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TV Work

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.

There’s A Dark Age Coming

Copies of the paperback edition of Dark Age just arrived from my editor. Looks great. The team has done a fantastic job with all the covers for the current series.

It’s in shops shortly, or you can order it online here.

The blurb says:

Bridging the gap between ‘Game of Thrones’ and Bernard Cornwell comes the second chapter in James Wilde’s epic adventure of betrayal, battle and bloodshed . . .

It is AD 367, and Roman Britain has fallen to the vast barbarian horde which has invaded from the north. Towns burn, the land is ravaged and the few survivors flee. The army of Rome – once the most effective fighting force in the world – has been broken, its spirit lost and its remaining troops shattered.

Yet for all the darkness, there is hope. And it rests with one man. His name is Lucanus who they call the Wolf. He is a warrior, and he wears the ancient crown of the great war leader, Pendragon, and he wields a sword bestowed upon him by the druids. With a small band of trusted followers, Lucanus ventures south to Londinium where he hopes to bring together an army and make a defiant stand against the invader.

But within the walls of that great city there are others waiting on his arrival – hidden enemies who want more than anything to possess the great secret that has been entrusted to his care. To seize it would give them power beyond imagining. To protect it will require bravery and sacrifice beyond measure. And to lose it would mean the end of everything worth fighting for. 

Before Camelot. Before Excalibur. Before all you know of King Arthur. Here is the beginning of that legend . . .

Buy Pendragon Super-Cheap

…but you have to be quick. Pendragon is available now as Kindle Monthly Deal, for just 99p. It’s a great chance to sample this series from my pseudonym James Wilde, which Amazon describes as ‘bridging the gap between Game of Thrones and Bernard Cornwell.” You can find it here.

The second book Dark Age is already out. And the third, The Bear King, will be published this summer.

Here’s the blurb…

Here is the beginning of a legend. Long before Camelot rose, a hundred years before the myth of King Arthur was half-formed, at the start of the Red Century, the world was slipping into a Dark Age…

It is AD 367. In a frozen forest beyond Hadrian’s Wall, six scouts of the Roman army are found murdered. For Lucanus, known as the Wolf and leader of elite unit called the Arcani, this chilling ritual killing is a sign of a greater threat.

But to the Wolf the far north is a foreign land, a place where daemons and witches and the old gods live on. Only when the child of a friend is snatched will he venture alone into this treacherous world – a territory ruled over by a barbarian horde – in order to bring the boy back home. What he finds there beyond the wall will echo down the years.

A secret game with hidden factions is unfolding in the shadows: cabals from the edge of Empire to the eternal city of Rome itself, from the great pagan monument of Stonehenge to the warrior kingdoms of Gaul will go to any length to find and possess what is believed to be a source of great power, signified by the mark of the Dragon. 

A soldier and a thief, a cut-throat, courtesan and a druid, even the Emperor Valentinian himself – each of these has a part to play in the beginnings of this legend…the rise of the House of Pendragon.

Best TV Drama 2018

Time for my annual round-up of the best TV of the year.  And I’ve watched a lot for work and pleasure over the last eleven and a bit months. The flood of great shows hasn’t abated, in fact it seems to be increasing.  That’s not going to stop.  Several new streaming services are launching in 2019, including Apple’s and Disney’s.

If you watch only ten shows this year, you could make it the ones in this list. But honestly, so many only just missed the cut, and in the end it came down to margin calls.  And it’s the same at the top end of the list where I went back and forth several times, and would probably come up with a slightly different ranking tomorrow.

I’ll be counting down with one a day, so check back to see what got my viewing and screenwriting juices flowing during 2018.

10. Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the modern generation? The big win here is the design of an immersive world that’s like being dipped in a big vat of Halloween. Sabrina’s house, the school, the forest, the pumpkin fields and lonely roads, everything here has a hyper-intense feel that pulls you into a place where the creepy is normal.  The tone is all over the place – and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  Gory, disturbing, playful, but thankfully nowhere near as over-cooked teen drama as its stablemate Riverdale.  Couple that with some great character actors playing it large – Lucy Davis, Michelle Gomez, Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle – and you’ve got a frightening funhouse of a series. Yes, some of the mid-season writing is a bit patchy, but stick with it.  The Midwinter special drops soon.

9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

A series with something important to say about the state of the world, and of today’s America.  As a spin-off of the well-crafted but not wave-making The Good Wife, not a lot was expected from The Good Fight.  Indeed, on the surface, this looks like a traditional legal show.

But from the very first scene of the first episode, it set out its stall that this is a critique of Trump and all he stands for, of the vulgarity and the profit-first coarseness that characterises current times.  It’s a series about the huge divide in society, and the inequalities thrown up by a 1% inured to suffering.  The credits come in halfway through the first episode with a reversal that pulls the rug out from under your feet.  And then you can see where The Good Fight is going.

And yet it’s not preachy.  It tells it’s tales with verve and a popular style, with strong characters and a light, yes, traditional, touch where necessary.

8. Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

Another massive critical hit from Prime, after The Magnificent Mrs Maisel, and deserving of all the praise heaped on it, and its star Julia Roberts.  Paranoia runs deep in this series – and paranoia is possibly the key response to the 21st century – as Roberts oversees a facility for military veterans wanting to adjust to the civilian world.  It’s told via different competing timelines, and tackles issues like memory and personality.

The relentless pace – the episodes are only 30 minutes – drag you through the labyrinth.  There’s tricksy direction and graphics, as you’d expect from the director and producer Sam Esmail who made Mr Robot such an interesting and iconoclastic creation.  But the real, emotive performances hold everything together.

7. The Deuce (HBO)

A brave series, in its unflinching attention to every grimy, seedy, brutal aspect of its milieu.  In its examination of the early years of the New York porn industry, it takes you into a world you’ve never seen before, and tells you things you never knew in the process.  As you’d expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos, the flawed characters lie at the heart, raw humanity trying to survive in a time and place determined to grind them down.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is the queen of all she surveys, as both producer, and as Candy, the former streetwalker now photo-feminist demanding agency as she shapes this new industry from behind the camera.  A class act.

6. Atlanta (FX)

The genius that is Donald Glover has achieved something of TV nirvana here – a show that can be absolutely anything it wants to be.  Slice of life, romance, comedy, gritty urban survival, social comment, and, in the episode where the main character goes to buy a second-hand piano, even horror.  Sometimes it’s all of them at the same time.  In the end, the genre here is simply Donald Glover’s worldview, mercurial, wry and witty.  Everyone in the cast gives first-rate performances, and, what makes it great for me, it never fails to surprise.

5. Maniac (Netflix)

A deliriously hallucinogenic comedy-drama miniseries that occupies its own space – post-modern, with heightened performances and a look that often echoes cheap 70s SF movies.  What keeps it from being too quirky for its own good is the big heart at the core, and ultimately it’s deeply affecting.  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play two broken people volunteering for a new treatment that supposedly will help cure their mental health issues.  This involves flinging them into drug-induced imaginary alternate lives where they can work through their neuroses.  Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is dreamy yet emotional, but it’s the career-best performance from Emma Stone, and Justin Theroux as a disturbed psychologist that nails this one down.

4. Billions (Showtime)

If this series maintains its trajectory, it has a good chance of being up there with The Sopranos by the end of its run.  There are similarities with the Mafioso drama – turbulent families, gangster capitalism, big egos crossing lines – but Billions ploughs its own furrow.  Its financial machinations are never dull and always subsumed beneath the character dramas, and it sparkles with an urbane wit that adds to its dynamism.  Fantastic duelling performances from Damien Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as NY attorney Chuck Rhoades provide the visceral, Shakespearean core.  But there are two stand-out supporting turns that will keep you coming back – David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s right hand man who plays louche so well you expect him to seize his pleasure in every scene; and Asia Kate Dillon as the non-binary analyst Taylor, a performance that is all about brains and repressed vulnerability.

3. Ozark (Netflix)

Season one took a while to get going, but set out its stall with its aspiration to be the new Breaking Bad. Season two takes that mission to a completely different level.  Every dilemma, every choice made, fires the characters into a new level of hell, which requires more choices and more terrible consequences.  In the end, the tension of that grim spiral becomes almost unbearable.  This tale of a middle class family among the rednecks is a culture clash drama.  But when it asks the question, who has the capacity for the most evil – the sophisticated family, the uncomplicated, uneducated backwoods folk, the monied, the violent criminal gang, even the FBI – that’s when it comes into its own.  And the answer  demanded in every episode is usually not the one you expect.  Also in this series, Laura Linney emerges as the real star as her character edges into Walter White territory, a strong, unflinching person who will do absolutely anything to ensure survival.

2. Sharp Objects (HBO)

A near-perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s chilling debut novel.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses the tics that made Big Little Lies such a success – flashes of images that are sometimes memories, sometimes notions, sometimes fantasies, that together create a dreamy atmosphere that echoes the languorous southern setting.  The pacing is deliberately measured, allowing the slow accretion of detail and character that brings the story to life. Which makes the ending so effective – after that oneiric approach the final scene and the post-credits sequence comes like a baseball bat to the face, smashing home the shattering horror of what has taken place.  Great performance too by Amy Adams as the alcoholic emotionally-troubled reporter returning to her disturbed family to investigate dark goings-on in the community.

1. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

From the outset, this remarkable drama transcends its horror roots and becomes something universal.  The scares aren’t the point here, though there are several very effective ones.  This is a story about grief, addiction, depression and the very personal psychological suffering that is part of the human condition.  If that makes it sound heavy or preachy, it’s not at all – the supernatural is used as a powerful metaphor and that keeps everything moving.  But it is possibly the saddest thing you will see on TV.  Some of the episodes, and the characters, are heartbreaking.  The creator Mike Flanagan has made something enduring because he doesn’t pander to the viewer.  Questions are left hanging until Flanagan is ready to give his answers.  Duelling timelines are rolled out and the viewer is left to piece together which character is which and what’s going on.  There’s some brilliant dexterity behind the camera, with several long, prowling takes around the haunted house(s), and excellent work in front of the camera, particularly from Victoria Pedretti, Kate Siegel and Elizabeth Reaser.  This is a complete and satisfying novel, and there doesn’t need to be another series. But there will be, and I trust Flanagan to do something equally interesting.

And that’s it.  Honourable mentions to Narcos Mexico, Killing Eve, Unreal, 13 Reasons Why, Better Call Saul and Westworld, all of which could easily have made the cut.

And a special award to House of Cards for so spectacularly losing the plot.  The denouement was the worst for any highly-rated show in this new golden age of TV, so bad in fact that it effectively destroyed all that had come before.  It outlined a few basic writing issues.  If a character has been shaped to be supporting, you can’t simply elevate them to lead.  And this was always a novel about Francis Underwood, told in chapters.  His story was left hanging, and no amount of running around and dramatic posturing can make it feel fulfilled. Should have ended it with season 5.

Finally a big vat of the sourest grapes is being hauled by Deliveroo to the home of director Steve McQueen who insisted the golden age of TV was now over…minutes after HBO turned down his pitch for a new TV series.  On the evidence of these ten shows he couldn’t be more wrong.

When Is A Ghost Not A Ghost?

The Haunting of Hill House, which dropped on Netflix shortly before Halloween, is an amazing achievement, and not because of the scary elements (of which there are many).

Matching the show’s duelling timelines – now and then – it’s gone back to the past, to the age of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, when horror was made for grown-ups, with deep themes and symbolism, where the supernatural was a metaphor for real-world concerns.

And after so many years of dumb, funfair ride horror, it was so refreshing to discover something that had real depth.

What is The Haunting of Hill House about?  Not ghosts, not really.  They sweep by on the surface, terrifying and driving the plot, but it’s what they really mean that is truly horrifying.

A be-hatted spectral figure whose face can never be seen, always a few steps behind you – that’s a scary image.  But as a symbol of addiction, that honestly makes the blood run cold.  Depression, mental illness, family breakdown, childhood trauma, these are the ghosts that really haunt Hill House – and that is why the series is so affecting.  Emotional – sad, uplifting – rather than just creepy.

It talks about the human, not the supernatural.

I could go on at length about Mike Flanagan’s tour-de-force.  It’s a show that people will be talking about for ages, because of that meaning and depth married to a chilling tale.

Some complain about the ending.  I think it’s perfect for a series that is a drama about people.  It’s all a matter of perception, which is one of the themes The Haunting of Hill House plays with so effectively.

And it has an attention to detail in its construction that you rarely see in a tale in this genre (which these days producers cynically think is there for a not particularly discerning audience).  The layering of the mystery, the resonances that leap back and forth across the entire series, the excellent performances (particularly from the three female leads who knock it out of the park in their individual story episodes), these are things you usually find in TV dramas aimed at, well, discerning viewers.

Let’s talk about Mike Flanagan’s amazing direction in the ‘single-take’ (really five takes) episode six.  Or that attention to detail in the clockwork story construction. Ponder for a moment the discarded ‘sinister’ ending and why that choice was made.

But mostly praise the decision to reclaim horror for all those people who prefer a little meat on old bones.

Political Language And Why The Words We Use Matter

In which I talk about dragons and fascists.

At time of writing, a suspect is in custody for the murder of eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history. The details of the atrocity are gut-wrenching and difficult for decent people to contemplate.  Equally hard to accept is the slow-dawning realisation that this may well be the new normal.

Across western society, we are having to fight battles we thought we’d won, ones we thought we’d never have to fight again.

There are numerous causes.  Hate-filled demagogues.  The Communication Age giving a voice to people who probably shouldn’t be empowered.  The disillusion of those who are finding it impossible to adjust to the 21st century.

But all this leads towards one outcome: the normalisation of things that in past times were so far beyond the pale they wouldn’t be discussed in polite society.  (“Mainstreaming’, in a piece of jargon – something I will get on to shortly.)

And key to that normalisation is the use of words.

When I began writing my urban fantasy series, Age of Misrule, about ancient myth and legend transforming the modern world, I began with one very key decision.  I’d be using some familiar tropes.  Concepts that we all know extremely well from childhood through the fairytales and mythic stories that we’re told almost from the moment when we understand what a story is.

As an author, this created problems for me.  These fantastic ideas would be so familiar to readers they came pre-loaded with assumptions, descriptions and prejudices.  In my books I wanted them to be seen with new eyes – the wonder caused by the shock of the unfamiliar – and free of any symbolism and metaphor so I could use them in my own way.

So I could give them the meaning I wanted to convey.

That’s why I decided to call them by unfamiliar names.  Dragons were Fabulous Beasts.  Vampires were the Baobhan Sith, the blood-drinking supernatural figures of Irish mythology.  And so on, with all the other core concepts of myth and legend.

Hopefully all those preconceptions would be re-set as readers tried to work out who the Baobhan Sith are, say.  It seemed to work.  The books sold all over the globe, and are still selling.

It’s an important lesson.  Tell someone the thing they thought they knew well is now called this new name, and they re-set their opinions.  They start working out how it now fits into their own worldview.

This is how fascism becomes just another strand of the Left-Right political battle, rather than a reprehensible philosophy that caused the death of millions.

The term Alt-Right is key.  It’s thrown around in the media as if it’s simply another strand of Conservatism, harder edged, more pure, something that young men (usually) can jump on to to appear cool when they can’t get girls, or boys.

The Alt-Right is, as Wikipedia tells us, “a grouping of white supremacists/white nationalists, anti-semites, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-Confederates, Holocaust deniers…and other far-right[2][3][4] fringe hate groups.”

Nazis like Hitler.  Fascists who slaughtered Jews in their death camps.

Does Alt-Right make you think of that?  No, it makes you think of some sub-genre of music that all the cool kids like.

Don’t use Alt-Right.  You’re helping them win.  You, you and you.  And, yes, you, CNN, NBC, BBC, Washington Post, The Guardian and all the other media organisations.

Words are not about what they mean.  They’re about what they make you feel.

The name Incel – Involuntarily Celibate – was self-selected by boys who can’t get girls and feel very sad about it.  That one word allows them to become a movement, disenfranchised victims who should be treated like any other minority.  It allows them to terrorise women – as a right.  To ‘mainstream’ hatred and even to justify murder.  One word.  Because without that word, everyone everywhere has their perception of who and what they really are.  They’re very clever, mainstreaming their own troubles.  It gives them legitimate reasons to both feel bad and be collective victims of a societal problem.

Revenge Porn.  We all know what that is, right?  It’s there in those two words.  Porn – “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Wikipedia again).  Porn – a bit dirty, but a bit good too, yes?  ‘Arousal’.

Except it’s Domestic Violence.  The psychological abuse of a woman, and sometimes a man.  Not so kinky now, is it?  Not so much arousal.

Stop calling it Revenge Porn.  Call it Domestic Violence.  Then we’ll feel it, instead of grasping to understand it.

This goes much wider and deeper.

People used to fighting political battles understand each other.  They use a shared language, packed with technical terms.  And while they have no problem with understanding, and while the public may generally know what the jargon means, it doesn’t have the gut-punch of a well-used word. It doesn’t convey meaning.

Anti-semitism is seemingly the root cause of the atrocity in Pittsburgh, and was a major issue on the other side of the Atlantic all this year with allegations levelled at the British Labour Party.

We know what antisemitism is.  But we don’t feel it, do we?  Call it Jew Hate, then we get it.

Many of us know what misogyny is.  It’s a term bandied around by political campaigners in the UK and US.  Talk to people on the street, and they know it’s bad, in that detached I-kind-of-understand-what-that-means way.  Call it Woman Hate, then they get it.

Words matter.  All writers know that.  But they matter more than any of us may realise in shaping the society we live in, and the one we want to live in.  George Orwell understood it when he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Let’s re-learn that lesson so we don’t have to keep re-fighting old battles.

The Bear King

Dark Age is out and on the shelves of your local bookstore.  I’m caught in that bizarre publishing time-trap of existing one year ahead of everybody else – I’m currently working my way towards the end of the The Bear King, the third and final volume in the Dark Age trilogy.

If you’ve enjoyed the adventures of Lucanus, this examination of the historical origins of the King Arthur myth, of Camelot and Excalibur and all the rest, and if you’re keen to see where it all goes (and likely not where you expect), this one is for you.

“Like a story, the important thing about life is how it is played out.  It does not matter where you stop.  Stop wherever you want to, but just attach a good ending.” ~ Seneca