Monday, 21 July 2014

Ten Out of Twenty

When you are considering buying a book, are you one of those people that always takes it off the shelf and reads the first paragraph to get an inkling as to whether you'll like it or not? I certainly am - and as a writer, I most certainly like to write an opening that will give browsers that same kind of inkling. So, as a celebration of the first paragraph and to celebrate writing 20 books and 20 first paragraphs, here are my opening ones from ten of my biographies...
 

It’s twenty past three in the morning, and Kylie Minogue is crying. She is tired. And all she wants to do is go to bed and sleep. She tried earlier, about an hour or so before but her mind was racing. Now she’s up, out of bed and in the kitchen of the pad she once shared with a girlfriend, not far from Parlophone, the record label she is currently signed to. The same one the Beatles made so famous. She flicks through the newspaper on the table until she calms down and can go back to bed.

Backstage at the Dorothy Chandlier Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, March 1996, Winona Ryder is still shaking from her walk along the red carpet near where the crowds have been gathering since dawn for a place close to their idols on the most important date of Hollywood’s glamorous calendar. For the last hour or so, the stars have been arriving for the 69th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. Goldie Hawn had told her how to handle that sort of crowd, ‘Turn your head and smile, but don’t stop.’

There are times in everybody’s life when, suddenly and inexplicably,everything seems to go wrong. As Demi Moore neared her thirty-sixth birthday, she was closer to that state than she had ever felt before. She kept on going, simply because she didn’t know what else to do. But other people might have preferred to have a breakdown.

Saturday, 22 January 2005 was Christian Slater’s last night as Randle P McMurphy. It was the night that followed a supposed (and later denied) knife attack on Christian outside the stage door and was a typically cold winter’s day in London. Although by evening the temperature had dropped below zero, the chill didn’t stop anyone from turning out to see Christian’s final performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Gielgud Theatre in the heart of London’s West End.

Fearne Marie Cotton was fifteen years old. She had just won an audition to be a presenter for the Disney Channel in a national search for talent. Not that she had any intention of becoming a presenter; she had always had her mind set on being an actress. And that, to all intents and purposes, is the role she thought she was auditioning for. It had been her dream for the last ten years, ever since she started taking drama and ballet lessons, in and out of school.

Ray Winstone is gutted. It was 1 July 2006, the day England blew their chance to win the World Cup, and, like every other supporter, he couldn’t get over how on earth they had been knocked out of the most important football competition of all. Was it really possible that England, the favourite team to win in many people’s eyes, had just lost out to Portugal in the quarter-finals with a 3–1 defeat in a simple penalty shootout? It seemed it was.

David Tennant is heartbroken. It was Sunday, 15 July 2007, and he was heartbroken. He had just watched his mother, Helen MacDonald, pass away from cancer of the colon after five years of battling the terminal illness. For an entire week, work on the Doctor Who Christmas episode had been suspended while he returned to his native Scotland to be with his family and to attend his mother’s funeral in Paisley, Renfrewshire.

Davina McCall was 15 years old when she turned up at school wearing black leather trousers and a T-shirt ripped across the waist. She had dyed her hair aubergine and was wearing Gothic make-up. It was ‘mufti day’ at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, West London, and, while most girls came dressed like Bananarama wannabes in ra-ra skirts and legwarmers, Davina went punk.

Benedict Cumberbatch is about to be executed. Kneeling on the ground with a duvet over his head and his hands tied with shoelaces, the actor is now in the classic execution position as he awaits the gunshot that will end his life. It would take Benedict another five years before he could recount the story of that dreadful night when three gunmen took him hostage.

Outside the home of his publicist one cool Sunday evening, in February 1997, Johnny Depp is on his best behaviour. He looks like a kid dressed up to meet his girlfriend’s parents. A dark blue sports coat, grey polo shirt, tan pin-striped trousers, and black lace-up shoes. His famously long, tousled hair has been shorn into a Fifties-style buzz cut and he is all charm.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Man Who Sold The World

Every time I have a new book out, I am always asked if I have a favourite passage and what is it. This is my favourite excerpt from my biography of Benedict Cumberbatch, it comes from the latter stages of the final chapter, The Man Who Sold The World (named after the working title of The Fifth Estate) - and if you love Sherlock, then hopefully you will enjoy this...

On a stormy and bleak New Year’s Day in 2014, Benedict was back on the small screen for the third series of Sherlock after a two-year absence. The new episodes completely outshone any previous episodes and the series became the most watched non Doctor Who drama on British television since 2002. It knocked the ratings for Call the Midwife and Hayley’s departure from Coronation Street for six, with more than nine million people tuning into watch it on the night, and another three million watching it on catch-up TV. No previous episode could match that. It was another four million up from the last series opener A Scandal in Belgravia. Everyone was thrilled. ‘When we began Sherlock, and it was an instant hit, we thought it couldn’t get better,’ raved producer Sue Vertue. ‘But each series has outdone the last and this is our biggest rating yet. Trying to believe this is really happening is a job in itself!’

Unsurprisingly, the first episode was the most anticipated episode in the history of the entire programme. It had been two years since Sherlock had apparently leapt to his death in The Reichenbach Fall at the end of series two, and then showed up at his own graveside to catch Watson and Mrs Hudson grieving for the man who had changed both their lives. Now, two years on, it seemed everyone in the world wanted to know how he survived the jump. The producers were so keen to keep the secret that pages explaining how he pulled off his vanishing trick were blanked out in some copies of the script to protect any leaks. This is not surprising when you consider that, whilst still in pre-production, The Empty Hearse was said to have 13 different possibilities to explain Sherlock’s survival, although only three would actually end up in the show. We had TV illusionist Derren Brown putting Watson under his spell for the few crucial moments that allowed Sherlock’s helpers to position Moriarty’s body on the pavement in Sherlock’s place as Sherlock burst through a dow where mortuary registrar Molly Hooper stood waiting, Moriarty and Holmes faking the whole thing in order to get rid of Watson and finally, Mycroft and Shelock’s network of homeless individuals faking Sherlock’s death to save his friends.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also witnessed Sherlock being interrogated in a room in Serbia, getting rescued by brother Mycroft, winging his way back to London to prevent a terrorist attack, being reunited with a livid Watson and meeting Watson’s bride-to-be, Mary Morstan, played by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington. It was, raved most critics, a triumphant return for the most charismatic and fun character on British television. As Sheryl Garrett pointed out in her January 2014 article in the Telegraph, filming the episode was not without its problems. It was a grey, rainy day in April 2013, when Benedict climbed on to the roof of Barts Hospital in London, and jumped off. He had done this before, of course, two years before. Even the red phone box outside the hospital was still covered in tributes, mourning his character’s fictitious death. Between takes, Benedict had an umbrella to stop him getting too wet in case it ruined the shot, which resulted in a string of predictable ‘Sherlock Poppins’ headlines when the photo appeared in the tabloids the next day.

The constant scrutiny took its toll on Benedict. ‘It means you can have a lot less fun on location,’ confirms Benedict. ‘Before, I might have pretended to swim while I was hanging up there, or played about more between takes, but now you’re very aware that you’re always being watched.’ Normally at a shoot like this, there will be a few bystanders, people who happen to walk by and are curious to see what is going on but, wrote Garrett, ‘the second day at Barts is gloriously sunny, and as well as the paparazzi, there are about 300 fans making a day of it, standing behind crash barriers and watching avidly.’ This was despite the fact that, for much of the time, the most interesting thing to see was crew members hosing down pavements so that they would appear to be as wet as they did the day before. According to Garrett, the crowed were ‘too far back to hear any dialogue, but this still feels like street theatre” and when Darren Brown appeared, there was “an audible intake of breath.’

Of course, pictures of all of this appeared almost immediately on social media sites, along with the usual speculation about what their significance was. Sue Vertue had the job of monitoring the fans and asking them not to give anything away. For the most part, says Vertue, ‘they’re terribly charming and polite and self-policing.’ Amongst the fans, there were groups from China, the US and Japan who had timed their visits to London to match the shooting schedule for Sherlock. Once again, the third series was as short and sweet as the first and second with just three episodes. But perhaps that is the secret success of the show, to limit viewers to just three episodes per series. The second of the 90-minute episodes, The Sign of Three, was quite different to past episodes and took the show off in a completely new direction. Even if it wasn’t regarded as the strongest story of the series, it was an ideal opportunity to mix comedy with drama around the centrepiece of John and Mary’s wedding and to move away from the usual open and shut case that viewers had come to expect. While this one didn’t follow-up on the brief glimpse of new baddie Charles Augustus Magnussen at the end of The Empty Hearse, viewers were treated to some superb character pieces with the focus clearly on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, setting up what promised to be a grand finale.

While Sherlock doesn’t understand the significance of marriage, he is supportive, and determined to be an exemplary best man. There is no plotting to sabotage proceedings despite the fact that a longing glance at Watson’s empty chair in their Baker Street flat tells us all we need to know about how he feels. The wedding itself is skipped over entirely and we see no shenanigans, lost rings or unexpected problems which threaten to derail the proceedings. The episode did away with any and all the familiar wedding cliches, although we do get to enjoy a closer look at how Sherlock went about ensuring that nothing went wrong by threatening an ex and bribing a child with pictures of dead bodies! As Neela Debnath noted in her review in the Independent that January, ‘The Sign of Three was packed to the rafters with wit and comedy. There was plenty to leave viewers howling with laughter, mainly thanks to Sherlock’s general apathy towards humankind, which despite his revulsion to any sort of sentiment or nostalgia, his best man speech was, at times, quite touching as he revealed just how much John means to him.’ Certainly, continued, Debnath, ‘This is the most we have seen the pair express their feelings for one another, usually they are too busy saving the day to let something as trivial as emotion get in the way.’

The final episode of the series, His Last Vow, was seen in the UK on the same weekend that the news had started to be dominated by stories of wretched weather and the misery that was beginning to be inflicted across the country by the torrential downpour of rain and resulting floods. Although it didn’t quite pull in the same number of viewers as the first two episodes, it did become the most tweeted about single episode on Twitter, and even if it should have been just what the doctor ordered to cheer the nation up on a wet and windy Sunday evening, many thought the show had lost its way and had strayed too far from its original formula. As some correctly noted, viewers should not have to concentrate too hard to enjoy Sherlock.

To others though, The Last Vow, was in many ways, the best episode of Sherlock so far, as it offered a greater insight into Sherlock and Watson than ever before. According to a review in the Mirror, if anything, the episode focussed on the relationships between its characters and even introduced us to Sherlock’s parents, played by Benedict’s real-life mum and dad. ‘With some amazing visual sequences, a number of clever twists, a truly detestable villain and a strong story, [that led Sherlock into a long conflict with the Napoleon of blackmail, and the one man he truly hates], Sherlock continues to show why it is simply one of the greatest TV shows of all time.’ In one of those twists, after the end credits had finished rolling, viewers were treated to an extraordinary hallucinatory scene in which a video message is being played over again on every TV screen across the country. ‘Did you miss me?’ asks a straight-jacketed Moriarty as if announcing his return from the grave. It was the perfect climatic surprise to end the series with, and an equally perfect reminder, that yes, Sherlock would be back.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My Story of the Essoldo

Because I dedicated my biography of screen hardman Ray Wintsone to my childhood mentor, Nellie Mercer, of the Essoldo Cinema in Tunbridge Wells, I often get asked about it and why and how she instilled in me a true love and affection for film and cinema. I first met Nellie when I was about 13 and had popped into the Essoldo on my way home from school one afternoon to try and get a lobby card from the film that was coming to the theatre the following week - Elvis's Girls! Girls! Girls! The poster and lobby cards were already on display in the foyer, and it was when I was about to slip one of the lobby cards out of its frame that a disgruntled voice from behind me asked me what I was doing! That voice was Nellie!

Although she appeared somewhat grumpy at first, when I told her I was an Elvis fan and had come to look at the posters and lobby cards, her  fierceness quickly disappeared. She was standing on the left hand side of the foyer by the door to the room where she kept most of her cleaning equipment along with dozens of quad posters, lobby cards and other film promotional materials. It was like stepping into an Aladdin's cave of cinema treasures. Nellie, probably in her sixties at that time, looked liked you would expect a cleaning lady to look, with a typical patterned overall and a head scarf that was common for the period. At the time I had no idea that we would become good friends, and would remain so for the next four years until I moved with my family south to Glynde. In the years that I dropped into see Nellie at the cinema after school, usually 3 times a week, she would give me an array posters, press campaign books, hanging cards (that advertised the week's film) and dozens of lobby cards, all of which were usually meant to be returned to the exhibitors offices after the film had finished its run, and whereas some did go back, a lot of them ended up in my private collection. Almost every week she gave me a handful of lobby cards and quad posters to take home. She also gave me her weekly complimentary staff ticket so I could go and see the movie that was showing that week as long as she considered it was a film suitable for me to see.

On other occasions, we went to the restaurant above the cinema, which in the days before we moved to Tunbridge Wells, when the cinema was a Ritz, was the Florida Restaurant - where David Bowie's parents were said to have met each other - and where Nellie invariably treated me to a milkshake during her coffee break. In my day, it was simply known as the Essoldo Restaurant, and was open from 10am to 8pm for morning coffee, luncheon, tea or supper every day except Sunday. It was decorated with framed giant sized publicity pictures of movie stars, including one of Elvis, which Nellie said she would one day get for me, and although she never did, she gave me loads of other goodies that I never dreamed of having. She was such a generous, sweet lady, who simply wanted me to have and enjoy the thing I loved most, which at that time, was anything to do with movies, cinema and Elvis! Our conversations were mostly about films and cinemas, and how things, even then, had changed over the last decade. I discovered and learnt so much about the history of cinema, movies and movie stars - old and new. Nellie always told me how each film, every week, was doing at the box-office and how cinemagoers were reacting to them. It really was my education, more so than anything I was meant to be learning at school. It was an incredible way to spend three after-school afternoons each week, and an incredible way to grow up, albeit briefly for four years or so, during my teen years.

There was such a different atmosphere about going to the movies in the 60s. My most memorable recollections are when Elvis's Kid Galahad and the third James Bond film Goldfinger were showing. We had to queue for both films before the doors opened, and the line stretched halfway down the distance of Mount Pleasant towards the railway station. Once inside the cinema, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. We sat through the black-and-white B-Film, British Movietone News, the Pearl & Dean adverts, the trailer for next week's film and an intermission before we got to the main features. For Elvis, there was the usual hysteria of teenage girls yelling, screaming and applauding every time he was on screen, and for Goldfinger, it was so popular, the cinema crammed in as many people as they could, and even allowed people to sit in the aisles, which would be unheard of today, and probably be considered a health and safety hazard.

Prices of admission ranged from 1/9d and 2/6d for a seat in the stalls to 3/6d in the circle upstairs, which today is equivalent to about 17p! I can't remember if we thought that was expensive at the  time, we probably did, but compared to going to see a movie today, we got a lot more for our money back then; two movies, cartoons, Movietone News and sexy looking girls selling ice creams in the intermission. I remember choc ices were always a popular choice! The Essoldo held about 1600 people, had four projectionists, a restaurant, a stunningly polished foyer and was described as one of the most luxurious cinemas in Kent. The films were usually shown for just one week with continuous performances but for the epic movies like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, there were two separate performances daily, and it would usually end up with an extended run of two weeks. In those days, of course, we didn't give it much thought, it was just the best cinema in town we went to for an afternoon or evening at the pictures. For me it became the place that still holds some of my fondest memories of my teenage years, and growing up in Tunbridge Wells, not only for the films I was fortunate enough to see, but also for being privy to some of the things that went on  behind-the-scenes of running a cinema, and of course, the fabulous posters and lobby cards I collected from my friendship with Nellie. I can't remember exactly what happened to them all, or how they got lost, but I am guessing they probably got left behind when we moved to Sussex.

The Essoldo also became notorious for the pop shows that visited the town. Stars like Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and Joe Brown all appeared on the stage for one night only when the live shows replaced the film. It was also where Dusty Springfield gave her debut performance when she went solo after leaving The Springfields. Usually there were two performances at 6.20 and 8.30pm and the ticket prices were a great deal more than the regular price for films. I saw a great number of classic films at the cinema, which without Nellie's kindness of giving me her ticket each week, I would not have seen. And of course, I never missed an Elvis film, which were hugely popular in those days, right up to Harem Holiday in 1966, which was the last of the Elvis movies I saw at the Essoldo, after that, when the Elvis films started to lose their popularity, they were relegated to the other cinema in the town, the Opera House, which was nowhere near as luxurious as the Essoldo. Today the Opera House is a Wetherspoons eatery, and the building that once housed the original Essoldo auditorium, where I sat in the dark with so many others, to share and experience the magic of film and cinema, is sadly nothing more than a derelict and much vandalised site that still awaits demolition.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Fibro, Sex and a Bestseller - Part 2

Here is the second part of my article and interview with Sarah Darling, the author of Pure Filth...

Despite the difficulty of finding an agent, Sarah did get herself one, even if it was for only three weeks, but then, she laughs out loud, ‘he very politely dumped me. He explained that he thought the story was “far too explicit” for the main market but too good a story to be “lost” to erotica as he put it. He said he had no idea how to pitch it. And then came along 50 Shades which told me that the market did indeed want explicit and that the “main market” could cope with it. That’s why I titled it Pure Filth. I wanted to make it clear what the content was. What I understood from my research was that publishers have projects ready in advance to release over a period of time, and they all have different time scales to work to. I also understood that, yes, my book would be too explicit for some, so I attempted to tone the sex scenes down a little, but it didn’t feel like me, it didn’t feel quite right, and I wanted it to be true and honest, and that was what I was comfortable with.’ And so it seemed, did one of her six daughters. She read it through as if she was an editor, armed with a red pen and marked it up.

‘There were times she sat me down and said, “that was a pile of crap, you can write that again, only do a better job of it!” or “mum, that’s shit, start that paragraph again.” It sounds pretty brutal, but it really wasn’t. It was just the thing I needed to help me write in a much better way and indeed to find my style.’ 

At the beginning, before she had written a word, she went on a creative writing course but after three or four sessions she gave it up. ‘I thought it would help, but I felt the course I was on would stifle me and get in the way of my thoughts and of what I really wanted to say. The fact that I was a teacher I think was a big help as I was used to putting together lesson plans and prepping hand-outs. So I did have a structured way on how to deal with the book as a whole, and for each chapter within it. For example I would have the framework for the whole story and pad it out with other individual smaller storylines as I went. But when so much of it is true it’s more about remembering than making things up. I don’t have to worry about storylines and plots that say a thriller might have.’ 

For the first eighteen months, Sarah continues, ‘I had a blank page and a synopsis. This was a very important part of my writing although I hadn’t written a single word. I had to decide how I would portray characters, but the biggest struggle was how would I portray myself, how honest was I prepared to be? Having left full-time school at the age of twelve to work full-time (because my parents thought I should pay for my keep now that I was old enough!) I missed vital foundation blocks within my education. On top of that, my family had moved a great deal so I had already gone to eleven different schools by the age of twelve. The day of the National Curriculum hadn’t yet arrived so I read about the Romans in one school, and then again in the next, and the next and completely missed the Vikings. This also was the case for English, Maths and every other subject. So I couldn’t possibly write as people should - I simply didn’t know how. In saying that, I believe my weakness is also my strength as I throw away convention and write exactly as I feel. I write as I think or feel and my readers get it, maybe because I’m just Joe Blogs, Miss Ordinary, Miss Nobody and so is everyone else - or a good many at least. The other factor which plays a part I think, is that I read Military History almost every day of my life. It’s largely memoirs or war diaries. What interests me most is why did they do this rather than who did what, when and where, when it came to the battles... No! I am far more curious about how they felt about it, what impact did it have on them? Those are questions that I ask myself a lot about my own life, but I guess that’s the therapist in me.’ 

Sarah describes her book as sexual comedy that has an underlying story of change and sexual empowerment. Based on her own life, it is, she told me, about ninety-seven percent true. As with any novel names and certain places have been changed and the only character in the book with their real name is Sarah herself. ‘Every character is based on someone I know. Most of the storylines are also true, but for legal reasons, true identities had to be protected. When I have spoken to people at my book signings, many people have said that they have had very similar stories or situations in their own life, some of my reviews on Amazon also confirm that. I think that for today’s world, my story is that of many others.’ 

A few days after our interview, I call Sarah to talk about some things that we didn’t have time to discuss during the interview. She has just returned from a weekend of book signings in Bridgwater. Both were organised by Sarah herself. ‘They are quite involved to arrange, but I do enjoy them as they give me the opportunity to gauge a lot of feedback from readers, which is a great help to guide me in the right direction for my next book as I’m able to identify what readers like about my writing.’ The reaction, she says, has been tremendous. ‘I thought women of my age might be interested but I have found that men and women, of all ages and sexuality, are loving the book. A gay friend of mine was laughing all through a reading I did, and another gay friend said he felt he related to so much of it. Young women are enjoying it as much as older ones, I’m truly surprised but thrilled to bits. Again, it’s because of just how truthful it is. I think people can relate to it. At one of the earlier book signings it became clear to me that people are not just reading the book, but devouring it. One gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I just want to ask one question, how is your youngest girl as I’m very worried about her,’ he knew my book inside out. People don’t seem to read it passively. Another person, a man, bought if for a lady friend he had, who he thought was going through a similar circumstance that I depicted in the book, he was hoping she would have the strength to leave the situation because of it. I don’t know if she did. Someone else, a lady, came up to me at another book signing, she had already downloaded the book, she was on her own and quietly came up to me and said, she just wanted to say “thank you” for understanding her. She gave me a real hug and somehow I felt my book helped.’ 

As a film buff, and a biographer of movie stars, one of the things I was itching to know is which actress would Sarah have to play her on screen if her book ever gets turned into a film. She tells me Sandra Bullock. ‘In Miss Congeniality, she is both elegant and lovely and damn right clumsy - on a good day that’s me! I strive to be elegant but somehow I never quite pull it off, it’s not an act. The other day I was having a drink in Costa’s with a friend, all dressed-up in a pretty dress and wearing my lippy, when my mobile rang, as I went to answer, it slipped from my hand straight into my hot coffee. We then walked to my car for something, and the heel of one of my stilettos found the grill of the gutter and I went head first into the front of my car! That's daily life for me.’

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Fibro, Sex and a Bestseller

Are you one of those Kindle owners that browse Amazon and download a sample from a book to see if you are going to enjoy reading it, and then, if you do, download the entire book? Well, that's what happened when I came across Pure Filth by Sarah Darling. The reviews were mostly 5-star and each one of them raved about just how good it was! I read the first two chapters of the sample, and was immediately hooked. Once I started I couldn't put it down! It was one of the best books I had read in years - well constructed, written - and honest. After finishing it and feeling somewhat sad that I had, I found a page for the book on Facebook, messaged Sarah and ended up interviewing her, from which I wrote a sort of Vogue cover story type piece, which is currently doing the magazine rounds. But in case it never makes it into print, here is an excerpt...    
   
Sarah Darling is lying on the floor in a red bikini and matching red stilettos with ankle ties. Her legs are crossed and propped against the wall while she waits for the photographer to stop fiddling with her camera. It is late in the afternoon, and she has been at the tiny little photo studio in Southampton since lunchtime. She is now tired and is stretching out when the photographer tells her to hold that position and snaps her resting. Its the best shot of the day and absolutely perfect for the cover of her first novel, Pure Filth. ‘That photo really was an accident,’ she tells me when we talk about how and why her book has just taken off here and in America and is fast becoming the most talked about book since 50 Shades of Grey. It is the first in a three-part series, following Sarah’s journey from being an overweight, middle-aged and fed-up wife and sex therapist to a slim, divorced and sexually adventurous lady. It merges threads of Fifty Shades with Sex And The City and Shirley Valentine.

She continues to tell me about the photo shoot. ‘I went with a friend to have a girly photo shoot in a studio. We were asked to take several outfits and have different kinds of shots. I wanted to do a bikini shot so I took one along. I felt very awkward in some of the shots, you know, arms crossed and rather clumsy, it didn’t feel natural. It was only when the photographer had to do something with her camera and I had to wait a while she sorted it out that I felt a bit of a lumux and sat down to be more comfortable. Time went by and I got bored so I turned myself around and put my legs up against the wall and started to stretch out, yawn in fact, and that became the photo that you see on the book.’ 

What’s surprising about all of this is that Sarah has Fibromyalgia. Anyone who has the condition will know just how bad it is. It’s the sort of disorder that leaves its victims tired, exhausted, in pain, forgetful, have dietary issues, not have sleep for a few years, suffer with heat and cold sensitivity, and be in absolute ‘bloody’ agony in one spot that was fine before, but now has ‘the whole damn lot in one go, every day!’ As a sufferer myself and well aware of its effect on daily routines, I am still prompted to ask Sarah how, with fibro, she managed to write the book and do all the marketing and publicity that being a self-published author entails. ‘It was tough.’ she says. ‘The only good thing about it is that I can write as and when I like. I only have myself to answer to so that might also be a good thing about not having a publisher as the only deadline I have is whatever I choose to impose on myself. So if I can’t write one day, it’s not a problem and if I wish to write until four in the morning, it’s okay as I’m writing for me. Anyone who knows anything about Fibromyalgia knows that everything you do is painful and exhausting, so I frequently come away from typing with hands, finger, neck, back and everything else killing me!’ 

But that’s not the only reason it took ‘forever’ to write and publish the book. Sarah started putting pen to paper in 2002 while she was still going through some of the things that happen in the book. ‘Something would happen that would be so funny it seemed a shame almost to not write about it. Once that idea got into my head I found that when certain ‘adventures’ happened or a very comical incident or situation occurred, it became clear that there might be enough to write a book about it.’ The birth of the book, she tells me, really came about when she started to jot down notes to remind her what had happened to make her laugh or cry. ‘I wrote them on any bit of scrap I had to hand. I am still working through these scraps of paper, packs of receipts, and envelopes. It was important to make a note of everything because Fibromyalgia plays havoc with your memory, so it was just as well that I did write these notes. Sometimes the real life Annabel and I have chewed the cud on something that happened and she would say “Oh! Did you see the look on so-and-so’s face” or “Oh yes! And then...” which has indeed reminded me more fully. She told me that when she read the book it reminded her of some of the things that happened. She doesn’t think it was very different from how she remembered events other than when it’s obvious to her that something was changed for legal reasons, but she’s still recognized the situation.’

After finishing the manuscript eight years after she started, Sarah then spent another three years trying to get the book published. And that’s when she came across her first stumbling block. She discovered she wasn’t able to approach publishers directly as many of them didn’t accept unsolicited ideas or manuscripts unless it was submitted through an agent. Sarah went out and bought a copy of the Writer's Yearbook and worked her way through the agents listed, and also did some additional research online to find an agent that would be best suited to represent her book, but as any author will tell you, finding an agent is no easy task. Another hurdle that Sarah faced in trying to place her book was that some agents weren’t happy to look at her work if she was approaching other agents at the same time. And oh yes, most them were unlikely to respond much within three to six months. So Sarah followed the rules and faithfully followed each agents requirements and waited the time they asked for. ‘The rejections were always very polite but not always disheartening. Many would send the standard rejection but would biro in a comment such as “loved it, but not for us” or “please keep writing as I really enjoyed it but we are booked up for the next two years.” There was always a feeling of genuineness because somebody had bothered to encourage me to continue.’ 

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Elvis In Demand Mystery - Solved!

In my blog post about the Elvis In Demand mystery last week, I concluded my piece by saying what an interesting exercise it would be to try and find out if Elvis did actually sign any copies of the albums, and if any fans did indeed have one. You can probably imagine how thrilled I was to hear from several fans who had won a copy of the album in the  infamous competition that was run in the Daily Express, and still owned the letter from the newspaper verifying the authenticity of the autographed LPs, which proves, once and for all, that Elvis did indeed sign 15 copies of the album in July 1977, just one month ahead of his sudden death, which were then offered as second runner-up prizes in the Express contest. Both the signed album and the authentication letter with the original newspaper clipping detailing the competition results and winners are included in this post for which I have to thank Bernard Roughton for sharing with me, and for allowing me to reproduce them here. 

Bernard confirmed the info about Elvis signing the albums was definitely true, and assured me it was not just hype for the fan club, the album or the newspaper. Bernard also alluded me to what British fan club boss Todd Slaughter had recently told him, that the albums were mailed over to Elvis's father in Memphis for Elvis to autograph, and not what had become a sort of urban legend that Todd was with Elvis, handing him the LPs as they were signed. As Bernard correctly pointed out in his email to me, unlike so many other Elvis autographs, this one, as you can see from the image, is quite a stunning, clean and clear signature, that appears to be a hundred percent genuine, and as I mentioned in my original post would have been one of the last things that Elvis would have signed for fans.  

The competition in the Express asked fans to answer ten questions to test their knowledge about Elvis, and as a tie-breaker to determine the winners, entrants were also asked to come up with a title for an album spanning Elvis’s career to date. There were three prizes in all: a 16-day trip for two to Las Vegas with the fan club to see Elvis in concert, 15 autographed Elvis In Demand albums, and 100 copies of  The Elvis Tapes, an album of Elvis's 1957 press conference in Vancouver. The best album title, chosen by the judges, was Elvis - The Years That Rocked The World that had been submitted by Trevor Haw, who accepted a cash prize in place of the original prize, due to Elvis’s death and subsequent cancelled trip by the fan club. The 15 Elvis In Demand winners were notified by letter on 24 August 1977 in which the winners were told that the album had been donated by the fan club and personally signed by Elvis in July, which would tie-in with what Todd recently told Bernard, and not as previously thought, that Elvis must have signed them in June, when Todd had met him just before his last concert in Indianapolis to present him with a silver disc for the album, another award to recognise two and half million sales of Arcade's 40 Greatest, and to receive his own award from Elvis, a trophy to mark his first ten years of running the British fan club. Asking Elvis to sign the albums at that time, says Todd today, would not have coincided with the trip.

In an Elvis Monthly article, not long after In Demand had been released, Todd explained how proud the fan club was to be associated with the album, and how the tracks had been selected in early 1976 by fan club members, and how at one time, the album had been slated for release that summer on the RCA Starcall label, a mid-price outlet that would have retailed the album at £1.99. In the end, it went out as a regular full price RCA album at £3.99 during the first month of the following year. Talking about the album in EM, Todd confirmed that it was an attempt at compiling an album of fans favourites, which at that time, had been ignored by the compilation people. Todd thought it worked well, and certainly, he was right. As I mentioned in my first blog about it, it was huge selling album, and probably one of the few albums from Elvis’s output in the last year of his life that he had autographed.  

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Elvis In Demand Mystery

Back in 1976, in the days when I was a graphic designer, I went up to RCA's Curzon Street offices in London, not far from the famous Playboy Club, to pitch an idea for a five track EP of then unavailable movie songs, including the studio version of Johnny B Goode from Elvis On Tour. I did a full proposal and a full colour sleeve visual with Letraset and a letterbox still of Elvis in Charro, which I had picked up at the fan club convention in Leicester, that same year, where I had seen the Aloha From Hawaii TV special for the first time on a big screen. Seems incredible to think about now, but none of the British television companies had at that time scheduled it for broadcast. There was a whole campaign in Elvis Monthly to persuade the BBC to show it, and I seem to remember that RCA had offered to front half the asking price of £50,000, but it was still not enough to persuade the BBC to buy the special, and so it went unseen until a much edited version was eventually broadcast on BBC in 1978.

I can’t remember exactly the date that I went to RCA, but it was probably in the latter part of 76 as I remember being shown the artwork for the Elvis In Demand album, and getting given a poster for the Presley Gold singles campaign, which was a reissue collection of Elvis’s 16 Number One singles in their original U.S picture bags. The album and poster featured the same illustration of Elvis. It was during this meeting that I first heard about the then planned CBS TV Special which according to what I was told, was going to be a mix of concert footage, a tour around Graceland with Elvis and a gospel recording session.

The guy at RCA liked my proposal for the movie EP very much, and said that he wanted to make it happen, and told me he would have to get approval from the Colonel before proceeding any further, and would send it over to the Colonel. And that was the last I heard of it! The guy left RCA and cleared out his office, so I never did see my visual or proposal again. And no one at RCA could find it or trace a letter being sent to the Colonel's office!

Elvis In Demand though, was quite a unique album for its time. It came about when RCA UK invited British fans of the official fan club to select 16 songs from Elvis's extensive recorded repertoire to represent studio work, Hollywood film soundtracks and live shows. Most songs picked were an assortment of singles, B-sides, album tracks and some obscure movie songs. The idea was to have on one album, as many songs that were not available at that time. When news of the project first appeared in Elvis Monthly, to celebrate the 21st birthday of the fan club, it was suggested that this would be a good opportunity to fill in a few gaps for songs that were not currently available in the UK. The article in the Monthly gave a list of suggested tracks that could be included and if memory serves me right it was most of these tracks that ended up on the final album. Although looking back on it now, the list of selected tracks may seem strange, at the time, there was a sensible logic behind it, and it proved to be a most successful idea. It sold over 100,000 copies, peaked at No. 12 in the UK album chart and earned itself a silver disc award. It was released a month after Suspicion had become a Top Ten single and many still associate the song with the album, even though it had first appeared, 15 years before, on Pot Luck, Elvis’s No.1 album from 1962.

Even more strange is the story that Elvis personally autographed 15 copies of the sleeve in June 1977, with "Best Wishes Elvis Presley", which according to those who have claimed to have seen it, was clearly visible in black ink. If true, that would mean the album sleeves would have probably been among some of the last things Elvis would have signed for fans, but one also has to wonder what he must have thought about being asked to sign a record album with such a "ghostly" looking illustration. The 15 copies he is said to have signed, were then said to have been given away as prizes by the Daily Express, even though no cuttings from the newspaper have yet surfaced to support the story. Some say they remember it well, while others don’t, and most are sceptical about the whole thing. I don’t remember seeing any such competition in the Express, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. It probably did when you consider that Todd Slaughter, the boss of the British Fan Club, had met Elvis to present him with some British awards, during the filming of the CBS In Concert TV Special in the same month that Elvis is said to have signed the copies of In Demand. Although the Fan Club did a lot of shouting about its contribution to the LP, and rightfully so, there are those sceptics who have suggested the whole signed copies affair was just a marketing ploy between the Fan Club and Express newspapers. It would be an interesting exercise to try and find out if Elvis did actually sign the albums, and if any fans do indeed, have a signed copy of it.

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Lost Article

I wrote this article for the 25th anniversary of Winona Ryder’s first film, Lucas, a couple of years ago, for a magazine that never ran with it due to re-scheduling of features at the time, and rather than leave it unseen and unread, thought I would post it here for all to read. The images are the original publicity and casting pictures for the film, taken from my own personal collection.


The stylist for one of Winona’s first photo shoots just over twenty years ago knew that Winona would someday be famous. ‘She was just really focused,’ Abby Minot told me in 2002. ‘She had this vision. You could just tell she was going places.’

And of course, Abby was right. Looking back twenty-five years to the opening of Lucas and to the first time the cinema-going public first cast their eyes on Winona Ryder, most agreed that, even though she would only appear in eight scenes and her role as Rina almost seemed like an afterthought, it was enough to get Winona noticed and confirm the kind of character she would play for the next five years of her career: the alienated teenager.

If there was any doubt, one only had to take a look at the press kit for the movie, which described Winona as ‘fragile with a certain poetic justice.’ And the critics agreed. The New York Daily News credited ‘Winona for turning a small part into a memorable one’, and Variety’s Todd McCarthy remarked that Winona ‘constantly but quietly stole all Kerri Green’s scenes.’ Roger Ebert writing in the Chicago Sun Times said it was easily ‘one of the year’s best films’ and doubted if anyone of any age could give a more sensitive and effective performance.’ In fact, there weren’t many critics that didn’t rave about her performance. According to the general consensus, it was ‘deft, remarkable, and fetching.’ So perhaps it is no wonder that Winona had the critics on her side even before the film was released twenty-five years ago.

Certainly her performance in her first moments on screen would compound the cinema-going public with general critical opinion that Winona Ryder, the girl with the alert expressive eyes that telegraphed a startling combination of intelligence, gravity and self-possession was indeed someone to watch. ‘There is something strangely magical and wistful about her, that is ultimately reflected in her performance,’ said director David Seltzer at the time, and later observed how ‘she was sympathetic playing a child who thought she would never be beautiful.’ It was, he continues ‘very poignant because she was clearly about to blossom into a beautiful young woman herself.’

I am not sure though, that Winona would agree. The first time she watched the film at a screening with the rest of the cast, she says, ‘I was just really scared to see my face that big. It was such a shock that people had just seen me act.’ In the end though, she went to see it another two times. Once in San Francisco when it opened there at the Galaxy Theater, and once in Santa Rosa, where, recalls Winona, ‘a lady sitting in front of me said to the guy she was with that I looked sad on the screen. I guess she meant the part about being hopelessly in love. I wanted to ask her what she meant, but instead I started really looking at myself on the screen. It’s hard to be objective about your own performance.’

Lucas opened on 628 screens in the United States on 28 March 1986 and during its opening weekend had taken $1,250,101 at the box office, ultimately its gross topped eight million and earned itself three Young Artist Award nominations.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Inspiration

I often get asked who or what was my inspiration to become a writer. And I always say that Winona Ryder was my biggest inspiration. She certainly inspired me to write biography, simply because I was desperate to write about her, which is always the best reason to write. It came about, because I had at that time, watched more of her films than any other actress, and like anyone who had seen her films, I thought she was a brilliant actress. There is something very silent movie about her acting, a quality I really adore. It’s not a style in the sense of a pose or put-on, but something very organic and completely unique to her. I was also fascinated by the fragile energy that follows her through all her films, regardless of genre, so I was really excited to be able to get to write about her, and share my name on a book cover with hers.

I first came up with the idea to write a book about her on National Cinema Day in June 1996, when cinemas across the UK showed selected films all day long, which resulted in over one million people attending cinemas. Organised by the film industry to celebrate a century of cinema, every cinema charged only £1 all day. And there were over 150 films to choose from. As well as the current releases there were 27 previewing films and classics ranging from Casablanca to the Sound of Music and one of the previewing films was Winona's latest, How To Make An American Quilt, so with my daughter, we went to see it, and when we left the cinema, I said: "I have to write a book about her!"    

And once I started, I loved every minute of it. Being able to get up each morning and write about her was the best part about it, I literally couldn’t wait to get started each day. What was strange is how I totally immersed myself in her life, and so when I finally finished it, and delivered the manuscript to the publisher, it was like the ending of a relationship. I do remember feeling quite lost about it and having what I call post-book depression. For me, it is still my favourite book of all the ones I have written, and that was largely down to who Winona Ryder was and me feeling passionate about her and her films, and that is what all writing should be, about following your passion, and for me that was Winona. 

I am also often bombarded with questions like when did I last interview her, what's she like, how was it to interview her, and is she cool? Truth is I have never interviewed her, met with her or even spoken to her, although I have come close three times. The first missed opportunity was when I had just started writing my biography of her and was due to do a telephone interview with her about American Quilt, but then at the last minute, she pulled out from all her scheduled interviews. The second time that I came close, was some years later, in 2004, while I was in West Hollywood and missed Winona at Book Soup by literally five minutes. I had gone up to the store after I had finished filming an interview on Demi Moore for The E! True Hollywood Story, and all the guys at the store knew me, knew who I was, and as soon as I got there, they told me, I had just missed her. She had been in the store five minutes before buying some magazines and books! And the most recent was at last year's London premiere of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. Although she was scheduled to attend the premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square, she had to cancel out at the last minute, due to a filming schedule conflict. I was on the red carpet for about an hour waiting for her to arrive, before the film started, and towards the end of that hour, I realised she wasn’t going to show, but if she had, it would have been pretty easy to have spoken with her, but maybe it's not meant to be. They do say, don’t they, that it’s never a good idea to meet our heroes!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

For Vampire Book Lovers Only

Welcome to my first blog post of 2013!! Can’t believe I have left it so long to write something, so today I am going to do something that I don’t usually do, and that is shout about a book I recently came across by an indie author named Jez Strider who has written and published a series of Vamp Life novels. The first one is the one I am shouting about. It’s called Vampire’s Eve, and I was attracted to download it onto my Kindle when it was on a one day promotion to download for free. The thing that attracted me to it first and foremost was the brilliant cover. I read the synopsis, read the reviews and downloaded it, and am so pleased I did. It is quite different to the usual vampire stories doing the current rounds, and what I particularly liked about it is how Jez takes a modern look into the history of vampires, and even throws in some eroticism that is completely different. Instead of what you would expect, Jez very cleverly conveys emotions without slipping into the erotica category, and yet it remains very erotic.

I decided to catch up with Jez, and ask her about her writing and her book. She told me her love of writing came from her love of reading. ╩╗My mom had bought me books at the grocery store for as long as I can remember and my dad was active in taking me to the library. I didn't start writing much until high school when I worked on the newspaper staff. And the first entertainment with vampires I saw was The Lost Boys. I watched it about a million times! After that I read books by Michael Romkey and Anne Rice. And it's just grown from there to me reading all sorts of vampire books and watching vampire movies and television. The lure of eternal life is very appealing, so I decided to write about it.’

In Jez’s own words, Vampire’s Eve is the story of a woman that despite many years as a vampire, thrives among humans. She's been reluctant to open her heart to love, but the right man is changing that. Things are going well until an encounter with her first love turns her world upside down. As if deciding between the two men isn't enough, her sadistic maker is determined to possess her once again.

To wet your appetite, Jez has given me a teaser excerpt to share, which she tells me is one of her favourite moments from the book...

I leaned up to start painting my toenails when my mind finally returned to the present. Before I could begin, a gloved hand covered my mouth. A normal intruder I could have easily bested. There had been more than one time when I’d been cornered in an alleyway. Oh no, but this was no normal deviant. He was stronger… far stronger than I was. My fangs extended and dug into his hand. Blood began to trickle from the wounds. Unfortunately, the attacker didn’t seem fazed by the bite. I knew it was another vampire. My maker, I just knew, had finally found me and was meeting out punishment for my rebellion.

The attacker had me pinned on my back and straddled me as I fought with every ounce of strength I had. The smell of expensive leather assaulted me. I kept my eyes closed at first, beating my fists against the man. My last thought before I opened my eyes and saw the other vampire face to face was of thanks. I was so thankful that I had sent Marcus home when I did. When our eyes met, we both froze.

The look was one frozen in time across vast centuries. This vampire was not my maker. I knew him immediately, as if I had kissed him only yesterday. I knew every inch of this man. I knew that perpetual tan and short brown hair that curled up slightly on the ends when he went too long without a haircut. His expression contorted into one of confusion as his amber eyes took in the woman before him.

If you enjoyed that teaser, then you will certainly enjoy the rest of the book. You can get your hands on the rest of the story from Amazon UK and Amazon US. And if you have a Kindle Fire, the book comes with the new X-ray feature which allows you to explore the bones of the book on any page to find chapters and locations that mention ideas, characters, and important places, as well as background info and biographies!