Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Thin Man

This week, I finished Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man (1932), a gripping, twisty thriller in which a former detective comes back to New York and gets caught up in a murder investigation involving people he once worked for. It's a brilliant, clever and funny book - and though I saw the ending some miles off, the delight is as much in how Hammett gets there as what that ending is.

His is a broken world, where pretty much everyone is flawed and/or broken. Our hero, Nick Charles, is a hard-drinking cynic, who can spot the threads of the mystery only because he's got such a jaded view of humanity. He's usually one step ahead of the other reprobates in the story - the drunks and hoodlums, the bullying cops and wild children - and his only reward is to get roughed up and shot. Women can't help falling in love with him - or are they throwing themselves at him in exchange for something else?

Nick keeps telling people he's no longer a detective and that he's not taken the case, but the more he insists the less people believe him. Besides, his wife Nora is fascinated in the unravelling gossip and scandal, and it's Christmas - so they spend their whole time being invited to drinks with the people who are involved.

Nora's a fascinating character - the only nice person in the whole story. I absolutely love her reaction at the end as Nick finally spells out the mystery - she gets the last line of the book:
"'That may be,' Nora said, 'but it's all pretty unsatisfactory.'"
Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man (1932), p. 190.

There are all sorts of stylist flourishes. A lot of the time, Nick plays dumb, refusing to say what he thinks is going on or what he thinks of particular people - "I don't know" could be his catchphrase - which means we're all the more eager to get inside his head. The first few chapters are all very short - many no more than two pages - which really helps us get caught up in the story. The dialogue is sparky and sassy, and often gets interrupt-

Which makes the scenes feel frenetic. In some ways, the rickety-click of the dialogue and the revelations give it the feel of a bedroom farce, only with brutal murders and psychosis. It's easy to see why Hammett's work made such good movies. (As well as straight adaptations, his influence can be seen in films such as Yojimbo and Millers Crossing (one of my favourite ever films). My chum Eddie Robson writes about that in his excellent Coen brothers book.)

The Thin Man is not the best of Hammett's five novels - that, I think, is Red Harvest (1929), followed by The Maltese Falcon (1930). But it's clever, concise and compelling adventure - and a masterclass in writing a thriller.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Asa Briggs at Bletchley Park

Earlier this month, at a lunch to celebrate my great-aunt's 90th birthday, I was surprised to learn that she'd worked in Hut 3 at Bletchley Park in the war, translating the top secret messages snaffled from the enemy. I asked her what she remembered of her time there.

"The cold," she said.

I asked her about the work she'd done, and - since she spoke French and German - what secret stuff she might have been privy to. She took my arm and leaned forward earnestly.

"You must understand," she said, and I expected her to tell me that it was all too long ago, or that there was still an obligation not to speak of it. But she went on: "It was perishing cold."

The next day, my dad sent me a link to my great-aunt Althea's memories of her time at Bletchley Park, and the Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 devoted an episode to Bletchley Park and code-breaking with special guest Dr Sue Black. I also stared reading Secret Days - historian Asa Briggs' account of his own time at BP, published in 2011 as Briggs turned 90.

The Dr is a big fan of Briggs - especially his books on the Victorians and his history of broadcasting in the UK - and went to hear him speak recently. Secret Days is a little disappointing, too rambling and anecdotal and more like an extended interview than a comprehensive history in itself. The best bits, the Dr felt, are the 36-page introduction to BP, the nine-page "Selected Chronology" and the six-page "Further Reading".

This latter section is exhaustive, with a good sense of how accounts have developed as BP's secret work has been declassified over the years. There's a huge and growing amount of material on the subject, and Briggs himself admits that his own contribution is not the place to start. Rather, it's a response to this huge wealth of material, his own memories of what he did and its context while he's still able to share them. As he says in the book - and the Dr said happened when she went to see him - Briggs is asked more about his short time at BP than any other part of his life and work.

What is the appeal of BP? I've argued before that the interest in spies is the idea of one man (it is usually a man) with only his wits and courage, working against all the odds in the midst of enemy territory. With BP, there's a sense of brain beating brawn, the boffins in their freezing huts running rings round the brute force of the Nazis. It's more complicated than that - and Briggs details his own rough treatment in training, by soldiers who didn't appreciate brains - but BP still offers a not-quite fantasy of geeks winning the war.

Briggs acknowledges this interest with good grace - and deserved pride - and says in his (very good) introduction that he felt obliged to give this testimony of his time. The book needs to be read in that context - not as a definitive work on the subject but as an additional source. Often, he directs us to other sources or accounts with a cursory remark.
“A memorandum by [Brigadier ET] Williams [Montgomery's intelligence chief] on the use of Ultra in the field in military operations (WO208/3575), labelled Top Secret, is one of the most interesting documents on the subject produced during the war.” 
Asa Briggs, Secret Days (2011), p. 18.
But there are nuggets of telling detail and concise, clear exposition that attest to his skill as a historian. Briggs mentions an awful lot of people and the ways they are connected, which is quite a tangle in my head. But there are also great asides about interesting characters.
“The great city of Smyrna in Asia Minor in which George McVittie, head of the BP section cracking weather codes, was born was an unusual starting point for many of his later journeys. After the war he taught mathematics at King's College, London, where one of his pupils was the writer of science-fiction, Arthur C. Clarke. McVittie subsequently crossed the Atlantic to the University of Illinois, where he worked in radio astronomy, building a radio telescope. In 1958 his colleagues published in Nature some of the earliest orbital data relating to Sputnik 1.” 
Ibid., p. 50.
There's nice little details, too, like naming the civil servant, Martin Roseveare, at the Ministry of Food, who was,
“said to have invented the ration card and the points system.” 
Ibid., p. 62.
He's also good on other telling details, describing how a Welsh colleague was taken in for questioning by the authorities because of his suspiciously un-Anglo Saxon name: Hrothgar Habakkuk.
Hugh Trevor-Roper was to have a somewhat similar experience in 1940. Strolling through the Cornish countryside and looking, as he admitted, scruffy in his unbuttoned uniform, he was arrested by the Home Guard on suspicion of being a spy.” 
Ibid., p. 57.
Even so, Briggs and his friends were still writing to each other in German - discussing obscure German poetry, apparently - without incurring the wrath of the censor. I loved these rare, strange insights, so unlikely and so real.

Briggs is excellent, too, on what exactly was needed to break the German cyphers - and  keen to correct the idea that BP was all genius mathematicians. Briggs doesn't stint in his praise for Turing, but also places his work alongside the other people at BP. For one thing, there were 10,000 people at BP at its peak. But Briggs also argues that historians - like himself - had a particular skill set that was vital to BP's work. It wasn't only maths and the invention of the computer.

The key thing was to spot "cribs" - or anticipate words and phrases that the coded messages would contain. That might be the use of the same opening or closing words, proper nouns such as place names or commanding officers, "Heil Hitler" or messages that comprised nothing but "Nicht zu melden" ("Nothing to report").
“Historians could make excellent cribsters since they were usually well-read, drawn to lateral thinking, and taught to get inside the mind of people totally different from themselves. Senders were good prey. Many Y Service interceptors would have made good cribsters too. They were capable of imagining what their German opposite numbers were like by tracking their habits and styles which did not change when there were changes in the frequencies they were using and even the keys. Many what might be thought of as 'hunches' were genuine insights. Concentration and insight were almost as valuable BP qualities as mathematics, and fortunately many mathematicians, such as Herivel, possessed them.”
Ibid., p. 78 
This made me think of two things. First, it chimed with CP Snow's 1959 lecture on The Two Cultures, and the importance of the sciences and humanities working together. Snow, Briggs reveals, was involved in recommending Oxbridge graduates for intelligence work - including at BP. He was, Briggs recalls,
“the ugliest man I had ever seen”. 
Ibid., p. 57.  
Second, it reminded me of Commander Millington in Doctor Who and the Curse of Fenric, sitting in an exact replica of his German opposite number's rooms, to “think the way the Germans think”. That always seemed a rather fanciful idea to me, but Briggs gives it much more credence. (I'm assuming Ian Briggs, who wrote Fenric, is not a relation of Asa's.)

Briggs then proceeds to concisely explain the “technical side to cribbing”, including three key features without which BP's work would have been much harder: 
“First, the machine would never show up the same letter in an encrypted message as was there in the original text. A would never appear as A; any other letter was possible. Second, the letter coding was reciprocal: if A appeared as B, B would appear as A. Third, Enigma did not encrypt numbers: the numbers always had to be spelt out in letters.” 
Ibid., p. 78
But the work owed as much to lateral thinking, psychology and human foibles as it did to mechanical factors:
“Likewise – and this had nothing to do with the make-up of a machine – it would have been difficult for decypherers to find enough letters to make up a menu from a crib had not the Germans liked to incorporate the names, ranks and addresses of the senders and receivers in their texts. They also like going over old ground in standard format when they dealt with supply, administration and planned schedules.” 
Ibid., p. 79 
Briggs also talks of an attitude to intelligence work at BP, reflected in the way its huge number of staff still kept the secret well into the 1970s and beyond. My great-aunt still rather sees the declassification of material about Enigma as a distasteful lapse in security. The back cover of Secret Days says,
"Briggs himself did not tell his wife about his wartime career until the 1970s and his parents died without ever knowing about their son's contribution to the war effort."

He's good on the different stages at which things were made public, and the battles fought to keep them secret. He explains how not being able to mention the work they'd done in the war affected some people finding work later. Again, he's often good on the detail of this covert stuff:
“Enigma was never referred to as such. Synonyms included 'Boniface', 'an unimpeachable source', and, simplest of all, 'special stuff'.” 
Ibid., p. 95.
He's withering about Ian Fleming, too, and seems - without quite spelling it out - to be particularly appalled at Fleming's indiscretion in naming his Jamaican home "Goldeneye" after a secret and then still classified mission. Briggs contrasts Fleming's love of the "drama" of intelligence work with Fleming's boss - Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence from 1939 to 43, and, Briggs claims, the model for M. 

Two quotations from Godfrey tells us all we need to know about his cool attitude to intelligence work - an attitude Briggs clear shares. First, there's a memorandum Godfrey wrote in 1941:
“Intelligence ... is only rarely dramatic; its true basis is research, and the best results are usually obtained from the continuous study of insignificant details which, though singly of little value, are collectively of great importance.” 
Ibid., p. 127.
That's basically the point of the first episode of The Sandbaggers. Godfrey, Briggs tells us,
“also framed the cool precept: 'The value of a source ... is almost invariably greater than any given piece of information that source produces.” 
Ibid., p. 128.
In those two remarks I could read a whole culture. But Briggs is at his withering best when he makes a fleeting reference to Fleming's James Bond novels:
 “The women in them were somewhat different from the hundreds of women who worked in BP”. 
Ibid., p. 127.
There were a lot of women at BP, and their working the machines reminded Briggs of the girls working in the factories in Keighley in his youth. Briggs rather glosses over them - women mentioned by name are usually the wives of the men he's talking about. I wondered perhaps if Briggs was being coy - or naive - about what might have gone on, or if things were just more innocent. He mentions crowded trains heading down to wild parties in London, but otherwise only of,
“chatting to girls who had frequently been highly educated”. 
Ibid., p. 84.
Education is key, too, in the BP story. Briggs bristles at the term “Oxbridge” and the idea that BP was all tied to particular colleges and public schools, yet the same names recur throughout – King's, Sidney Sussex, Eton, Marlborough and Sherborne – with the connections between tutors and their former pupils of lasting importance. Indeed, when speaking of the engineer to whom the first digital computer Colossus owed most, Briggs thinks it worth noting (because it's so unusual) that,
Tom (Tommy) Flowers, who had no Cambridge or indeed any university, connections.” 
Ibid., p. 98.
There's a chapter on Briggs leaving Bletchley and what happened next, and then one on the internal politics of the trust that has taken over the BP site. Briggs concludes by talking about the renewed interest in the "remarkable personality" of Turing and the efforts to celebrate him, and rectify the grave injustice done. That sits oddly, I felt, because the book otherwise is good evidence that BP was not down to the genius of particular individuals - however brilliant they were and however much their work transformed life as we now know it. Rather, it was the result of a huge, tangled and extraordinary group effort, one we're just beginning to make sense of, far too late for many of those who took part.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Digging the Past: Archaeology on TV - BFI 19 January

The Dr has been helping the splendid fellows at the British Film Institute with an event on 19 January where you can watch a load of old telly about archaeology. There now follows a short public service announcement:
Date: 19 January 2013 | Time: 4pm | Location: BFI Southbank, NFT2, Belverdere Road, London SE1 8XT | Price: Non BFI members £10 (£6.75- concessions) | Age group: ANY |
In association with the Institute of Archaeology and the British Film Institute, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology presents three sessions looking at the way television has portrayed archaeology. Starting with early televised newsreels of excavations and discoveries including footage from 1949 taken in Cairo to more recent programmes including the controversial Romer's Egypt. The presentations cover the often eccentric characters including the legendary Mortimer Wheeler and an interview with Dorothy Eady otherwise known as Omm Seti. The end session focuses on ancient Egypt as seen by TV fiction writers with something to please everybody from the BBC's Cleopatras to Doctor Who.
020 7679 4138 | Booking through BFI box office or tel 0330 333 7878
Of particular excitement to me is the stuff with Mortimer Wheeler - "Archaeologist and Man of Action" as I blogged last year.

Incidentally, Wheeler also makes a brief appearance in the bit I wrote for Many Happy Returns, a special 20th anniversary adventure for space archaeologist Bernice Summerfield, all the proceeds of which go to charity. Producer / Evil Genius Scott Handcock has also tumblred credits as to who wrote what.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Doctor Who and the Runaway Bogey

Issue #297 of Doctor Who Adventures, out in shops tomorrow, features a comic strip by me. "The Runaway Bogey" is, says the magazine's deputy editor, "the most disgusting comic we’ve ever done". I cannot imagine higher praise.

Last week, Doctor Who itself was 49 years old, and the DWA gang celebrated by watching the very first episode during our lunch break. You can read what we thought of "An Unearthly Child" on the Doctor Who Adventures website.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The writing of The Judgement of Isskar

On 29 January 2009, the Big Finish website posted my diary of writing Doctor Who: The Judgement of Isskar. That post is now long-since deleted, so here it is in case anyone cared.


Simon Guerrier, the writer of Doctor WhoThe Key 2 Time - The Judgement of Isskar, opens up his diary of the production...

18 December 2007
As detailed in my post about the writing of Home Truths, it began with drinks at Jason Haigh-Ellery’s swanky club in London. He, David Richardson, Nigel Fairs and me discuss the wheeze of a new mini-series. The Doctor will once again have to search out the six segments of the Key to Time, over three releases. He’ll be helped by two living “tracers”, who’ll develop over the series.
I bagsy the first story because I really want to create a new assistant for the Doctor. We knock some ideas back and forth and I think I have a rough idea of the story. But it needs to be written quickly, as we want to book Peter Davison just after he has come out from his stint on Spamalot!
Later Joseph Lidster joins us and we drink Champagne. Joe is glamorous like that.

19 December
I send in my first, 1,964-word outline for a story called “TBC”. That’s not me being post-modern, I just haven’t thought of a title. Episode one ends with the return of an old friend of the Doctor’s.
Later that day, David says it would be nice if the first segment “was something other than a rock”. Episode three is also too much like Dead London and / or Brave New Town. I suggest changing the setting to Blackpool – the segment could be the tower!
Strangely, no one is won over. Anyway, Jonathan Clements is writing the second story which will be set on Earth. I say I’ll try to limit myself to the rest of the universe.

20 December
My second, 2,146-word outline incorporates a whole day of email discussion with the chiefs. I’m asked to incorporate snake venom, to set up something in the final release of the series. It’s only writing this blog that I realise it now doesn’t feature in The Chaos Pool.
David vetoes setting the opening scene in a disco. And episodes two and three are too much like The Dark Husband. I’ll need to think of something else.
We also discuss titles. I suggest, “The Unravelling”, “The Unravelling of Time”, “The Collapse of Time” and “No Name”. There is a long and terrible silence…

31 December
I send round draft three of an outline, now called “The Collapse of Time”. It is 2,278 words and the opening disco has been swapped for a war. “War or disco?” says David. “Only on Doctor Who…”

3 January 2008
Notes from Alan Barnes on the series as a whole. He thinks the first episode of mine is too like The Boy That Time Forgot, and worries that overall it lacks structure. I suggest replacing the old friend with an old monster: “We’ve never done Terileptils, have we?”
David suggests “an Ice Warrior story set at the height of their empire...”.
We also discuss Manichaeism, Robert McKee’s “Story” and names for our new assistant. I google girls’ names and their meanings.

4 January
Nick Briggs confirms he has no plans to use the Ice Warriors in 2009; we just need to check that the BBC are happy for us to use them.

7 January
Now called “The Gods of War”, I send round a rough 758-word synopsis to check I’ve got the main bits of the story right. “At this stage, the Ice Warriors are a bit Generic Monster, in case we don't get permission to use them. I've much more detailed notes, but want to keep it brief at this stage.”

8 Janaury
The Doctor Who team in Cardiff confirm we can use the Ice Warriors. Everything is looking good…

9 January
David thinks the title is too like the Unbound story Masters of War, out a month before my one. So my 2,826-word outline (draft four) is now called “The March to Destruction”. The two tracers are called “Eve” and “Janus” – though that’s still subject to improvement.

10 January
Alan has notes on my outline. “Overall, this is an improvement on the first, but it needs sharpening up and ridding of the really obvious pompous, portentous and pretentious labelling that's dragging it right down at present.” He’s got a list of points for me to work through.
I grumble to myself. Especially since every one of them is right.

11 January
David also has his own notes. “My one concern,” I respond, “is with ‘Eve’ being able to teleport. If she can do that, she and the Doctor can get out of any jeopardy just by her thinking about it.” We come up with a solution that meets some of Alan’s concerns too. We also discuss the names – and how our tracers gain them. I suggest “Julia” – at random. Jason likes “Amy” and “Zara”.
Draft five, featuring Amy and Zara, is 3,578 words long and features pan-dimensional handbags.

12 January
David sends round some notes beefing up the background of the two tracers. He suggests that “Zara has chosen another traveller (not the robot featured in Simon's outline) – a more ruthless, dangerous man…” He suggests a few other things which also all end up in the final story.

13 January
Alan provides some useful notes that help the structure of my story. Now, over three Acts, I’ve got moments he’s marked “Call to Adventure”, “Refusal”, “Crossing the Threshold”, “Supreme Ordeal”, “Reward” and “Resurrection”.

14 January
Draft six is 4,132 words long. I suggest a new title, “The March to Oblivion”. David counters with “Six Segments to Extinction”, “The Harbingers of Doom” and “Something deadly, doomy, gloom gloom gloom?”
I suggest “Martian Law” and then “The Race Against Time” – which I really like because it’s got several meanings in the story.
We’re racing against time ourselves, with the outline still not agreed. David doesn’t want Amy “gaining a sense of humour from the segment”, so I tweak the outline, and then tweak it again.
Draft eight still doesn’t seem to be doing what Alan and David want, and they’ve asked me to ignore some of their earlier comments and swap things back to how they were. It’s frustrating; we seem so close to something really exciting, but it’s just not quite working right.
I amalgamate everyone’s comments into one long email and tick them off one by one. “Easy ones first, and then there's things I am - shockingly - daring to dispute.”
Jonathan Clements, meanwhile, is only on draft three of his outline. The slacker.

15 January
Over the phone with David, we agree what needs to be done. Draft nine comes in at 4,898 words. In the accompanying email, I flag up a change of emphasis. “Amy and Zara are consciously aping the people they learn from, rather than automatically taking on attributes. This makes them less like C'rizz, and means I can also make them less blank-slate zombies when we first meet them.”
I’ve stolen this from Eddie Robson; in his book on the Coen brothers’ films, he notes that this is what the Dude does in The Big Lebowski.
Draft nine, and Jonathan’s draft three, go off to the BBC. Amazingly, they’re approved that day – I think David might have begged. Now I have until 11 February to deliver the scripts. But Jason would also like some scenes in advance, so he can audition Amys and Zaras.

20 January
I deliver the first draft of what will be my first scene – its seven pages long and 999 words, and includes the words “gin and tonic”. The Doctor is travelling with Tegan and Turlough (though he’s not with them in the scene). David asks me to change that to Peri. Jason worries that “pan-dimensional handbags” were used in an Iris Wildthyme play, so I change them to satchels.

29 January
I’m well into writing. David lets me know Jason will be directing mine, with Lisa Bowerman directing the rest of the mini-series. He’s also in the last stages of confirming the writer for the final story. And he’s spoken to Justin Richards who asks how my story ties in with events in Red Dawn. I promise to re-listen to that story.

6 February
I send Jonathan and David a draft of my first two episodes, so they can see how Amy and Zara are coming along. David tells me to forward them to our Third Man – now revealed as Peter Anghelides.

10 February
A draft of the whole thing goes round the houses. Peter Anghelides says some nice things – but then he’s in a good mood that day having just been rung up by David Tennant.

12 February
David Richardson has a “passing fancy” – that Jonathan and Peter should try and copy the style of the opening of my episode three. Hooray – a note I don’t have to deal with! I get on with packing for the Gallifrey convention in Los Angeles – and after that a holiday.

14 February
David sends me notes from him and Alan. Alan suggests a new title – The Judgement of Isskar, and there’s comments marked “Zara’s agenda” and “Superwomen”. I am too busy schmoozing with celebrities to answer.

15 February
David sends me a note on Scene 52. But I am still busy schmoozing. He rings me, and we agree I’ll get the rewrites done in the next week, while I’m on the beach in Melbourne.

20 February
Melbourne is wet and grey so I spend a day at the laptop. I can only find three things with which to disagree with Alan and David. I think we should keep the segue between Scenes 3 and 4, and the one between Scenes 11 and 12. I also dispute that Scene 27 should be “less I, Claudius”; I’ve based it on my experience of working in the House of Lords.
I then trek down to the internet café with the script on a USB dongle. The internet café doesn’t have Microsoft Office, so I can't open the Word file. But I send my rewrites with a list of 13 other possible titles – none of which my masters like.

5 March
Back in London, I quickly work through a list of small tweaks from David – most of them typos or slight rephrasing. Wembik no longer uses the word “okay”, and the fifth Doctor is made to sound less like the tenth.

10 March
David seems happy with the script, but asks me to rework the climax as a separate, standalone scene. “We're auditioning Amys and Zaras again on Friday, but there are so few scenes of them actually together. And if they are together, other people are in the scene too.” I get it done that afternoon, and then David suggests something else…

15 March
As requested, I send David an 808-word outline for a Companion Chronicle featuring Zara and her boyfriend Zinc. David sends me notes the next day – “Let's not have the Doctor in it. Let's be bold!” So the haggling begins once again… Eventually, Zara and the seventh Doctor’s assistant Ace will share a cell in The Prisoner’s Dilemma. And the Doctor shows up after all.

31 March
David confirms that The Judgement of Isskar has been signed off, and will be recorded on 24-25 April. I can come along if I behave. I ask who he’s cast as Amy and Zara.

1 April
David responds by text: Penelope Keith and Brenda Fricker.

Then I notice the date…

The Judgement and Isskar and The Prisoner's Dilemma are now available to buy on CD and download

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The writing of Home Truths

On 10 December 2008, the Big Finish website posted a blog entry about the writing of the Doctor Who story Home Truths. The blog - and that post - have long since vanished, so on the off-chance anyone cares, here it is again.


House Proud
How long does it take to write a Doctor Who audio? Simon Guerrier, author of the Companion Chronicle Home Truths, checks his diaries…

Tuesday 11 December 2007, about 09.00 
I’m wending my way through Notting Hill on the 52 bus, off to a freelance job writing a sticker book, when I bump into Nigel Fairs. He’s off to Big Finish’s usual studios and we gossip about what we’re both up to. The Wake is finished so my duties on Benny are over. I’ve got to type up my notes on How The Doctor Changed My Life, but otherwise I’m not doing much. Ever tactful, Nigel says we should work on something again soon.

Wednesday 12 December, 15.36
An email from David Richardson. Nigel has suggested me for something they’re planning, “a 5th Doctor mini-series that is a sequel to the Key to Time series, for release in 2009”. Can I come along to “a preliminary writers’ meeting for either the morning of Wednesday 19 or the afternoon of Wednesday 20,” at Jason Haigh-Ellery’s swanky club in London? No, I can’t – I’m still writing a sticker book. “You’re fired,” says David.

Thursday 13 December, 20:20
“How busy are you in the early months of 2008?” asks David Richardson. “Besides the Key 2 Time... I'm gonna be producing the third series of Companion Chronicles, and wondered if you'd be interested in writing one...”. 

Tuesday 18 December, after 18.30
The preliminary writers’ meeting. We drink posh drinks in posh surroundings and discuss the bare bones of Key 2 Time. I meet David Richardson in the flesh for the first time and beg to be allowed to write for Sara Kingdom. I’ve got this wheeze for the framing sequence, of an older Sara recalling her adventures with the Doctor even though she died as a young woman. David says he’d like a historical story – or at least something very different from the sci-fi adventures Sara enjoyed onscreen.

Wednesday 19 December, 13.55
I send round my first outline for what will one day be The Judgment of Isskar. Some things survive to the final version – the fifth Doctor, the Key to Time, the last scene of part four. Everything else – new companions called Mary and Angie, the return of an old friend of the Doctor’s, a fake London of 2009 – gets binned over the next few weeks.

Wednesday 24 December, some time in the afternoon
I make my first notes on the Sara Kingdom story, in which the TARDIS visits a spooky family home at Christmas. The gist of the final story is there in the outline. I’m stealing the second character – who I’ll later name after my friend Robert Dick – from the Superman comic strip “For Tomorrow”. 

Sunday 30 December, 18.21
I send David a rough 500-word outline for “The House of Pleasure”, “a science-fiction twist on a haunted house story, perhaps with a Christmas flavour like the BBC’s old MR James adaptations.” David is pleased, wants it “to drip with that black and white TV feeling” but worries the title sounds rude. I suggest “Home Comforts” and “House Proud” while he contacts Jean Marsh’s agent.

Thursday 3 January 2008, 12.17
“HOOOOOOOOOOORAY!” says David’s email. Jean Marsh has agreed to reprise Sara Kingdom. I resend my outline to David for passing to Big Finish script editor Alan Barnes. I explain that “I've changed it from House of Pleasure to House of Judgment, which is also the name of a prose poem by Oscar Wilde. Which, of course, I knew beforehand.”

Friday 4 January, 18.42
“Cute,” says Alan, and points out that “Stephen” should be spelled with a “v”. Whoops. He also says: “It's a spooky house at Christmas. The Chimes of Midnight is probably the single most highly regarded BF production. It's kind of cornered the market in spooky houses at Christmas. I think it'd be more interesting to make it a crazy space house, in an abandoned futuristic Ideal Home exhibition or something.”

Sunday 6 January, 11.50
I send Alan and David a 1,200-word outline for “The House of Judgment”, this time detailing the progression of events in the story. Alan suggests we call it “Dream Home”. He also feels that once Sara knows what’s happening it ends too quickly. “My instinct would be to go for a realisation-ordeal-resolution sort of thing, where Sara realises what's going on but something gets in the way.”

Monday 7 January, 10.38
I send David a revised outline, now called “Home Truths”. David reminds me it needs to be in two episodes, so I add a cliffhanger. We get back to discussing my Key 2 Time outline: whether I can use the Ice Warriors and whether new companions Eve and Janus should both travel with the Doctor in part one.

That script becomes the priority for the next few months. Then David wants me writing a completely different Companion Chronicle linking to the Key 2 Time. Zara (formerly Janus) will share a cell with Ace in The Prisoners’ Dilemma.

17 April, 12.32
The synopsis for Home Truths has been approved by the estate of Terry Nation – who created Sara Kingdom. The BBC approves it too, with a couple of minor changes.
A week later, we record all three Key 2 Time plays. In May, I’m busy writing – and rewriting – The Prisoners’ Dilemma and then the first draft of Home Truths.

Monday 2 June, 10.24
I send David the first draft of Home Truths. I check Lisa Bowerman is directing the story because I’ve an idea for part two…

Thursday 5 June, 14.50
Jacqueline Rayner provides some additional comments on the script – “structurally it seems fine, they're mainly small niggles”. I make these changes that afternoon and also suggest that, as per Doctor Who of the time, the story should have individual episode titles. I suggest “The Dream House” for part one followed by “Home Truths”. David stares at me strangely.

Wednesday 11 June, 10.55
The BBC approves the script. David has to book it into studio and we need to cast someone to play Robert. 

Monday 16 June, all day
Recording of The Prisoners’ Dilemma. I go along, get in the way and talk to Lisa Bowerman about the feel of Home Truths. She listens with heroic patience. 

Thursday 19 June, 10.25
I answer David’s questions about my two Companion Chronicles for a forthcoming feature in Doctor Who Magazine.

Tuesday 3 July, 11.54
I provide David with blurbs and liner notes for both Companion Chronicles. I mention that, with Home Truths, Sara has been in more Doctor Who episodes than Captain Jack Harkness. David cuts that bit.

Monday 7 July, 14.59
David tells me Home Truths will be recorded on 8 September, since Jean Marsh is in a play until then. I check my diary. Drat! I’ll be in Seville.

Friday 18 July, 18.33
I enthuse to David and Simon Holub about the cover for Home Truths, which has been put up on the Big Finish website. Simon sends me a large version of the artwork. Hooray!

Monday 8 September, 12.44 (local time)
I text David to see how the recording is going, while stood in front of the cathedral glimpsed in The Two Doctors. Then I have an ice cream.

Saturday 18 October, 15.43
Paul Wilson, who runs the Big Finish website, kindly provides me with a download of Home Truths, which has gone off to be pressed. I’m meant to be doing my tax return. Instead I am grinning and giggling. Cor, it’s so much better than I’d hoped. I send an email to David Darlington thanking him for the impressive sound design. Only it wasn’t him who did it.

Wednesday 12 November
The huddled masses are able to download Home Truths from the Big Finish website and the CDs are posted out.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Vision On: Bleach for Kids

M'colleague Web of Evil shared with me the wonder that is Vision On - A Book Of Nonsense With Some Sense In It, an annual tied in to the TV show Vision On, published by the BBC in 1970 and on sale for 12s 6d. (My edition, obviously, came from the wonder that is Abebooks.)

It's edited by the show's producer Patrick Dowling, with contributions from presenters Tony Hart and Pat Keysell. The first page explains that,
"This is a sort of alphabet book for anyone who likes painting or drawing". 
But, just to be different, it's not in alphabetical order and starts with L (for lightning). Over 60 pages, it takes the precocious child reader through everything from photographic effects to sign language, with all sorts of things to experiment with rather than copy and a lot of terrible jokes. The black-and-white photo-strips of a tortoise called Humphrey being grumpy with a small girl called Susanne are chillingly surreal.

The book is a fascinating snapshot of another world, and there's loads to enjoy in its range and the effort that's clearly been put in to being both concise and extraordinary. The design is unsophisticated compared to modern kids' publishing, but they've struggled to make the most of the cut-and-paste layout and (mostly) two-colour printing.

I love the full page portrait of Winston Churchill made from Ms, Vs, 1s, &s and full stops.
"In fact this picture was made by computer ... The computer input scans a photograph deciding how grey each tiny area is, choosing a letter to match, and then the outline printer rattles it off." 
How mad that the subject for this display of cutting-edge technology is the late and reactionary Prime Minister. But best of all is page 36, which encourages readers to experiment with bleach.

More about Vision On at It's Prof Again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On writing Blake's 7

The tyrannical forces from the Horizon website have interrogated me and posted my full confession about writing Blake's 7. I am just off to be shot.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Virgin Media Shorts Award 2012

On Thursday, the nice people at Virgin Media organised a showbiz soiree and awards ceremony for those of us what got shortlisted in the Virgin Media Shorts competition 2012. First, director Tom spent the afternoon at the BFI schmoozing with the other directors, getting good tips and free booze. Here is an exclusive photo he took from that part of the day:

Me, Adrian Mackinder and Mrs Tom had special pink VIP tickets for the evening do (which I think meant we had to queue longer than the people with bog ordinary tickets, but anyway). We were given nice booklets with interviews with each of the shortlisted directors, including Tom doing his best impression of Sir Roger Moore:

NB That interview talks about what we hope will be our next project, though I prefer "Coronation punk" to "atompunk". The main ticket area of the BFI sported cool displays of props and behind-the-scenes photos from the 13 films.

Above our heads were the amazing posters produced to promote our films. Here is our one:

Then us pink-ticketed VIPs were called to take our seats for the awards ceremony. You can see that I took the instruction on my ticket to "dress to impress" more seriously than the other two layabouts. I mean, Tom isn't even wearing a tie. (It took me half an hour to knot that bow tie, as I think I may have told everyone.)

While we waited for the rest of the audience to show up, we drank small bottles of Champagne through straws. This would later turn out to be something of an error, but it seemed good fun at the time. Adrian's colleague took the below photo. Excitingly, she turned out to be the granddaughter of Colin Douglas who played Reuben in The Horror of Fang Rock. She was very impressed that I knew this. Or perhaps a little scared. And this was only the beginning of my amazing Doctor Who-related celebrity spotting.

Danny Wallace did the hosting, and Tom was called down with the other directors to receive a fancy, framed version of the poster for our film. The nice lady in green is Jennifer Sheridan who won the competition with her splendid film, Rocket.

Then they showed the 13 films. The Plotters was on first and got some good laughs. Mostly from Adrian, beside me.

Then Chief Judge Julie Walters announced the winners of the three prizes. She accidentally didn't say The Plotters and named some other films instead, but we didn't like to make a fuss.

Then it was out again into the ticket hall for booze and schmoozing and perhaps even some dance moves. I got to meet a bunch of the other directors, and said hello to Big Finish's own Lisa Greenwood who - showbizly - I'd last seen in LA, Joe Millson and Andrew and Hannah off of Primeval. I think I spotted Nina Toussaint-White from Let's Kill Hitler there, too, so it was quite a high-scoring night.

And then, oh God, there were cocktails...

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Radio Times letters: the end of Blake's 7

M'colleague M handed me a yellowed copy of the Radio Times letters page of 16-22 January 1982, with comments on the shock finale of Blake's 7. "These letters are typical of an unusually large number we have received - around 200 - following the final episode of Blake's Seven", says the editor. Neatly, they've chosen to print seven of the 200.
Radio Times letters page, 16-22 January 1982, on the end of Blake's 7
Radio Times letters page, 16-22 January 1982
There's so much to be thrilled by: the (Mrs)s, the passive aggression, the casual racism of the cartoon, the context of the other shows ending, and the editor's chilling, unspoken verdict on The Borgias: "New series of both Tenko and Angels are planned for later this year."

Also of interest: Peter Anghelides recounts his trip to TV Centre to see the finale of Blake's 7 being filmed.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

My next big thing

Paul Magrs started a thing of getting people to talk about their next big thing. Last week, Joseph Lidster did it and nominated me. So here is my response.

What is the title of your new book?
Instead of a book, Joe “Makes His Own Rules” Lidster talked about his episodes of Wizards Vs Aliens. So my next big thing is also not a book but the short film, The Plotters, which you can watch here:

(The Plotters is also on YouTube.)

Where did the idea come from for the book?
My brother Tom and I have been working together for a few years – him as a director, me as a writer / dogsbody. We made a series of documentaries for the old-skool Doctor Who DVDs, and then last year completed our first short film, Cleaning Up, a thriller starring Mark Gatiss and Louise Jameson.

Since then, Cleaning Up has been playing film festivals and getting us in to see agents and productions companies. At Shortcutz in April (where we won Best Film), Nik Powell – director of the National Film and Studio School – advised us that there was a demand for strong comedy films, and we were keen to show our range by doing something different.

We knew the deadline for the Virgin Media Shorts competition – to make a short, self-contained film of no more than 2 minutes 20 seconds – was coming up. But I also knew from experience that comedy is not necessarily my strongest area. So we looked around for help.

We’d already worked with comedy writer and producer Adrian Mackinder on another short, Revealing Diary, so took him out for drinks. Tom and I both suggested ideas for a comedy short, and then Adrian mentioned an idea he’d already been working on a while back with writer Hannah George, about Guy Fawkes and the Plotters. We thought it was brilliant, so – with Hannah’s kind permission – Adrian unearthed their script and we went from there…

What genre does your book fall under?
Historical comedy.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Adrian stars as Guy Fawkes. The rest of the cast was made up of good, comic actors Tom and I already knew: Barnaby Edwards and Nicholas Pegg (who I knew from Doctor Who things: they play Daleks on TV); Anthony Keetch and John Dorney (who I knew through production company Big Finish); my friend Will Howells who’s a rather good stand-up comic; and a number of fine fellows Tom knew. I also played a policeman at the end.

The first cut of the film was well over four minutes, with some amazing comic turns from the actors. They were brilliant. So it was agonising having to cut so much of that to fit the time.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?Remember, remember... who are you again?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
We posted the film to the Virgin Media Shorts competition website, and in September it was one of 13 films to make the shortlist – you can see all 13 at As a result, it’s now playing in more than 200 Picturehouse cinemas around the UK, in front of main features, as well as on Virgin OnDemand and Tivo. That’s all very exciting in itself, and then tomorrow (8 November) we find out which of the 13 films wins additional prizes.

Tom and I are not currently represented by an agency, though we’ve had some promising meetings with agents in the last few months.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Adrian provided me with his and Hannah’s original script on 24 May. My first notes followed that same day, and then we knocked it back and forth between me, Adrian and Tom. I provided them with a nearly-there draft on 2 June and we had a locked version on 9 June, although that was still titled “Five Eleven”. The next day, a friend pointed out that that joke had been done in an episode of Mongrels, so instead I, er, pinched the name of a Doctor Who book by my friend Gareth Roberts.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 
If I had no humility at all, I would say Monty Python, Blackadder or Horrible Histories.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Tom is a fierce and pitiless tyrant of a boss. We also had a limited budget and amount of time to make another short, so the competition deadline and Adrian and Hannah’s idea all fitted perfectly. There was about six weeks from deciding we were going to make the film to delivering it.

But the gag of the film is based on the famous picture of the plotters in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection:
The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605
National Portrait Gallery #334a
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
This handsome, behind-the-scenes picture:

I now have to tag five writers to continue this thing and answer the same questions on Wednesday next week. They are: Ben Aaronovitch; Scott Andrews; Niall Boyce; Andrew Cartmel and Una McCormack.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Doctor Who day at Blackwells, London this Saturday

Blackwells bookshop on the Charing Cross Road are celebrating the release of the splendid book, Doctor Who: A History of the Universe in 100 Objects with Doctor Who antics this Saturday.

Full details and book tickets from the Blackwells blog.

At 2 pm, I'll be interviewing authors James Goss and Steve Tribe about the book, then joining Joseph Lidster and Mark Morris to talk about writing novels, audiobooks and episodes, and then there's a fiendishly difficult Doctor Who quiz. Why not come along?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Frankenstein Meets Dracula" by Donald E Glut

Yesterday, m'colleague Web of Evil presented me with two fine volumes purloined from a second-hand bookshop. The first was Doctor Who: Nightshade by Mark Gatiss, now 20 years old and which I have previously blogged about.

The other volume is The New Adventures of Frankenstein: No. 4 Frankenstein Meets Dracula by Donald E Glut (who later novelised The Empire Strikes Back), published by New English Library in December 1977. The cover seems to show Boris Karloff's Frankenstein meeting, er, Mel Brooks' Dracula:

It's a slim bit of shlocky horror - 140 pages for 80p - but a joy to behold. I've only flipped through it, thrilled by the adverts at the back for the most intriguing titles:

And look at the books listed under "General":

Sadly (given the three books before it), The Long Banana Skin turns out to be an autobiography of a Goon. So I flipped back through the novel looking for a random page which might give a flavour of the story. The words "Burt Winslow's Journal" caught my eye - there's surely no more spine-tingling name in all of horror - and the prose that followed is a pretty damn perfect: