Monday, September 28, 2009

So close you must be there

Busy writing up my talk for tomorrow evening in Greenwich on the use and abuse of science in Doctor Who.

Meanwhile, m'colleague Mark Morris has also announced the line-up for Cinema Futura, a book in which distinguished celebs - and me - gush about their favourite sci-fi movies.

I'm doing Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965), in which Peter Cushing, Roy Castle, Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey travel by TARDIS to the petrified jungles of Skaro, where they meet... Well, I don't want to spoil it.

I love the Dalek movies, and previously wrote about them at length for Doctor Who Magazine. Those articles were, you'll be thrilled to hear, my first ever freelance gigs.

Mark's also ensnared me into the Morley Literature Festival next month; we'll be appearing with Robert Shearman and Mark Michalowski at Morley Library from 6 p.m. on Wednesday, 14 October, to discuss our Doctor Who writing and stuff.

(I'll also be in Manchester on Sunday, 11 October with a whole bunch more Doctor Who writers.)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Courage, mon bruv

Went to see Mother Courage and her Children at the National last night, which is not – as I'd hoped – a nursery rhyme with a happy ending. Instead, Fiona Shaw tries to run a racketeering business through a never-ending war and keep her three children alive.

It's a bombastic, lively version of Berthold Brecht's play, full of his trademark interventions to remind you that you're watching a play. The stage directions are read out, and a recording of Gore Vidal summarises scenes before you see them, so there's spoilers aplenty. Whopping great signs hang from the air pointing out the names of characters and what the set's meant to look like. Before each half the technicians held the stage, getting this ready and acting as if they were. I'm also not sure the house lights were down as much as usual, so you were aware of everyone else watching.

Despite all this clever estrangement stuff, I was pretty quickly caught up in the action. Shaw is enthralling and the rest of the cast do their best to keep up. It's a funny, rude and sweary play, defiant against the unyielding misery of war.

I think I might even have read it before, or at least studied the brilliant scene where Mother Courage must pretend not to recognise her dead son or be executed herself. It's a great bit of drama: compelling because there's no easy way out, no argument that will save things. It's telling that Courage, so full of fire most of the time, here has nothing to say.

The setting is the Thirty Years War in the first half of seventeenth century, but Brecht wrote it in response to the Nazi invasion of Poland. There are plenty of Irish accents in the cast of his version, and bits of army uniform from today's conflicts, to pepper the play with contemporary relevance. It's nicely judged: the struggle to survive and even profit from war, and its terrible cost, never feel like a we're being lectured.

Partly that's the way the thing bashes along, never pausing for breath. There's not even time to applaud the songs from Duke Special that punctuate the story. At 3 hours 10 minutes – with a 20 minute interval – it's still a long play, especially for a half-man, half-orang-utan who doesn't quite fit in the £10 seats.

Wondered if they'd noticed that too, and skipped over a couple of scenes later on just to get to the end. The Dr then told me that the first preview a couple of weeks back had not had a second half – as reported in the Guardian. A play where the director comes out and explains you're only getting part one? I think Brecht would have loved that.

(Incidentally, this is blog post #850.)

Friday, September 25, 2009


Amazon have cover, cast and blurb for my forthcoming Blake's 7 plays - "The Dust Run" and "The Trial".

Back as the re-imagined Jenna Stannis is Carrie Dobro. Benedict Cumberbatch - soon to be seen as Sherlock Holmes in the new series from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat - plays Townsend, and Stephen Lord - off of EastEnders - is Nick. Which is a good name for a thief.

I went along to the recording at the end of October, and the cast were simply magnificent. Hooray!

In the lead-up to the release itself, we'll be posting up all sorts of behind-the-scenes stuff at Have to write something for that myself. Lawks.

ETA: Ben Aaronovitch blogs that I'm useful as a shield.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Surfacing again

Swansea was great fun. Met some old mates and made some new ones, and pleased to have finally have met Leslie after we've corresponded so long. Queued up for Derek Jacobi's autograph and explained I'd bought the Dr I, Claudius as a Valentine's present. Jacobi twinkled, "Did it work?"

On Monday, the Dr took me out to Mumbles - two clumps of rock at the end of Swansea bay that get their name from the French word for boobies. We also clambered up to the rather fine Oystermouth Castle and had an ice-cream as we walked back into town.

All along the pathway were open-air exercise things: hurdles and balance bars and weights. They stood ignored by the walkers and cyclists, the traffic hurtling by.

On Tuesday we nosed round the Egypt Centre at Swansea University, where volunteers pounded from every corner to offer help and insight. Lots of cool objects - divided into Death and Life - and the signage included stuff written by the volunteers themselves.

There was plenty of information for all levels of interest, and dressing up clothes and activities for kids. It probably also helps that the Egypt Centre is one part of a general arts and activities centre. The Dr took studious notes.

Then we were back on the train to London, where I got a whole bunch of writing done. Am steeped in writing right this second, and deliver something big by the end of the month. Also got a speech, a play, and an audition piece to write, plus some filming to organise and prep.

Have caught up on Derren Brown and on Last Chance to See, and was enthralled by Wounded last night, a documentary about the rehab of two soldiers who lost limbs in Afghanistan. Can't imagine anyone but the BBC making such a programme and showing it at prime time. Glorious.

And I am also reading, slowly, Scott of the Antarctic and The Ancestor's Tale. They're both heavy tomes full of top facts and telling detail. Will try to write something about them.

Right. Back to the grindstone...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Can you save her?

First details are up at of "Girl Number 9", a six-part dark drama thingie written by James Moran and starring folk from Torchwood, being webcast from the end of October. There's also a Twitter feed for the film, upon which more nuggets of goodness are promised. How very exciting.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Just raising my head from an ocean of exciting, unannounced work things to say hello. Hello.

Also, I'll be in Swansea this weekend for the Regenerations convention, where I'm on the same bill as Sir Derek Jacobi. Mostly, I'll be in the dealers room flogging copies of the Inside Story of Bernice Summerfield (a book which features more than a third of the convention's guests, as it happens). I'll also be in the bar. Do come say "Hi", "I read your blog," and "What would you like to drink?"

Oh, and on 29 September I'll be speaking on the use and abuse of science in Doctor Who at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. If you're coming along, please don't throw things.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

No second chances

As I type these words, I'm listening to the first episode of a 1989 radio series. It's on radio and it's 20 years later, but the series is called “Last Chance to See...” Even more ironically, the BBC are also showing a new TV version, retracing the steps of the radio series and which I've been eagerly anticipating since I first heard mention of it in January.

As I said then,
“The Observer sent [Douglas Adams] and a zoologist, Mark Carwardine, to Madagascar to write a Sunday supplement feature of the endangered aye-aye. Adams had such a nice time that (when he'd finished his commitments to Dirk Gently) he and Cawardine then swanned off round the world writing up other endangered species. There was a Radio 4 series, apparently a CD-rom and a book - my favourite of all Adams' efforts.”
Stephen Fry takes the tall, wordy, clumsy place of the late Douglas Adams. Nicely, he was living in Adams' house while Adams made the original trip.

Adams almost drowned slipping off an island in the original version, and Fry doesn't manage much better. But it manages to mix the new style of documentary on TV, where some Know-Nothing Celeb goes out to Discover Something, with the old-skool method (looked down upon by idiots) where the presenter is a bit of an expert already and has Something to Tell Us.

Carwardine is a dryly funny, enthusiastic native guide and there's a nice bit of intercutting of our two presenters' video diaries where they both worry the other will think them stupid. Between them, it's like a day-trip with two nerdy boys, teasing each other about urban myths and practicalities, and what happens if you pee in a particular lake.

The radio version had wry footnotes read by Peter Jones, as he'd done in Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the TV version we get Stephen Fry (who took Jones' part in the movie of Hitch-Hiker) and some graphics that suggest the ecosystem is all made of clockwork. The diddle-ow(g)! chord that precedes these bits sounds a bit like the diddle-ow(g)! from the Eagles' “Journey of the Sorcerer”, also the theme tune to Hitch-Hiker.

But more than that, Hitch-Hiker delighted in skewering our perspectives of our relative unimportance and ignorance about the universe around us. “Last Chance to See...” does something similar, but it counts the awful cost of our stupidity – and it's all real. It is, as I said before,
“amiably, compellingly harrowing. There aren't many other books like that.”
As with the original, the joy is not just in them poking their noses at rare species, but in what they spot along the way. Adams has a superb way with analogy that can wholly change how you see how things work. This, too, has asides where Carwardine goes to look at a snake in a tree or warns of vampire bats. In just making the practicalities of getting to see the creatures part of the story, it suggests a complexity of territory, teeming with competing interests and needs. Man and animals and economics and everything co-mingle, spin off each other, a rich density of co-dependent stuff.

It's also got a serious message about the industrial scale destruction of habitat and whole species, and I'm interested to see what the series will say about What Can Be Done. But, one episode in, this is superb.

I'm also dead excited about the start of Derren Brown's new set of events, which begins later this evening with him predicting the Lottery numbers. I've been hooked by Brown's antics since earlier this year, and blogged about his book.

And, speaking of documentaries, I also really enjoyed A Portrait of Scotland, in which Peter Capaldi traced the particular Scottishness of the history of portraiture and the particular portraitness of the history of Scotland. Not really a subject I knew much about before, which is what made the programme so appealing.

It covered a lot of ground at a steady, even pace, full of detail and insight. It also gave a nice portrait of its presenter – losing his glasses, discussing his own past and asking smart questions about the paintings. Capaldi's passion for the subject and his technical skill in drawing and the techniques involved in painting took me completely by surprise – I thought he'd be one of these Know-Nothing Celebs but he turned out to have Something to Tell Us.

This unexpected second skill is what the French refer to us Le Violon d'Ingres – because the great painter was also a mean fiddler, which seems very unfair to us ordinary mortals. I'd like to think that there was some kind of trick to it, that perhaps it's all down to Capaldi having appeared in two things written by my chum James Moran.

Perhaps I, too, could seem all clever if I'd only acted for James....

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Belgium and the master detective – not Poirot

Had a fine weekend in Brussels, sampling beer and museums. It was a little odd how quiet the museums were, and how many had bits closed or empty or being moved.

Comics are a big Belgian thing, with huge great murals of favourite characters painted on various buildings and a huge Tintin in pride of place at the Gare Midi, where the Eurostar comes in. The Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee showcases a massive range of original comic artworks, profiles of major figures in the genre, and lots of stuff about Tintin. Found the shop a bit disappointing, partly because so little of the comics on offer were available in translation, and partly because the souvenir things were all madly expensive. For a museum devoted to the subject, it didn't seem to be trying too hard to spread the word.

The museum is housed in an old department store designed by Victor Horta, and we also had a nose round his beautiful Art Nouveau house. Horta and his contemporaries went a step further than William Morris, applying the elegant curves of his furniture and interior design to architecture itself. The Dr's a big Morris groupie, so Horta's house was perhaps the highlight of the trip.

It's a tall, multi-story terraced town house, the insides scooped out to maximise the light. Even on a dreary grey day the glass roof and yellow furnishings filled the place with golden glow, so it felt warm and homely. And for all the rich elegance of the construction and furnishing, I could easily see small children and cats gamboling about the place; a practical family home as well as a work of art. There were so many lovely little features, like the flip-round urinal in the master bedroom.

Afterwards, we toured nearby streets on the trail of other houses by Horta and his mates. There were several gorgeous, decorative frontages – though they're private houses now so we couldn't peak inside. I'd love to know how the interiors work for their modern owners, how much has been remodelled and how well Ikea furniture fits in those elegant spaces.

In fact, we did a lot of walking, pottering around, our route linked together by the places and bars of interest as listed in the Rough Guide. (The Dr, the seasoned traveller, swears by the Rough Guide and has a whole shelf of different editions and countries.) There was some really very fine beer along the way – the 9% Chimay Blue brewed by the Trappists, the 8% Kwak in it's distinctive, round-bottomed glass that needed its own special stand, and the traditional Timmermans Geuze Lambic which is full of yeast and bits of dandruff, tastes more like cider than beer, and wasn't really me.

Then there was the food. We sampled a skewer each of strawberries dipped in white chocolate, which was quite difficult to eat without looking filthy. There were freshly grilled waffles and cream, a bucket load of mussels, and on our last night a really good meal in Le Kanoudou Resto.

Belgium seems to have played some kind of piggy-in-the-middle for most of its history. It was at the heart of disputes between Catholics and Protestants and their relevant empires, and was at one time referred to as the Spanish Netherlands. There's still a certain tension between the French and Flemish-speaking populations, so we tried to offend no one by only speaking English. In 1830, the poor lot got lumbered with Queen Victoria's uncle Leopold as king, the other European nations again deciding what was best for Belgium. Leopold did okay, it seems, but his son Leopold II is probably best remembered for the country's total disaster in bossing someone else around for a change.

We took the tram out to the palatial Museum de l'Afrique Central, which is about to close and be re-fitted with a slightly less racist elan. The place was built on the profits of the rubber trade and Leopold II's internationally censured colonies in the Congo. And inside it's like a stepping back into another age.

For one thing, the entrance lobby is full of statues of helpful white folk bringing civilisation to the black savages. The exhibits are of stuffed and mocked-up wildlife, with – I felt – the indigenous people grouped in with the flora and fauna. There's an argument that the museum merely shows the attitudes of a previous age – Tintin and the comics in the Comic Museum showed a similar racial stereotyping, and Tintin and the Congo these days comes with a warning. But just seven years after the museum first opened, the 1904 Casement report attacked the abuses in the Belgian colonies – so much so Leopold II gave them up.

There was a small exhibit on the history of the Congo, and another on Stanley – whose archive the museum now holds, and who denied all the stuff being said about abuses (I must read Tim Jeal's biography of Stanley, which is staring at me on the shelf). Though, too, a few of the captions in the rest of the place admitted perhaps the whole enterprise hadn't exactly been a Good Thing, it hardly scratched the long and complex history. We'd like to go again after the re-fit, though the Dr wasn't sure how radical that would be...

Got back yesterday and having waded through the emails I rushed out to the Albert Hall to hear AN Wilson and Steven Moffat discuss Sherlock Holmes with Matthew Sweet, with suitable passages from the canon read by David Warner. It was a lively, funny and insightful natter, available on iPlayer for the next few days. Steven let slip a few clues about his forthcoming, modern-day version which will star Benedict Cumberbatch. He also said something interesting about the problems of setting Sherlock Holmes in period, where the background details become more important than the adventure.

Later this month, I've got to give a talk at the Royal Observatory about the proper science in the sci-fi nonsense I knock out, so I'm nicking that.

Glass of vino with some chums afterwards – some of whom I'd not seen in an aeon – and then curry. Was a bit starey-eyed and tired after the long weekend, but don't think I did anything too foolish. Or at least, no more foolish than normal. Now pelting through a big thing that needs writing that's not yet been announced, while on Thursday I think I have to be a policeman. More on that in due course...

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"Come, do your husband's bidding!"

To the posh singing last night as a first birthday treat for the Dr. Scarlet Opera's Orfeo ed Euridice is on until Saturday at the Bridewell Theatre and very good it is too.

For those who don't know their Greek mythology (or haven't read the Sandman comic), Orfeo has just married Euridice when she only goes and dies. He's a bit miffed about this, so heads down to the Underworld to grab her back. The deal is he can lead her up to Earth again so long as he doesn't look at her until they both back out in the open. And he's not allowed to tell her why he can't look at her, either. So all the way up, she's wheedling and nagging. And he can't help but glance round...

The 1762 operatic version by the splendidly named Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck plonks on a deus ex machina happy ending which maybe misses the whole point (and I presume means this Orpheus doesn't get torn apart by Crazy Ladies). It's a smallish show - three leads and a chorus of five. But that suits baroque opera well, and means the voices and diction is all quite distinct.

It's also an effectively simple production. The only set is a lot of dry ice and a line of hanging branches, through which ghosts can step eerily. The performers wore simple robes, and when the chorus appear as the Furies they've got hoods and masks that made me think of ninjas. Orfeo wears a small dagger in his belt which, until he then wants to use it in Act Three, I thought was some kind of compensation for his being played by a lady.

Oh yes: Orfeo and Euridice are both played by ladies. There is girl-on-girl kissing and everything. Bargain.

Afterwards there were drinks and much earnest discussion of how women are judged by their bits, and then a long trek home through the pouring rain. We got chips and soaked but had a splendid night.

Am off to Brussels tomorrow in the next stage of the Dr's birthday. But two bloggers to follow just at the moment: George Orwell blogs from this day in 1939, on the declaration of war. It's worth working through his earlier posts on the lead-up, too. He's got a canny eye for detail as he scans the various papers, and he also let's you know what the weather's like.

Meanwhile, yesterday in 1666, Samuel Pepys was woken to news of London going up in smoke. It's a terrific, vivid bit of reportage. Though no mention of the role played by the Terileptils.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Shaw thing

The spangly seventh issue of free Big Finish magazine Vortex includes news of a new thing of mine. "Shadow of the Past" will be out in March next year. It features the return of the Third Doctor Who's scientist pal Liz Shaw, as played by Caroline John, recounting an adventure to a UNIT soldier played by Lex Shrapnel - off of New Minder and the Thunderbirds movie.

Meanwhile my chums on the Audio Time Team have nice things to say about Home Truths and about The Drowned World - the latter of which the new issue of Doctor Who Magazine describes as "magnificent". Christian Cawley at Kasterborous also thinks it,
"a work that succeeds in telling at least 4 stories at once that rich in mood, tone and dialogue and thoroughly enjoyable."

Michael Simpson has reviewed my Primeval book for the Blogger News Network, and thinks it,
"an entertaining, undemanding entry in the Titan series that should satisfy fans of the series and anyone who wants to get a taste of what the show is about. It was a quick and enjoyable read that left me looking forward to the next novel. Hopefully that won’t be too long coming."
Which I guess is okay. As Scott says, its tempting to wade in and point out where reviews are wrong, how they haven't spotted your genius or aren't looking at it in the right context. But that's not how this works. You write the thing as best you can then take the custard pies.