Saturday, December 24, 2022
Cinema Limbo: Give My Regards to Broad Street
Monday, December 19, 2022
Blake's 7: No Name preview
At 39:25 there are interviews with producer Peter Anghelides, me and actor Brian Croucher about the story. Then, at 1:09:53 you can hear the first 15 minutes of No Name. It's the first I've heard of the episode, and I'm thrilled.
No Name will be released later this month as part of the Allies and Enemies set, alongside stories by Lizbeth Myles and Jonathan Morris.
Blake's 7: No Name by Simon Guerrier
Everyone on Vanstone is hiding something. That’s why they are there. Hiding from her own past, Arlen wonders what has brought Roj Blake to this remote outpost.
Has Arlen uncovered a buried secret? And what does Space Commander Travis want on Vanstone?
Sasha Mitchell (Arlen); Brian Croucher (Travis); Victoria Alcock (Mac); Nigel Lindsay (Stor / Lux); Robots (Lisa Bowerman).
Sound design by Naomi Clarke, music by Jamie Robertson, directed by Lisa Bowerman.
Friday, December 16, 2022
Cleaning Up on Free Thinking
Thanks to presenter Matthew Sweet and producer Torquil MacLeod.
Tuesday, December 06, 2022
WGGB First Novel Award shortlist
The Writers' Guild of Great Britain has announced its 2023 awards shortlist, the winners to be announced at a ceremony on 16 January. As chair of the guild's books committee, I've been running the First Novel Award, and our three shortlisted titles are:
An Olive Grove in Ends by Moses McKenzie
Braver by Deborah Jenkins
The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad
Saturday, December 03, 2022
Charles Hawtrey 1914-1988 The Man Who Was Private Widdle, by Roger Lewis
“pampered with port-soaked sugar lumps, its bread and butter sprinkled with Cyprus sherry, [and] used to walk into doors and see double when chasing mice.” (pp. 70-71)
This is just one extraordinary, sad and savage anecdote in Roger Lewis's pithy biography. Lewis has been diligent in going through BBC and BFI paperwork and in talking to those who knew Hawtrey in person. As well as the cast and crew of various productions, Lewis spoke to cab drivers, publicans, neighbours, and is good on the gulf between the cheery, cheeky persona captured on film and the angry, lecherous drunk of real life.
Hawtrey's meanness is quite something:
“Of necessity [Lewis claims] he was frugal, penny-pinching. He maintained his account at the Royal Bank of Scotland (Piccadilly branch), because he believed the Scots would keep a beadier eye on their customers’ shillings. He’d lug bags of carrots from Leeds to Kent, because vegetables were cheaper in Yorkshire. He pilfered toilet rolls from public lavatories — or at least his mother did. She was notorious for wiping out supplies at Pinewood and, when rumbled, tried to flush away the incriminating evidence, which blocked the drains, closing down production on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Hawtrey was told that in future his mother would have to be locked in his dressing room.” (p. 72)
That's a fantastic a story but I'm not sure it can be true as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang began filming in June 1967 and Wikipedia claims that Hawtrey's mum Alice died in 1965. Lewis doesn't provide a source.
There's lots on money here. Hawtrey and his costars did not get rich from the Carry On films but producer Peter Rogers did. Instead, Hawtrey converted his house in Kew into bedsits — though implied to Roy Castle while making Carry on Up the Khyber in 1968 that he owned a “block of flats”. But Lewis says this enterprise didn't work out, and Hawtrey ended up being “ripped off” (p. 89). He retired to Deal, got banned from all its pubs and finally collapsed in a hotel doorway.
It's a troubled end to a troubled career. Hawtrey “never mixed with the rich and famous” (p. 12), and yet and some notable early roles. As well as playing several women on stage, he understudied Robert Helpmann as Gremio in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Old Vic, the cast including Roger Livsey as Petruchio and, in a small part, the future novelist Robertson Davies. A couple of years later, Hawtrey was in the cast of New Faces, the show that debuted Eric Maschwitz's hit song, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
But Lewis shares excerpts over three pages from polite, curt rejections from the 1940s and 50s. Then, on page 61, he gives a long list of names at the BBC that Hawtrey wrote to in radio and TV, but concludes that these were,
“all radio or television apparatchiks, and not a single one of these names rings any bells with me” (p. 61n).
In fact, the list includes television pioneer Rudolph Cartier, Cecil McGivern (Controller, then Deputy Director of Television) and Shaun Sutton (later Head of Drama). I recognised various jobbing staff directors from the drama department, and Graeme Muir from light entertainment. So Hawtrey wasn't just writing to “everybody at Broadcasting House, from the Director-General to the janitors”; this is evidence of his range and aspirations — a serious, dramatic actor as well as comic foil.
Friday, December 02, 2022
Clips from a Life, by Denis Norden
Before that, Whitaker was script editor for Light Entertainment at the BBC, at the same time that Denis Norden and Frank Muir were employed as advisers on comedy. Whitaker then succeeded Norden (and Hazel Adair) as chair of the guild. So I scoured this memoir for any telling detail.
As Norden admits, it's is a rather loose collection of memories, jotted down as they occurred to him and then assembled in rough chronological order. There's a lot on his love of puns and odd turns of phrase, and much of the history is given by anecdote. He doesn't mention Whitaker but provides some fun tales about people in the same orbit - Ted Ray, Eric Maschwitz, Ronnie Waldman, the sitcom Brothers in Law starring Richard Briers and June Barry (Whitaker's first wife), and the early days of the guild.
For example, there's the striking fact that Hazel Adair, co-creator of Compact and Crossroads, who was Norden's co-chair, “at the Guild’s first Awards Dinner opened the dancing with Lew Grade” (p. 281).
Norden's eye for comic detail means there's plenty of vivid, wry observations. I particularly liked this, on the cultures of cinema:
“During the early forties I did some RAF training in Blackpool, where I discovered the cinemas were in the habit of interrupting the main feature sharp at 4 pm every day, regardless of what point in the storyline had been reached, in order to serve afternoon tea. The houselights would go up and trays bearing cups of tea would be passed along the rows. After fifteen minutes, the lights would dim down again, the trays would be passed back and the film wold resume. Anyone unwise enough to be sitting at the end of a row at that point could be left holding stacks of trays and empty cups.” (p. 33)
Thursday, November 24, 2022
Countdown to the Moon #771
The things I held up at the beginning are:
The Moon - A celebration of our celestial neighbour (ed. Melanie Vandenbrouck, 2019), which accompanied the National Maritime Museum's exhibition The Moon
Doctor Who: Wicked Sisters (2020), in which Dr Who meets early lunar colonists all making the "great leap" in giving up their Earth citizenship. Oh, and some Sontarans.
Friday, November 18, 2022
Saturday, November 12, 2022
Doctor Who Magazine #584
Also in the mag is "Factory Records", in which me and Rhys Williams look at the set used in filming the Dalek production line sequence from the end of Episode 4 of The Power of the Daleks (1966), written by David Whitaker. So often in Doctor Who, limited time and money mean what the writer intended must be cut down to something less thrilling, but this is an example of the opposite happening. The CG recreations are by Rhys, Gav Rymill and Anthony Lamb.
There's also a Sufficient Data infographic by me and Ben Morris, this time looking at the Doctor's regenerations. I'd not seen The Power of the Doctor when I wrote the brief, or I'd have squeezed in the regeneration/deregeneration into the Master and back.
Tuesday, November 01, 2022
In other news, things are bit busy. I was in London two weekends in a row, most recently to attend the screening of the Doctor Who story The Time Meddler at the BFI, plus various clips from the forthcoming Blu-ray release, which include the documentary I worked on about original story editor David Whitaker. I'm pressing on with research for my book about Whitaker, and my other book about one of the Doctor Who stories he wrote, and I'm working on another book, and a book award, and various bits of audio drama, spec work and everything else. It is all go.
Saturday, October 15, 2022
Doctor Who Magazine #583
There's also a feature on the sets of Trap of Steel, the second episode of 1965 story Galaxy 4, by me and Rhys Williams, with CGI recreations by Rhys and Gav Rymill. There are some very good puns in the subheadings - "A Scanner in the Works", "Asphalt Jungle", "Rill Met by Moonlight". I didn't write those.
I did write this issue's "Sufficient Data", which marks the centenary of the BBC by looking at every hundredth episode of Doctor Who. As ever, the inforgraphic is by Ben Morris.
An excerpt from the documentary will be shown at the BFI in London on Saturday, 29 October, and I'm hoping to be there to see it. I'm also continuing to research the life of David Whitaker for my biography to be published next year, and this week chatted to the widow of the best man at Whitaker's second wedding.
Sunday, September 18, 2022
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
Alex Jennings reads this version, though one long section - when Helen tells her own story - is read by Jenny Agutter. That underlines that this is a woman's story largely told by a man, but written by a woman. There's a lot on gender roles here, and the constrictions imposed by sex, class and power.
What's more, the conceit that this is an account of events that really happened isn't unusual for the time, but in this case it all feels more credible than the better-known and more goth-fantastic works of Bronte's sisters, ie Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I'd need to read those again to judge whether it's more disturbing when such wicked men and part of everyday, ordinary life.
This novel builds on Anne's Agnes Grey, in which there was also a lot on the awful trap of making a bad marriage. Here, Helen is motivated to escape not by the threat to herself but to the lasting impact of her husband's behaviour on her son. He wants the boy to follow his example, and had him drinking wine and joining in the parties. In that way, it's about not bad individuals but a culture. How strange to be emerged in this as revelations came out about our now former Prime Minister partying through a crisis, "entitled" to do so by culture in which he grew up.
Saturday, September 17, 2022
Blake's 7: No Name cover and blurb
From the start of the rebellion to its brutal conclusion, Arlen has hunted for Roj Blake.Cally fights beside her. Jenna Stannis works for her. Space Commander Travis is her mentor. As she plays each side off against the other, how will Arlen decide who are allies and who are enemies?Saurian Major by Lizbeth MylesSaurian Major is a key Federation communications hub. Federation Officer Arlen undertakes an undercover mission to destroy the rebel factions that threaten it. The last person she expects to find is an Auron outcast among the humans. Will the mysterious Cally disrupt her plan?No Name by Simon GuerrierEveryone on Vanstone is hiding something. That’s why they are there. Hiding from her own past, Arlen wonders what has brought Roj Blake to this remote outpost. Has Arlen uncovered a buried secret? And what does Space Commander Travis want on Vanstone?Sedition by Jonathan MorrisJenna Stannis knows that smuggling guns will help free Solta-Minor from the Federation. And she suspects that’s not the only reason why Arlen wants her help. But Jenna doesn’t know who else is on the planet. How can Travis have survived Star One?
The cast includes Sasha Mitchell reprising her role as Arlen from the final TV episode of Blake's 7. The director is Lisa Bowerman. Produced and script edited by Peter Anghelides. Cover art by Mark Plastow.
Thursday, September 15, 2022
Doctor Who Magazine #582
On page 11 of the mag, m'colleague Paul Kirkley recalls queuing for Tom Baker's autograph at the Friar Street Bookshop in Reading back in 1997. I was there, too - and here is a photograph of me with both Tom and hair.
|Tom and me, 1997|
At the time, I'd just started my MA in science-fiction and had lofty hopes of writing things relating to Doctor Who. I'm now producing two Doctor Who audio plays starring Tom. Blimey.
Tuesday, August 23, 2022
Doctor Who Magazine #581
There are a couple of things in this issue by me, too. First, me and Rhys Williams detail the studio sets used for Episodes 1 and 2 of The Abominable Snowmen, recorded on 15 and 16 September 1967 - the latter the day on which my mum and dad got married. Rhys and Iz Skinner have then recreated this set-up in CGI. Truly, the set designers made those old TV studios bigger on the inside.
Then, to accompany the series of articles by Lucas Testro on writer Donald Cotton, including his original, hand-written drafts for 1965 story The Myth Makers, my latest "Insufficient Data" infographic is the Trojan horse as designed by the First Doctor. Ben Morris' illustration, of an outline scratched into an ostracon, is a delight - and more real history than myth.
Monday, August 22, 2022
LokI: A Bad God's Guide 1 and 2, by Louie Stowell
They're two fun adventures full of good jokes - not least where the diary Loki is keeping responds to any dishonesty in his account. There's also lots of comedy at the expense of our mundane, human world as seen by immortal gods. Loki, for example, is astonished by our "crime scenes" full of stolen loot - or, as we know them, "museums".
But there's something deeper here, in a story about a boy who wants to be good but doesn't always think about other people or consequences of actions. In the first book, there's a moral dilemma in his being able to raise a huge sum of money for charity - but only by humiliating his timid friend. The Lord of Chaos wanted to talk about that afterwards, and other bits of the story.
The second book gets into the matter of who tells heroes' stories, and which heroes are left out of these narratives. I'd very much like to see the hinted-at exploration of Cif's previously untold adventures. There's also something on the complex, tricky emotions of friendship that my children found very relatable.
Ben Willbond is a perfect narrator for this, and as well as him doing the different voices (I think there's something of Timothy West in his Odin), sound effects nicely underline some of the jokes - ie when some animal does a poo. All in all, a really good production and a good escape from the traffic.
Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Here lies David Whitaker
Today, Matthew Sweet and I journeyed out to Chiswick to find the grave of David Whitaker (1928-80), original story editor of Doctor Who and the subject of the book I'm currently writing. It's taken me some time to track down the location of the grave and I wanted to pay my respects.
Having researched David's life for so long, it was oddly emotional to actually find and stand with him. And it was a far grander grave than I'd expected, with an aptly book-shaped headstone. Matthew, who has done this sort of thing before, was ready with a bottle of water and a sponge.
Afterwards, we took the bus up to Hammersmith Bridge, on the way Matthew pointing out the house where Jon Pertwee used to live. We crossed the river -- over the spot where the TARDIS lands in The Dalek Invasion of Earth -- and went for a pint in the pub opposite Riverside Studios, where Doctor Who used to be recorded. There's a blue plaque to Verity Lambert, original producer and David Whitaker's boss. What wonders they created together. We raised a glass to them, just as the storm broke.
|David Whitaker's grave|
|Verity Lambert's blue plaque|
Doctor Who: Season 2 Blu-ray
"a deep dive into the life and career of story editor David Whitaker in LOOKING FOR DAVID."
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Doctor Who Magazine special edition - Guest Stars
- Jean Marsh (Sara Kingdom, The Daleks’ Master Plan)
- Mary Peach (Astrid Ferrier, The Enemy of the World)
- David Troughton (King Peladon, The Curse of Peladon)
- Peter Miles (Nyder, Genesis of the Daleks)
- Simon Rouse (Hindle, Kinda)
- Pauline Collins (Queen Victoria, Tooth and Claw)
- Georgia Moffett (Jenny, The Doctor’s Daughter)
- Faye Marsay (Shona, Last Christmas)
Saturday, July 30, 2022
The Day No One Woke Up, by Polly Ho-Yen
As with Boy in the Tower, this is John Wyndham for kids. We start in grounded reality and very relatable problems, and then the weirdness slowly creeps in, ever more unsettling. That means the more outlandish, sci-fi bits of the plot feel solid and real; they are earned. Without spoiling the central wheeze, it's a fun reversal - things being done to humans that humans to do others.
The conclusion satisfying ties up all the mysteries but leaves a couple of questions - what might the children remember of all they've been through, and what is the fate of the character-I-won't-spoil they encounter? A brilliant book, one that linger longer in the memory...
Saturday, July 23, 2022
Penelope Fitzgerald - A Life, by Hermione Lee
"Dillwyn had his fiftieth birthday party at the Spread Eagle Inn at Thame, a chaotic event at which the notoriously grandiose and eccentric landlord locked up all the lavatories, so that the guests had to pee in the gardens, pursued by ferocious bees, and the only food provided was a dish of boiled potatoes. (This story may have grown in Penelope's telling of it over the years.)" (p. 40)
This Dillwyn, Fitzgerald's uncle, is the Dilys Knox whose work on codebreaking at Bletchley during the war I also ready knew about. His brother Ronald is the Ronald Knox whose writings on Sherlock Holmes I've noted in the Lancet. Their brother Evoe Know, editor of Punch, was also a name I'd seen before, but I'd never made the connection between these Knox brothers, or that Fitzgerald was Evoe's daughter. The book is full of such connections - Fitzgerald's children friends with the young Ralph and Joseph Fiennes, Fitzgerald's family close to that of EH Shepard, illustrator of Winnie the Pooh.
By chance, I went to see Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD at the cinema about the same time as reading the section about Grace, the canal boat on which Fitzgerald lived in the early 1960s, and on which she based her novel Offshore. Lee tells us (p. 144) that Grace was moored opposite St Mary's Church, Battersea - which is where Peter Cushing is standing when he sees a Dalek emerge from the Thames. So the background of those shots is what inspired a Booker prize-winning novel. I initially hoped that perhaps Grace was one of the bleak-looking boats visible in the film, but Fitzgerald's modest home sadly sank in 1963, taking with it many of her prize possessions just when she had so little left to lose.
(There's another Doctor Who connection: in about 1969, Fitzgerald owned an "old 1950s car" called Bessie (p. 219), just as Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor was first motoring about in his vintage-looking kit car of the same name.)
Lee tells us when she doesn't know something, or at least can't be sure. And she's brilliant at using Fitzgerald's fiction to tease out details of the author's real life - not that anything in a novel must be based on real experience, but that the narrative is revealing of a state of mind. At one point, Lee cites the owner of the shop on which The Bookshop was based, writing to Fitzgerald in praise of the novel but underlining differences between fact and fiction (real life was, apparently, more benign). Elsewhere, we close in on a man who may be the older, married colleague we know broke Fitzgerald's heart. Lee names her suspect, and presents a good case for him being the one, then admits there's not really enough here but tantalising fragments.
There is still plenty that's unknowable - and, as Lee admits at the end, plenty that Fitzgerald kept to herself to the end. But there's a vivid portrait here, a sense of Fitzgerald as a real, complex and contradictory person. I feel I know Penelope Fitzgerald now: the person, the work, the extraordinary, often difficult life. This is more than portraiture: it is vivid history; it is animation.
I'm keen to read Fitzgerald's own work of biography, The Knox Brothers, about her father and his brothers. And I'm keen to read Human Voices, a novel based on her own experience working at the BBC during the war. And Hermione Lee's Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing looks very good, too.
Thursday, July 21, 2022
Doctor Who Magazine #580
The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine boasts a cover by Anthony Lamb showing the Daleks as they blaze into action. There's lots of coverage of the two Dalek movies from the 1960s - and of the never-made third movie, too. In "Mine Craft", me, Rhys Williams and Gavin Rymill detail - and reconstruct - the sets from the second Dalek movie.
(An odd thing to study the movie in such depth, and then go and see it on the big screen at Home in Manchester. I saw all sorts of details I'd never seen before, such as the glistening lava on the exploded Dalek castle at the end...)
There's also another "Sufficient Data" by me and Ben Morris, this time on distances Doctor Who has fallen.
Wednesday, July 20, 2022
Blake's 7: No Name
It's the first time I've written for Blake's 7 since Remnants, which came out what now feels like a lifetime ago in 2015, though I did also script edit The Offer by Peter Anghelides, in last year's The Terra Nostra set. Thanks to Peter for asking me back.
Saturday, July 16, 2022
Drunk on All Your Strange New Words, by Eddie Robson
This is a typically imaginative, clever and often funny novel by my mate Eddie Robson. It rattles along but the settings, characters and big ideas all really stick in the mind. Amy Scanlon reads the audiobook version very well - there are a lot of characters and accents, but she makes individuals distinct so we know exactly who is speaking when there is dialogue. A real pleasure of a novel.
I've been puzzling over what it reminded me of. Lydia is, I think, the latest in a line of klutzy, plucky young women Eddie tells stories about. In fact, the first chapter put me in mind of the relationship between Katrina and the alien Uljabaan in Eddie's sci-fi sitcom Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully. And that, in turn, had something of the feel of Paul Cornell's Happy Endings, in which all sorts of aliens descend on a village to attend the wedding of plucky, klutzy Bernice Summerfield - another young woman in a complex relationship with an alien being.
Lydia isn't Bernice and Fitz isn't Dr. Who, but there's an echo of the New Adventures Doctor Who books here - that mix of boggling sci-fi concepts with the ordinary domestic, the wit of it, the boozing (even if it's not exactly boozing). The result is at once dizzyingly original and comfortingly familiar. Loved it.
Friday, July 15, 2022
20 years as a freelance writer
|Dr and me, about 2002|
The idea wasn't entirely out of the blue. I'd begun to get some paid writing work - my first feature in Doctor Who Magazine, a few things for Film Review, the odd bit of copy for the customer magazines in my day job, such as the listings magazine for ITV Digital. When ITV Digital went into administration in March 2002, it hit my workplace hard. I expected to be made redundant but the payout would have covered bills for at least a couple of months. If ever there was a moment to make the leap into freelancing, this was it...
Except that I didn't lose my job and instead got promoted. I threw myself into new responsibilities, extra training, last-minute work trips. My birthday plans were cancelled so I could go to a meeting in Leicester; delays getting back from Barcelona meant I missed the wedding of some close friends. These were among a whole bunch of frustrations at work - small stuff, petty stuff, stuff that wasn't really about the job in the slightest but all about me. It took months to admit my disappointment at not having been made redundant.
So I looked into money and I talked to people. There were those in my day job who said they would employ me as a copywriter if - rarest of rarities as freelancers went - I delivered what I was asked for and on time. People who'd been made redundant from my work had since found jobs elsewhere in publishing and some could offer me work: updating spreadsheets, fiddling with Flash animation, even things involving writing. I also knew - or now introduced myself to - people in Doctor Who fandom who worked in publishing of one sort or another. Some couldn't offer work but gave useful advice: who to pitch to, what to pitch, who might be good as an accountant...
By the time I took the Dr to the pub on 15 July 2002, I had a list of potential employers and a budget based on needing to pay £600 in bills each month. She didn't need to see any of that. Next morning, I handed in my notice and later emailed everyone I could think of seeking work. My notebook from the time is full of lists: people to contact, ideas to send them, responses received and how I would follow those up. Hungry, for pages and pages and pages. Enough people were generous, or at least took a chance on this green, eager dork, that I picked up enough jobs to get by. I've been getting by ever since.
Mostly, it's been fun - more like larking about than working, for all the hours put in. I've had a very broad-ranging career, doing all sorts of varied stuff in very different media. Some jobs have been joyous, some very challenging but rewarding. I've worked with many brilliant, talented people. There is loads I'm really proud to have been part of. But freelancing has always been precarious - and just now publishing is in a worrying state.
This week, Eaglemoss went into administration, taking with it my regular job on the Doctor Who Figurine Collection. Seven books I've worked on are currently in limbo, my work on them either entirely or mostly done but no publication date in sight because of... well, everything at the moment. Some projects aren't cancelled but stall; they're put back a few months or a year, as is the date when I can invoice for the work I've done on them.
It's not as if things were easy before the cost of living crisis, COVID, Brexit, paper shortages and whatever else made them harder. In many cases, freelance rates have barely risen in two decades. That's had, I think, a corresponding impact on the demographics of people in publishing.
What can be done? Well, that's been much on my mind. Last week, I was elected chair of the Books Committee of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. I've 20 years experience of knocking about through this industry, and of being knocked about. As Leela says in the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, "If you're bleeding, look for a man with scars." Hello, that is me.
Sunday, July 10, 2022
Once Upon a Galaxy: The Making of the Empire Strikes Back, by Alan Arnold
His detachment is quickly evident. The diary starts on 3 March 1979 with the crew struggling through a blizzard to reach Finze in Norway for the start of location shooting. Arnold mutters that in these treacherous conditions no one helped him unload the suitcases from the train, singling out Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in the film) in particular.
"But [I] told myself without total conviction that Mark was probably more concerned about his [pregnant] wife." (p. 5)
Yes, that may have been on his mind.
Arnold details the problems faced by the production and the ingenious solutions: shooting key scenes in the snow just outside their hotel; getting Harrison Ford (Han Solo) to join them last-minute as the schedule is changed; the logistical response to mounting costs and delays.
There's plenty of great detail, not least because Arnold had access to the lead actors and a wide range of those on the crew. There's a good interview with the notoriously reticent Harrison Ford on page 24, though the actor later brushes off a second attempt. I didn't know that the film's Snowspeeders were designed by Ogle Design Ltd, "a company better known for its Reliant sports car (p. 39), and I like production designer Norman Reynolds' description of these new creations as flying "close to the surface like an airborne tank." (p. 43).
It's interesting to see how practicalities shaped things, and how very different Star Wars might have been: the carbon-freezing of Han Solo, described at times here as his "execution", covered the fact that Ford might not have featured in the third film. On 15 May 1979, well into production, producers George Lucas and Gary Kurtz take Sir Alec Guinness out to lunch to discuss whether he will participate in the film (p. 85), something still apparently in doubt until 5 September when he turns up for his single day (p. 240). At one point Lucas suggests the part might have been recast.
Arnold is a little pretentious at times, sharing a history of the medieval Mummers (p. 60), or likening new character Boba Fett to Shakespeare's Richard II (p. 67). But he's also got a good eye for the telling, incongruous moments.
"Of England it's alleged that everything there stops for tea, but this is not true in the film business. It is taken on the run, without interruption to the work continuing on the floor. Morning and afternoon, trolleys bearing urns of tea and coffee are wheeled onto the soundstages by ladies whom you suspect have spent the interim studying their horoscopes. They are actually immune to surprise, even when the lineup for tea includes, as it did today on the ice-cavern set [4 April], a platoon of snowtroopers in white armoured suits, a robot, Darth Vader, and the Wampa Ice Creature. The imperturbable tea ladies served them all with their characteristic cool, as calm as Everest explorers confronted by an abominable snowman. They know that anyone who enjoys a cup of tea can't be all that abominable." (p. 61)
There's an especially extraordinary sequence, pp. 128-147, in which Arnold has director Irvin Kershner miked up while shooting the pivotal scene of Han Solo's "execution" in the carbon-freezing chamber. He and Ford puzzle over dialogue and motivation, honing the words on the page into something really powerful. But Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) then objects to getting these changes last minute, and from Ford rather than the director. She lashes out - literally slapping Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian). And just as it's all kicking off, David Prowse (Darth Vader) tries to interest the director in his new book on keeping fit!
Fisher surely didn't approve the use of this in the book, or producer Gary Kurtz's comments that she "doesn't always look after herself as she should [and] doesn't pay sufficient attention to proper eating habits" (p. 123). Yet Arnold is also protective of the young actress, such as when she's subjected to a journalist who had got onto the set under false pretences - an experience Fisher describes as akin to a "rape" (p. 81). He's also sensitive to her skills as an actress, inspired by close study of old, silent films that focus on the close-up.
Arnold also reports a spat between Hamill and the director, soon after Hamill's baby son is born. At the time, the fractiousness is put down to Hamill having damaged his thumb (p. 150) which might mean the lightsaber battle that he has trained for will now be performed by a double. The sense is that neither Hamill nor Fisher had any say over this nakedly honest stuff being put in the book; the publicist who ought to have been protecting their interests was the one who wrote it. But later, Hamill at least gets to put this "terribly childish" disagreement in context.
"Our only real flare-up was on the carbon-freezing chamber set. Tempers were on edge anyway because it was like working in a sauna ... "Everybody felt guilty seconds later" (p. 213)
We finish with the film being edited, and Arnold getting lost on his way to the home of John Williams, who is busy composing the score. The book was published in August 1980 to coincide with the release of the film - so there was no way of knowing if all this work was going to pay off. Like the film itself, we leave on a cliffhanger.
Arnold concludes in philosophical mood about the creative arts in general, but more striking is what follows his words: credits listing all the many people involved in making the film.
Sunday, July 03, 2022
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
This extraordinary book, detailing the waking hours on a bitterly cold day in a Russian work camp sometime in the early 1950s, is based on the real-life experience of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was released from such labour in 1957.
First published in the USSR in 1962, my 1970 translation by Gillon Aitken is at least the third version in English. I can see why this book so haunted a generation. It seems to have influenced subsequent memoirs - of Soviet gulags, of the concentration camps in the war, of systems of oppression more generally.
In the USSR, the book and its implicit criticism of the regime overseen by Stalin was initially welcomed - perhaps emblematic of the new, more liberated era of Khrushchev. When Khrushchev was himself stripped of power in 1964, Solzhenitsyn fell out of favour. His books weren't exactly banned in the USSR, but life was made increasingly difficult.
When, in 1969, Solzhenitsyn was chucked out of the Union of Writers in Russia, various bodies around the world staged protests of one kind or another. Most notably, the author was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. In July 1969, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain sent two delegates to the International Writers Guild conference being held in Moscow with the specific brief of making some protest about the treatment of Solzhenitsyn. One of those delegates was David Whitaker, and I've been reading his accounts of what happened there - and the fall-out from it. More of that anon.
The book is full of extraordinary moments: the men discussing the merits and techniques of Eisenstein's cinema as they get on with their weary toil in the snow; the man who is in prison because of the heinous crime of having received a note of gratitude from an English admiral after service in the war; the way a prisoner receiving a parcel of food from their family finds themselves in debt to everyone else...
In observing these details within the drudgery, Solzhenitsyn shows us the mechanics of the operation, the way the oppression works. The infighting of prisoners compels them to work, to play an active role in the system imprisoning them.
"Who is the prisoner's worst enemy? Another prisoner. If only the prisoners didn't fight with each other, then..." (p. 114)
And while it's about the system, it's also about how an individual might survive in such conditions. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov hordes a crust of bread, does favours to earn himself an extra bit of thin soup, and squirrels away a broken bit of hacksaw blade with which he can later fashion a knife that will be useful for mending clothes. Only then the prisoners get searched and this small theft risks putting him,
"in the cells on 300 grams of bread a day and hot food once every three days. He imagined at that moment how enfeebled and hungry he would become and how difficult it would be to recover his present condition of being neither starved nor properly fed." (p. 117)
All that effort to keep going could be undone in an instant. And we're left with the horrible fact that this is just one day in 3,653 of Shukov's 10-year sentence. The last line of the book adds one further systematic cruelty.
"The three extra days were because of the leap years..." (p. 157)
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
Curse of the Chosen, by Alexis Deacon
Since then, the first two instalments of Geis have been issued in a single tome, now called Curse of the Chosen. And now, at last, comes what's called Curse of the Chosen Volume II: The Will That Shapes the World but I think of as Geis III. It's a slightly smaller size than Geis and in paperback, but the moment I opened the cover I was back in that extraordinary, strange world as if I'd never been away.
As before, we're in a weird fantasy castle where a deadly contest is taking place. Originally, 50 competitors vied with one another to become the new head of state, but that's been whittled down to a handful - and one of them is, we now realise, not at all what she seems. There's something here of Squid Game, only with magic and talking animals, perhaps mixed up with the Earthsea of Ursula le Guin. Plus the artwork is beautiful, even as the horror mounts. More than once I gasped.
One of the things that makes this story so effective, I think, is how much the odds are stacked against the kindly, heroic characters - a young girl, a small man and a cat. That strikes a chord with something TV mogul Sydney Newman says in his memoirs, having watched different audiences in front of the same movies.
“A revelation to me was discovering how to get a sure response from an audience: compassion.” (p. 99)
That's what this: extraordinary, imaginative and compassionate fantasy.
Tuesday, June 28, 2022
Head of Drama, by Sydney Newman (with Graeme Burk)
Burk had access to the Newman archive, and I'm beside myself with envy at some of the material he's had at his fingertips. The Ur-text of all Doctor Who archaeology is the 1972 book The Making of Doctor Who by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. According to Burk, Hulke wrote to Newman on 6 August 1971 asking him for memories of how the programme came about. On 28 September, Newman replied:
“I don't think I'm immodest in saying that it was entirely my concept, although inevitably many changes were brought about by Verity Lambert, who was its first producer. She would be the very best source of information, better than say, David Whitaker or even Donald Wilson.” (pp. 448-449)
However, by the time Newman sent this, Hulke had spoken to Donald Wilson (on 8 September) who told him what's generally considered the fact: that Doctor Who was created by Newman and Wilson.
“It was just Sydney and I together, chatting. At an early stage we discussed it with other people, but in fact the title, as I remember, I invented…” (p. 450)
Burk digs into this, citing some counterclaims, analysing the surviving paperwork from those early days and addressing the issue that some key papers appear to be missing from the archive. I've some more to add to this in my forthcoming book on story editor David Whitaker.
Anyway, Doctor Who is just one of the many, many shows Newman worked on. Head of Drama conveys the extraordinary range and impact of his work, from documentary films to opera and everything in between. There's what he learned from double-checking ticket sales in a cinema and watching the reactions of different audiences to the same film, and what working in newsreel and sport taught him about staging drama. He delights in telling us when he got something wrong - he was against employing chat-show host Ed Sullivan, tried to cancel the Daleks and resisted Donald Wilson in commissioning The Forsyte Saga.
But time and again, Newman's instincts for what would be popular and connect with a broad audience were dead right. Just one example of his many, many insights here:
“I laid down some simple notions [while at ABC]. Some people become physically ill when they see blood, and only a fool wants an audience to puke. Ergo, show blood with care. Some in the audience are daffy with hate, so don’t show them how to make a bomb. Viewers will identify with the innocent character, so being bound and helpless and tortured becomes powerfully disturbing, and that kind of reaction is a turn off. And finally, avoid common, easily available weapons such as a kitchen knife, so as not to provoke a viewer who may be feeling momentary murderous rage to act upon it in the moment.” (p. 304)
Newman gives full credit to the many writers and producers and talented people he worked with, but he's an amazing, funny and honest storyteller. There are some amazing stories here. Just before the Second World War, he was offered a job with Disney but had to head to back to Canada to sort out a visa. On the way, a fellow passenger seems to have reported him - as being an illegal immigrant from Mexico! The result was jail and some very hairy moments, but Newman tells it all with compassion and a wry smile, tying it all into a broader theme of having always been an outsider, an exile. And then he concludes that without this sorry business and the problems of a visa, had he been able to take that Disney job, he'd have ended up drafted into the US army and killed at Iwo Jima.
He shrugs that all off and is then onto the next drama.
Monday, June 27, 2022
Still Life, by Sarah Winman
I loved this strange, big-hearted ramble of a book, its vivid characters, its love of life and the echoing horror of loss. The death of one kindly character late on hits extremely hard. How fitting, too, to fall into a novel all about passion for the art of Urbino and Florence as I drove to the memorial for my old A-level Art History teacher, who on Friday afternoons more than 30 years ago shared his joy at Giotto, Uccello and Massaccio.
Friday, June 24, 2022
On the Sixth Doctor Who
Foreword by Simon Guerrier
Thursday, 15 March 1984
My first thought is “good.” Janet Ellis on Blue Peter has just introduced Colin Baker as the new Doctor Who. My family don't buy newspapers and no one's said anything at school, so I'm pretty sure this is the first time I learn that Peter Davison is leaving. I've still not forgiven him for replacing Tom Baker.
Friday, 16 March 1984
The poisonous bat poo the Doctor touched three weeks ago finally kills him. My elder brother and sister join me and my younger brother to watch part four of The Caves of Androzani. I think it's the first time they – now serious, grown-up teenagers – have watched since The Five Doctors. They tell us, as always, that Doctor Who used to be much scarier than this sorry nonsense. I'm certain they're right and can't wait for this story to finish so we can get on to the new Doctor as he's sure to make everything better. I mean, a boy at school insists Colin is Tom Baker's brother.
Thursday. 22 March 1984
The Sixth Doctor era proper begins with part one of The Twin Dilemma. It's a very intelligent story – it must be, as I'm not always sure what's happening or what the Doctor is talking about. It's not exactly a scary story, but the Doctor attacking poor Peri and then later hiding behind her for safety means we're not sure what to make of him. “Look how clever they're being,” I'd tell my siblings if they asked my opinion. But they don't.
Saturday, 5 January 1985
A boring shopping trip to Southampton turns out to be a brilliant trick by my parents, and me and my younger brother are really off to see the stars of Doctor Who in the pantomime Cinderella. Colin Baker runs on to the stage pushing a shopping trolley with a Doctor Who number plate on it, to the most deafening cheer from the audience. People really love his Doctor! My parents' ingenious plan is to see the matinee performance so that we can be home in time for the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who on TV. But we get caught in traffic because of a football match, so I miss Part One of Attack of the Cybermen. There is much weeping.
Saturday, 12 January 1985
I sit entirely baffled by what's happening in Part Two of Attack of the Cybermen, certain it would all make sense if only I'd seen part one. (I don't get to see part one until 1993, and am still not entirely sure what's happening.)
Saturday, 26 January 1985
Part Two of Vengeance on Varos gives me nightmares. I'm really creeped out by the monstrous Sil and the story is full of horrid details, but what really gets me is when the Doctor rescues Peri from being turned into a bird. She looks human but the Doctor has to keep repeating her name to re-imprint her identity. The thought I can't shake is that she might be permanently changed, a monster on the inside...
ITV shows The A-Team at the same time as Doctor Who. After some discussion with my brother and a friend who doesn't have a telly so is often round to watch ours, we agree to video part one of The Two Doctors and watch The A-Team live. I distinctly remember the logic involved: Doctor Who is the one we'll want to watch more than once. It's not as slick, the fights aren't as good, and it's not so loved by our schoolmates but there's more to each episode. Good thinking, eight year-old me.
Saturday, 9 March 1985
I completely love Part One of Timelash. At school the next week, I insist to a friend that of course bumbling Herbert will be the new companion.
Saturday, 23 March 1985
The scariest moment ever seen in Doctor Who – at least, I think so now. Natasha finds her father, who's being turned into a Dalek and begs her to shoot him. The writing, performance, effects and music are all perfectly horrible. These days, I show a clip of this in talks I give on Doctor Who – just to see the audience squirm. After one talk, the parents of a keen young fan make a point of apologising to me for having told their daughter that Doctor Who wasn't very good in the 1980s.
Saturday, 30 March 1985
We're still watching The A-Team live and videoing Doctor Who, each week recording over the previous episode on the one tape we're allowed to use. Part Two of Revelation of the Daleks is the final episode of this year's series so doesn't get taped over the following week. My younger brother's interest in Doctor Who is waning but my three year-old brother Tom watches that tape again and again for weeks. A moment in that episode haunts me each time I see it, even now. As the Doctor runs down a corridor on his way to battle the Daleks, he thinks he hears Peri being exterminated. There's a moment of horror, of pain, on his face, and then he rallies himself and runs on. No words, just how Colin Baker plays it, so perfectly the Doctor.
Sometime in April 1985
It's all my pocket money, but I spend the vast sum of £1 on the 100th issue of The Doctor Who Magazine. It's a massive disappointment, lacking the weird wonder and excitement the TV series kindles in me. Instead, the magazine is full of lengthy, dense articles about the minutiae of the programme's past. I cannot fathom why anyone would find this of interest. I don't buy DWM again for five years.
Summer 1985, Winter 1985, Spring 1986
Then there's a gap. It came as a complete surprise to me, many years later, to learn that Doctor Who had been on hiatus for 18 months, that there'd been criticism of the violence in the programme, that it was even discussed on the news. At the time, I don't spare the absence a thought – of course Doctor Who will be on again at some point. I don't know there's been a new Doctor Who story, Slipback, on the radio until its released on cassette years later. But I've begun producing my own Doctor Who stories in which my brothers are horribly killed by various monsters.
Tuesday, 24 June 1986
I'm pretty sure I get the novelisation of Timelash for my 10th birthday. The TV version is my favourite of the Sixth Doctor's stories to date, and I read the book over and over. One big appeal is the references to the Third Doctor who, thanks to the Target books I've been picking up second hand and from the library, is my all-time favourite Doctor. But the story also really grabs me, and I spend the summer leaping over the garden sprinkler to be banished back in time.
Saturday, 6 September 1986
Doctor Who returns in a story called The Trial of a Time Lord. I'm especially pleased because we had a school trip to the “ancient” farm at Butser Hill used as a location. But otherwise the first four episodes seem to leave little impression. My memories of the Doctor Who I watched in the 1980s are usually vivid, but when I watch Part One of Trial again on video years later, I'm amazed to discover I can't recall any of what happens next. Perhaps Doctor Who wasn't affecting me as deeply as it once did – no longer the terrifying experience I couldn't bear to miss. Or perhaps these first episodes of the story were completely blotted out of my memory by the ones that followed.
Saturday, 4 October 1986
I am properly terrified by the return of Sil from last year's Vengeance on Varos. This section of the Doctor's trial is the last time Doctor Who ever really scares me. Part of the reason I've stuck with the series all these years on is the morbid hope it will scare me like that again.
Saturday, 1 November 1986
Bonnie Langford makes her début as Mel. My wife says this is when she made the decision to stop watching Doctor Who, which means she still doesn't know the outcome of the Doctor's trial. (Don't tell her.)
Saturday, 6 December 1986
The final episode of The Trial of a Time Lord – and of the year's Doctor Who.
Saturday, 13 December 1986
I sit through hours of programmes on BBC One before the dismal truth sets in that one 14-episode story is all we're getting.
Thursday, 18 December 1986
Colin Baker, in his Doctor Who costume but not quite in character, appears as a team captain on the Tomorrow's World Christmas special. I take this as irrefutable evidence that he's busy filming the new series which must surely start on TV early in the new year. I can't wait!
Monday, 2 March 1987
Janet Ellis on Blue Peter has news about the next series of Doctor Who – and chats to her mate Sylvester McCoy who is going to be the new Doctor. I am flabbergasted. Sylvester McCoy is from children's programmes!
Monday, 7 September 1987
The unceremonious end of the Sixth Doctor, who dies by falling over in the TARDIS before the opening titles of Time and the Rani Part One. I sharply recall my embarrassment at how silly the rest of the episode is, sure Doctor Who has lost its way. I've also just started secondary school, and realise that Doctor Who is no longer a programme to be fiercely discussed in the playground over the next week. I mention this to a friend who's gone to a different secondary school and he's astonished. “Are you still watching Doctor Who?”
But I am. It becomes a guilty pleasure. I know – because people keep telling me – that Doctor Who is not as good as it used to be. It was once something everybody watched but now I know hardly anyone who'll admit to having seen the latest episodes.
Today, I know there were problems behind the scenes of the programme: disagreements between those making it, a lack of interest high up at the BBC, a dozen other things. I avidly read – and contribute to – articles in DWM poring over exactly what was to blame. But I also know it was as much to do with the age me and my friends were at the time, and the other pressures and interests affecting us. They simply outgrew this children's programme while I couldn't let it go.
The upshot is that the Sixth Doctor's era marks a fundamental change in my relationship to Doctor Who. Whatever anyone else thinks of this period of the show – and Neil and Sue are about to share their own strong opinions on it – it holds a special place in my heart.
Because at the start of Colin Baker's time as the Doctor, the programme was something I shared with pretty much everyone I knew. By the end, it was mine.
24 April 2017