Thursday, 17 February 2011


Creative Writing and the art of 'Show, don't tell'

Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, know what I mean, son.

In the middle of what can only be described as a chaotic script workshop a couple of weeks ago - by turns wildly enthusiastic and blankly confused, we came up against what seems to be the single greatest revelation for an audience new to script-writing: it’s not all about the dialogue.
I’d stood back as impossible ideas flew round the room. No, we weren’t re-making The Matrix, as for re-creating Mock The Week, feasible, but hacking out tired and bitchy clichés to order probably wasn’t going to be that rewarding either. Or achieve the end result the group wanted. This lot were buzzing with the possibility that their experiences could be communicated to a wider audience. But it couldn't be all about the words.
Struggling to think of a rock-solid example to make the point for the next session, I settled on one of the greatest wordless denouements in film history. If there’s a finer example of the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’ than the final scene of the 1980 gangster flick The Long Good Friday, I can’t think of it; a moment of acting genius from Bob Hoskins in his first leading role as Thatcherite entrepreneur and old-school villain, Harold Shand. By this point in the story we’ve had guns, explosions, bent coppers and car chases; we’ve had smart lines and Charlie from Casualty getting it in the neck, but how to end?
Night. Rain. Outside the Savoy. Shand’s chauffeur-driven car is waiting. He waves it over, gets in the back and the car pulls away, sharply, jerking him back in his seat. He complains: 'Hold up, where's Victoria?' Then, he is silent. A gunman in the front passenger emerges and aims a silenced automatic at him.  We see Shand’s expression turn from uncertainty to understanding. We see defiance turn to acceptance and finally settle on the crushing realisation of the fate that awaits him. All from the back seat of a Daimler and without another word spoken.
So, if Sir Hoskins ever gets the nod for a BAFTA fellowship, instead of stringing a series of clunky tribute clips together, skip it. I reckon this gets it said.

A few years ago, there was talk of a US remake of The Long Good Friday. The rights to the film had been bought by ‘There Will Be Blood’ director Paul Thomas Anderson. Oh, and did I mention it was to be set in Miami. At that point, visions of Sly Stallone and Don Johnson came to mind and I blacked out. Nothing heard since.  


  1. A brilliant ending - Hoskins' own moment mirrored by the audiences - not an easy trick to pull. Now, let's see the creative writers of these parts rise to the challenge!

  2. A landmark film for British cinema and one which was so nearly destined only to be shown on ITV as a mini series. TLGF kick started a dead industry in the UK. Hoskins performance is flawless. When will directors and writers learn that sometime less is far more than enough.

  3. Worse still, there was a move to dub Hoskins' dialogue for the US market, which if I remember rightly ended in a court case with the thespian Lords Olivier, Geilgud & Guiness claiming the move would ruin the young actor's career.

    In the event, Newsweek said Hoskins was: '...a terrific actor...a cockney Edward G Robinson.'