Tag Archives: sci fi

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Science fiction

If you are in your 20s & from Glasgow, how do you get a sci-fi film script picked up by Hollywood?… Krysty knows…

So comedian Gareth Ellis told me I should meet 26-year-old Krysty Wilson-Cairns

“Gareth hasn’t told me anything,” I told Krysty when I met her this week at Bar Italia in Soho, “beyond the fact you have just had your film script picked-up by Hollywood after how many years at film school?”

“Two years,” said Krysty. “I did my MA in Screenwriting at the National Film and Television School. I graduated last year.”

In her first year at the NFTS, she wrote a short film All Dead Men based on the true story of a delayed action bomb which landed in BBC Broadcasting House during the Second World War. “We built a whole floor of Broadcasting House from scratch,” she told me. There is a trailer on YouTube.

She later won a BBC Climate Competition award for The End of An Era which follows two cockroaches in a post-apocalyptic future going to the cinema to see Jurassic Park, but instead of dinosaurs, the monsters are humans.

The animation is on YouTube.

“So,” I asked, “if the NFTS thing was an MA, you must have done a degree before that?”

“I did my degree in screenwriting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland,” said Krysty, “which is part of St Andrews University… but based in Glasgow.”

“So how on earth did you sell a script to Hollywood?”

“In your last three weeks at the NFTS,” explained Krysty, “you get sent round in groups of ten to all the agencies. You have to pitch three ideas and then the agencies that like you meet you again. I had my heart set on United Agents and luckily Marnie Podos there said Yes.”

“And she sold your script to…”

“FilmNation,” said Krysty. “They made Memento and Looper. “I’ve been a massive fan of Christopher Nolan ever since Memento.”

“I didn’t like Inception,” I said. “Too complicated for me. He should have gone back about five script re-writes to when it was presumably simpler.”

Krysty Wilson-Cairns in Soho, London’s film-making

Krysty Wilson-Cairns in London’s Soho

“Oh no, I absolutely loved Inception,” said Krysty. “Stunning. I liked the way he took a heist movie and made it so cerebral and I think it’s what making films is about; a bunch of people sharing a dream. It spoke to me on a really deep level. At film school, I got absolutely hammered for saying I loved it, because we were meant to love kitchen sink dramas and French New Wave films, whereas I love Inception and Die Hard. I want to make commercial films. I want to make films that lots of people see.”

A few days before I met her, Krysty had Tweeted It’s kinda awesome being part of #HollywoodReporter trend alert after reading a piece about herself in the US film trade magazine.

“I think I was quite lucky with my script,” she told me. “It just captured something in the zeitgeist. It’s called Aether. It’s a dark psychological sci-fi thriller.”

“And what’s the elevator pitch for it?” I asked.

A machine that can turn up dead sounds and they use it to solve murders. Everything that was said in a room is still in the room… I wrote it over Christmas. I had to do something. It was really cold in Scotland and I wanted to stay by the fire. It took me six weeks – 112 pages.”

“112 pages?” I said. “So that’s 112 minutes and it’s sci-fi – so loads of special effects, – so very expensive.”

“No,” said Krysty, “Low on special effects because it’s mostly done through sound: a lot of audio effects.”

“For a movie, though,” I said, “it has to be very visual and very big screen.”

“Ah,” said Krysty, “But there’s a lot of murder, violence and it’s very character-driven; one man coming apart.”

Krysty told me she is flying to Los Angeles next Friday “for the re-drafts”.

Krysty’s Musical Star movie at the NFTS

Musical Star – one of Krysty’s movie projects at the NFTS

“Do they want to change the concept?” I asked.

“I have no idea what they want to do,” said Krysty. “It’s set in London so they might want to move it to LA, which would be fine.”

“Do you have ambitions to direct?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that.”

“But film makers,” I said, “change everything which writers write.”

“That’s the beauty of writing,” said Krysty. “It’s like a kind of shared, amazing dream.”

“More like shared frustrations?” I suggested.

“Well, no,” she said.

“The only way to really control your script is to be a director,” I suggested.

“I don’t need to control it,” said Krysty. “If I wanted to control it, I’d write books. I find it terribly exciting when people take something you’ve written and imagine it and act it out and embody something that you made up in your pyjamas.”

“It’s not a collaboration, though,” I argued. “You write your own script, then they bring in other writers with ampersands and ‘and’s between their names and your central characters will get unrecognisably changed – and the location and the plot.”

“Maybe,” said Krysty, “but I’ll still get to sit in the cinema and say There’s a couple of things I made up in my pyjamas and they spent £20 million on it. I think that’s exciting.”

“More than getting close to what you originally wanted?”

“Yeah. Well, I’ve already what I wanted in the original script.”

“But the film industry,” I said, “is famously full of shysters, charlatans and thieves.”

“I’d be excited to be among them,” laughed Krysty. “I’m from Glasgow – come on!”

From Shawlands in Glasgow (above) to Hollywood (Photograph by S Allison)

Krysty is progressing from Shawlands (above) to Hollywood (Photograph by S Allison)

“Which bit of Glasgow?” I asked.

“Shawlands on the south side,” she replied. “I hail from Craigholme Girls School.”

“Very posh,” I said. “What did you want to be when you were 13?”

“An engineer,” she told me. “I’m very interested in Maths and Physics. I wanted to be an engineer right up to the point I applied to university and then I realised it would be horrific to have to sit and build bridges every day and not make stuff up.”

“Strange,” I said. “I would think the scientific gene is different from the creative writer gene.”

“I liked quantum physics, quantum suicide and stuff like that.”

“Quantum suicide?” I asked.

“It’s an experiment that proves the Many Worlds theory. You’re sitting in a chair and there’s a gun pointing at your head. You make the decision to press a button, so the world splits in two. In one world, the gun fires. In the other it doesn’t. But, because you can’t perceive the world in which the gun fires, it always does not fire.”

“Sounds like Schrödinger’s cat,” I said.

Wikipedia’s attempted explanation of Schrödinger's cat theory

Part of Wikipedia’s attempt to explain Schrödinger’s cat…

“All that kind of stuff fascinated me,” explained Krysty. “I wanted to sit and make stuff up but they were like NO! BUILD BRIDGES!”

“So it’s quantum physics you’re into,” I said. “Fantasy physics.”

“Yes,” Krysty agreed. “Crazy physics.”

“You come from a creative family?” I asked.

“My mum’s in Health and Safety. My dad’s a mechanic,” said Krysty. “He fixes diesel engines. I used to like to tinker with cars. My grandfather was a roofer. He was very creative. He used to fix roofs. I’m still quite a bit of a petrol head. But I was never a very good mechanic. I’m quite good at roofs, though. Good with heights. I could patch something up if I have to, if this film thing doesn’t work out.”

“Have you got other scripts to follow-up Aether?”

“Yes. Eight scripts. Black comedy and sci-fi and thrillers. They’re the three genres I like to work in.”

“I don’t think you will need to mend roofs,” I said.

Leave a comment

Filed under Glasgow, Movies

Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

The Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

Leave a comment

Filed under Children, Movies, Politics, Puppets, Science, Science fiction, Television

“Star Wars”, the ladies and the $350 million Disney disaster “John Carter”

John Carter loses Walt Disney’s shirt

What’s in a title? Well, in the case of Disney, maybe a $200 million loss on their movie John Carter after they inexplicably dropped the second part of the original title John Carter of Mars.

One theory about why the movie has been such an utter box office disaster is that no-one knew who the character was nor where or why he was fighting aliens. According to some reports, people coming out of screenings did not even know the film had been set on Mars. Oh! – and, in Hollywood’s post mortem, it was felt potential women punters had no idea there is a central romance in the movie. And the little ladies only love a war movie if it has romance, says Hollywood (e.g. Gone With The Wind).

Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created the John Carter character before he created Tarzan but today, while everyone has heard of Tarzan, culturally no-one knows John Carter. This is a fact which seemed to bypass the Disney publicity team, who sold the movie heavily on the name.

Titles are, of course, not unimportant.

Star Wars was originally going to be called The Adventures of Luke Skykiller (sic). When producer Gary Kurtz and director George Lucas decided to re-title it The Star Wars, 20th Century Fox researched reaction to the title in shopping malls and came back saying: “Women will not go see a movie with the word ‘War’ in the title.”

The studio, according to Kurtz, always disliked the title (until it made mega-millions) but could not come up with a better one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books on John Carter of Mars influenced many sci-fi movies from Star Wars to Avatar and many books and movies in-between and before, which also ironically means the new Disney movie feels slightly derivative. John Carter may have been the original, but, by now, audiences have  seen most of it before in other films.

Disney’s strange removal of all reference to Mars in the title John Carter may be because the studio took a bloody nose Mars Needs Moms last year. The movie’s budget was a reported $150 million + marketing costs; its worldwide box office gross was $39 million. The old rule-of-thumb (not altogether true today on mega-budget movies which require additional mega marketing budgets) was that, to break even, you had to gross 2.5 times your negative cost. So, roughly speaking, a $50 million movie had to gross $125 million to break even.

Mars has been doing badly of late. Columbia Pictures are currently re-making the 1990 movie Total Recall with Colin Farrell in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role and someone working on the special effects tells me it is not set on Mars. And let us not mention the normally superb Brian De Palma’s 2000 aberration Mission To Mars (budget $100 million; box office gross $110 million) nor Tim Burton’s 1996 Mars Attacks! (budget $80 million + marketing $20 million; box office gross $101 million)

It might be cheaper to go to Mars itself. In a BBC Radio 4 documentary last Tuesday, rocket entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk claimed he could send people to Mars for $500,000 per person.

Me? I prefer Edinburgh and I am here this weekend for a two-day event organised by the Guardian newspaper in which both Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and 20th Century Fox’s former vice president Sandy Lieberson explain how the original Star Wars movie was made.

According to Gary Kurtz, one of the inspirations for Star Wars was – yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books about John Carter of Mars.

Getting down to figures, the Disney movie of John Carter, based on Burroughs’ first (1912) John Carter book A Princess of Mars, cost $250 million to make and $100 million to market… and last week Disney announced they reckoned they would make a $200 loss on it.

“None of it worked on any level,” Sandy Lieberson said yesterday afternoon in Edinburgh. “Not on the marketing, the production, the casting, the chemistry. So it’s a perfect example of talented people, lots of money, the sky’s the limit and you come up with a dud.”

Before the original Star Wars was made, Gary Kurtz had tried to buy rights to the John Carter of Mars books as well as rights to Flash Gordon and to Akira Kurosawa’s movie The Hidden Fortress, but negotiations failed. So George Lucas made up his own story which, originally, was about a courier taking mysterious substances from one place to another.

Until a late stage in the scripting, robots C3PO and R2D2 were bickering bureaucrats, as in The Hidden Fortress.

George Lucas and Gary Kurtz had wanted to cast Hidden Fortress star Toshiro Mifune in the Star Wars role of Han Solo (eventually played by Harrison Ford), but Mifune’s English was not good enough. For the briefest of moments, according to Kurtz, Lucas suggested: “Why don’t we make it in Japanese with sub-titles?”

According to Kurtz, Lucas would snip tiny little bits of his own hair off when he had trouble writing. If Kurtz’s secretary arrived in the morning to type-up what Lucas had written (in long-hand on yellow paper) and found lots of little bits of hair lying around, she would say, “Boy! That must have been a bad night!”

Gary Kurtz agrees with the oft-quoted (by me) famous movie-making maxim of William Goldman in Adventures in The Screen Trade that “Nobody knows anything”.

“You never know in advance,” Gary Kurtz said yesterday afternoon. “This is one of the troubles. I don’t envy studio executives at all. I never wanted to be one I was offered a couple of times to be a part of the production team at a studio, but I couldn’t see it, because it is very difficult to predict about projects.”

The example he gave was director Robert Wise and Julie Andrews. “They put together The Sound of Music,” said Kurtz. “It was a famous musical on the stage but it worked brilliantly as a film. The very next project they wanted to do together was another musical that was really well-received on the stage – Star!

“And it didn’t work at all. Yes, the music was different. But on the stage it had worked. Why didn’t it work as a film? It’s one of those things that’s impossible to analyse. It’s almost like a chemistry experiment. You put in all the ingredients, you mix it all up and you stand up and put the burner under it and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into the most beautiful liquid possible. Other times, it just blows up in your face and you don’t know why.”

To hell with philosophising about movie-making, though. Were there any ‘romances’ among the crew and cast during the making of Star Wars?

“No,” according to Gary Kurtz. “Everyone was too tired. On the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, yes. But on the first film, no.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Marketing, Movies, Science fiction

Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks, “Blake’s 7″ and “Survivors” really wanted to be a stand-up comedian

(A version of this piece was also published by the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, someone read my piece about Doctor Who in the Huffington Post in which I mentioned that the series’ original budget was £2,000 per show.

They pointed out to me that the BBC science fiction TV series Blake’s 7 initially inherited the special effects budget of the BBC’s (for the time) gritty, realistic police series Softly, Softly – which was £50 per show.

Blake’s 7, unlike Softly Softly, involved model space ships, explosions, physics-defying events and interstellar warfare.

It seems to me a little unlikely that Blake’s 7 actually did inherit Softly, Softly’s effects budget, because Softly, Softly ended in 1969 and Blake’s 7 started in 1978. It sounds like it might be a fan-based myth. But, to mis-quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend sounds fascinating, print the legend”.

It got me thinking, though, about Blake’s 7 (yesterday was a slow day) and reminded me that, in 1978, I interviewed the show’s creator Terry Nation, who also created the Daleks for Doctor Who.

The interview was published in the January 1979 issue of Starburst magazine.

Terry Nation died in 1997. As a writer, he will be remembered for those two things – the Daleks and Blake’s 7 – but he was far more interesting than that.

My introduction to the interview (with some clarifications for 2011 readers) ran like this:

_____

Terry Nation was best known for his fantasy writing, as creator of the Daleks and Blake’s 7. But it was not always that way. He originally wanted to get up on stage and be a stand-up comedian.

Born in Cardiff, he grew up during World War II. His father was away in the army and his mother was an air-raid warden, so there were times when he would sit alone in the air-raid shelter as German planes bombed Cardiff. He said he believed in the only child syndrome: “Being an only child (as he was) you have to invent your own persona and your own stories.” As for other influences, he said: “I grew up with a marvellous BBC radio service that had a thing called Children’s Hour. I read early. And I also grew up in the front row of the local Odeon cinema.”

He started his working life at eighteen, as a commercial traveller for the family furniture factory. But, aged 25, he gave up this career and moved to London with hopes of becoming a stage comedian. These hopes were dashed. As he said: “To play your best jokes and receive back absolute silence is pretty devastating.”

Eventually, a talent broker told him: “Son, the jokes are funny – it’s you that’s not.” If there was a turning point in Terry Nation’s life, then that was it.

Fortunately, he encountered the comedian Spike Milligan who saw Nation was starving, gave him £10 and commissioned him to write a Goon Show radio script. At the time, Milligan was involved in a talent agency which included Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Eric Sykes and Johnny Speight. It was a small world and Nation’s successful comedy script led to writing work for such major comedians of the time as Peter Sellers, Tony HancockFrankie HowerdTed Ray and Harry Worth,

In all, he wrote more than 200 radio shows; he also contributed to attempted Goon Show TV spin-off The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d and to The Jimmy Logan Show and Val Parnell’s Startime. But, by that time, he had decided his comedy writing “wasn’t really very good”.

So he turned down the chance to write four episodes of ITV’s The Army Game (ironically co-starring the future first Doctor Who William Hartnell). Instead, he wrote three scripts for the ITV science fiction series Out of This World. He adapted Philip K.Dick’s Imposter, Clifford Simak’s Immigrant and wrote an original screenplay Botany Bay.

He then returned to comedy, writing for a Tony Hancock stage show in Nottingham: “I leapt at it,” Nation said, “because he was the greatest comic in the world.” At which point, “the BBC came up with this idea for this crazy doctor who travelled through time and space. They called my agent, my agent called me, Hancock said Don’t write for flippin’ kids and I told my agent to turn it down.”

Luckily, Nation and Hancock then had a ‘dispute’, parted company and Nation agreed to work on Doctor Who…. But then Eric Sykes offered him a comedy writing assignment in Sweden, so he wrote the seven episodes of the first Dalek story (The Dead Planet) in seven days and left to join Sykes.

Doctor Who first appeared on screen in 1963. Within  three weeks, it was drawing the largest audience for its time-slot in BBC history. After a four-part introductory story, The Dead Planet introduced the Daleks.

In 1965, Dalek merchandising (toys etc) reportedly earned Nation £50,000. The Dr Who and The Daleks feature film (1965) reportedly brought him in £300,000. And Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD followed in 1966. By 1977, the Daleks were still one of the four top TV toys and their creator was reportedly earning £40,000 a year from scripts.

But the Daleks were only a small part of his output.

He wrote a dozen scripts (more than anyone else) for the original ITV series of The Saint. That success led to a job as script editor and writer on The Baron TV series. He also wrote for The Champions, was script editor on The Avengers (the series which co-starred Linda Thorson), was script editor and associate producer on The Persuaders! He created Survivors and Blake’s 7.

_____

I met Terry Nation 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’.

(Extracts from the interview appeared in later blogs HERE and HERE)

Leave a comment

Filed under Comedy, Science fiction, Television, Writing

“Doctor Who” – Why I still remember watching the first episode 48 years ago

(This was also published by the Huffington Post)

Alas, I am old enough to have seen the first ever episode of Doctor Who when it was transmitted. It is easy to remember the exact date – Saturday 23rd November 1963 – because it was the evening after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The BBC removed all comedy programmes and the acid-tongued satire show That Was The Week That Was, at the height of its popularity, ran a justly-lauded, shortened and solemn tribute show to Kennedy.

The 48th anniversary of that first ever screening of Doctor Who was yesterday and, to celebrate it, the University of Hertfordshire ran a special Doctor Who day-long symposium.

I went on a whim because, like almost all other British kids of my generation – and later generations – I grew up watching and having the shit scared out of me by Doctor Who – though, for real shit-unleashing terror, Doctor Who was Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm compared to the original BBC TV version of Quatermass and The Pit.

I also went to the Doctor Who symposium yesterday because I thought there might be some mileage in looney-watching. Sadly, the people there seemed to be sane; a great disappointment. But I learned bits and pieces I had not known before.

One of the many ironies of the BBC is that they erased lots of programmes (to save space and re-use the tapes) but kept all the bureaucratic paperwork.

Doctor Who was consciously and carefully designed by the BBC to bridge the gap between their Saturday afternoon sports coverage followed by football results (mostly watched by men) and their early evening mass appeal line-up of light entertainment (watched by the whole family). The BBC surprisingly (remember the show started in 1963) did extensive audience research to find out which type of audience they should appeal to if they wanted to bridge this gap.

Their conclusion was children.

So they designed a populist science fiction anthology series which would be educational. It had an authority figure (the grandfather/Doctor)… a fairly trendy granddaughter to appeal to children… and two schoolteachers (a male science teacher; a female history teacher) who would accompany these two central characters on their journeys to various periods in history.

Doctor Who would fulfill all three aims of the BBC’s original Director General Lord Reith: it would educate, inform and entertain.

The show was never made by the BBC Children’s Dept. It has always been produced as a drama series by the BBC Drama Dept.

The original ruling guidelines were to be:

  • no tin robots
  • no alien planets
  • no bug-eyed monsters

These were all quickly thrown away, of course, especially when the Daleks appeared in the second storyline and became an immediate audience hit.

The original budget was £2,000 per show.

The title, of course, is a question – Doctor Who? – not the central character’s name because the central character is never named – although, in 1965, he was accidentally referred to as “Doctor Who” on screen because the production team were new to the series and, at first, thought that actually was his name.

Oddly – or perhaps not so oddly – some of the most interesting viewpoints at yesterday’s academic shindig came from stand-up comic and comedy club owner Toby Hadoke whose one-man show Moths Ate My Dr Who Scarf premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.

In a sort-of reverse of the reason why I remember the first transmission date of Doctor Who, Toby says, “I know when my grandfather’s funeral was, because it was the day of Episode 3 of Remembrance of The Daleks.”

He pointed out that, “Most Doctor Who fans have a level of autism about them,” and that the Doctor himself “always has a sense of wit”. As a series, Doctor Who is aware of its own ridiculousness… with a sense of humour. He’s not a man who uses weapons; he uses his imagination.”

The series itself is almost unique in being able to jump between different genres in its stories – from comic to social commentary to history to fantasy. “Because it lands in different genres,” Toby Hadoke pointed out, “whatever type of drama you want, it’s there.”

He also pointed out something which I had not noticed before: that, until recently, “there is very little time travel involved in it, except getting you to the new genre this week.”

There seemed to be a consensus yesterday that the idea of Johnny Depp starring as The Doctor in the alleged upcoming Doctor Who movie was a good idea.

It was also mentioned that a TV drama is currently in the pipeline based in the period when Jon Pertwee was replaced as the Doctor by Tom Baker. And that Hugh Grant had once turned down the TV role of Dr Who but he now “regrets” that decision.

To me, though, as a non-obsessed fan, the most bizarre revelation of the day was that, when the revived Doctor Who series was announced by the BBC in March 2004, they said the Daleks would not be in the new series because of ‘rights’ problems. (The Daleks are owned by the Estate of the late Terry Nation.)

But they also announced that BBC3 would screen an animated gay Dalek series.

The things you learn when you go to a university nowadays…

Leave a comment

Filed under Science fiction, Television

Terrorists and psychopaths: standing on the shoulders of creative giants

I was watching Penn & Teller: Fool Us on ITV last night and they did a trick in which a long ribbon-like sheet was wrapped round and round a 9-year-old boy’s neck. Penn on one side and Teller on the other then stood apart and pulled the opposite ends of the sheet tightly and… of course, the sheet unravelled and came away from the boy’s neck.

A variation on the cutting-the-knot-out-of-a-rope trick.

I was amazed this had been screened – presumably the defence is that it was after the nine o’clock watershed.

The possibility of children doing this to each other – wrapping a sheet or length of material or rope around another child’s neck and pulling it, killing the child, seems quite high to me.

I once interviewed the British Film Censor John Trevelyan. He was highly important in Britain, because he was in charge of British film censorship 1958-1971 when everything changed.

He told me that, as Secretary of the British Board of Film Classification, he had had a panel of psychologists advising him and, as a result, he had made slight cuts to the 1968 movie The Boston Stranger. He had cut the sound of ripping fabric which was heard as the leering strangler’s face was seen while attacking a victim. He had been told the sound of ripping fabric was a ‘trigger’ and a stimulant to would-be rapists.

He also cut scenes where sex acts were immediately followed – or were interrupted – by murder, especially involving knives or sharp instruments. Again, this was because he was told it was a turn-on for psychos. These scenes are now almost de rigueur in slasher movies… A teenage couple are having sex in a bunk in an isolated cabin; one or both of them are then immediately skewered by a deadly sharp implement.

Generally, though, I don’t believe that violence on the movie or TV screen really affects ordinary, non-psychopathic adults. And you can’t fully run your culture by making concessions in case a psycho gets an idea from a movie or TV show.

It is the Nature v Nurture debate.

Or, more correctly, Nutter v Nurture.

If 50 million people see a movie and one person copies it, the cause lies within the person not the movie

When news of the bomb explosion and island massacre in Norway started coming through yesterday – particularly the island massacre – a friend said to me: “It’s like some movie” and, increasingly, over the last 50 years, psycho and terrorist attacks have been getting like what you see in the movies.

When the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11 everyone was saying, “Ooh – It’s just like a disaster movie.”

Maybe psychos and terrorists are being made more creative by access to other, more creative minds.

Novels, movies and sometimes even episodic TV series are written by more-than-averagely-creative minds. To get a movie script, a novel or a TV series made and out there and available to a mass market, you often – well, sometimes – have to have a spark, perhaps even a giant flame, of originality.

Rod Serling, who created The Twilight Zone, reportedly died still blaming himself for writing a 1966 TV movie called The Doomsday Flight which was a then-highly-original story about a bomb on board an airliner which has an altitude-sensitive trigger device. Unless a ransom is paid, the bomb will explode when the plane descends to land.

Apparently Serling blamed himself because, after this TV movie was screened, the PLO and others started a spate of airliner hijackings and bombings. He blamed himself because he thought they might have seen or heard of the plot and decided to target planes.

To me, this does not sound likely – the plot is too far removed from what became an ordinary terrorist attack – though it does make me wonder where the idea for the 1994 movie Speed may have come from.

But creative thinkers have always driven reality. The skylines of modern cities were clearly inspired by decades of science fiction films dating back to Metropolis and beyond. We are now building what we were once told would be our future. The fictional thought of flat screen TVs has been around for maybe 50 years. The concept of the hovercraft was surely partly inspired by endless hovercraft in sci-fi comics and novels. And famously, of course, sci-fi novelist Arthur C Clarke wrote an article in Wireless World in 1945 proposing the concept of communication satellites.

Martin Cooper, who developed the first hand-held mobile phone, said that he had been inspired to do it by seeing the hand-held communicators on Star Trek.

Irish novelist Robert Cromie’s 1895 book The Crack of Doom described a bomb which used the energy from an atom. I do not know if anyone on the Manhattan Project had ever read it – perhaps the idea would have come about anyway – but the idea of an atomic bomb was around for 50 years before it became a reality.

Of course, conspiracy theory thinking and making links where none exist is always a dangerous temptation.

Iconic international terrorist Carlos The Jackal was given that nickname by the press after a copy of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal was found in a London flat he had rented. It was said he had copied details from the book. In fact, it later turned out it was not his book and he had never read it.

But the cliché nutter is a loner with a grudge against something or someone. By definition, a loner – “Ooh, he was a quiet one,” neighbours traditionally tell newspaper reporters – has access only to his own deluded psychopathic ideas. Over the course of the 20th century, though, nutters had increasing access through books, TV, movies, DVDs etc to the more creative ideas of other, better minds. Now, in the 21st century, almost all human knowledge and the creativity of the best of human brains past and present is a mere click away on the internet.

On Friday night, as first reports of events in Norway were still coming in, one commentator on the BBC News channel said that, if the Oslo bombing and the island shootings turned out to be linked, that would point to al-Queda because they had a track record of linked attacks. As it turned out, he was wrong. But presumably the Norwegian killer was ‘inspired’ by al-Queda’s publicity-seeking methodology.

When I first heard details of the 9/11 terrorist attacks back in 2001, I thought to myself, “I’ve heard this before. I read about this maybe a year ago in the Sunday Times.”

I can’t find the relevant article now but it turned out I had read about it before. Because the 9/11 attacks were based on someone else’s much better idea – the Bojinka plot which was conceived in Indonesia and suggested to al-Queda, who adapted and downgraded it.

The Indonesian-originated plan was a three-tiered concept.

1) assassinate the Pope

2) blow up at least 11 passenger jets simultaneously over the Pacific

3) fly a single light aircraft laden with explosives into the CIA headquarters or several aircraft into buildings across the US, including the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

The 9/11 attacks were not an original idea. They were inspired by someone else’s idea.

I imagine the lone Norwegian nutter was inspired by the methods of al-Queda.

I suspect we will get increasingly creative and increasingly paranoia-inducing terrorist attacks.

The internet allows even nutters to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime, Internet, Movies, Politics, Psychology