Mad Bastard II: Madder Bastard

The following story has wound its way around the world, like an anecdotal ourobouros, from screenwriter Stephen Volk to me, so apologies to all concerned if it’s turned mythical en route.

Volk is the man who scared Britain to death with GhostWatch, a TV special that starts out as, seemingly, a cheesy light entertainment documentary for Halloween, before turning mockumentary and apocalyptic, with ghosts attacking the BBC via the airwaves. I didn’t find it very convincing, but it upset a lot of people, and one poor mentally unstable chap actually became obsessed with the show and hanged himself some time later.

For our purposes, Volk is also the writer of THE GUARDIAN (no relation to the newspaper of that name), a supremely fatuous killer tree movie from 1990 starring Jenny Seagrove as a tree-worshipping psycho nanny and oh God it’s just too awful to go into.

I’m not inclined to blame Volk for the mess, knowing the powerlessness of the writer in Hollywood (if it’s anything like the powerlessness I’ve experienced as a TV writer here, it’s a bit like being the guy in THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, only nobody understands the code you’re winking at them) and especially knowing this anecdote.

Volk has handed in his latest draft. The producer calls him to his office and congratulates him. “It’s perfect! We won’t change a word! This is exactly what we were hoping for — and more!” etc.

BUT — it’s a glass office, and Volk, out of the corner of his eye, can see Friedkin in the next office, actually READING the script, his face a mask of revulsion and fury, his lips mouthing the foulest obscenities, until finally the pent-up anger takes possession of his limbs and he starts tearing pages from the screenplay and crumpling them, hurling the rest of it around the little glass room, and trampling it into the carpet with outraged loafers.

And all the while, the producer’s voice drones on: “…just delighted with your work on this…”

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19 Responses to “Mad Bastard II: Madder Bastard”

  1. Ghostwatch isn’t terribly convincing, but it does contain one masterful shot that is truly frightening. As the camera pans around one of the bedrooms in the house that the haunting is supposed to be happening in, a shadowy figure with what looks like terrible wound over one eye is glimpsed by the window. The camera passes by smoothly, then suddenly jerks back to look at the space which is now empty, as if the cameraman had seen the figure too. It’s very simple, but it’s certainly more frightening than the ghostly wind that tousles Michael Parkinson’s hair in the finale. It reminds me a little of the ghostly hand in The Serpent’s Egg: yes, it’s obvious how it’s done, but it still catches at your breath.

    My favourite Ghostwatch story is the bill that one irate woman sent to the BBC to pay to clean her husband’s soiled trousers…

  2. That’s a really nice device, but for some reason we laughed our asses off at it rather than getting scared. I think for it to be really frightening, you’d have to be in some way invested in the programme as real, and we couldn’t take it seriously at all. The presence of “Parkie” may have had something to do with this.
    I should send all my laundry bills to BBC3, their shows make me puke.

  3. my favourite scary figure at the window is the one in three man and a baby. it is a certified real live paranormal occurrence because nobody at my school could explain it, not even the girl who got accepted to study at oxford

  4. “a supremely fatuous killer tree movie” — is there such a thing as a *good* killer tree movie?

    Actually, I spent some time during my childghood watching a memorably sorry item called “From Hell It Came” [insert joke here] about a wronged South Sea Islands lad who returned from the dead as walking tree named Tambanga with an urge toward vengence.

    Its director, Dan Milner, was the editor for “Hitler’s Madmen” and Tay Garnett’s “Cross of Lorraine.”

    The picture’s female lead, Tina Carver, had a particularly ugly scream — isn’t that what women in horror movies do? scream? (He Asked Sarcastically) — and one internet scribe has written:

    “As for Tina Carver’s legendary [sic] screams in this movie, the last time I heard that sound, I had to clean up after the cat.”

  5. Chris — I love how she pleads to be rescued from the swamp while walking backwards INTO the swamp.
    GREAT monster. I want to do his roots.
    Alex, you are right, no rational explanation could possibly account for that cardboard cutout.

  6. Divorced from its broadcast context Ghostwatch fails to live up to its reputation, and becomes ridiculous purely because of the cast that made it so effective when it was first shown. Mike Smith? Really?

    Similar is the way that the weight of expectation made The Exorcist (back to Friedkin!) such a bizarre viewing experience while it was still denied a video release here. The audience would arrive convinced that they were about to be shown the SCARIEST THING EVER and be denied anything resembling the horror films that they were used to. After ten minutes of von Sydow silently wondering around Iraq and Miller thinking about his mum the crowd tended to get a bit restless! This produced, in Dundee, the finest bit of advice I think I’ve heard in a cinema, yelled to a worried looking Miller: “Gerrin there an get hur!”

    My favourite evil screen tree is the one at the end of The Children of Green Knowe. It has a fight with Jesus. Children’s BBC at its finest, right there.

  7. Oh, I’ve never seen Green Knowe! All this old kids’ TV I somehow missed.

    The slowness of The Exorcist is one of its best traits, in my opinion. It’s the kind of perverse choice that gives Friedkin’s films interest, even when they’re ont particularly coherent. He’s at least capable of being surprising, on a good day.

  8. Speaking of old kids TV I watched the entirity ofSpeaking of old kids TV I watched the entirety of The Owl Service last night, completing my personal trilogy of Gillian Hills’ work (along with Beat Girl and Demons of the Mind). The Owl Service is amazing, not least because it doesn’t seem like TV for kids at all – it’s stuffed full of Roegian techniques and shimmers with a sexual subtext that’s only barely held in check. Good stuff, I think knocking Children of the Stones off the top of my kids’ TV top ten.

    And the slowness of The Exorcist is crucial to the way that it works, but that doesn’t play in Dundee, it seems.

  9. I’m not sure what DOES play in Dundee. Fiona’s from there, so I expect she’ll weigh in on this one when she gets home.

    Mmm, must see The Owl Service now. Children of the Stones was impressively adult and unusual, but didn’t totally make sense, nor quite transcend the need to do so. At least that’s what I thought when I finally saw it. But I bet if I’d seen it as a kid it’d have blown my tiny mind.

    I do remember seeing the last episode of “Sky” when it aired, which freaked me out.

  10. Love the story! It could make the basis of a good comedy sketch! Was the office soundproofed or could the muffled sounds of Freidkin freaking out be heard causing the producer to have to raise the tone of his droning platitudes to drown out the swearing and crashing going on behind him?

  11. I think it’s kind of funier with soundproofing, and Volk being the only one aware of both sets of events, figuring he’s losing his mind…

  12. Not exactly the story as I told it. In fact as producer was talking to me, Friedkin came out white faced, saying “I think this is a pile of shit and we’re in real trouble.” Not as melodramatic, but I assure you – true.

    But don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

    I DID think I was l;osing my mind working on THE GUARDIAN (based on the book THE NANNY)…. at one stage working late the room shook with an earthquake and the guy on the Tv said to me “Did you feel that?” I thought I’d lost my marbles. Till I realised it was a local LA TV station.

  13. Thanks for the clarification — I think the story had been passed through several sets of hands before it reached me, perhaps with details being enhanced along the way.

    Love the earthquake story, a phildickian moment!

    Just checked the IMDb, Telepathy looks exciting! Hope it’s not too long before we can see your work on our screens again.

  14. hope so…… do check out my web site which I regularly update:

    http://www.stephenvolk.net

    Steve

  15. Thanks, will do!

    We had a spooky time with the Ghostwatch DVD here which destroyed two DVD players (with smoke and loud bangs) then vanished into thin air!

    And Fiona saw you talk at the Edinburgh Science Festival and enjoyed it greatly.

  16. I recently met the producer of Ghostwatch, the very gracious Ruth Baumgarten, in another capacity. She told me about just how difficult it was to get a fake ‘live’ show done within the rather hidebound BBC of the time (not that it’d be any easier now, probably). As to Parkie subtracting credibility from proceedings, for me it was Craig Charles and his impish, ineffably winsome, massively irritating persona. Shame nothing demonic happened to him (well, not in fictional terms at any rate)!

  17. Ruth? Where? How is she? Long time no see! I hope she is well. I would love to re-establish contact with her. Maybe you could pass on my email to her. (If you look at my web site you will see I am doing the movie “Telepathy” with “Ghostwatch” director Lesley Manning. We have both worked with Ruth twice – three times for Lesley.)

    Have to say – Craig Charles, to his great credit, played the part as written to perfection: the “cheeky chappie” moron. There had to be one. Because there would be. :-)

  18. I’m making a documentary tangentially connected to one of her other films – I’ll certainly pass on your email address to her, she’s out of the film and tv business now and much happier, it seems!

  19. It’s better than Friends Reunited, this place!

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