Birdsong, loud and constant, from dawn to dusk. Nesting everywhere, a diversity of type that seems richer than I’ve seen in recent years. Bees in unbelievable number. Butterflies drifting by, after years of absence.
Hunting owls shrieking in the still of the night. Foxes rustling through the garden.
In these days of restricted horizons and lowering cloud, Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways may well be the perfect antidote. It takes us on a quest to other places and other times, and like all the best quests, one that goes inside as well as out.
The book describes a series of journeys on foot by the author, following the tracks of ancient wanderers on paths which have been trodden, often, for thousands of years. At the same time it’s an account of the landscape, and the weather, of myth and folklore, of old ghosts and new demons, of philosophy, and the magical aspects of nature that binds all these things together.
The act of walking – the heartbeat of feet upon the ground, the wind in the face – is a meditative process that allows seeing with new eyes. It provides a connection with the deep past, and it allows us to travel far inside for understanding of who we are and what binds us to those who have gone.
Macfarlane’s powerful poetic prose takes us along with him, to the most dangerous path in Britain, off the Essex coast, which only appears briefly on the mudflats at low tide, along the prehistoric route across the South Downs, through the Scottish Highlands, and even to the Middle East.
His description of a terrifying, perhaps supernatural, event one night while sleeping in Chanctonbury Ring captures the mystical atmosphere that seeps into every votive trek.
I finished reading The Old Ways while in lockdown, where my whole world was a house and a garden, and for a brief time there were no boundaries at all.
Crashing into 2020 was a brutal awakening after a lazy holiday period with my brain pretty much switched off. This is the first time I’ve got a book out in the New Year so I had to propel myself into the publicity period from a standing start. There are easier ways.
As most people know, I’ve been writing historical novels for the past few years – history being one of my particular and peculiar interests – and I chose to publish them under the pseudonym of James Wilde to avoid any confusion for readers who a) prefer my fantasy work or b) don’t like history.
On January 9, The Bear King hits bookshelves, real or digital. This is the final volume in the Dark Age trilogy which imagines how the legend of King Arthur could have arisen out of history.
You can tell that from the strapline above: Before King Arthur. Before Camelot. Before Excalibur. Don’t say I don’t make it easy for you.
Bridging the gap between ‘Game of Thrones’ and Bernard Cornwell comes the third and final chapter in James Wilde’s epic adventure of betrayal, battle and bloodshed . . .
AD 375 – The Dark Age is drawing near . . .
As Rome’s legions abandon their forts, chaos grows on the fringes of Britannia. In the far west, the shattered forces of the House of Pendragon huddle together in order to protect the royal heir – their one beacon of hope.
For Lucanus, their great war leader, is missing, presumed dead. And the people are abandoning them. For in this time of crisis, a challenger has arisen, a False King with an army swollen by a horde of bloody-thirsty barbarians desperate for vengeance.
One slim hope remains for Lucanus’ band of warrior-allies, the Grim Wolves. Guided by the druid, Myrrdin, they go in search of a great treasure – a vessel that is supposedly a gift from the gods. With such an artefact in their possession, the people would surely return and rally to their cause? Success will mean a war unlike any other, a battle between two kings for a legacy that will echo down the centuries. And should they fail? Well, then all is lost.
In The Bear King, James Wilde’s rousing reimagining of how the myth of King Arthur, Excalibur and Camelot rose out of the fragile pages of history reaches its shattering conclusion . . .
So much TV. This year it’s sometimes been hard to keep up, with all the new streaming services rolling out. Somehow I managed (no choice really – I have to watch a little of everything new for work. Can’t write TV if you don’t know what the current landscape looks like).
Here, then, is the best TV drama I saw during the last year. And there has been some truly great work screened. I’ve been enjoying some of Apple’s new launches, but they haven’t yet quite hit that critical level to make it to the top. There were also several shows I expected to drop in here, but in the end fell at the last (looking at you, Game of Thrones).
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
10. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
(Amazon Prime) I resisted including this last year, not wholly sure if it should be filed under comedy. But the quality is just phenomenal, and the drama is certainly there, if in ‘light’ mode. The recreation of 50s New York is perfect. Yet it also manages to tell a story relevant to today, with its sly look at gender, family and work. Rachel Brosnahan is luminous as the title character, but all the cast here do brilliant work.
9. After Life
(Netflix) Another one that could have been considered comedy with the pedigree of its creator and star Ricky Gervais. But this is a serious work with something important to say about grief and finding the value in life when you don’t have any faith. There are certainly laugh out loud moments. But there are heartbreaking ones too. A humanist masterpiece.
Shown on the BBC, this was a groundbreaking piece of work for UK TV. It’ll be available to the rest of the world via Netflix next year. A Tokyo detective comes to London to search for his missing brother following the murder of a Yakuza member. That death ripples out to touch several lives. Joe Barton’s scripts avoid the cliches and dive into an almost dreamlike state, digging out the essential humanity in cultures that seem at odds with each other.
(HBO) Ostensibly a teen drama, but one which digs deep into what it’s like to live – and try to survive – in the great Age of Disruption. Drugs, naked selfies, sex as currency, a raw examination of addiction, this is a long way from The Breakfast Club. Zendaya grounds it as the central character and commentator (although spoiled slightly by one extended sequence which served as a video for her new single).
6. Russian Doll
(Netflix) What seemed to be another Groundhog Day, quickly diverges into a twisty mystery. Centred on a brilliant performance by Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created, the show follows games developer Nadia Vulvokov as she dies again and again only to be reborn in the same situation. Clever, funny and moving, it’s well worth its four Emmy nominations.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale
(Hulu) Dark and desperate, The Handmaid’s Tale is as much about modern America as it is about its dystopian setting. The early episodes were a hard watch, but now the story has progressed, flickers of hope and righteous anger move to centre-stage. A fantastic performance by Elisabeth Moss, she starts to reveal the cracks within the central character June Osborne that Margaret Atwood’s novel sets up.
(HBO/Sky) Not by any stretch of the imagination ‘entertainment’, this is a grim but devastatingly human examination of the nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. The award-winning script by Craig Mazin dramatises the failings of the Soviet system set against the struggle of regular people to try to save the day. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard provide the odd couple central performances.
(Showtime) Billions goes from strength to strength and in any other year would well have held the number one slot in this list. The Shakespearean battle between Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhodes and Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod in the worlds of high finance and law takes on new dimensions and gets even more brutal. In a series of standout characters and actors, Asia Kate Dillon’s non-binary Taylor Mason wins hands down.
(HBO) A slow burn that took just about everyone by surprise. Damon Lindelof’s sequel/reimagining of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1980s graphic novel is a masterpiece that manages to capture the groundbreaking approach of the source material and then break even more new ground. Tackling racism, gender and power in America today, it still manages to capture an emotional chore. Regina King is a brilliant guide through the mazey storytelling.
(HBO) Springboarding off the real-world accounts of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his clan, Succession is a study of how emotional abuse destroys lives. That doesn’t sound a bundle of laughs, but there’s black humour aplenty in this tale of a declining media power broker pitting his children against each other to take the mantle from him. Much of the enjoyment comes from watching the slow motion car crash of these characters disintegrating in spectacular fashion. A brilliant, multifaceted work.
In the US TV industry, the writers have all the power. They run the shows, answering directly to the studios and networks. Not so much in the UK where the writer is kicked to one side and cut out of most decision making.
All that is changing with the rise of the streamers. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Peacock and the rest all want writers at the heart of their new shows. Because they’re buying a creative vision and they know the best person to fix problems or move everything forward is the creative visionary, right?
This weekend I attended the Introduction to Showrunning Seminar organised by the Writers Guild. The one the WGA runs in LA is attended by every writer getting their hands on a show for network, cable and streaming, but this is the first time one has been run in the UK.
Learned a massive amount. Some great speakers who knew the ins and outs of this hugely demanding, but equally rewarding job. The writer manages everything, from scripts to casting to hiring directors and DPs to the final edit.
The audience was packed with every TV writer you’ve ever heard of, which gives you some idea of how important showrunning is viewed.
And I can’t express how good it was to hear writers talking about taking control.
Generally I don’t talk about all the TV work I’m doing. When you’re creating new series, there are usually long periods of ditch-digging with the team, sweating, bouncing ideas around and drafting and re-drafting pilot scripts as conceptions change. And even then it doesn’t always come together.
But, as several people have asked, I’m currently in development with seven returning series for UK and international streaming broadcasters, across a range of genres.
More when I’m contractually allowed to speak about any of them.