Monday, 16 April 2018

You and 42

A couple of years back, I responded to a notice from Watching Books, asking if people were interested in contributing to another of their You and Who-style charity publications, this time one focussing on the life and works of Douglas Adams, to be called You and 42. For most people who know me it will come as no great surprise that I leapt at the chance and, thankfully, both my pitches were accepted, swiftly written and submitted.
Due to various circumstances (none of which are relevant or in any way my business) the project has taken a couple of years to see the light of day. But it's not been left to stagnate during that time. Co-editors and general froods, Jessica Burke & Anthony Burdge, have continued to gather new contributions, spreading the net wider and wider within the fan community, and noted Adams biographer Jem Roberts ( ) has given a preface which perhaps lends the venture more of the sense of legitimacy that it deserves.

The other major change across that hiatus period is that now the book is being published by Who Dares instead of Watching Books. It's still a charity publication, with proceeds going to Save The Rhino ( ), a charity for which Douglas was a Founder Patron (we contributors receive nothing, in case you wondered - not even a free copy).

The book is 300+ pages covering the whole gamut of Douglas Adams' life and various works and endeavours, told from the personal perspectives of a large number of contributors. That's the point of these You and... books, they tell the personal stories of fans relating to, or being affected by, these works.
My pieces cover Douglas' time as script editor of Doctor Who, and then my encounter with Life, The Universe and Everything during GCSE English about ten years later. His time on Doctor Who, and then the severe backlash immediately after, was the last time I found the programme either scary or utterly enthralling for years after, and the last time it was ever classed as required viewing by the other children at my school. About ten years later the Hitchhiker's Guide books were an absolute breath of fresh air amongst the turgidity of Far From The Madding Crowd or whatever else my dull grey smear of an English teacher felt fit to bore us with that week. It showed me that English could be fun, and despite my teacher's best efforts I've never looked back since. 

Those are just my stories, of course, but there are loads more besides, and Who Dares have done the book proud with a smashing cover and some wonderful interior artwork to complement the words. The book is out later in April and you can find out more about it, as well as pre-ordering it, on this link:
In some ways the book's publication is very timely; not only have we just had the final HHGTTG series, The Hexagonal Phase, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, but just a few short weeks ago it was reported that the last surviving male Northern White rhino had died ( ). The species will become extinct when the few remaining females die. Raising money to help save other species of these magnificent animals may allow future generations to appreciate them, and their beauty, as more than simply pictures in a book, or a footnote in human development. It would be a shame if all the hard work that's gone into getting this book out into the world doesn't then feed something worthwhile back to a charity that was so close to Douglas' heart. I would urge any fans of Douglas Adams' work to buy a copy of You and 42.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Crunch… and other Stories, by Nigel Kneale

This Network DVD release brings together three disparate stand-alone television plays by Nigel Kneale, made for ITV networks.

The Crunch, 1964, dir. Michael Elliott (ATV)

Unnatural Causes: Ladies Night, 1986, dir. Herbert Wise (Central)

Gentry, 1988, dir. Roy Battersby (Central)

Kneale may be best known for the 1950s Quatermass serials and his other BBC work, but he wrote a lot for ITV too – notably the 1976 anthology series Beasts and the 1979 John Mills Quatermass Conclusion mini-series. The three television plays in this collection are a welcome addition to Kneale’s legacy in our home collections. 

Kneale’s television work has many hallmarks: it is often challenging – both technically and narratively. It is often uncompromising in the way it faces up to the realities of the modern world, and the vagaries of human relationships. These three plays are, on the whole, representative of this, but I think they show us most tellingly how the changes to television production over the years affects the viewer’s perception of the stories they have to tell. 

The Crunch is Kneale at his uncomfortable best. A nuclear catastrophe is threatened at a London Embassy, by an ex-British colony seeking reparation for their island being economically and culturally raped in the name of progress. It is dark, ponderous at times, and directed with an edge of realism and a feeling of immediacy – shown, in particular, through the POV external films sequences. Quatermass fans may struggle with uniformed Anthony Bushell, who looks exactly the same here as he did as Colonel Breen seven years previously in Quatermass and The Pit. But as a bonus you can look out for a pre-moustachioed young Peter Bowles giving a fine turn. It’s a great play, very much of its time and easily the gem of the set. 

Then we leap forward 22 years, and into colour. 

What Ladies Night and Gentry have in common is very much a 1980s ‘sheen’. The incidental music is upbeat, jaunty and – unfortunately - prominent in them. Glossy production values give both plays an unwanted theatricality, so we are aware of the act of watching TV (if that makes sense) which means the plays have to work harder to suck us in to their world, and the audience has to work harder to see through the veneer. They both look and feel like episodes of Only Fools and Horses, frankly. But beneath that the scripts are still sharp, still insightful. 

Fiona Walker steals the show in Ladies Night, although Nigel Stock is always immensely watchable. Alfred Burke’s old misogynist, Colonel Waley (who reportedly saved Herman Goering’s life as a matter of honour), doesn’t want ladies in his gentleman’s club, but is a little two dimensional, a little too one-note, to be truly believable. And, unfortunately, Kneale’s work always relies very much on the audience believing in all the characters they meet as real people.

Ladies Night is The Worm That Turned meets Love Thy Neighbour, building to a punchline that shouldn’t surprise the audience and only exasperates the old Colonel. Yes, it’s clearly a satire, an exaggeration of the old Gentleman’s Club world as its outmoded ethos struggles to attract new membership in a society that no longer values the kind of hunting, empire-building, chivalrous old gent of yesteryear. But the overt staginess of the production, drawing attention to itself as ‘television’, means the satire falls flat. 

Gentry is also a satire, this time on 1980s society and materialism, as the loss of community values and social consciousness creates starker gaps between classes and ideologies. This is personified by Gerald, Duncan Preston’s conservative, unscrupulous – but perhaps not unscrupulous enough – lawyer, versus Susannah, his wife with her decent, socialist values, both of whom are then posed against the desperate lower / rougher end of society in Roger Daltry’s thief, Colin, and his accomplices.

I’d argue that Duncan Preston is miscast. He did a lot of good work with Victoria Wood, and he certainly looks the part, but in a drama like this he’s just a caricature - you can see him acting a lot of the time, whereas by contrast most of the others sell themselves as real characters. Phoebe Nicholls, Michael Attwell and Roger Daltry are all excellent and totally inhabit their rolls. But here again the unsubtle theatricality of the look and feel of the play means that the satire falls flat. 

I couldn’t help getting a sense of these 1980s pieces being like ‘A’-Level theatre studies devised pieces, or dark adaptations of old Whitehall farces, with their limited settings and clear two-act structures – particularly in Gentry where the play works around the arrival or revelation of certain characters. I very much wanted these plays to take a bolder step into discomfort at times – Michael Attwell and Roger Daltry come closest - just to set them at a remove from the comparison.

I didn’t dislike Ladies Night and Gentry and they’re definitely worth another viewing, but I wanted to like them more than I did. Their glossy ‘80s sheen serves to undermine their dramatic impact. It suggests cosy drama rather than gritty realism. Tastes change, I know, but personally I consider that a piece like The Crunch stands the test of time far better than these latter two.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Memories of Christopher Lee and M.R. James' Ghost Stories for Christmas

Isn't it funny how one's old life comes up unexpectedly at times? I found out last night that BBC4 have scheduled a whole M.R. James Christmas Ghost Stories evening for Christmas Eve this year. Amongst the line up, and seeing in Christmas Day itself at midnight, are two of the four half-hour Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas episodes, in which I appeared back in 2001. Lee played M.R. James himself, reading his stories to our select group of his Cambridge Students.
We filmed it at a stately home near Coventry in the spring of 2001. I recall being massively busy at the time, in the way that acting jobs sometimes dovetail nicely, although I was living very much hand-to-mouth. When this TV role came up I was already due to be in the area anyway, rehearsing for a two-handed T.I.E. tour with the Onatti Theatre Co. out of nearby Leamington Spa. I was also rehearsing a fringe production of Hamlet at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham (in which I played Guildenstern). At weekends I was driving back to London to perform as Michael & Smee in Peter Pan at the Colour House Theatre in Colliers Wood. Makes my eyes water now to think about it!
I also recall that it was a very cold spring that year, and the oil central heating system in my digs had broken down (with no apparent plans to fix it anytime soon). The lovely couple with whom I was staying had a Dalmatian who was in season, and was allowed to rummage around and pleasure himself on everything. I learned very quickly to stay on the move. I was really only there to sleep and eat the odd meal, thanks to my hectic schedule.
As for the man himself, Christopher Lee. Wow, what an honour to share a set with him. I remember when he walked into the green room for the first time; he was incredibly tall, and his amazing voice just filled the entire room with no effort at all. And he smoked these enormous cigars!
Naturally, we were all very much in awe of this screen legend, but he was lovely, and very generous with his time. We would eat together in the green room, with him sitting quietly at his own table, but slowly as a group we tried to open up and offer him opportunities to join in our conversations if he wanted to, otherwise we just politely left him to himself. We certainly were wary of discussing any of Lee's work, but as it turned out Ian Fleming and James Bond was the clincher. It's possible that the conversation was nudged that way specially (I don't recall now, but I certainly wouldn't have been one to push our luck!), but once we started on that topic Christopher Lee willingly opened up to us about being Fleming's cousin and playing Scaramanga, and how he should have played Dr No if they'd remained faithful to the description in the book (Fleming wanted this, we were told).
I'll admit it felt as if Lee was on something of a renaissance at the time, after being in several high-profile projects of late. He was clearly embittered about not being taken more seriously as an actor by the Establishment, and listed the volume and variety of work he'd done over the years - which was truly varied and prodigious, it must be said. He told us how much he'd hated filming Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones ('hours and hours of discomfort stuck out in the desert', he said). He talked of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, in which he had recently appeared for the BBC. He spoke at most length, though, of Tolkien, Middle Earth and The Lord of The Rings ('the greatest fantasy ever written', he said) which he had just been filming out in New Zealand.
As is often the way with old pros when given a captive audience, once the floodgates were open he was off, talking to us (at us?) at length - seemingly authoritatively - on any subject. Pertinent to the job in hand, Lee recalled his own time at Cambridge and how he'd met M.R. James as provost there. He also spoke of his genealogy, and how, if he hadn't been an actor, he'd have been an Ambassador in the Diplomatic Corps, as he had the right contacts and a natural affinity for languages. One can't deny that whatever he'd ended up as, Christopher Lee would have been very striking.
I particularly recall a conversation about an 1818 first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus, which he'd found in his bedroom (he was staying there at the stately home). Aside from being impressed that it was there, he was surprised that it had 'by Mrs Shelley' scribbled on the flyleaf but otherwise no indication of the author's identity. As I was undertaking a Masters Degree in English Literature with the Open University at the time I was able to advise him that it was standard practice until much later for the author to conceal their identity on first editions, to see how well the book was received before they would lay claim to it - and more so if the author was female. Nice to know I imparted a little knowledge back to the great man on that occasion.
The filming itself was largely trouble-free, although I do recall a crane shot on one day, from outside the window looking in. Eleanor, the director, asked Lee to talk to us as if he was relaying one of James' stories while the camera filmed from outside - possibly through heavy rain, as it wasn't necessary to match any actual dialogue to the footage. Anyway, this went on for a good fifteen minutes or so, with Lee improvising to us, and at the end he had a huge strop at the production crew, told us that was no way to treat actors, and demanded a break.
Anyway, I'm surprised that I recall as much about the job, and him, as I do, but I guess it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the time.
Three of the four episodes have been released on DVD on the BFI 6-disc box set Ghost Stories For Christmas - available from Amazon on the link below. It's a sumptuous set of archive BBC Christmas ghost story dramatizations and readings from the 1970s onwards. Unfortunately the one episode of Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas that hasn't been released commercially is the one which features me more heavily, in some nice cutaways by the window. Ho hum...

Anyway, watch it if you can, and buy it if you like, but either way I hope you enjoy it, and watch out for the beak-nosed student who looks both ways outside the chapel in the opening credits!

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Whoblique Strategies - available now!


Hot on the back of yesterday's post, Whoblique Strategies is now available to buy direct from Amazon.

An awful lot of love and creative energy has gone into this charity volume, all in aid of Children in Need. I hope it gets the wide audience and appreciation it deserves.

I've had the honour of contributing four pieces to the collection, which comprises short 200 word works extrapolated from every televised Doctor Who story, through the perspective of an individual random oblique strategy card - a technique used by Brian Eno and David Bowie working on Bowie's LPs Low and Heroes.

My pieces are in the Second Doctor, Fourth Doctor, Tenth Doctor and Eleventh Doctor sections, and cover the stories The Underwater Menace, Image of The Fendahl, Silence in the Library and The Girl Who Waited.

The mastermind behind it all is Elton Townend-Jones, who is also the driving force behind Dyad Productions. More information here:

More information about the cover artist, Simon Brett, can be found here on Facebook:

Please also look up Chinbeard Books and find out more about who they are and what they do.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Paul & Nessa's Happy Hour Show 45

Cast your minds back to July 2016. Yeah. Remember Paul & Nessa's Happy Hour, show 45? No? Well, whether you do or not, here it is at last, available to listen to in all its glory either via the Cranked Anvil website or via Mixcloud, depending on your preference or convenience.

This week, Paul & Nessa discuss biscuits, sweets, and the dodgy things our parents used to say to us. Paul rants about Wham bars and Haribos, and we’re joined on the phone again by Mr Punn, who discusses the Euros and football legends. And our #GuessTheTheme game this week has listeners utterly beat! Can you figure out the link before the end of the show?… Sketches written by Tim Gambrell, Michael Monkhouse, Tim Perry, Chris Tindall, Paul Dunn, and David Metcalf Jamie McLeish & Andrew Kirkwood as MKM Comedy, with extra material by Michael Monkhouse. They were performed by James Barton, Sarah Boulter, Carole Cooke, Paul Dunn, David Foster, Harriet Ghost, Vanessa Karon, Micky McGregor, Dolores Poretta, Peff Soulsby, Stephen Sullivan, and Jordan Todd. Script editor was Paul Dunn. First broadcast 06.07.16. 

Book news update...

Hello people. Stuff has been happening on the writing / publishing front and while I've been promoting it all and sharing it all on social media platforms I haven't been updating my blog. I've had the honour, this year, to work with some great people on some great ideas and franchises. There'll be more to come in 2018, for sure, but for now this is what's out there and how to get hold of it:


Lethbridge-Stewart: The HAVOC Files 3, featuring my story The Bledoe Cadets and the Bald Man of Pengriffen. The last few copies may still be available direct from Candy Jar Books:

Otherwise, it's available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon:

Back in September I had my first work published with Big Finish. Bernice Summerfield: True Stories is a collection of short adventures set in the Unbound Universe of the recent audio box sets. It features my story Stockholm From Home, along with some great luminaries from the world of Doctor Who prose fiction, such as Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum.

True Stories is available in three formats; as a (gorgeous) hardback book, as an e-book and also as an audiobook read superbly by the incomparable Lisa Bowerman, Bernice Summerfield herself.

It's only available through the Big Finish website, as follows:

The Lethbridge-Stewart Quiz Book features an exclusive short story by me, Cow Pats and Comfort. The story also foreshadows some aspects of my Lethbridge-Stewart novel which is due out at the end of 2018 - but more on that nearer the time.

There are only a few copies left, so get in quick. It's available exclusively from the Candy Jar website:

Whoblique Strategies is available from Chinbeard Books from December 6th.

It's the brainchild of Elton Townend-Jones and all proceeds are going to Children in Need.

There's more about the background here:

I have four pieces in the book. It's going to be a pretty unique volume, and some wonderful writers and artists have contributed work in the name of charity to help bring Elton's vision to life.

And that's it for now - but all in all I'm very happy with what I've achieved and had published in 2017. 2018 will be bigger and better, and I'll endeavour to keep this Blog updated along the way.

Cheers, Tim

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Screen Savers, by Bryan Romaine

My good friend Bryan Romaine has published his first novel, The Screen Savers. I was fortunate enough to be given an advance reading copy in March of this year, which I read, thoroughly enjoyed and then reviewed.  I've been holding on to that review ever since, and now that the book has finally been published I can tell the rest of the world what I thought of it!

The book can be purchased in hard copy or Kindle form from Amazon on the link below:

The Screen Savers.
Literature has a long history of eccentrics and obsessives, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, through Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby and HG Wells’ various tragic specialists, up to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time and beyond. In The Screen Savers Bryan Romaine has created another in this line of complicated, neurotic, eccentric, fallible and ultimately human literary characters in the simply-named Adam. I think anyone who has lived on their own for any period of time will be able to relate to Adam – either positively or negatively. But at a basic level this reviewer found him to be an endearing creation with a real sense of truth about him.

This is Bryan’s first novel, and stylistically it is a very confident work. The narrative voice gives the reader a sense of immediacy and pace. The only exceptions to this are occasional predictive clauses informing the reader of events or decisions further down the line; these serve not to spoil, merely to whet the appetite or ensure that the reader’s focus remains aligned with the authorial voice. It’s a subtle hand-holding technique within what, on the surface, appears to be a text that lays itself and its central character completely bare to the reader.

The author’s confidence, and competence, is further displayed by the fact that the book is largely under-written. Peripheral detail and description is scant at times, yet there are also occasions where detail and information is thrust at us with almost manic fervour, reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ Postmodern classic American Psycho. Somewhere within this uneven landscape of tropes and signifiers the reader gets a very real sense of Adam’s world and surroundings. Scenes don’t always pick up directly from where the previous one left off – although where there are narrative gaps or jumps the reader is very soon able to fill in the blanks. We may not get to experience every scene or every moment, but we still know pretty much exactly what’s gone on – and that displays the author’s skill; Bryan has an acute understanding of how to craft the text in an engaging way. Symptomatic of these narrative jumps is the pervading sense of the sections or chapters as a modestly sequential collection of flash fiction pieces, all adding together to create a cohesive whole.

The short sections gives the reader the impression that they are steaming through the book at pace – which can be a bonus for those who like to read on their commute to work. But The Screen Savers is deceptive in this; Adam’s voice, his worries, hang-ups and obsessions actually ferment a much deeper understanding in the reader’s mind than the simple words we read on the page in these brief scenes and moments. We start to fill in gaps ourselves; we absorb information and use it to clarify or justify actions already witnessed or those yet to come. So The Screen Savers is very much a collaborative text existing as a contemporaneous whole; the reader is constantly editing the text in their head and revising their understanding of characters and events as they progress through the work as more and more becomes clear. So the reader unwittingly works with the author in real time to create their individual experience, rather than sitting back and being dictated to.

In common with many previous texts fuelled by obsessive, eccentric characters, The Screen Savers is naturally very funny. The prospect that someone could be mistaken for Clive Owen and also Martina Navratilova paints some wonderful images in the reader’s head, for example. The humour is situational and character-driven through reactions and mannerisms; it is never forced and ‘gags’ (such as any are) are never set up in a contrived way. For example – and this owes much again to the pictures that the text conjures in the reader’s head - there is a persistent reference to deceased Scottish actor Alastair Sim. Now, okay, some younger readers may need to contextualise him, but the conceit is planted with perfect legitimacy and once there the obsessive revisiting of it, and the resultant mental hoops Adam puts himself through, create some extraordinarily comedic moments and images.

There is a notional ‘story’ running through the book, but this isn’t a plot-driven page-turner; it’s more of a character study as Adam comes to terms with various aspects of his life and his own mental challenges. One thing the book does expertly is show that no one is normal, or ‘ordinary’. Everyone reveals themselves to be flawed in some way – either in their own eyes or through those of Adam. Everyone has hang ups or oddities that they accommodate and deal with on a day to day basis in their own way.

Even though the story of the fight for screen seven at the local cinema is somewhat ancillary the author skilfully creates a sense of increasing tension as the narrative builds towards its conclusion – again this is achieved organically and not through any forced manipulation of characters and incidents. This produces a real sense of elation at the conclusion, rewarding the level of involvement and commitment the reader has invested in the characters and the text. The conclusion itself is appended by some wonderfully humorous (and organic) moments. We don’t get a pay-off scene between Adam and Yvette, and if there had to be a negative I’d say that Adam and Yvette’s relationship is a little too scant and under-written after she returns from her weekend away, but that’s really a minor quibble amongst a whole load of positives. 

To sum up, The Screen Savers is very well - and sympathetically - written, and I’ve greatly enjoyed the experience of reading it. I felt I could relate to Adam and to his situation in life; I understood the mental hoops he puts himself through in his relationships with other people. I’ve relished the challenges of the text, it’s lightness of touch and the shorthand way it has of encouraging the reader to infill any narrative gaps. Although I appreciated the bite-size chapters I really didn’t want to put it down once I’d started it, and I can envisage future re-readings with time set aside to consume it all in one go.

I hope this book gets the wide audience and appreciation that I feel it deserves, and that we get further works from Bryan Romaine as a result.