Friday, 21 October 2016

My (spoiler-free) thoughts on Class 1.1 "For Tonight We Might Die" by Patrick Ness (2016)

Warning: There are no substantial spoilers here, but if you don't want to know anything about the plot, look away. Additionally, if you're coming here with the confirmation bias of looking forward to finding out how rubbish this TV series is, please just go away, because this isn't the blog post you're looking for.

Yesterday I went to the World Premiere of the first episode of a new TV drama for BBC3, Class, written and created by the multi-award-winning, highly acclaimed Young Adult novelist Patrick Ness. As is I think relatively well signposted by now, I'm quite a big Doctor Who fan (the blog might've given this away). But I'm also - and have been for about 8 years - a huge Patrick Ness fan. To my shame, I haven't actually read everything he's written, though I've read 5 of his novels. My great fondness for Patrick, and why Class is a personal show for me in a way that Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and - funnily enough - even Doctor Who aren't, stems from an event in 2009 which I'm going to have to briefly talk about before I get to the meat of this post. If you want to skip to me talking about the premiere, go down a few paragraphs, but, well, it's my blog so I'm going to give this context if I want to, and it'll probably flow better as a read if you don't skip it.

The London School of Economics ran a short story writing competition in 2008-9 for school pupils. I think it was only London-wide, though I can't quite recall now. I entered a short story called "Last One on the Ice", part eulogy to, and part invective on behalf of, the final polar bear in existence once we humans have finished messing up the planet. Except I was 13, so didn't actually know the words eulogy or invective (though you can read the story here on the blog, if you want to read something I wrote when I was 13). But at any rate, the way the competition worked was everyone who had entered was invited to the ceremony at LSE, where to keep the suspense as high as possible they announced the top 10 "commended" pieces, 3 of which were the "highly commended" - in effect, the winners, who got a raft of free books and a year's correspondence with the novelist Ali Smith as their prize. Those who had been picked by the authors on the panel (one of whom was Patrick, whose novel The Knife of Never Letting Go was nominated for the Carnegie Award that year). After they whittled down the 7 "commended"s I knew I was done for, as I didn't have a hope in hell of being one of the 3 winners, so just settled back to enjoy the ceremony. To my shock, Patrick announced my story as the one he'd picked. It remains one of my most enduring, positive memories. This crazy, silly writing gig had promise. It had been endorsed. By a real writer with real things to say. It wasn't just some lame hobby. And to meet him afterwards, however briefly, had such a profound impact on my development and what I went on to read and write that I can't really imagine what things would have been like without that moment.

This brings us to Patrick Ness as he is today, with his new film A Monster Calls about to hit screens across the globe, and his new TV series Class about to start going up on BBC3. That the guy has made it big time (or, rather, even bigger time than in 2009) and that he has entered the Doctor Who world means a lot to me. So there wasn't a chance in hell I was going to miss this premiere, and the opportunity to meet him again (after the occasional message on his website or Tweet). I duly entered the prize draw and was surprised at my luck once again when I won 2 tickets. The guy I took with me was an old friend from when I lived in Croydon in South London, Ads. He's one of my most inspiring friends, achieving a heck of a lot in the face of adversity. He has had a tough old uphill struggle in life: moving out to Germany at 18 and back here in the last months when that didn't work out, and he's been looking for work ever since and finally found himself a new job; ever since a steel girder fell on his leg a few years ago, the nerves in his legs have slowly been getting more and more painful and he can't walk without a walking aid. I can't pretend to understand what it feels like to be on that many steroids and painkillers, to be in that much pain when you stand or walk. But I damn well wanted him to be here at this event, and though it took quite a lot of organising, we pulled it off.

So here we were - in Shoreditch, London, outside the Rich Mix venue in Bethnal Green, where the fans were already starting to queue up. The staff there were impeccable: realizing that there was no way Ads could possibly queue up for tickets, they waved us in (I'd have been happy to queue by myself for both our tickets, but they wouldn't hear of it). We waited around till about 5ish, I think, which is when all the really exciting people started turning up: Brian Minchin (Executive Producer on Class and Doctor Who), Derek Ritchie (producer on Class and Doctor Who) and soon enough, the cast themselves - Sophie Hopkins (April), Fady Elsayed (Ram), Vivian Oparah (Tanya), Shannon Murray (Jackie) and Jordan Renzo (Matteusz). Greg Austin, who plays Charlie, and Katherine Kelly, who plays Miss Quill, couldn't be there, unfortunately, though there were plenty of other stars - Blair Mowat, who does the music, Ed Bazalgette, who directed the first 3 episodes, and of course Patrick Ness himself (who doesn't seem to have aged a day, by the way). We were ushered upstairs to where free popcorn and drinks were waiting to be taken with us into the cinema (there were various screens, actually, meaning there were more attendees at the event than I expected).

And before long we were sat in the cinema as the lights dimmed and Class Episode 1.1, For Tonight We Might Die, began (with Steven Moffat, exec producer/lead writer on Doctor Who and Sherlock and all-round wonderful writer standing casually at the back rather than nabbing one of the VIP seats!). The bit you're waiting for: my thoughts. What clearly excites Patrick most about Class, and what excited me most on the whole, is the way it takes a little corner of the Doctor Who universe and expands it, does new things with it. Makes it deeper and richer. In this regard Class succeeds wonderfully, taking the familiar setting of Coal Hill School (swishly and MichaelGovely updated to Coal Hill Academy) and telling its story - the story of its inhabitants, the ordinary students on Earth the Doctor leaves behind, and how they cope with the pains and pleasures of growing up whilst also, y'know, defending the Earth against murderous shadow creatures. The overall Buffy-ness of it is clear, and it's particularly clear in the opening 10 minutes or so. How many Buffy episodes (most famously, but not just, Episode 1, "Welcome to the Hellmouth") opened with a creepy pre-titles sequence at night that resulted in someone being brutally dispatched, before cutting to a sunny shot of Sunnydale High School right after the title sequence? Just so here: it feels like deliberate homage.

As For Tonight We Might Die goes on, however, it feels less and less like Buffy and more like its own thing. Part of that is the fast pace, which dispenses with too many character intro scenes and plunges us straight into things mid-term: work it out as you go along seems to be the motto. Another key part is the uniqueness of Charlie and Miss Quill. I won't go too far into their backstory, because although some fans will know about this, others won't, and I don't want to ruin things. But suffice to say it is *nothing like* the Buffy-Giles relationship (though however intentional, the gender reversal of mentor-and-student there is neat). These are two people who don't remotely like each other, but are forced into a co-dependent existence by a quirk of fate, and a dash of tragic backstory. Their dynamic is complex and yet wonderfully done, and it'll be a highlight of the coming series to see how their two roles develop and dovetail. Katherine Kelly is magnificent as Miss Quill: you usually understand where she's coming from, then on a dime she'll twist round and do something horribly cruel. And then she'll gain your trust back from you. And then lose it again. She'll be a fan favourite, I suspect. Greg Austin is strong as Charlie, too, last of an alien species and hiding here on Earth, and his backstory is very nicely rendered, with some lovely CGI and a nicely-handled setting up of the arc plot. This feels the most unique aspect of the story, and brings a welcome new concept to the world of Doctor Who (and, really, to the modus operandi of the Doctor: of course he rescues war survivors and asylum seekers and settles them somewhere else, and to hell with the local rules).

If these two characters form the backbone of the unnatural elements of the narrative, though, it's Sophie Hopkins' April who anchors us in the real world. I'm not remotely biased because she's incredibly beautiful - of course not - but I genuinely thought Hopkins was the best of the young performers. April is a lonely, vulnerable, but very kind-hearted figure, caring for her paraplegic mother (Shannon Murray) and trying to juggle organising the school prom at the same time. The closest Buffy analogy in terms of the archetype would be Willow, though in truth she's not really like Willow at all: she's more like Buffy herself. Her character is the story's heart, in many ways, though it's not as though others don't also get their fair share of this role: her scenes with her mother, among others, are warmly, tenderly written, and feel like Ness on very strong home ground. In this opening episode, Vivian Oparah as Tanya and Fady Elsayed as Ram maybe get slightly less to do (though Ram goes through a traumatic second half), but both acquit themselves very well, and we know Episodes 2 and 3 are specifically centred around them. What I think is interesting though is that different people will very much relate to the different leads in their own way: I know some will empathise most with Ram or Tanya, others with Charlie or April, maybe others with Matteusz (who plays Charlie's Polish boyfriend, and a terrifically funny presence he is too).

In classic Buffy fashion, Episode 1 sets up the Big Bad, has them turn up and be quite threatening, and sends them packing with the promise that we will see them again in the series finale (in the meantime, we'll meet a few monsters of the week as we go through the coming episodes; the creature in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo looks set to cause a few nightmares). The baddies in question are the Shadow Kin, led by their leader, Corakinus: visually and narratively, they work well, and they're an imposing, Pyrovile-like presence, though it'll be good to see more of them in an episode that doesn't have to do as much heavy lifting as this one. Let's just say they're not averse to ruthlessly dispatching characters you might like, though, and nor is the camera afraid to linger on the blood (almost jolting my friend out of his seat at one juncture).

There is, of course, a small matter of the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), who turns up to deliver zinger after zinger (did I mention it's a fantastically funny script?), and just generally be marvellous for about 10 minutes before zipping off again. It's a risky move in some ways, having him turn up in Episode 1 then leave, but it also makes complete sense in terms of luring people in and then hoping the general strength of the rest of the show means they stick around (if the series preview we got to see at the end of Ep 1 is anything to go by, they will - far better than the TV trailers). Capaldi gets some lovely lines and lovely moments (including a tiny tiny nod to a former Coal Hill School teacher, though I'll say no more), and it's a joy to see him back on our screens. His rapport with the young'uns reminds me of his bantering with Ashildr (Maisie Williams) and works similarly well: the wise old man of the universe and these vivacious youths. In fact that's something the whole story is bursting with: vivacious youth. The title itself spells that out. You might die at any point, Class tells the teenagers watching, so live well - as April puts it, "die by yourself or die at a party". Class encourages us (like Philip Larkin did) to be kind to one another,/while there is still time, and presents characters who are strengthened by their bonds to others (quite literally, in some ways - there's a lot of codependence going on). It's emotionally true in a way I recall Torchwood being very, very rarely, and certainly not in its first season or in episodes not by Catherine Tregenna.

Patrick is writing for today's teenagers about today's world, of course, and that means showing the world as it is. Too often writers get ragged on for "box-ticking", as though including a diverse range of characters - black, white, gay, straight, bi, disabled, and so on - was somehow a false representation of the world, a distorting to make it more colourful than it is. As we know, the opposite is the case: Shoreditch, London? One of the most metropolitan parts of the world? No, you're greying things out if you want it all straightforwardly white and middle-class and straight, and Patrick is unafraid to chuck that silly idea out of the window and give us some strong diversity representation. Ads was particularly happy to see Shannon Murray as Jackie, of course, presented with such emotional honesty that doesn't bang you over the head with it. It is this wonderful sense of inclusion that makes Class so good: it feels open-hearted and ready to embrace anyone of any demographic who wants to watch it. "It's for you all", Patrick says, and he's right.

After the screening, we had the exciting opportunity of listening to the Q&A (though mostly questions you've heard before, some of what Patrick said about diversity was great - changing the world by pretending it's already changed, etc.) and mingling with cast and crew. This was the cool bit, as I'd expected I wouldn't get within a million miles of most of those people, yet here we were quite casually drinking together! We got all kinds of cool free stuff (photos with the Coal Hill background, advance signed copies of the 3 tie-in novels not released till the 27th, etc), and best of all got to meet everyone. I can't express how lovely everyone was. You hear about that at screenings, and you think that's all talk. It really, really isn't: everyone was an utter delight. Ads couldn't stand up long enough to make it over to speak to anyone, but without exception they would come over to speak to him. Vivian Oparah, Fady Elsayed and Sophie Hopkins are all incredibly charming and likeable (and Sophie signed the book for me as "Dearest Tom", which was almost too much. Breathe). I remember seeing Fady squatting down to chat to my mate Ads and feeling my heart swell with pride; the same again when he got to chat to Shannon Murray about disability representation. These are good people, making great stuff. We're very lucky. Derek Ritchie was a pleasure to meet (and I ended up holding his glass of wine for him for a few minutes, rather inexplicably), as were Brian Minchin, Ed Bazalgette, AK Benedict, and various others. And, of course, my old inspiration Patrick Ness, who somehow remembered me and made a quip about polar bears (even saying I should put one in this review!), and who was brilliant at encouraging both me and Ads along with our own writing and thanking us for what we're doing. He thanked us for our writing. Can't get over this.

Meeting Steven Moffat was probably the highlight of the night, though: I burbled something about being unoriginal in that I wanted to thank him for his writing, and then mentioned he was coming to the Oxford Union in a few weeks ("oh, yes, no idea what I'm going to say," he said), and that I was looking forward to seeing him there. "Oh, you're one of the clever people", he commented (the writer of Blink and Heaven Sent said that to me. Yes, really. Mind blown). And when I asked him to sign a Class tie-in novel for Ads as I knew he wasn't able to come over and ask Steven himself, Steven was adamant about going over and meeting him personally and just sharing a laugh with him - an absolute gent, and I think it made my friend's year, it really did.

This is a rather exhausting, mad stream-of-consciousness article, but I think that conveys how exciting it all was, how humbling and wonderful to meet all these fantastic people behind this show. I think you're going to love it, I really do. Roll on Saturday.

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