Monday, 23 November 2015
Saturday, 7 November 2015
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
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!
It really works, folks! (Sort of!)
By Paul Magrs
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.
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.
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!’
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Sunday, 1 November 2015
Ok, well... It seems Nanawrimo is on, round here. I'm sat up in bed with B Socks on my laptop and mist outside and Jeremy still asleep, and the start of a story has mysteriously appeared.
Rules are (for me):
no set word count.
Each day is a chapter.
Try to do it every day.
Keep it moving.
See where November gets you.
Oh, also, make sure I do the stuff i'm *supposed* to be doing...