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.


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?

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