Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"Make her posh"

Nimbos had us round for bacon sarnies and beer last night, so we got to see The Family of Blood.

Cor. Just cor. One of us wept, one of us gaped in uncharacteristic silence and one of us texted Paul. Yet the rotter didn't smuggle in a reference to Bernice (the nice lady in the original book version which he created and who I'm now in charge of), or even of Wolsey (the cat Joan bequeathed her, and who I killed last year).

Anyway. After last week's interview with Paul Cornell from the archive, here's us again on 20 December 2005, for my article about companions for Doctor Who's Magazine:
ME: So, what can you tell us about Circular Time?

CORNELL: It's four short stories featuring the fifth Doctor and Nyssa, largely. But they scatter across the different kinds of story that Dr Who does. There's a historical, there's a weird one, there's a far future one and there's a kind of pastoral one. They're each set in a different season as is my want and they're sort of me having fun going back to my earliest days of fan fiction, sort of doing the kinds of stories I did back then. It's also because I so wanted to work with Peter Davision before I stopped doing this kind of stuff. It's just me playing around with stuff I haven't gone near since Goth Opera really.

ME: One of the things that's very telling about your work generally is that it's very character-based. We know that one of the things Russell said when he commissioned you for Father's Day was that he wanted the character depth that you put into your books. So are you similarly exploring somes sides of the characters we haven't seen before?

CORNELL: To some degree, yes. A lot of it was a desire to get back to the fifth Doctor's speech patterns, which I really adore. And to give Sarah Sutton something to do as Nyssa. That doesn't happen very often. Yes, there's character-based stuff in there. There's a nice little romance for Nyssa. There's some nice stand-up arguing between Davison and Isaac Newton. It's a very character-based set of stories. One of the things I think the new show has taught us all is that you can do a very good, complete Dr Who story in 42 minutes. So these four half-hours are all complete stories which I think certainly run as complete as four-part stories do.

ME: You say with Nyssa that's she's not always been very well served by material –

CORNELL: She doesn't get the service.

ME: Where do you begin with giving her something more?

CORNELL: Giving her humour is I think the starting place. I see no reason why that character shouldn't have a vein of wry humour, and that's a good place to start. Making the relationship between her and the Doctor much more one-to-one so that they have an ongoing relationship you can believe in. And giving them certain points of disagreement, a couple of flashpoints in there. There's a lot of threads that run through all four, and put together all four of them form a greater story again in character or thematic terms.

ME: You said making them believable. Another thing in your writing is that, for example with Bernice, she may be a space archaeologist but she's very real, very believable.


ME: Similarly, in the commentary to Father's Day you're asking the actors how they prepare for something so unreal.

CORNELL: It does boggle me because... Sorry, I won't go on about that.

ME: The thing I found really interesting was Billie and Shaun's response, which was that there was something believable about the lines which they were given, even if the situation was very strange. Is that based on observation, or where does that come from?

CORNELL: Well, it's typical me, living with one foot either side of a particular fence. And this covers several different fences in my life. In this particular case it's about one half of me being a hard-core fundamentalist geek who doesn't give a damn really about the mainsteam audience and would like to present the most far-spun fantasy imaginable with very little connection to the real world, and having another half of me that very much wants to tell stories about people who live in the real world. Rather than doing those two things separately I always seem to do things that do them both at once. I think if there's one thing that my stories are about it's the effect on people of quite extreme fantasy circumstances. Certainly way back in the New Adventures, my New Adventures are full of ordinary people encountering very, very weird stuff.

ME: It's about the consequences of the stuff, but also how they're changed by it.

CORNELL: Absolutely. You cannot come back through the door and be the same person. It gives them a different insight into the world they're in.

ME: So is that where you come to with Nyssa: you try and develop her in some way, having something that happens that changes her?

CORNELL: The thing is with Nyssa, she's entirely from the fantasy end of the world. Certainly in the TV series she didn't really get attached into the actual world at all. Almost nothing for an actor to play in that part on TV. There's some nice fairy-princess stuff in Traken, but after that. At least Johnny Byrne gives her some stuff to do in Arc of Infinity, but you don't really learn much about her in doing it. There aren't any shades of grey there. Really this is having her live in a small village while the Dr plays cricket for one summer. The story covers the summer and what happens to her while he's having fun.

ME: On the depth and you don't really learn much about her, one of the things that Big Finish have done which is also in the new series is that companions have a history, and friends and family. In Big Finish we've met sisters and brothers... Pete really grounded Rose into something that was real and believable. How much more difficult is it to manage a story when you've got other character to deal with? Does it give you more perspectives, so it's easier to cut to somebody else, or does it actually make it very cluttered?


ME: I mean, how comfortable are you working from a shopping list of things that need to go into a story?

CORNELL: Every writer loves a shopping list. There's nothing worse - we're in cliche city here - than a blank sheet of paper. Genocide, misery, bus stations - there are lots of things worse than a blank sheet of paper. You can make a paper airplane out of a blank sheet of paper. But... every writer loves a shopping list, especially when it's a shopping list that somebody else has made out that's got lots of lovely presents for me on it.

ME: So for example when you have little Mickey in Father's Day, was that something which you were asked to do, or something you threw in for a laugh?

CORNELL: I think... I think that was Russell's idea. I find it very difficult to play "whose idea was what" through Father's Day because it's quite a long time ago and it's all so much a team game. He wasn't on the original shopping list, he would have been there once we got into it.

ME: There's a suggestion there that things are prefigured for his relationship with Rose beforehand.

CORNELL: Absolutely. There's the imprinting of the chicken thing.

ME: Another thing you say in the commentary about Pete and I've also heard you say about Benny is that they're based on people that you know.

CORNELL: Oh yeah, hugely.

ME: How much do you cut-and-paste from things you've heard and people you've seen to create a real character, and how much can you create something real by making it up?

CORNELL: I think the really difficult job as a writer is to create people who aren't you, who don't think like you and act like you. Obviously every character you write will have some degree of you in it, but it's where you get the other point of view from. Certainly I tend to cut-and-paste from people I know. Sometimes from people I know quite distantly, but often people I know very well. Writers whose characters are all them, sometimes it can work very well. Aaron Sorkin, all of his West Wing characters are different assets of his personality, but that just feels like a wonderful way in to a wonderful mind every week. In my own case, I don't think I've got that depth of ability and so need to find other voices.

ME: So do you find when you're talking to your mates in the pub or something that you'll think, "I'm having that!", or is it something that occurs to you later, when you're writing it and you think, "I remember that time that so and so..."?

CORNELL: It's very rarely individual lines. It's usually a vague impression of people. Do you think I've stolen some stuff from you, is that where this is going?

ME: No, no.

CORNELL: I'm trying to think of examples from Bernice.

ME: I've noticed from doing the Benny history that early on you say Benny is "you in a frock". Which gets very disturbing when Jason Kane is apparently Dave Stone.

CORNELL: I know, I know. And there's Justin running the Collection... But Benny is very close to my viewpoint character. So much so that I quite like the fact that so many voices have ruffled her up a bit since then.

ME: How much did writing for Benny change, or thinking of her, as a result of Lisa getting cast?

CORNELL: It's very hard to say. Lisa's voice infected me so quickly, I find it very hard to think of any primordial Benny that wasn't her. Certainly the Emma Thompson voice on top of me and my frock would be the primordial Benny but Lisa really nailed it.

ME: You've written for Benny since. Do you know find that you're writing for Lisa?

CORNELL: Very much so. In particular I think you'll find her speech patterns have changed a bit, because in Lisa's performance a lot of what she does is in wonderful hesitation. The points in Benny's sentence construction where she hesitates are very different now, I'm sure.

ME: How have things developed since Big Finish took on Benny? In many way, BF's ongoing work all comes from what they originally did with Benny. How much were you involved in setting up Benny's first stuff?

CORNELL: It's really complicated, and I think very apt for Bernice. I was, as always, very busy. I think it was about the time I first started working on Casualty. They asked em to adapt the books and I put forward Jac [Rayner] instead to do it. I think that changed the whole nature of what the range was going to be from an early point. Especially since Jac's voice really is not mine or Benny's at that point. I mean to say that... I'm trying to say something positive and appreciative which may already have sounded negative.

ME: It took it off in a new way.

CORNELL: Exactly. It added a new viewpoint to it.

ME: When they stopped adapting the books and came up with the Collection, how much were you involved in that? Was it just that they said, "this is what we're doing?"

CORNELL: To some degree. The relationship between me and Gary [Russell - who I've sinced succeeded] about Bernice has always been that if I feel I want to interfere, I can view every script, make suggestions and change things. I could pull the rug out from under them and give the licence to somebody else. But I've never felt the need to threaten that and I like the fact that it's something I can dive into, like doing Life During Wartime, and then dive out of again. I like the fact that it continues on without me.

ME: It has a life of it's own.

CORNELL: Exactly. And a life of it's own is very true to the spirit of the character. The purpose of Benny is one thing: a domestic observer character amongst cosmic vastness. Originally that was the cosmic vastness of a distant and alien Dr and now I would say it's the cosmic vastness of all of science fiction. Her brand of carry-on / absurd/ occasionally tragic life experience plays off always against what's happening in more spacey things currently.

ME: One of the things Big Finish is also very conscious of at the moment is that the guidelines for Dr Who have changed so that we have to be much more careful about suitability of content for a family audience and so on. As a natural progression from that, Benny has become much more adult. She now swears and its ruder. How much do you feel Benny works as a standalone, independent series and how much is it a Dr Who spin off?

CORNELL: It's not been a spin-off for a hell of a long time now. That's what I mean to say when I talk about a point of view as a format. She's got her own point of view which works whatever you play it off of. It certainly doesn't need to play off of Dr Who. In many ways it would be great if she could wander off into the Star Trek universe. Can you imagine?

ME: Actually I can.

CORNELL: It would be worth getting a licence just for a couple of months!

ME: Finally, then, if hypothetically Big Finish ever one day got Eccleston to do a series, we'd more than likely have to come up with a new companion who wasn't Rose. So what would she be like? If you were given that job...

CORNELL: Oh boy. I think I'm companioned out. Make her posh. That would be interesting.

ME: You don't feel that Charley is Rose-but-posh?

CORNELL: But Paul McGann is also. I think Charley would work quite well with Eccleston! Have the regeneration! "Do you want to come with me?" "No actually I don't. Take me home you lout."

No comments: