The Mysterious Mr If, Part the If-teenth

I seem to recall last week’s episode, and much of this week’s, were added to The Mysterious Mr If at second draft stage (yes! there were two drafts!). A producer had pronounced the script exciting but asked for more of a character arc. And this is what he got.

In redrafting I was violating Jerry Lewis’s dictum that one cannot rewrite comedy. I’m not sure Lewis is correct — I think what perhaps he means is that HE cannot rewrite comedy. But he is at least partially onto something. If you come up with a joke/gag/line/situation that actually makes you laugh, I mean ACTUALLY, and you’re able to get it down in as close as possible to the form it came to you in, that’s as close to money in the bank as exists in the precarious world of humour. And if you then tamper with it, in hopes of achieving improvement, it’s very tricky, because unless you manage to make yourself laugh all over again, how do you know you’re not actually ruining it? And even if you do make yourself laugh, are you laughing based on your knowledge of the original joke/gag/line/situation, knowledge your intended audience won’t possess?

There are certainly numerous ways to screw up good material in a rewrite, notable among them the temptation to interpolate one gag into another, which violates the Zucker Proposition: only tell one joke at a time. This proposition seems to hold water under most if not all circumstances, and is part of the reason comedy is notoriously a bit difficult: you want to get the laughs coming at a fair lick, but you’re prevented from going for more than one at a time. For this reason, long-form comedy sometimes benefits from a sedate and not-too-hilarious first act, where a number of plot points and characters can be set up in leisurely fashion, paving the way for a fast and furious series of pay-offs later. 

But I was interested to hear PG Wodehouse, in an archive interview quoted in a recent BBC documentary, saying that rewriting was the most pleasurable part of his job. And I could see how that makes sense. Wodehouse’s plots are intricate, machine-tooled things of rare brilliance, obviously an absolute swine to work out. They’re funny in and of themselves because they’re so ridiculously contrived (and yet perfectly credible within his story world). But the other level of comedy, which is kind of superimposed over that (sort of defying the Zucker Proposition), is the language in which the plot is expressed, and here Wodehouse scores laughs simply by how he describes things. One can see that a first draft might include expositional and scene-setting sentences that aren’t funny in themselves, while a polish would turn even the most straightforward, informational bit into something with its own comedic snap and flounce.

Anyhow, all I did in rewriting MR IF was add some more silly stuff, which follows.

Now read on –

INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Ticking.

Sheena examines the wall with the door painted on it in frustration, using her specs as a crude magnifying glass. She sighs – not a crack in it.

On the cinema screen, a shot of stars twinkling.

MR. IF (V.O.)

This is The Universe. Modern science reveals it as nought but a collection of microscopic particles, perhaps as many as fifty-seven.

Shot of dividing cells seen through a microscope. A title: PARTICLES.

SHEENA

Think, damn it! A locked room mystery? There must be a way out! Or at least a way in.

A WHIRRING.

A clockwork MOUSE trundles its way towards Sheena. Dragging from its tail are little metal boots, like the one you get as a counter in a game of Monopoly.

Sheena follows the mouse.

MR. IF (V.O.)

These particles, known to physics as “items”, perform many functions.

A shot of a rocking chair and a beach ball, side by side.

MR. IF (V.O.)

They stop one thing from becoming another.

A SPINDLY MAN enters and looks at the chair and beach ball.

MR. IF (V.O.)

But what if we WANT one thing to become another?

The man sits on the ball, falls off, and lies as if dead.

Sheena’s mouse weaves about the room at speed and vanishes into a cartoony mouse hole in the skirting board.

A sharp CRACK. Sheena looks around. No sign of what that was.

MR. IF (V.O.)

What if we wish to be freed from the tyranny of these so-called “items”?

If appears in close-up, delighted.

MR. IF (V.O.)

Good news! For now we can! Scientism now reveals that matter is composed of energy, which is information. Facts are all that imprison us!

(sudden deep voice)

WHERE IS MY FILE?

Beside the mouse hole is a little glass pedestal with a miniature whiskey bottle on it. The label on the bottle says DRINK ME.

SHEENA

Well…what have I got to lose?

She takes a swig from the miniature.

CREAK! A much larger mouse hole opens in the wall. Large enough for Sheena to crawl through.

She crawls through.

MR. IF (V.O.)

WHERE IS MY FILE? WHERE IS MY FILE?

INT. NEW ROOM, WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Sheena reaches the next room, where she finds the clockwork mouse crushed in the grip of a mousetrap. Little springs and cogs spill from the rodent’s ruptured tin carcass.

Just past the slain automaton, a wicker basket.

Sheena crawls the few feet to it and looks in.

Her reflection looks out at her, puzzled.

And from the ceiling a Guillotine blade is released, falling towards Sheena’s exposed neck.

SHUNK!

EXT. ZOO – NIGHT

Turner slams the door on Howie’s cage, with Howie, and Edward Woodward in his box, inside it.

TURNER

Stay here. Stay out of trouble. I’ll let you know when we crack the case.

HOWIE

(under his breath)

Fat chance of that.

He takes some fish from his pocket and gives it to the cat.

HOWIE

Let me have a last look at that note.

Turner sighs and shows it to him.

HOWIE

“Serge herd high her crag retch egg fleck.”

TURNER

Call me if you think of anything. Leave a message if I’m out. DO NOT try to investigate this yourself. I’m a detective and you’re an exhibit and there are reasons for that.

Turner marches off, leaving Howie disgruntled.

HOWIE

(to Edward Woodward)

What would author John Fowles do in this situation?

INT. WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Sheena’s body lies next to the great guillotine blade, now embedded in the floor.

She moves.

She sits up – her head is still attached. She rubs her scalp, which has had a tiny piece of hair shaved off, like a micro monk’s tonsure. She looks at her hands. The middle fingernails have been clipped short, her other nails are long. The trailing Marigold sleeves of her bridal gown are truncated, losing several latex fingertips.

SHEENA

What would Miss Marple do in this situation?

She shouts up at the ceiling:

SHEENA

Motherfucker!

Her voice reverberates off into the dark, formless room.

REVERBERATIONS

Motherfucker! Motherfucker! Motherfucker!

She gets up, furious.

SHEENA

I’m a human being!

REVERBERATIONS

I’m a human beeeeeee-aaaaaaaaaa-rrrrrrrrrr-oooooooo-eeeeeee…where is my file?

The echo, in Sheena’s voice but saying something she didn’t say, freaks her out. She looks around for an exit.

A mural of William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea points to a black curtain. Sheena fights her way through the folds into -

INT. BOUDOIR, WAREHOUSE – NIGHT

Representative fragments of an opulent shagging parlour assembled in a bare brick bunker.

A dressing table covered with gingerbread men, some of them broken. The dressing mirror is badly warped.

An ancient gramophone crackles out thirties British jazz. The singer sounds stoned and distant.

SINGER (ON RECORD)

Where, oh where, is my file?

Was it eaten by a crododile?

Did you give it to a necrophile?

Where, oh where, is my file?

The floor is a field of poppies.

A khaki bowling ball.

A massive bed. The covers pulls themselves aside seductively.

Sheena takes an unsteady step. She’s dizzy.

The poppies…

In the dressing table mirror she sees the reflection of a STAGE DOOR sign. She turns and staggers to the door.

It’s another trompe l’oeil painting.

She lurches away and sits down heavily on the bed.

SHEENA

Think…think. When you have eliminated the impossible…

The poppies wave hypnotically…

The record slows down, down, down…

Sheena’s eyelids grow heavy…

SHEENA

When you have eliminated six impossible things before breakfast…

An alarm clock TICKS: ten to twelve…

SHEENA

When you have eliminated breakfast, whatever remains must be true…

Sheena falls back into bed and everything goes out of focus.

EXT. ZOO  – DAY

Howie puts down his copy of THE MAGUS. Looks around at the various herd animals in the zoo -

HOWIE

“Serge herd high…” Herd… Herd animals… Zebras… Giraffes… Impalas

- and spots a stiff man in a blue serge suit watching the impalas. This is HORACE FOYLE.

Howie slips from his cage and approaches.

HOWIE

I have a note containing the word “serge” which your suit seems to chime with.

HORACE FOYLE

That’s an unusual but, on the whole, refreshing way to open a conversation.

HOWIE

Thanks. What do you do for a living?

HORACE FOYLE

Again, a pleasing bluntness. I am Horace Foyle, mountaineer.

HOWIE

So the words “high” and “crag”, on my note also have some relevance.

HORACE FOYLE

You could say that. May I see this note?

HOWIE

I committed it to memory. Some git has it now.

HORACE FOYLE

That seems a shame. Join me for eggs in the zoo cafeteria and we’ll discuss this further.

INT. CHICKEN LITTLE’S CAFE, ZOO -DAY

Howie and Foyle at a formica table, a soft-boiled egg apiece.

Howie stares at his as if trying to divine some hidden meaning from it.

Foyle decapitates his egg and spoons in a hot mouthful.

HORACE FOYLE

You seem distracted, my friend. As one who often scales an Alp before breakfast, I -

Foyle begins to choke. Bits of eggs spray from his mouth and spatter his suit. Howie stares, transfixed, as Foyle begins to turn blue.

HOWIE

“Serge herd high her crag retch egg fleck.” It’s all there. But WHY?

Foyle keels over.

INT. BOUDOIR, WAREHOUSE – DAY

Sheena, still sat on the bed. Her head nods sleepily.

The room swims in and out of focus.

SINGER (ON RECORD)

Where, oh where, is my file?

Did mail it to a distant isle?

Or did you spatter it with camomile?

Where, oh where, is my file?

Sheena comes to her senses a little, frowning at something:

The EXIT sign over the fake door actually says TIXE. The letters are reversed.

SHEENA

Back words. Word’s back…wards.

Only in the dressing table mirror does the sign reads EXIT.

Sheena groggily gets up, tripping on the khaki bowling ball in the middle of the poppy field floor.

She picks it up and looks at her warped image in the mirror.

SHEENA

Mirror, mirror on the wall,

She lobs the ball at the mirror.

SMASH.

SHEENA

Here’s a khaki bowling ball.

A secret passageway, opening onto darkness. A rumble as the ball trundles away into the gloom.

Sheena drunkenly throws herself through and plummets -

INT. CHICKEN LITTLE’S CAFE – DAY

UCK!

Howie Heimlichs the purple mountaineer and dislodges a morsel from his windpipe. As he does so, the unfortunate man’s leg comes off. A Prosthesis.

Howie notes carved letters on the plastic shin as the artificial appendage inches from the trouser leg.

HOWIE

A prosthesis?

HORACE FOYLE

My real one was -

(chokes)

snapped off by an enraged mammoth. I had this leg whittled from its tusk.

This is obviously bollocks.

HOWIE

What’s this written on it?

HORACE FOYLE

There’s nothing written on my leg.

HOWIE

Don’t be an arse. It says here, “Hawk guru to fig your ate.”

EXT. POLICE STATION – DAY

A big number 8 – the police station’s address. Turner pulls up in his car. His mobile rings – it’s PC. Thrower.

THROWER (PHONE)

No luck, Inspector. We’ve got men scouring the crags, searching chicken farms, and watching out for anything in serge. We’ve drawn a blank.

TURNER

I’m outside.

He hangs up and is about to get out when True Crime, the eraser-handed author, climbs into the passenger seat. Turner barely tolerates the stench of the man.

TRUE CRIME

I betook me the liberty of erasing the car door of your car so we could make hot conference. I bethought me something that might give you succor. A gleaning from my own mishap. In his stroppy jaunt to annihilation, If is inimical to factual account of his being. The dossier, file or coupon – these are his foes.

TURNER

Yes, there’s been some confusion about the whereabouts of his file.

TRUE CRIME

And, oh inspector, what of the duplicate?

Turner starts his car -

TURNER

Thanks, True Crime – you’ve given me an idea.

But the malodorous informant is gone.

To be continued…

About these ads

3 Responses to “The Mysterious Mr If, Part the If-teenth”

  1. Ah, le beau Serge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 437 other followers

%d bloggers like this: