We will never tire of good stories, but we can't predict how we will absorb them next. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing TV dramas for HBO

I remember my parents’ friends telling me that if Shakespeare had been alive in the 1960s, he’d have been a pop star. Now, it’s more likely he would be writing television dramas for HBO.

Kevin Spacey’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Television Festival was a fine example of effective speechwriting. It had charm, wit, a strong argument and spectacular anecdotes – delicious titbits from the conversations of A-plus celebrities. As with all good speeches, the ideas and the stories merged into a single effect. Who can resist a primer on cultural history when it is peppered with talk from Hollywood’s high table?

Mainstream television, Spacey said, has stopped taking risks, stopped backing talent. It seeks easy winners and commercial certainties. He argued that creative industries become sclerotic when the balance of power swings away from creative talent and towards executive bean-counters. It started in film. He quoted from David Lean’s 1990 speech bemoaning the state of Hollywood: “We don’t come out of many new holes any more. We try to go back and come out of the old ones . . . If we don’t [give new storytellers encouragement], we’re going to go down and down and down and lose it all – to television. Television is going to take over.”

The same problems soon afflicted television. Spacey recalled how NBC sent a memo to the writer Steven Bochco just before the first season of Hill Street Blues aired. It listed the company’s concerns following focusgroup testing: the main characters had “flawed personalities”; they were never completely successful at work and their lives were a mess; there were too many loose ends. In other words, the show veered towards art, whereas the executives wanted fantasy. But execs don’t know what people want. The “flaws” that defined Hill Street Blues provide the explanation for the success of The Wire, Mad Men and Spacey’s series House of Cards (recently streamed by Netflix). As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

I would add three points to Spacey’s. He describes a world in which original talent is thwarted by executive philistinism. Yet often that situation, whatever the creative sphere, is supplanted by a subtler but no less depressing status quo. Creative talent, disappointed enough times, begins to self-censor, to think along permissible lines of inquiry. It starts to “go native”. Writers become conditioned by what they know – or imagine they know – their bosses will like.

So a bleak mutual reinforcement of risk aversion develops, trickling down from above but also seeping up from below. That’s why there is a strong case for writers not to spend much time around executives, editors and producers. Being an outsider protects essential naivety. If you don’t know the boss’s tastes, you are protected from pandering to them.

Almost as depressing as the cynical, riskaverse, focus-group-led sequel/prequel/re - make is film or television that is more determined to be edgy and original than it is to be good. This danger was captured in C S Lewis’s broader warning: “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth . . . you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Finally, Spacey doesn’t allow for the reality that declining creative industries cannot always be rescued by greater risk-taking. All art forms have a natural life cycle; talent realigns itself to follow opportunity.

Golden ages are not always mythical. In the late 19th century, opera towered triumphantly over the rest of the arts. Debussy’s remark that Wagner’s operas were “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for dawn” proved brilliantly prescient. Both Wagner and Verdi were born 200 years ago this year. Even the most devoted fan of classical music would struggle to argue that the two men would be writing musical dramas if they were alive today.

Art forms can wind up frighteningly fast. Film once enjoyed a magical dual frame of reference: it looked back to the stage play while pointing forward to something new. Whenever I watch films such as Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, I’m struck how much it feels like I’m watching a play in my living room, albeit a play with special tricks. (Dial M for Murder was adapted from the stage, Rear Window from a short story.) In contrast, because today’s viewers are more used to effects than theatre-style dialogue, film directors usually serve up scenes lasting only a few sentences.

Remember the singer-songwriter? It is no coincidence that a single generation produced the clustered greatness of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. They could express themselves in a new artistic medium: the album. Most consumers don’t even recognise the word today, let alone the idea of a sequence of songs that has a particular atmosphere and artistic unity. I remember my parents’ friends telling me that if Shakespeare had been alive in the 1960s, he’d have been a pop star. Now, it’s more likely he would be writing television dramas for HBO.

This shows how art forms can be brought back from the dead, often through technological good luck. “Fifteen years ago . . . television was considered a lost cause,” Spacey admitted. “I wouldn’t have been up here lecturing you because my agent would never have allowed me to even consider being on a television series after winning an Oscar, much less something ‘streaming’.” What happened? Television allowed for intelligent characterisation, while the DVD box set, which united the immediacy of the screen with the narrative sweep of the novel, made The Wire and its ilk a staple of civilised conversation. We could feast on one episode after another, the characters becoming part of our lives.

Technology is the headless horseman of history, galloping through our lives without intention or care. We will never tire of good stories, as Spacey pointed out. But no one can predict the next form in which we will absorb them and how that will change the storyteller’s craft. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder