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“Max Beeza and the City in the Sky” – an amazingly original British animation

A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…


For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.


The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…

Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie? 

Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount. 

Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things. 

Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo. 

Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.


Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival. 

“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”

It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks. 

The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.

You can see Custard on the BFI website

This won them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete. 

The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’. 

“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode. 

The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.” 

Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”

But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls. 

Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…

“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin. 

Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”

Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!

Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”

The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . . 

As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max. 

Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…

One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, the cooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbing  up a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20  startling revelations — count them all. 

“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.” 

And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.” 

But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, I won’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.

“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”

Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try to shoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:

“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.” 

For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’s Animated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, another National Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture. 

As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the British distribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made by students as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.


You can now (in 2020) can see Max Beeza and the City in the Sky for free (it runs 24 minutes) on the British Film Institute website:

… CONTINUED HERE
… after a gap of 41 years …
… in A NEW INTERVIEW with DEREK HAYES …

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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 talks. Part 3: Why he rejected Monty Python’s Terry Jones

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this 1980 interview, Douglas Adams told me about how the radio, stage and book versions of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came into being. In Part 3 (of 4), he talks about how the TV and movie versions did and did not happen.


Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

JOHN: There was talk of a  Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)

It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.

So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”

(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)

JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I  thought the radio series was un-visualisable.

DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.

But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.

BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)

So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.

JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.

DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.

JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?

Concept sketch of Marvin  by Jim Francis for the TV series.

DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: One of the most popular characters is Marvin the Paranoid Android. I believe he came from a specific…

DOUGLAS: Yes, Andrew Marshall. He’s one of the writers of The Burkiss Way and End of Part One. He co-wrote the radio series Hordes of the Things with John Lloyd, which was a sort of parody of Lord of the Rings. Very silly.

JOHN: You’re really part of a third generation of Cambridge comedy writers. There was the Beyond The Fringe and TW3 lot. Then the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That AgainThe Goodies and Monty Python lot. And now there’s The Burkiss Way, End of Part One, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Hitch-Hiker and so on lot. The generation after Monty Python.

DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.

The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)

In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.

That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.

JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?

DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.

… CONTINUED HERE

‘Dish of the Day’ concept sketch by Jim Francis for BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

JOHN: Which ones did see the light of day?

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

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

JOHN: What else did you do with Graham Chapman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOUGLAS: Yes…

… CONTINUED HERE

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

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

Nigel Kneale, interviewed in 1990

The great Nigel Kneale, interviewed about his career in 1990

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

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

This is the first half of the interview.


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

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

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

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

In those days, television was live…

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

How did Quatermass start?

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

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

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

You did 1984 after that.

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

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

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

You were interested in that technique.

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

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

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

The feature film version of Quatermass II

The cut feature film version of Quatermass II

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

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

Why the cuts?

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

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

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

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

Quatermass II was about the evils of science…

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

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

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

Quatermass and The Pit terrified me as a child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beasts – with (in middle) a non-beast

I liked your Beasts stories for ATV.

I liked them very much indeed.

There weren’t actually any beasts in them.

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

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

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

The Thames TV production of the fourth Quatermass serial

Thames TV production of 1979 Quatermass serial aka The Quatermass Conclusion

There was a psychological strangeness in your play The Road.

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

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the introduction to that 1979 interview.


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

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

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

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

The Quatermass Xperiment was a Hammer horror

The Quatermass Xperiment was a Hammer horror in 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Mills starred in Quatermass IV (1979)

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

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

… CONTINUED HERE

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A short story about aliens

What is the point of having a blog if you can’t be self-indulgent? Especially if you have little time. So, a very short story with the title:

THE ALIENS CAME AT MIDNIGHT

The aliens came at midnight. They killed with rays from their upper tentacles. They had four long tentacles. My mother and father were killed, my sister taken, by those tentacles. They took only the young and healthy. On their backs were strange markings: NASA ZOO.

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The undead of “Star Wars” + “I am your farter” + The Return of the Bob Slayer

Gary Kurtz yesterday: maybe thinking about Mr Methane’s act

“Why did Gary Kurtz split with George Lucas?” I asked someone in Edinburgh just before the final session of the Guardian weekend event during which Gary Kurtz , producer of both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, explained how the first movie was conceived, produced and marketed.

“They fell out over the plot of the third film, Return of The Jedi,” I was told. “Gary Kurtz wanted to show the more realistic after effects of war, with Han Solo killed and Luke Skywalker left alone. George Lucas disagreed. He said Han Solo toys are doing great business!

It seemed impolite to probe Gary Kurtz about it, but he did admit George Lucas wanted more of a rollercoaster ride feel to Return of the Jedi and a more upbeat ending to the trilogy. The original script had seen Han Solo dead and Princess Leia going off to rule, accompanied by her two robots C3PO and R2D2, leaving Luke Skywalker to ride off into the sunset alone.

Gary Kurtz went off to produce The Dark Crystal for Jim Henson rather than Return of the Jedi for George Lucas and so the third Star Wars film got its rollercoaster plot ride and happy ending although, yesterday, Kurtz pointed out that the Han Solo character actually has no real effect on anything in the movie’s plot; the character was, really, just hanging around while things happened around him. And Kurtz did say the toy manufacturers had had an effect on the way the Star Wars trilogy developed.

Toy manufacturers and commercial factors affecting creative decisions does not worry me too much. After all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually did kill off Sherlock Holmes but was forced by public opinion and against his better judgment to un-kill him.

We live in a commercial world, which brings me to farting.

Today is the birthday of my chum Mr Methane, the world’s only professionally-performing flatulist (a ‘farter’ to me and you). He has an entrepreneurial air about him and is quick to spot a new opportunity. He tells me he has now started a Personalised Fart Greetings service.

“I’ve had a lot of requests for personalised fart video greetings,” he claims, though I suppose it could all be hot air.

“Basically,” he says, “all you have to do is fill out a form with details of the special oral greeting that you’d like me to convey and this will result in a personalised and very special video greeting from my rear end.”

I can think of nothing warmer nor more meaningful than sending a fart greeting to your loved one(s) personalised in this way by Mr Methane.

And, talking of farts, that brings us to comedian Bob Slayer.

We have twice failed to meet up since he returned from out-drinking and outraging Australia (as partly-chronicled in this blog).

I got this e-mail from him last night:

“Just back from a lovely weekend of gigs,” it read.

“Swansea seemed particularly happy to hear about Australian bans and goats and mayhem and I ended up doing a two hour / seven pints of Guinness gig. During the opening acts, I popped to the shop down the road and was nearly mowed down by a fella on a BMX bike with a laptop under his arm. He was closely followed by a hot police woman at full sprint.

“The man on the BMX bike then did something which I just cannot fathom out. He was getting away from PC Hot Pants but, when he got to the junction, he stopped at the red light! Why? Juliet Bravo rugby tackled him and his BMX and then sat on him until reinforcements arrived.

“It is remarkable that a burglar could be caught for respecting the Highway Code!”

But then Bob ominously added:

“I am going to South Africa on the 6th of April. Can we meet up before then?”

If anyone reading this lives in South Africa and is of a nervous disposition, I urge you to leave the country for the whole of April, just for your own personal safety and sanity.

You have been warned.

To cheer you up, though, here is a video which Gary Kurtz screened in Edinburgh yesterday:

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“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.”

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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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