Friday, 29 April 2016

If it bleeds, it leads!

The audio book version of Bad Press, fifth in Maureen Carter's Bev Morriss series, publishes today.  She  joins us today to talk about what led her from news reporting to crime writing....

Like Matt Snow in Bad Press, I’m an old-school journalist who learned the ‘proper’ way. I cut my cub reporter teeth on a weekly newspaper in my home town, moved south to work on a daily broadsheet then back to the Midlands to join the news team on one of the first commercial radio stations in the UK. (A clue to how long ago that was? The job description was newswoman.) Anyway, I then spent nearly twenty years working in BBC TV newsrooms as reporter, editor, producer and sometime presenter. 

Being a reporter, especially with the Beeb, opened countless doors, helped me gain access to all kinds of people from all walks of life. I’ve interviewed everyone from pop stars to princes, prostitutes to police officers plus lots more non-alliterative professionals and personalities. 

Of course in news – as in fiction – crime sells. The cliché is true: if it bleeds, it leads. And it led me into a new career writing crime fiction.  How so . . .? 

I covered more crime stories than I care to remember but a number were impossible to forget. Especially the people involved: the victims, the grieving parents, police officers fighting back tears at a particularly poignant crime scene. I touched on issues that I found fascinating: how society treats the elderly (Dead Old): teenage sex workers (Working Girls); child abduction (Baby Love).  

As a TV reporter, I had maybe a minute and a half – that’s just two hundred and forty words – to tell these complex and amazing stories. Some I longed to explore further, venture far below the surface. Is it any wonder I decided to become a full time writer? And the news career undoubtedly helped make me the kind of author I am. 

I write spare but visual prose, come up with stories that are topical and fast-paced, create varied and, I hope, credible characters. Oh, and I set a daily word count, never miss a deadline and drink far too much coffee. 
As for my reporter in Bad Press, I’ve worked with many a Matt Snow in my time: dogged, persistent, cocky, massively competitive. He’s a hack who acts like a terrier – he never lets go until he has the story. I hope his story holds you captive, too. 

Personally, I’m never less than spellbound by the wonderful Clare Corbett whose narration brings all my characters to such vivid vocal life.- Maureen Carter

"Bad Press", written by Maureen Carter and narrated by Clare Corbett, is available from Audible US, Audible UK, and other digital retailers.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Shakespeare Beheaded Shocker!

Paul Kent, author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare" is our 'head boy' today...

At the northern end of London’s Carnaby Street, there’s a pretty decent pub called “The Shakespeare’s Head” which has been thrust into the limelight in the last couple of weeks thanks to the somewhat grisly discovery that Shakespeare’s own head might have been been nicked from his grave in Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon. The identity of the thieves, the date of the theft and the skull’s whereabouts are currently unknown, adding yet more to the sum total of things we don’t know about the world’s greatest ever playwright.

The “story” coincidentally broke with the airing of a new TV documentary, in which proper scientists scanned the gravesite using the latest “Ground-Penetrating Radar” gizmo, thus revealing the cranial absence without disturbing what’s left of the skeleton, which would have invoked The Shakespeare Curse, as carved on the grave itself:

Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To digg the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.

Back in 2007, a Renaissance literature scholar revealed the startling fact that anxiety about the mistreatment or exhumation of corpses is found in at least 16 of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, which also makes a great headline (geddit?!), and which would seem to indicate that Shakespeare had a morbid fear losing his own crowning asset. Look what happens to Yorick’s skull in Hamlet, as – in many productions – it is casually tossed around members of the cast without so much as a by-your-leave. What is now played for laughs might well have been profoundly disturbing to audiences who genuinely believed that to arrive headless in heaven would condemn you to an eternity “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

And, of course, head removal was a common form of execution back in the sixteenth century. In 1598, the year before the Globe Theatre opened on Bankside, no fewer than thirty heads were impaled on spikes and displayed at the Southwark end of the old London Bridge for all to see – a grisly reminder not just of mortality, but what could happen if you stepped too far out of line or got on the wrong side of Queen Elizabeth. As indeed Shakespeare almost did when his acting company somehow managed to get themselves embroiled in the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion in 1601. Essex lost his head, as did Edward Arden, a distant cousin of Shakespeare’s mother who was also found guilty of treason. So Shakespeare might well have been reminded of his own brushes with mortality as he walked, or was ferried, to work on the South Bank.

The Shakespeare play with the greatest number of severed heads must be Henry VI Part 2, which features no fewer than four: the Duke of Suffolk is beheaded by pirates; Jack Cade and his rebels behead Lord Saye for the imagined crime of promoting literacy; they also behead Saye’s son-in-law, Sir James Crowmer, and both heads are somewhat bizarrely mounted on poles and made to kiss each other; and ultimately, Cade’s own head is severed and taken to the King for inspection.

So losing your head was a serious business. And whether Shakespeare has actually  lost his (the boffins’ scans are not entirely conclusive, apparently), it’s intriguing to speculate as to who might have it, and why they nicked it in the first place. Grave robbers? Souvenir hunters? Phrenologists? Who knows?

But whatever the case, it’s yet another dog and pony show to divert our attention from what really matters about Shakespeare – the plays he dreamed up in his head. - Paul Kent

101 Short Essays on Shakespeare is an accessible and jargon-free guide, whether you're new to Shakespeare, or a seasoned playgoer. Available at Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo and other good eBook retailers.

Paul Kent is also the author of 'How Writers Write'.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

How Not To Review Cumberbatch's Hamlet...

In the first of an occasional series on all things Shakespeare*, Paul Kent - author of "101 Short Essays on Shakespeare" - discusses critics and Cumberbatch....

It’s a view I’ve held for years, but the last few weeks have confirmed my prejudice in spades: theatre critics are bad for theatre. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent Hamlet at the Barbican Theatre in London has cruelly exposed the vast majority of their many inadequacies, like some large suppurating boil coming to a head on the face of a beautiful friend. Well, time for the needle, boys and girls . . . let’s see if you can take the pain as well as dish it out.

The first thing critics don’t like is that Cumberbatch is a star, and even worse, in media other than the theatre. So it’s about time he was cut down to size. When you read the reviews, there’s an unmistakeable sense that they’re willing him to fail. In many ways, this has proved a difficult ambition to fulfil, since his Hamlet is so good. Amid the slew of celebrity pops at the part over the last few years, his reading is undoubtedly one of the most successful, so not many palpable hits from the critics, but a lot of grumbling about the very idea of someone so popular attempting the role. It’s distracting, they claim. Then why not concentrate a little harder? That way, the excellence of Cumberbatch’s rendition will make you forget who’s playing the role, and you’ll end up watching Hamlet up there on stage, and not The Star Who Is Benedict Cumberbatch Playing Hamlet. This is how theatre actually works when it’s done well. And that’s precisely what Cumberbatch manages to deliver, if you’d been paying attention rather than grinding your axes.

Second fault: it’s a populist production, aimed at “kids brought up on Moulin Rouge” as the London Times’s reviewer sneered. Um – and even if that were true, what’s the problem? Moulin Rouge was an excellent film – funny, glamorous, original and, of course, wildly popular. But why shouldn’t Hamlet appeal to young audiences? Are we not allowed to like Shakespeare until we’ve reached a certain age? Who made that rule up? Oh, I get it. Kids couldn’t possibly understand such a difficult play. And any attempt to help or encourage them effectively trivializes one of the greatest works of drama ever written. No, let them struggle and be put off Shakespeare for life! Actually one of this production’s great triumphs is the clarity of the narrative line, effected by judicious cutting, the re-instatement of several neglected scenes and episodes, and some interesting text shuffling (which the critics have also criticized). So what we end up with is a story well told – something that is often lost amid Hamlet’s ditherings. But don’t forget, kids –critics will always know better than you, and their opinions will always count more than yours. So back in your boxes.

So: we have an excellent central performance, and a comprehensible text. What else is wrong?
The set’s too big. It’s “cinematic”, one complained. Sometimes it feels like many critics simply go to the theatre to channel their inner Puritan. If the production doesn’t involve a bunch of nobodies with two beer crates for a set, it’s somehow “extravagant”. Well, chaps, you’re in a THEATRE. Theatre is THEATRICAL. And no-one understood this better than Shakespeare. You know, the guy who wrote this stuff, the guy who’s been at the top of the theatrical tree for over four centuries. And have you ever seen his Henry VIII? It was the Hollywood blockbuster of its day, complete with a huge cast, pomp, pageantry, masques, mimes and special effects. Makes Moulin Rouge look like Beckett. And what about the opening of Henry V, in which the Chorus repeatedly apologizes because things aren’t spectacular enough?  Listen, chaps: here’s the facts of life. Shakespeare understood what worked in the theatre, and what would put bums on seats. He wrote as much for commercial gain as art – probably more so, since he had a wife and kids, a theatre and a company to support.  So when the curtain goes up at the Barbican and we’re plunged into a lavish banqueting scene, why not allow your inner child to go “ooooh!” rather than your inner Puritan to ponder “I wonder how much that cost?” It’s what Shakespeare would have wanted.

 I could go on, but to be honest, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Theatre critics immerse themselves in the world of theatre, yet time and time again they prove that while they may be in it, they’re most definitely not of it. Being professional theatregoers, they’re focused entirely on their personal relationship with what they’re watching, to the total exclusion of the casual theatregoer and anything he or she might bring to the party. Yes, we exist. So why not try and include us? Why not say, “If you like the glamour and glitz of Moulin Rouge this is the Hamlet for you, rather than “This Hamlet’s full of glamour and glitz, I don’t like it so don’t go”?

And in any case: how come, despite all your posturing, pouting, huffing and faint praise, Cumberbatch is playing to packed houses that regularly reward his efforts with near-capacity standing ovations? Are we all wrong? Are we all sheep, hypnotised by his celebrity, paying homage at the altar of his fame?


We’re too busy enjoying ourselves;. We don’t live to generate clickbait, and we aren’t being paid peanuts to parade our professional ignorance and petty snobberies in public.
Just sayin’.

So that, critics all, is my opinion of your opinions. And like your opinions, I’m entitled to it.
Time for one last one: I think Shakespeare, Hamlet and Mr Cumberbatch may all survive your attentions. Somehow.

*this post first appeared on Creative Content's website