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.

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"I have not told the half of what I saw."

Although they may be self-indulgent and self-regarding, I’ve really been enjoying everybody else’s round-ups of the ten years since the numbers rolled over from 19– to 20–. Herewith the last decade as it looks from here.

2000. In the first week of January, I discover that I am not going blind after all. Instead, the screen is dying on the laptop I have used since grad school. The purchase of a new desktop unit brings the internet into my home for the first time, and with it, an avalanche of Amazon parcels. Manga Max magazine is shut down in July, two days before I receive a Japan Festival Award for editing it. I write six episodes of Halcyon Sun, and briefly work on an IMAX movie project that falls at the first hurdle. Then, I’m hired to storyline and then co-script a console game that has been part-funded by a crazy arms manufacturer.

2001. The mad game is cancelled, apparently because of 9/11. By this time I am already working on another console project, writing three new “episodes” for a much-loved sci-fi franchise. It is only after the voices are all recorded, with the original cast, that the manufacturers decide to pull the plug. Something to do with the game being a stupid idea in the first place. All this gaming money gets funnelled into the Anime Encyclopedia, which eventually breaks even for me in 2007. I love working on that book so much that I look forward to getting out of bed every morning (a condition regularly repeated over the following years — I really do love my job). My first trip to America: Atlanta, for the book launch.

2002. Having superb fun working on the Dorama Encyclopedia. I am a presenter on the Sci Fi channel’s bizarre and mercifully forgotten Saiko Exciting, which first involves me reading the anime news, and later speed-translating and performing modern pop classics into Mandarin. I am offered the editorship of Newtype USA seven times, but decline because I have just got my dream job: a publisher has commissioned my obsession of many years, Pirate King. First DVD commentary, for Appleseed; I’ve since done many more for Manga Entertainment, Momentum Pictures, Artsmagic and ADV Films. Consultant on the first season of the TV series Japanorama. Film festivals in Italy and Norway.

2003. Working for a famous toy company on the “story” that will accompany their new line of toys. Fantastic fun, and very educational. Back to Japan for the first time in years, Kyoto and Tokyo; Dallas for another anime convention, and Turku, Finland. Writing the Highwaymen novelisation, and a whole rack of Big Finish scripts, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, and Sympathy for the Devil. Start learning Finnish, because life’s not difficult enough.

2004. Sign a deal to write a book a year about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics. This year, Confucius: A Biography. Back to Atlanta for another anime convention. Buy half a flat in London.

2005. A Brief History of the Vikings presents a fantastic excuse to poke around old sagas for a few months. Present my History of Japanese Animation lecture series at the Worldcon in Scotland, and later sell it as a series of magazine articles. I also write a massive 12-part History of Manga for Neo magazine. Start writing the Manga Snapshot column, which is still running five years later. Publication, somewhat late, of my novel Ruthless.

2006. The First Emperor of China. Off to Xi’an and Beijing. A new edition of the Anime Encyclopedia. Consultant for The South Bank Show on anime, although I am largely ignored. Write the novella Cheating the Reaper.

2007. Got married — honeymoon in Estonia after Mrs Clements vetoed Georgia. Wu. Not a book title that is easy to bring up on search engines, although you can hear me doing a great interview about it here on Radio Four. Before it’s even published, there are excited feelers from a TV company, which hires me to work on the outline of a 16-episode drama series based on the early Tang dynasty. Nothing comes of it, although I do spend the money going to Japan to get materials for another book: Nagasaki and the Amakusa archipelago.

2008. Beijing: The Biography of a City is published. But my next book, Christ’s Samurai, is left in limbo when Sutton Publishing can no longer afford to pay for it. Luckily, Haus Publishing has decided it wants a massive multi-volume history of the Paris Peace Conference, and has me writing the biographies of the Chinese and Japanese representatives. Big Finish scripts for Highlander and Doctor Who. Titan Books ask me to start this blog.

2009. Switzerland for the Locarno Film Festival. Back to Japan for a month getting materials for three new book projects. Then Shanghai, Sydney, Melbourne, Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York on the way home. Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is a Christmas bestseller… in Finland, although it goes down a storm at the launch in London’s Finnish Institute. Big Finish scripts for Robin Hood, Judge Dredd and Doctor Who. My collected articles and speeches appear as Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. I am rendered poor as a church mouse by an exploding boiler.

2010. Next year, I am supposed to be going to Taiwan for the filming of Koxinga: Sailing Through History, a documentary for National Geographic. I have two big publications coming on Admiral Togo and A Brief History of the Samurai — although if it’s got more than 300 pages, can we really call it brief? I’ve got a deadline for another book in January, and after that, who knows…?

I don’t know about you, but that little list sure scares the hell out of me. This, I guess, is the flipside of those cheery little adverts in the broadsheet press, that trill “Why Not Be a Writer?” That’s why not. Because unless you love your job so much that you need to be dragged away from it, you will never put in the required hours. And yet, like Marco Polo, “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Happy New Year.

The Embers of Black Flame

News arrives via David Bishop’s blog that a number of novels in the old 2000ad line, including my own Strontium Dog: Ruthless, have suddenly appeared in Kindle editions.

Ruthless had a bizarre gestation. I’d written two Strontium Dog audio plays for Big Finish Productions. Featuring Simon Pegg (now better known as Scottie in Star Trek) as Johnny Alpha, they were critically acclaimed, albeit not stellar sellers, and eventually sold to the BBC Cult website, which offered them in the user-unfriendly streaming format.

The first of my Strontium Dog scripts, Down to Earth, featured a car chase in the dark, the execution of which impressed someone at Black Flame enough for him to ask me if I would consider writing the novelisation of the movie Highwaymen, which was frankly one long car chase in need of fleshing out. While that was limping through the production process (and, curiously, never actually going on sale, despite the claim of some second-hand booksellers to have copies available), I was then put forward to write the first of the Strontium Dog novels for Black Flame’s new line.

Soon after, my original contact was kicked upstairs in a well-deserved promotion, leaving me to the less able ministrations of his minions. The original commissioning editor had been great to work with, but faded into the background to be replaced with someone who kept sending me other people’s emails, a sub-editor with a chip on her shoulder, and a man who once accused me of breaking the terms of a contract that he hadn’t actually read, only to slink back and acknowledge that I had done exactly what I was asked to do. Black Flame began pushing my Strontium Dog novel to the trade, and took a couple of thousand advance orders. They did, however, forget one crucial point. At the time, they hadn’t actually contracted me to write it.

So it was that I had a panicked message from a new editor with a week to go before a deadline that only existed in his head, asking me if there was any chance I could knock out the book by the day before yesterday. Er… no, I said.

Black Flame scrabbled around and found another book to plug the gap, with the ironic title of Strontium Dog: Bad Timing. My own novel, Ruthless, eventually limped out as the third in the series, complete with an opening chapter designed to introduce new readers to the franchise, even though they would now have been reading two other books first.

Despite all this, I had a fantastic time. There is nothing, I repeat, nothing as much fun as writing a novel. I spent a lazy summer in a shed by a lake in Finland, writing my required number of words per day, and loving every minute of it. I veered off into tangents about alien biology, blocked out fight scenes on hijacked space liners, and speculated on the future of Martian journalism. After so many years squeezing my ideas into haiku, song lyrics and short stories, suddenly I had the freedom offered by 70,000 words. It was never going to set the literary world alight (as one Finnish newspaper article unkindly suggested), but I loved it anyway.

Now I hear that Black Flame is no more, which shows you how much attention I’ve been paying. I stopped pitching ideas to them in 2005 or thereabouts, having long since tired of broken promises and petty cock-ups, souring what had begun as a very cordial relationship. I’m pretty sure, too, that they remembered me ever after as the guy who refused to bail them out when they accidentally sold a book that hadn’t been written yet.

Now, apparently, the time elapsed since the demise of Black Flame means that the rights have reverted to Rebellion, the owners of Strontium Dog, which allows Rebellion’s Abaddon imprint to re-release the book in Kindle format. Like the other authors in the line, there’s nothing in it for me personally – we were working with other people’s characters, and signed away our rights to future royalties, but that’s not the point. It’s just nice to see that it’s still out there.

Cattle Call

yuri-lowenthal-tara-platt-voice-actors-588x600“Actors,” said Alfred Hitchcock, “are cattle.” You control them with a pointy stick. You tell them where to stand. You leave them in a field all day, chewing regurgitated grass. You pull on their teats when you need a drink. No, I am not entirely sure where he was going with that. But actors should definitely do what they’re told, otherwise how will the director’s vision make it to the audience? Actors are the vital conduit between text and audience. And they make empty, melancholy mooing noises with bovine regularity.

I have had to sit, powerless in a studio, while actors droned on about how I had made factual mistakes in my script for their bewilderingly popular, 30-year-old franchise. In the recording booth, I reminded the director that we had copies of the DVD on site that would prove the actors wrong. He shrugged and said it was too much trouble. It was then I started wishing for a cattle prod. Continue reading