Is blogging really the stuff of great drama?
First it was Diary of a Call Girl. Now Sirens, based on a blog by a paramedic, has made the transition from web to screen.
Thursday 23 June 2011
It's partly Taxi and it's partly Taxi Driver", says Hal Vogel, executive producer of Sirens, at risk of overselling his new Channel 4 comedy drama about the (mis)adventures of a London ambulance team – EMTs, or Emergency Medical Technicians, as they're known in the trade. They're paramedics, in other words, so what's that got to do with taxis?
Try asking an ambulance driver, who feel they're more often used as a cab service than a highly skilled emergency service. In fact, no need to ask them, because their views have been well represented by a popular blog, Random Acts of Reality, which has since been turned into a book (or "blook", according to a particularly horrible neologism), Blood, Sweat and Tea. Sirens is the new TV drama based on that blog/book.
Random Acts of Reality was one of the first of what has become an internet phenomenon – the so-called "frontline blogs" that catalogued the everyday realities of people working in (usually) the public sector. Doctors, policemen, social workers and even diplomatic wives have created them, and Brian Kellett, under the pseudonym Tom Reynolds, began his back in 2003 because, he tells me with cheerful honesty, "I was reading other bloggers and saw that they were having a whale of a time. Later on I realised that the writing was helping me to become a better practitioner – you really start to examine everything around you rather than be a passive observer".
Kellett soon acquired a large following for his wryly disenchanted accounts of tending to drunks, pranksters, time-wasters, more drunks, the odd dead dog ("we were called out to dispose of it") and even the occasional person requiring genuine first aid. But it wasn't until he appeared on Radio 4's Start the Week that Old Media sat up and took notice. "I was approached by three publishers", says Kellett, "but two of them had to ask what a blog was". This was back in 2005.
The other interested party was The Friday Project, a "blook publisher" that made a name for itself for putting web-originated material into print, before succumbing to their debts in 2007 and being subsumed by HarperCollins. They turned Kellett's blog into two volumes of Blood, Sweat and Tea, the film rights for which were optioned by Hal Vogel of Daybreak Pictures, makers of Channel 4's recent Palestine drama The Promise. Vogel himself (the stepson of former home secretary John Reid) has chiefly been responsible for TV's canon of satirical political dramas about New Labour, the likes of The Trial of Tony Blair, A Very Social Secretary and Confessions of a Diary Secretary.
"We had been making political dramas and we decided we wanted to do something on the health service", he says. "I heard Tom on the radio being very wry and irreverent about his experiences as an ambulance driver and it struck me that his tone and those kinds of misadventures of a lowly figure in the health service were very interesting."
As Vogel admits, Kellett's experiences have lost something of their edge – some of their low-level political anger – in the transition to a breezy and very modern-feeling post-watershed show starring Kayvan Novak, one of the British jihadists in Chris Morris's Four Lions, and Rhys Thomas from Bellamy's People. It's a workplace comedy-drama in the Channel 4 mould of Teachers and No Angels. "It's more about the dysfunctional aspect of who they are as people rather than the heroic aspect of who they are as professionals", he says. "Just like the teachers in Teachers were in fact the unruly schoolchildren."
Sirens, he claims, has anyway more in common with American shows such as the Denis Leary post-9/11 fireman drama, Rescue Me. Writer Brian Fillis (The Curse of Steptoe; Fear of Fanny), whose job it was to turn the blog into a script, also recalls being told to look at Breaking Bad as a model. "The blog is fantastic source material because Brian Kellett is so funny and caustically witty with the lunacies of the NHS system", says Fillis. "But it's an awful lot of incidents – and I had to develop a life and give him a take that's new and add something to merely the incidents of someone working in the NHS".
And there's the nub. Do blogs make good screen dramas? Can a series of random incidents be turned into a coherent story with characters the viewer cares about? Blogs may, as Vogel puts it, "parachute you into the sharp end of the human condition", but what do they do with the human condition once they've landed there?
The pioneering example of a transition from work blog to TV drama is Secret Diary of a Call Girl, based on the Belle de Jour escapades written pseudonymously by American-born research scientist (and one-time student hooker) Brooke Magnanti, whose identity was only revealed in 2009. Starring erstwhile Doctor Who companion Billie Piper in an endless variety of lingerie, and reviled by feminists for glamorising prostitution, Secret Diary ran for four series and is a big cable hit in the States. But was it any good? Or to put it another way – what did it reveal about sexual peccadillos that couldn't be revealed by a cursory trawl though the worldwide web?
The drama of Belle's romantic life, the stuff that was supposed to make us care about her, was standard-issue will-the-job-win-over-love fare, which probably wasn't anyway the primary reason that most people were watching it. A far more entertaining transition from blogosphere to screen was the 2009 Nora Ephron film Julie & Julia, which stars Amy Adams as New York blogger Julie Powell chronicling her plan to cook all 524 recipes from the cookbook of chef Julia Childs (played by Meryl Streep) in one year. But even here Ephron recognised that to make it work as a drama she had to blend the blog with both Childs's culinary autobiography, My Life in France, and the back-story of Powell's marriage.
Any drama made from a blog has to have a journey at its core, says Fillis, which is what he had to invent for ambulance driver Stuart in Sirens, the character who most resembles blogger Kellett. "I had to develop a life and add something to merely the incidents of someone working in the NHS", says Fillis. "Stuart's journey begins where, because of his job, he cannot stop seeing his fellow human beings as higher primates."
Another chap who can't stop seeing his fellow female human beings as higher primates is Tucker Max, the author of the online "fratire" (tongue-in-cheek counterweight to chick-lit) I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which was turned into a film that didn't have the courage of the blog's odious attitude to womankind. Elsewhere in Hollywood, Columbia Pictures is turning the Pioneer Woman blog, about how an LA resident ended up in Oklahoma with the cowboy of her dreams, into a Reese Witherspoon rom-com. And Lotte Mullan's blog about being an intern in the music industry – described by its producer as "The Devil Wears Prada meets Bridget Jones's Diary " (funny how Helen Fielding's fictional singleton always crops up in relation to blogs) – has had its film rights snapped up.
But that's about the extent of it. And it seems likely that there won't be many more now, because the publishing industry, and by extension the film industry, has fallen out of love with the blogosphere. Kellett is now working on a novel (the inevitable fate of all successful bloggers?) while it's interesting to note that the blogs that have been turned into dramas all date from the early-to-mid Noughties. Yesterday's modish technology has made way for today's. Surely the first Twitter-based drama (a "Twama" – let me mint it now) surely can't be that far away.
'Sirens' begins on Monday at 10pm on Channel 4
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Emily Benet began her blog in 2008, while working in her mother's chandelier shop in south London. By the following year, the blog had been published as book. A musing on literary ambition and chintzy light fittings, 'Shop Girl Diaries' has got Hollywood and Anne Hathaway written all over it.
Catherine Sanderson's blog of a young English woman at large in Paris – quickly dubbed "Bridget Jones in France" – got her sacked from her job at a firm of chartered accountants when her cover was blown. V bad. Has since written the book of the blog, and a plum role awaits Keira Knightley, or an actor with comic timing.
Night Jack – an English Detective
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