Tag Archives: Doctor Who

Douglas Adams talks. Part 4: Science fiction, comedy, re-writes and ambitions

After Parts One, Two and Three, the final part of my 1980 interview with Douglas Adams

Concept by Jim Francis for a Vogon demolition ship in BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“…virtually impossible to read science fiction”

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no. I always thought I was interested until I discovered this enormous sub-culture and met people and found I knew nothing about it whatsoever. I always used to enjoy reading the odd science fiction book. Having done The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who for this length of time, I now find it virtually impossible to read science fiction, which is simply a measure of the extent of which I’ve been saturated with it. I’m a bit nervous, at the moment, of being pigeon-holed as a science fiction writer, which I’m not. I’m a comedy writer who happens to be in science fiction.

JOHN: There’s the double problem that you’re thought of as a science fiction person and as a comedy writer. So, if you wanted to write a serious book…

DOUGLAS: I don’t think I could do a serious book anyway: jokes would start to creep in.

JOHN: You’re not like a stand-up comic who, deep down, wants to play Hamlet?

“I was being fairly flippant about it”

DOUGLAS: No, you see, I actually think comedy’s a serious business, although I may not give that impression. I was being interviewed the other day by a woman from the Telegraph Magazine who’d read the new book (The Restaurant at the End of The Universe) and was asking me all sorts of questions and I was being fairly flippant about it and I think she got rather disappointed, because she expected me to be much more serious about it than I was being.

I think that comes about because, when you’re actually working on something, you have to take it absolutely seriously; you have to be totally, passionately committed to it. But you can’t maintain that if you’re going to stay sane. So, on the whole, when I talk about  it to other people I tend then to be quite flippant about it. Because I’m just so glad to have got through it. (LAUGHS) You say: Ah well, it’s just that. It’s just jokes. She was saying she thought the second book was much weightier than the first, which surprised me. I wasn’t aware of that.

JOHN: Presumably the reason the first book didn’t include the last two episodes of the original radio series was that you hadn’t totally written them yourself and you weren’t totally happy with them.

DOUGLAS: Yes. I also wanted to keep those last two episodes for the end of the second book.

JOHN: Were you not totally happy with the second radio series?

BBC Radio 4’s The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Most of the second series was first draft…”

DOUGLAS: No. You see, the first series was written and re-written and re-written and worked on very, very heavily. The second series I had to do under immense pressure while I was doing other things as well. There was an element of desperation in writing it. Also, the first time round, it was my own, private little world which only I really knew about. Writing the sequel series was like running round the street naked because suddenly it’s become everyone else’s property as well. Most of the second series was first draft, as opposed to fourth draft. So about two-thirds of the second book actually comes from episodes 5 and 6 of the first series.

The first third of it was a re-structured plotting of aspects of the second series. I think it works out better like that, although it meant I had to write the book backwards, I couldn’t get the thing started and it held me up and held me up and held me up and eventually I wrote the last bit, then the bit before that and the bit before that – and the beginning was worked out, more or less, by a process of elimination.

Special Effects designer Jim Francis’ concept for BBC TV’s Alpha Centauri

JOHN: It’s all been very successful, though.

DOUGLAS: I now have a company and everything goes through the company. It’s called Serious Productions. I decided most people I know with companies had silly names for them, so I decided I wasn’t. I was going to have a Serious name.

JOHN: How do you get out of the trap of being forever ‘The man who wrote Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘?

DOUGLAS: Well, by doing something else, really. I think we’ll probably do a second TV series, although it’s by no means certain. I think it’s on the cards and, if we did, then it would be a totally new series written for television rather than adapted. And that, as far as I’m concerned, would be the end of Hitch-Hiker.

JOHN: And you would go on to .. .

DOUGLAS: I want to write a book from scratch to prove that I can do it. I’ve now written two books which are based on something I’d already written. That’s not quite kosher. And I would like to write a stage-play because that was the one failure Hitch-Hiker had. And I’d like to write a film. These are all fairly wishy-washy ideas at the moment, but that’s what I’d like to do… Oh, and I’d like to be a guitarist.

(DOUGLAS ADAMS, 11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001, R.I.P.)

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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…


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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…



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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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.


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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GORDON’S ALIVE! – Brian Blessed from “Doctor Who” to “Flash Gordon” to taking a real life rocket into space

Tomorrow, BBC TV celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first transmission of Doctor Who.

The real Brian Blessed - OTT character

The real Brian Blessed – an OTT character

Last night, at a special University of Hertfordshire event, the actor Brian Blessed revealed: “I was once asked to be Doctor Who – after (the first Doctor) William Hartnell – but I wasn’t available.”

Yesterday’s event was not a celebration of Doctor Who, but a celebration of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, one of a series of events leading up to next year’s celebrations of one hundred years of film-making at Elstree and Borehamwood where, coincidentally, I live.

Comedian Bob Slayer once told me a story about Brian Blessed.

“I was outside a pub in Soho,” Bob told me. “The Toucan, next to Soho Square. It’s a small pub and a lot of people drink outside of it in the evening. I was on the phone to a friend when who should walk by but Brian Blessed.

“I mentioned this to my friend on the other end of the phone and he immediately suggested that I should shout out Gordon’s alive! like it would be the funniest thing in the world and no-one else had ever shouted that at Brian Blessed.

“I declined, but my friend double-dared me and so, just as Brian disappeared around the corner, I bellowed: Gordon’s alive!

“Brian then reappeared from around the corner and boomed one word back at me at a volume and resonance that made my effort sound like a choirboy whose voice has not broken. The single word he boomed out was a beautifully simple upward-inflecting CUNT!! – and then he was gone again.”

Brian Blessed’s notoriously booming line Gordon’s alive! comes from the 1980 Flash Gordon film.

Flash Gordon (1980) - kitsch, cult or masterpiece?

Flash Gordon (1980) Is it kitsch, cult or cinematic perfection?

He has an overwhelming OTT charm which could persuade anyone that the inside of an active volcano is a suitable place to use as a refrigerator. Last night, he was talking-up Flash Gordon as great art:

“I’ve got a feeling,” he said, “that Flash Gordon is almost perfection. There is such a great style about it and it’s becoming more and more of a… and then, of course, there is the cry Gordon’s alive!

“There were 70,000 people at the O2 Arena the other week for the Metal Hammer Awards for rock bands and I shouted Gordon’s alive! and I had to shout it about fifty times. It is much requested.

“I was at Buckingham Palace last year at the Christmas Concert – because I’m famous – and the Queen came up and said: You know, we watch Flash Gordon all the time, me and the grandchildren, It’s a wonderful film. Would you mind saying ‘Gordon’s alive’?

“So I shouted Gordon’s alive!!!! for her…

Thankyou so much, she said, very politely.

Brian Blessed grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire and, in the next village was future Star Trek/X-Men star Patrick Stewart.

Brian’s father was a coalminer; Patrick’s was a milkman. Brian says they have been friends since they were nine years old.

Brian Blessed flying high as Vultan

Brian Blessed stood on a perch & flew with embarrassing wire

In Flash Gordon, Brian played Vultan, prince of the Hawkmen, sporting a large pair of wings.

“Those wings took half an hour to put on,” he explained last night. “I had dark-skinned make-up with very black hair, black beard and they wanted my teeth very white, like in the 1930s serial. I couldn’t sit in a chair because of my wings, so they built me a perch and all the cameramen and carpenters said Pretty Polly… Pretty Polly as they passed.

“Before you ‘flew’, you couldn’t have breakfast, you couldn’t have lunch – you’d be vomiting. Speaking is really difficult with all these wires on you. I had an extra one on my bollocks. We all had to be lowered down when one person fainted.

“When I was cast as Vultan, I thought of the original comic strip and then I thought of Charlie Chaplin. In some of his films, he had a great big guy who bent lamp posts and beat people up if they didn’t pay their bills and he had big black lines under his eyes and a black beard and a great smile. I based Vultan on that character.

“Then, of course, when I saw the old black & white Flash Gordon serial again, I realised he actually plays Vultan in that and he has a grizzly bear with him all the time. So I said to Dino De Laurentiis  (Italian producer of the 1980 Flash Gordon):

Can I have a grizzly bear?  

But he said Fuck off.

“De Laurentiis was a tough guy, quite a terrifying guy – a bit Mafia. When he came on set, we never got much done because the director Mike Hodges got nervous and the cast and wardrobe and make-up got nervous. When I was doing these flying sequences and Dino came in with his henchmen – you could see their guns – you could see the guns they had under their coats – and the money in sachels… Dino was a very imposing figure. Nobody dared say a word but, when I was hung up on the wires for these flying sequence, I told him:

“Dino! We can’t get anything fucking done! Every time you come in, everybody gets fucking nervous, it’s costing fucking millions. Dino – fuck off!

“Dino laughed and said: He tells me to fuck off!

“I was the only one who could tell him to fuck off.”

The cast was equally colourful.

Ted Carroll as Biro - from rugby to pub owner

Ted Carroll as Biro – from England rugby player to pub owner

“The guy with the broken nose – Ted Carroll, who plays Biro – I befriended him,” Brian said last night. “He wasn’t an actor: he used to play wing half for England’s rugby side. He wanted to be seen, so I told him: Keep with me, because they’ve got to put the camera on me. Just keep alongside me.

Now he has a pub in Ilkley in Yorkshire and his pub’s full of photographs of Flash Gordon; you press a button and the film appears.

“We would have done a second Flash Gordon film, but Sam Jones, who played him, was injured in a car crash. The second film was going to be set on Mars and had the Clay Men in it, like the original Flash Gordon serial. And giant lizards. I would be flying around and he would be wounded and I’d be carrying him across the Martian volcanoes, but it never got made.”

Brian is, I guess, a luvvie at heart: lavishing praise on everyone he works with.

Sam Jones starred in a very hard part

Sam Jones: a perfect on-screen bubble of innocence & purity

“Flash Gordon is a very hard part to cast,” he claimed last night. “Like d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers is a very hard part to cast. You could get lots of handsome actors and put them in as Flash, but he has to have a kind of bubble of innocence, a purity. With Sam, you could put him anywhere and shoot him with the camera from any angle and he was pure, he was heroic. He was the perfect Flash. Just as good as Buster Crabbe in the original 1930s serial.

“And Max von Sydow was wonderful as the villain Ming The Merciless. He told me: I don’t know what to do, Brian, and I told him Use your hands. Use your hands, because you’re a magician and you’re sexual: use your hands. So he used his hands quite beautifully.”

Brian is known for being a larger-than-life, totally OTT character but says: “In my sixty years as an actor, I think I’ve only ever played three or four characters that are over-the-top – in Blackadder, Flash Gordon and Blackbeard. Now, 50% of my life now is exploration and 50% is acting.

“Hamlet says acting is holding a mirror up to Nature, holding a mirror up to life. But, of course, climbing Mount Everest or going to Mongolia or the North Pole IS life – and there is a huge difference. Acting is a great art, but you are pretending.

“I had Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi and Ken Branagh in front of me and I said this and they said Yes, Brian. You have to pretend. You’re not real. But going up Mount Everest and going into space and going on adventures IS real.

Brian Blessed, modern Galahad, climbing Everest without oxygen

Brian Blessed, adventurer, climbed Everest without oxygen

People say: “Isn’t it dangerous, Brian, going to the North Pole? Isn’t it dangerous going up Mount Everest without oxygen?

“Yes yes yes. But I think the greatest danger in life is not taking the adventure. You’ve gotta go for it.

“I am fucking bored shitless with all this crap about age. Forty is very young. It’s not how old you are – it’s how you are old.

“I’m 77 and next year I’m going back to Everest. In Moscow, I’ve just completed 800 hours in the centrifuge, in the hydra, in MiG-29s… and I am now a completely, fully-trained cosmonaut and I’m going to the International Space Station…”


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Writer Terry Nation talks about “Blake’s 7” and how to write TV adventure series

A few days ago, I posted the introduction to and an extract from my 1978 interview with writer Terry Nation, a former comedy scriptwriter who, as well as creating the Daleks for Doctor Who, created the BBC TV series Blake’s 7 and Survivors.

In this second extract, he talks about Blake’s 7. The interview took place after the first series of Blake’s 7 had been transmitted and before the second series aired,


The first series of Blake’s 7 was widely criticised for having cheap production values.

What can I say?

They looked pretty cheap.

They were. Yes, they were by any standards. I mean, you have to know the current state of the BBC. They were the best we could produce and we have never done less than our best. But, finally, if you want to buy a motor car and you can afford a second-hand 1948 Ford Anglia, that’s what you go after. So yes, OK, to the buff we are not in Star Trek’s class, but we attempted more than Star Trek ever did.

But with no decent budget.

Well, it would have been nice but that wasn’t possible – it wasn’t achievable – so you go with what you’ve got.

The secondary character of Avon seemed to me to be a far more attractive and dominant character than Blake himself.

Aaah. He (Paul Darrow) took hold of the part and made it his own. It could have been a very dull role, but this particular actor took hold of it and gave it much better dimensions than I’d ever put on paper. He is an enormously popular character. He is incredibly popular – and rightly so. He’s a good actor. I think he’s terrific. I enjoy watching him all the time. This is how stars emerge, I suppose: it’s the actor’s doing.

Was Blake’s 7 easier to write than Doctor Who? Presumably because it is longer it is easier to pace.

Yes. Tempo is vital. Years ago a radio producer told me that all of drama is shaped like a ‘W’. You start at a peak, but you can’t ride on that peak all the time because it’s just very boring. Hammer movies are interesting: when they do all their heavy horror sequences, somewhere in there is always the light relief.

You also tend to have two or three sub-plots going on in your series. Not just in Blake’s 7 but also in your Doctor Who stories.

Always. Always. I maintain it’s the only way to write those things and they don’t do it enough. Always my aim in episode one was Split them. Get them all going off in different directions so the moment whatever Doctor Who was doing was getting dull or he was getting to the edge of a precipice or his fingers were slipping, then cut to the other one. Cut to the other one so you’ve got this intercut situation. I think what’s happened to the Doctor Who series now is that they haven’t done that enough. I think they tell one story. They mainline it, following Tom Baker, and there isn’t enough diversion of secondary and tertiary stories. I did that (using sub-plots) in Blake’s 7 all the time.

The central idea of Blake’s 7 is wildly subversive, isn’t it?

Well, the Daleks are Mark 1. The Federation is the Daleks Mark II, if you like.

But the audience is asked to identify with rebels who are going round blowing up official installations – people who might be called terrorists.

In a way, yes, you’re absolutely right. But I disapprove entirely of that kind of political action. That’s why, in the first episode, I made The Federation so beastly and monstrous.

In the Blake’s 7 episode Bounty, starring the Irish actor T.P.McKenna, you had a community which was going to be torn apart by two internal factions fighting each other. The Federation’s plan was to send in a supposed ‘peace-keeping’ force which was, in fact, an occupying army. That sounds like you were thinking of a particular, real, situation. Were you?

Syria. It’s a political device that happens all the time. That’s what was happening at the time with Syria. (The Syrians sent a peace-keeping force into Lebanon.)

You were sneaking in a serious idea. 

Yes. But I guarantee that 99.9% of people in the world who see that show won’t see any political significance at all. Though, God knows, I’ve got to get all those people to relate to some truth, some honour or some dignity somewhere. It is not just people tearing around in spaceships, although that may appear to be what it is.

My Blake is the true figure of good. Do you know the story of the Last Crusade? – I think it’s the Third Crusade.

All these guys set off and they were really going to wipe out these heathens and they got as far as Venice, I think, and ran out of money, ran out of boats and a million other things. And the Venetians said, “Okay, fellahs, listen. There’s a Christian community over there. You’ve got the men and the arms. Go and wipe out that town and we’ll give you the boats.”

So they wiped out the Christian community so that they could get the boats to wipe out the heathen community. It’s that kind of deviousness that I see in The Federation. They have no regard for Man; they have regard only for the mechanics of Man – for that machine. It all works neatly and efficiently. It doesn’t matter what the cost in manpower; it’s the Final Solution. Get rid of the Jews and the world is going to be lovely; get rid of the gypsies and the world is going to be lovely. That metamorphosis doesn’t ever work. Finally somebody has to be on the line that says, “I, at least, am honourable and I believe in my honour.” The awful thing for me would be to find out that honour is the true evil – which would be devastating and destroy my life.

Do you find that people don’t treat you seriously as a writer because you write ‘fantasy’?

Oh, I’m never taken as a serious writer.

That must be frustrating, isn’t it? Not getting credit for hard work.

Well, perhaps. But if you’re a popular entertainer, then that’s the kind of badge you carry, I suppose. I don’t mind that too much. I mean, I have yet to prove that I’ve got something very valid and good to offer. I’ve yet to do that. I think I will, because I’m learning my craft and I’m beginning to get it right now. I think it will come. I’ve always believed I’m a late developer, so I think it’s just taking me longer. My intention always is to entertain because, if I fail to do that, I think I’ve failed to reach an audience. But, within the context of primarily entertaining, I like to say some things that I believe are valid and good and honourable, if you like. I don’t want to use the medium simply for adventure: I’d like to educate. – Oh! I take that word back! – But, all right, having said it and retracted it, you know what I mean.

To intellectually interest?

(Laughs) I wish I’d said that. But, having said it, I would never actually let that be said aloud, in a way. I hope it’s subversive in that sense. What they must see is a good entertainment. If it has an additional value, that’s terrific. That’s really what I would like to achieve.

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TV writer Terry Nation talks about creating the Daleks and about his insecurities and nightmares

(This was published later in the Huffington Post)

As mentioned in yesterday’s blog, last century I interviewed Terry Nation, who created the Daleks for the BBC TV series Doctor Who. We talked in 1978, during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 1975-1990. The interview was published in the January 1979 issue of Starburst magazine. Terry Nation died in 1997. Such is time. So it goes.

I met him at the Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall (the base for Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days) and talked about the fantasy world which he had created. I thought he was rather shy and insecure. I think he was a new member of the Reform Club and rather over-awed by the fact a middle class boy like himself had broken into what he saw as ‘the Establishment’.

This is Part 1 of that interview. Part 2 will follow in a future blog.


What did you think when you heard about Doctor Who for the first time?

I didn’t have any confidence in the series. I read the brochure at the briefing and said, “There’s no way this show can ever succeed.” And I don’t think it could have done if it had followed the route that they had planned for it.

What was that?

That it actually went into historical situations and was reasonably educational. That was the direction the BBC wanted to take and Sydney Newman (BBC TV’s Head of Drama) was bitterly opposed to any bug-eyed monsters. We could go into the future, but it had to have a relatively scientific base and it was going to be ‘good solid stuff’. He violently objected to the Daleks when he saw them in the script. It was only the determination of the producer Verity Lambert that got them on. Or maybe it was the fact that the BBC had to go on. They’d had them built and they’d spent so much money they had to go on. Nobody had faith in them, including myself.

How did you originally visualise the Daleks?

I knew that I didn’t want them to be men dressed up. That was my first personal brief. I had seen the Georgian State Dancers – the girls who move with long skirts and appear not to move – they just glide. That was the kind of image I wanted to get. I knew what the voice would sound like, because it had to be mechanical and broken down into syllables all the time. I made a few mistakes.

Such as?

The hands. They became enormously cumbersome. I made a few mistakes about being able to go up stairs and things of that sort. I made the cardinal mistake of killing them off at the end of the first series, which had to be rectified. But what actually happened with the BBC was that episode one of The Dead Planet came up. It was quite a good eerie beginning and, at the end of it – the last frame of the picture – we saw a bit of a Dalek. We didn’t see a whole Dalek. And the phones started to ring. People saying, “Christ, what is that thing?”

A week later, the Dalek appeared. And a week after that the mail started to arrive. And then it mushroomed. As a writer, you are a very anonymous figure. Nobody notices your name on the screen. And, for the first time in my life, I started to get mail. It wasn’t just a couple of letters. They were coming in by the sackload. So I twigged I had something going for me here: something was happening. And, of course, the BBC twigged it as well and they knew they had to change the direction that Doctor Who was intended to go in. So a lot of the stuff that they had prepared was put aside and they went much more into the science fiction area. And I think that actually established the ultimate pattern of where it was going.

The series has never really caught on in America. Why do you think that is?

It’s played now in syndication.

But the networks were never really interested, were they?

No, well how could they be with the quality of the production? There was always a certain sort of Englishness about it. It was very much a domestic product, I think. I went to the United States in 1965 and said I wanted to make a series called The Daleks. I went there to hustle and got very close to doing it.

What sort of series would it have been?

There would have been no Doctor Who because I had no copyright on the Doctor character. But I could take the Daleks away and do it. I might have to pay the BBC something for their interest in the design, but they’re my characters. Indeed, the BBC was going to go with me on this series at one point. But they weren’t – at that time – a very good business organisation. And the whole thing sort of crumbled to dust. And then I’d moved on to something else: I think I’d gone on to The Saint. And from there I went on to The Baron and on to The Avengers and straight on to The Persuaders. And each one of these is a big block of your life. There was never time. Hence, when the BBC wanted the Daleks again, I wasn’t available to write them. So other people wrote those episode but they never understood the nature of the Daleks as well as I did.

So what was the nature of the Daleks? You must have based them on a real person or a number of real people, did you?

I can’t isolate one character. But I suppose you could say the Nazis. The one recurring dream I have – once or twice a year it comes to me – is that I’m driving a car very quickly and the windscreen is a bit murky. The sun comes onto it and it becomes totally opaque. I’m still hurtling forwards at incredible speed and there’s nothing I can see or do and I can’t stop the car. That’s my recurring nightmare and it’s very simply solved by psychologists who say you’re heading for your future. You don’t know what your future is. However much you plead with somebody to save you from this situation, everybody you turn to turns out to be one of ‘Them’. And there’s nobody left – You are the lone guy.

The Daleks are all of ‘Them’ and they represent for so many people so many different things, but they all see them as government, as officialdom, as that unhearing, unthinking, blanked-out face of authority that will destroy you because it wants to destroy you. I believe in that now – I’ve directed them more that way over the years.

Presumably by writIng about the future, by creating your own future, you’re making what lies at the end of the road, at the other side of the windscreen, less frightening because it’s less unknown and because you’re controlling it.

Yes, I mean, Doctor Who comes out of it alive, however bad the problem. The good guys, if they don’t win exclusively, at least come out winning that particular round of the war. Doctor Who doesn’t win the war, but he wins a battle.

You once said all your writing was about survival.

Yes, well, it’s a theme that’s actually gone through my work enormously. I see minefields all around me: I’m not that confident. I’ve been going back and forth from London to Geneva (working on a new project) and it may be like Walter Mitty, but I’m in that aeroplane and I’m waiting for the moment when they say, “Can anybody fly this aeroplane?” – And I can’t, but I know that finally I’m going to be the one that has to do it.

There is menace all around you. It’s a fairly dark world out there. It doesn’t infringe very much on my personal life but, when I listen to any news broadcast, I think, “God! I might be living in Beirut. I could be one of those people in Beirut being shelled every day of my life.” As a wartime child, I grew up when bombs were dropping and men actually were trying to kill me – not personally, but they wouldn’t mind if they killed me.


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