by Lee Hazell
Once I saw the opportunity to write about Terry Pratchett: Back in Black on the site, I jumped on it immediately. Terry Pratchett was the hero of my adolescence. The sheer breadth and depth of his satirical targets in the Discworld novels made them my favourite source of comedy since The Simpsons. There was no subject he didn’t seem to be worldly wise about and every time I picked up one of his books I felt like I was in for an education as well as a good read. I have based so much of my moral standing as a human being on his teachings.
He was a master wordsmith that could make a sentence funny, thought provoking and tear-jerkingly tragic all at once, and make it look frustratingly easy while he was doing it. You’ve no idea the nights I’ve spent staring at my computer screen, hands impotently resting on the keyboard, trying to make them do something remotely Pratchettish.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007, and his fierce anger at the unfairness of the disease (oh, how Terry was enraged by unfairness) was channelled into writing seven more novels and even a set of memoirs. Unfortunately, in the words of co-author and Pratchett’s personal assistant, Rob Wilkins, they left it six months too late. This docudrama, a continuation of the project they started before Pratchett’s death, begins by showing you his deterioration as they try to illustrate the necessity of passing on his own story to you, not in a book, but in a film.
Pratchett, a man whose literary credentials need no explaining, cannot for the life of him remember the word ‘mirror’ without being prompted. It’s no anomaly either. He, just a few sentences on, cannot get a grasp of the word ‘pilot’.
It’s an odd thing to sit down and choose to watch something that you know will have an extreme effect upon your emotions. You might smile, you hope you’ll laugh, but you know you’ll cry. No matter how good or bad this documentary/adaption/drama will turn out, it will more than likely reduce me to tears multiple times in its lean, 50-minute length. To resign yourself to that kind of emotional heartache is a very strange thing to do.
This film is a real labour of love. It is made as a lasting tribute by his friends, fans and family. All the important f’s. There is no attempt at balance here, no effort to challenge Terry on his ideals, beliefs or writing style. This is part biography, part eulogy. You’ll find no objectivity here. You probably won’t find any in this review either. Just sayin’.
The eulogy part is right, too. This is Pratchett’s own contribution to his own tribute, written in (mostly) his own words. After all, when asked what the one thing he wanted from his funeral service was, he said, “To be there.” Speaking them, however, is veteran British character actor Paul Kaye. Kaye has been praised for his broad comedic caricatures, and criticised for them, by me, on this very website. His portrayal of Pratchett is a strange mix of detailed mimicry – bordering on method acting – and cartoonish exaggeration. It’s perfect. Kaye has taken the DNA of Terry and run it through one of his own novels. All of Pratchett’s works were studies on deeply human issues and themes, through the lens of preposterously comedic exaggeration.
When he first speaks, you know you aren’t hearing the voice of Pratchett, but that of someone very Pratchettesque. When the author was a boy he had an accident on a bicycle. It gave him ‘a mouth full of speech impediments’. You can hear them all in Kaye’s impression. Yes, they are far more pronounced here than they are in the mouth of Pratchett himself, but that’s the point. When you hear Pratchett’s harsh ‘ck’ it sounds like the click of a keyboard, but when Kaye does it, it sounds like someone taking a pick to stone. But that’s the point. He’s made Terry Pratchett into a Pratchett character. Why he hasn’t been snapped up for one of the Sky One Discworld adaptations is beyond me.
With this programme being written with the words of the author woven into its DNA, the rest of the production would have had to be filled with accountants and lawyers in order for it not to be funny. Some of these moments are funny just because they are witty, well observed and filled with the warmth of human optimism, some of them are funny just because they are so typically Pratchett and are glorious reminders of his quirky, eccentric, vigorous personality.
And it is those very moments of joyous levity that make the moments of brevity drop your soul like a stone. You can feel it getting heavier in your chest and sinking with the speed of The Nautilus. Moments like Neil Gaiman losing his composure as the sadness of missing his friend briefly consumes him or seeing a random fan simply say that we miss him. A woman dreading reading the last of his works, knowing that there will never be anymore, hit a particular nerve as I knew she spoke for me. She speaks for all of us.
It reminded me of the day of his passing and seeing the first of several fan made images of Terry meeting Death in person for the first time as if they were old friends. Even writing those last couple of sentences, I’m not doing well. I’ve had to wipe the keyboard more than once writing this.
Terry Pratchett: Back in Black is a roaring success. It is an act of remembrance. It is desperately trying to claw the feeling of Pratchett back from the grave, a salvage mission acknowledging that we have lost Terry but still arranging things in a room so that when we enter it, it will be as if he’s been here the whole time. It has his humour, a playfulness, a sense of righteousness and a deeply felt humanism. This is Terry in one easy to swallow sentence. Be more Terry. Good night.
Dir: Charlie Russell
Scr: Terry Pratchett
Featuring: Paul Kaye, Neil Gaiman, Rhianna Pratchett, Rob Wilkins
Prd: Charlie Russell
Music: Tim Goalen