Sunday, 13 December 2015

My 2015 Christmas Story - Klacky the Christmas Dragon


It's become a tradition in recent years, that I'll write a new Christmas story and post it here on my blog. This year's no exception, and I hope you'll enjoy...



Klacky the Christmas Dragon

Paul Magrs


That Christmas dragon was useless because a) it was made out of cheap stuff, you could tell, and it only had two legs and b) dragons had very little to do with the Christmas spirit anyway. From the weird hurdy-gurdy of the music you could tell those two guys were Eastern European or whatever, plus the way they were dancing (which Jeff said was a bit gay, too, laughing at them) so maybe they didn’t know our customs, Mandy wondered? Anyhow, they’d got them all wrong.

Plus, she was being forced to watch them, stood out in the freezing drizzle while her mother dithered about inside the store, supposedly buying some kind of fancy biscuits that her friend in the Sheltered Housing Veronica liked. In a minute Mandy would tell Jeff to go in and fetch her (what were they even thinking of, letting Mum go drifting by herself?) but Jeff was in thrall to the Christmas dragon now, clapping his hands with the rest of the crowd gathering by the festive windows. The dragon was drawing a crowd, rubbish as he was. Mandy sighed.

She’d definitely missed her works lunch by now. Here she was all togged up in the middle of the day. Her dress with the black and silver glitter (she had bauble-type earrings in her bag – she wouldn’t be putting them on today.) The whole day had gone very awry and she was trying not to be furious.

‘They’re good, actually, aren’t they?’ Jeff was laughing and turning to her. First smile on him she’d seen all week. Now the dragon – really just some bloke in a red velveteen cape with ropes of tinsel flaring out from his neck – was twirling around and hopping about on one leg. Mandy urged him to slip and fall and break something. Let’s see them all clapping along then, she thought. Clack, clack, clack went his snakelike jaws. What were they made out of? It sounded like wood, as they clacked along with that disturbing music. And, under his tinsel antlers and his strange hat you couldn’t even see his eyes. She shuddered. She hated the thing. And she hated his little gay mate, dancing alongside him with the fez full of money they’d collected and the ghetto blaster. Did people still have ghetto blasters these days, or was it just beggars in the street? Come on Mum, she seethed, find those flipping biscuits.


*


It had been a long morning in the X-Ray department. Mum wasn’t in pain anymore, or she didn’t seem to be. In fact, it was like she was quite glad of all the attention as they sat there in those grey waiting rooms, one after the next, deeper and deeper in the hospital building, with nurses calling out her name every now and then and her perking up, ‘Here!’ and hurrying off with them to have her arm looked at and be generally fussed over. Yes, she seemed to be quite full of herself today, did Mum, perched there in the natty white cardigan she’d been knitting herself (finishing it just in time for coming out today), The People’s Friend splayed open on her lap and her ear cocked waiting to be called. All morning Mandy had felt like slapping her. How dare she go clambering about in the attic while they were all out? How dare she go poking about through their things? She was a liability, is what she was. (She’d been living with her daughter and easy-going Jeff since August and it was a wonder she hadn’t killed herself on the unfamiliar gadgets she liked to have a go on or with all her poking around where she shouldn’t even be.)

And now, with her broken arm, she was mucking up Mandy’s Christmas lunch with the girls from work. All the arrangements had gone to pot. Had the appointment taken only the half hour Mum’s letter suggested, everything would have been fine. But it wasn’t turning out like that and, as time swirled on, Mandy realized that the likelihood of her making it to Sauce in time had reduced to almost nothing. At least she was already in her party dress and her hair and make-up were done.

She kept looking at her watch, which had been last year’s present from Jeff. Not bad, actually. He must have had some advice. From a woman, probably. He wouldn’t have picked this out by himself. It was too stylish and slinky to have caught his eye. She watched him going through the Daily Mirror as they waited for her mum. What woman would have advised him about a watch? What women did he know? There was Cheryl on the phone at the garage, but that was about it. Mum didn’t count, she had no taste for things.

Now Jeff was reading the problem page. Mandy saw the headline: ‘He Prefers Porn to Bed Romps with Me.’ What the devil was he reading that for? She coughed and spoke in that tight-lipped way she thought was appropriate for a waiting room like this, where you didn’t want everyone knowing your business. ‘I reckon she’s got it wrong, you know, Jeff. You know what she’s like.’

‘Huh?’ he emerged blinking from Dear Deirdre. Mandy wished he’d taken his anorak off before sitting down. He looked so hunched up.

‘What she said before the nurse took her away. About that other doctor wanting to see her before she goes away today.’ Mandy picked up her mother’s magazine and started flicking through. ‘She never gets anything straight. I’m sure they meant that she should see her doctor next time, not straight away. Later on, when it’s settled down. What would be the point of seeing her twice in a day? Doesn’t make sense.’

He shrugged. ‘It’s what she said.’

‘She gets things wrong,’ hissed Mandy, noticing a grumpy woman in a hajib paying close attention to their conversation. Mandy turned slightly to block her view and lowered her voice. ‘She won’t have understood what they were telling her.’

‘We can check with the nurse at that window,’ muttered Jeff.

‘And,’ Mandy went on. ‘She’s on about us taking her to Veronica’s after she’s done here. And picking up something from town beforehand.  Biscuits or something. Our morning’s gone.’

‘Probaby,’ Jeff said.

‘She gets it all upside down. What was she even looking in our attic for, anyway?’

‘Your old decorations,’ said Jeff. ‘From when you were little.’

‘She told you that?’ Mandy snorted, picking at the glitter on her dress. ‘They’re long gone. Why would she even think they were up there? She gets it all wrong. Everything’s upside down. She confuses everyone with her going on. It’s like these people here today. She’s gone for her X-Ray now, and what’s the point of that after they’ve already put the plaster on her? It’s all the wrong way round and it’s bound to be her fault. And it isn’t because she’s old. She was always like that. Watch out, here she comes.’

The old woman returned, smiling, fresh from her X-Ray. Her new white cardigan was really getting on Mandy’s nerves. The way one sleeve was rolled to the elbow to accommodate the new pot on her wrist seemed to be deliberately drawing attention to the injury she had suffered in Mandy’s house. Next thing there’d be social services banging on their door, claiming she was being maltreated.

Her smile was so brave and gentle Mandy felt herself growing incensed. She glanced at her watch with the elegant chain.

‘I am to see the doctor again,’ Mum announced. ‘I didn’t get it wrong, Mandy. He wants to look at me before we leave.’

‘Never mind,’ Jeff said, rolling his paper. ‘Do we need to go back to the first waiting room?’

Mum nodded, wincing at the weight of the plaster.

‘I don’t understand why he needs to see you again,’ Mandy said, as they shuffled out.

‘He just does,’ said Mum.

Jeff winked at Mandy. ‘I think you can whistle for your works lunch, love.’

‘Works lunch’ sounded so common. They’d booked a table at Sauce, for heaven’s sake.


*


Now it was way too late. She had passed the point of being hungry and her mood was ruined by all her mum’s carry on. Also, she had freezing drizzle in her hair and she could feel rain dripping down the back of her Christmas frock.

And Jeff was clapping even more heartily at the antics of that ludicrous dragon. They all were. Egging him on. Cheering and hooting.

Even more ridiculous, one of the store managers had emerged with a tablet he was holding up, video recording the proceedings. He was standing quite close to Mandy, fiddling with the buttons of his machine, shaking with laughter at the clacking dragon.

It wasn’t that funny, was it?

The tinsel and baubles on the dragon’s outfit were cheap ones like she remembered from being a kid. Nasty, sharp, old-fashioned things. Now she could see his eyes, after all. Revolving, spiral eyes, just like a snake’s.

There was a new volley of cheers and laughter then, as the gathered crowd noticed something Mandy hadn’t yet. Jeff was nudging her and going, ‘Look! Look!’

It still wasn’t hilarious, she thought. Even when she saw that the window display behind Klacky and his friend was filling up with shop workers. At first she thought they were fiddling with the window display – the fake emerald trees and the angular shop dummies – but they weren’t. The staff members were wearing party hats and they were walking along jerkily. Mandy realized they were dancing. They were doing the same dancing as Klacky and his friend.

‘Hahahahaha!’ went the manager from the shop, trying to hold his tablet computer straight.

Jeff was laughing just as loudly. ‘Look at them! They’re joining in! Hahahahaha!’

Mandy still didn’t see what was so hilarious.

‘It’s great, isn’t it?’ the manager called across to Jeff. ‘That dragon thing has been there since the start of Christmas. Klacky, they call him. This is our tribute to him and his mate.’

More staff members were climbing into the window display and copying the dragon’s dance moves. A great roar of approval went up from the crowd of shoppers, who stood watching, grinning in the rain.

Mandy thought it might offend Klacky, actually, and his mate. Really, they were taking the mick, weren’t they? They were mocking the gay way those two were dancing and making it look stupid. It was probably their traditional dancing, from the land of wherever Christmas dragons belong…

Just at that moment she saw the dragon’s snakelike head and his whole body freeze on the spot and do a sudden double-take. The man inside the outfit stopped prancing and flouncing for a moment or two, and so did his chum.

They were riveted by the sight of the shop display.

At least twenty staff members were crammed inside there, doing the Klacky dance and beaming, being filmed by their manager. There were even some customers in there too, joining in.

Klacky gave a little hop, and then a hoot of pleasure (Yes, definitely foreign, Mandy thought.) Then he started dancing even faster, more ferociously, whirling around, flaring his cape with extra vigour. His friend did likewise.

It was clear they were over the moon at the tribute from the department store staff.

‘Hahahahaha!’ went Jeff.

Mandy thought they all looked insane, those shop people: wearing party hats and strings of tinsel round their necks; dancing like Klacky the dragon. Worst of all were the customers in their heavy coats, still clutching their bags of shopping, thinking they were having a good time and being amusing.

It was at this precise moment that Mandy saw her mother. There was no mistaking her. She was right in the middle of the window in her white cardigan, one sleeve bunched over the end of her plaster cast. She was kicking up her legs along with everybody else and waving her good arm in the air.

Mandy’s mouth hung open like the mechanism inside her had snapped.

Soon enough the moment was over and the staff left the window and went back to work. Their boss filmed the chuckling crowd filling Klacky’s fez with coins, and then he too returned to the store.

Jeff turned to Mandy. Her voice came out, when it did, quite high-pitched, ‘Did you see that..?’

He shrugged and smiled and glanced at his watch. ‘If we hurry maybe you can make it to Sauce in time for the sweet course?’

Mandy’s mum came flying out of the store, breathless and brandishing a box of fancy biscuits. ‘Got them! We can go! Come on you, too. Stop dawdling! We need to get a shift on!’

Behind them the jaunty music came back on, even louder, and Klacky started dancing all over again.


 *



Saturday, 12 December 2015

Books of the Year 2015




Books of the Year 2015


Maybe it’s early in December to do this, but if I post my top ten now, it might encourage you to go out and buy these for presents for people..?

Here’s my top ten – in chronological order…

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler
2015 was the year the whole world seemed to cotton onto Anne Tyler at last.

The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat – Edward Kelsey Moore
A great big warm, flashbacky saga, full of formidable ladies, ghosts and gossip.

Five Children on the Western Front – Kate Saunders
Fabulous follow-up to E Nesbit’s timeless trilogy, taking us fearlessly into WW1.

An Invisible Friendship – Joyce Grenfell and Katharine Moore
The late 1950s till the late 1970s in the form of thoughtful, tender, funny letters sent between a star of stage and screen and her bookworm fan.

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World – Janet E. Cameron
An enthralling YA gay romance that I knew I was going to love from the first page.

The Murdstone Trilogy – Mal Peet
Turning the epic fantasy genre inside out in a scabrous, satirical instant classic.

My Life in France – Julia Child
Memoirs of a giantess who was a dab hand with sauces: one of the most life-affirming and deliciously slow books I read this year.

Space Dumplins – Craig Thompson
Whizzy and free-wheeling space fantasy graphic novel about a child trying to reunite her family and creating a new one along the way.

A Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce
A set of succinct and loving thumbnail sketches, dropping us into a series of connected festive days.

A Dog So Small – Philippa Pearce
A proper old-fashioned kids’ book about the awkwardness of being young and small and also, the awkwardness of love.

‘The Awkwardness of Love’ sort-of describes my favourite subject matter, whatever the genre or age-range of a book, and it might also make a good title for a book of mine one day..?

These are my choices for 2015. It was a quieter year for reading, perhaps, than other years. I spent longer with books I loved, I think, and spent less time hunting out the new and spectacular, or wasting time on the things I realized I wasn’t enjoying.

In this list there are six authors new to me, but ones who already seem like old and reliable friends. In this list there are no books that started dull and I had to keep persevering with. Also, almost all of them are books I loved from page one. That ought to tell me something…

Reading plans and ideals for 2016? I think, with my new study taking shape, and the upcoming unpacking of my books from storage… a bit of rereading and always-meant-to-reading might be taking place in the new year…

How’s your reading year been..? Let me know!


Friday, 4 December 2015

Some Highlights from 2015 - Part Two

Some Highlights from 2015 – Part Two



July
There were two very nice social things in July – the first was the bookswap bbq in our back garden, which was loud and funny – and even the downpour of rain and everyone seeking shelter in the Beach House seemed like a fun part of it. The other thing was going to Olympia and taking part in YALC, and talking once more about Lost on Mars, and meeting up with a whole lot of folk (including, for the first time Ben Illis of the BIA Agency – who was soon to be my new agent!)


August
August was chockablock, with all the fun of the Edinburgh festival and doing four events and seeing lots of old and new pals, and reading at Lumb Bank for Arvon, the new Iris Wildthyme boxset coming out, and a dozen of my paintings going on display at the Molly House, just in time for Pride. But the biggest thing in August was mine and Jeremy’s first holiday in five years, and we went to Paris and a boutique hotel in Notre Dame for a whole week. It blazed with sun, we ate out every night and I did twenty-seven pictures, all over the city!


September
It was time for heads down and writing solidly, for all of September and October. I was burying myself in the first draft of my sequel to ‘Lost on Mars’ – ‘The Martian Girl.’ And all the while the builders were here, getting to work on our house at last, and we had the awful drama of sudden surgery for Bernard Socks. It was all stitches and recovery and tablets and lab tests for a while for poor Socky. But September also saw one of the best days ever – when the news came back that everything was all clear! Bernard Socks was in perfect health!



October
More writing, of course, going on quietly every day, building up the pages of my new novel. And, alongside, there were the daily drawings and pictures. By now I was getting lots of private commissions – many of them of dogs and cats sitting outside their people’s houses. October was bright with sun and wonderful autumn colours and my paintings were turning more extravagant than ever. Oh, also, I rediscovered my love of cartoons, and cast both Socks and I in our own picture strip.



November
November saw me finishing a full draft of my RomCom novel for grown-ups, ‘Hunky Dory’, a full year after beginning it. At the same time I collected from the printers a project I had been quietly getting on with: ‘The Lovely Levy Colouring Book’. We had a pop-up shop and Fred’s Ale House and  flurry of excitement as it went on sale at Pod. So many people wanting to colour in my pictures of Levenshulme!



December
And we’re up to date, with me taking stock of the year, and wondering what I’ll be writing and drawing next. I just received a beautiful proof copy of ‘The Myriad Carnival’ edited by Matthew Bright, reminding me that I’ve had three new stories out this year, in three different collections – Matthew’s, also Torsten Hojer’s ‘Speak my Language’ and Declan May’s ‘Seasons of War.’ Also this month, Obverse Books are publishing ‘Welcome Home, Bernard Socks’, the sequel to ‘The Story of Fester Cat.’ I’m proud to toast the oncoming year – which has been tough and busy and at times troublesome – with this particular volume.




That’s where I’m up to! I hope next year you’ll be able to read and listen to and see some of the stuff I’ve been working on. There’ll be some Doctor Who, some Avengers, some Brenda and some Lora and her friends on Mars. And there’ll be more pictures and more new stuff I haven’t even told anyone about yet. I hope you’ll stick around and see what I get up to next year, and thanks for all your support during this one!


(Anyway, it’s not New Year yet, of course. I just wanted to put 2015 in some perspective before going all Christmassy and stuff… )


Thursday, 3 December 2015

Some Highlights from 2015 - Part One





Some Highlights from 2015 – Part One

January
I began my Year of Drawing. To start with it was a New Year’s Resolution. I wanted to bring some colour back into my life. I wanted to do something without words. I started by drawing the wrecked house around me. Then, as gloomy January went on, I started venturing outside and drawing everything I could see locally.



February
I started drawing Levenshulme, our little corner of south Manchester. I had my hair cut at Tony’s barber’s and stayed a while afterwards, drawing the next customer getting his hair clipped and all the barbering paraphernalia. When that picture got a big response on the local Facebook group, Levy Massive, I started getting asked to visit all kinds of nearby places and to draw them. So I sat by the side of Levenshulme swimming baths, and in the Shine hair salon and in the church painting light coming through stained glass, and the window of Bridgette’s the Florist’s, and the re-opening night for Pod Café Bar.



March
But I was sill writing, of course. I had two big commissions for Big Finish. I wrote a two hour long script for Peter Davison’s Doctor Who, ‘The Peterloo Massacre’, which is released on CD and download next March. I also wrote an episode of ‘The Avengers’ called ‘The Golden Dresses’ for the audio series about Steed and Mrs Peel. Both scripts took about three or fourth months to complete altogether, but March was really the most intense time for scripting and redrafting.



April
After posting my drawings online people surprised me by asking for prints and cards. And Fred’s Ale House in Levenshulme surprised me most of all, by asking if I’d like to put on a small exhibition of my pictures. They made me a wonderful poster and got Wendy and her new catering company ‘Life of Pie’ to put on a splendid buffet, and they invited everyone to come and see. There were speeches and pints and laughter and the whole thing was just great.


May
I was invited to talk at the Hay-on-Wye Book Festival for the first time. It felt like the sun was shining for the first time in 2015 as we drove down south playing the album from this year’s Eurovision. The whole thing was a lot of fun. As were the other festivals I went to this year – Cardiff in March, and Edinburgh in August. They all looked after me, and a fuss was made over May’s publication, by the wonderful Firefly, of my SF novel for kids and Young Adults, ‘Lost on Mars.’


June
In June I was part of an award-winning team! Simon Barnard’s company Bafflegab Productions won a New York Radio Award! ‘Bat out of Hull’, the second episode of our ‘Brenda and Effie Mysteries’ series won GOLD for being the BEST AUDIOBOOK IN THE WORLD! We were chuffed as muck and completely amazed. Although, of course, it is a fabulous series. We shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The four episodes were released on audio download in the early part of 2015 and starred Anne Reid as both Brenda and Effie.

It’s little bits of heaven like that – like Brenda coming back to life in New York and winning a prize, or pictures going up on the wall and people being nice about them, and buying the original paintings I’d started exhibiting, by June, at Pod Café bar, that makes all the trickier stuff in life (and there was plenty!) dealable with.

Part Two follows soon! 


Wednesday, 2 December 2015

A Reading Round-Up




There’ve been a few books that have stood out recently. My friend Matt made sure that I read ‘Blankets’, an earlier graphic novel by Craig Thompson, after I’d enjoyed ‘Space Dumplins’ so much last month. ‘Blankets’ is a very sweet, incredibly slow moving tale of first love and strange, ultra-religious families. His drawing is just beautiful and dreamlike, I think. The whole book feels a bit like being caught up in the fever dreams of late adolescence. It’s a huge book, but one that I read through a long November afternoon and enjoyed a lot. It’s a novel about being in love with drawing as much as any one person.

I enjoyed a few kids’ books recently, too. David Almond is always good value, and I’ve been falling behind with his novels. ‘Jackdaw Summer’ is as strange and moving as any of his previous books. This time it struck me how good he is at rendering sounds: particularly of the countryside. At the same time I was reading ‘In Darkling Wood’ and discovering Emma Carroll for the first time. This one’s a tale of dark woods and fairies that only certain people are able to see; and brothers in hospital and grouchy grandmas with long-held secrets. It was a short, intense read, steeped in gorgeous atmosphere.

Then I relished the giddy ‘Not Quite Nice’ by Celia Imrie: a silly comic novel about ex-pats in Nice. It reminded me quite a lot of the wonderful Lou Wakefield novels of a few years ago. It’s a fun read, but there were too many characters, I think, and I kept losing track of them.

Much darker and starker: Jane Shemilt’s ‘The Drowning Lesson.’ It’s a year since I was enthralled by her first, ‘Daughter’, and this novel employs the same shuttlecocking back-and-forth in time for its first half, which is at first disorienting and then satisfying in the reveal of the tragedy promised by the back cover blurb. Her books belong to that genre of the modern Domestic Gothic – in which very well off and successful professional people have their lives trashed for our entertainment. Shemilt has specialized in the missing-children corner of the genre and this one, with its African setting and rather morbid surgeon heroine, is gripping right up until the final page. Definitely recommended.

As is Rachel Joyce, whose first two novels I enjoyed a lot. Her Christmassy collection, ‘A Snow Garden’ is terrific, I think. These are mostly succinct and rewarding stories – her background in radio drama is apparent at every turn in the deft and concise way she brings characters and situations to life just enough to make the story sing, and no more. My favourites here involved a divorced father trying to entertain his dreadful sons, and a very smart airport story that makes you groan at first, when you realise where it’s going, but that wins you over with sheer charm by the end.

Added to all of this, I’ve just discovered Philippa Pearce’s ‘A Dog So Small’ and it made me weep with its beautiful final chapter. I think she writes wonderfully and so touchingly. However, I’m also at that point in the year – a year that’s been fraught with all kinds of stuff – and just about anything could set me off just now.

Right – maybe it’s time for some Christmas reading. What do you think..?






Saturday, 7 November 2015

Twenty Year Anniversary



This week it's twenty years exactly since Chatto and Windus published my first novel, 'Marked for Life.' Vintage did the paperback a year later. I wish they'd sold a few more and kept it in print. 

Such a long time ago. Nobody in 1995 wanted literary novels about all over body tattoos, council estates in the north, magical realism, invisible men, bisexuals, prison escapees, missing children, immortal lesbians, transvestites, nudists and kidnapping.




Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Wibbsey and Company




Here's a flashback to 2011, and a few pages from my diary, when we were recording one of my Doctor Who stories in Soho for Audiogo.


 *

It’s the first day of summer. My third summer that’s seen me make little trips to London for these days of recording. The scripts start on January the first – and I can’t believe we’re here already. I had a night in the Academy hotel and an evening at the Rising Sun with Jim, Swyrie, Blair, Ian – the fellas from the Urbane Squalor discussion group. Wednesday morning I’ve got a red wine headache and the sun is out. I stop for honey and yoghurt and coffee – and then a bacon sandwich in Soho.

I’m nervous – because of my arguments with Michael over the scripts these past few months. My almost throwing in the towel several times. My feeling that the scripts were being taken off me.

And I’m nervous because today’s episode riffs shamelessly off Nicholas and Alexandra, that great film. Tom’s being asked to reprise Rasputin. He has pages of dialogue with himself. It’s going to be demanding in all sorts of ways. I’ve called my monsters the Skishtari – and I can just see that’s going to play havoc with a cast Sue Jameson laughingly calls ‘the geriatric Doctor and his geriatric friends’.

At five to nine I head up to the top floor of Fitzroy Post.

Everyone’s there. Together again…

Michael hands me a cast list and the first thing I find is they’ve got Michael Jayston to play the Tsar again. Now I’m even more nervous.


*

‘Ahh, Michael’s here now, so everything is all right! All is well!’

It’s about 3pm and Tom’s tired. Today we’ve kept him later than his usual knock-off time. He’s never worked later than two in the afternoon for years. Today we’re doing ‘Tsar Wars’, and it’s got funny complications to do with a large cast, and doubling of roles.

Tom’s happy because his old pal Michael Jayston turns up on time. They exchange huge actorly roars when he comes into the studio to do his stint as the robot Tsar. The scene is a dinner party of aristocratic androids, and speech-making and tense exchanges. Between takes the actors gossip and reminisce and crack up with laughter. The small studio’s been full all day, and there’s been a lot of laughter.

‘That Michael Sheen is extraordinary,’ says Tom. They’re talking about who’s any good these days. ‘He was in that Kenneth Williams thing. I don’t know why they did a film about a vicious little pouf like him. Never had a good word to say about anyone.’

The day is filled with Tom’s favourite sayings: ‘Fuck a duck!’ when he’s made a mistake. Calling, ‘Lyndsey!’ when he can’t find the right page, and Lyndsey has to run from the control room into the studio to help him, calmly, efficiently. Today everyone’s losing their pages and she bursts in, crying out: ‘What are you DOING with them all?’

During a photo session Tom gleefully describes J R Ackerley’s book, ‘My Dog Tulip.’ ‘Another fucking pouf, and a canine fucker to boot!’

Other Bakerisms… ‘Misplaced fucking commas. Our writer’s translating from the fucking Albanian again.’  ‘Hey ho.’ ‘I’ll start again. I must be too fucking nervous again, eh!’ And the usual raft of sexist gibes and tales. ‘Crawl? I can crawl! On all fours I’m another man altogether! You should see, Mrs Wibbs!’

Everyone’s calling Sue Mrs Wibbs these days. It’s become her name. She reminds us all of my idea from last year – T shirts for all that read, ‘What Would Mrs Wibbsey do?’

Michael Jayston’s looking older than I expect, and like a long-term smoker. He’s craggy and charming. Preparing to record, he flexes his mouth, and his whole face in this amazing way – these very precise grimaces. His voice is immense and wonderfully deep. In scenes with the Doctor, even Tom’s voice sounds high and thin next to his.

‘I’ve realized it’s 41 years since we last worked together, Tom.’

‘And never again since!’

‘There’s a reason for that. I’ve just remembered.’

‘Yes! And that’s just like how no one ever invites me to their homes twice, too!’

‘RUBBISH, Tom,’ snaps Michael. ‘That’s NOT true!’

I’ve never seen Tom put right like this before. It’s done with such drollery, though. Drollery in all the hilarity.

‘Jesus Christ, Tom’s ACTING!’ gasps Kate at one point. He’s in a scene in a cell with the physician, Boolin. Simon Shepherd underplays Boolin – he’s mild and calming and better than we all expect, somehow. He’s a still point in all the raving and campery that goes on today. In a scene with him, Tom is starting to sound naturalistic. He’s underplaying himself and letting the Doctor think on his feet and not just show off. The scene finishes with him telling the robot that he’s wonderful – and just then I realise I’ve nicked this from Tom’s scene in State of Decay, when he says the same to Romana.

Then, as if he was straying too close to taking any of it seriously, he tells us about going to the hospice to see Nick Courtney on his death bed. ‘Well, I went in and I thought he was already dead. Then he let out this groan, and so I moved closer and I said: ‘Nick, Nick, after a long and eventful and wonderful life such as you’ve lived, and after everything you’ve seen and done, would you say, at the end, that you’re a tits or arse man?’ And there was a long, long pause. And then, with his dying breath, the Brigadier said: ‘Tits! No, arse! No, both, I think!’ And then he expired.’

I love these long, complicated days, and our sitting in the foyer with the wide windows over Soho – and there’s the Telecom tower to the north. Sue Jameson has become fond of me, I think, and I of her – she hugs me and ushers me to sit down with her, am I comfortable, can we move some of this stuff out the way? Perhaps she thinks I’m shy or seeming on the sidelines? I don’t feel on the sidelines, but my role is different to anyone’s. It’s hard to explain. But she looks after me and asks about Fester, who was ill last summer, and tells me she loves ‘Never the Bride’, and has a new grandchild on the way, and tells me about our mutual friend Jo Tope in her show in New York, and wants to hear about me going freelance.

Three years of these days and these adventures – this is our episode 11 – it feels like friendships are coming about. We’re definitely a team.

Sue introduces me to Simon Shepherd, also sitting on the settee. We’ve not had time to do that yet – everyone’s been diving into pastrami sandwiches and crawfish salads. I’m trying to squeeze a bit more juice out of Wibbs’ rather hard lime for her. Simon (whom Kate calls acting royalty in the making) is very pleased to be here – and in three episodes under different guises, no less. He and Sue both want to know why I’m not writing for the TV show. I tell them my sad little tale of Piers Wengers asking my agent for my storylines and pitches, and the reply that never came back…

‘I don’t watch it myself,’ Sue says. ‘It isn’t much fun. It’s much too complicated.’

But still, we’re enjoying this.

When he gets tired or restless Tom sighs, ‘Hey-ho!’ and you have to take it for a danger sign. Mostly he’s having fun and doubling up as Rasputin, who in this story has become an occasionally Chinese Nazi doctor, for some reason. Michael feeds the other lines in these doubler scenes, and it’s obviously made his year to do so.

There are boys – actors in their twenties – dashing about and being robots and gruff revolutionaries. All are excited and enthralled by the old folks acting up, acting their hearts out. They nip out for advert castings in theatres at lunchtime. A strawberry blonde who played our snaky villain announces with dismay that Macdonalds asked to see him topless.

It’s five before we finish. There’s a plan to spill next door into the Bricklayer’s Arms. I text my pal Nick to tell him of a change of venue for our 5pm drink – to watch his face when he walks in and sees this strange gang. But that’s maybe unfair – he’s shy, we were to have a quiet forty minutes’ chat together. But I can’t resist. I love turning round in that sunny, wooden, tiny bar and he’s walking in and seeing Mrs Wibbsey, and there’s the Valeyard at the bar, turning to welcome him, saying, ‘Nick! What will you have to drink?’

Michael Jayston was very nice to me – very complimentary about the script. I was dreading the worst over my cribbed Russian revolution stuff. But he’s keen to compliment me and to say what fun it’s all been. ‘He’s heaven, just heaven,’ Kate says, of working with him, and I can see why. He came in and was faultless. Then he was saying, ‘I’m the Doctor as well! People don’t always realise this, but I’m the Doctor, too! I’m the evil Doctor when he gets very old! I’m going to tell Tom!’

But Tom has slipped off. He put on his Eric Morecambe coat and picked up his paper bag. He stopped so I could have a picture taken with him and then he waved us goodbye again. ‘Yes, I know Michael Jayston wants me to come to the pub. But I can’t. Thirty years ago I’d go to the Bricklayers’ arms with him on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’d never get home until the following Tuesday. No – I’m off right now! Goodbye..! Goodbye…!’




Monday, 2 November 2015

The Doctor Who Random Story Generator




The Doctor Who Random Story Generator!

It really works, folks! (Sort of!)

By Paul Magrs

November 2015


This is by no means complete, nor in the right order. Feel free to use any of this in any old order you fancy.

If we can agree that the essence of a good Doctor Who story in any genre or format consists of:

A) The plaiting of strong narrative strands pitching one or more groups of heroes against one or more group of villains and monsters; B) bold visual imagery involving contrasts and juxtapositions and C) slightly wonky allegory

Then this might work.

Ok:

Setting Up.

There needs to be two locations, with perhaps two or three rooms in each, and some inbetween place. There must be a strong contrast between all three. So: an Elizabethan manor house, a desert, a space ship. The Roman Forum, an asteroid belt, a blue swamp on Venus.

You must have a group of humans who live and work inside a hierarchy and wear uniforms accordingly. Soldiers, servants, colonists. Most stand in the background nodding in early scenes and their leaders fill in exposition about who and what and where they are. Revolutionaries and malcontents are a good thing to bring in here.

When the Doctor and Companion(s) arrive he gets to talk to both the highest and the lowliest in the land, classically sympathizing with the put-upon and the lowliest. (A good twist is when this turns out to be the leader.)

Take something from the news or popular consciousness. Global climate change, transsexuals being abused by Germaine Greer, the refugee crisis, etc. Map this onto your story about aliens quite obviously at the start, but end up trying to disguise it as your story gets out of control and has you saying all kinds of odd things you don’t really agree with.

Choose a favourite old story to follow and subvert: a Gothic tale, a Golden Age Mystery, a Shakespeare, a Greek Myth, a classic SF film or a Puffin classic of the 1960s.

Best if a Companion has a flashback trauma early in your story, either from a previous story, or their childhood. This will come in useful for giving your runaround finale more resonance.

The Doctor’s developed a new quirk: now he plays the triangle, plays with his yo-yo, is a bird spotter. This will come in useful too, before the story’s out.

At the heart of your story place something that’s to do with juxtaposition. Something strikingly visual. A giant whale with the head of a baby. A department store stranded alone on a world of ice. A theme park of cartoon characters in Dante’s Inferno. That kind of thing. Something that plays with scale, time, sense or genre distinctions is good.

STUFF HAPPENING

Obviously, in terms of working through the story, there needs to be the elements everyone knows:

Exploration / capture / bungled escape / recapture / escape / bungled recapture / discovery of a mystery / a corpse / a frightening state of affairs / someone who shouldn’t be there / an anachronism / a puzzle / aliens in disguise / a spooky factory. And then we must see the Doctor standing up to brutality and discover an enigma that only he half-understands as yet. (He might be pretending and completely understand it, or not understand it at all. This depends on which Doctor it is. Some might have already been to the end of the story and sorted it all out already, making them a manipulative weirdo, and others might not even know what day it is yet.)

Now they must meet a new, slightly tragic friend who takes them to meet his/ her people, who warn about all the dangers, and then there’s an attack, the Doctor is curious despite the dangers and goes to meet the enemy. The new friend goes with him, leaving the Companion(s) behind. After a number of exciting events the new friend dies nobly and tragically. The Doctor swears never to forget him / her, and promptly forgets him / her.

The Doctor is captured by the enemy, doesn’t even try to escape, generally larks about until they show him their doomsday device which, depending up the relative sophistication of the story, can be either a machine that looks like a teasmade or a long, impossible explanation of the whole season’s accumulated storylines. The Doctor will stare in outrage and slight bafflement either way.

MORE THINGS TO PUT IN:

A creature that is made of:

bits of insect / bits of metal / bits of fur / scales / suckers / tentacles / bones / rocks / corpses / gelatinous stuff / baked beans, or any combination of the above. Mostly they’ll just say ‘raaarggh’ and lumber about. For added comedic effect give them a funny voice or an entirely reasonable manner. For added sophistication, give them a long speech about the whole season’s accumulated story lines.

Put in an interesting mode of transport for taking the Doctor and friends between one location and another – a tube train through the time Vortex, a escalator through the clouds, a soil pipe.

Have them escape from the base / city / whatever and reveal a completely unexpected new location. Involve a shift in scale or perspective or context. Eg, ‘So we were inside a vacuum cleaner / 17th Paris / Freud’s mind… the whole time!’

CLIMAX.

There must be a ticking clock. Or bomb. Or teasmade. Do not defuse it until the numbers are down to single figures. Keep all your characters running towards it.

The Doctor has a vital piece of information that he reveals once he gets to the teasmade. This ought – for the sake of story clarity – to be something he has learned within this story. Or, if you want to delight fans – it could be something no one’s mentioned since 1974.

The twist at this point, as everyone watches the teasmade, might be:

The villain is a hero / the helpful friend is still alive and a traitor / the villain reveals a backstory nugget that makes things more morally complicated and we start to like him or her a bit / or the hero does something assholish just at the wrong moment.

Or, someone from 1974 comes wandering in, completely unexpectedly.

You are allowed three interviews between the Doctor and your villain: 1) the villain triumphant, boasting and giving too much away. 2) A meeting of equals, in which the villain falls for the Doctor and offers to share power with him and the Doctor strings them along for a bit. C) The Doctor defeated and gradually, gleefully reversing the situation.

Petard Hoisting. The Doctor does something awful and downright fitting to his enemy.

NOTE ON VILLAINS: They used to be something from pantomimes or horror films. Now they should be like contestants from The Apprentice. (Companions are like contestants from The Great British Bake-Off.)

STORY STRANDS.

Separate your TARDIS Team early in the story. Let the two sets make new local friends. Ply their two strands with perhaps two strands featuring your story-specific characters (one nice, one evil.)

All are moving towards the same setting for the climax / denouement / wordy explanations. Say, throne room, top of an office block or the centre of the maze. Everyone tries to trip each other up in getting there. (Friends try to save each other / heroes try to prevent villains reaching the doomsday teasmade / villains use heroes as landmine sheep.)

KEY POINTS:

The invading monsters are invariably revealed to HAVE ALWAYS BEEN HERE.

The space-colonising humans have ALWAYS BROUGHT THE BEST AND WORST OF HUMANITY with them into the stars.

Even though SHITTY THINGS HAPPEN, SOME GREAT GOOD WILL COME. So – don’t muck about with history, even if it’s your Time Lordy mission or some school teacher gets a fit of conscience.

Any hierarchical system – whether Time Lords, school governors, soldiers or civil servants – is revealed to be rotten at the core. With free stationery comes great temptation.


ALWAYS REMEMBER:

The best Doctor Who stories are very clever things disguised as something stupid.

And the worst Doctor Who stories are very stupid things disguised as something clever…

And generally, the Doctor is the former while his enemies are the latter.


AVOID:

Long speeches about the trials of immortality or the web of time.

Avoid stories about trials.

Avoid having something be just the thing it is. If you have a story about giant insects, highwaymen, the moon, Albert Einstein, then reveal them to be something quite different as well. For example: an android, sentient jelly, a giant egg, an anteater, etc. Make the thing something very different from what it seemed to be. If the thing turns out to be just the thing it seemed to be, then that’s not as interesting or Dr Who-ish.

Best if the Tardis is on the blink. A time and space machine that works perfectly well is an awkward thing – for the obvious reasons – in a story involving danger and exciting adventure.

NEVER let your companion say: ‘Can’t we just go back to the TARDIS?’ Your audience might agree with them. Find a way to make it impossible to return until at least the coda.


HANDY GUIDE TO THE STAGES OF A STORY:

INTRODUCTION  What the fuck?
MIDDLE BIT.         Run like fuck!
CLIMAX                        FUCK!!
DENEOUEMENT  Thank fuck!
CODA.                     What the fuck NOW?!


Now, the way you make those stages last long enough to last a whole story involves some of the following stuff. Use some of these (but not all, of course. That would be TOO MUCH.)

Cloning, mysterious transformation, horrible botched surgery, apparent death, getting lost, being sent into another dimension, getting whizzed into the distant past or future, becoming a ‘ghost’ (with a rational explanation), being mind probed (or mind-drained or mind-robbed), being locked up, being possessed, being kept waiting for execution, contracting a space disease, getting converted into a Cyberman, being shot into a virtual reality without knowing it, falling in love, or having a dream sequence.


ALWAYS INCLUDE:

A bad-tempered secondary cast member who loses his or her temper and bellows at the Doctor and Companion(s): ‘You’re wasting your time!’

This happens in almost every story.

It’s your job to make sure that they aren’t. Not one single moment must feel like wasted time or padding. In the world of Doctor Who, every single moment is absolutely packed!  (With all the stuff in the list, above, obviously.)

Also, though being confused during the first three quarters of the story is a good thing, it’s nice if the audience comes to UNDERSTAND IT ALL by the end.

And that’s it.