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William Shatner in The Twilight Zone episode &...

William Shatner in The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Good news for fans of the horror-comedy anthology series this month: Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are working on a new series for BBC2, and In The Gloaming is returning with a new episode to the Leicester Square Theatre at the end of October. Admittedly, those two pieces of news might not have quite the same impact, but with the success of last year’s Black Mirror, it’s a hopeful sign that the horror-comedy anthology series might be on the way back.

It’s a format that, just a couple of years ago, seemed irretrievably lost. In the arc-heavy, densely-plotted world of television of the 2000s, the idea that you wouldn’t continue a story from week to week seemed like a quaint anachronism, one of things you were able to do in television’s infancy, but that had been superseded, like a clock to count you down to the programme’s start or actors who hadn’t eaten worms in a jungle.

Shows that were held up as the epitome of the new storytelling – 24, Lost, Heroes – had taken the twist ending to beloved of anthology shows, but used it to drive you into next week’s episode, rather than nastily rounding things off for the audience and trusting they’d come back for more. The showrunner who seemed to be the most direct descendant of Rod Serling – J.J. Abrams – was held up as an example of why shows like The Twilight Zone just weren’t feasible any more.

The 1990s saw revivals of The Outer LimitsThe Twilight Zone, and the creation of Tales From The Crypt in the US. In Britain we had Murder Most Horrid, which ran for four series and won a British Comedy Award, but it pretty much stood alone*. Hammer House Of Horror and Tales Of The Unexpected had given up the ghost, and there was nothing to fill their shoes.

There were a couple of attempts to revive the format in the early 2000s. It’s diffiocult to know whether or not to count Dr Terrible’s House Of Horrible as a proper horror-comedy anthology series because it’s a spoof. The jokes come mainly from the way in which they parody actual anthology series (and lots of knob gags), rather than from the stories themselves.

It’s difficult not to drift into spoof sometimes, though. Particularly in its titles, Murder Most Horrid often made fun of the conventions of the murder-mystery. The League Of Gentlemen Christmas Special (much like The Simpsons‘ Treehouse Of Horror series) are all the more effective for having a stock bag of horror cliches to play with.

In In The Gloaming we made a conscious effort to avoid spoof, but sometimes the comedy relies on your awareness of the genre, and your audience’s awareness of the genre.  Even so, listening back, there’s one joke in ‘Dead Skinny’ that only works as a take on the old ‘disappearing shop’ bit (and which, in retrospect, The Simpsons also mocked in their ‘Monkey’s Paw’ episode.)

Reece Shearsmith as Papa Lazarou.

Reece Shearsmith as Papa Lazarou. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The third series of The League of Gentlemen was a comedy-horror anthology series, tied together with the motif of the crashing van, and it was an interesting development from the more sketchy format of the first two series. BBC Three also had a go at the format with Spine Chillers, which I never saw (2003 was something of a ‘lost year’ for me. I am reasonably reliably informed that it was much like 2002 and 2004).

And that was pretty much it for a decade. Not only was it not attempted, but it was thought of as impossible.

I first developed In the Gloaming as a series of shorts for Comedybox in 2007/8. When that inevitably went the way of all sites that were producing internet comedy (and not allowing you to embed the videos) during 2008 that was one of the projects that sank with it.

After doing Tonightly I reworked it as a television pitch, and took it to a few TV production companies in the autumn of 2008. Everyone thought it would be far too expensive (which may well have been a nice way of saying, “We saw Tonightly. No thank you.”) and it wasn’t the sort of thing anyone was looking for.

At around the same time I went to a BAFTA screening of Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set, which had a Q&A after it. At that, he mentioned that he was working in something like Tales Of The Unexpected. I gave a grim chuckle. Horror anthology series seemed dead in the water. (Which would be an episode where a businessman in a yacht rescues a drowning man far out at sea, only to discover that he’s his exact doppleganger…)

There was a place, of course, for the anthology series. On the radio. BBC Radio Seven (what is now Four Extra) had revived The Man In Black with none other than Mark Gatiss in the titular role. So, in 2009, we decided to do In The Gloaming as a series of audio podcasts. We had great casts (Michael Greco, Lizzie Roper, Darren Strange, Ruth Bratt, John Voce, Rachel Stubbings), and we won some awards, but, for too many reasons to list here, we only managed to do four episodes.

Fast forward two years: Black Mirror is filming its second seriesHappy Endings will be coming out next year, and there are brand new episode of In The Gloaming  live in London.

It’s a great time to be a horror-comedy fan.

And I can finally use the sign-off line I never dared use on any of the podcasts:

“You won’t know whether to piss yourself or shit yourself.”

Good night. Mhwah ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaa!

* Incidentally, my father-in-law played a Chinnery-esque butcher in an episode of Murder Most Horrid. You can see him here:

Two years ago we released the first of the In The Gloaming podcasts, for Hallowe’en 2009. Our original plan was to make six. We got to four. (If you want a list of some of the many things we did wrong, I wrote a long post-mortem here. In fact, if you’re podcasting it is full of useful Dos and Donts. Mainly Donts.)

However, I got to work making half-hour horror comedies with some incredibly talented people. The casts included: Ruth Bratt, Michael Greco, Lizzie Roper, John Voce, John Hopkins, Zoe S Battley, Darren Strange, Sally Chattawa, Emma Powell, and Rachel Stubbings). I got to make one of those people wail “But these are my Beppe shoes!”

Anyway, because nothing is never truly dead on the Internet, and because it’s Hallowe’en, why not download one (or four), and have a creepy, funny Samhain? The Archive with all of the episodes is here. And then tell your friends.

In fact, don’t even bother to do that. Just click down there and start listening right now. Just click. DO what the creepy man says and click. What could possibly go wrong? After all, it’s Hallowe’en…

In The Gloaming may be a corpse, but it’s an animated one.

Sort of.

(Oh, I also have a short story in this month’s issue of Black Static, Britain’s foremost horror magazine, available at all good newsagents. End plug.)

OK. Two things.

First the anthology in which I have a story is running a competition. If you explain why I would be the ideal companion in the event of a zombie attack, you could win a prize. So, you could go and do that if you’ve got an extremely good imagination, or believe that an uncanny ability to fashion puns that refer to obscure sexual acts will be a skill that will come in handy when the undead rise from their graves and march upon their living to crack open their skulls and feast on the tasty innards.

Second, the big show at the Brighton Fringe Festival is tomorrow evening. If you haven’t already, I urge you to buy tickets now. Because if lots of people buy them then I can stop posting messages about the show on social networks and actually learn some skills which might come in useful in the event of a zombie-based apocalyptic event.

I could learn tae-kwon-do. I probably won’t, but I could. Or rifle shooting. Or how to fashion a shelter out of twigs and hedgehog turd. The newfound free time might just enable me to become the perfect companion in times of zombie attack.

Whatever. Think about it.

Creepy Tales Of Now

Yesterday, the details for my show in the Brighton Festival, In The Gloaming, were released to the world. It’s a stage adaptation of our award-winning podcasts, and will be a horror-comedy hoot.

You can’t buy tickets yet, unless you’re a friend of Brighton Fringe, but the details are all here. There’s also a Facebook event page here, where you can sign up, and I’ll keep you posted about when tickets go on sale, and things.

If you’re in the Brighton area in May do come along, I’d love to see you there! Even if you’re not, why not come over especially?

Here’s the review I got for the show from the West Sussex Gazette last year:

“IF YOU like your comedy as dark and bitter as the purest black chocolate then In The Gloaming will be just to your taste… The one-man show at the Arundel Festival, written and performed by the genius that is Nathaniel Tapley, is rich with black humour – but so strong that many maiden aunts, and even some who are a little worldly wise, might find themselves shocked into an early grave. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Death is a recurring theme as Mr Tapley relives some of his finest monthly podcasts which have won a cult following on the internet and beyond. But religion, politics, murder, and perversion of all types have the spotlight shone upon them as Mr Tapley recalls ghosts of the past to narrate their shocking tales. Mr Tapley is an extraordinarily skilled actor and polished writer with a gimlet wit – but unlike many comedians there is nothing reassuringly safe about his material. Michael McIntyre he is not.” The West Sussex Gazette

In September the In The Gloaming podcasts won the Parsec Award for Best New Podcaster. We jumped around like victorious loons for a few seconds, until we remembered that we hadn’t made a new episode since March.  And that we had no upcoming episodes in the pipelines.

To the outside observer In The Gloaming looked cold and dead, and only we knew there was still a flicker of humanity inside just waiting for the right time to blossom. It felt like being Nick Clegg.

There were lots of reasons that we hadn’t been able to do as many episodes as we’d hoped. People’s schedules clashed, they got work or didn’t get work at the wrong times, we weren’t getting as many downloads as we might have hoped (the episodes had been listened to about 6,500 times at that point). However, most of the reasons we weren’t able to churn them out on a monthly basis were self-inflicted, and could have been avoided with a little thought early on in the process.

So, here are my tips about what NOT to do, if you want to make an audio drama podcast of your own:

Don’t bother making audio trailers – One of the first groups of people to be interested in what we were doing was one comprised of people who were doing the same sort of thing. People like 19 Nocturne Boulevard or Wormwood. And they often wanted to swap audio trailers, little snippets that could be stuck on the end of another show to spread the word. We never bothered to make these because we were too busy making the shows themselves, and thought they probably wouldn’t be worth the time in the number of new listeners they brought to us. We were wrong. There is a very small group of people used to listening to new audio dramas as podcasts. Get them involved from the beginning. Be generous with your time and effort with other podcast producers. Trying to forge the path completely on your own is hard and lonely. These are people who would like to advertise your podcast for free. Let them.

Be half an hour long – This was, in some ways, an intentional error. Part of the point of In The Gloaming was to prove that we could make half hour shows of radio quality. We wanted people’s response to be ‘This should be on the radio’, and to prove that it was ready to be. However, people often split up their listening to a podcast, catching a few minutes on their way into work, so broken shows work well. Narrative comedies that require unbroken attention (including any magnificent aural soundscapes you may create) ask a lot of the listener, and finding half an hour to listen to an episode (forgoing half an hour of television or proper radio or actual interaction with other humans) can be difficult. It suited our purposes, but it was far from ideal for in Internet show. If you’re planning on doing audio dramas or narrative comedies, why not think about ten- or fifteen-minute episodes? They will be easier for people to find the time to listen to.

Don’t have a business plan This isn’t quite true. We had a plan, it just wasn’t a hugely good one. It was (as I outlined above) Get Picked Up By The BBC. When that didn’t materialise the next obvious option was to look for a sponsor. However, those things we’d designed to make it more like a radio show made it less effective on The Internet, and so we didn’t have the subscriber numbers we needed to get a sponsor. We had a little income from the tip jar – enough to cover the podcast hosting – and we had a merchandising site, but nothing people wanted to buy on it. There were successful revenue streams: live shows, signed scripts, etc. However, by the time we had worked out how to fund the shows, we had stalled on producing them for long enough that the momentum was gone. The lesson here is: at least have an idea how you’re going to make enough money to cover your costs, and always implement your business plan quickly. You may well have a number of people willing to support you financially, so give them a way in which they can. Speaking of which:

Fail to make the things people want to buy – In our case: CDs. We’ve had lots of requests for CDs. People want to give them as gifts, people who aren’t au fait with downloading, people who want to show their support. There has been constant demand for CDs of the episodes. I did try to get this set up at one point, using Lulu, but found that they made all their CDs in the US, and then shipped them to England making them hugely expensive (even though we were only charging $4.00 each for them). I then wanted to add some audio liner notes to each one, a little extra that wasn’t available on the website, but never got around to recording them. The fact that there was no UK service that would do what we wanted and that I couldn’t be bothered to fulfil orders myself meant that we missed out on the one revenue stream that seemed promising.

Underestimate the amount of time it will take – Each In The Gloaming took a few days to write, a day to record, and two or three days to edit. That’s at least a full work week out of every month. When you’ve got children (or, you know, a job) that’s just not feasible. Perhaps we’ll do them quarterly in future, but monthly doesn’t seem like we can do it at all.

Post irregularly – We started with a monthly schedule, but soon got bogged down with diary incompatibilities, and just the sheer amount of work it was. The fact that we couldn’t be relied upon to produce podcasts every month meant that a lot of the momentum we started with dissipated. Set yourself a schedule and stick to it. Don’t stick to two-thirds of it. Stick to it, no matter how difficult it is. Then sit back, learn lessons, and plan Season 2.

Don’t collect emails – We never had an email list or any promotion beyond writing a blog. This is silly. Do better than us.

Don’t allow embedding – It took us six months to find a service that allowed easy embedding and sharing of mp3s on Twitter and Facebook. We went for a paid service that was not as good as what we could have got from WordPress, and didn’t offer the stats or functionality. We’re now faced with the rubbish options of continuing to use a (paid) service that isn’t as good as other ones or to change the website RSS feed, and risk losing all of the subscribers who are attached to the old feed. Do your research about how you’re going to distribute your podcast before you set up a standing order…

Basic, fundamental errors. Tonnes of them. We couldn’t have been more dim if we’d just dribbled into the Internet whilst smashing ourselves in the face with a flat-iron.

However, we’ve had more than 100 downloads a week, every week, for more than a year. We were asked to perform at the World Horror Convention 2010. It’s led to other bits of work, and to the selling of some of the short stories written for the site. The live show is getting a full run in the Brighton Festival next year (Friday 13th May, for those who want to book tickets). We’ve won awards. And we’ve got a producer attached, who’s making an In The Gloaming feature film, which should be out next year.

That’s how not to do it. Go and do better…

And a lamp

The Parsec Award for Best New Podcaster 2010

In The Gloaming just won the Parsec Award for Best New Podcaster 2010. The live show we did in Arundel also got excellent reviews last month. So, I’ll be performing it again as part of Theatre Souk tonight and tomorrow.

Theatre Souk is an innovative ‘pay-what-you-want’ set of shows and cabaret acts at Theatre Delicatessen (nr Bond St), so you only pay for what you like. I may well go home empty-handed… Anyway, if you’d like to come I’d love to see you there. I’ve got a couple of free tickets for each night, email me if you’d like them.

Yes, I know that title doesn’t really work. But bear with me…

For the last couple of days, David Mamet’s advice to writers on The Unit has been bounced approvingly around writers’ blogs (I refuse to use the absurd appellation ‘Scribosphere’ – it makes writers sound like 22nd-century content production droids, memeing out ultragigs of infotasms and authotainment from the factory pods floating in their translucent scribosphere).

In it he gives fairly standard advice in a typical pithy fashion. He also gets in a few good swipes at the ‘blue-suited penguins’ who are in charge of developing new television shows.

(This is actually true.  John Birt introduced a flock of emperor penguins into middle management at the BBC as part of a round of ‘efficiency savings’ in 1996. They quickly began to roost in the East Tower, leading to an unfortunate incident in which Ronnie Corbett was placed on a penguin’s feet, and sheltered from the cold weather for eight months until he had matured enough to survive on his own. This is why they are trying to sell TV Centre now. It is infested with penguins. Infested.)

Anyway, Mamet’s advice is good and well-expressed, and well worth a look if you’re interested in writing good drama. It contains things like this:

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TOOVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC,ACUTE GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

The best thing is that it’s all in CAPS LOCK, so it’s like he’s brought you into his office to TEAR YOU A NEW ASSHOLE, while at the same time distributing writing tips.

However, I’ve begun to suspect that that advice is very helpful if you’re writing drama, but not so helpful if you’re writing something else. Like comedy.

Earlier in the month I was working on a screenplay, and came to a scene that I loved. It was really, really funny. However, it didn’t really move the story on, didn’t tell us much about the characters that we didn’t know already, and was more of a comment about the drama that had already happened than being dramatic in its own right. So I pulled it out.

And the sequence was less funny as a result.

So now I’ve begun to think if maybe, as comedy writers, we don’t have a duty that trumps the need to write good, solid dramatic scenes. The duty to write funny things. Maybe people come to a comedy to be made to laugh, rather than to be compelled to watch every thrilling scene.

Try applying Mamet’s advice above to The Goon Show, or Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Although they do nominally have dramatic through-lines, the dramatic structure is an excuse to go and play with whatever they find funny.

This Is Spinal Tap has a weak move into its final act (Nigel Tufnell just turns up, there’s nothing that dramatically impels him to rejoin the band).  In Four Weddings And A Funeral it isn’t clear if Andi MacDowell has any needs, dramatic or otherwise, as her character is just to wander mysteriously in and out of the script as needed. What does Borat need?

Comedies are allowed to break the rules because they have one, higher rule: Be funny. As long as they fulfil that one we’ll forgive a lot.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to be gleaned from Mamet’s advice. A lot of comedy comes direct from the frustration of a character’s wants, needs, and desires, and the lengths to which we, as writers, will go to frustrate them. But we should also accept that there are other ways of getting laughs: silliness, visual jokes, musical numbers, and that the highest purpose of a comedy is to make people laugh.

(You’ll have to excuse all of the pompous talk of the ‘duty’ or ‘purpose’ of a writer. It consists, in my case, of sitting in a shed thinking up knob gags, so it’s nice to think of it as a little more noble than it might appear at first.)

I may be becoming unconscionably relaxed. I can see it in the In The Gloamings. In the first, Dead Skinny, we went through it at the script stage, and then in the edit, and took out everything that didn’t move the narrative along, no matter how funny I thought it was. The outtakes from that one are lovely.

By the time we reached this month’s A Grave Mistake, however, I was writing much simpler stories with more time to play, and leaving things in that were only there because they were funny. They may well be an unnecessary 10 seconds dramatically, but they make me laugh. And that’s what it’s meant to do. There is one two-second outtake from that one.

In the past I was the king of prick who demanded that each scene justify itself dramatically.  In the past, I was that Mamet-y glans.

See. Told you to bear with me…

The new episode of ITG is out. A very silly and quite horrible episode this month.

Starring: Ruth Bratt, Sally Chattaway, John Hopkins, Emma Powell, Lizzie Roper, Darren Strange, Nathaniel Tapley

Sound design & production: Raoul Brand

Written & directed: Nathaniel Tapley

Download this episode (right click and save)

For more In The Gloaming goodness go to the website or the podcast archive.

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