Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Following in the footsteps of a true legend


I hope you don’t mind me adopting a bit of a personal tone this week. But today is the tenth anniversary of my late father, Brian’s death, and I just want to take the opportunity to honour his memory with a quick retrospective on a life well-lived.

If you’ve tuned in for my review of Michael Moorcock’s sci-fi/horror classic, THE BLACK CORRIDOR, never fear – as usual, you’ll find it towards the end of this post. Though I chose that one specifically for today, as Moorcock was one of so many great authors that my father put me onto.

In fact, when you get down there, check out the amazing cover-image. That was one of many startling book jackets which, when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I first saw on my father’s shelves, and which intrigued me so much that, when I was finally old enough, I had no real choice other than to investigate the world of dark and mysterious fiction.

Before we get into that, though, a few quick words about my Dad ...

James Brian Finch (pictured above in the 1980s) passed away 10 years ago today, after battling a long and debilitating illness. He was only 70 years old, which I’m sure most of us would agree is no great age these days. But the things he achieved in his life cannot be estimated in a few short sentences.

Though a descendent of Charles Dickens, he was of relatively humble origins, born the son of a coal-miner in Wigan in the 1930s, at the very time when George Orwell was still plodding its sooty, cobbled streets. This was a dour time and place, and hardly conducive to personal ambition. As such, with nothing to boast about in terms of school qualifications, he grew to young manhood after a what could only be construed as an unremarkable early life. 

However, it was during his time in the military when he became interested in drama, writing routines and performing songs and comedy sketches for a concert party in the RAF. Though on returning to Civie Street, he secured regular work as a journalist and press officer, he remained fascinated by the stage and screen, making his first TV sale to The Wednesday Play in 1966, and then contributing episodes of Z Cars (pictured) and Coronation Street, finally becoming one of the latter show’s leading writers, penning over 150 scripts during the 1970s and 1980s, but at the same time branching out across the entire spectrum of British television.

Probably one of the most successful screenwriters of his generation, my Dad’s career eventually came to span four decades, and saw him writing for an astonishing array of popular and ground-breaking TV, hitting every kind of genre and subgenre there was. 

The many, many programmes he wrote for included The Tomorrow People, General HospitalThe Brothers, Public Eye, Hunter’s Walk, The Chinese Puzzle, The SquirrelsBergerac, Juliet Bravo, The Gentle Touch, Hetty Wainthrop Investigates, Heartbeat, The Bill, and All Creatures Great and Small. 

In the end, it all culminated in his winning a BAFTA in 1998 for his TV adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom, though the picture right was taken a year or so after that latter event, when I won the British Fantasy Award for my first short story collection, Aftershocks, and we thought we’d compare our gongs.

(Apologies about the mullet – my Dad, as you can see, always kept his hair sensibly short).

But it was quite a world that my Mum, my three sisters and I experienced. All the latest and juiciest TV gossip was aired around the kitchen table. It wasn’t unusual to pick up the phone in our house, and find Frankie Howerd on the other end of it, or John Thaw, or Robert Hardy.

Dad was the most astounding inspiration for all kinds of reasons. Though he’d left school with few grades, he’d made up for that over the years by self-educating, which meant that I grew up in a home where enquiry was always good, learning was prized, art and civilisation were hugely appreciated, and where a constant stream of books, films and plays were recommended to me. And it wasn’t just the darker material that I’d go on to make my own career in – though Dad was a big fan of that stuff – but also the classics of our age.

Stratford-upon-Avon became our second home. It was one of my Dad’s favourite places, and more times than I can count, he took us there to watch some of the greatest plays ever written performed at the highest level.

Is it inevitable that I always sought to emulate him, that he was, quite literally, everything I wanted to be? I’m certainly grateful that he lived long enough to see my early output as a professional – my own episodes of The Bill (shortly after I left the police for real), my various stories as they appeared in anthologies and magazines, and the stage production of a radio play I wrote in 1991 called Cross and Fire. Alas, he wasn’t around when what I classify as my real success – my cop thrillers, the Heck and Clayburn novels – came along. But at least I managed to get two shared credits with Dad, even though they came after we’d lost him. 

In 2008, a year after he died, I wrote a horror novella, Gingerbread, from an outline he himself had penned two decades earlier for a TV thriller which never got made (I think the series it was originally proposed for was Hammer House of Horror), and it was published by Pendragon Press. I was delighted to finally see it in print, and even more so to see mine and Dad’s names together on the by-line (many thanks to Chris Teague for getting it out in time for Fantasycon, that year).

A slightly bigger deal than this came with the 2010 full-cast audio Dr Who drama, Leviathan, which I wrote for Big Finish. It was part of the ‘Lost Stories’ series and I adapted it for audio from a Dr Who serial of the same name, which my Dad wrote in 1984 – it had reached the rehearsal stage back then, but was finally hacked from the schedule as it was deemed too expensive for production.

There is a cute little story connected with Leviathan, if you’ve got half a second ... 

My writing career was at a really low ebb in 2009; The Bill was several years behind me, and Heck was still far in the future. I hadn’t earned much for two or three years. When I found out that Big Finish were looking for the Lost Stories – i.e. Dr Who serials that almost got made for TV, but for various reasons weren’t – I offered it to them on the condition that I could be the one to write it. 

The problem then was that I couldn’t find the original script anywhere. 

I turned my Mum’s house upside-down and we uncovered scripts from every era it seemed, but there was no trace of Leviathan. I knew I’d seen it somewhere, but there was no sign of it when I needed it most, and obviously, if I couldn’t find it, I couldn’t proceed with the deal. After several days, I was sitting in my office at home in near-despair, thinking I was going to have to send back word – when I suddenly spotted a buff folder on a bottom shelf, covered in dust. I don’t know what drew my eyes to it, but it struck me as odd that I had no clue what was inside there. 

Tentatively, I dusted it off and opened it – and there it was, the original Leviathan by Brian Finch, yellowed and dog-eared with age, but minus only two of its pages. 

The project went ahead as planned: I adapted it for Big Finish Audio, and everyone involved was fantastic, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant going at it full tilt as I sat in a sound-proofed booth down at the Ladbroke Grove studio and enjoyed one of the proudest moments of my career. We got a great Dr Who product out, which did very well in the shops – and yes, I again got that all-important shared credit with my Dad.

The really uplifting bit about that little episode, though, is that it somehow turned the tide in my career. Up until Leviathan, I’d struggled to make any kind of notable impact. Ever since Leviathan, things have gone ... well, let’s just say that I’ve never been happier professionally.

It’s yet another reason to thank my late-father, and another memory to add to a whole batch of joyful memories that he left for us.

Yes, it’s now ten years since he passed, and though it’s true that you never get used to losing a cherished one, he left such a legacy of love, friendship, warmth and genuine, knowledgeable guidance – and of course that crucial inspiration for me – that I’ve never really felt as if he’s gone. I miss him achingly. Who wouldn’t? But he was such a great guy, who made such an enormous impact on the lives of all those who met him that I’m cosy in the sense that he’s still somewhere close by, and feel confident that his benign presence will never, ever fade.

(Many thanks to the local press, I assume the Wigan Evening Post, for the great picture at the top. Sorry guys, I’m not sure which particular snapper took this one, as it was an awful long time ago, so the credit goes to all of you).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE BLACK CORRIDOR 
by Michael Moorcock (1969)

In a future of violence and decay, uncompromising businessman, Ryan, foresees no hope either for himself or for his family. In the midst of social disintegration, societal breakdown, ecological disaster and the impending slaughter of a nuclear war, and with all his close relationships – both personal and business-related – severed, he finds he has no option but to steal an interstellar spaceship, the Hope Dempsey, load it with the handful of people left on Earth whom he actually cares about, and set off for Munich 15040, a habitable world in the constellation of Ophiuchus.

The journey is a short one in cosmic terms – a mere six light-years – but it’s a massive undertaking for human beings. Even so, under his stewardship, Ryan feels they can make it. Once safely landed on their new home, he is confident they’ll be able to start again, get back to basics, live a simple, clean life, and in the process reformat humanity.

At least that’s the plan, but in reality it isn’t going to be anything like so easy.

In The Black Corridor (which term actually refers to space itself), once you’re out there among the stars there is no sense of the wonder and mystery that science fiction readers of earlier decades had been led to imagine. Instead, it is a cold, dead void, a soulless vacuum in which the chances of dying an ugly, lonely death are very high indeed – and in fact this is the note we come in on as the novel starts. Check out this immortal opening passage:

Space is infinite.
     It is dark.
     Space is neutral.
     It is cold.
*
Stars occupy minute areas of space. They are clustered a few billion here. A few billion there. As if seeking consolation in numbers.
     Space does not care.
*
Space does not threaten.
     Space does not comfort.
     It does not sleep; it does not wake; it does not dream; it does not hope; it does not fear; it does not love; it does not hate; it does not encourage any of these qualities.
     Space cannot be measured. It cannot be angered. It cannot be placated. It cannot be summed up.
     Space is there.
*
Space is not large and it is not small. It does not live and it does not die. It does not offer truth and neither does it lie.
     Space is a remorseless, senseless, impersonal fact.
     Space is the absence of time and of matter.

(If you feel you recognise that extract from the annals of rock music, you’re correct – it was utilised on Hawkwind’s classic 1973 album, Space Ritual).

The voyage itself is a nightmarish experience. With the rest of his crew in cryogenic stasis, Ryan alone must run the ship, check the computers, continue to monitor their course, and all the while he talks to no-one but the spaceship’s log, and, outside, sees nothing but the vast and frozen emptiness. Inevitably, his mind begins to wander and, whether he likes it or not, he commences reliving, in vivid flashback, the terrible events on Earth leading up to their departure, at the same time mulling over his own achievements, or the lack of such. For Ryan, it seems, is not a particularly nice guy. It may be that now he heroically leads his suffering people to a kind of promised land, but during his time on Earth he was ruthless, unprincipled, vain and deceitful. Wherever he went, he left damage.

The memories of this torture him unmercifully, but no more so than the sheer, mind-boggling solitude of his limitless journey. Eventually he begins to hallucinate, to fantasise … quickly losing track of what is real and what isn’t, and at the same time infecting the reader with similar doubts.

Did any of these events that Ryan flees from actually happen?

Who is Ryan?

Why is he here on this seemingly deserted spacecraft?

Where is he really headed to? Does that place exist?

And perhaps more frightening still, is it possible that he isn’t genuinely alone? Could there be someone else on board, someone who seemingly is not lying in suspended animation? Ryan certainly finds evidence of this, but who could this interloper be, why does Ryan never see them, and what is their purpose?

You just know, without needing to be told, that none of this is going to end well …

The most obvious thing you can say about The Black Corridor, which is only 126 pages in length, (and unofficially was co-written by Moorcock with his then-wife, Hilary Bailey) is that it was intended as a short, sharp shock to the blasé sci-fi buying public of that era.

It’s a classic example of the ‘new wave’ subgenre popular at the end of the 1960s in that it prophesied a dystopian future of warring, hate-filled tribes rather than an age of technological imperiousness; in that it was written in a consciously stripped-down style; in that it used ripe language and was frank in its depictions of human violence and sexuality – but also in that it was political (even anarchic) in its subtext and scathing about mankind’s reckless mismanagement of the Earth.

But don’t go away with the impression that this novel is an essay or a polemic. It’s certainly experimental in parts. There is curious and often distracting use of ‘alternative’ typography, and there are sections when we are subjected to technical printouts and random streams of consciousness rather than coherent narrative, but despite these tricks – which are a bit irritating, if I’m honest – this is still a rattling good tale, especially if you like your fiction off-the-wall.

Just be warned – there are no space monsters in this novel, no ray-guns. Though that doesn’t mean it isn’t eerie and fascinating, not to say on occasion pretty damn frightening. The growing sense of menace stems entirely from Ryan’s rapidly worsening predicament: the endless isolation of his headlong flight, the uncertainty of what might lie at its end, if anything, and his gradual but inevitable meltdown, which of course perfectly mirrors the meltdown back on Earth, for that too was fermented by ignorance and folly.

Some have accused The Black Corridor of dating badly, of being a typical exercise in ’60s psychedelia and laced with the sort of woolly-headed hippy-think we’d these days scoff at as pseudery. But on reflection, it actually seems rather prescient in today’s volatile climate: world economies collapsing, old alliances breaking, friends becoming enemies, suspicion growing about immigrants and foreigners, fear and paranoia running rampant in the land.

It’s also been said that it’s too slim, too quick a read, and for that reason a bit lightweight in sci-fi terms. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. If a book does its job in 100 pages rather than 1,000, it’s still done its job. And at least you can’t complain that it’s been padded.   

As always – just for fun – here are my selections for who should play the leads if The Black Corridor ever makes it to the movie or TV screen (and what a fascinating challenge for any screenwriter that would be), but as there’s only one real star of this story, I’m only bothering to cast one person, and for that I’m opting for my main man of the moment. 

Ryan – Tom Hardy

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating Paul. What a gem of a guy your father was. His output and influence! I guess he'd be very proud of you.

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    1. Thanks very much, Craig. I hope he'd be proud. It was actually a pleasure writing this piece, rather than a sad event - reminded me of all the good times.

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  2. Fabulous tribute to a talented and much loved man who I am sue, would be beaming with pride at all your achievements since his passing. What a fab son you are. What a fab Dad he seems to have been. My Dad didn't make 60...he died 30 years ago. 70 is no age, all that future lost, but what a past. Lovely piece, thanks.

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    1. Thanks for those very kind words, Jane, and so sorry for your own loss all those years ago. At least, they give us wonderful memories though.

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