brand new plot. With the ship itself hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds, so far beyond help that an SOS sent at the speed of light would take years to be heard, there was no need for chapters dedicated to explaining how the cast became so trapped and why they couldn’t call for help. The hostile environment also helped to ramp up the tension and get the action off to a quick start. However, the new story demanded a great deal of research. Where Christie drew upon an extensive knowledge of medicine and chemistry, I had to develop an understanding of cosmic rays and explosive decompression.

The space setting handed me an obvious reason for the small cast of characters and an immediate explanation as to why the murderer was so certainly one of them, but at the same time it made it a challenge to ensure that the solution would be rational and scientific. Lightsabres and hoverboards make for exciting sci-fi, but it was clear that for the murder mystery itself to shine, the world of Ten Little Astronauts would have to stick as closely as possible to our own. I learned everything I could about real life in space, and visited a WWII submarine – HMS Alliance - to get an idea what it would be like on board a vessel that must carry its own atmosphere. Seeing the interior of the submarine for myself, and speaking to a former submariner about what conditions were like, informed a spacecraft characterised by exposed machinery and bare metal, rather than white plastic and polished glass. The Alliance was such an influence on the setting as a whole that I later returned to film the video for the book in its control room (The video is small but if the link doesn't work or you want to see a larger version click here).

If you’d like to see Ten Little Astronauts make it into print, you can pledge at Unbound, where there’s also an extract available (Click here). You’ll get a copy of your very own (among other rewards on offer) and your name will be recorded for all time in the back of the book.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Write Path

How do writers write? What's their process?

It's a question that's always fascinated me and it's led to me reading any number of books on the subject ... William Strunk Jr and E B White's The Elements of Style, Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, David Quantick's How to be a Writer and How to Write Everything, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade ... I've read them all and many more.

You can learn an awful lot from such books. You can learn a lot too from being a voracious reader and by analysing how the authors you love do what they do. However, the one thing that you have to discover for yourself is how you plough your own furrow; you have to find the writing method that suits you. And you can only do that by writing.

My next book, A Murder To Die For, is a comedy murder mystery. And, as a tribute to my late father, I'm incorporating extracts from his unfinished first novel within the body of mine (see here for the full story). Dad only completed the first few chapters of his novel before he died. However, he spent several years beforehand plotting and researching it. Admittedly, in those far off pre-internet days, such things took a little longer but, knowing Dad as I did, he would not have written a single word of his book before he had every wrinkle ironed out. He was meticulous that way.

And it seems that lots of writers do the same; they work everything out before they type the first word of Page 1. A good friend of mine has been going through this plotting process for at least two years for his first novel and he recently shared some photos with me of his plot notes.

I'm sure it all makes perfect sense to him. However, it wouldn't work for me.

What I've discovered, after some 35 years of writing, is that I don't work like that. Yes, I make notes and I have piles of notebooks and sketchpads that are evidence of that fact. Some date back to the late 1970s and they are all bulging with ideas, thoughts, snippets of dialogue, character sketches and useful facts. But you won't find any kind of a plot contained inside any of them. Let me explain why.

I bought a typewriter with my first ever wage packet in 1977 (partly because my handwriting is so abysmal) and I used it to write short stories and scripts. And then in 1981, when I was 20, I wrote my first novel. Thankfully, I kept the manuscript and I read it recently. And it was awful. And so was the novel that came after it. And the next. And the next. However, by the time I'd written my fifth and sixth novels, they'd started to get better. Like any skill, be it juggling or playing golf, your ability improves the more you do it.

Writing a book is hard work. And the hardest thing about writing a book is nailing your first draft to the paper; the long and often arduous job of starting at Page 1 and continuing until you've written something like 80-120,000 words. The arrival of word processors in the mid-1980s made the process a damned sight easier, it must be said. But, more importantly for me, word processing allowed me to develop a way of working that took the hard work out of the process.

My method, quite simply, is to get writing as soon as I can. Naturally, I don't start until I have a pretty good idea of the story I want to tell but, at the start, the idea might be quite simple and undeveloped. The idea for A Murder To Die For, for example, was to have a murder take place at a murder mystery convention where everyone is dressed the same way and then to set the police against the murder mystery fans in a race to solve the crime. Hilarity ensues! I had a few ideas for characters and a few action sequences in my head. I also had a bunch of settings in mind, mostly based on real locations in and around where I live on the South Buckinghamshire/ Oxfordshire border. But that was all. Now, I could have spent months developing my characters, plotting out the course of the various plot strings, and researching content. But I didn't. I sat down and started writing. I got a rythmn going. And as I did so, magical things started to happen ... new plot ideas would occur to me while others would be excised or replaced ... the relationships between the characters started to evolve ... a complex and complete novel began to emerge almost as if it was appearing out of thin air. It felt creative and organic. And it was fun every minute of every hour of every day. The writing didn't feel like a chore; I couldn't wait to get to the keyboard.

That's how I like to write; I literally feel my way through the plot. And it works for me. The alternative method of plotting it all out beforehand and then having to face the physical task of 'writing up my notes' just seems too mechanistic to me. It sounds like hard work. And I can't help but wonder whether, if Dad had just got on with the writing instead of agonising over the details, he'd have written more than just four chapters before his untimely passing. I really wish he had.

The hardest part of being a writer is that first draft. But once you have that completed, the fun can really begin. Re-drafting, editing and re-writing is an utter joy. It can sometimes mean making some drastic changes - for example, I realised very early in my second draft that I had too many police characters so I had to drop some of them, and a whole plot strand, and merge two cops into one to streamline the story - but it was worth doing and the book was so much better for it. By not minutely plotting things beforehand I was left with some blunders and a few plot holes. But re-drafting can easily fix that.

I also sent my first drafts out to critical readers, all friends and/or colleagues who know me well enough to tell me if something is wrong or doesn't work. And they always do, sometimes quite savagely! By the fifth draft, I was feeling pretty happy with the novel. And no part of the process had felt like hard work.

I did a count up recently and discovered that I have written or part-written 18 novels, nearly one every two years for the past 35 years. None have been submitted for publication before. A Murder To Die For is the first. But now that I feel confident that my novel writing is good enough, I'm going to be looking to get a few more published.

My plan over the next few years is to write one new novel a year. But I'm also going to re-visit those 18 unpublished novels - although the earliest ones are piss-poor they have some great ideas and plotlines - and treat them as first drafts. They can all be brought bang up-to-date with my current level of ability. I couldn't even consider that kind of commitment if all I had was 18 plot outlines and mountains of notes. So maybe there is some method in my madness after all?

So how do you like to work? What's your writing method?

I'd love to hear!

Oh, and if A Murder To Die For sounds like a book you'd like to read, why not help crowdfund it by clicking here? It's already 80% funded so not much further to go!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

It's all over bar the shouting

I just ran a competition for subscribers to my new book A Murder To Die For asking them to find 12 Agatha Christie novel titles hidden inside a poster.

I had lots of entries and quite a few got it right but there could be only one winner ... and there was! Well done Pamela McCarthy!

And the answers?

If you want to know, visit here.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Christmas is coming and Colgers needs new shoes

Yes I know. It's not even October yet. But my local supermarket already has Christmas chocolates in stock (who keeps choc in the house for three months without eating it??) and I've heard stories of places already putting trees and Christmas cards on sale. Give it a couple more years and they'll start draping the tinsel over the Easter eggs I reckon.

However, I am mentioning it now in case you fancy buying one of my really quite odd colouring books as a pressie for someone really quite odd that you know/love/like/want to punish.

Colgeroons has 21 unique A4-sized pictures to colour in. It's somewhat of a departure from other, more traditional colouring books. For a start, there are no secret gardens or mandala covered elephants. And there are no cute and fluffy mammals or pretty birdies. There are, however, alien Mona Lisas, headless scientists, interplanetary wedding photos and rude gnomes. But not too rude (it's suitable for kids).

You can order direct from me for just £12 (that includes P&P).

Or, to make it extra special, for just £25 (price includes P&P) I'll sign your copy, dedicate it to whoever the book is for and draw a unique doodle of your choice inside! So if you want to give someone a book containing a drawing of a T Rex riding a unicycle juggling four kippers - this is the gift for you!

Unique artwork and a colouring book for the price of a takeaway? And for just over a quid a page? You'd be mad not to.

Just email me at and tell me what you want doodled and who the book is for. Then use that same email address to deposit the money in my Paypal account and the book will be on its way. You can also pay by money transfer or cheque - email for details.

Go on. Treat yourself.

Or don't.


Friday, 23 September 2016

My Top 5 British Comedy Novels

There's a surprising lack of new British comedy in fiction these days. There was a time when bookshop shelves groaned under the weight of rib-ticklers by Michael Frayn, Richard Gordon, Stella Gibbons, E F Benson ... but now, not so much. Or so it seems to me anyway. Mind you, finding a good bookshop isn't so easy either.

There's still a lot of good comedy writing around. However, it seems to me to have been pushed away from the mainstream into particular genres of books. There's a lot of humour in children's and young adults' books, for example. And there are a lot of very funny writers, such as Helen Fielding, Jenny Colgan, Wendy Holden, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella etc., who produce work for the female reader market. Comedy has also flourished in the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, boasting such superstars as Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Jasper fforde, Tom Holt, Robert Rankin et al. But when it comes to generalist mainstream comedy, I see little. Yes, there are authors like Jonathan Coe, John Niven and Nick Hornby who write great books that have a comic edge to them. But they are few and far between.Where are the new John Mortimers and Tom Sharpes? Who is taking up the mantle of David Nobbs, George MacDonald Fraser and Stella Gibbons?

A couple of years ago the Daily Telegraph ran a list of the 15 best comedy books of all time (here). It's interesting to note that the most recent book in their list was 20 years old (1996's Bridget Jones' Diary).

I used to look forward to every new Reggie Perrin or Wilt or Flashman book in eager anticipation. But, with so many of the great humorists behind such books now sadly gone, I find myself struggling to find the next novel that will have me tittering out loud on the train. That's part of the reason why I decided to write A Murder To Die For and the other novels that will (hopefully) follow it; to add a much-needed smile to that commute to work when all around are reading doom and gloom in their newspapers. It's not arrogance on my part or a desire to join the hallowed ranks of my favourite comedy novelists that prompted me. It's simply the hope that I can make people laugh in the same way that the authors listed below made me laugh.

So, here is my personal - and it can only be personal - Top 5 British comedy novels. I've deliberately excluded sci-fi and fantasy here or the list would have read: Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams, Douglas Adams ... I can go back to his books time and time again and always find something new to chuckle at.

The photos are of my own beaten, bashed and well-thumbed copies.

5 - Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome 

I must have read this book 20 times. It's one of only two books that I am not ashamed to admit that I've paid quite a lot for in order to own a first edition (the other being One-Upmanship by Stephen Potter, the 1952 book that inspired the Ealing comedy School for Scoundrels). Jerome's classic tale of idle chaps (and a dog) taking a short holiday on the Thames for their health will always make me smile. The humour is surprisingly modern and it really is hard sometimes to remember that this is a book from 1889. There are so many wonderful comic set pieces and it's a book that everyone should read at least once. Or, if you fancy an audio experience instead, search out either the audiobook, or the Olivier Award nominated one man show, both by Jeremy Nicholas. I don't think his interpretation can be beaten.

4 - The Pyrates by George MacDonald Fraser 

MacDonald Fraser is best known for his Flashman books, of course, in which he takes up the story of Rugby School's most notorious bully. I love them all but The Pyrates is a stand-alone gem. Long before Pirates of the Caribbean came along, MacDonald Fraser had already brilliantly lampooned the genre. He introduces us to the ridiculously square-jawed and handsome hero Long Ben Avery and his quest to gather all of the pieces of the Madagascar Crown and to win the heart of fair Lady Vanity. Along the way we meet the psychotic Firebeard, canny Calico Jack Rackham and the Gucci booted and impossibly buxom Black Sheba. He creates a fantasy alternative universe in which pirates listen to Tortuga FM and have union meetings, and where a buccaneer can't end a sentence without adding 'wi' a curse!' It's a joyous read from bow to stern and it wonderfully pays tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a hundred stories from the Boy's Own Paper.

3 - The Molesworth Saga by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

Chiz! Chiz! Why isn't Molesworth at the topp at Number 1? To be honest, all of my Top 5 are so beloved that, frankly, you could shuffle them and I'd still be happy. The four Molesworth books, illustrated energetically by the late great Ronald Searle, never stop being funny. If you've never heard of St Custard's School, think of it as the boys' equivalent of St Trinians (also a Searle creation). And even though many anachronisms of the English public school system may have gone (although many haven't) we can still revel in the childhood adventures of Molesworth, Molesworth 2, Peason, Grabber, Fotherington-Thomas and the masters. It's also worth seeking out Simon Brett's very funny tribute, Molesworth Rites Again, in which we catch up with the little rascal as an adult. Great British comedy classics all, as any fule kno.

2 - Hot Water by P G Wodehouse

How do you pick a favourite P G Wodehouse novel? He wrote 71 of them. Plus there were plays, short stories and lots more. Should I pick a story about Blandings Castle? Or Jeeves and Wooster? Or Ukridge? Or Psmith? In the end I went for the one that made me laugh the most on first reading (they've all made me laugh). Hot Water doesn't feature any of Wodehouse's more famous characters. It centres instead on one Packy Franklyn, a millionaire ex-American footballer, engaged to Lady Beatrice Bracken and staying in England. A chance meeting with a publicly booze-free Senator leads to all hell breaking loose when a letter written by the Senator to his personal bootlegger is used as a tool for blackmail. As always it's farce of the first water with incompetent safe-blowers, idiot ambassadors, confused identities and, always, Wodehouse's trademark eye for the perfect metaphor. Set in France at the seaside resort of Château Blissac, this was a book written in 1932 at the height of Plum's powers. And it shows.

1 - The Throwback by Tom Sharpe

I first encountered Tom Sharpe when I was a young police officer in the early 1980s. I was sitting on a police riot coach during the Brixton Uprising; we were often held on such coaches for hours on end as we waited to be deployed to tackle pockets of disorder. A colleague had finished reading his copy of Blott on the Landscape and offered it to me and I loved it immediately. It was savage. It was clever. It was hilarious. I laughed from start to finish. And the laughter helped me to cope with what was a dangerous and stressful time. I went on to read everything that Sharpe wrote many times over. And it was almost impossible to choose a favourite as he only wrote 16 novels and he didn't ever write a bad book. In the end, it came down to a shortlist of Ancestral Vices, Vintage Stuff and the book that won, The Throwback. If I look at things objectively, I'd probably have to say that Wilt is his best book. But The Throwback just makes me laugh more. It's the tale of Lockhart Flawse, a temporarily disinherited young nobleman sent out into the world by the grandfather who raised him and challenged to find and identify his father so that he can be thrashed to within an inch of his life. Along the way, the terrifyingly unworldly Lockhart destroys the lives of many people in a variety of increasingly terrible but hilarious ways and wins the love of his life. Throughout the book you'll find dogs on LSD, human taxidermy and IRA explosions all added into the gloriously anarchic mix. I've read this book so often that I've destroyed two different editions (both with cover illustrations by the great Paul Sample). IN fact, all of my Tom Sharpe books have been read so often that I recently treated myself to a new complete set of books and the e-books because they don't wear out. The saddest thing about them is knowing that there will be no more.

Naturally, there were plenty of also-rans that might have made this list ... 1066 and All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman, The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W E Bowman, Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge, Doctor in the House by Richard Gordon, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, W G Grace's Last Case by Willie Rushton, Nice Work by David Lodge, The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh, The Virgin Soldiers by Leslie Thomas, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, The Better World of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs, Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding, The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates, Towards the end of the Morning by Michael Frayn, Mapp and Lucia by E F Benson, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Puckoon by Spike Milligan ... to name just a few.

There's no right or wrong to 'Best of' lists of course. Like art, taste in comedy is subjective. But I do advise you to read all of the books I've mentioned. They're all quite brilliant in their different ways.

And I hope that I can convince you to pledge a small amount of cash towards A Murder To Die For, my own humble attempt at writing a mainstream farce. I'm crowdfunding the book through the innovative publishing company Unbound and I'm 79% of the way there already so there isn't far to go!

And do tell me ... what would be in your Top 5?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Great British Bake Off and the Power of Nice

Two interesting things happened last week that prompted this blogpost. The first was that The Museum Of Curiosity - QI's sister show on BBC Radio 4 - won a Rose D'or in Berlin (Naturally, I was very happy about this as I work on the show as a researcher/writer). The second thing was that the BBC lost the UK's most popular TV show The Great British Bake Off to Channel 4. The public outcry was extraordinary and prompted more than one commentator to point out that if the British public got as agitated about the slow but steady sell-off of the NHS then maybe it would be a lot safer. But people were angry. And they were sad. 'It won't be the same!' they cried. And they may have a point. Bake Off could lose its most defining factor.

Its niceness.

Niceness is a quality that programme makers overlook far too often. And they're missing a trick because people like nice shows.

The Museum Of Curiosity works because it's a kind of reverse Room 101; instead of having people on to bitch about the things that annoy them, we have people on to talk about things that make them feel inspired, happy or astonished. That's why the show regularly attracts people to appear on it (despite the pitiful radio appearance fees) like Sir Terry Pratchett, Kate Adie, Sir David Frost, Dr Alice Roberts, Buzz Aldrin, Helen Sharman, Neil Gaiman and many more. And look at some of the most popular shows on TV ... Strictly Come Dancing. Bargain Hunt. QI. Pointless. George Carke's Amazing Spaces. Would I Lie To You? Bake Off. They're all shows that make you smile from start to finish. There's no nastiness; even Craig Revel Horwood's pantomime histrionics have a knowing smile behind them and the public boo and cheer along with the joke. He is a world away from Simon Cowell's flat and emotionless put downs or Gordon Ramsay's sweary abuse.

It's interesting to look at the most watched TV programmes of 2015 - the most recent annual figures we have - and note that eight of the Top 10 are episodes of Bake Off. The other two are the finals of Strictly and Britain's Got Talent. From 11 to 20 it's all Bake Off, Strictly and BGT - except for an anniversary episode of Eastenders. The only other shows to make it into the Top 40 are Downton Abbey, Call The Midwife and the finales of I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out of Here! and Broadchurch. The vast majority are nice shows.

I'll admit that I'm a nice-oholic. My TV viewing invariably sways away from shows where people are rude, abusive, angry, combative or deliberately controversial. I can't watch soap operas any more because all of the warmth and humour has been replaced by 30 minutes of people shouting at each other. I can't watch 'misery porn' shows about bailiffs taking someone's furniture away or about beaches that kill, holiday nightmares or botched plastic surgery. I avidly avoid shows that focus on the negative and perpetuate the idea that life is shit - so no Grumpy Old Men for me. And no Can't Pay, We'll Take It Away and no Benefits Street either. I hate reality shows like The Apprentice that turn greed and arrogance into supposed entertainment (and it gave us Katie bloody Hopkins). I can't even watch Masterchef any more. Instead you'll find me watching Masterchef Australia where the judges are kind and supportive and, as the result, the contestants put up food that the British show would kill for.

The show has a real Bake Off vibe to it. Even the guest judges join in the niceness.The hugely scary Marco Pierre White was guest judge in Week 1 of the current series (showing weekday evenings on the W Channel). During a tough team challenge where the contestants had to run a real restaurant for an evening service he asked them 'Do you want me to go easy on you or make you sweat?' The contestants chose the latter and he put them through their paces. One or two were reduced to tears by the pressure. Were they mocked? No. Were they laughed at? No. Were they shouted at? No. Marco spoke to them, encouraged them, built up their confidence and they went back to work and they succeeded. And this week we have Nigella Lawson as guest judge. When someone did well yesterday she hugged and kissed them. When one contestant - a huge Nigella fan - did badly in front of her hero the domestic goddess didn't say 'That's terrible' or 'You didn't do very well.' Instead, she pointed out that 'If you don't make mistakes you stop learning' at which point the other judges - all top chefs and food critics - chimed in that they had all made terrible mistakes at some point in their careers. It made that contestant feel better and they worked doubly hard in the next challenge. That's my kind of cookery show, not some top chef throwing a contestant's food in the bin and calling them 'a f*cking waste of space'. Maybe that's why Masterchef Australia attracts the cream of world chefs to appear on the show? Last year Heston Blumenthal set the challenge for the final episode and then employed the winner at his Fat Duck restaurant. He's back again this year, I'm pleased to say. I wish that the British incarnation would follow the same model. If it did, I'd watch it again.

I was interested to read, a few days ago, that Bake Off's cosy feelgood factor is largely down to Mel and Sue who flatly refused to make the show overly dramatic. They actually threatened to walk off the show in Series 1 if the producers insisted on them bringing out the human drama. "We felt uncomfortable with it and we said 'We don't think you've got the right presenters'", Sue told The Telegraph newspaper in a recent interview. "I'm proud that we did that, because what we were saying is 'Let's try this a different way' - and no one ever cried again. Maybe they cry because their souffle collapsed, but nobody's crying because someone's going 'Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?' Bringing up dead relatives at stressful times is a time-honoured technique for introducing tension into a television show, but it's no way to treat your family." And even when the contestants do have a breakdown, Mel and Sue make sure it doesn't get to air by blocking the camera's view of the contestant and by swearing a lot so that the segment won't make the final edit. It's just one of the many reasons that Bake Off works - kindness, consideration, niceness.

People want to see nice shows. Channel 4 paid £75 million to buy Bake Off - the nicest of the nice - so they, presumably, agree. Time will tell if their money was well spent; after all, a TV show isn't just a format - it's the sum of its parts: good scripts, good content, the right presenters, the right 'feel'. As Top Gear has learned to its cost, you have to have all four. I'll confess that I'm sad about Bake Off's move to Channel 4 but, had the presenters made the move too, I might be happier. Without Mel and Sue and possibly Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, the show won't be the same. That isn't necessarily the end of the world so long as the new presenters maintain the winning format. But the minute it turns into the kind of mawkish slush that Mel and Sue fought so hard to keep out of the show, it will fail. It will also fail if the judges try to do a Gordon Ramsay or a Simon Cowell. Nastiness is old hat. The viewing figures say it all.

There's a well-known, and possible apocryphal, story about a teacher who writes out the Nine Times Table on the board in front of her class and gets the answer to 6 x 9 wrong. The class sniggers behind her back. So she asks them, 'What are you all laughing at?' And the class replies, 'You got 6 x 9 wrong'. The teacher then says, 'Yes I did. Deliberately. I wanted to teach you all something about life. Isn't it interesting that you all were keen to point out my one mistake and yet no one congratulated me on the eleven equations that I got right? I got far more right than I got wrong but all you focused on was my mistake. That, sadly, is how life works. Make a mistake and everyone will point it out. Do good and hardly anyone will say a word about it, let alone reward you. But the reality is that there's far more good than bad in the world - once you realise that you'll be happier people."

And, to quote from my most recent book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road?

'I recently met Jimmy Wales, the founder and public face of Wikipedia. Here is a man whose aim is to ‘give every single person on the planet free access to the sum of all human knowledge’ which, as aims go, is pretty damned good. We talked about the ‘wiki’ philosophy, the fact that absolutely anyone can alter, add or delete information on Wikipedia and I asked him whether this was a worry. Wasn’t it possible that bad people could misuse that kind of free access to do bad things? ‘I don’t think so’, he said, ‘Wikipedia works on the radical assumption that mostly people are okay. If you read commentary in newspapers and on the internet, you weep for the future of the species as it seems there are so many horrible people out there. But if you really think about everyone around you, out of every 1000 people you meet, 990 of them will be perfectly nice, maybe another nine will be extremely annoying but there’s only maybe one in a thousand that is actually malicious or a troublemaker. And yet we go through life designing everything around the bad people, locking things down. We should be designing things around the majority of good people and then deal with the bad people when we need to.’

 I couldn’t agree more.'

I don't need TV shows that focus on the negative. The world is already full of people doing that. I want shows that make me feel good. Shows that I learn from. Shows that inspire me. I hope that Bake Off survives its transition. And I hope that programme makers make a lot more of the same.

That will be very nice indeed.