Monday, August 19, 2019

I'm a Joke and So Are You, by Robin Ince

Subtitled "A comedians' take on what makes us human", this is an intelligent ramble through the psychology of stand-up, and by extension creativity in general. Robin undergoes brain scans, talks to scientists and fellow comedians, and opens up about his own life and experience.

There's plenty of science-of... stuff I found interesting: the notion of Wittgenstein's lion - "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him" - or how being good at Just a Minute appears in your brain. In one chapter, Robin explores an old canard I had heard before, that many successful comedians experienced some kind of trauma as children, such as the death of a parent. He speaks to those of whom that is true, and to other comedians who were adopted or suffered different kinds of trauma. With that in mind, he also explores the impact of traumatic moments in his own life - a car crash he was involved in as a small child that almost killed his mum, or the effect of changing school. Then, just as he seems to be on to something with all of this, he completely undercuts the hypothesis with examples of comedians whose work comes from a childhood of happiness and encouragement. If the conclusion, then, is that there's no simple answer, it prompted this listener to think about how and why I do what I do.

Chapters address the cliche of the "sad clown", the issue of causing offence, the anxieties of both performer and audience. The final chapter addresses death, specifically that of Robin's mother and how it impacted his work. It's agonisingly honest and upsetting, and with a start I realised I'd been a witness to some of what's described, as a panelist on the 2015 Christmas special of The Infinite Monkey Cage. At the time, I didn't know what was going on - Robin was clearly unwell at the recording and had to rush off immediately afterwards. With typical courtesy, and the same freelancer fear of letting other people down he describes here, he emailed me later to apologise. 

Having experienced my own share of trauma, I really get his need to keep busy through this period, to use work both to escape the awful reality and then to make some kind of sense of it. I admire the way he tells us so much so honestly and then won't go any further - only sharing so much. He talks about how his job, his mining real life for comedy, can strain relationships when something like this happens - his own acknowledgement and the fear from people round him that this is all raw material. This is difficult and profound, and Robin concludes - with an example of another comedian's response to his own terminally ill father - that means we end on a note of optimism. But it's not so neat or simple as that, and I remain thinking...

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman

After the success of The Book of Dust, we tried Audible's version of Northern Lights for some long journeys - and were enraptured.

Author Philip Pullman reads the story but the dialogue if performed by actors. I've experienced this book in a number of formats - reading it myself, watching the two-part play at the National Theatre, listening to the BBC radio version and watching the film. The audiobook retains the rich and vivid description missed from most adaptations and gets into characters' heads.

It's a dense, rich story full of arcane language but the story is thrillingly exciting, full of perilous dangers and set in a fantasy world that feels utterly, scarily real. The Lord of Chaos sat beside me in rapt silence as the hours unfolded.

The production is directed by Garrick Hagon - who I obviously know from his roles in Star Wars and Doctor Who. There's another Who connection: Joanna Wyatt plays 12 year-old Lyra, though once it struck me that she sounded a bit like Camille Coduri I found myself imagining Jackie Tyler organising battles between polar bears.

I'm very much looking forward to the TV version, and to the next two Audible versions in this trilogy, and to the next Book of Dust.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Doctor Who: The Target Storybook

I have a story in Doctor Who: The Target Storybook, a new anthology to be published in October with an amazing cover by Anthony Dry. The blurb goes like this:
"We’re all stories in the end…
In this exciting collection you’ll find all-new stories spinning off from some of your favourite Doctor Who moments across the history of the series. Learn what happened next, what went on before, and what occurred off-screen in an inventive selection of sequels, side-trips, foreshadowings and first-hand accounts – and look forward too, with a brand new adventure for the Thirteenth Doctor.
Each story expands in thrilling ways upon aspects of Doctor Who’s enduring legend. With contributions from show luminaries past and present – including Colin Baker, Matthew Waterhouse, Vinay Patel, Joy Wilkinson and Terrance Dicks – The Target Storybook is a once-in-a-lifetime tour around the wonders of the Whoniverse."
The authors are: Colin Baker, Steve Cole, Jenny T Colgan, Susie Day, Terrance Dicks, Simon Guerrier, George Mann, Una McCormack, Vinay Patel, Jacqueline Rayner, Beverley Sanford, Matthew Sweet, Mike Tucker, Matthew Waterhouse and Joy Wilkinson.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Doctor Who Magazine special on Target books

This special edition of Doctor Who Magazine covers the Target novelisations and their proustian delights, and is in shops now. It's full of stuff I didn't know, plus lots about the greatest book related to the series ever - Terrance Dicks's The Doctor Who Monster Book (1975).

I'm also in it, speaking to magnificent Marc Platt about novelising his own TV serial, Ghost Light, and then novelising one by a friend - Battlefield, the scripts of which had been written by Ben Aaronovitch.

Last week, I listened to the audiobook of Doctor Who - The Invasion - one of my favourites of the Target series. This special has made me want to seek out more.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

15 years of The Coup

Fifteen years ago today, on the hot, sunny morning of Saturday, 7 August 2004, I followed a print-out from Streetmap round the back of the Academy in Brixton to a tiny cul-de-sac, Moat Place. It was my first visit to Moat Studios, for the recording of my audio play, The Coup - the first of more than 60 I've since written for Big Finish.

The Coup is available for free from the Big Finish website.

In August 2004, I'd been freelance for two years and Big Finish had published six of my short Doctor Who stories. The third of these, "An Overture Too Early", had been a last-minute replacement for someone who'd had to drop out. As a result, I got more work when things fell through or needed doing quick. Assistant producer Ian Farrington also liked the way I'd written the long-established character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

Ian was producing a Doctor Who spin-off series about UNIT, the army division that investigates weird goings on and then blows them up. He told me this series would be set in the present day with an all-new cast of characters, influenced by the then hip TV shows 24 and The West Wing. But he also wanted the Brigadier to feature in two episodes - the "pilot" episode to be given away free on a CD with Doctor Who Magazine to lure in the punters, and in the final episode of the series. I slowly realised he was suggesting I write the former.

With writers Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett, Ian had devised an arc story about a rival organisation to UNIT, and he was also keen on using a character from a previous Big Finish play - Colonel Brimmicombe-Wood, played by a then up and coming actor called David Tennant. Brimmicombe-Wood had been created by writer Jonathan Clements, so Ian brought him on board too, as well as our friend Joseph Lidster. Between us, we emailed ideas back and forth and the UNIT series took shape.

CJ in The West Wing inspired our lead character, Emily Chaudhry - I borrowed the surname from an old friend of mine who I'd recently got back in touch with. Doctor Who on TV had established that UNIT covered up evidence of alien invasions, so the idea was that the cool, unflappable Emily would be the one they put in front of the cameras to give high quality bullshit. I named other characters - French, Ledger and Winnington - after old friends I'd lost contact with but who'd been into Doctor Who. There was a chance, I thought, they'd still be reading DWM - and two of them were and subsequently got in touch.

Ian and Iain gave me elements to work into my story - such as all the details about this new rival organisation to UNIT - and Ian was keen that my pilot episode should include an old monster from the TV show as an added sell. The Silurians were his suggestion. Otherwise, the plot was left up to me.

Previous CDs given away with DWM had offered small-scale comic vignettes, side-steps rather than full-on adventures. I suggested doing something bigger and more like an action movie. What crisis might flap the unflappable Chaudhry, I thought. What about if UNIT were outed and finally had to admit to the existence of aliens? That seemed to match Ian's desire to take his UNIT series somewhere new and unexpected, and the other writers seemed to agree - or, at least, not object.

So I got on with writing my episode, starting with a Silurian/UNIT battle at Potters Fields by Tower Bridge. That's the location of City Hall - as if the Silurians are attacking the Mayor of London. I chose it because Tower Bridge is a well-known landmark the listener would be able to visualise, and because I'd passed through Potters Fields each day for months on my way to work.

Writer Jonathan Morris had provided very useful notes on my first few short stories so I sent my first draft script to him, and to my friends David Darlington and Robert Dick. They all said much the same thing - that I needed to cut down my dialogue to make it pacier and more exciting. The result was that I cut back the long speeches but didn't replace it with more scenes, so the play ended up running shorter than the 25 minutes requested. I don't think I even knew then the rough word count of 4,500 words for that length of time - my version is just 3,761 words. My stage directions aren't specific enough, and there are two long speeches that have people talking over them but contain information the listener shouldn't miss. (I've included the Brigadier's full speech below.) I look back on the script now in horror at my greenness.

The version of the script I've got is dated 6 June 2004, a clean copy without notes or revisions. There were plenty of changes needed to get it to this point, but I can't remember what they were. I remember Ian being very patient and encouraging.

(ETA: Jonny Morris has kept my first draft, from 30 April 2004, which I sent to him, Matthew Griffiths, Robert Dick, Ben Woodhams and Peter Anghelides for comment. It is just over 4,000 words long - and doesn't include Orgath's speech as an appendix at the end as the later version does. Which means I cut about 1,000 words from this version!)

So, on 7 August I arrived at the studio. They'd already recorded some of the UNIT series proper that week, the series regulars established, the pronunciation of names fixed. Ian was directing my story, and I mostly sat in the background being overwhelmed. My friend Scott Andrews, who I'd written a small role for, was brave enough to ask Nicholas Courtney - the actor who played the Brigadier - if he was going to be in the new TV version of Doctor Who, the one with Christopher Eccleston which had started filming just a couple of weeks before. Nick told us he hadn't heard anything and modestly suggested he was no one important. He then asked me why, in my story, the Brigadier had a knighthood. I told him that after all the times he'd saved the Earth he deserved it, and he was rather taken by that. He asked about the origin of my surname, and got interested when Scott mentioned I'd just started freelancing for the House of Lords. We gamely discussed a new story, about the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Lethbridge-Stewart. Perhaps he'd be defending aliens from humans...

In those days, it was rare to have a camera on your mobile phone so there were no selfies. I don't remember anyone taking photographs for publicity - I think they covered the UNIT series on other recording days. Besides, we were on a tight schedule. Looking back, I realise Nick made a point of finding time to talk to me and Scott.

Otherwise, I remember just being awe-struck by the cast, and wishing I'd given the brilliant Sara Carver a bit more to do as Winnington. We finished at lunch-time and while the cast went to the pub - in the days before Big Finish started providing its own infamous lunches - I had to rush off to Bristol for my cousin's wedding. By coincidence, the friend I'd named Currie after was putting me up for the night.

The Coup was issued with DWM #351 in December 2004. Davy Darlington worked wonders with the sound design and reviews - as much as I dared to look - seemed positive. Having delivered my pilot episode I was no longer involved in the production of the UNIT series but Ian sent me the CDs as they were released, so I found out what happened after all I'd set up. In January I was commissioned for a second Big Finish play, The Lost Museum, which was recorded in March.

Around this time, I was passing through Charing Cross station when someone shouted at me. "You!" said Nicholas Courtney. "You have a French name." I went over and said hello, and Nick told me he was on his way to the pub to meet Tom Baker. He asked if I'd like to join them. It was mid-morning and I was on my way to a freelance job, and anyway I thought I'd never survive a day in the pub with those two. Really, I was just in shock. I asked where they'd be and said I'd look in during my lunch hour. I did, and they weren't there.

On 23 April, Nick Courtney appeared on Doctor Who Confidential and suggested that the Brigadier might now be in the House of Lords. I emailed Ian a few days later, referring to this and suggesting a Lord Lethbridge-Stewart story for the second series of UNIT - should it happen. I had the bare bones of a plot, too. "We'll see..." said Ian, cryptically - already knowing that the chances were slim of doing more with his version of UNIT, what with David Tennant having just been cast in another role...

There wasn't a second series of UNIT, and despite my best efforts no one else took up my Lord Lethbridge-Stewart story. But when Nick Courtney was invited to reprise his role on TV, in 2008's Enemy of the Bane, the Brigadier retained his knighthood.

APPENDIX 1: BRIGADIER’S SPEECH IN FULL:

For purposes of rehearsing it and as background in Scenes 18, 20 and 22.

I doubt many of you have any idea who I am. That is just as it should be. Because of the nature of my former work, I’m not allowed to tell you either. 

This country has often been faced with threats, with enemies. The forces assigned to counter those threats have been, necessarily, covert.

Though we cannot divulge details of the work we do, we are accountable. In my time as head of the UK arm of UNIT, I reported directly to the Prime Minister. That probably explains the knighthood.

Even though they do not have access to the details that we supply the Government, the general public may still know of UNIT, and have some understanding of our security remit. 

As a result, significant changes such as those taking place today, need to be explained, if only to allay public concern. That is why I have been called in. 

Change is good. UNIT has always known that. I hope ICIS will also be able to remember that. And to forgive me, now, for stealing their thunder. 

UNIT was formed to investigate extra-terrestrial phenomenon. 

In nearly forty years, it has been directly responsible for preventing more than 200 attacks by alien beings. Axons, Cybermen, Zygons, Quarks…

As a part of the United Nations, UNIT was not representing individual states or nations when it repelled these attacks. It represented humanity as a whole. 

Now we’ve made contact with a species who don’t want to conquer the Earth. They want to forge diplomatic links. They’re not even from outer space.

It is therefore my considerable honour to introduce Ambassador Orgath of the Silurian people. Ambassador?

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Book Parts, eds. Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth

This is a comprehensive study of the bits of a book that surround the main text - the "paratext" of (to list them): introductions; dust jackets; frontispieces; title pages; imprints, imprimaturs, and copyright pages; tables of contents; addresses to the reader; acknowledgements and dedications; printers' ornaments and flowers; character lists; page numbers, signatures, and catchwords; chapter heads; epigraphs; stage directions; running titles; woodcuts; engravings; footnotes; errata lists; indexes; endleaves; and blurbs.

Much of this study of paratexts is metatextual. Several chapter headings are arranged to reflect their content, such as the errors corrected in the one for "Errata lists". Other chapters do similar in their texts, such as when "Addresses to the reader" talks to us directly. There's a lot of history - the book, publishing, laws pertaining to copyright - and it is nerdishly fascinating, teasing out the evolution of elements we so often take for granted.

Almost immediately, I delighted in the synonyms given for "Introduction":
"Prologue, dedicatory epistle, preface, textual note, address to the reader, isagoge, proem, preamble, exordium" (p. 6)
Over the page and there's another, as we're told of Alfred the Great's,
"preface - or fore-spræc; fore-speech - to be included before his own translation of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care" (p. 8).
Or there's the three books that, to dodge punishments for printing dangerous ideas, claim in thier indicia to have been published in Utopia:
"Godwin, Nuncius inanimatus (1629), STC 11944, Folger Shakespeare Library ... John Taylor's Odcombs complaint (1613), STC 23780 and A copie of quaeries, or a comment upon the life and actions of the grand tyrant and his accomplices (1659)." 
(I'm giving a talk on dystopia next week, for which this is perfect!)

There's something thrilling about the detective work described on p. 119 in spotting the same decorative fleuron printing blocks used in different books, which can be used to identify the same printer (who might be named in one volume but not another). It's even possible to spot the aging of blocks from one volume to another, and to use the number of so-called "wormholes" eaten into them by beetles to build up a chronology - the more holes eaten, the later the block was used. In fact, southern European beetles make bigger holes than their northern counterparts, so the location of the printer can also be deduced! (This, a footnote tells us, comes from S Blair Hedges' brilliantly titled, "Wormholes Record Species History in Space and Time", Biology Letters 9 (2013).)

Tiffany Stern's chapter on "Stage directions" also captivated me. She argues that the directions in book versions of plays published in the time of Shakespeare were rarely the work of the playwrights, and can even contradict dialogue. There's stuff about the way stage directions can often be for the benefit of the reader rather than for staging the production - directions that can't be acted but which add colour and character. I'm fascinated by the actors cited who were schooled to always ignore the directions, and Samuel Beckett's efforts to insist that his were adhered to.

I find myself reaching for the next book to read, scouring it for its paratext to better understand its context.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Doctor Who: The Invasion, by Ian Marter

Driving up to Blackpool to collect the wife and children this week, I listened to the audiobook of Doctor Who: The Invasion, a book I loved so much as a kid that I borrowed it several times from Winchester Library. David Troughton is a brilliant choice of narrator, with Nick Briggs providing authentic Cyber voices.

I’ve looked it up, and that book was originally published on 10 October 1985, not quite 17 years after the TV version was broadcast. It was a window on to ancient history – Doctor Who from before even my elder brother and sister had watched it, so old it had been in black and white. Of course, this was also the closest I ever thought I’d come to seeing the episodes themselves. I’d not yet seen any old Doctor Who on video and there’d been just a handful of repeats on TV. But I knew the photo of the Cybermen outside St Paul’ Cathedral from the Doctor Who Monster Book, and remember the vivid thrill of realising this was that story.


Other bits of the book stuck fast in my memory: the ongoing joke where the Doctor mixes up radio etiquette, or Isobel writing notes on her wall because its harder to lose than a scrap of paper. I’m struck now how much Isobel and Zoe vanish from the first half of the story, their insistence on being involved in the second half feeling a little too late. I also liked Ian Marter’s invention of the Russian rocket base (named after Nicholas Courtney) and the collaboration between US and USSR that’s needed to stop the invasion.

That said, it’s striking how much the novelisation lacks in context of other Doctor Who. How strange to begin with a hanging reference to one of the most extraordinary moments in the series ever, without ever explaining:
“The disintegration of the TARDIS in their previous adventure had been a horrifying experience,” (p. 8.) 
The novelisation of that previous adventure, The Mind Robber, was not published until 1987 (I never read it, and watched the TV repeat in 1992 with no idea what was about to happen). We’re not told, either, in what context Jamie and Zoe have both met the Cybermen before – for the latter, The Wheel in Space wasn’t published until 1988 – or that Zoe hasn’t already met Lethbridge Stewart.

There’s something strange, too, about referring to this Doctor as “the dapper Time Lord” (p. 11). Dapper isn’t right for this scruffy vagabond of time, and we didn’t learn that he’s a Time Lord until four stories later. (There’s also something odd about referring to him like that anyway, wrote this human.)

Ian Marter is also profligate with adverbs and often he tells us how dialogue is spoken – tersely or sarcastically, gasped or panted – when the words spoken tell us implicitly. But the main thing is how violent this version is.
“The Cyberman’s laser unit emitted a series of blinding flashes and Packer’s body seemed to alternate from positive to negative in the blistering discharge. His uniform erupted into flames and his exposed skin crinkled and fused like melted toffee papers.” (p. 145)
If nothing else, Jamie wouldn’t be able to rob the dead Packer of his jacket, which he then wears in The War Games.

(Actor Frazer Hines tells me about that in the Jamie and Second Doctor set from the Doctor Who Figurine Collection.)