Elisabeth Sladen

I try not to let the deaths of people I’ve never met affect me too much. Life’s big and loud and emotional enough when you’re just dealing with the people who are physically there in your life, those wonderful people that you can hug and touch and punch. If you start letting yourself get overly emotionally affected by that other whole universe of people.. Those people of whom you are aware but who aren’t aware of you, those spirits who dance within the tellies and across the cinema screens of our lives.. Well, the whole thing just becomes unmanageable. So, when one of those people dies I tend to just raise a glass and move on.

I seem to be having a bit of trouble doing that with regards to Elisabeth Sladen, the wonderful actress who played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who and cheerful CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. I heard about her sad death from cancer last night, via the Grim Reaper’s usual 21st century information service of choice; Twitter. It was one of those stories that seemed to have gained an awful lot of ground before it had actually been reported by a reliable news source, and for several minutes I hoped it was a hoax, or a mistake.

It wasn’t.

See, I just can’t seem to process Lis Sladen’s death. Partly because she always seemed so energetic and vital, (not looking anywhere near her 63 years, but not looking like someone ‘trying to look young’ either), but also because she’s always been there. I was so young when I first saw her in the role of Sarah Jane that I literally cannot remember life beforehand. She was the first companion that I ever remember seeing onscreen and although she’d left the role by the time I was old enough to watch Doctor Who without running away and hiding around the corner, when BBC video released Revenge of the Cybermen as their first ever VHS release of Doctor Who I rented it repeatedly. She left an indelible impression on me.

It’s a tough gig doing the whole companion thing, especially in old-school Who. Elisabeth Sladen made it look effortless. By all reports she was as generous and kind in real life as one would dearly wish their onscreen heroes to be, a standard that precious few ever live up to.

I love the fact that she came back to the show, and that she gained a whole new generation of fans over the last few years. Can’t help feeling for them too, today; if I’m left reeling by her loss, what effect must it be having on the legions of young fans who were eagerly awaiting the new series of Sarah Jane Adventures later in the year?

Rest well, Elisabeth, and thanks for the memories. You meant an awful lot to an awful lot of us.

(Tardis noise. Fade to black)

“Sale” at the video shop..

About a billion years ago, (1995), I worked in a video shop. It was part of a chain. I won’t mention which chain, obviously, but it’s probably the first one you thought of. Yes, that one. Yes, I suppose it does rhyme with ‘cockthruster’, now that you mention it, but I’d rather not think about that, thanks very much.

Look, can I get on with the bloody story?

The particular store I worked at, (which I’m sure wasn’t policy across the chain, naturally), used to generally employ a single member of staff at the very bottom of the payscale (£3.01 per hour, I seem to recall. My only pay rise during my tenure brought this up to a dizzying £3.03) and would just leave them to it in the store on their own. This presented a few problems, since various day-to-day requirements of running the store revolved around use of management level passwords, on the assumption that the poor grunts on £3.01 wouldn’t be left solely in charge for days on end. Which we were.

One day, I got a call from a ‘regional’ manager which I remember vividly to this day. He told me that the quarter’s takings across his stores hadn’t met targets. The store that I worked at had met them, but some stores in the middle of nowhere were dragging his average down and he wanted a quick boost of profit over the next week.

His instructions run thusly;

1) Tape up the 24 hour drop box with industrial tape, and put a sign reading ‘Drop box out of order; please return films to counter’ on it.
2) Whitewash out all of the windows in the store and write ‘Massive Sale Now On!’ in the whitewash.
3) Sit back and watch the cash roll in.

His logic about the dropbox ran thusly;

1) If a customer is forced to walk into the shop, they might buy something.
2) If a customer can’t return a video in the middle of the night, they’ll come back tomorrow and buy something.
3) They might not be able to come back tomorrow, and will thus accrue profitable late fees.

His logic about the whitewash/sale ran thusly;

1) Everyone loves a sale! Whitewashing the windows will increase the curiosity factor!
2) Once inside the shop, they’ll forget why they came in and won’t notice that there isn’t a sale. They might buy something.

My objections were varied and manifold. A small selection might include;

1) People will notice that a sale doesn’t exist.
2) No, honestly, they will.
3) They’ll ask what’s on sale. I will reply ‘The usual fine selection of goods’
4) They might, at this point, stab me. I wouldn’t entirely blame them.
5) How can a hole in the fucking wall be ‘out of order’?
6) A customer who has accrued a late fee because we’ve removed his means of returning his video will refuse to pay it.
7) A customer who has travelled all the way to the store in the middle of the night to find that we’ve removed his means of returning his video will simply post the video forcefully through the letterbox instead.
8) A videotape being pushed through the letterbox with sufficient force will set off the motion detectors and summon the police.
7) The police will contact the keyholder to come out in the middle of the night to turn the goddamn burglar alarm off.
8) The keyholder is me. I hate you beyond my ability to express myself.

Funnily enough, I managed to express my rebellion at the whole plan by sticking to the company rulebook.

“Where can I obtain whitewash?”
“From the store down the road”
“Where can I get the money to purchase the whitewash?”
“Perform a disbursement from the till”
“I can’t do that without a management level password”
“Look, I’m sure you know a management level password”
“For an employee to obtain the passwords of other employees is grounds for dismissal”
“Just take it without running it thorugh the system”
“That would also be grounds for dismissal. Besides, I can’t close the store”
“Just put a ‘back in 5 minutes’ sign up”
“It’s grounds for dismissal to close the store during opening hours”

and so on and so on.

Eventually, the horrible bastard got utterly fed up with my complaints and came down and did it all himself, which was at least more satisfying than me having to do it myself. It clearly made me the guy’s number one enemy, though, and provided me with my first real glimpse of management level thinking.

Ah, hell. I didn’t have much in the way of life-fun back then, and small victories meant a lot. I also look back fondly upon completing a staff-improvement manual, which the same regional manager had to deliver to his superiors. My favourite questions (with my responses afterwards) from that manual were:

Q) Read the ‘Health & Safety’ information on the wall in the staff room. What have you learnt that you weren’t previously aware of?
A) That the store is 5 degrees below legal minimum operating temperature.

Q) It is important for any store to listen to the concerns of its customers. Write down, exactly, the next question a customer asks you.
A) “Why is it so fucking cold in here?”

No pillow as soft as a clear conscience

I sometimes use the phrase ‘My name is Pat Higgins and my conscience is clear’ as a sign-off when I do live events (like the one coming up on Wednesday 27th April at Southend Film Festival) and have done for years. In fact, I gave the expression to a comedian in Hellbride as a catchphrase (although using the character’s name, not ‘Pat Higgins’. Otherwise that would be ridiculous. And confusing). The phrase started out entirely as a joke; a call-back to something that I tended to mention earlier in the evening. Over the years, though, I guess I’ve become fond of it.

Received an email yesterday, informing me that a distribution company that I have dealt with in the past are to cease activities. I won’t name them, since their website hasn’t broken the news yet and the last thing I want to do is leak the story if it’s not public yet, but I feel that the demise of the company is particularly heartbreaking (above and beyond the usual sadness of a business closing its doors) because of one simple fact.

They were nice.

Actually, I’ll expand upon that. They were honourable. They had excellent communication with people they dealt with, they were polite and friendly and they always delivered whatever they’d promised. I’ve been paddling around in the shallows of the movie industry for close to ten years now, and those sorts of qualities have seemed depressingly few and far between.

Is being nice really so tough? Because, if you want to be all hard-nosed and business-like about it, in terms of gaining loyalty and repeat business and all those other things that companies claim to seek, being nice is a pretty goddamn cost-effective way of getting those things. As either customer or co-worker, I’ll put up with a much worse situation for much longer if I feel I’m being treated with empathy.

So why don’t more people in the industry embrace being pleasant and honourable as the default way of doing business? I don’t mean the fake smile, have-a-nice-day bullshit so favoured by soft-skills training courses; I mean genuinely treating people well for no other reason than it makes the whole experience much more rewarding for all parties?

There was a particular film set I visited a few years ago that sticks in my mind. The shoot was several budgetary notches above the films that I was making at the time, and in several respects it should have been the sort of shoot I was aspiring to. Didn’t take long on set to work out that it wasn’t. In fact, the atmosphere was borderline poisonous. Not only would cast and crew not talk to each another, but half of the crew wouldn’t even talk to the other half of the crew. Conversation on set seemed to consist almost entirely of bitching. It felt like a state of arrested development; adolescent egos rubbing each other up the wrong way and constantly trying to get one over on each other. I thought about how it compared to the upbeat atmosphere that I try to foster on my shoots and I found it rather sad.

The film industry seems to attract assholes like moths to a flame. I understand the reasons for that, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it and that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way things can be done. Yes, of course there’s pressure.. But teachers dealing with classes of 5 year-olds are under pressure too, and they somehow manage to avoid using it as an excuse to treat people badly.

So, on a day when a rather lovely little company has closed its doors for the last time, I’m reminded of why I liked them so much and reminded that, no matter how long I stay in this business, I will never let it turn me into something I’m not. I will never run a set where the cast and crew won’t speak to one another. I’ll never put someone in a position where they’ll regret signing a deal with my company. I’ll never accept that behaving like (for want of a better word) a dick is somehow a norm, or something to be aspired to.

My name is Pat Higgins and my conscience is clear.

PS. Since writing this blog entry, I have ranted an awful lot about treating people nicely. I even do it a bit in the following video, which is an hour-long show about micro-budget filmmaking that was shot at this year’s Horror-on-Sea festival. It’s got some nudity, gore and bad language, plus an awful lot of advice about the industry. Including not acting like a dick.

Scre4m (Or Scream 4 if you’re not in marketing, or 12 years old)

The Scream franchise means quite a lot to me.

When the original hit the screens in the UK in May 1997, my life was changing in all sorts of ways. I initially saw Scream at the cinema with my friends, some of whom weren’t used to horror films and found it pretty gruelling. By the time the run had finished, I had gone back to watch it again with the woman who would later become my wife. It was the first horror film we saw together at the cinema.

I approached Scream 2 with a certain amount of trepidation, but thought it was fantastic. For me it stands up as one of the great sequels; one that ratchets up elements of the original without ruining the feel of the cinematic world by doing so. The sequence in the trashed police car stands up as a fantastic bit of tension building, and the death of Randy remains one of the most heartbreakingly ruthless yet utterly necessary bits of business in any franchise. By killing Randy, the flick reminded you that, yes, this is a horror series, and people aren’t going to be safe just because you feel affection for them.

Then along came Scream 3, which ruined the feel of the cinematic world and kept people safe just because you felt affection for them. Not only that, my enjoyment of the film on first viewing was also marred by the fact that I’d fallen victim to a spoiler.. Some twunt on a message board had posted the identity of the killer in caps on an unrelated thread, thus ruining my day and causing me to grumble endlessly. Except, funnily enough, the twunt hadn’t actually posted the killer’s identity; they’d taken a guess and got it wrong. Nevertheless, I spent the movie convinced that I knew the twist.. The tragic thing being, of course, that the actual resolution of Scream 3 wasn’t even as imaginative as the twunt’s fake spoiler. So I got the worst of all worlds, which probably didn’t help pump any excitement into a film that was already pretty limp.

So, we have the approach of Scream 4. I’m torn; on one hand, I’m concerned that it’s going to feel like that piss-awful Blackadder reunion show they did for the millennium, but on the other hand Scream 3 wasn’t exactly closing the series on a perfect note, so maybe the creative team will come back with batteries recharged and all guns blazing.

I’ve just got to make it through the next few days without seeing any spoilers, fake or otherwise. Plus, I’m a bit apprehensive about viewing the flick with an audience, which is kind of a shame.. It’s been given a ’15’ over here in the UK (a first for the series) and whereas seeing a horror movie with a pumped up crowd of fans can be fantastic (just go and see a screening at Frightfest if you need convincing), watching a ’15’ rated horror movie in Essex can be a truly punishing experience. It just takes one nervous teenage boy blurting out endless ‘jokes’ to show how not scared he is and the whole experience takes a tumble.

Still, sod it, I’m in. Optimism engaged.

Thrill me, Wes.

New Workshop Date

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be running another workshop at the Southend Film Festival this year.

On Wednesday 27th April at 6.30pm, I’ll be chatting about micro-budget filmmaking at an event called “DIY: Making a Feature Film to Launch Your Career”. Places are really limited, but can be reserved on 0845 5212345 or by emailing learning@southessex.ac.uk

More details can be found over at http://www.southendfilmfestival.com/film_schedule.php