Tag Archives: George Eliot

Bingeing and the myth of short attention spans

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Some things are a little complex to convey in a tweet. A scene from Netflix’s original drama series Narcos, depicting the rise of Pablo Escobar

Bingeing, once the preserve of bulimics and young men who drink themselves stupid before throwing up in some concrete town centre precinct, has recently expanded to encompass a whole new form of behaviour. You thought you were harmlessly sitting down in front of your screen to watch the latest on-demand series from the States. Six hours later, bleary eyed, you admit defeat, retire to bed and put aside tomorrow evening for Episodes 7 through 13.

Yes, you’ve got it, you’ve been bingeing, and if there isn’t a self-help group for you already, there’s sure to be one coming your way as this new twist on the concept enters the Oxford Dictionary.

But hang on a minute. Haven’t we spent the past thirty years being told that attention spans have shrunk to a point approaching non-existence? Blame the digital age, declining standards in schools, too much choice, a morally deficient generation, take your pick. These days it’s all tweets, bullet points, elevator pitches and executive summaries.

Yet a groundswell of evidence seems to be moving in the other direction. If attention spans are so short, if people are so reluctant to take the time to look at anything properly, how do we explain the massive global upsurge in sophisticated, multi-layered dramas with large casts of complex characters that take ten or more hours of screen time to unravel?

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Chop chop, mash mash, rush rush… Doesn’t look much like Christmas here for the BBC’s Capital

Let’s take two recent dramas. The first, Capital, based on the novel by John Lanchester, was produced by the BBC and aired towards the end of 2015. I was rather looking forward to this, having enjoyed the book. However, I was a little concerned when I saw it had been condensed into three one-hour episodes. The book comes in at just under 600 pages, so we’re looking at racing through just over three pages a minute, against a more natural page a minute.

No problem there for the get to the point on to the next scene before they hit the remote and start channel-hopping school of commissioning and scheduling. But to me the end result felt choppy and rushed, the characters flattened and unformed. The whole thing stank of corners being cut, from Christmas scenes shot in mid summer to entire story lines being eliminated. Was it just money, or did someone at the BBC believe (a) the book didn’t merit more than three episodes or (b) the audience couldn’t last the course of a full dozen? If it was (a), why did they commission it in the first place, and if it was (b), they need to take a hard look at what’s going on across the Atlantic over at the online subscription channels.

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Once again, the Americans are showing us how it’s done. When it comes to dysfunctional families, Bloodline has it all

Which brings me to the second drama, Bloodline. No one’s in a hurry here, the series’ creators have sufficient self-confidence in their characters’ complexity and the multifarious webs that entangle their fortunes to allow things to unravel at a luxuriant pace, taking in the steamy atmosphere of the Florida Keys.

With Bloodline, it’s easy to see why some of the best actors in the business (in this case Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, Kyle Chandler and Ben Mendelsohn) are eschewing the big screen for the depth and subtle character development offered by these big budget extended dramas.

For really, they are novels for the screen, the 21st Century’s answer to Dickens, Tolstoy and George Eliot. Indeed, many novels we now think of as classics were first introduced in episode format in magazines. While readers were gorging on the latest twist in Raskolnikov’s fortunes, poor old Dostoevsky was wondering how the hell he was going to get the next instalment written in time for The Russian Messenger’s deadline. Were the people who waited until the novel appeared in book form and then read the lot in one hit guilty of bingeing? Is refusing to ration an enthralling book into polite segments not exceeding a genteel 30 pages per session a diagnosable illness symptomatic of a need for medical treatment?

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Go binge on this… an episode of Bleak House as it would have first appeared to Victorian readers

I’ll admit it, I like bingeing, whether it’s a book that really grabs me or a Netflix hit like Narcos or NBC Universal’s Friday Night Lights. Because when I binge in this way, what’s really happening is I am being transported into another world with all its dramas, intrigues, heartaches, joys and sorrows. So I’m certainly not going to take offence at anyone bingeing on my novel Francesca.

The story begins in the 1970s with then Indonesian President Suharto cozying up to US President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Suharto, lest we forget, is the man who in 2004 had the dubious distinction of being listed the world’s number one kleptocratic head of state by the global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International. Estimates of the extent of his theft during his 31 years in office range from $15 to $35 billion, some three times more than his nearest contender, Marcos of the Philippines.

If you’re robbing your own people on that scale, it’s hardly surprising you don’t lose any sleep when it comes to helping yourself to a neighbouring country. Suharto’s 1975 adventure became a generational and genocidal tragedy for the people of East Timor, and it is this story that is told through the eyes of one young woman, Francesca.

Francesca is available at http://viewbook.at/francesca

 

 

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Breaking Bad, Orange, Californication… what makes these shows so damn good?

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It’s the writer’s life for me! Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, wrestles with his authority issues in Californication

Fifteen years ago I got rid of my TV. It wasn’t so much individual programmes I objected to, more the insidious effect it was having on my life. Tired, I’d sit down at the end of the day, switch on the tube and before I knew it it was time for bed. Most disturbing of all, come the morning I struggled to remember anything I had watched. Cop shows, news bulletins, dramas, documentaries, they washed over me in a blur.

For many years I didn’t watch anything at all. At first I missed Formula 1 motor racing, but then the sport went through a dull phase and I forgot about that as well. New interests entered my life; bringing up children, rediscovering reading, going places, hanging out with friends. Although I never embarked on a campaign against the boob tube, I noticed people reacted defensively when they heard I didn’t have one. “Of course, I hardly ever watch it myself, just the odd documentary and the news…” It felt a bit like how people respond if you tell them you don’t drink. “Oh, I only ever have the occasional glass of wine with a meal…”

Although I’ve never bought another television, recently it’s crept back into my life through the back door. For a long time, I didn’t think I was missing anything at all. I’d sit at lunch in the canteen where I was working and listen to people droning on about some banal reality show and think, get a life. The radio and the internet kept me connected with the world, I could find out about pretty much anything I was interested in.

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Don’t try this at home. Bryan Cranston, star of the Emmy winning Breaking Bad

Then I began to hear talk about a new golden age of television, primarily from America. At first I ignored it as marketing hype, but it continued, with intelligent, well respected critics repeating the mantra while they celebrated new shows like the Sopranos and House of Cards. With a broadband connection I was perfectly positioned to re-enter the world of television. Gone was the tyranny of the programme scheduler, intent of keeping me pinned to my sofa while show after show rolled over me between ads. This time I was in control, thanks to innovations like the iPlayer and internet subscription sites.

I started tentatively, with a pilot of Breaking Bad, which seemed to be winning Emmys and getting publicity all over the place. Sixty hours of drama later, bleary eyed from too many late nights, I realised what the critics were raving about. I moved on to Californication. Again, I was utterly hooked. My latest obsession is Orange is the New Black.

All three shows are amongst the best television I have ever watched, right up there alongside British classics such as Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited. Which led me to wonder, what is it that makes these series so damn good?

As a writer, the first thing I notice is the sheer quality of the scripts. They crack along; witty, incisive, penetrating, while the characterisations are astonishingly good. There is no such thing as a two dimensional character, as with real life, everyone has the capacity to surprise. We encounter vulnerability in the worst villains, and our heroes let us down just when we have trained ourselves to rely upon them. The actors are first rate, professional men and women playing a part. For all those weary of Hollywood stars trotting out yet another incarnation of their glorious selves, this is such a breath of fresh air.

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Could jail ever be this hot? Taylor Schilling, star of Orange is the New Black

The extended format of these series is another of its strengths, in that it gives the characters room to breathe, and stories time to develop. Again, it is such a relief to break free from the stereotypical Hollywood narrative arcs. I recently sat down to watch a traditional Rom-Com and fell asleep, it was so dreary, the ending so predictable. Not so with these shows, they keep you on your toes. In many ways they are the modern equivalent of the 19th Century magazine, whose content we have come to know as chapters from classic novels by the likes of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.

So, roll on the new golden age. In the meantime, you can purchase my novel Francesca, which is available along with the global television serial rights.