Monday, 20 May 2019
I do a Patreon page thing, where I publish a chapter every week. They're usually an episode from my past. There was an awful lot going on in my life during 1995 and 1996. I thought I'd post an excerpt here from the night when I went to see David Bowie on the Outside Tour in Newcastle in 1995, and hope that it might hook some of you into going to subscribe to my page: www.patreon.com/paulmagrs
Thank My Lucky, Lucky Stars
On the coach from Darlington to Newcastle for the concert at the new Arena. The woman in charge of the microphone goes: ‘Hello, good evening all. Now, I’ve been asked already and yes, there is a toilet on board. No big jobs, please. What I want to ask now is, has anyone got a David Bowie tape? We had one but some nice Bowie fan nicked it when we went to Sheffield last week. What we have got is a Simply Red tape, or Freddie Starr tape with all the swearing. Do you want that? It’s risqué. Now we’ve got a raffle for this T-shirt with David Bowie on it. It’s a picture of him painted green with blue fish strapped to his chest, his mouth stitched up and his hair standing on end. It’s a pound a ticket.’
The arena was breezeblocks and concrete, smelling very new. There were posters for the Gary Glitter and Suzi Quatro Christmas Show. Lots of Goths and families around for Bowie. There was a tall man, unshaven in a work suit, who was very calm until the show started, and then he was shouting: ‘Come on, Davey man!’ at the top of his voice.
In the middle of the show a woman shoved through the crowd carrying a black art portfolio. She was in a green velvet dress, smiling as she unzipped her folder and held it up so that its contents could be seen above the heads of the crowd. She took out a few large sheets of drawing paper and when you looked, you could see it was pencil drawings of David Bowie, in all his different incarnations. They looked a bit funny, and they were getting crumpled as she waved them above her head at the stage.
The mad bloke in the suit, who was leaping up and down behind her, snatched one of the drawings off her, and bounced about, pointing to it. ‘Davey man! Look at this, man! This lass has been drawing ya, man!’
This was in a lull between songs and Bowie actually noticed. He gave a little wave, frowned at the pictures and gave the woman in green velvet a thumbs up. Then he sang ‘Teenage Wildlife’, which was a song I never thought I’d hear him sing live.
‘Same old thing in brand new drag / Comes sweeping into view…’
When the song finished the woman in green velvet turned to the jumping man and said, ‘Thank you!’
Her drawings were really crumpled up when she pushed them back inside her portfolio.
It was strange watching David singing all his new avant-garde, deliberately weird songs. Funny things to be singing in an arena. It wasn’t ‘Let’s Dance’, was it? But the Geordie crowd didn’t mind at all, and they were word-perfect even on the new, weirdo stuff. ‘This chaos is killing me,’ they sang along, quite cheerfully.
Bowie was in overalls and a sleeveless t-shirt, spattered with paint, standing under harsh fridge lighting with a sign over his head: ‘Open the dog.’ He looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He cracked up laughing when he sang those lines from ‘We Prick You’ that go, ‘Shoes, shoes, little white shoes’ and the people at the front threw a whole load of baby shoes at him. It was like they were at the Rocky Horror Show. He picked up the shoes and the flowers they’d chucked and hugged them to his chest. ‘Thanks for all the shoes,’ he said at the end.
I loved being there, right at the front at a Bowie concert. Up close, you see that he carries on like everything is a scream. He does all the old gestures and moves going back to the days of Ziggy Stardust, and he shrugs and rolls his eyes every now and then at his own daft theatricality.
I was surrounded by this strange crowd. A family of ginger midgets who blocked theirs ears during the noisier bits of drum-n-bass. There were three blonde girls with a bullnecked bloke who smelled of corned beef pasties. There were tanned fellas with golden earrings and that madman who kept yelling: ‘Gan on man, Davey!’
I was in a red checked shirt with a little orange scarf tied round my neck, and I fancied that when he sang ‘Look Back in Anger’ it was me who Bowie pointed straight at on the first line.
‘You know who I am, he said / The speaker was an angel… / He coughed and shook his crumpled wings…’
In the coach on the way home there was a bloke done up like Gary Numan, saying: ‘I fucking love that ‘Look Back in Anger’ song. Y’knaa, I reckon he was pointing straight at me when he sang that the night. I fuckin’ love it. ‘Waiting so long, I’ve been waiting so waiting so…’
‘Yeah,’ said the girl with him. ‘I’m glad we came. And I’m glad we got right down at the front. It made it all more real than Depeche Mode were in Birmingham, eh?’
Home again that night at Mam’s, I sit up with my sister’s copy of ‘Fairy Tales From Around the World’ that she’s left in the front room. I’m reading a story that might be one of my favourites. Call me mawkish. It’s Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Fir Tree.’
I’m putting the Christmas tree lights on after everyone’s gone to bed and I read it again.
‘Oh, I was happy then, just a few minutes ago, when things were like that… And look at everything now..! I never thanked my lucky, lucky stars when I had the time…’
Something like that, anyhow. That’s how that story goes. That story’s on the list with my all time faves.
Friday, 26 April 2019
Ahh, look at this. The kind of random message that makes my heart glow. (and no, i never understand why i'm so obscure and so hard to find, either... But i do know that people are often very glad when they do find me in the end... I wish publishers would take note of that...! ;))
"Good morning, Professor! I want to tell you a fantastic story. One day, I entered a used books store and from the entire place, from far back, a book called me quite loudly and aggressively. I stepped towards it, the title seemed chick lit "never the bride". My eyes wandered further down and found in smaller print "a GOTHIC smash". "Oh, I understand". I devoured it in one day and since then, I'm on a fierce hunt for your books. This happened to me only once before, almost 20 years ago, when "The Unadulterated Cat" meowed to me from a shelf, driving me to collect, read, and reread everything by Sir Terry Pratchett, followed by his apprentice, Neil Gaiman. You are my next quest and crush and God bless you for your writing! Some of your books are almost impossible to find, but I will not rest until I gather the entire Brenda & Effie collection, your books about cats and I'll see what's next... May you write for many years to come and may your books be easier to hunt down, as per example, "Something Borrowed" is SO fantasy, that it doesn't seem real! At least in this plain of existence, it cannot be found absolutely anywhere! Respectfully, a freshly converted fan."
Tuesday, 23 April 2019
Saturday, 20 April 2019
Ten Years of Nest Cottage
Time is relative, I know. But really – ten years ago? Already?
It was spring, just like this, turning warmer than it had any right to be. It was 2009 and it was the year I would turn forty, and I was living out a lifetime’s ambition.
I had spent all the weeks since the very beginning of January – all the long, dark days of an endlessly cold winter – writing a long Doctor Who story in five parts.
Tom Baker was still the missing Doctor. No one could convince him to come back and recreate the role. He hadn’t really been near it for twenty-eight years. He was fearsomely protective of his legacy, and legendarily impossible for writers to please.
But that winter and spring I was secretly writing this strange adventure that he had partially suggested himself, in a lunch meeting with my editor and producer. What if… he wondered expansively… what if his Doctor Who hadn’t regenerated after all? What if he had quietly retired to a village somewhere deep in the English countryside, rather like Sherlock Holmes had? What if he had a dog and a tetchy housekeeper? What if he had a companion come to visit him during the long winter nights? Someone for him to share spooky stories with..?
What if that was the way he could return to Doctor Who? As a storyteller sitting comfortably by the fire..? Unwinding macabre tales of terror like infinite strings of multi-coloured wool…?
That sounded like just the sort of thing I’d love to write, and so that is more or less what I wrote.
Early May I was sitting on the grass in Regent’s Park with my laptop and my editor. It was a blindingly beautiful day in the sun. The flowers were riotously colourful and the ducks were pretty noisy. We were going through the five hour-long scripts I’d written and finessing the final draft. There had been much rewriting during the first third of the year on this fiendishly complex story. The story itself featured stories-with-stories and time going backwards and people being possessed and shrunk and sent back and forth through time. There were many locations and a horde of eccentric characters: clowns and nuns, hornet queens and ballet dancers, dwarfs and hounds from hell. I’d really gone to town on conjuring up a bit of flourish and extravagance.
Tom Baker’s era of Doctor Who always seemed to me to involve raffish eccentrics encountering Gothic monstrosities. There were lady painters, maniac surgeons, fey horticulturalists and gruff archeologists on hand to do battle with evil houseplants, fusty mummies and killer jellyfish and the like. I wanted that same combination of the homely and the weird in the stories I brought to this season.
I’d seen an email Tom had written to my editor, shortly after reading my scripts. He had been chortling. He had been guffawing. He was delighted by it all.
And I could hardly believe it. I had poured everything I knew into these stories, about how to create atmosphere and how to mess about with the Doctor Who format. I’d over-egged the language and relished every word. I wanted to write him magical stuff he would love to say. Words like crunchy truffles and jewels and popping candy. The date of our first recording sessions were set. We were just about ready to go. The scripts were all done and dusted. That final polish made them perfect, we decided, sitting there in the last of the sun. I had to nip back to my hotel – via Baker Street – and email them to the office to get them printed in time for the next day. Strange feeling – crossing busy Euston Road with my laptop – thinking, I’ve got the only copy of the finished scripts on this machine.
But the pages were safe, and they were printed on time. And the plan was that we convene the next morning in Hampstead, in a fancy recording studio in a garden of a big house in a leafy street.
I had coffee and bacon sandwiches in a nearby caff, still not daring to hope that Doctor Who would actually show up. Surely at any moment he’d decide that it was all a ghastly mistake, and this project really wasn’t for him?
I arrived early – as ever – and met other members of the cast and small crew. It was a lovely, dark little building of square rooms and dark corners. Everyone had masses of pages of script. I sat in the garden with Sue Jameson – our Mrs Wibbsey, the housekeeper from hell. She was familiar to me from loads of telly, very friendly and apple-cheeked. We talked about pets and other animals. In fact, there was a lot of talk of cats and dogs all round.
When Tom arrived he told me that he had walked his dog very early in the woods near his house, going over the story again in his head. He had covered his script in penciled notes and ideas. His script was a great splashy wodge of pages, which he threw to the floor, one at a time, as he was finished with them. Each page had been treated with great attention and care: each word rolled around in those vast, dark tones, and sometimes embellished and messed around with as he stood there at the old-fashioned mike in that sepulchral studio.
He had ushered in with him an atmosphere of booming bonhomie. There was always an edge, however. That freebooting jocularity was tempered with the steely glint in those hyper-alert eyes. And I remembered: this Doctor could turn on a dime, couldn’t he? Beam at you one moment, bellow the next. And Tom was just the same. I stood and watched as the others fussed around him and got him settled. There was no doubt that this was the Doctor and he was here, amongst us. He was actually here at last. A great big polar bear of a man, filling up every room he went into. Like visiting Royalty from space.
I was absolutely terrified that something would go wrong or something would annoy him. I was scared that he was going to vanish in an instant. There’d be a swirl of iridescent anti-matter and he’d be gone in an explosive flash.
Everyone was tense. Waiting to see. Waiting to hear. He barely stopped talking between arriving and barreling through the rooms to get to the mike. He flung off his jacket, threw down his carrier bag of script pages and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. He stared beadily across the microphones at Daniel, his guest star in the scenes that were to be recorded first. These scenes had the Doctor in the villain’s horrid lair – deep within the stinking confines of a factory staffed by stuffed animals.
I somehow ended up in the recording booth for this first read-through, and I could see my editor looking at me rather frantically through the glass in the control booth. He was right – we should lie low and not draw attention to ourselves as those principally responsible for the scripts. If I marked myself out as writer, I might put myself in line for a dressing down if our star decided he’d changed his mind about the quality of what he was being asked to perform.
But I was in the studio anyway – perhaps foolhardily - because I’d bought a bag of jelly babies on my way through Hampstead that morning, and I was determined to offer the Doctor one before he recorded his first lines. It seemed like a necessary ritual.
He broke off from rehearsing and stared at me blankly, eyes bulging. And then he grinned. Briefly, and then went back to the scene and by sheer chance his first line was, ‘I am the Doctor.’ Unguent like dark golden toffee, and menacing as all hell.
And that was that. Off we went. He was back. We had done it. Somehow we had managed to work together as a team and bring him back and everyone – Tom included – was relieved.
That summer we recorded a day or two every other week for several months. It was a slow accretion of layers of scenes and narrated passages, all recorded out of order, all taped in Hampstead or in soundproof eyries in the attic heights of Soho. It was tough, nerve-wracking work at times, other times it was hilarious. And by the end we had a boxed set of five hour long discs: ‘Hornet’s Nest.’ And the next year we had another series of five, and a year later, another five again. Our stories were wintry and festive, so Radio 4Extra broadcast them several years in a row at teatime on the fifteen days of Christmas .
‘The Nest Cottage Chronicles’ – as this era of Doctor Who is now known – is a strange and already-nostalgic part of Who history. I’m proud of it because we proved that it’s perfectly possible to create something quite new and unheard-of within this longest-running of adventure serials. A dash of MR James, a splotch of EF Benson, a soupcon of 1970s Dr Who Annual stories… and a great big voluminous dollop of Gothic Bohemianism. We stirred it all together and prayed really very hard that it would all work out for the best.
But it was nothing until that particular actor came striding into that tiny box of a recording studio on a bright, sunny May morning ten years ago. Guffawing, chortling and being fierce as someone who has walked through eternity to get here.
Those are the multi-coloured strands I’m raveling up in my memory, now that the sun is out this spring Bank Holiday weekend. I’m remembering how we did this crazy, magic thing – a small gang of us – ten years ago and I’m marveling at our long-ago bravado.
Tuesday, 19 March 2019
‘Did I mention? It also travels in time.’
The thing the Doctor says to Rose Tyler right at the end of their first adventure together. The thing that tips the balance. The clincher that sets her running back aboard the TARDIS just before it goes spinning into the vortex, so that she can encounter ‘the rest of her life.’
This recent novelisation by Russell T Davies of his 2005 TV script is filled with many of these iconic, memorable, spine-tingly moments. The moments that made you realise, fourteen years ago, that Doctor Who is back, and it’s back for good. It can still work, and still be exciting to clamber inside that old blue box and set off into time and space. People will still buy it.
It was exciting then, to be at the start of a whole new season, and to hope and pray it would be recommissioned for further years. For long-term fans like me it was amazing to have all the hullaballoo around it… but there was always one thing missing. Yes, we had tie-in novels, but we never had novelizations like we used to in the old Target days.
The argument went that we didn’t need them: revisiting stories was easier these days, in the age of DVDs and box sets. But that never quite held for me, that argument. Novelisations were much more than a simple record of a story. They were that story all over again, bigger and bolder. They were that story, experienced again from the very inside.
So, last year. A spurt of nostalgic excitement from BBC Books. A set of four Target-facsimiles based on pivotal 21st Century Who adventures. I’m eking them out. Who knows when there’ll be any more? Last year I adored Steven Moffat’s loopy adaptation of his own 50th Anniversary Special: adorned with cameos and in-jokes and impossibilities of all kinds. RTD’s ‘Rose’ is a more stately, reverential, traditional affair. Here we get a loving restoration of what it was like to re-enter the worlds of Doctor Who back in 2005. Now, as then, we encounter the tropes and elements of the series gradually, and with great care…
But as with the very best Target novelizations we get to spend more time with the characters. Duration is the key, and the chief pleasure of novels. Episodes are over in 45 minutes. Here we get to explore a little backstory – Mickey is so much more sympathetic when we hear his history and meet his friends. Jackie is even more abrasive but we understand so much more about her. Clive – the conspiracy theorist in his Dr Who shed – is properly tragic in this. (And then – that wonderful hint of revenge-to-come from his wife at the very end…!) Many more characters are rounded out… as is London itself. We get a real sense of scale – with the West End going tits up when the Autons attack. It’s a proper alien invasion of the type we always longed for in the series of old. But even the visual effects of New Who can be improved in a Target novel. It’s delightful to find that out. Books are still broader and wider than the TV screen will ever be.
Fittingly, Rose Tyler is the star of the show. The ordinary girl who refuses to be just ordinary. Who learns to figure things out and refuses to simply ask the Doctor questions. The Doctor himself is rather more aloof here than he seemed at the time. More damaged, more bossy and butch. But we can see why Rose would go with him. She gets him. She knows he’s a softy and a dafty underneath all that knuckleheaded yelling and stomping that he does.
And what a great climax! The London Eye falling, the Nestenes weeping, the Autons popping like champagne corks… and all the MPs screaming as the Thames floods into the corridors of Westminster…
It all sets us up for further adventures. Rose makes her choice and dashes off to explore the universe. On TV we had lots of treats to come. The very next Saturday, in fact, we’d follow both her and Doctor Who to find out what the year Five Million was like.
But as a reader you can’t help feeling just a little bereft. No more novelizations for a while. If ever. There’s Jenny Colgan’s Christmas story, of course. And there are the original novels from 2005 to reread – Steve Cole, Jac Rayner, Justin Richards – those bookish jaunts with the Doctor and Rose. But I’m greedy for a full range of Targets. I want to know what Dickens is like, and how epic ‘Aliens of London’ feels, and to learn more about Margaret Slitheen’s inner life, all through the miracle of novelisation. I always was avid – greedy, even - for more and more Doctor Who books – since first stumbling upon ‘Destiny of the Daleks’ in 1979 (forty years ago, I realise..!)
I guess they’ll happen eventually. These magical things tend to happen eventually, when someone has the same brilliant idea, all over again. These things travel in time.