A new direction?

Last Saturday, an unbelievably rainy Welsh Saturday, I travelled down to the small Pembrokeshire village of Llangwm, to take part in a Travel Writing Workshop with Phoebe Smith. It was part of the Llangwm Literary festival, which takes place every year, bringing together writers, artists and creative people from all backgrounds to celebrate literature, both local and further afield, and to take part in some wonderfully creative talks, workshops and events. Each takes place at a location around the village, including venues such as the village church, the local pub and the rugby club.

I have often thought about branching out my creative output, from novel writer, freelance writer and reviewer, sometime poet and short story writer (more rarely these days) and blogger, to something a bit more exotic. I have always loved to travel. From the age of 10, my mum and dad would take me in my sister off to France for caravan holidays. I have fond memories of sun soaked days on the beach, ferry crossings in which I’d watch the white cliffs of Dover disappear into the distant, the endless stretch of blue sea ahead. The confusing babble of another language being spoken around me, the sickly sweet smell of cigar smoke, the funny french music, and rows of pastries, dotted with colourful fruits and flakes of chocolate in the patisserie window. The loud, erratic noise of a motorbike engine, the feel of the cool cobble streets which led out into a town square, marked by little shops and restaurants, their tables and chairs set out on the uneven streets. Night times would be occupied with eating outside, sitting beneath the awning and gazing up at the night sky, slapping the odd mosquitos from our limbs. Playing cards or telling stories about our days discoveries. These memories were often punctuated with others that stalled our progress. A stomach bug that kept me bed bound for a week, the fresh taste of the boiled egg Ihad on recovering, the time my dad locked the car keys in the boot of the car, the note on our awning, kept still by a stone, to tell us my gran had passed away. But nothing stopped us travelling. Each year we visited a new place, we travelled further, we went for longer. As a child, the 6 week summer holidays stretched out with endless possibility, where would we go next?

As I got older, I began to explore on my own. I took trips to other places with friends. I visited  Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Majorca, Rome.. my insatiable love for travel never wavering. One week was never enough. While my companions often admitted they’d be glad to get home, I was always left with a sinking feeling in my stomach on that final day. Lapping up the culture and atmosphere of a place until the final hours. Often being on the beach just a few hours before my plane was due to take off!

This interest in travel had occasionally coincided with my writing. I would write down memories or observations of my travelling, sometimes making them into poems or short fiction. My experiences proved useful during my degree course when I took a module in travel writing. Past trips would make it into my assignments, although it was often hard to recall exact emotions and sensations without my having noted it down at the time. Something which Phoebe cited as really important to recreate an experience – ‘if you don’t have paper, record your thoughts on your phone.’

Phoebe talked about finding a way to make your story interesting for the reader, and finding your niche. It’s about writing about something or somewhere you’re passionate about, finding an angle that’s different and appealing. Looking back at the travel writing I’ve done, I can see that, although the places I’ve been to have inspired me greatly, in order to write about them, I need more of a connection. This got me thinking. What makes me feel connected to a place, what inspires me about it? What makes me passionate about it?

I love writing about writing. I love writing about writers, and books and films. I feel inspired when I learn about my passion, when I am surrounded by it and anything linked to it. I figure this would be a good place to start. When I worked as a freelance writer for my local paper, on the entertainment section, I would often research my local area for links to film and literature, making many interesting discoveries about events in my own back yard. This is what I loved to write about. This is what I found interesting to read about. Maybe others would too?

Phoebe’s words were extremely inspiring. Her credentials read well too. She has been published widely in travel magazines such as Wanderlust and Trail Magazine, national newspaper travel writing sections, as well as becoming an editor herself, so knows what publishers and editors are looking for. She also has 8 books published and more on the way. Her enthusiasm for her work was infectious. Her words were honest, frank and at times very humorous. She was also very supportive and encouraging to the group, getting us to introduce our neighbours rather than ourselves, to take part in an exercise studying travel segments of newspapers and to have a go at an observational writing exercise too.

In that cosy little corner of The Cottage Inn in Llangwm, in the company of strangers from all walks of life, I began to feel inspired again. The three-hour workshop was a welcome break from a busy schedule, a stressful few weeks, and got me thinking in a new light. A concept that had appealed to me as something that may be of interest, now seemed like something, not just that I could do one day, but something that I was already doing, in my own way.  I write about what inspires me, which often involves travel, now I just have to make that more of a conscious thing. To think about my readers, and the direction of my work. To make it interesting.

I have a few trips in mind, based around my love of literature. And I’m really excited for the stories and discoveries these trips might bring. Some of Phoebe’s final words still stick in my mind, a compass point for my thoughts, ‘if you have an idea for a travel piece, just take a trip and see what happens’. I think I might just do that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Living in a Netflix world

As a writer, you’ll hear me regularly complain about the numerous distractions that keep me from my projects. Only the other day I was saying to a friend how ‘Charles Dickens never had to contend with Netflix and social media.’ Of course he only had books, and endless hours of alone time. In those days, social interaction meant local balls and gatherings, forced family meetings and long letters which took weeks to arrive. A chance encounter, a moments noted observation, was pondered over, ruminated on, and often recreated or re-imagined into a work of fiction for all to enjoy. I am sometimes envious of those pre- 20th century writers. Despite the fact that they probably felt trapped and desperate for a changing world. How things have changed.

Being a writer, it can be challenging enough to get yourself to work continuously on a project, without the distractions that the modern world now faces. I admit wholeheartedly to absolutely loving Netflix. After a long day, I like nothing better than watching one of their many series’ or films to unwind. I find inspiration in the varied stories on offer. I also get serious envy. So many good writers, so many good stories and good actors bringing those stories to life. As well as being distracting, it’s also, at times, debilitating.

Also, don’t you miss the days when your favourite tv programme was on once a week? When you tuned in for that one hour to watch something, knowing that it was the highlight of your week, that it would be the topic of conversation at school, or college or work for the next week? That you would think of not much else until you could tune in the very same time the following week, to see what happens next?  I miss that. There’s something very throw away about the fact that you can watch  a whole series of something in one sitting, the Netflix ‘binge’ as it’s known. I’ve done it. But I have never felt good after it. Plus, from a writer’s point of view, something that has taken weeks, maybe years to write, to craft, to perfect for an audience, is consumed and thrown away as quickly as a packet of crisps. The crumbs are still in the bag, when the next one is opened and consumed in much the same way. The first forgotten.

Of course, the new generation, the under 25’s, won’t even know this feeling. They won’t remember the days of 4 or 5 television channels, of dial-up internet (Who’s on the phone? I’m trying to log on!) or before Facebook, twitter and instagram were even a thing. They’ve grown up in this world. The all-consuming, 24/7 world of social media and streaming. You can even get Netflix on your smart phone or store shows and films in advance for long journeys. Whatever happened to looking around you, to good conversation and just being still. This has to be the reason why mental health is on the rise. We’re constantly looking to be stimulated. There’s just no pause anymore. Everything feels like it’s going just a little bit too fast.

At Hay Festival this year, in an interview with David Walliams, he was asked how the distraction of social media affected him. His reply was interesting.

‘You’ll go on to the internet to do some research and find yourself watching videos of a cat on you tube.’

The audience laughed, but wow did I get it. Sometimes there’s just no switching off. Not without physically flicking a switch, unplugging a router, driving to a secluded place with no signal. It was reassuring to know that David Walliams, the best-selling children’s author, (and the only worthy Author to be close to replacing Roald Dahl in modern literature) also found the lure of the modern online world overwhelming at times.

On the plus side, Netflix has opened many doors for new writers, authors and shows. It’s taken on previous television shows such as Black Mirror and successfully made the crossover. It’s also introduced audiences to world-wide programmes. I’ve come across quite a few subtitled foreign language films which I would never have seen if it hadn’t been for the streaming site. I personally would love to write something for Netflix. Despite my many protestations, its a great platform for new work and accessible for all. But I am sure it keeps it’s place in my life. A few hours of a an evening, or a weekend afternoon. I never log on, with the intention to do ‘research’. In my opinion, you’re just asking for trouble.

So, no matter how we feel about the current world we live in, we can’t choose to go back. Not without disconnecting ourselves from a world of technology that can be very useful. I was talking to someone recently who barely uses social media, and it’s certainly thrown an insight into life without it.  As well as made me think about how I use it, and how often. As a writer, I feel that it’s important and extremely effective to use Facebook and twitter to promote my work. It’s also a lot easier, than the days when you had to hand out business cards and phone people up, or email them with information about events you were involved in. It can take the pressure off, for those less sociable, or who get anxious about liasing with people. You can also create a virtual CV through your online persona. You can present the person you want to be, or you want to be seen as. This works for me. I can choose to share the work I want to share, the experiences that I want to promote, I can also access an online community of like-minded people. Something which I’m sure writers of the 19th century were often unable to do easily. But as my fellow writers know, writing can often be a very lonely world. This access to the online world, can often combat the loneliness and put us in touch with others like ourselves, other material similar to what we’re working on, to uplift and inspire, yes to distract, but also to feed a much-needed creative brain. The modern online world is a platform for everyone, giving smaller voices a chance in an often monopolised Society. All we can do is embrace it, make it positive and beneficial for our own personal goals.

 

 

 

Writing is good for the soul

Having had roughly 6 weeks of no writing, aside from Theatre and book reviews, I’ve started to feel the effects. I’m every so slightly on edge, feeling the pull of something that I know is my creative muse wanting me back at the keyboard. There are a million little projects I have on the back burner, not to mention the growing and unfinished second novel. I think about it every now and then, with a little impatience, a little guilt and a surprising amount of attachment. I want to get it finished. It wants me to get it finished. Yet every other form of procrastination seems to get in the way. I know I’m not alone in this and have had this conversation before with many other writers. Yet I feel a horrible sense of my writing and my writers self slipping away from me, and I can’t let that happen. I’ve grown and changed over the years and yet my writing has remained a constant, a thing that ground me and settles me. Like a kind of therapy with often beautiful results. Even now, I started writing this with the worry that there was nothing to say. Turns out my fingers are leading me on the keyboard once again, the writer is taking over.

So, I’ve taken a week off work to try to remedy the ‘no writing’ time and to organise a new schedule. I need to figure out the writer I am now, the time that I have to put into my work, (which I am hoping will now be more since a few other commitments have come to an end) and to have a final plan to complete my novel. After all a rough draft that needs work is better than nothing. I feel that once this is done, I can take a breath and focus on other projects and new ideas. Until then, I’m being held back by this huge thing that I’m yet to complete. The sense of achievement will be incredible.

Another thing to focus on, in that week, is to get my first novel entered into a few competitions and to outline some new agencies and publishers to try. Something that has also been pushed to the back of my mind when other things have disrupted my time and attention. Having re read the opening chapters while preparing for one such competition, I became engrossed in the story again and realised, although I may have lost faith in myself, I had never lost faith in my characters and my story. I still believe in my work and believe people would like to read my novel. This also made me realise that it’s entirely possible for me to create something just as good in the future. It just means getting back to that mindset, of hard work and self belief. Avoiding the numerous distractions on offer. Maybe I can join a writers group again, attend more open mic nights, vary my reading material.

During the opening of an opera I recently attended with my friend and colleague, I had this awful feeling come over me, that the best of the arts had passed. What if the modern world, with all its distractions, temptations and opportunities for plagiarism and imitation, had no place for genius? What if we had no Shakespeare, or Hardy or Puccini of our time? Is this possible? Is this just my brain in overdrive at the first time exposure to a critically acclaimed work by a talented composer?

Sure we have some fantastic authors, screenwriters, directors, artists, but do we react to them in the same way? Are we in awe of them? Maybe it has something to do with the amount of choice on offer, the competition with so many other distractions. Or the fact that these days, everyone’s an artist, or a blogger, or a director of their own videos.

It got me thinking about my own situation and the need I have for quiet and stillness to create my work. A need which might now need to be artificially created, as opposed to the times when there was no TV, social media, mobile phones, traffic logged streets, but could surely be created if the desire was really there?

So my mission is to re-create this space. To settle back into a writing routine. Also a reading one too. I’ve given up on the current book that was proving a chore to read and not inspiring or exciting me. I’ve turned to a collection of short stories by Daphne Du Maurier, who I’m discovering was a brilliant suspense writer. I’m hoping her work might inspire an idea for a new short story, a project I’ve been meaning to return to for a while. The form would suit my busy lifestyle and challenge my tendency to exceed a planned word count every time! I’d also like to return to poetry, reading and writing it. A recent poetry review assignment, gave me access to a great new poet called Elizabeth Parker, whose debut poetry collection, In her Shambles, really inspired me to return to this genre. Her use of language and often quite simple subject matter reminded me that poetry doesn’t have to be niche or high brow at all. It can and should be completely accessible to all ages and backgrounds. Then, when the idea are flowing, I can perhaps return to a new larger projecta third novel.

Most importantly I’ve learnt that I need to persevere. To listen to that internal voice, that uncomfortable push and pull, and to keep writing. To make time, to relax and enjoy it, because it feeds me, it inspires me, it’s part of me and always will be. Writing is good for the soul, and right now, I need it more than ever.

Discovering Daphne Du Maurier

I love that moment when you come cross a new or old author, undiscovered until chance finds you in their section at the local bookshop, or someone recommends them to you, or you just stumble across a book you bought years ago and have been meaning to read but has gathered dust behind the bookshelf somewhere, amongst a pile of similarly unread copies.

During my last, annual trip to the Hay Literary Festival and the beautiful town of Hay on Wye in Mid Wales, as predicted, I bought many more books than I promised myself I would, with no idea of where they would fit into my small bedroom, on my tiny bookshelf. One was a collection of Short stories by Daphne Du Maurier, best known for her suspense story ‘The Birds’, which was made into a film by Director Alfred Hitchcock. The film would make both Hitchcock and it’s author famous. A few years ago I read Rebecca for the first time and from the very first page and those chilling opening lines, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’ I was hooked. I followed the novels every twist and turn, thinking of it in pretty much every waking moment and in my dreams. The character of Rebecca seemed so real, so transcendental that she haunted my thoughts. On finishing the book, I had the rare sense that it would stay with me, probably for much of my adult life.

It was years later that on returning to Hay Festival and browsing in one of my favourite book shops in the town, I came across a collection of Du Maurier’s short stories, which included ‘The Birds’. At this point it was the only short story of hers that I knew well. I had come across ‘Don’t look now’ while studying for my English and Creative Writing degree but did not remember much about it, aside from the underlying creepy tone to it and the shocking revelation at the end of the film version we had been shown. A few weeks ago I began reading that book of short stories, a lovely Virago edition, with a deep purple cover and modern, colourful illustrations, which held a gothic/mystery theme.

‘The Birds’ was first. I remembered the film as I’m a huge Hitchcock fan and it’s one of my favourite films. But to read the story which began the legacy, was really exciting. The suspense element was there as expected, the slow build up as characters are introduced and unsettling things begin to happen. But the ending, the final few lines of that page, left me amazed, frustrated and in awe. I flipped the page, searching for another paragraph or further explanation, I checked to see if pages were missing. But eventually realised that Du Maurier had in fact chosen to leave her incredible mystery at that point during the story. The moment when the family are preparing for their second attack by the birds, their neighbours dead and no news of help on the radio, the father taking the last cigarette from a pack he had been saving. Du Maurier had done it again. She had left me astonished, haunted and wondering what happened to those characters awaiting their fate. I finished the book of short stories within a week or two.

I happened to be visiting family, near Hay on Wye, when I finished the book. With an afternoon free, I decided that Hay was the place I could find what I was looking for, more books to feed by new obsession. During that trip I picked up two other collections of Du Maurier’s short stories, as well as Jamaica Inn (which I haven’t read since School) and The House on the Strand, all but one were the wonderful Virago print editions. There’s something satisfying and magical about finding a complete collection of books with identical covers. I really enjoyed scouring the shelves of half a dozen book shops in the hope of finding the one book I was looking for (originally I was just searching for Jamaica Inn). A lost art in today’s society, governed by online retailers and e books. I also picked up new books by Author’s I had read in the past and long forgotten, as well as classics I had never read. These might be the start of a new journey.

One of my books contains the story ‘Don’t look now’ which I decided to re read to remind myself of the story that had left me with such a disturbed feeling, imagining it probably wasn’t just down to the work of the film maker as I had perhaps thought with The Birds.

Du Maurier is one of the best suspense writers I have come across. She can set up a situation and draw you in to the story, linking you closely with the characters before pulling the ground from under you, sending you spiralling in a different direction before she leaves you haunted by her final words. Reading her work has inspired me to return to short story writing, to immerse myself in the world of suspense.

 

The future me

When I was a child, I always had this image of how my life would be when I was older. The key age I saw myself as was in my thirties. This, to me, was when I would be most grown up. At this age, I decided, I would have my own home, a good career, lots of confidence and a husband with a few kids maybe. Whenever I thought about the future, or I was unhappy in the present, I would see this future me, frozen in time, in stylish clothes, with perfect hair and a big smile, cruising through life, knowing all the answers. I decided that at this age, things would be how I wanted them to be. I would be living the life that I wanted.

It’s taken a lot of time between then and that point for me to realise that life is very different to how you imagine. Those idealised views aren’t always as possible as you imagine, filtered illusions of the future become distorted and changed over time. It takes hard work, sacrifice and a lot of luck to make it to the place you want to be. Even then, sometimes you discover it’s actually not what you thought it would be, or it’s not what you really wanted at all. After all, what you dream as a child and what you aspire to as an adult can be very different, depending on the life you have growing up.

From a young age I always wanted to be a writer. I loved reading and writing my own stories, my imagination was always in overload, looking for the next creative challenge. Roald Dahl opened a magical world for me, followed by Enid Blyton  and later R.L Stine, Stephen King and a host of other contemporary authors. I never really decided I wanted to be a writer. I think I just knew that that’s what I was meant to do. It’s cheesy I know but it’s like it chose me. The imagination, the drive and the desire was there. Everything else just depended on luck and circumstance. I had some positive comments about my creative imagination in school and went on to do well in English at GCSE and A Level . I studied English and Creative Writing at uni. Even during this period of my teens and early twenties I always figured that’s what I’d end up doing, not really realising how hard it was. I never considered giving up. I still don’t.

After Uni, and a small taste of success, with publication in the university anthology, I took menial jobs while still working on different projects. Short novels, short stories, poetry, flash fiction. I gave anything a go and I entered lots of competitions. I did well in some, making it to the shortlist, but never winning any big prizes. I’ve had my work published locally in magazines and newspapers and nationally in Mslexia magazine. I was offered a place on a mentoring course with a small publisher in North Wales who loved my work. I really enjoyed the course and got lots out of it, including an improved manuscript, but am still trying to find a publisher for this book.  I took part in some work placements, at two small publishers and a local Theatre. I continued to write, because that’s what drove me. Looking back now, I can see that I was making progress, small progress, but progress all the same. However, compared to the view of my future life, seen through the eyes of that imaginative ten-year old, it seemed rather different.

Then, I started reviewing for Theatre Wales, through my voluntary work for the local theatre. Years later, I took up a freelance job at a local newspaper, writing about local arts from Film and theatre, to arts exhibitions and creative events. After a year, I became the freelance reporter for my local area covering local news and events. I loved this job, as it involved writing every week, using my own initiative to find stories and create interesting articles for readers. Getting out and about to meet people helped my confidence and opened up my eyes to what was going on locally. I made some good friends and valuable contacts during my time working for the newspaper. I also learnt a lot about how print media works as well as writing non fiction for a variety of readers. Plus my skills were obviously good enough to finally be paid for! Unfortunately, this job came to an end and for a while I wasn’t sure where to go next. I’d always worked full-time job’s alongside my creative projects, knowing full well that the money was not enough to live on just yet. But I always had that craving for more creativity, more diversity and new challenges in my life.

So when I saw that Arts Scene in Wales were looking for reviewers, I jumped a the chance. Sure, technically it wasn’t a paid position, but expenses were covered and the exposure was great for my writing CV. With ASIW I’ve reviewed Theatre Productions across Wales, ranging from small stage productions by companies such as Torch Theatre Company, Theatr Mwldan and Mappi Mundi covering classics like The Turn of the Screw, The Woman in Black, She Stoops to Conquer and Pride and Prejudice, to touring West End productions such as Sister Act starring Alexandra Burke. I love doing this job because I get to write about something I love. It’s also lovely to have such positive feedback about my reviews and to see people engaging with them via the website or social media. They are also sometimes quoted in Theatre marketing which is always great to see. I never would have thought that I would end up reviewing theatre. Yet i’m so glad that I do.

I also do book reviews for Mslexia Max, Mslexa magazine’s online forum. They send me poetry, short stories and novels every few months to write about for their reviews section. I love being part of this too. I think it’s important for a writer to be actively involved in the arts, in as many ways as they can. I think it feeds the creativity, the living breathing desire for that spark. To feel something and to connect.

At the end of last year, the final step in my creative journey was realised. I had long known that I needed to find a day job that was more creative, that added to my personality and to my career goals. I needed something that was stimulating and in an environment that helped me to be creative, to be around other creative people. Finding that job has taken years. It has proved frustrating at times. Writing was not enough. I needed to know that there was more out there, that there were other creative types, that there were other things going on, exciting, innovative, collaborative things. I needed to feel that all of this was possible, that it happened every day.

I started working for my local Theatre, (the one in which I did some marketing volunteering when I’d left uni), at the end of last year. It didn’t take me long to realise that this was where I needed to be. Surrounded by creative people, by writers, actors, creative thinkers, readers, photographers, arts people.  In this environment, I feel happy, inspired, free to be myself. If I look at the many areas of my life, I feel as of things are finally coming together to create a whole. I have a job that is more creative, I write reviews for theatre and a writing magazine, I also tutor English, I am getting to the end of my second novel – admittedly I do tend to procrastinate – and in my spare time (I get some believe it or not!) I am free to do whatever else inspires me or relaxes me, such as baking, watching films, going for long walks and spending time with family and friends.

So if I look back at my ten-year old self, imagining a future me, with this perfect life and all the answers. I think I’d just say to her that there’s no set path in life. Some people make it in their 20’s, others take a lot longer to find their true happiness. I finally feel like I am where I belong in life. I may not have the big house or the family of my own just yet, yes i still struggle with my confidence sometimes, and I don’t always look stylish, but I’m happy and i’m doing something that I love. That’s got to count for something, right? Being in your thirties does feel different from you’d imagine. It comes with all those added pressures that you put on yourself. But there’s no set rules as to where your life should be at this point. You make your own rules. I’ve certainly made mine. Truth is, it feels great!

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, New Black Mirror

One of the things I look forward to most about the post Christmas, pre New Year period is the return of Charlie Brooker’s award winning Black Mirror series. Ever since being recommended to watch it by a friend, I have been hooked on Brooker’s fascinating view into a future world governed by technology. From blackmail at the highest level, to social media overload, digital implants and a big brother society, the outcome is usually bleak. His locations feel both familiar and alien. An abandoned warehouse, a house in the country, an office in the city. All contained in a future which is already in our reach: driver-less cars, robots, digital implants, popularity judged by social media scores.

Brooker got his idea for Black Mirror from watching Anthology TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected which explored the macabre and contemporary issues within a fictional setting, often avoiding censorship rules. As a Dahl fan myself, only discovering his earlier work when I became an adult, I see the connection. I recognise the fascination with the dark and disturbing, the delight at the slow unravelling of each story, the lasting effects of the message over days and weeks.

Brooker employs much of the same strategy in his Black Mirror series, although it’s looking at a very different premise. A future world governed by a dependence on technology, and the issues surrounding that when things go wrong. Brooker says that Technology often feels like a drug and that his series is set somewhere between this ‘delight and discomfort.’ The Black Mirror of the title is something you’ll find ‘on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold shiny screen of a TV, monitor or smartphone.’

Episodes are often stylised with an overload of colour and sound, making them appear as synthetic as their devices. Other times the view is bleak, washed of colour, amidst a vast empty landscape. Brooker has the ability to create atmosphere and effect like no other writer and producer, through a clever use of original story, relatively unknown actors and film style. We are always led straight into the action, even if it tension must build with our understanding of events.

Commenting on his work, Brooker has described Black Mirror as commenting on ‘the way we live now and the way we might live in ten minutes time if we’re clumsy.’

This season takes virtual reality to a whole new level. By midway, the series is actually quite shocking. Violence, sex, drugs, blackmail, forced control…it’s all there at a hard hitting level. Episode 1 explores the idea of virtual reality gaming at an extreme level. When placed in the wrong hands, new technology allows a computer gaming programmer, typecast as a lonely nerd, to take his co workers DNA and create copies of them in his computer game. His experiment turns deadly when a new co worker fights against his system, refusing to allow him to control her. This reminds me of a previous episode where Brooker explored the idea of a character entering a video game via a chip placed in their head. This did not end well either. A comment on the growing world of virtual gaming? A warning that there has to be a limit? The episode doesn’t end well for the programmer, as his own invention is turned against him. The ending caused much debate among fans and viewers. Does one bad deed deserve another?

Episode 2, takes the idea of child safety and protection to a whole new level. A very current issue in modern society, where it’s deemed no longer safe to let your child play outside alone or allow them unlimited internet access, for fear of what they might discover. After losing her child in a local park, a Mother decides to participate in a trial of a new programme to monitor children via a chip implanted in their head. After the chip is inserted she can view and control everything her daughter sees via a tablet. Whilst it serves to keep her daughter safe for the first few years of her life and to shelter her from unnecessary distress, as the child grows into an adult the effects begin to become evident. For a Mother who can’t face not knowing, and a child who is curious about the world. The final scenes of this episode are shocking in their violent content, and perhaps serve as a warning about the dangers of living a sheltered life. How can you then be expected to know the difference between good and bad? How can you know to avoid certain things, to make informed decisions? How can a Mother ever just let go if there’s the option to hold on to every moment in your child’s life, even the most personal ones.

Episode 3 is the most shocking of the series. After they are involved in a terrible accident, a woman must keep secret everything she had witnessed, for fear of losing everything. But when things become threatened by the appearance of her ex boyfriend, full of remorse, things begin to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, A young woman (Kiran Sonia Sawar collects evidence for an insurance claim, using a new system which records peoples memories of events. It’s not long before the guilty woman is forced to reveal what she knows, leading to horrific consequences for those involved.

Andrea Riseborough is outstanding in her role, going from a young and innocent woman wanting to do the right thing, to a mother desperate to protect her family, spiralling into a ruthless killer, determined to retain her freedom, at whatever cost.

In the final scenes of this episode, after killing the insurance woman’s husband, she hears their baby cry. I imagined that when she discovered the child, she would be overcome with compassion and remorse. That she would either turn herself in or go on the run, rather than kill the child. In the next scene, I was horrified to realise that she has killed the baby too. A baby who, it is revealed, was blind. In a twist of fate, the guinea pig which was placed in the child’s room as company, reveals the horrifying truth through it’s memories.

I’m not the only person to see there’s something rather disturbing about this particular story. Not just the volume of murders the protagonist commits, or the speed and assurance with which she carries out the violence, but also the gratuitous way in which the episode is filmed. Maybe if it had stopped at the death of the child, without the revelation of them being blind? If there was some show of remorse.

In the harrowing final scene, as the killer watches her son perform ‘We could have been anything that we wanted to be’ in the school musical of Bugsy Malone, we see a destroyed woman who knows too well the irony of those words.

After the heavy subject of Episode 3, we are treated to a somewhat lighter story in Episode 4. The theme is online dating and in this world, participants sign up for a programme where they are matched with potential partners and given an expiry date. After this, they must move on to the next partner, arranged by the system, which calculates date and reactions in order to find the users perfect partner.

We live in a world where online dating or dating apps is now the norm, and there is so much choice that people move on as quickly as they like. This episode is a clever exploration of the ideas behind these sites. Participants must live with their ‘partners’ until their expiry date. They live in an artificial world where every house looks the same, they return to the same restaurant to eat every night, they do nothing except keep fit and wait until their next match, they are never seen with other people except their matches.

The two protagonists of the episode are immediately drawn to each other, but discover their expiry date is only 24 hours. After this, they go their separate ways but continue to wonder about each other, particularly when they are paired up with people they don’t connect with, for long term relationships. When they are matched again they agree not to check their expiry date and begin to fall for each other. But curiosity gets the better for one of them and that changes everything. Spending time apart, they realise that they are right for each other and decide to try and beat the system, to escape the programme’s world. What happens when they do is extraordinary. On the other side of the virtual dating world, they meet in a bar.

This episode is closest to the real world. The idea that online dating or dating via apps works for some people, for others it doesn’t. If you believe in fate though, two people will meet whatever is thrown at them, because they are meant to be together. This episode is no San Junipero (2017 episode which won the series its first Prime time Emmy Awards) where two lovers are reunited after death in a virtual world. But it has a nice positive feel at the end of it. This is definitely necessary after the dark tone of the previous 3 episodes.

 

The Fifth episode of the new series follows three people to an abandoned warehouse, where a fierce robot awaits them. With her fellow humans dead and running across the wasteland for her life, a woman tries to communicate with the outside world. This study on the future of robotics, what they might be used for, is one of the most disturbing episodes. They are easy to adapt, are difficult to kill and fire trackers into their victims, so that other robots or ‘dogs’ can find them. We learn that the woman was trying to get something from the warehouse for her friend, who has someone at home who is very sick. We don’t discover, until the end of the episode, when the camera zooms into the warehouse across the man’s dead body and over to the box that he dropped on the floor, what they were searching for. The box is open, and lying all around it are several teddy bears. From this we can understand that the person dying is a child and that they were trying to get a soft toy to give them some comfort in their last hours. It’s a powerful statement on the idea of control and boundaries. Is this a world were technology has gone wrong? These guard ‘dogs’ have rebelled against the hands that created them? Or is it simply a world which is governed by such violent security measures, that no one can take what they want or need? We are left with these questions as the screen turns black.

The final episode of the series explores ideas of morality around public entertainment and technology mixing with medicine. Black museum follows the story of a British tourist who stops at an abandoned petrol station and discovers an unusual museum. The owner’s homage to criminal artefacts soon turns into something more than a disturbing hobby. The main attraction is a startling take on entertainment for the masses. The twist is unexpected and sees yet another invention being turned against it’s maker.

This new, darker more violent series of the award winning Black Mirror, makes us question what might be next for Brooker. How far can he push the bizarre world of social media, technology and future science? When will these theories catch up with him and what, if anything will his work do to change society? Is that even his goal? Or is he just providing entertainment, with a satirical look at modern boundaries?

These are all questions which will lead us into an inevitable fifth series. Despite it’s popularity, Black Mirror is still yet to find and retain some viewers. For others, like myself, it is the ultimate immersive drama. The talking point for many conversations and a thinking point for the future. Perhaps it is the 21st century’s version of Tales of the Unexpected, with the focus on a future very close to the reach of human experience.

Fargo Series 3. The best yet?

Series three of the Coen Brother’s franchise Fargo, created for TV by Noah Hawley, may just be the best yet. The black comedy crime drama has received critical acclaim and been nominated for various awards including several prime time Emmy awards, golden globes and a screen actors guild award for Billy Bob Thornton’s role in the second series.

Known for it’s colourful characters, dark yet humorous plots and photogenic real life North American location, Fargo has become a successful TV series in it’s own right. I’d even go so far as to say it’s achieved further success as a series, showcasing the writing and directing skills of author and screenwriter. The original film was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, and one best actress and best screenplay for the Coen brothers. Hawley has gone on to develop the wining format with a range of new storylines and characters, each delving deep into the psyche of ordinary people thrown into extraordinary situations.

Ewan McGregor takes up a dual role in the latest instalment. He plays brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy, who, as a result of their father’s death, both have very different lives. Emmit is a wealthy owner of a car empire while Ray is a balding, pot bellied parole officer, with a grudge. Ray’s determination to get what he’s owed from his brother, leads him on a path of destruction, including an affair with his client Nikki, and a double murder case. McGregor shows his versatility in playing both roles, particularly when he must play Ray, attempting to pass as his brother Emmit, clean shaven and in a dodgy curly wig (only in Fargo) in order to access Emmit’s bank deposit box. Watching this scene unfold was fascinating.

Mary Elizabeth Winsted is Nikki Swango, Ray’s client who quickly becomes his lover. Swango is an ex con, with a radar for mis-justice. She quickly teams up with Ray to help him get his father’s valuable stamp back. Ballsy and direct, Swango is at the centre of the plan to burgle Emmit’s house and even leaves a shocking reminder behind when she is unsuccessful. Winsted portrays Swango well, making her likeable despite her faults. Her actions at the burglary scene remind us, with a horrified punch, that she’s a woman. When she is attacked by Vargo’s men and left for dead, she immediately plot revenge, just as she does when Ray is taken from her in a cruel twist of fate that no one could have predicted.

Emmit’s life, while may seem perfect, also begins to unravel when he attempts to organise repayment on a loan he took out with a shady company who seem less than willing to let it go that easily. Enter one of Fargo’s best characters to date, played by British actor David Thewlis. V.M Varga is a mysterious figure who becomes Emmit’s business partner and slowly manipulates him to sign away large sums of money to offshore accounts. Although far from the traditional villain, Varga has a strong East London accent and a penchant for classical music. His offices appear to be in an abandoned warehouse, with limited lighting and bars in the windows. What is rather extraordinary about the character is his complexities. He is foremost a businessman, authoritative and manipulative but he also appears vain, lonely and vulnerable. While we see him threatening and demoralising Emmit and his work partner Sy, he is also revealed to be bulimic, with the sick habit of picking his gums until they bleed. Thewlis really digs deep into the character, making us want to know why he is this way and what his personal life is like. Something about him unsettles you, yet you can’t quite stop watching him.

Carrie Coon is dedicated police officer and police chief of Eden Valley, Gloria Burgle. Recently divorced, with a son and step father to take care of, Gloria is the ultimate modern woman. She takes her job role extremely seriously and is unafraid of the threats she faces. When the case takes a very personal turn for her, she is all the more determined to solve it. But her discoveries eventually lead her to Varga, the complex man, who appears to have more than luck on his side.

Aside from the characters and the quirky storylines, (how many ways can a person die?), the reason I also love this series is the cinematic quality of each episode. The natural beauty of the North American landscape, which frequently appears snow covered with bleak open fields and long stretches of open road, adds a partially surreal and detached element to the story. The small town communities effected by the events are close knit, the people becoming irritated by every day issues. We first see Gloria Bugle waving her arms outside a shop doorway, in attempt to get the electric doors to pick up her movements. We later learn this is a common issue she has and it gets to her. Moments like these resonate with the viewer and add humour to the drama. The landscape draws you in and takes you into the world of the characters, it is also a consistent of the formula. If it suddenly changed to a sunny California, it wouldn’t work the same at all.

The Fargo based characters all have a similar vernacular too, the Minnesota nice of ‘okay hon’s’ and ‘you betcha’s’ which also transcends the three series. This helps to break up the scenes of violence and heavy intensity.

The music also adds to the authentic feel. Set in a very recent 2010, Series 3 is the most modern yet, with an eclectic soundtrack of jazz, rock and Russian chanting. This certainly helped to add to the intensity of the action scenes. In one clever move, the drum style tapping returns as Vargas goes to meet Nikki to discuss secret files she has on Emmit’s company. As the car moves up the abandoned street, out of town somewhere, we see a man tapping on something which links the soundtrack nicely into the visual.

The final scene of Series three is one of the most tense and gripping scenes in television drama that I can remember. As Gloria questions Varga and he refuses to admit anything to do with her investigation, a clock ticks in the background. Varga then reveals that in a short time, someone will walk through the doors and reveal something to her that she cannot argue with, and he will be free to leave. Her resolve doesn’t falter, but the camera moves to the clock, just above the door and remains there as the minutes tick away. Then the screen falls black. Infuriating yet brilliant, we will never know who the person is that Varga is talking about, if anyone will actually come and what Gloria will do if or when they do.

An open ending narrative such as this is not as common as people might think. Often criticised for not leaving the viewer satisfied, or even as a weakness in the writer for not really knowing what to do next. In my opinion, the open ended narrative works best in situations such as these. The storyline so far has been solid and clear, yet far from simple. The character of Vargas has appeared far from straight forward, readable or even understandable. His motions and indeed motives have been very unpredictable. Therefore an ending like this works perfectly. It fits within the story and the characters involved. Frustrating? Yes. An easy way out? Definitely not. In fact, it just sets the standard expected for the next series.

With Fargo, I think the Coen brothers have found a successful formula. As long as the TV series continues to stick to that, while bringing fresh ideas to the page and using consistently talented actors, as far as I’m concerned, they can do nothing wrong.