Immortal Beloved

immortal-belovedThe Dr Who Guide alerts me to the fact that my radio play Immortal Beloved was broadcast on BBC7 on this day ten years ago. So in its honour, I post up the text of the interview that Kenny Smith did with me for Finished Product magazine.

KS: Firstly, was the finished story the one you always intended to go with? Or did you have other story ideas? Were you asked to submit an outline, and how detailed was it?

The story actually started out very differently, around 2002, as a Strontium Dog script. Toby Longworth asked me if I’d write something with Sanjeev Bhaskar in mind, so I had a character called Vishnu Patel, a six-armed mutant from Bradford, and his sexy associate Carly. The idea was that they’d set off a time grenade on their ship as the Strontium Dogs were getting ready to capture it. Suddenly, the ship was gone, but the formerly barren planet below was covered with city lights. At which point the bounty hunters would realise that their prey had gone so far back in time that they had founded an entire civilisation on the planet, and set themselves up as its divine rulers, an idea lifted from Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. The bounty hunters go down to apprehend them, and have to face the issue of the person they’re arresting being the nth generation clone of the person they were chasing. Then there would have been all sorts of arguments about statutes of limitations, and time travel and culpability.

But anyway, Strontium Dog was cancelled, and I was asked to pitch something for the short-lived Richard E. Grant animated Doctor Who. I retooled the story but kept its original title, which back then was Kingmaker. That actually made it a long way through the process before that, too, was cancelled.

doctorwho-screamoftheshalka218 months later, the BBC’s option on Kingmaker ran out, and I was asked if I’d do something for the McGanns. Time was really of the essence, because everything had to be done in ten minutes flat, or something daft. So I said to Big Finish, look, I’ve got Kingmaker here, the BBC have already approved it. That’s going to go through a lot faster. So we went with that, under a working title of Sins of the Father. I gave [script editor] Alan Barnes some alternate titles, including Karma Police, Together Forever, and Immortal Beloved.

Of course, you can imagine, the outline was nicely matured by that point. It was about 3500 words long, for a script that needed to be 10,000 words total. So it was very well worked out by that point.

There was originally a lot more in there about cybernetic implants as well, in order to match with the Master, who featured in the Richard E. Grant scripts as a travelling companion.

51ijm9-tel-_sx330_bo1204203200_There are still elements of the original, such as when Zeus threatens to kill a different Lucie every day for a hundred years, and a Lord of Light moment, when Hera remembers that Poseidon’s original name was Jeffrey.

Life and death are strong themes in the Sympathy for the Devil and Immortal Beloved – are these themes that you’re interested in exploring?

I’m more interested in what makes us who we are. Same in Sympathy for the Devil. Take the characters out of the situations you remember them in, and what do they do? The Doctor is still the Doctor, the Brigadier is still ultimately his ally, the Master is still a sneaky git. The Ke Le Divisions are supposed to be non-human, like clones, but they still end up with feelings, and those feelings backfire.

In Immortal Beloved, I wanted to ask questions about cloning. I don’t know the answers, but I like asking the questions. I love the idea of these clones turning into their parents, of being able to see them at two stages in their lives simultaneously, and wondering which one is the real person.

Jason Haigh-Ellery jumped on this one right away. I heard that back when it was still Kingmaker, he was already telling people that he was going to direct it, and even threatening to make it as a Big Finish with another Doctor if the BBC didn’t commission it as a Richard E. Grant. I don’t know why he was so enthusiastic about this one in particular, but he was supporting it for two years before it actually went into production! He wouldn’t let the idea drop, he really fought for it.

How did you find writing for a new Doctor/companion team? Were you given much in the way of pointers for Lucie (played by Sheridan Smith)? Did she turn out the way you’d hoped?

This one was great because Lucie is so bolshie. Her dialogue just writes itself, taking the piss out the Doctor all the time, referring to him as her assistant, ridiculing his navigation skills. The perfect Lucie line is actually in Jonathan Morris’s Max Warp, when she calls the TARDIS a shed. I just wrote her as everyone’s annoying big sister walking in while you’re trying to watch Doctor Who and ridiculing everything. So yes, she was perfect. Note-perfect, exactly as I imagined her.

What did you think of the finished story?

I thought it was great. I was rather irked that the BBC announcer said it was set in Ancient Greece, which it wasn’t. I actually had a very nice email from someone at BBC7 telling me who was responsible “just so you know we’re not a bunch of monkeys.” It turned out that the culprit was much closer to home at BF towers. I was present for the ceremonial flaying and keelhauling.

mv5bmtuxndg4mzm3mf5bml5banbnxkftztywmdexntk2-_v1_sx640_sy720_Weren’t the cast great!

Ian McNeice! You can’t do better than that. Frankly, I wrote it for him, without even realising it. I had Baron Harkonnen in mind as Zeus, without knowing that Ian had played Baron Harkonnen in the Sci Fi channel Dune.

One day my grandfather fell off a ladder and knocked himself out. My grandmother found him and thought he was dead. She grabbed him and said: “No! You can’t go! Not yet! I’m not ready!” I put a lot of that into the lines Elspet Gray had to say as Hera, particularly her scene in the garden. My grandmother said to me shortly before she died: “Jonathan, don’t get old. Don’t get old.” It was so mournful and heartfelt, but I remember thinking at the time, do I have a choice…? All that’s in Hera’s lines, and I think Elspet managed it very well.

Was it how you imagined it to be?

Yes, although Ganymede was a bit of a surprise, since he wasn’t in my script when I delivered it.

I believe that the ending was slightly different – Sarati was ‘poisoned’, to simulate death, thanks to the Doctor. As a result, Kalkin stabbed Zeus. How did the change come about? Are you happy with the revised change?

Yeah, the ending was different when I thought I was writing a 100-minute story. The only real difficulty with Immortal Beloved was slicing it down from 100 minutes for Richard E. Grant to 50 minutes for Paul McGann. Your question implies that was done for me, but I’m pretty sure that I wrote the Sararti stabbing scene myself. So it was all about timing — obviously the poison business was another Romeo and Juliet reference that got edged out. I thought it worked fine without it in the end, but something had to go when 50% of the content was being cut.

How much fun did you have coming up with alternative names for everyday things, like helicopters, etc? Was it a real challenge to get something mythological sounding for things like a decontamination chamber? Did you come up with any more that were cut or changed?

The “magic wand” business was something that had been floating around my head for 20 years, ever since I read the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. Look at what it says about the “charges” and powers of magic wands, and rods, and staves. It’s describing firearms: pistols, carbines and rifles. I thought that was so cool. So, I guess that’s my way of saying that it wasn’t my idea at all, but Gary Gygax’s.

I think other people had more fun with it than I did. The “ether trumpet” was someone else’s line. Nick Briggs, perhaps, or it could have been Alan, I suppose. It is the funniest line in the play, and I am now obliged to tell everyone I didn’t write it.

The notion of cloned Lucies being tortured is quite scary – copies of yourself dying in different ways, without you even knowing it. Do you like implied horror like that?

Actually I can’t stand horror. I find it too horrific. I am paid to have an over-active imagination, and horror tends to scare me! I think it’s an excellent way of reversing the standard questions about stem cells and cloning, though. You lose your arm, but there is a magical way of giving you a new arm… except somewhere, there is a copy of you who’s just had his arm hacked off… I think *that* is horrific.

How did you find writing for the McGann Doctor? I felt you had him down to a T – plenty of enthusiasm, but with a serious streak. Did you listen to many of the other Big Finish releases, or did you just write a generic Doctor that you remembered from childhood, as Rob Shearman did?

Is that what Rob did? Oh, bless! I suppose I did, too. There wasn’t a lot to go on with McGann because you only have the one TV outing. I listened to Chimes of Midnight, but more because it was Rob’s not because it was McGann.

To be honest, it’s Lucie that I write for with the McGanns. I find it easier to write the Doctor’s loving exasperation with her, than I do to write the Doctor himself. Lucie thinks of herself as the heroine in her own little show, and I write it that way, and then I put the Doctor’s reaction in later — his reaction being the actual plot and everything. There’s an element of that in Immortal Beloved where she introduces the Doctor as her “bumbling assistant.”

I  have to say, I only heard Brave New Town yesterday, and Sheridan Smith nails it. She nails every line. At her very worst, she does exactly what I wanted. At her best, she takes it and does something I never even thought of. You can’t ask for more than that, can you?

Big Finish don’t let you write “generic” Doctors, though. Briggs will throw something back at you and say: “That won’t work, it’s too Sixth Doctor.” You can actually give him words, single words, and he will tell you if a particular Doctor would use them or not. So whatever Rob thought he was doing, it will have been distinctively McGann by the third draft!

Anything you’d go back and change if you could?

There’s a line that someone altered that I wish they hadn’t, but there’s also a line that someone altered which made me look a lot smarter than I really am, so I figure we’d better call it quits.

If you could be reincarnated in another body, whose would you go for?

Ooh, Jason Haigh-Ellery’s. All that money, all those women, all that power…

Immortal Beloved is available on CD and download from Big Finish.

Getting Away With It

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Tetsuko “Alice” Arisugawa (Yu Aoi) is a writer’s daughter, cursed with an over-active imagination. Shunted into a new school by her parents’ divorce, she finds the perfect foil in local truant Hana Arai (Anne Suzuki), a pathological liar who eggs her on into wild conspiracy theories, breathless scandal-mongering and a series of misadventures that grow hilariously out of hand.

A decade after his early success with Hana & Alice, a live-action comedy about two hyper-active schoolgirls who dupe a boy with amnesia, director Shunji Iwai decided to revisit his characters with a prequel about a fateful day that saw them stranded in Tokyo and inadvertently starting a missing-persons hunt. The film’s title, The Case of Hana & Alice, makes it sound like some bloodthirsty murder investigation, a fitting evocation of the leads’ compulsion to read melodrama into everyday situations.

“The thing is,” Iwai laughs, “you can get away with a lot more when you’re a girl. Look at Hana and Alice and the way they behave. In the first movie, they were basically stalkers, telling that poor boy that they had a past together. In this prequel, they are causing all this trouble around the city. They’re kind of… how can I put this? They’re perverts. If I made that story about a man, if I made it about you, for instance, then you’d be locked up.”

It would also have been impossibly expensive as live-action. It wasn’t just a case of redressing Tokyo to look like it was 2004 – the film’s plot demands an absence of social media, as many of its escalating misunderstandings could be halted today by 20 seconds’ Googling. But the original film made stars of its leading ladies, who were not only now out of Iwai’s price range, but pushing 30 and unconvincing as middle-schoolers. Iwai hit on a solution inspired by the films of Ralph Bakshi. He shot the entire film on the run in 30 days, using teenage stand-ins for the stars, and then painting over every frame to make it look like an animated film.

After the guerrilla film-making was done, the touch-up was outsourced to 150 freelancers all around Japan. Iwai denies that he ran the whole post-production process without having to get out of bed, but one can easily imagine him pottering around his living room in a dressing gown, watching as digitised packets flow in and out of his server. The expensive leads were lured back for a single day to record just the voices; their younger onscreen selves moved and emoted like the teens they really were, and digital effects fixed the lighting and scrubbed out buildings and technology that did not exist a decade ago. The result might look on the surface like an animated film, but the use of live actors delivers huge amounts of nuanced data – flinches, tics and micro-expressions that would simply never happen in a cartoon.

The real charm of The Case of Hana & Alice is the compassion that suffuses the film. Two clueless kids, poised on the cusp of adulthood, go AWOL overnight in a big city, but are kept safe by the good deeds of the people they meet, from the taxi driver who waives an unaffordable fare, to the indulgent strangers who put up with their histrionics. There’s not a dark moment in a film that is as confident about its leads’ right to be silly as it is about the surety that all will be well in the end. The Japanese, unsurprisingly, have a word for it: omotenashi, or kindness for the sake of kindness.

The Case of Hana & Alice is also a winning portrayal of the slippery relationship that teens have with the truth, although Iwai himself says the original inspiration came from somewhere much closer to home. “When I started working in the film industry, I was astonished at how many of the people there were bare-faced liars. There are an awful lot of them, like half! It’s very surreal, and that provided a lot of material for Hana.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A HistoryThis article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #16, 2016.

The Walking Dead

world_15_temp-1315894811-4e6ef61b-620x348Some historians argue that there have only been three real ‘slave societies’ in human history: ancient Rome, where one in three human beings was held as property; Brazil, where a young Charles Darwin once noted that the sheer number of slaves had caused the ruling class to collapse into complete indolence; and certain southern states in the USA. I’ve always found this to be a little unfair – the definition of a ‘slave society’ seems to be based on very exacting percentages of slave and free, which rather avoids the point that slavery was everywhere. Even in America, arguments over the history of slavery have been largely reconfigured on racial lines, and avoid mentioning, for example, the ‘white cargo’ of English convicts, forced to work as indentured labourers, and little different from their black counterparts.

As Gaius Verres argues in Swords & Ashes, Rome’s slaves are its walking dead. For many of them, particularly prisoners of war, their legal position was a hair’s breadth away from being actually dead, postponed at that brink for as long as their master willed it. The Latin word for slaves, servi, contains within it that sense of having been ‘saved’ from the moment of execution – a doom held in suspension indefinitely thereafter. The concept of a slave rebellion in Rome was tantamount to a zombie uprising.

Newly-minted slaves like Spartacus were always trouble. They were surly, uncooperative, and often did not even speak good Latin. Romans placed a much high premium on vernae, those who had been born and raised in captivity. A verna was much more likely to know his place and appreciate what few advantages his slave status offered him to the alternative, which might be not existing at all.

Vernae were also expensive. A properly trained, skilled slave, young enough to have a good few decades of work in him, would cost the equivalent of high-end car or a small apartment today. It’s not all that surprising when one calculates the value of the labour involved – the cooking and the cleaning and the myriad daily household chores that a slave could perform, all in an age without washing machines or vacuum cleaners. Apologists for ancient Rome have used this fact to suggest that slavery was a relatively benign condition, in which disadvantaged or underprivileged people were given a roof over their head and a job to do, with the hope of eventual freedom, and that only a madman would have maltreated such a valuable investment.

Unfortunately, of course, Rome had its fair share of madmen, some of them even in charge. And arguing that a slave cost a lot of money was not guarantee against ill treatment, as the sight of a crashed Ferrari attests today. Some valued family slaves, like Cicero’s own manservant Tiro, might be fortunate enough to end their lives in relative comfort. Others, particularly the men captured in military campaigns, might find themselves toiling in the deadly conditions of the silver mines, or turned into beasts of burden on the vast, slave-run super-farms called latifundia.

Roman law is a fascinating area – so much of it is like our own, but there are entire areas that are simply alien. What of the status postliminium, introduced to deal with those embarrassing moments when a captured Roman soldier is rescued from the enemy? If a soldier is enslaved during a foreign war, but somehow escapes or is rescued, he is welcomed back as if he has literally been raised from the dead. In Swords & Ashes, Cicero argues that this creates a whole series of other problems. If a Roman soldier can be enslaved and then unslaved, then why not everybody else?

It could be worse. In China only a century before the time of Spartacus, the First Emperor had a slave unit called ‘the hidden offices’, comprising men and women so badly mutilated that they were used as glorified motors, shoved into cubby holes to power fans or open doors all day. I tried to write a Dr Who drama about it once, and got booted out the door for being so ghoulish.

But I don’t think it’s ghoulish to confront the ultimate implications of a society that is prepared to treat people as things. In modern times, we replaced slaves with machines, but began once more to replace machines with people. Has slavery really been eradicated or is it now exported, outsourced, globalised to some far-flung region out of everyday sight? Such questions are what keeps the story of Spartacus so alive for us, even two thousand years after he died.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords & Ashes. This article originally appeared on the Starburst website in 2012.

Jupiter’s Cock!

john-hannah-as-batiatus-in-spartacusThe scripts of Spartacus carefully replicate the effect and mood of a language and a culture from two thousand years ago. The elite Romans speak with received pronunciation and poetic metres; lower-class figures like Batiatus pepper their speech with profanities that take the names (and body parts) of the Roman gods in vain. Reflecting the hegemony of Latin, even the slaves speak the same language, but with more recognisable accents from further-flung colonies. And with a straight face –uttering the most boggling of insults and commands, but without a twitch of Anglo-Saxon embarrassment or shame. The Romans are used to speaking their words frankly, to slaves who dare not protest or blush.

Writers have long struggled with the problems of conveying the attitudes and ideas of a different time or place in the same language that readers use to write their shopping lists or shout at their kids. Tolkien invented an entire world in order to justify the authorship of a single sentence in a language that didn’t exist. Numerous science fiction authors have posited the use of an English that is decayed or mutated, each demanding new exercise on the part of the reader before they get a sense of the world they see. The same applies to historical fiction.

Derek Jarman found a way around it by having everyone speak Latin in his film Sebastiane. But even though his actors rose to the task, their argot sounds strange to modern ears. In the most memorable line, a man onscreen calls out “Oi! Oedipe!” The subtitles gleefully translate it as “Hey! Motherfucker!” Roman insults and oaths didn’t draw on vernacular concepts – more often than not, they drew classical allusions, to Hercules and Venus, Vulcan and Jupiter. And their body parts.

In Spartacus, the writers embark upon an extended exercise in capturing the sense of how ancient Romans communicate. Dialogue is as carefully Latinate as possible, to the exclusion of much earthy Anglo-Saxon. No, not the f-word and the c-word, both found in abundance, but little touches like hello, goodbye and thank you, banished from hearing in order to up the sense of a different world. “Gratitude” is itself an anachronism, not found in Latin until long after the time of the Republic, but its use in Spartacus sets a tone throughout, and matched by much other dialogue.

When Glaber (Craig Parker) says: “What promises have you made Batiatus and his faded bitch?” there is a cadence and a rhythm to his words. Even in English, the script conveys the sense of a language carefully conjugated almost into poetry, heavy with alliteration and assonance, even as it launches an insult.

That’s one of the reasons why I leapt at the chance to write the first Spartacus tie-in novel Swords & Ashes, because it was a chance to play with those ideas for a whole book. I get a real kick out of words like miscellanea (a gladiator’s porridge) or spoliarium (the room where they dump the dead). I think it’s sweet that a gladiatorial groupie is called a ludia (literally “schoolie”) or that the gladiators used to call their pre-game warm-up routine numeri (“the numbers”). Such ideas can impart a real sense of time and place by their presence.

There are also some that need to be absent. When my first draft came back from approvals, it was missing three thousand words, most of them “the” and “a”. Latin doesn’t have definite or indefinite articles, and while the producers are happy to have them in the text, they are reluctant to hear them in dialogue. The pseudo-Latinate dialogue of the show is jarring when you first see it on the page, but you soon get used to it. It’s not long before you hear Batiatus bellowing in your ear about wine, women, and the arena. I was very surprised that I was able to last a whole 28 pages before his first outburst of “JUPITER’S COCK!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Spartacus: Swords and Ashes. This article first appeared at A Temporary Distraction in 2012.

The Mouths of Hell

silence2“Two Leagues from Nagasaki there’s a High towering Mountain called Unzen, and on the Top three or four vast Lakes with boiling sulphurous Waters, heated by subterraneous Fires. These Waters break out sometimes in wide Openings and Gapings of the Earth, with whole Mountains of Flames, called by the Japanese the Mouths of Hell… or Infernal Waters. These wide Openings happen only once in Eighteen Years, but then it overflows like a Deluge, with whole Torrents of stinking Waters, mixed with Sulphur and Brimstone, insomuch as one can’t look upon them without Horror. The Waters smoke and boil as if they stood upon a hot Fire, and make so hideous a Noise that we may properly compare them with the Lakes of Brimstone and Fire mentioned in the Apocalypse. For the rest, the Waters are so hot… that the least Drop penetrates to the Bone.”

Crasset — History of the Church of Japan, 1707.

Eighteen Christians, four of them found among the local baron Matsukura’s own subordinates, were taken in procession up the slopes of Unzen to the boiling lakes. One, gazing upon a Mouth of Hell, brightly opined that for him it would be the Gateway into Paradise. Another shouted praises to Jesu Cristo and hurled himself into the lake, much to the annoyance of another Christian, Paul Uchibori, who warned the others that they were there to be martyred, not to commit the sin of suicide. Thereafter, the Christians were thrown one-by-one into the waters of Unzen, all except Paul, who was vengefully dipped headfirst several times.

It was not the last time that Old Matsukura’s men would climb Unzen with a party of martyrs. One of Matsukura’s own officers turned himself in at Shimabara, claiming that he had gone into hiding in Fukae, but had realised that his lord would get into trouble with the Shogun if it was found out that he had allowed a Christian to escape. After making this incredible confession, he was duly sent up the mountain with another group of Christians, whereupon Old Matsukura’s men attempted to get some better results.

Simply killing the Christians had been proven unproductive, particularly since so many of them went uncomplaining or even gratefully to their deaths. Instead, Matsukura’s men tried to prolong their agony, dipping them in and out of the lakes, splashing them repeatedly with scalding water, and even slicing gashes into their flesh, to increase the pain. When none of this had any appreciable affect, they resorted to a far crueller method. They separated one John Chizaburo from the survivors, and allowed him to sit down and rest for a while. They then told the survivors that the man had been allowed to sit down because he had agreed to cast aside his Christian faith.

Christ's Samurai coverIt was calculated to wound the believers at a spiritual level and almost worked, but for John Chizaburo unhelpfully bellowing: ‘I declare before you all, that I live and die a Christian.’

Eventually, the torturers gave up, tied the survivors together and doused them in scalding water until they died. The pitiful corpses, which ‘appeared as if they had been flayed alive,’ were then weighted with stones and dumped in the lake, in an attempt to discourage other Christians from filching holy relics.

Excerpted from Christ’s Samurai: The True Story of the Shimabara Rebellion by Jonathan Clements.

Excess Baggage

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October’s cause celebre, as reported by Justin McCurry in The Guardian, involved a Japanese train conductor announcing to his passengers that their travel was being inconvenienced due to an excess number of foreigners on his train. He was reported by a Japanese passenger and swiftly reprimanded, but there’s more to this particular story than meets the eye. The clues can be found in the timing of the incident, Monday morning, and the location: on the Nankai express to Kansai International Airport.

The conductor had heard a Japanese passenger at an earlier station effing and blinding about the trouble being caused by “foreigners”, and sought to explain to the rest of the train what was going on. It’s clear to me that the problem was not the foreigners per se, but their luggage.

Japanese trains don’t have a whole lot of space. There’s the usual overhead shelf big enough for a rucksack or a carry-on, but extremely limited space for the kind of trunk-with-wheels favoured by the average foreign tourist. The reason for this is that no sane Japanese person carries their luggage any further than they have to. Ever since the 1970s, they have used a takuhaibin service, which picks up your luggage from your hotel or home and spirits it away to your next destination by the next morning. If I’m shuttling from Tokyo to Kyoto, say, then the freight cost is about £10, and my suitcase is waiting for me at the next hotel. I save more than that by not having to get a taxi to the train station, and I don’t end up clogging an entire carriage of angry commuters. The only place I expect to see big luggage is on the dedicated Kansai airport train, the Haruka.

More popularly, takuhaibin is known as takkyubin, but this latter term is actually a trademark of the Yamato Transport service, recognisable by its iconic logo of a black cat carrying a kitten, and best known to anime fans by the co-option of its name in the Japanese title of Kiki’s Delivery Service – the company was even a sponsor of Studio Ghibli’s charming film about a witch who goes into haulage. So if you are going to Japan any time soon, do look into takuhaibin services at the airport or your hotel, you’ll save yourself lugging a suitcase across town, and buy into a bit of anime history into the bargain.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 157, 2016.