skip to main | skip to sidebar

Monday, 28 November 2016

Writers on Rejection

I'm one of a series of interviewees discussing writing and rejection on A J Ashworth's blog. Contributors so far include Alison Moore and A L Kennedy.

A sample:
AA: You’ve written successfully for television (as well as for radio) many times, but I know that some of the projects you’ve worked on have failed to make it to production. Has this been hard to deal with, especially if you’ve invested a lot of time in them?

SG: I could run my own channel with my unmade projects, but you have to take a long view. Especially in British TV, where everything moves so slowly that you can hear your own hair grow. I will say that I love the American system, which is brutal, fast and full of energy. Even if you have a near-miss, you know you’re playing a championship game. Last year I had a spec TV pilot that sold to ABC Studios. We cleared all the hurdles and just needed the network president’s nod for a straight-to-series order. At that point Spielberg offered him a show, and he handed over the slots that we’d been lined up for. That was hard. But you bounce.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Victorian Fun (2)

Well, no matter how long you've known them, your friends never lose the capacity to surprise you. Jo Armitage, with whom I worked back when I was represented by the Curtis Brown Agency, read my last entry on the British Library's Victorian Entertainments exhibition and wrote:
Well I never, just read the blog about your visit to the BL. Can’t remember if I’ve ever told you but my great grandparents (paternal side – Armitage) were a part of the George Sangers Circus. I believe that my great grandfather Armitage was a Ringmaster for them. Small world and when they left the circus he became the Manager for one of the Music Halls in SW London (think Clapham but not sure).
In dire need of some diversion on this election-dominated morning, I flipped through Sanger's autobiography Seventy Years a Showman and spent some time down the wonderful rabbit-hole of information that is the Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History site. If the Clapham association is correct, then it's quite possible that Grandpere Armitage may have been involved with Dan Leno's ventures in the area. Leno lived in nearby Clapham Park and was a partner in a business consortium that first took over Munt's Hall on St John's Hill, renaming it The Grand Hall of Varieties before going on to commission and build Clapham Junction's Grand Theatre. I turned up nothing useful that I could add to the family story, but was grateful for the excuse to go browsing.

When I asked Jo for permission to pass this along she added that the Ringmaster story came from relatives who are no longer around, so she'd no immediate means of corroborating it. But that her great grandfather worked for Sanger, and met and married her great grandmother while both were in the showman's employ, is beyond doubt.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Victorian Fun

In London for a couple of meetings last Thursday, I called by to spend a few minutes at the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. That's the beauty of our free museums, as I found in the 70s when I was in the capital looking for a way into film or TV; when you're broke (as I was then) and have time to fill, a regular half-hour in the National Gallery or the odd hour in the V&A can lift the spirits and leave you with a sense of the time well spent.

A chap was tuning up a piano. Not something you expect to find in the foyer of a library. When I took a closer look I saw that a stage was being set for the launch of a new exhibition titled Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun. The barriers were still up but I could see enough to know right away that I'd surely find it of interest.

As described on the BL's own website:
Roll up to celebrate some of the most popular entertainments of Victorian times performed in a variety of venues from fairground tents to musical stages. 

Focusing on five colourful characters, follow their stories as we bring the worlds they inhabited to life. These Victorian A-listers include Dan Leno, the original pantomime dame and ‘funniest man on earth’, John Nevil Maskelyne, magician and manager of ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, and the great circus showman ‘Lord’ George Sanger. Also hear of those whose fame has now faded such as Annie De Montford, a mill worker turned mesmerist, and Evanion the Royal conjuror

If you're familiar with the Becker novels you'll know that they largely play out against a backdrop of the entertainment business from the 1880s to the Edwardian era. From Music Hall touring companies to fairground boxing booths, from Wild West acts to the legitimate stage. And if you aren't familiar... well, you'll have to take my word for it. 

Two of the personalities covered in the exhibition (and the live presentations scheduled to accompany it) were central to the stories' conception, with their lives and histories providing a wealth of insight and detail. 'Lord' George Sanger was a prominent showman, and John Nevile Maskelyne was probably the most eminent British illusionist of his day. Here's where Maskelyne - in spirit, rather than in person - figures in The Kingdom of Bones
The Egyptian Hall stood in Piccadilly, and had been England's Home of Mystery for the past sixteen years. It had the frontage of an antique temple, four storeys high and with the look of something hewn from the rock of the Nile valley. Two mighty columns braced the lintel above its entranceway. Two monumental statues stood upon the lintel. All illusion, in plaster and cement. To either side of this slab of the ancient desert continued a row of sober Georgian town houses. 

Within the building there were two theatres. One had been taken by Maskelyne and Cooke for a three-month run of magic and deception that still showed no signs of ending, more than a decade and a half after it had begun. The other was used for exhibitions and the occasional show. 

A few minutes before midnight, their four-wheeler drew up outside. Edmund Whitlock stepped down to the pavement, where he turned and offered his arm to Louise.
To an observer’s eye the halls were shut-up and dark, but a watchman waited to let them in. Louise moved with her eyes downcast, looking neither to left nor right. They went directly backstage, where the Silent Man waited to lead them to the auditorium. 

It was an intimate house, with a small stage and a runway out from the footlights across the orchestra pit. The house lights were on and the curtains were up; Maskelyne was between shows, so his sets were half-struck and the theatre’s back wall was visible. About a dozen figures were out there in the stalls, all male, no two of them sitting together although some were conversing across the rows in raised voices. They fell silent as Whitlock led Louise to the centre of the stage, where a chair waited. He left her there and moved to the footlights. 

“Gentlemen,” he said, his voice ringing all the way up to the hall’s domed ceiling. “Welcome. I have spoken to each of you in turn before this evening.” 

Louise sat on her chair and continued to look down at the stage. Whitlock had taken her to Bond Street the day before, to be fitted for a new dress that the milliners had run up overnight. Her hair had been artfully pinned by the Mute Woman, who had a talent for such. Her face was powdered and her natural pallor relieved by the merest hint of rouge. 

Over by the wings, she was aware of the Silent Man easing out of the shadows and into a spot from where he could observe the auditorium. 

“I know you are intrigued,” Whitlock said. “I know you will be discreet. And I know the fascination that Miss Porter holds for each of you. Tonight I offer the chance for one man to pursue that fascination to the full.” 
I stayed on an extra day in order to return when I knew the exhibition would be open. It's sited in the BL's entrance hall and isn't huge - several display cases and some video material, along with walls of vintage poster art - but for someone with a love of such ephemera it didn't disappoint.

There are some props and personal effects but it's mostly printed matter in the form of handbills, tickets, programmes and other publications, much as you'd expect from a library's archive. Most interesting to me was the material from the collection of Henry Evans, illusionist, who as 'Evanion' had a fifty-year touring career on the stages of Britain. Presented here as 'one of those whose fame has now faded', to me Evans represents the true heroes of popular entertainment, hard-grafting professionals with a lifelong commitment to their often thankless trade. He was to die, elderly and impoverished, of throat cancer in the Lambeth Infirmary, a charity hospital joined to the workhouse in which Charlie Chaplin had been a child inmate. Forgotten, perhaps. But faded? No.

Afterwards I looked in the gift shop, and was a tad discouraged to see no merchandise in the exhibition-related area. Just Shakespeare stuff and, let's face it, he hardly needs the publicity. The main part of the bookshop offers a nice line in vintage detective fiction, all rather well-chosen, some of it in retro bindings, and with some rare old titles republished under the BL's own imprint (and kudos to whoever came up with the idea of returning the great Eric Ambler to public attention).

But hey, BL, if you'd care to stock some titles that can relate to the show, I've a suggestion or three for you.

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, Entrance Hall, The British Library, until Sunday, 12th February 2017

Monday, 26 September 2016

Meanwhile at Fantasycon...

Just back from a weekend of frolics, wine and conversation at 2016's Fantasycon by the Sea in Scarborough, a town of shabby-chic Edwardian charm with a fantastic coastline and some, er, interesting after-dark streetlife. The Grand Hotel made for a highly sociable venue in a spectacular clifftop location. Dining options on the doorstep, and some fine autumn sunshine for those moments where you just had to take time out and wander. I had a great time meeting up with friends old and new.

There was no single dealers' room, as such, more a bazaar that spilled through small rooms and passageways off a corner of the main hall. I'm pretty sure I didn't get to see everything, but I did get my first-ever sighting of the new hardcover in its finished form. I don't even have my author copies yet, but PS Publishing regularly handles UK distribution of Subterranean titles and had rushed a stack of advance copies expressly for the convention. So, many thanks to all involved, with further thanks to those who bought out the stack!

A damn handsome piece of book production, if you ask me. I couldn't be more pleased. The hardcover editions of both The Kingdom of Bones (Shaye Areheart Books) and The Bedlam Detective (Crown) were something to behold, and this new title equals and, dare I say it, surpasses them. Subterranean also holds ebook rights for US territories, details of which can be found here. I'll have paperback news in due course.

poster art: Graham Humphreys
The weekend was rounded off with the news that Ellen Datlow's The Doll Collection won the British Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. 

I get to bathe in a little reflected glory because my story Heroes and Villains is in the book. That story was the basis of my short play Cheeky Boy, part of this theatrical event. You may recall me banging on about it somewhat earlier in the year.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Shipping Now: The Authentic William James

The book's now shipping and preorders are being filled. They're preceded by an interview conducted by Gwenda Bond for Subterranean. It's
on the company's Facebook page; follow the link to see the whole thing.
Today we’re bringing you a fascinating new interview with Stephen Gallagher about how he created the character of investigator Sebastian Becker. Gallagher is a novelist, screenwriter and director specialising in contemporary suspense. His latest novel about Becker, special investigator to the lord chancellor’s visitor in lunacy, is The Authentic William James. It earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and we expect it to start shipping soon. Get your orders in now; you’re in for a treat whether you’re already a fan of the series or this is your entry point.

Gwenda Bond: Where did the idea for this series start?

Stephen Gallagher: I suppose the first seeds were sown when I was around twelve or thirteen and I answered an ad in the back pages of a Sexton Blake paperback...

Thursday, 15 September 2016


Down by the British Museum in Bloomsbury runs Montague Street, a terrace of Georgian townhouses of the classic Upstairs/Downstairs kind. They're now mostly brass-plate offices and boutique hotels, and I can never walk along it without thinking of Charlie Grant.

Charles L to the literary world, Charlie to just about everyone who knew him. The Montague Street connection is tenuous - he and Kathryn stayed in one of those hotels after a British Fantasycon where Charlie was toastmaster, having been the previous year's Guest of Honour. It's just one of those details that evokes a host of other memories and (see what I'm doing here?) the evocative detail is what Charles L Grant, writer and anthologist, was all about.

The '80s was a great time to be in horror. Already a genre with a strong tradition, in the 80s it was pretty much rampant. Writers such as Ira Levin, Thomas Tryon, and John Farris had already begun to break down the wall between genre and the mainstream, and then Stephen King drove a tank through the breach.

I count myself hugely lucky to have been finding my feet at just the right time. Two personal landmark events stand out in my memory; one being my first sale to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the other Charlie picking The Jigsaw Girl for Shadows 9. Publishers were mainly buying horror novels because they were making money. But if Charles L Grant bought your story, it was because he thought it was good.

Every field needs its controversies and ours was the Quiet Horror vs Splatterpunk debate. Unlike the Sad Puppies debacle it was an enriching and enjoyable hook for panel discussions, bar chats, fan writing... the question was basically over the relative merits of showing vs suggesting. Charles was widely acknowledged as Quiet Horror's Grand Master, both in his own fiction and in the influential Shadows anthology series on which he was editor. King praised his eminence as a creator of 'small-town horror', the form that's currently been so effectively mined and celebrated in Netflix's Stranger Things.

Many of those that I count among my 'cohort' have remained friends to this day. I only wish that Charlie, who left us on this day ten years ago, were still here among them.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Abroad Thoughts from Home

This is probably the most niche blog post ever, but I wish I'd had access to something like it when the need first arose. It's the Idiots' Guide for a British writer joining the staff of a US TV show. How you land the gig is up to you. This is just about the admin.

What used to be a rarity is becoming more common. For the British writer it's almost invariably a sideways move following a notable success at home or as part of the package in the acquisition of a successful format. Freelanced scripts aren't unknown, but they're exceptional. As a rule American TV drama is staff-written and the writing staff all work on-site. For all you need to know about staffing and more, I can make no higher recommendation than the Children of Tendu podcast.

This is an ad-hoc list that I threw together for a friend who asked for some advice. It's not authoritative, or comprehensive, and I'm taking no responsibility for any errors or omissions.

If it happens for you - and I hope it may - it's a brilliant adventure, and maybe some of the following will help to smooth the process when the time comes.
  • If you supply material to the American market but stay resident in England, then you can do that with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) which means the IRS will leave you alone and you'll pay your taxes on the income as normal in the UK.
  • BUT if you're on a TV staff then you'll relocate, most likely to LA (though some shows have writers' rooms in NY). The room is almost always in LA even if the show is shot in Atlanta, Toronto, or wherever.
  • For that you'll need an 01 visa (Alien of Extraordinary Ability) to get in, and a social security number to get paid.
  • For the visa I had to make an appointment at the US embassy to show my employment contract and provide evidence of past achievements. It wasn't anything horrendous, just a lot of faff in a tearing hurry. Shows are greenlit at short notice and staff up quickly, so you don't get much lead time.
  • My US employer hired a service in London to deal with my application and fast-track it through. I got my passport back at my hotel the evening before my flight!
  • The payroll company will want a social security number in order to start paying your salary. Once in LA you can apply for it in person. There's an office on Olive Avenue in Burbank. It can take a few weeks to come through as it has to go via Homeland Security. My income backed up while I was waiting.
  • You'll also need to provide your employer with a Certificate of Continuing Liability from HMRC, which basically says that despite working in the US you're still a UK resident and taxpayer. Without it they'll withhold Medicare and Social Security payments from your salary, and you won't be able to reclaim the money. I was completely unaware of this, and in that first year it cost me dear.
  • To work for any of the WGA-signatory production companies - which is all of the reputable ones - you'll need to be a member of the Writers' Guild of America. 
  • Writers from Europe are enrolled into the WGAEast. Existing members of the Writers Guild of Great Britain can have the joining fee waived.
  • Dues are paid quarterly. Your WGA membership will provide you with medical cover.
  • You'll find that most of your coworkers will have their salaries paid into a Loan Out Corporation or LLC. My experience here is limited. I just worked and got paid as an individual. As an expat I already had enough admin to contend with.
  • Once you have your SSN you're in the system and you'll have to file an annual return with the IRS and pay taxes on your US income. This is claimed as a tax credit against your UK liabilities, so you don't get taxed on the same money twice.
  • If you're working in California you'll be paying Federal Tax and California State Tax.
  • A friend of mine who worked in California for one year (not in the TV business) filed his year-end return using a program called Turbotax. I felt much safer having a US accountant do it. Having said which...
  • My first accountant had no experience with expats while I had none of the US tax system, which resulted in various misunderstandings and penalties. Now I'm with an outfit with expertise in the tax affairs of non-residents.
  • On arrival I booked into a motel for a couple of weeks and looked for longer-term accommodation while I was getting into the work. You can take your chances on Craigslist but the premiere resource for LA is westsiderentals.com. You can search their listings for free but to get contact details you have to register. 
  • I paid the modest fee and searched for a furnished guest house, which is generally self-contained accommodation attached to a bigger property. 
  • The search categories for a reasonable commute to the major studios are Santa Monica/Westside, Hollywood/West Hollywood, Studio City/San Fernando Valley.
  • But find out where your writers' room is going to be. Many productions set up their offices in a rented suite away from a studio lot.
  • Before heading out I booked a long rental on a car. For some reason it worked out cheaper doing it from the UK. Booking from here I got the Collision Damage Waiver included; had I done it on arrival that would have been an extra.
  • Alamo was offering the cheapest car rental at that time.
  • I don't know if it's still the case, but renting a Satnav as an extra came at some ridiculous price. I took my own with a US map preloaded, and it was invaluable.
Pay special attention to the Certificate of Continuing Liability. No one warned me and, as I said, it proved an expensive omission.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

See a Dinosaur Eat a Cow. You Know You Want To.

Here's a film I'd never seen before, and have finally caught up with. I don't quite know what to make of it. As you might expect it's a B-movie through and through, but the production values took me by surprise. With the Mexican locations, and widescreen cinematography, its look is great.

Like the later Valley of Gwangi, it's based on an idea by Willis O'Brien. In fact, it's based on the same idea. The backroom genius of The Lost World and King Kong had a hand in the script but none in the special effects, which is entirely the wrong way around.

It's a cowboys-and-monster movie. Apparently English and Spanish-language versions were shot back-to-back. In places it lapses into colourful travelogue but, to be honest, you're grateful for the distraction. Unless you're a fan of ranch boundary disputes it's a long, long wait for the dinosaur action we've bought in for. And when it comes...

Well, what the hell. It's called The Beast of Hollow Mountain and we're not here because we mistook it for the Tarkovsky.

You know what they say - "If the cooking in this house doesn't meet your standards, try lowering your standards."

(Re that trailer, and just for the avoidance of doubt - no, there is no such thing as a 'Sneak Peak".)

Director Edward Nassour described his patented "Regiscope" process as a form of electronically programmed animatronic model work. It was later established by Cinefx's Don Shay that the dinosaur action was mostly achieved by swapping out multiple models in different poses, elsewhere known as 'replacement animation'.

Though the technique had been used with success in George Pal's Puppetoons, Ray Harryhausen described its use in live-action features as "not quite practical".

Thursday, 1 September 2016

DANCING WITH SHADOWS, the Charles L Grant Blogathon

Neil Snowdon writes:
12th-18th September I’ll be hosting a celebration of Charlie and his work, with contributions from myself, Ramsey Campbell, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Morris, Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Christopher Golden, James A. Moore, Lynda E. Rucker, Stephen Bacon, Mark west, James Everington, Thomas F. Monteleone, Nancy Collins, Stephen Bissette, Stephen Gallagher, Jean-Daniel Breque, Tim Lebbon, Jonathan Oliver, Marc Laidlaw, Steven Savile, Kealan Patrick Burke, P.D. Cacek and John Langan and more to come…
I'm scheduling my contribution for September 15th, the tenth anniversary of this enormously respected artist's death. For more details and for links to the other contributors, see Aim for the Heart at https://neilsnowdon.wordpress.com/.

Photo credit (right) Mary Jasch

Monday, 22 August 2016

Jurassic Park, Unearthed

This is weird.

While sorting through some old files I came across this film review from the year of Jurassic Park's release. I don't remember writing it, or for whom it was written. But dated references to video (ie, VHS), to the then-unbuilt Universal Studios ride, and to competing movies... they all have the feel of another era, whereas the movie still seems to me like pretty fresh goods.

I rewatched it recently, and its age was never an issue. And what I wrote back then is still a fair reflection of what I think of the movie now. Durability beats novelty any day.

So here it is, from '93:
Over in the US, at least, the commercial shape of this summer's movie season appears already to have been set. CLIFFHANGER as the well-timed warm-up act, not quite a contender but perfectly fine to keep us going until the blockbusters come along. SLIVER straight down the tubes, gathering critical disdain and playing to empty houses. THE LAST ACTION HERO a major embarrassment; a ton of money, a mess of a film, and limping along in the wake of the one movie that was obviously a clear winner by the end of the day that it opened. They're still counting, but JURASSIC PARK has taken over one hundred million dollars within the first two weeks of its release. It managed this by opening everywhere, a massive investment in print costs alone; and in some locations this was maximised by chaining the print through a succession of projectors to play two or three auditoria at once. They were filling them, too.

Is it worth it? I think it probably is. As a suspense movie, it's about half as good as JAWS. But the realisation of the dinosaurs is technically perfect and there are some set-pieces (most memorably a Tyrannosaurus attack on a jeep and a stalking through an empty visitor centre) that are worth the price of admission alone. JURASSIC PARK may be a so-so story, but it's a magnificent ride. It'll make a great feature on the Universal Studios tour (are they planning one? Are you kidding?) and it'll clean up on video. The merchandising is, perhaps, another matter; there's no protectable copyright on the dinosaurs themselves and all they really have to sell is the logo, which resembles something out of the Ahlbergs' FUNNYBONES. Anyone can cash in on the fever, and everyone seems to be doing it.

Spielberg has added a few typical personal touches to the narrative of Michael Crichton's spare and one-dimensional novel, most noticeably in the Sam Neill character's reluctant conversion to the role of protective father-figure. There's a hug-a-stegosaurus scene which is pure Spielberg (seeing this and thinking back to ET, pets must have filled a big void in the director's early life) and he's dealt with the book's least appealing aspect, the whining and stereotypical characterisation of Hammond's young grand-daughter, by giving her a piece of the action instead of simply making her a drag on the Guy Stuff. Richard Attenborough's John Hammond character is rather wasted - he comes over as well-meaning and dim, a Walt Disney without the buried dark streak - and there's a general lack of any point to be made. The novel's point, that there are penalties to be paid for hubristic science, is buried somewhat. Not much surprise there; it's a hard line to sell in the context of the fun we've been having.

This kind of cinema is the modern equivalent of the sensational theatre spectaculars of the Victorian era where one could see Ben Hur's chariot race live on stage with full teams of horses running flat-out on rollers. Great fun, low art. And if it leaves nothing lasting beyond a sense of awe at the occasion. . . well, pardon me for saying so, but what a strange life it must be in which that counts for nothing.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Three

You have written a considerable number of short stories, some of which have been published as collections (‘Out of His Mind’, ‘Plots and Misadventures’). What are your thoughts about the differences between writing short stories and novels? Have any of your short stories been developed further (in any media)?

Short stories are tricky, and when you get one just right it’s very satisfying. In my distant youth, enthused by the BBC adaptations, I read John Galsworthy’s sequence of Forsyte novels and I vividly remember a passage in which Young Jolyon talked about the difference between painting in oils and watercolours. The gist was that in oils you build up from the canvas, and along the way you can try things out and make revisions and cover your mistakes. Whereas with a watercolour you lay your brush on the paper, and if the stroke isn’t right, then the whole thing’s ruined. That’s how I see short stories – they work or they don’t; there’s no margin for error.

I’ve adapted some of my short stories for radio – By the River, Fontainbleau, The Horn and Life Line. They were all for the Fear on Four slot and they keep showing up on BBC4 Extra. A lot of my radio stuff got wiped, one of the producers told me. Off-air copies get traded between collectors but the broadcast masters are gone.

The notion of a TV anthology show seems to raise its head every two or three years. Producers love the idea of them, but commissioners and schedulers are much cooler. You can more or less guarantee that when an anthology show does get commissioned, it’ll be first in line to be pre-empted for a sports fixture or a special event. The viewing figures get driven down, and then the figures are used as proof that anthology shows aren’t popular.

I’ve seen you at a couple of conferences recently and you also talk to writers’ groups. What do you personally get out of this, and what do you think aspiring writers might gain from your input?

Well, it’s a great opportunity to talk about how hard it all is and to scare off the competition! But seriously, if anyone can get something useful out of anything I’ve got to say, that’s great. It’s not like I’m making it easier for anyone.

There’s a vanity element to it as well. I spend most of my days sitting in a room at a keyboard. Tell me there’s a place with a bar and a willing audience and a bunch of friends to catch up with afterwards, and you’re pretty much describing the main social pleasure that this job has to offer.

What are your feelings about the indies and what purpose do you think they serve, bearing in mind that their circulation is often quite small?

Independent publishing has always played an enormous role in both the science fiction and fantasy genres. In early science fiction there was the Gnome Press; in fantasy and horror there was Arkham House. They were mould-breakers in their way, and they were an important bridge between the pulps and the mainstream book market. Some of today’s indies continue that tradition. Then you’ve got all the small-circulation magazines and anthologies that offer new writers a place to get their voices heard and to sharpen up their craft. If they didn’t exist, someone would have to invent them.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part Two

Getting back to your novels, and thinking about your early work, where did the inspiration come from for books such as ‘Chimera’, ‘Oktober’, ‘Rain’ and ‘The Boat House’?

I can answer for definite with Chimera because that came from a passage in Vance Packard’s book The People Shapers, where he quoted a Rand Corporation study predicting the routine production of laboratory sub-humans by the year 2025. I didn’t take that as a solid prediction, but I did foresee a process by which it could come about. It doesn’t matter how responsible the scientific establishment is, there’s always someone with a dodgy degree out there, looking for a chance to make his name by pushing the envelope.

For the rest of them, I’ve no doubt that if you dig through the file boxes with all my original notes and papers, somewhere you’ll find a little scrap of notebook paper with an illegible scrawl from the moment where light first dawned. It is actually like that. You know you’ve got a goer when it’s like you can see the entire book folded up inside a seed. It’s only the start of a fairly enormous process, of course, but when it happens you can sit back happy, because you know you’re in the game and you’re going somewhere.

You famously wrote the screenplays for some of the classic Doctor Who episodes (under the pen-name: John Lydecker). How did this opportunity arise? Considering this and other screenplays you’ve written for television series, how do you go about writing stories involving established characters?

TV characters are designed to be written by many hands. They’re not like fully-formed characters, but more like stripped-down racing versions of the same. So once you’ve got your head around their regular function in the weekly structure, you’ve a good idea of where you can and can’t go with them.

You can’t change them or teach them too much, unless you’ve been given some significant change to work in as part of the production plan. When that happens, it becomes a narrative point that you can factor into your story in a way that you hope will make it stand out. In my two Doctor Whos I got to write out two assistants and one robot dog. Which was great, because in character terms it meant I’d been given something I could write towards.

I got the job because I was working on a science fiction radio play called An Alternative to Suicide, and my radio producer sent the script over to the Doctor Who office. I got a call to drop in for a chat, and everything grew from there.

To what extent do you feel that the real world should feature in your work? By this I mean politics, wars, developing technology and topical issues. What control do you have over these areas when work is commissioned for television or film?

I’m kind of ambivalent on this. I did talk before about the importance of location and sense of place, so that’s me speaking up for realistic texture. But when it comes to politics or technology you’re really talking about something that right now feels like the only reality there is, but which is going to change faster than you can nail it down. Blair’s Britain? That’s yesterday already.

So I think my attitude is to let the timeless stuff seep in, but steer away from the notion that your reason for being here is to tell it like it is. You can’t write just to explain background. If you want to make a political point that doesn’t date, put it in a solid story. Solid stories are imperishable. Why has some of Brecht’s stuff worn so well? Because his narratives are compelling regardless of whether you care about the politics. It’s because the stories work that he leaves you more politically aware than you were going in.

Technology’s tricky in a different way. Think about how the mobile phone affected plotting. I put some computer stuff in Oktober that dates it terribly now.

Interview conducted by Trevor Denyer for Midnight Street. More to follow