Mark Juddery » Blog Author | Screenwriter | Journalist Tue, 24 Dec 2013 00:26:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The 5 Greatest Doctor Who Moments /2013/the-5-greatest-doctor-who-moments/ /2013/the-5-greatest-doctor-who-moments/#comments Wed, 20 Nov 2013 22:31:00 +0000 /?p=1534 Two things are happening this week. Firstly, my favourite television series (and no, I don’t mean Party of Five) is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary; and secondly, I’m enjoying the concept of YouTube blogging. Everyone is talking about Doctor Who this week – and I can’t understand why the only thing I’ve written about the anniversary was a story in Good Weekend several months ago.

Well, since it’s my favourite show and it’s Big News right now, here are the 5 Greatest Doctor Who Moments… from someone who’s been a fan since before many of the current fans were born. (Yes, people, the old stuff was good too. Just forgive the production standards, which were admittedly primitive. It was still edge-of-seat viewing.)

5. Cybermen attack from the London sewers (The Invasion, 1968)

This was done many times on the series, but this was perhaps the consummate “aliens invading London” scene (because the BBC didn’t have the budget for them to invade anywhere else). Just when you think all is peaceful, and the adventure is about to finish, we are left with… a cliffhanger. The music (for want of a better word) is suitably terrifying. For kids, this literally brings the monsters home – and it’s a thrill (even if – or partly because – you don’t see a Cyberman until around 1:54).

4. The first regeneration (The Tenth Planet, 1966)

Those of us who grew up knowing that the Doctor was a Time Lord, who would regularly regenerate, can only imagine how bizarre it was the first time (when it wasn’t really explained – and wouldn’t be explained for four years). Somehow, it worked. William Hartnell became Patrick Troughton… and everyone accepted it. This weird plot device, more than anything else, might be the reason the show has lasted for so long.

3. Adric dies (Earthshock, 1983)

The great WTH moment in Doctor Who – because it was a kids’ show, so nobody could say “WTF”… and also because, while secondary characters would die frequently, the regulars never died. Being a companion of the Doctor meant that he’d protect you. Two companions had died in 1965, but they were only briefly on the show, so they were practically just guest actors. But when Adric died heroically, after nearly two seasons of travelling through time and space, kids everywhere (including me) were stunned.

2. “Everybody lives!” (The Doctor Dances, 2005)

Christopher Eccleston, possibly the darkest of the Doctors, had a rare moment of ecstatic joy in the first Doctor Who story scripted by Steven Moffat. While the Doctor usually triumphs, there had always been casualties. (Previously, the only story in which everyone survived was The Edge of Destruction, in which the Doctor and three companions were the only characters.) But this time was special. It wasn’t even casualties=0. It was casualties=minus-1. Brilliant!

1. “Do I have the right?” (Genesis of the Daleks, 1975)

The Doctor is on a mission to wipe out the Daleks at the time of their creation. He has the power. All he needs to do is tap two wires, and save the lives of millions… but he can’t bring himself to play God. “If I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them.”  (It starts around 1:18 in this video.) This philosophy confused me as a child – why didn’t he just kill those rotten bastards? – but in future years I appreciated it more. Here was evidence that Doctor Who could be one of the most complex, intelligent drama shows on 1970s television. And yes, it was a kids’ show!

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The 5 Best Movie Musical Numbers /2013/the-5-best-movie-musical-numbers/ /2013/the-5-best-movie-musical-numbers/#comments Tue, 19 Nov 2013 03:50:47 +0000 /?p=1523 It took Margaret Thatcher’s passing this year to do something that I didn’t realise was still possible. Whatever you think of Thatcher, her passing put a recording from a classic Hollywood musical back in the charts, narrowly missing the top spot (except in Scotland, where it made number one). “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead” might not be the greatest song ever written, but it added the colour and joy of a much-loved movies to an otherwise solemn (or celebrated) occasion.

Great Hollywood musicals have that kind of power. Despite the stereotypes, you don’t have to be aging, gay, female, or six years old to enjoy them. Beyonce can only dream of providing as much happiness as Judy Garland provided over the years. In the hope that another major event can bring some of these songs back into the charts, here’s a perfectly good list (so there) of Hollywood’s five greatest musical numbers.


5. “You Can Count on Me” (from On the Town, 1949)

From a movie that’s not as good as everyone says, an amazingly fun musical number that, somehow, nobody remembers. Except me. Featuring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller and the other three who aren’t as famous. You have to sit through most of the film to get to this bit, but you’ll love it. Or maybe that’s just me. (And you only get a taste of it in this clip, to inspire you to watch the movie… and also because this is all that anyone put on YouTube. As I said, it’s been unjustly forgotten.)


4. “The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (from The Harvey Girls, 1946)

This song won an Oscar, even though it’s only the second best Harry Warren movie song – and musical number – about a train. But that’s pretty good. It became a mainstay of Judy Garland’s stage act, but I prefer the “epic” quality of the original, with 16 (including Judy, of course) characters taking turns at the solos, plus two duets, one trio and the chorus bits.


3. “Make ’Em Laugh” (from Singin’ in the Rain, 1952)

Singin’ in the Rain was one of the most entertaining films ever, the one that psychologists are most likely to prescribe to anyone feeling miserable about something. While most people know about the Gene Kelly scene where (spoiler alert) he sings in the rain, I’d say that the highlight is Donald O’Connor’s exhausting “Make ’Em Laugh”, one of the movie’s few original songs, though “original” is too strong a word because it’s basically a rip-off of “Be a Clown”. No matter, it’s so acrobatic, hilarious and painstakingly timed that it would have been churlish for Cole Porter to sue. It’s even more impressive when you realise that O’Connor was smoking three packs a day. You know how long that would take? How could he even stop long enough to do any filming?


2. “Tomorrow Belongs the Me” (from Cabaret, 1972)

Most of the great musical numbers leave you feeling joyous. This one, when you let it sink in, should scare you. It is sung beautifully by the Hitler Youth (or, let’s be clear, a group of singers playing the Hitler Youth), and it sounds so much like a traditional German folk song that many people assume that it’s exactly that. In fact, it was written just for “Cabaret” by the great (Jewish-American) songwriting team of Kander and Ebb, which explains why it’s in English. Still, you could imagine that the Hitler Youth must have enjoyed such patriotic, uplifting songs. In fact, you find yourself truly inspired, until you realise that this is meant to be a rallying cry for the Nazis. In the end, you see that, if Hitler had such songs in his arsenal, no wonder he was able to motivate a nation to join his evil cause.


1. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (from Sun Valley Serenade, 1941)

This movie was an excuse for one of Hollywood’s most popular European stars, Norway’s Sonja Henie, to show off her talent: ice-skating. Henie had been a Winter Olympic gold-medallist, who managed to be cute and adorable in between displays of her prodigious skill. But in the best musical number of “Sun Valley Serenade”, she was nowhere to be seen, so I’ll stop talking about her.

Instead, this number shows off the talents of the movie’s OTHER most famous star, Glenn Miller, also a non-actor. He won the first-ever gold record for “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, the indispensible Harry Warren and Mack Gordon song, which is introduced in suitably epic style as a three-part, eight-minute number. First, Miller and his big band play it as a brass-heavy instrumental, with nicely choreographed moves that make it great viewing as well as listening. The second part isn’t bad – in fact, it’s terrific – but it’s the least interesting of the three parts. This is a vocal version (backed by Miller’s band), nicely crooned by a group called the Modernaires.

The third part is simply awesome: a song-and-dance bit by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, a pair of acrobatic dancers who were inhumanly talented, able do backward somersaults and land doing the splits in the middle of a complex number, without losing any timing or rhythm. While Miller leaves you impressed, the Nicholas Brothers leave you gaping with shock, thinking “I didn’t know they had computer effects back then.” Their singing moments with the underrated Dandridge (who joins them in some of the less death-defying dancing) shows the jazz-like improvisation that three African American show people could add to an already terrific song.

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What I heard at the London Screenwriters Festival /2013/what-i-heard-at-the-london-screenwriters-festival/ /2013/what-i-heard-at-the-london-screenwriters-festival/#comments Fri, 01 Nov 2013 18:23:47 +0000 /?p=1513

I mention comedy here, so here are some people laughing. (See? It makes perfect sense. I should have been a photo librarian!)

Yes, I’m blogging again… and this time, I hope to keep it up! This weekend I was at the London Screenwriters Festival, and I took copious notes at the numerous sessions I attended. Unfortunately, this being London, my bag was stolen from a restaurant on the last night (along with my laptop and my phone). I’ve since been racking my brains to remember what I learned at the Festival (apart from the obvious “Don’t leave your bag at your side for more than a minute – that’s all it takes!”). So here is a top 10 list. Hopefully there isn’t something even more significant that I scribbled down at the time, but have since managed to forget. But this stuff was pretty good…

  1. A screenplay, presented to an overworked Hollywood script reader, should be an entertaining read, like a great novel. (That point was from Julie Gray‘s session How to Drench the Page in Theme and Cinematic Imagery.)
  2. When you find yourself pitching a script to a producer or another power-player, always have an answer to the phrase “Got anything else?”
  3. Getting plenty of Twitter followers helps to get work in the industry! It sounds terrible that it’s come to this, but producers will go for people who can  promote their project to their “followers”. (Chris Jones, LSF organiser, mentioned this in one of his own informative sessions.)
  4. Script-readers hate large blocks of text, whether raving monologues or detailed scene descriptions. Remember: you can break it into several paragraphs. (Julie Gray again, in her session Top Ten Things Readers Hate – and no, it wasn’t number one.)
  5. The amazing Graham Linehan (writer of The IT Crowd and Father Ted) mentioned the fear of total silence from the audience that descends just before recording a live episode. You never know whether the jokes will work. For someone who has always struck me as a genius, able to deliver constant laughs every half-hour, it was enlightening to find that the confidence is still lacking.
  6. If your sitcom characters are deep and complex, maybe they shouldn’t be in a sitcom. However great Basil Fawlty and Homer Simpson might be, they aren’t exactly complicated. (Script doctor Marcella Forster suggested this to me. I am now transforming my sitcom into a comedy-drama.)
  7. Most Hollywood screenwriters break in on their tenth or eleventh screenplay. Only “savants” break in after writing as few as four scripts. It takes that long to master the craft. (Julie Gray again. This was both discouraging – you have to work for years just to sell a script – and encouraging – it takes everyone a long time.)
  8. Don’t “write what you know”, as everyone says. Write what you want to know. (Actor and occasional playwright Paterson Joseph talked about this, in a flamboyant and entertaining talk about the joy of research. As an author and journalist, I can vouch for that.)
  9. All comedy is about physical or emotional pain. (Hollywood comedy producer Luke Ryan explained that in his talk What’s So Funny? The Essentials Of Comedy Writing.)
  10. Got an agent? Congratulations. Got a writing gig? Don’t hold your breath. However good your agent, that might take a while.
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New book… out in 2014 /2013/new-book-out-in-2014/ /2013/new-book-out-in-2014/#comments Sun, 30 Jun 2013 21:24:49 +0000 /?p=1507 I just finished writing my latest book, Best Times Ever, for Hardie Grant Publishers – working day and night to make the deadline. I did so (a week early, in fact), but the London office looked at it and said “You know, this could be great to release in February!” The Melbourne office agreed, so it will be released in February in both places, rather than later in 2013, as originally planned (hence the deadline).

The reason: The book had taken on a life of its own, becoming slightly more political in its subject matter. Hence, it would be buried in the Christmas rush if released in October or December, when it could be promoted much more fully in the politics-focused news media… which tends to wind down later in the year (unlike politics itself, which keeps on going).

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So long… and thanks for all the Times /2013/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-times/ /2013/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-times/#comments Wed, 22 May 2013 15:03:03 +0000 /?p=1501 This week was meant to be my final column in The Canberra Times. I regret to say that it was not published, because one of the editors (who shall remain nameless) was not happy with me dedicating the entire column to farewelling my readers (many of whom had been kindly asking about the status of the column). As the Times will not publish it, here is my final column…


Last week was my three hundredth column for Times2. If you only read newspapers (which, for those youngsters among you, are like news websites except on paper), you might not have noticed it, because (like this one) it was published exclusively online. That’s been the case for four weeks now. Hence, newspaper readers might have assumed that I no longer wrote a column.

That would have been accidentally prescient of them. Today is my final column after six years in Times2, cast aside in this brave new world in which newspapers don’t have any paper, columns take up an entire smartphone screen, and we fly to work using anti-gravity packs. (OK, I’m not sure about that last one.) The Canberra Times has invited me to continue writing features about entertainment and the arts, but the regular column has gone the way of other one-time Canberra Times mainstays like Between the Lines, Good Times and Tintin. (Not even I remember the daily Tintin comic strip, but I’ve done my research.)

In the past six years, without sounding boastful, I’ve achieved a few things in this column. In one of the very first columns, I revealed that Bjorn Lomborg was not an environmentalist at all, but a make-believe character in the employ of big business, probably played by a former nightclub waiter. The scoop was so shocking, so far ahead of its times, that nobody else has repeated that information yet.

But perhaps my greatest achievement, sadly, was making sure that the great Bucks Fizz song “Making Your Mind Up” made FM 106’s All-Time Top 2013. I say “sadly” because, really, I should have achieved something greater in 300 columns, and because, while I’d like to think that the song made the list due to the immaculate taste of Canberrans, it was probably something to do with my occasional campaigning. I would love to have stuck around to make sure it goes higher in next year’s list (perhaps even the top 200), but hopefully someone else can do that.

As I won’t be here next week, this is my last chance to discuss the topic that I’ve always wanted to discuss: the meaning of life. People have wanted to know this for millennia, at least until “Game of Thrones” started and everyone become so addicted that they stopped caring about anything else. But if we could focus once again, the meaning of life is actually quite an important topic.

Thousands of years ago, the Greeks couldn’t work it out. So, in an effort to explain why everything exists, they invented the gods, who were each responsible for various aspects of the world. The gods were led by Zeus, their king.

OK, you probably knew that. It obviously seemed like a perfectly reasonable way to explain the inexplicable, like why we are all here. However, they obviously hadn’t learned from the Egyptians that their solution would just lead to further confusion. If there were gods, then who created them? Zeus’ father, the Greeks worked out, was Cronos. Great, so who was his father? Eventually, they worked out that the gods had formed out of Gaea (or “Earth”). Great. So why gods? Why couldn’t we all be formed out of Gaea, without any middle men? Sadly, they hadn’t thought of that.

So that’s the logical meaning of life: we all formed out of Gaea, which means that the gods didn’t need to be there. I’ll explain the rest next week.

Oh hang on, no I won’t. I’ll have to leave you with a cliffhanger, which is just as well. There aren’t enough cliffhangers in The Canberra Times. Even the comic strips all finish with gags. (What happened to the good old days of “Conan” and “Prince Valiant”?) We have to rely on television for our cliffhangers. Rake and Sherlock gave us end-of-season cliffhangers last year that were so brilliant that I haven’t slept since. Two weeks ago, the season-ending episode of Miranda gave me extra reason for sleeplessness. (It wasn’t really a new idea, a plot twist that’s ended seasons of Cheers and Friends. But this time it was funnier.) As for the weekend’s episode of Doctor Who… no amount of sleeping pills will work.

So now I leave you with a few cliffhangers of my own. a) What am I doing next? b) Will it sell, whatever it is? c) Oh, and what’s the meaning of life?

The answers: a) I’m working on my next book, due out in October from Hardie Grant Publishers. b) Well, I hope so. c) To be honest, I really don’t know. Sorry for keeping your hopes up.

Happily, Sherlock will be back soon, and a new series of Rake has been given the go-ahead. I, however, will not be back. At least, not in this space.

A few of you have already asked me about my absence from Monday’s paper, emailing to make sure I’m still alive. That was very kind of you. It was fun chatting with so many of you over the years (mostly via email), and I dedicate this column to saying farewell.

Of course, those people who still prefer newspapers, who read this column long before it was ever published online, might not realise that I’ve written these words. If you see them, please wish them well from me.

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How to write an awesome TV script /2013/how-to-write-an-awesome-tv-script/ /2013/how-to-write-an-awesome-tv-script/#comments Mon, 06 May 2013 05:16:46 +0000 /?p=1494 The Sydney Morning Herald – 31 October 2012

At the London Screenwriters Festival last week, director David Yates was talking about superstar writers. He knows about them, having translated J.K. Rowling’s last three Harry Potter novels to the big screen. But previously he did television, including the 2003 BBC thriller State of Play, working from the original scripts of Paul Abbott.

Abbott was so highly respected by the BBC that the serial went into production before the scripts were even written. “I think one of the charms of the series is, you don’t know where it’s heading,” said Yates, “and neither did Paul.” Result: a masterpiece.

In Britain, top television writers get this kind of latitude. After playwright Russell T Davies had success on commercial TV, BBC execs asked him what would make him work for them. His answer: “Bring back Doctor Who.”

Over the years, many had made this request, only to be ignored. Still, to lure Davies to their studios, they brought back the series that, while fondly remembered, had rarely rated well. Under Davies’ guiding hand, it was an outstanding success – and a lesson for television execs: sometimes writers know best.

Many of the 500 screenwriters and aspiring screenwriters at the London Screenwriters Festival (LSF) were more interested in the glamorous world of feature films, but according to speakers, the prestige for dramatists is now in television. “Smaller, more intricate stories are migrating to television,” said Yates, “going to [U.S. cable network] HBO, where they do that sort of thing really well.”

Even in Britain, long the home of superb television drama, the LSF crowd (mainly from the UK, but also from Europe, Australia and elsewhere) was buzzing about the renaissance in U.S. television drama. Sure, Britain still produces gems, but the most exciting scene is across the Atlantic, where the traditionally high budgets are finally being matched by a focus on excellent writing. Like Abbott or Davies, top “showrunners” (head writers) like Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) or Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) are now treated with as much reverence as their lead actors.

Just as U.S. drama has been learning from the UK, British drama is following America’s lead. “Doctor Who rebooted in a completely different mindset,” says LSF director Chris Jones, “and that mindset was clearly based more on the American structure of single narratives and long story threads. [Doctor Who] is more like Mad Men than it is like the original Doctor Who now.”

Mad Men, often cited as a model for quality writing, was almost never made. “For several years, the script was just languishing,” explained Lisa Albert, a writer on the series, speaking at the LSF. “They [programmers] were saying ‘Nobody wants to do period [drama].’”

More proof that writers often know best. The success of Mad Men has even led to imitators, also set in the 1960s. “Not to badmouth the shows that came and went,” said Albert, “but they learned the wrong things from the success of Mad Men.” She mentioned Pan Am and The Playboy Club, network shows that premiered in 2011, but were soon cancelled. “They thought the secret was to set a show in the sixties.”

So if it’s not nostalgia, what’s the secret to Mad Men’s success? “Write a complex show with complex characters. Duh. Network television never fails to amaze me with their ability to learn the wrong lesson.”

What’s the lesson for Australian drama? In recent years, with hits ranging from Underbelly to Paper Tigers, and even the concept for Rake selling to America (a prospect not as ominous as it once was), it has certainly done many things right. Still, the future is notoriously uncertain.

Not just in Australia, either. The recent spate of high quality drama, and its link to good scripts, should be empowering for screenwriters. Yet the mood at LSF wasn’t always optimistic. In fact, one session about television writing was considered so overwhelmingly negative that delegates walked out, tired of hearing the doom-laden outlook of a panel of writers and producers.

Eventually, producer Beccy De Souza, hidden in the audience, announced that her company, Tiger Aspect, was thriving, and in her eyes, there was still much potential for the industry. It led to applause from the audience, relieved after all this pessimism. Just maybe, there is hope after all.

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Golf – as explained by a movie buff /2013/golf-as-explained-by-a-movie-buff/ /2013/golf-as-explained-by-a-movie-buff/#comments Fri, 26 Apr 2013 11:43:27 +0000 /?p=1488 At last I can reveal why I never made it big in the corporate world. You might have thought that, like most sane people, I just wasn’t interested in all that stuff. But the truth is: I’m a lousy golfer. Playing golf with the boss, as part of my cunning plan to climb the corporate ladder, would have been too embarrassing. If you ask me, “What’s your handicap?” I’d probably say, “I think ‘disability’ is the correct word to use.”

Writing about golf, therefore, would not seem to be my ideal occupation. Fortunately, while golf is not my forte, writing probably is. (“Are you sure?” half of you are saying at this point. “We’re on the second paragraph and you’re already annoying me.” Yes, very amusing.)

A few years ago, I was allowed entrance to an exclusive club called the Australian Society of Travel Writers. As far as I know, this is better than the Freemasons. Like the Film Critics Circle of Australia, another exclusive club to which I once belonged (until I chose to stop being eligible), it means that I have one of those writing gigs that makes everyone green with envy. It doesn’t have as many freebies as film reviewing, because overseas trips are more expensive than movie tickets (though the gap is closing), but it’s still slightly better than copywriting television commercials for liquor stores or sub-editing insurance trade magazines. (Yes, I’ve had those jobs as well.)

Still, when I’m lucky enough to go away, it’s not really a holiday. If you’re at a place whose entire purpose is to encourage you to lounge around a beach or explore a luscious rainforest, the last thing you want to be doing is pulling out your laptop.

I’m still not sensing much sympathy among you. But I mention all this because, among its many attractions, Hainan Island has the world’s largest golf club: a 5,000-acre (that’s 20-square-kilometre) behemoth called Mission Hills Hainan, which I offered to review for a golfing magazine. As I haven’t reviewed any golf courses recently (or ever), I called a friend of mine, a keen golfer who used to work for The Canberra Times, for some background on reviewing golf courses.

Being a clever guy, he explained it to me in the way I’d best understand: by comparing golf courses to movies. Certain courses are known for their artistry, or their aesthetic beauty, or their technical brilliance, or for being “challenging”. They even have numerous top 10 lists for golf courses, just like they do for movies. (The Citizen Kane of golf courses is in New Jersey, of all places.) The golden age for golf course design, any expert could tell you, was the 1920s and 1930s, slightly before the golden age of Hollywood.

My friend went on to explain that, just as there has been a shift towards Hollywood blockbusters, golf courses have become larger and more ostentatious. This explains Mission Hills Hainan: the Avatar of golf clubs. In Asia, as golf becomes more popular, golf courses still haven’t learned the art of subtlety. As this is the continent responsible for garish Bollywood movies and colourful Chinese battle films set centuries in the past with casts of zillions, I can believe that.

This led to a backlash in the 1980s: mavericks designing smaller, “indie” golf courses, prized for their inexpensive artistry. The Jarmusches, Tarantinos and Coen Brothers of the golf course game. Cool, huh? To non-golfers, however, the most famous golf course designers are two of the most recognisable stars, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman. While other people play golf in their retirement, these guys are doing something else.

Could it be true? Nicklaus, the greatest golfer in history (and likely to stay that way, now that Tiger Woods has started playing other games and let his golf game suffer as a result), can do landscape design as well? Not exactly, but something like that. “I think he’ll probably be remembered more for his golf courses than his playing,” said my friend.

By now, I was enjoying this ever-expanding metaphor. “So he’s like the Clint Eastwood of golf?” I suggested. It made sense. In the 1970s, Nicklaus and Eastwood were the world’s biggest stars, in their chosen fields at least. Now, as they get older, they are making waves behind the scenes.

“That’s a perfect analogy,” said my friend. Then, just as I prepared to send out a Tweet telling everyone what a genius I was and how well I understood, he added: “Except that Nicklaus has a team working under him, rather than with him. He doesn’t really ‘direct’ every course that’s designed in his name.”

Right. So more like a producer.

Golf had never sounded more interesting to me. Still, I just want someone to direct me to the Toy Story of golf courses: a course so simple, so basic, even a complete klutz could enjoy it. Maybe, before I visit Mission Hills, I should try a spot of mini-golf.

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Most Influential People? /2013/most-influential-people/ /2013/most-influential-people/#comments Sat, 06 Apr 2013 01:38:52 +0000 /?p=1482 Time magazine has been once again working on their list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People (at the moment). As usual, I’ll probably disagree with most of it.

Whenever someone comes up with a list of the most influential people (or Australians, or politicians, or writers, or billy-cart racers, or whatever), and they take their brief seriously, they are bound to offend someone. An angry scribe will write: “How dare you include that monster Adolf Hitler!” or “How could you forget our greatest sportsman, Don Bradman?” Of course, these letter-writers don’t get the point. I’m not convinced that the world would have been a vastly different place if Bradman had never existed (or had concentrated on tennis instead). Hitler? Yes, I’m afraid that he was highly influential.

In 1978, a scholar named Michael Hart wrote The 100, which attempted to rank the 100 most influential people in history. The book has since caused endless shouts of “No way!” from people who just read the list without seeing his explanations. Muhammad ahead of Jesus (and everyone else)? Plato but not Socrates? Kennedy but not Lincoln? And where the heck are the Beatles? (Actually, he never explained that last one. No excuse, then.)

Hart did an update 20 years later, including Mikhail Gorbachev as the only living person. By then, he’d inspired a series of books by various authors, all purporting to rank different divisions of “most influential” people: The Jewish 100 (with Moses edging out Jesus for #1), The Black 100, The Italian 100, The Gay 100, The Left-Handed 100. Well, there wasn’t really a left-handed 100, but I for one would have been silly enough to buy it.

On one trip to America, I bought my Mum The 100 Most Influential Women by feminist historian Deborah G Felder. Mum liked it, I’m pleased to say, but I wasn’t overly impressed. (As it didn’t buy it for myself, of course, that didn’t matter.) Felder ranked Eleanor Roosevelt at #1. Her justification? Roosevelt was a childhood hero.

Huh? This was supposed to be “most influential”, not “favourite” or “most inspiring”.

Reading some of these books, I found myself longing for Hart’s unbiased appraisals. Hart’s original book had only two women in the list: Queen Isabella I at #65, and Elizabeth I practically just squeezing in at #94. This was disgraceful, of course. Was Hart being a sexist pig? No, but in case you weren’t paying attention in class, history has been appallingly sexist. Hart obviously had no room for tokenism. (He presumably ignored calls of “Why don’t you include Marie Curie or Joan of Arc, just to be a gentleman?”) If you protest his inclusion of notorious figures like Hitler and Genghis Khan, or obscure ones like ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, I suggest you look up “influential” in a dictionary.

If you’d prefer a nice list, with no bad guys, you’ll be happy to know about Simon Montefiore’s book, Heroes: History’s Greatest Men and Women. It’s not exactly a new idea, but as the “heroes” include Margaret Thatcher, it’s bound to get plenty of laughs. It includes plenty of women in its ranks, so it gives us a slightly more balanced history than the real-life one covered by Michael Hart.

But it’s still skewed towards westerners. If we were to do a book naming 100 heroes, and wanted to be completely balanced, we would need exactly 51 women, 44 Asians, 31 Christians (including 16 Roman Catholics), 20 Chinese, 19 Muslims, 16 Indians, 14 Africans, 13 Hindus, five English-speakers and only four Americans. (If someone is a Christian woman from Asia who did anything of note, she would have a good chance of making the list.) Australians? We are such a small part of the world population that we should feel amazed that anyone else has heard of us. Perhaps we can have just one entry, to keep us happy (but if it’s Bradman, I’d just as soon not bother). Meanwhile, to appease numerous psychologists, nine of the people should suffer from attention deficit disorder. Oh, and ten of the 100 would need to be left-handed.

To truly work out who belongs on any such list, it helps to be one of those people who know everything. Michael Hart, as far as I can tell, knows everything. Various other people believe they know everything, but they probably don’t. I’m fairly well-read, but I wouldn’t put myself in the “knows everything” class of people. Just for fun, I might start by listing influential people in one of my fields of knowledge. The most influential comic-book writers or New Zealand stand-up comedians, perhaps.

Or I could make it really easy and name the 100 most influential people in my own life. I’d disqualify my parents, of course, as they’d be too obvious (and besides, it’s not fair to blame them for everything). I’d also limit the list to people I’ve actually met, thereby eliminating candidates ranging from Groucho Marx to Douglas Mawson.

So who would be number one? My first thought would be Lachlan, a childhood friend who convinced me I should start watching Doctor Who. It completely changed my life, filling my high-school years with obsessive reverence for this TV series while everyone else was out finding a girlfriend.

That probably explains a lot.

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Why you should be a movie star /2013/why-you-should-be-a-movie-star/ /2013/why-you-should-be-a-movie-star/#comments Mon, 18 Mar 2013 08:29:07 +0000 /?p=1478 The more I hear about the tough life of movie stars, the more I wonder why so many people dream of having that job. I’ve never done it myself, but as someone who writes about the movies, I’ve met a few people who’ve had this job and said that they loved it (including Heath Ledger, before he left Australia to escape the paparazzi).

Sadly, according to experts, the odds of becoming a movie or TV star are 300,000 to one against. Exactly how those odds were worked out, I’m not sure, but it seems to make perfect sense. Of 300 million Americans, perhaps a thousand can call themselves movie or TV stars, if you include all the weathermen, local anchors, reality-TV contestants, critically acclaimed indie actors, and Corey Feldman. But of the 100,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild, only 50 are considered “stars”.

Don’t let that discourage you. While there are only a few positions available, and plenty of competition, there are many reasons why you might want to become a movie star. Among them:

  1. You can help people: Half of Angelina Jolie’s salary goes to charity. Paul Newman made millions from his pasta sauce, which went to worthy causes. Even more impressively, Kevin Bacon inspired the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which inspired the field of network science, which led to the capture of Saddam Hussein (by moving through the dictator’s social networks), and will hopefully be used in the future for everything from combating terrorism to curing cancer. Yes, Kevin Bacon might eventually save the world.
  2. Everybody will love you: On her eighth birthday in 1936, Shirley Temple received 135,000 gifts from all over the world. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s ridiculous!” On MY eighth birthday, even some of my best friends give me nothing. (That was the last time they were invited to my party, let me tell you.) But Shirley Temple was the biggest movie star in the world, so it made some kind of sense.
  3. People will notice you: Who needs to post on FourSquare when you can be a film star, with people noticing you whenever you do anything? We all know about it when a movie star goes crazy, gets arrested, or takes too many drugs. This shows what exciting and glamorous lives they lead, and leaves their fans thinking “I wish I took the sorts of drugs that got HER arrested.” But I first noticed just how much attention movie stars get when it was plastered all over the news that… Gwyneth Paltrow had a speeding ticket! This was astonishing. Before that, I’d thought that these people only suffered problems far loftier than any of we mere mortals. But this proved that the media gets excited when they have the same mundane, dull, embarrassing misfortunes as the rest of us. Wouldn’t you love to be that famous?
  4. People listen to your opinions: CampusLIVE paid Lindsay Lohan $3500 for one tweet: “These challenges for college kids on #CampusLIVE are SO addicting!” That’s $875 per word. As a writer, I’d love to be paid that much. But of course, Lindsay at the time had 2.6 million followers (which is more than I do), so this one tweet can be credited with immediately driving 4,500 clicks to the CampusLIVE website. Exactly why people would pay more attention to her opinion than my own inestimable wisdom, I’m not sure, except that she’s a movie star and I’m not.
  5. You get lots of free stuff: This is probably the best reason to be a movie star. Presenters at the Oscars get gift bags with thousands of dollars’ worth of goodies. One year, the bag included a two-week test of a Cadillac XLR, a BlackBerry 8700c (worth $299), a two-night stay at The Carlyle Hotel (room rates start around $500), a day’s training session with Joe Frazier (price not provided, but it couldn’t have been cheap), a Krups XP4050 Premium Pump Espresso Machine ($299.99), a Signature Days Experience Gift Certificate (with white-water rafting, snowboarding lessons, private DJ instruction – private DJ instruction! – and cooking lessons), and dinner with nine friends catered by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. So perhaps the best thing about winning an Oscar is that you get to PRESENT one the next year, and get all those sponsored products. As you will probably be on a large salary anyway, it leaves a question for the rest of us: “How come the people with huge salaries are so often the ones who get all the freebies?”
  6. Oh, and it pays reasonably well: Hollywood actors make an average of $5,000 a year from their acting. Considering how much certain salaries bring up the average, think of how tough it must be for the below-average majority. But the stars… well, they do pretty well. A number of stars make $20 million per film. Is there any profession with such a huge gap between incomes, anywhere in the world – or anywhere in the same city? And you thought that things were bad in Zimbabwe! Lesson: If you must be an actor, be a star.
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The Inevitable Oscars blog /2013/the-inevitable-oscars-blog/ /2013/the-inevitable-oscars-blog/#comments Sat, 16 Feb 2013 19:39:26 +0000 /?p=1468 As we move closer to the Oscars, I’ve been looking for the usual stories. Just as every Australian federal election year has several months of political pundits speculating about the election date (except for this year – ha ha, pundits!), there are certain stories you get from entertainment writers during awards season, all talking about “Hollywood’s night of nights”.

So far, as expected, I’ve already read a few stories about the films and people that should have been nominated, but weren’t. Every year, film reviewers use their columns to protest because their favourite movie was overlooked. This year, one blog I read has gone even further, moaning about what a lame year it is for movies, and reminiscing about the nineties, when movies like Schindler’s List, Titanic and American Beauty would win the Oscars, suggesting that nothing this year can compete with those masterpieces. Strangely, I thought that 2012 was a particularly good year for Hollywood films, as witness the nine nominations (or four or five of them, at least). The guy went on to complain because Skyfall wasn’t nominated for best picture. Skyfall was OK, but if you complain about a popcorn flick being ignored, at least complain about Marvel’s The Avengers.

We can also expect essays about how boring and “predictable” the Academy’s choices are. There have been fewer such essays this year, because there were some surprises among the nominations. No directing nomination for Ben Affleck or Kathryn Bigelow, both of whom would have easily won, apparently. This works well for anyone writing one of those “they weren’t nominated and there is no justice in the world” stories (even though both Affleck and Bigelow already have Oscars).

Of course, we’ve already had a plethora of stories about the Aussies’ chances, especially Nicole Kidman’s. Now that the nominations have been announced, and Our Nicole wasn’t among them, her chances have decreased. Instead, with every major pre-Oscars award show, there’s a story saying something like “Naomi Watts’ and Hugh Jackman’s chances of an Oscar have fallen even more, because once again they didn’t win an award” (and if you read another three paragraphs, you find out who actually won).

We’ll get the usual predictions of the Oscar winners, usually with cynical explanations. For the record, if most of the predictions are right, history will be made. If Daniel Day-Lewis wins best actor, he’ll be the first person to win that award three times. This will presumably make him the greatest actor in movie history, with the exception of the dog who played Red Dog (who wasn’t human and hence not eligible). If Sally Field loses to Anne Hathaway (or anyone else) as expected, she gets thrown out of that exclusive club of actors with multiple nominations who have never lost. Two for two is a good record, still held by Hillary Swank, Vivien Leigh, Kevin Spacey and a handful of others. If Argo wins best picture, Affleck will join Hitchcock, Bruce Beresford, Ridley Scott and other greats as directors who never won a directing Oscar, even though their films won.

One article I still haven’t seen, though I expect it to show up soon enough, is something bemoaning how few comedy films ever win best picture, because the Academy just doesn’t appreciate comedy (even though most of them are filmmakers, and many of them have worked in comedy). They did this, year after year, during the nineties – until one year, everyone expected Saving Private Ryan to win, but it shocked everyone by losing to Shakespeare in Love. Soon, the movie pundits, the same people who had previously complained about the predictability of the Oscars, were moaning about how they lost all credibility that night because Shakespeare in Love was so undeserving, even though it had great reviews and everyone loved it.

And that, my friends, is why comedies don’t win more often.

Except that they do.

Argo is currently the favourite (and since I predicted it back in September, I hope it does win so I can tell everyone how clever I am). That’s a powerful drama, a thriller and a period piece (complete with ridiculous 1970s moustaches), but it’s also a comedy (with ridiculous 1970s moustaches). You could say the same about other nominees like Silver Linings Playbook (despite all the serious aspects) and Django Unchained (though I’m not sure if anything was actually funny in that film). Then you go back in history for previous winners. Slumdog Millionaire and Forrest Gump had storylines far too ludicrous not to be  comedies. Rain Man, as cluey film buffs would know, was basically a remake of the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedy Hollywood or Bust (except that Rain Man was funnier). Amadeus and American Beauty had plenty of dark humour. As for The Sting and Annie Hall… well, everyone agrees that they were comedies. The best films can make us both laugh and cry. Why separate the comedies from the dramas?

Of course, there’s one other story we can’t avoid around Oscar season: a rave from me about how dumb everyone else’s stories are. Sorry, it’s too late to avoid that one.

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