Jonathan Van-Tam might sound like some mullet-haired star of straight-to-video 80s action movies, but he’s actually England’s deputy chief medical officer. In his opinion – and how we’ve come to rely on the opinions of spotlight-relishing medical ‘experts’ of late – we can forget about a return to the old normal any time soon. Even with the Holy Grail of that miracle vaccine – which probably kills 99% of all household germs as well – we’ll still have to endure mask-wearing, social isolation and people without smiles for the foreseeable future. As with the ‘everything is racist’ narrative propagated by those for whom it provides a living, the likes of Jonathan Van-Tam would be pretty redundant it not for a pandemic; the longer this goes on, the better for him – along with all the others who have too much invested in the crisis to give it up. The world we’ve been forced to surrender this year officially ended the night Boris delivered his landmark address to the nation on 23 March. As endings go, it certainly had the requisite drama, only lacking the thunderous ‘Eastenders’ drums at the cliff-hanger to complete the picture. That was the end, beautiful friend.
I can think of better endings. ‘Michael Ellis’, for example – one of the few Monty Python episodes I was allowed to stay up and watch when it originally aired; dating from the final Python TV series in 1974, it was also one of the few in the series to feature a full-length story rather than a collection of unrelated sketches. Primarily set inside an old-fashioned department store, the episode focuses on Eric Idle and his quest to purchase a pet ant after becoming bored with the rest of his unconventional menagerie. With the closing credits appearing immediately after the opening titles this time round, the actual climax of the episode sees Terry Jones’ shop assistant offer Idle’s character a range of endings he can choose from; amongst the choices are a romantic stroll into the sunset, a slow fade-out, a dramatic chase to the ‘Dick Barton’ theme, or a sudden ending (which is the one that brings proceedings to an abrupt close). It’s a characteristically offbeat way of subverting the clichés of film and television as much as running the episode’s end credits barely a minute in.
Watching a lot of old – i.e. 1940s – movies lately, I noticed the refreshing absence of the kind of drawn-out contemporary credits that seem to go on forever when a film is over. In an old movie, you get all the details at the beginning and, bar the occasional brief cast-list, the end is just that – i.e. a caption that says ‘The End’; French films of the era say the same thing with the memorably brief ‘Fin’. I remember my mother telling me how her early cinema-going was marked by a stampede to the exit as soon as the last scene of a movie faded from the screen, basically to avoid the then-obligatory playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ that apparently had to be observed by those in attendance freezing on the spot. It shows how quickly films once drew to a close, for if today’s lengthy credits had been the norm then, everyone could have left the cinema in a leisurely fashion without fear of being trapped by the national anthem. I’m not sure at what point credits expanded to their current duration, though I do remember driving my parents mad as a child by insisting I sit through the credits of the latest Bond movie simply so I could learn the name of the next one, as they’d always finish with ‘James Bond will return in…’
Great endings to movies, such as (just to use a classic example) the big reveal in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ when Charlton Heston stumbles upon the ruined Statue of Liberty and realises he’s been on Earth all the time, are rarer than we imagine; TV series, certainly the episodic blockbusters of recent years, often don’t know how to end and go on way past their sell-by date – the likes of ‘Lost’, ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘The Affair’ and ‘Heroes’, all of which began so promisingly, eventually dragged on to the point whereby I gave up and left them to fizzle out utterly un-mourned. The old showbiz adage of knowing when to leave the stage and therefore leaving the audience wanting more is a far better way; David Bowie knew that when he killed Ziggy Stardust at exactly the right moment, and Patrick McGoohan knew it when he curtailed ‘The Prisoner’ with such glorious ambiguity that its meaning continues to be debated to this very day. Ziggy’s lifespan was barely a year; No.6 concluded his story after just seventeen episodes. In their own unique way, both ended brilliantly.
Unless the whole story is mapped out from start to finish before a single line has been committed to the page, I’ve always found one of the trickiest tasks of writing a novel to be devising a satisfactory ending. The way I work around it is not to plan it. I tend to have a rough sketch of where a tale is going on the eve of beginning it, but find the exercise far more fulfilling an experience if events take me on a magical mystery tour as the various characters and plotlines develop in ways that are as unexpected to the author as they hopefully will be to the reader. This in turn can present a conclusion that wasn’t foreseen when the opening sentence (another tough nut to crack) was jotted down. It’s a more ‘organic’ process that suits me fine, one that feels more natural than meticulously plotting every move in advance as though the writing is little more than a mathematical puzzle or game of chess with one’s self.
Some novels I’ve read have an almost perfect symmetry in the manner of their endings, whereas others peter out and leave the reader coming away with a feeling of anticlimax that implies the investment in the story demanded something better. I suspect we expect fiction to give us the kind of endings unreliable real life rarely offers, and when it seems too close to disappointing reality it ceases to do its duty. An audience always wants endings penned by screenwriters or novelists to be fitting climaxes that a good story requires. Those for which life is the author can be frustratingly damp squibs, with an absence of swelling strings and the numerous options Terry Jones offered Eric Idle in 1974. Life’s chapters regularly have a habit of closing with the kind of deflating flatness no film producer would ever sanction if he wants a good reception once those elongated credits begin to roll. That said, I’ve only ever seen two films at the cinema in my entire life that were granted a spontaneous round of applause from all present when the end came – ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘I, Daniel Blake’; hard to think of two more different movies on paper, yet both had something to say about the fragility of life and how it so often fails to live up to the desired script.
Exactly five years ago today I penned the inaugural post on this here blog, and I read it for the first time in a long time today. It’s only brief, and has the feel of a manifesto. But at the moment of its composition, I’d just experienced an ending that was rather painful (to put it mildly) and it’s evident to me now a brave face was being put on in order to positively harness the emotional force of the upset and rise above it. I think I took a good few posts to find my feet, but as soon as David Cameron announced the date of the EU Referendum in February 2016, I was handed a gift-wrapped grenade that I’ve been pulling the pin out of ever since. It was just the sort of story this type of enterprise needed; for once, life and I were harmoniously synchronised. The Brexit issue is ongoing, as is – seemingly – the saga that has stolen its thunder in 2020; when it comes to both, the one thing that doesn’t appear to be in sight is an ending. The fat lady has lost her voice, and as long as she keeps schtum, we remain open for business.
© The Editor