Category Archives: Science fiction

Douglas Adams interview. Part 2: From Hitch-Hiker to Doctor Who and back

Publicity photo of Douglas Adams circa 1980 (Photograph by Mark Gerson)

In yesterday’s blog, Douglas Adams talked about his life before success.

Today, the interview continues. I talked to him for Marvel Comics in 1980.

This is Part 2 of 4.


JOHN: …So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6 of the original BBC Radio 4 series of Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

DOUGLAS: Yes. John Lloyd and I had known each other for years and, at one stage, actually shared a flat together and kept on half-producing ideas which never really came to fruition… Actually, there was one thing! About two or three years ago, he and I wrote a couple of cartoons for a Dutch television company. They were making a series called Doctor Snuggles. (LAUGHS) It was being made internationally, so the scripts were being written by British writers and it was being performed in English with Peter Ustinov doing the voices. I gather one of the episodes we wrote actually won an award last year. I think it is eventually coming to British television and it’ll be rather curious to see it.

JOHN: What was it about?

DOUGLAS: Well, if you can imagine a cross between Professor Branestawm and Doctor DolittleIt was quite fun working on that, actually. The writers’ fees were rip-off time. But it was immense fun – there were all sorts of things we could do in  animation.

JOHN: It sounds a busy time.

DOUGLAS: The way things went, yes. I was writing Hitch-Hiker (the first radio series) for a lot of 1977 and we were making it at the end of 1977/beginning of 1978 and it went out starting in March 1978. During that time, I was living at home with my parents and the fee for writing the first radio series was miserable – something like £1,000 for the six episodes – which is not a lot for something over six months’ work. So I was thinking I’m such a slow writer and it looked as though Hitch-Hiker might do OK; but there was no precedent for a radio series meaning very much in the long run.

So I was then offered a job as a BBC Radio producer  and I thought I ought to do it for the money. During the six months, Hitch-Hiker began to be a success and I was producing Week Ending, which was quite fun. In fact, the first job I was given was compiling a programme about practical jokes. I had to go out and interview Max Bygraves and Des O’Connor. I thought: What am I doing here? But I knew people had put themselves out to help me get this job and it was a staff job, not a contract job, so to leave after six months would be ridiculous.

BBC Radio 4 recording of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in July 1979 with (L-R) David Tate, Alan Ford, Geoffrey McGivern, Douglas Adams, Mark Wing-Davey and Simon Jones. (Photo © BBC)

JOHN: Then you were offered the job as script editor on Doctor Who.

DOUGLAS: Yes, which caused an immense rumpus. And I did Doctor Who for fifteen months and it was a terrible, terrible time. It was great to begin with, while I felt I was actually managing to juggle all the balls at the same time. Because, at the end of 1978, I was writing the first Hitch-Hiker book, trying to get down to writing the second radio series, which kept getting put off and put off, and I was script editing Doctor Who and having to produce lots and lots of storylines for writers.

And I was also doing one fairly major last job as a radio producer — a pantomime show for Christmas called Black Cinderella Two Goes East. Everyone involved in it – the writers and all the cast – were ex-Cambridge Footlights. So we had Rob Buckman playing Prince Charming and Peter Cook was his brother Prince Disgusting and John Cleese played the fairy godperson. John Pardoe MP played the Fairytale Liberal Prime Minister – on the grounds that you only get Liberal Prime Ministers in fairy tales. The Goodies played the Ugly Sisters, Jo Kendall played the wicked stepmother and Richard Murdoch was in it too. It was terrific, but the BBC gave it no publicity whatsoever.

Years later, a BBC publicity shot for Black Cinderella Two Goes East with John Cleese and Peter Cook

JOHN: And after that you were able to devote more time to script editing. What exactly does a script editor on Doctor Who do?

DOUGLAS: Everything. Oh god! I was very naive when I wrote Pirate Planet because I’d always assumed that, basically, writing the script is the writer’s job and coming up with all the ideas is the writer’s job. So I worked very, very hard on The Pirate Planet scripts. Then, when I came to be script editor, I discovered other writers assumed that getting the storyline together was the script editor’s job. So, all that year, I was continually working out storylines with another writer, helping yet another writer with scripts, doing substantial re-writes on other scripts and putting yet other scripts into production – all simultaneously.

When you’re doing 26 half-hours in a year, that’s a helluva lot. And, at the same time, writing the first Hitch-Hiker book. And also trying to do the second radio series. It was an absolute nightmare year. For four months when I was actually in control it was terrific – when you feel you’re actually in control of all that and actually getting it done. Having all these different storylines in your mind simultaneously. A writer suddenly phones you up at midnight and you’ve got to know exactly what he’s talking about and exactly what his problems are and sort them all out. You actually get very high on that, as long as you cope. But, as soon as you stop actually coping (LAUGHS), it becomes a nightmare.

JOHN: You finished working on Doctor Who in January 1980 and by then Hitch-Hiker had really taken off on radio and become a cult. It had even been on stage.

DOUGLAS: Well, it’s been on stage three times and the one which got all the notice was the one that didn’t work. Ken Campbell did two. His first one at the I.C.A. (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) went very, very well. The audience was put on a hovercraft and the action all took place round the edge of the theatre. I didn’t believe it till it actually happened. We were turning away 1,500 people a night from that show, but only getting 80 people in, because that was all you could fit on the hovercraft.

Then Theatr Clwyd did Hitch-Hiker with a touring company in Wales. They would sometimes do two episodes in an evening and, at other times, the whole lot – which was a long evening. That went very well. I didn’t know anything about Theatr Clwyd: I just thought it was going to be a load of Welshmen going round saying Hello, boyoh! But it wasn’t at all; it was a very good production. So they were then offered The Old Vic but, by then. I’d already offered the stage rights to Ken Campbell, who wanted to do another production.

He decided to go for broke and put it on at The Rainbow (in Finsbury Park, London). I should have known better, but I had so many problems to contend with at that time I wasn’t really thinking awfully clearly. The thing at The Rainbow was a fiasco.

JOHN: Why?

DOUGLAS: The first two productions had worked well largely because they’d been performed to relatively intimate audiences. The I.C.A. was only 80 and I suppose the largest Theatr Clwyd audience was about 400. But you put it in something the size of The Rainbow – a 3,000-seater theatre – and, because Hitch-Hiker tends to be rather slow-moving and what is important is all the detail along the way… You put it in something that size and the first thing that goes straight out the window is all the detail.

So you then fill it up with earthquake effects and lasers and things. That further swamps the detail and so everything was constantly being pushed in exactly the wrong direction and all the poor actors were stuck on the stage desperately trying to get noticed by the audience across this vast distance. If you’d put the numbers we were getting at The Rainbow into a West End theatre, they would have been terrific audiences – 700 a night or whatever. But, in a 3,000-seat theatre, 700 is not a lot. particularly when you (the producers) are paying for 3,000 seats. So the whole thing was a total financial disaster.

JOHN: There was also talk of a film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice…

… CONTINUED HERE

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Douglas Adams talks. Part 1: Life before “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

In 1980, I interviewed writer Douglas Adams for Marvel Comics. The result was published as a two-part piece in the March and April 1981 issues of their Starburst magazine. I am republishing the interview in four parts in this blog. Here is Part One…

Douglas Adams at home in 1980. Later, he claimed: “You actually managed to make me sound fairly intelligent, which I think is a remarkable achievement on your part.” (Photograph: John Fleming)


Douglas Adams has made it big. He is 6’5″ tall.

He was born in Cambridge in 1952. When he was born his father, a postgraduate theology student, was training for Holy Orders but friends persuaded him this was a bad idea and he gave it up. He wanted to do it again recently but was again dissuaded.

This philosophical bent seems to have been passed on to young Douglas because, at school, he says, “They could never work out whether I was terribly clever or terribly stupid. I always had to understand everything fully before I was prepared to say I knew anything.”

It was while still at school that he decided to become a comedy writer-performer after seeing John Cleese on BBC TV’s The Frost Report.

“I can do that!” he suddenly thought. “I’m as tall as he is!”

He appeared regularly in school plays and sometimes was asked to write. “I felt I ought to,” he says. “I used to sit and worry and tear up pieces of paper and never actually write anything. It was awful. I’ve always found writing very difficult; I don’t know why I’ve wanted to do it. Sheer perversity. I really wanted to be a performer and I’d still like to perform. I was a slightly strange actor. There tended to be things I could do well and other things I couldn’t begin to do. I couldn’t do dwarfs; I had a lot of trouble with dwarf parts.”

He went to Cambridge University largely so he could join the Footlights, the student group which had spawned many of the people he most admired — the writer-performers of Beyond the Fringe, That Was The Week That Was, I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, Monty Python’s Flying Circus etc.

During university vacations, he built barns and cleaned chicken sheds to make money and, for the first time, started to write seriously (if that’s the word). He was involved in the creation of two Cambridge revues — Several Poor Players Strutting and Fretting and The Patter of Tiny Minds.

The original idea for The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had come to him before he went to university, when he was drunk at a camp-site near Innsbruck, while travelling round with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe in his rucksack. But it was years before the idea came to fruition.


JOHN: After you left Cambridge, one of the things you did was collaborate with Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

DOUGLAS: That’s right. I wrote with him for about eighteen months on a lot of projects that mostly didn’t see the light of day. And those which did actually didn’t work awfully well.

JOHN: Which ones did see the light of day?

DOUGLAS: Well, we wrote and made the pilot for a television comedy series. The series itself never got made because Graham got more involved back in Monty Python again. This was really during the Python lull and nobody was quite sure what the future of Python was going to be.

So we wrote this sketch show called Out of the Trees which actually had some very good material in it, but just didn’t hang together properly. Graham was the sort of lead and there was also Simon Jones (who played Arthur Dent in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker) and Mark Wing-Davey (who played Zaphod Beeblebrox). It was shown once on BBC2, late on Saturday night, against Match of the Day. I don’t think it even got reviewed, it was that insignificant. There were some very nice things in it; it just didn’t stand up. The structure for it hadn’t really been found.

JOHN: What else did you do with Graham Chapman?

DOUGLAS: Curiously enough, the thing we virtually came to blows about was his autobiography. He wanted to co-write it. He actually went through about five co-authors, of which I was the first, and really I didn’t think it was getting anywhere because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing you could do as a pair. It came out recently (A Liar’s Autobiography) and it’s good. I think there’s one very bad section which was the bit he and I co-wrote.

JOHN: It must have seemed a great opportunity. Writing with one of the Monty Python stars.

DOUGLAS: Yes, the promise of that period. I thought: This is terrific! This is my great break! And, at the end, there was nothing to show for it except a large overdraft and not much achieved. And I suddenly went through a total crisis of confidence and couldn’t write because I was so panicked and didn’t have any money and had a huge overdraft paying the £17-a-week rent. So I answered an advertisement in the Evening Standard and got a job as a bodyguard to an Arab oil family.

JOHN: But you were still sending off ideas to The Burkiss Way on Radio 4…

DOUGLAS: Yes. Simon Brett, the producer of The Burkiss Way, asked me if I’d like to write some bits for it and, at that stage, I just felt I’m washed up. I can’t write. I may as well accept this fact now. But he insisted, so I sat down and wrote a sketch which, I thought, would prove to everybody once-and-for-all that I could no longer write sketches. And everybody seemed to like it rather a lot. (LAUGHS) The one thing I’d spent all the summers since Cambridge trying to interest people in was the idea of doing science-fiction comedy; I couldn’t get anybody interested at all.

Simon was the only person I hadn’t gone to with the idea. And, after I’d done these bits for Burkiss, he said to me, quite out-of-the-blue: I think it would be nice to do a science fiction comedy series. It was extraordinary. And so it carried on from there.

JOHN: It was around this same time you got involved with Doctor Who.

DOUGLAS: Well, after we’d done the pilot of Hitch-Hiker, it took a long, long time before BBC Radio decided to go ahead and I was desperate for money. So I sent the first copy of that Hitch-Hiker script to Bob Holmes, who was then script editor of Doctor Who and he said: Oh yes, we like this. Come in and see us. So I talked to them for a long time.

JOHN: You sent it in as a Doctor Who idea, or . . .

DOUGLAS: No, just to sort of say: Here l am – This is what I do. And I ended up getting a commission to write four episodes of Doctor Who (The Pirate Planet)…

…but it didn’t really work out as something which was going to fill in that gap, because that took a long time to come through too. I eventually ended up getting the commission to write the rest of Hitch-Hiker and the Doctor Who episodes simultaneously in the same week. So that became a serious problem. (LAUGHS) And I got through the first four episodes of Hitch-Hiker and then I had to break off to get the Doctor Who episodes done – so I did those at a real gallop. And, at the end of that, I was totally zonked. I knew a lot of what was going to happen in the last two episodes of Hitch-Hiker but I just couldn’t sort of get myself to a typewriter and just needed help and a sounding-board just to get it done.

JOHN: So John Lloyd (now producer of Not The Nine O’Clock News) helped you write parts of episodes 5 and 6…

DOUGLAS: Yes…

… CONTINUED HERE

The BBC Radio 4 production team recording an episode of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy on 19th May 1979. (Left-Right) studio manager Lisa Braun; Douglas Adams; studio manager Colin Duff; production secretary Anne Ling; producer Geoffrey Perkins; studio manager Alick Hale-Monro. (Photograph copyright © BBC)

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Crowdfunding a UK sci-fi movie: The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains!

Bob Pipe at Soho Theatre Bar yesterday

Bob Pipe in alien invasion mode at Soho Theatre yesterday

Six degrees of separation, eh?

Matt Roper, who performs as the singer Wilfredo, is living in my spare room for another couple of weeks.

I was talking to TV and video producer/director Bob Pipe at the Soho Theatre Bar yesterday and the fact that Bob recently directed the video for Wilfredo’s Christmas song (out soon) never came up because neither of us twigged that we had Matt in common.

Bob was talking to me about raising money for his feature film project The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains!

“We’re making a 90 minute version of our web series,” he told me. “We’ve written a first draft a lot of which encompasses the sketches from the web series. James Wren (of the Hen & Chickens theatre) is co-writing and co-producing it with me. Now we’re crowdfunding to get the development money – £13,586 – so we can hire a line producer and a script editor or script doctor.”

“Is there a market for 1950s-style sci-fi?” I asked.

The Indiegogo crowdfunding appeal

Indiegogo crowdfunding appeal

“I think people do want the unexpected,” said Bob. “I mean, The Artist won Oscars – that was a silent movie in black & white – and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck was successful. I think there still is a market for honing old tropes.

The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains! will have modern CGI special effects, a modern style of acting, modern editing. There won’t be wobbly sets!”

“So it’s not really a pastiche,” I said.

“No. It’s not going to be a parody or a spoof.”

“More like,” I suggested, “Star Wars, which was not a parody but an homage to 1930s sci-fi serials?”

“On a lower budget! But, yes. The web series is very much in that vein. With humour.”

“So the film comes out of the web series of the same name…”

“Yes, we did the original web series for £16,000 for a production company called ChannelFlip – part of Shine. YouTube were funding production companies to create original content and ChannelFlip was one of 10 or 12 who were given £1 million each to create original channels. What ChannelFlip pitched was The Multiverse, with sort-of sci-fi home of geek content and I heard about this and pitched the idea to them of The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains! and they said Oh, We want to do a 1950s sci fi alien invasion spoof! So they gave me £16,000 to make it.”

“How long did you have to make it? ” I asked.

“From commission, they gave me three weeks to supply a trailer. They wanted two trailers and then a series of ten episodes of 3-4 minutes. They wanted the trailers before the series, which was a challenge.”

“And then?”

“I made the first trailer. Then Warwick Davis saw it. ChannelFlip had him as an ‘ambassador’ for Multiverse to publicise their business. He loved it and asked if he could be in it, so I wrote a role specially for him. We shot all his stuff in one day up in Peterborough.”

“Showbiz is a glamorous world,” I said. “How did you start?”

“When I was in college, around 1998/1999, I did a HND in Media Production at North Oxfordshire School of Art & Design and our end-of-year project was to make short films. I made a 5 minute short version of The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains! back in 1999. I didn’t have access to proper actors and I had just watched Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and thought: I can do that!

“Then I started in TV as a runner and worked my way up to AP level – at North One and ITV. North One created the ‘list’ format.”

“Things like TV’s 100 Funniest Hats?” I asked.

“Yes. I worked on a lot of those shows. I worked for Endemol as a researcher on TV’s Naughtiest Blunders.

We thought - perhaps wrongly - it would be a good idea for Bob to pose with a small milk jug

We thought – perhaps wrongly – it would be a good idea for Bob to pose with a milk jug to promote his science fiction film

“At Warner, in 2007, I co-set-up a comedy website called Comedy Box – record sales were going down and Warner were looking for new areas to invest in. We got John Lloyd in to be our figurehead, much like Warwick Davis was for ChannelFlip. We ran Comedy Box for a year – five sketches every week – but we couldn’t find revenue; this was only a year after YouTube had been set up.

“We were about to fold everything up and then MySpace came along – do you remember MySpace? They were setting up MySpace Comedy so they bought all our archive and we became their production company to supply original content. At that point, we went away from the John Lloyd esque sketches into more prank reality stuff. But, then, again, that part of MySpace folded in a year.

“And I’ve been freelancing ever since working on things like The Matt Lucas Awards – I did behind-the-scenes stuff for that; Dick and Dom’s Funny Business. I was a digital producer on The Voice this year – creating the content for their social media sites and producing  the highlights show The Voice Louder on BBC iPlayer and YouTube.

“So why 1950s science fiction films?” I asked.

One of Bob’s inspirations

One of Bob’s 1950s movie inspirations

“I’m a big fan. Films like Earth vs The Flying Saucers, This Island Earth, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet. And when I was growing up, on TV it was the era of Red Dwarf, Quantum Leap and Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“Your interest,” I asked, “was in American B films, as opposed to British ones like Hammer and the Quatermasses.”

“Well, there’s a writer called Phil Whelans who used to write on The 11 O’Clock Show and be in Bill Bailey’s band and he runs an evening called Grand Theft Impro.

“When we made the web series last year, he brought an Englishness to The Day They Came to Suck Out Our Brains! and suggested we go for a more Quatermass kind of feel. He plays a Quatermass kind of doctor character in the web series: much more stoical than American.

“The challenge is trying to make a 1950s alien invasion movie applicable to the modern market. Do you remember the The Comic Strip Presents films with loads of celebrity cameos? There will be four or five strands running through our feature film, peppered with celebrity cameos.”

“Have you got an elevator pitch for it?” I asked.

“Our tagline is ALIEN INVASIONS REALLY SUCK.”

“What cost over-all?”

“We think between £250,000 to £500,000 but, if we get in some script doctor who has worked on major films and a great line producer… At the moment, the production company is The Forgery Club which is also a comedy night we run  – a sketch, character and themed night.”

“How much have you raised so far?”

“We’ve raised £3,602 at the moment.”

“Out of £13,586…. When does the Indiegogo crowdfunding end?”

“Next Tuesday, December 2nd. Hopefully, with some private investors I know and this production company, I think we’re going to make it.”

There is a 30-minute compilation version of the web series on Vimeo.

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Comic performer John Henry Falle on being an alien and an aspiring wizard

The Beta Males with John Henry Falle (left) (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

The Beta Males comedy troupe with John Henry Falle (left) (Photograph by Steve Ullathorne)

Yesterday, my blog was about the rise of storytelling nights in the UK – I was talking to comedians Matt Price/Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre in London. About two minutes after they left, John Henry Falle wandered past. He is a quarter of The Beta Males comedy group and 100% of The Story Beast.

My first words were:

“We should have a chat.”

And then:

“You are always taking your clothes off.”

“That did come up in your blog at some point.” said John Henry and then, apparently jokingly, “It’s possibly a way of… eh… dealing with any body dysmorphia I might ever have had.”

“The Beta Males are still going strong,” I said.

“Yes, we’re all doing little bits and pieces. We did half an hour each at the Edinburgh Fringe and I was doing my character The Story Beast, which is modern-day bardolatry. I tell the old stories in new ways and new stories in old ways. I want it to be three things. A cross between Ziggy Stardust, Tom Baker as Doctor Who and John Hurt as The Storyteller. They were all big influences on me.”

“I was talking earlier,” I said, “to Matt Price and Michael Kossew about their evenings at the Camden Head.”

“That’s where I first got naked,” said John Henry. “Well, in public.”

“They do storytelling,” I said.

“It’s the oldest art form,” said John Henry, “and it does appear to be having a bit of a resurgence at the moment. There are fewer gag merchants around and more storytellers.”

“The Story Beast tells new stories in old ways?” I asked.

“At the moment,” said John Henry, “I’m writing a load of poems about internet memes and YouTube videos, but in a heightened mock-heroic style.”

“And,” I asked, “you tell old stories in new ways?”

Beowulf is all told in gibberish.”

“Well,” I said. No change there.”

“But,” added John Henry, “there are references to Ray Winstone and the Beowulf film.

“I think,” I said, “I saw you at Jorik Mol’s Comedian’s Bookshelf evening doing… was it Beowulf?”

John Henry as The Story Beast

John Henry is The Story Beast but not the Son of Beowulf

“That’s my showpiece at the moment for The Story Beast,” said John Henry. “I failed Beowulf and, indeed, the whole of Old English as a language in my first year at university, but I always loved the story of Beowulf, even if I didn’t have a hang of the language.”

“You have a good voice for telling heroic sagas,” I suggested.

“It’s all about the resonance,” explained John Henry. “My dad was a… you call it a barrister here. He is an advocate in Jersey. So he taught me to project my voice.”

“Heavens!” I told him, relieved. “When you said ‘you call it a barrister here’ I thought you were going to reveal you were an alien from Mars.”

“That’s the way I do see myself as a Jerseyman,” replied John Henry. “I’m very much an alien in this country.”

“Years ago,” I told him, “I interviewed Nigel Kneale, who wrote Quatermass. He was from the Isle of Man and he thought it had made him a better writer, because he was ‘British’ but, at the same time, was not British, so he could view things simultaneously as an outsider and an insider.”

John Henry perked up at talk of Nigel Neale.

“In the three Quatermasses,” he said, “Nigel Kneale wrote the three basic types of science fiction… We go to them… They come to us… and They’ve been here all along. You can almost pop every sci-fi story into that.”

“You like sci-fi?” I asked.

“Science fiction and fantasy. I was a big Doctor Who fan.”

“Who was your Doctor?” I asked.

JohnHenryFalle2

John Henry, suspiciously alien-like, at Soho Theatre this week

“I was in the dead space,” said John Henry. “It wasn’t on TV.

“Someone who must have hated me gave me, when I was seven, a Doctor Who video – Time and The Rani, which is a terrible story.

“It’s the one where Sylvester McCoy regenerates after falling off an exercise bike. It’s really bad, but I fell unconditionally in love with it.”

“You must like the superhero films,” I suggested.

“Oh the Marvel films, certainly,” said John Henry, “once they became this on-going serial.”

“So you sat in Jersey…” I prompted.

“… believing I was some sort of wizard,” said John Henry. “Growing up with Harry Potter.”

“You could still become a wizard even now,” I said. “You have a beard.”

“Some. It was my girlfriend’s birthday recently and I decided I would cut off most of my beard and most of my hair and try to look a bit presentable for her dad.”

“What does she do?”

“She teaches English Literature.”

Beowulf and Old English?”

“No. She did her PhD on English travel literature from EM Forster to the present. Stories about Britishness abroad. Ideas of the Englishman as an alien.”

“More aliens,” I said. “But your beard still says ‘wizard’ to me.”

Alan Moore: a man with a fine beard and stick

Alan Moore: a man with a fine beard and staff

“I’m a big Alan Moore fan,” admitted John Henry, “and he walks around with a giant snake-headed staff, worshipping a snake god called Glycon who was revealed to be a sock puppet in the 6th century. The idea is you know magic is all nonsense, but you go after it and you try and make it happen.”

“So,” I said, “when you were a kid in Jersey, did you ever want to be a comedy performer?”

“I wanted to be a Time Lord wizard superhero.”

“With power over people?”

“I was terribly bullied. I don’t know if that fits this profile of the loner child who is in love with science fiction, but… I think kids nowadays are quite lucky in that things like Harry Potter and Doctor Who are in the mainstream. I don’t know what lonely children are like now particularly, but there’s enough room for them on the internet and the culture at large to provide them with something.

“I used to love The Hulk, who was so angry and repressed that he would become this immense creature and I always felt an affinity with him. And I think my dad quite liked him too because my dad was a body builder when he was younger.”

“And then he became a barrister,” I said. “Is there much connection between being a barrister and a wizard?”

“There is a legal spell in Jersey.,” said John Henry. “The Clameur de Haro. If someone is encroaching on your property or on common land, you say to them in front of witnesses: Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide, mon Prince, on me fait tort. which means Hear me! Hear me! Hear me! Help me, Duke Rollo! Wrong is being done unto me. And then you recite the Lord’s Prayer in Jersey-Norman French and they have to stop what they’re doing or they go to prison. That’s an interesting spell. A bit of ancient Norman custom which is still there as part of the legal system in Jersey. My dad has brought three of those cases in the past 20 years.”

“What do they speak in Jersey?” I asked. “A sort on Norman-French-Scandinavian? Where were the Normans from anyway? They’re not French.”

“They had close connections to the kings of Norway,” John Henry told me. “So around 1066, when Jersey conquered England, there was a Harold Hardrada who was King of Norway who was also trying to get his greasy mitts on England, but only William had the proper claim and a mass of army. I’m intensely proud of Jersey. I love it deeply.”

“It’s an interesting thing,” I suggested, “like Nigel Kneale having an outsider’s insider view of Britain.”

John Henry or the Pret a Manger cup: which is more alien

John Henry and a Pret a Manger coffee cup sit in the Soho Theatre Bar: which is more alien?

“I do feel a certain alien-ness as a Jewish Jerseyman,” said John Henry. “I’m too Jewish for Jersey and too Jersey to be here and too odd an atheist around my Jewish family in North London.”

John Henry’s mother is Jewish from North London. His father is a Jerseyman.

“But maybe it’s a cultivated alien-ness,” said John Henry. “You choose who you are and I’ve decided to be an alien in London and in Jersey too. Or, looking at it another way, I can choose to be accepted in three communities and can pass for whatever I want to be within those communities. That’s a pleasure.”

“So,” I said, “whither John Henry now?”

“The Story Beast. I’m starting to do some proper YouTube videos and have one already – All The Kings and Queens of England. And I’m in a new Horrible Histories film – shot it in March, coming out next February. It’s called Bill and is a comedy about William Shakespeare. I’m a Spanish assassin: one of a load of Spanish assassins trying to kill Queen Elizabeth. I got a fight sequence with Damian Lewis; I was supposed to get a head butt from him.”

“And after that?” I asked.

“I don’t know what The Story Beast will do. Either I will become incredibly successful or I will go out onto a moor or a barrow somewhere and just freeze to death and be buried with my various accoutrements – my swords and wands.”

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Writer Nigel Kneale: one visionary’s view in a pre-Margaret-Thatcher world

Nigel Kneale (1922-2006). So it goes.

Nigel Kneale talked on the eve of Thatcherism

In a couple of blogs this week, I have posted extracts from a 1979 interview I did with writer Nigel Kneale, creator of the Quatermass TV serials. This is the concluding extract. The interview took place after Thames TV (via their subsidiary Euston Films) had produced the fourth Quatermass serial titled simply Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion). As you read the end of this interview, also bear in mind that it took place very shortly after Margaret Thatcher was elected UK Prime Minister. So the thinking is still based in the UK’s immediately pre-Thatcherite world.


Several projects you have worked on have folded.

Well, one of the first ones was when I was working with Ken Tynan again. We were going to do what would have been the last Ealing Studios film – Lord of The Flies. We were going to do that on a big scale, but Ealing folded. Then it became a property just lying about and Peter Brook decided to do it his own way (in his 1963 film) and simply stuck to the book. It is a very clever book, but very narrow. It seems to me to emerge as a satire on the public school system. We tried to get away from that and make it into a satire on people in general. I drafted a whole lot of girls into it: this was received with horror. Only girls – and children who were from a secondary modern school. They were not all trotting straight out of Westminster School.

I thought, otherwise, what are you saying about the state of humanity? You’re saying that children who come from Westminster School are innately a bit naughty. That’s all. Which seemed not to be sufficient comment on the state of mankind. Nor did it seem so to Ken Tynan. So we expanded it, but then there were squeaks of horror from other quarters. For me it worked and still does; it would have been, I think, a much better film.

Another project which folded, of course, was Quatermass IV which was originally going to be produced by BBC TV.

The previous Quatermasses had always been rather attached to their time. So the one in 1973 was to be of an impending social disaster, because there were signs of it. Then the oil crisis hit and it would have had even greater relevance. But it didn’t get made for a variety of reasons… including Stonehenge.

That was the one final, crucial complication. I had lightly written in Stonehenge because my last visit to it had seemed to make it very possible. What I hadn’t realised was that, in the interim, it had become big business and the place was like a factory with tourists there from dawn to dusk. It was the pride of the Department of the Environment and they were not going to let anyone go near it.

Stonehenge (Photograph by Diego Delso)

Stonehenge scuppered BBC TV’s planned Quatermass IV (Photograph by Diego Delso)

But it would have been possible to build a polystyrene Stonehenge.

Well, it would have taken a longer time in planning than we had at our disposal and there were budget problems.

What budget problems?

Well, it would have been VERY expensive. It really would have been. I can see their problems, having watched Thames TV go through the same agony.

Was the script the same as the Euston Films script?

No, it’s quite a bit different. For one thing, it’s now a film version entirely. At that time (1973), the great problem was to get as much of it as possible into TV studios because, in BBC terms, it is always cheaper. And, of course, it’s the sort of story that doesn’t very easily go into the studio.

It was lying around for a couple of years and Thames expressed interest in doing it and then it was a matter of finding exactly what form it could best be done in. And that was this dual format of a TV four-episoder (Quatermass) and a film (The Quatermass Conclusion) made out of the same material – which is very difficult to handle.

What did you think when you first heard of this format idea?

Well, I wasn’t crazy about it, because you feel you are either going to pad the long one or murder the short one.

The Thames TV production of the fourth Quatermass serial

The Thames TV/Euston Films production

So how did you resolve the problem?

I was very careful not to pad, because I knew that was the obvious thing, but to write in material which could be removed.

At a certain point, you can allow it to go in either Direction A or Direction B.

Direction A will take you into a kind of loop which will bring it back to where it joins Direction B and you just exclude the loop. That is not padding. It’s an apparently essential piece of action and it’s a perfectly legitimate part of the story, but you can do without it.

You wrote two separate scripts?

Yes, but that was only as far as one could guess. Because, as none of it had been shot, one could not tell what would actually work out best; some things paid off better than we’d ever thought.

How involved were you?

At that stage, I was busy doing the book version, which is radically different from the film.

The plot is different?

Considerably. We had three versions on the go – a novel which, I think, will read as though it was the prior piece. The TV version. And finally the cinema version, which is the shortest and meagrest telling of the story. So trying to juggle these three together could be extremely confusing.

So the book is a stand-alone novel rather than a novelisation?

Well, it was certainly intended to be. Because a novelisation is a cheapie thing of just changing the dialogue and putting ‘He said’ in front of it. Whereas this tries to explain the whole of Quatermass’ life way back beyond where any of the TV shows started. His family life, which we never see anything of in the others.

Did you always have these background details in your mind?

No. I think I worked it back logically. What it must have been.

This Quatermass sounds more pessimistic than the others.

Well, I don’t think it is really, not by the end. I think it’s got quite a lot of balancing material. The people are nice and it’s all about the people.

Thames TV Quatermass

The human race is being harvested

The police are mercenaries.

Well, our police have gone and they’ve hired very nasty people instead. In the book, I’ve clarified that – a thing which only began as a hint in the TV version – that they’re (white) South African mercenaries. I thought that was the most likely source. I think it’s quite probable, by a development of events there, that they make it too hot for themselves and they’d be all too ready to offer themselves as a mercenary force.

We have a complete breakdown (of Society in the story) – All the social services have completely gone and there is no petrol or oil. Everything has stopped. The North Sea oil pipelines have simply ceased to exist and there is no fuel coming in. The only thing that survives is a minuscule pretence that everything is normal.

For instance, television still exists, broadcasting about two hours a day. They simply put on the last remnants of rubbish to show that everything is normal. Hardly anyone is able to view it because, for one thing, there’s hardly any electricity. It’s a continual series of power cuts and everybody’s too frightened to go out, so they sit in their houses hoping that perhaps their television set will come on.

Do you think things are actually going in that rough direction?

Well, don’t you think they might? There’s every indication of it at the moment.

So what happens? The end of Western Civilization?

It could very well be. I think there are alternatives. One is that the Arabs simply cut the juice off, knowing what will happen and being prepared to watch it happen. And then there’s the question of Will we let it happen or do we start bombing the Arabs and take ‘our’ oil back? So then what do we do? Have World War 3? Or a great technological downturn.

Is that what interested you in Quatermass? Seeing the way things are going and taking them to one possible ultimate conclusion?

Yes. The alternatives are fairly horrid. We’ve put ourselves in hock to a certain type of technology, which is oil technology. Another option is to rapidly develop nuclear power stations. But you’ve then stuck yourself with a new technology and you’re in hock to that. If anything goes wrong with that or the reactors all go critical, we’re finished and probably dead in the process. So we’re worse off.

The only safe thing is to go back to horses and carts with everybody keeping and eating rabbits and having a Stone Age technology. But that’s no real solution. We have too many people to feed.

A scene from Nigel Kneale's final Quatermass serial in 1979

A scene from Nigel Kneale’s final Quatermass serial in 1979

At the time your Year of The Sex Olympics was screened eleven years ago (1968), you were quoted as saying that, in ten years, television and computers would be taking over people’s lives.

Yes, it hasn’t moved as fast as that. Maybe it will be a technological downturn.

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Nigel Kneale on Quatermass and BBC TV production techniques in the 1950s

Nigel Kneale, interviewed in 1990

The great Nigel Kneale, interviewed about his career in 1990

In 1979, I interviewed Nigel Kneale, creator of the iconic and highly influential Quatermass stories.

A couple of days ago, I posted my original 1979 introduction.

This is the first half of the interview.


Rudolph Cartier was your producer on all three Quatermass serials in the 1950s and on the 1954 BBC TV production of 1984. How did you meet him?

Well he moved into the BBC at the same time I did. I realised he was a man who never took No for an answer – which is a great thing. All he needed to know was that it was practically impossible and he would immediately go off and do it. There was certainly no other director-producer who would ever have got those Quatermass things on the road.

The Quatermass Experiment monster inside Westminster Cathedral (it’s a glove puppet)

The Quatermass Experiment monster in Westminster Cathedral (a glove puppet)

In those days, television was live…

Yes. You had to have film inserts, of course, if you had an exterior scene, like someone walking through a park. The studio we shot that first Quatermass (The Quatermass Experiment) in was that old one at Alexandra Palace, where the cameras were literally the oldest electronic cameras in the world. They were the ones that were put into commission in 1936.

How did Quatermass start?

It was really an accident. They had a gap in the schedule and somebody said Oh! You must write something! So I wrote it (a six-part serial) as far as I could and it was being transmitted before I’d actually written the end of it. It was not a rave success. I dug up old notices recently and they’re quite funny because they say: This dreary programme started last night – it’s scientifically incorrect… and so on. Now, of course, it’s been transmuted into having been a great success.

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

Outrage was expressed in the House of Commons about the BBC’s version of 1984 with Peter Cushing & Donald Pleasance

You did 1984 after that.

I suppose they felt that, if we’d done one, we could do another. Technically, that was a very difficult one indeed – to get it into a studio live. (The rats scene was on film.) In a two-hour show like 1984, you would pre-film perhaps a quarter of an hour and the rest would be live, which was very heavy going.

The play caused a furore (in particular because of the horrific scene with the rats). Questions in the House of Commons.

Yes! It was a question of lying low after that one. Nothing like it had ever hit television before. They tended to use three-act stage plays and you got little intervals between the acts. Very well done and beautifully acted, but a little bit sedate. What you didn’t get was a purely television-type narrative, where you intercut in the middle of scenes: the thing that you do in any film script. That was new. And, I suppose, if one started writing in those terms, immediately the thing had far more impact.

You were interested in that technique.

I suppose I’d have liked to write films but, at that time, it was all locked up firmly in a closed shop. I could no more have got a (union) card to write film scripts than to fly. So I stuck to television.

You didn’t script the feature film version of the Quatermass Experiment?

No. There was the usual hurried deal by Hammer Pictures with some American people and they insisted on having an American actor and an American adaptor. So this chap came over who worked out some nonsense which turned my poor old Quatermass into a screaming, shouting person – probably like the last film producer he had worked for. It had no control over it at all. I still see that thing turn up and I hate it.

The feature film version of Quatermass II

The cut feature film version of Quatermass II

But you did co-script the movie of Quatermass II.

Well, there were some changes to the script – cuts – so it came out like it did.

Why the cuts?

The TV version was six half-hour episodes and they all over-ran by anything up to ten minutes. There was no way the BBC could stop us – except by taking us off the air – because we were live. We knew this and took a chance.

When you tried to compress those six episodes into a 90-minute film version, a lot had to go and too much went and the substitutions were not very clever. The characters are so cardboard you literally have to strain yourself to tell one from the other. It seems to me to be a lesson in how not to do it.

A special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the movie of Quatermass II

Special effects man applies titanium tetrachloride to make an actor smoke in the Quatermass II film

Quatermass II was about the evils of science…

No – not science. I’m not a bit anti-science, only occasionally some scientists. After all, old Quatermass himself is one: perhaps a bit more sensitive to his responsibilities than some. In the new serial (transmitted by Thames TV in 1979 simply as Quatermass), his main ally (Dr Joseph Kapp)  is also a research scientist. Even Kapp’s wife is a qualified archaeologist. The whole of the fourth Quatermass is about a last-ditch use of logic and dwindling technological resources, pitted against suicidal mysticism.

Quatermass II was about the evil of secrecy. It was a time when mysterious establishments were popping up: great radar establishments and nuclear establishments like Harwell and Porton Down for germ warfare. All the Quatermass things have been very much tied to their time.

Quatermass and The Pit was written at a time (1958) when there was a lot of building going on. So I thought, well, you dig down to an enormous depth and find a spaceship. Immediate recognition.

Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

The BBC TV’s Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

It absolutely terrified me when I saw it as a kid on television.

Well, we always really aimed at an adult audience for these things. And we hoped that the kiddies would be in bed. It was made very clear that this was not for children. I don’t mind frightening adults. They can take it. But not small children, simply because they haven’t the resources of fact in them to sort out what’s real and what’s unreal.

If a little six-year-old is confronted with some nightmare situation, that little creature is at the mercy of all your special effects, because he hasn’t really been in the world long enough to know what is real. And if he sees some dreadful thing – an apparition appearing out of the floor – he’s not to know that it’s been made by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie (of BBC Visual Effects). He thinks it may really happen to him and it may happen in his bedroom tonight. That’s not a thing to play with.

Do you find that Quatermass is an albatross around your neck?

Well, a little bit. It’s like an actor being in a series: you get stuck with the image. But I think the worst thing is what people expect things to be – the word ‘horror’. The Quatermasses were never meant to be ‘horror’ stories. There’s more humour than horror in them, I hope – certainly that applies to this new one.

The stars of Beasts - with a non-beast in the middle

Beasts – with (in middle) a non-beast

I liked your Beasts stories for ATV.

I liked them very much indeed.

There weren’t actually any beasts in them.

No! That was the trick! That you would never SEE a beast.

The series had very ordinary settings: a supermarket, a living room.

I always feel that the most interesting ‘strange’ thing has to have an ordinary setting. Once you have Dracula’s castle, it’s totally dead: you’ve just brought in a huge, tatty, cobweb-hung cliché. Whereas, if it just happens in somebody’s house, in a room like this, in my living room, then it can be very upsetting indeed.

The Thames TV production of the fourth Quatermass serial

Thames TV production of 1979 Quatermass serial aka The Quatermass Conclusion

There was a psychological strangeness in your play The Road.

Oh, it’s a favourite of mine. It’s only a little play, but it’s interesting. It’s set in the 18th century, but with a group of people doing what they imagine to be a scientific investigation – trying to bring rational minds to bear in The Age of Reason on what appears to be a haunting in a wood. Terrible noises are heard, which are extremely upsetting.

What they’re actually hearing is a motorway in our time on which a huge traffic jam has occurred, caused by people trying to escape from thermonuclear war. It ends with a nuclear blast which has actually blown itself back in time to the 18th century and produced a kind of back-reflection, a ripple. So these people have no conception of what they are hearing… The terrified voices on the motorway, people trying to escape… It’s all completely recognisable to us: it’s all in our terms. But they don’t know what it means.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Nigel Kneale: Manx writer of intelligent British Isles horror and science fiction

Nigel Kneale (1922-2006). So it goes.

Nigel Kneale, writer (1922-2006). So it goes. (Photograph by Mark Gudgeon)

When I recently chatted to writer Chris Lincé about science fiction and horror, inevitably the writer Nigel Kneale came up in conversation.

Chris is a fan of the movie Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) which I have never seen, largely because Nigel Kneale felt the producers had butchered his script. Chris thinks it remains a fascinating script (which has nothing whatever to do with the two previous Halloween films) because Nigel Kneale is such a fascinatingly original writer.

Yesterday I saw that, in London, the National Film Theatre’s October programme says they are screening both Nigel Kneale’s 1954 BBC TV version of George Orwell’s 1984 and the recently rediscovered (with 10 minutes missing) 1965 BBC TV version.

In 1979, I interviewed Nigel Kneale for Starburst magazine. I talked to him at his home. He was 57 at that time, slightly deaf and spinning off fantastically original plot ideas just in general conversation. He died in 2006, aged 84. So it goes.

This is the introduction to that 1979 interview.


Thomas Nigel Kneale was born in England by accident, but he’s really a Manxman. His father owned a newspaper on the Isle of Man and young Nigel was brought up on the inward-looking island which is part of, and yet apart from, the rest of the British Isles.

He tried being a lawyer on the island, then went to London’s RADA for a couple of years, followed by twelve months in Stratford as an actor. But he decided he was really a writer.

He had started writing in his early teens and, in 1950, his book Tomato Cain and Other Stories won the Somerset Maugham Award. However, it was as a screenwriter that he became famous.

He joined BBC TV in the early 1950s and worked initially on children’s programmes at a time when very little material was specially written for TV. He stayed on at the Corporation for about five years, working in a wide variety of departments – music, documentary, comedy and drama.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a Hammer horror

The Quatermass Xperiment was a Hammer horror in 1954

His big television breakthrough came in 1953 with a six-part story The Quatermass Experiment, which was filmed by Hammer Films the following year as The Quatermass Xperiment (US title: The Creeping Unknown).

More furore was caused, though, by his BBC TV adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which resulted in an outcry over the horror of the ‘rat’ scene. That was in 1954.

He followed it in 1955 by Quatermass II, another six-part BBC TV serial filmed by Hammer in 1956 as Quatermass 2 (US title: Enemy From Space). Hammer also brought his 1956 television drama The Creature to the big screen in 1957 as The Abominable Snowman (US title: The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas), but it took them until 1967 to film his 1958 TV success Quatermass and The Pit.

By the late 1950s, Kneale was identified as a science fiction writer and so it was with relief that he broke this typecasting by writing the film version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). He continued to write extensively for both TV and films.

His film work as an adaptor included First Men in the Moon (1964) and, in 1966, The Witches (US title: The Devil’s Own) although in neither case did he have any control over the end result. His TV work included The Road (1963), The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), Wine of India (1970) and The Stone Tape (1972), all for the BBC.

In 1973, the BBC planned to make his new story Quatermass IV, but the project collapsed. His excellent six-part series Beasts was made by ATV in 1976 but the next year the company dropped his 90-minute play about a Manx slave trader one week before the rehearsals began – because of rapidly escalating scenery costs, of all things.

Time Out’s representation of John Mills in Quatermass (1979)

John Mills starred in Quatermass IV (1979)

In 1978, Thames TV resurrected Quatermass IV and their film-making subsidiary Euston Films  turned it into a £1 million TV series/feature film The Quatermass Conclusion (transmitted as simply Quatermass aka Quatermass IV in 1979 and directed by Piers Haggard, a great-grand-nephew of writer Rider Haggard).

Kneale found the name Quatermass  by glancing through a telephone directory, but that is about the only random factor in the work of a writer whose highly-visual plots and ideas are tightly-controlled, constantly fascinating and always intelligent. Piers Haggard says: “Kneale is the best science fiction writer in Britain.”

… CONTINUED HERE

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