Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Larger than Life

Why do people watch television? One of the reasons is to escape from real life. The problem is that truth is stranger than fiction.

So when we create new worlds and new characters, we have to make sure that we're not reflecting a shadow or a pale imitation of the real thing to our audiences. Sometimes, sitcoms are criticised for doing exactly that. I seem to remember one or two shows recently being sneered at for making the situation how less funny than it should have been.

We need to understand that real life contains characters who are larger than life - so large as to be almost unbelievable; parodies of themselves. These characters are captivating, enthralling and often extremely funny - because they're deranged, charismatic, infuriating and but likeable, and they are so inspiring, their followers will crawl across minefields for them.

I was reminded of this when I watched The Damned United this evening (thanks Lovefilm). Michael Sheen's performance as Brian Clough is outstanding, and the film is beautifully written, directed and produced. It's one of the best I've seen in recent years. But let's not forget that Brian Clough is not make-believe, or a writer's invention. He was real. He really did do those things, say those things and irritate people in that way - and inspire love and deep affection in others.

As I was watching the movie, I was reminded of a few other characters who are like this - two in particular came to mind; one is fictional; one real. The real character is Gordon Ramsay, who's persona is extraordinary. I watched almost every episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, in which he would go into a failing restaurant and sort it out. He would be blunt, brutal and honest, and push people far further than they ever wanted to go - but it would be worth it.

The other character is one of the great comedy creations of the last ten years - DCI Gene Hunt. Although this latest series of Ashes to Ashes has not been up to its sparkling normal form, Gene Hunt remains an unforgettable character with strong emotions, lots of energy and very good jokes.

Characters are comedy. The Damned United has lots of good jokes in it, which are only funny because Brian Clough said them. It doesn't look that funny written down, I'm sure. But these large characters give you so much. Maybe we're frightened of them. Maybe we're too enthralled by nuance. Maybe we tell ourselves such people don't really exist - when we know that they do. In fact, I know someone just like Clough/Ramsay/Hunt, and he's a Church of England Vicar, surprisingly enough. Truth is stranger than fiction. So are we writing truth?


  1. Agree about character, James, but one comment leads me to a query. When you say, "... lots of good jokes in it, which are only funny because Brian Clough said them. It doesn't look that funny written down, I'm sure" I wonder about the transferrability (is that a word?) of characters such as Hunt or Clough to radio where there's less opportunity to develop the character's scale quickly while also flagging the major narrative arc to the listener?
    Sure, there are Clough-Hunt-like characters on radio but it must be difficult to cold sell a script in which the central character's a monster the size of these guys when, from the perspective of the script reader at the production company/BBC writersroom, there just aren't enough gags per page in the first ten pages, or too much time's spent building up the monster that the plot arc suffers.
    Not expressing myself very well here, and I think that as I write I'm telling myself the answer: balance. And get the big things in quick.

  2. Great characters always seems much larger than life I think. You touched on this in an earlier post, about giving them very clearly defined goals etc.

    I wrote about the idea fof sociopaths being compelling characters here: http://www.simondunn.me.uk/?p=537

  3. Ooh, just thought of another amazing character who is in this area - Gregory House MD. He's just jaw-droppingly pushy and awkward...