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Monday, 22 August 2016

Jurassic Park, Unearthed

This is weird.

While sorting through some old files I came across this film review from 1993. I don't remember writing it, or for whom it was written. But dated references to video, to the as-yet unbuilt Universal Studios ride, and to competing movies with the feel of another era, are at odds with my feelings about Jurassic Park. Which still seems to me like pretty fresh goods.

Is the movie itself dated now? I rewatched it recently and that wasn't an issue. And what I wrote then is still a fair reflection of what I think.

So here's what I reckon; durability beats novelty any day.
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

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Some Stuff About Writing, Part One

You have been in the writing business for some time now. What would you say were your best and worst experiences?

Fortunately the best way outnumber the worst, and they’ve mostly come out of the experience of researching the novels. I do try to achieve an authentic sense of place in the writing and that’s always involved a lot of travel, meeting new people, and getting into situations that I’d never otherwise encounter.

Back in the early days, when I’d just gone freelance and I was dead broke, this would mostly involve backpacking around Europe or America. For The Boat House I went all over Western Karelia and into what was then Soviet Russia. These trips generated some very rare and vivid moments of epiphany, a fair number of them on railway station platforms at 3 o’clock in the morning.

When you’re out on your own like that, travelling with a purpose but full of uncertainties, it’s like you lose a few layers of skin and become very sharp and sensitised. That feeds back into the writing. I’d often find that the thoughts that I recorded or jotted down at those times would not only influence the entire tone of the book, but would often make it into the text almost verbatim.

Worst moments – I’d say they’ve been whenever I’ve been pushed off a project that I’d started from nothing and brought to within sight of completion. That’s happened to me about four times. You just feel sick and helpless when it happens. Only one of those projects went on to get made.

Would you say that your writing style has changed as you have become more experienced? In what ways?

I’m not entirely sure that it has. I can look at prose that I wrote at the beginning of my career and as far as the writing style is concerned, give or take a few infelicities, I’d be happy to have turned that stuff out last week. The actual voice doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.

I suppose that what changes is the quality of what you have to say, as opposed to the way you say it. That’s where things have definitely matured and evolved, I hope. I mean, I was first published in my mid-twenties, and I knew nothing about anything. Now I know nothing about a much greater range of subjects.

Apart from writing novels and short stories, you’ve had a lot of success in other areas – film, television and radio. What would you say are the pitfalls when moving into these areas? Can you give me some examples from your own experience? What frustrates you as a writer when dealing with these media?

The prose writer and the screenwriter live in two universes that move at very different speeds. The screenwriter who doesn’t understand that will turn out books that read like novelisations. The novelist who doesn’t get it will write a script that can’t be shot.

You need to be aware of the need for a change in pace, not just in what you write, but in the way you work. Okay, so a story’s a story. But you spend a novel looking inside out from inside the characters, while in a screenplay everything’s determined by what you see them say and do.

You couldn’t have a more radical difference between the two forms. When prose is described as cinematic, it’s often anything but.

I suppose the most obvious difference is that for a novel you go up the mountain, brood for a long time, and come down with something that’s finished and complete. Whereas on a screen project you don’t get the final say on anything. What you get is everyone else’s notes, pretty much from day one. After a while it starts to feel like everyone including the office manager (it’s happened) gets the opportunity to have a say over what you do.

The writer, of course, never gets to change anyone else’s work.

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

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Click to enlarge

Sunday, 5 June 2016

If you want to feel old...

...here's what Chad looks like now.

Movie prop collector Ian has sent me this display cabinet photo of the Chimera prosthetic head that he picked up on Ebay, one of the three created for the 1991 ITV production. A lucky find, given that it was listed there as a "Planet of the Apes Mask".

Here's how he looked in better days:

The flexible latex foam skin isn't made to last, and it doesn't. Ian writes: "There are quite a few feet of cables on it which I wound around the base of the head it is mounted on. Quite dry and crispy when I got it but the skin is now sealed and should hopefully last well."

"Planet of the Apes Mask" isn't the only odd description to surface in recent weeks. Here's a catalogue listing from an auction being held by Bamfords in Derby next Wednesday, June 8th:

Doctor Who and the Prisoner of Azkaban?? It's actually one of the Vanir helmets from my story Terminus.

Looks in rather good nick, too. I might have been tempted to put in a bid... but I ain't going up against that J K Rowling, she's got way more firepower than I can muster.

 UPDATE: With corrected details, the Vanir mask went for a hammer price of £1,400.00.

Monday, 23 May 2016


Directed by

Written by

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Neither Houdini, Nor Doyle

If you just want the free story, scroll on down to the links. Otherwise...

Back when we were wrapping up Crusoe for NBC, producer Jeff Hayes pitched me a TV project that a colleague of his was looking to set up. It was called Houdini and Doyle and it was about the real-life friendship between the two, transmuted into a mystery-solving partnership for series purposes.

And no, as far as I'm aware it bore no relation to the Fox/ITV series that's currently on air. This particular historical pairing has a long history of producer appeal, and there have been a number of attempts to bring it into being.

In fact I'd already addressed it myself, kind of. I'd been inspired by another pairing of opposed ideologies when I read how, in the 1980s, convicted Watergate hardliner G Gordon Liddy teamed with LSD proselytizer Timothy Leary on a lecture tour titled Nice Scary Guy vs Scary Nice Guy. I imagined them going at it hammer-and-tongs during the debates and then retiring to the same hotel to unwind with a drink and divvy up the box office.

So long before that suggestion of Houdini and Doyle I'd written about the pairing of a spiritualist and a stage magician, based on their friendship but with characters of my own invention. Will Goulston is a stage magician, forced into a money-making venture after losing all his properties in a fire, while Frederick Kelly is raising money for a Spiritualist temple. Together they move from town to provincial town, maintaining a cordial relationship while rehearsing the same debate, night after night.
The man from the Blackburn Times said, "What are we going to see? Do we see physical manifestations?"
    "Goulston does all of those," Kelly told him. "You want to see a table tip and fly, Goulston does it better than anyone I've ever seen. I practice a form of clairvoyance that is far less spectacular. I handle objects and I say whatever comes into my mind. Rarely do I see more than that."
    "Do you raise the dead?" the Telegraph man said, and there was a tone in his voice and a look in his eye that seemed to urge Kelly to say yes, just so that the Telegraph man could go on into print and make him regret it.
    "I do not raise the dead," Kelly said and then he added, with care and certain emphasis, "Sometimes I believe the dead can speak through me."
    The Telegraph man switched his gaze. He looked like a bank clerk, but his manner showed the wiry energy of a whippet. "Mister Goulston?"
    "Let me be diplomatic," Goulston said. "I believe that Mister Kelly is an exceptional performer of his type."
    "Do you think he's a fraud?"
    "I have no doubt."
    "But no proof."
    "Proof will come."
To me the notion appealed not for its mystery-solving possibilities, but for the light it shines onto a deep-seated conflict that lies within all of us. The magician embraces mystery, but he knows too much; his curse is that mystery can never embrace him back. And although I wasn't familiar with the term when I wrote the story, you can say that Frederick Kelly is a 'shut-eye' medium, one whose belief in his own powers is sincere.

The novella's available to buy on Amazon, but from tomorrow until Sunday May 15th you can download it to your device for free.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Who's Round, Part Two

Toby Hadoke's marathon interview series continues:
Toby Hadoke's Who's Round 168 - Stephen Gallagher (Part 2)
The second part of an interview with one of those script writers whose subsequent career means that Doctor Who is just a tiny element of an impressive CV. So he discusses his work on the show from the perspective of a successful writer who still works in television and knows how it works. He also happened to write two stories which had a very difficult transition from script to screen and discusses them openly and with fondness.
 Free podcast, download it here:

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Doctor Who Events

On Saturday May 7th, 2016, I'll be guesting at the Doctor Who Appreciation Society's 40th anniversary weekend at the Arora Hotel, Gatwick.

No idea what I'll be doing. No doubt spouting the usual old nonsense to anyone who cares to listen. I'll just be one in a very big list of show-related figures, some with a much closer association  than I can muster.

But speaking of the usual old nonsense, some time back I did a long interview with Toby Hadoke at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre (in the bar, not on the stage) for his ongoing podcast series Who's Round. The first part's out already and can be found here:

"In honour of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in 2013, Toby Hadoke has embarked on an epic quest: interview someone from every single Doctor Who story. Feeling Doctors or companions are a bit too easy, he travels the country meeting legends of the show's history both in front of and behind the camera, and chats to them about both Doctor Who itself and the lives his interview subjects have led since (and, indeed, before).

"The interviews are in the form of podcasts on the Big Finish website, which you can download or stream here, or subscribe to on iTunes. All episodes are free, so if you've enjoyed Toby's chat, all he asks is that you give a donation to a charity nominated by the interview subject."

The released instalments of my spoutings will be interspersed with Toby's Paul Joyce interview. Paul was the director on Warriors' Gate and his angle on the events can differ from my own. The more you learn about this fraught production, the less surprising that becomes.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Valley of Lights, Special Edition

In 2005 Telos Publishing put together a special edition of my novel Valley of Lights for their Telos Classics line. This same edition is now available in ebook form.

Like the expanded trade paperback - which is still available to order - the ebook contains the text of the novel along with extra material:
  • An introduction by Stephen Laws
  • Author's afterword
  • The Los Angeles diary I kept during our first crack at setting up a Valley of Lights feature
  • A bonus novella

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Danger Man

It was my first visit to the JBTV offices in Santa Monica. I was meeting with the members of Jerry Bruckheimer's (surprisingly compact) TV team in the office of Executive Producer Jonathan Littman.

Amongst the DVDs on the shelf by his desk, I noticed a boxed set of Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for US broadcast). A British action drama from the '60s, a black and white echo from my childhood... when I remarked on it, Jonathan glanced back. "The perfect show," he said. Which was some praise.

A couple of years later I was looking into remake rights for Man in a Suitcase. This was a later ITC show whose premise - disgraced-but-innocent CIA man scratching a living in London - had struck me as having coproduction potential. In an unexpected development, while picking my way through the who-owns-what jungle I was invited to pitch a reboot of Danger Man.

It didn't take long for me to see that this was never going to happen. You get a vibe as to whether the person with the proposal has the clout to carry it through. But in the meantime I'd revisited the show and sorted out my thinking.

A few days ago I came across the file while doing a little hard drive housekeeping. Rather than waste the words, I decided to share.

This is the show that Jonathan Littman described as the most perfect of series concepts, and I’m sure he’s right. It doesn’t matter how many spy shows have come along since, Danger Man was a design you can’t improve upon. You can only imitate and vary.

The secret of its success lies in the minimalist strokes that make up its format and the very precise, and almost understated, nature of the main character.

John Drake is complex without being complicated. You get him very easily. He’s a moral man doing dirty work, and internalising the resulting conflict. It's a price that he pays. His adventures are straight out of Ian Fleming but his soul is by Graham Greene.

There’s no attempt to resolve this inner conflict, and Drake has no safety valve. He never complains, shares, or unloads. Apart from the occasional vent at his superiors (which never gets him anywhere), he stays tightly wrapped. This is one of the keys to his character; it explains how a fundamentally non-violent man can more than hold his own in a violent situation. He displays a watchful stillness, but you never feel that he's calm – it's the stillness of a hard steel exterior with contents under pressure. So when violence is required, he just lets some of the anger out. It's available in an instant and he shuts it down just as quickly.

He will do his best to see that the innocent don't get hurt in the course of an operation, though his is a world in which innocents often suffer. The greater consequences can only be worse if he doesn't complete his mission, but many Danger Man stories involve Drake disobeying orders, devising a strategy of his own to achieve an objective by means less damaging to those he meets and sometimes uses.

Like Bond, he’s a competent hero in a hostile universe. But even after all these years we still don’t know what values Bond stands for. John Drake, however, reminds us what it is to be humane. In a dirty war, he stands for the moral difference between the good guys and the bad guys. He’s the opposite of Jack Bauer, who switches his conscience off when he feels the need to do harm. John Drake’s heroism requires him to carry the moral weight of his own actions at all times. His redemption lies in his willingness to be damned for the sake of others.

Just as Drake’s character is portrayed in a few clean strokes, so is his world. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know is thrown down in the Season One credit sequence.

It’s night. We see a floodlit renaissance dome composed together with a piece of brutalist office architecture, the traditional and the modern co-existing. From the building emerges a well-groomed guy in a suit, walking at a determined clip. The voiceover tells us his employer, his job description and his name. He doesn’t work for British intelligence; he works for NATO, an international and American-dominated organisation. He’s a troubleshooter. At that point he hops into a convertible and he’s gone.

Nine times out of ten the next we see is that he’s somewhere else in the world, dressed-down and pretending to be someone he isn’t. But we never lose sight of the authentic John Drake in a scenario. We’re always aware of the degree to which he’s acting, watching those around him, and recalibrating his plans.

Drake has a boss in London, but we don’t see him often. When we do, the two of them are usually arguing. Drake is a man who can be relied upon to get the job done but not to do as he’s told, which is the kind of thing every boss hates. In these scenes you can see the seeds of The Prisoner further down the line.

As well as the London office (fronted by a company named World Travel), Drake has a London home. It’s a mews house, very 1960s, very trendy, but with a nod to the 'clubland heroes' of the '30s. John Steed lived in a mews, as did The Saint. It’s bachelor-sized accommodation, fashionably modern, architecturally traditional. But this London underpinning is quite minimal. Most of Drake's adventures are in studio recreations of faraway places.

All of that, I would suggest, can be brought forward to the modern day with a very light hand. Drake’s character calls for little interference beyond fidelity to the concept and good casting. Start with Damian Lewis and work your way down.

Drake needs to be classless but classy, a Brit for whom a well-cut suit is natural wear and not an affectation, and who can switch on the accent to become any of the American characters that he’ll play when undercover. Because although John Drake’s roots were deep in British spy tradition, Danger Man the show calls for American style and pacing. That’s what Lew Grade and Ralph Smart aimed for with the original. What we’d be doing is picking it up from the Elstree backlot and placing it in the home it always dreamed of.

So what would new Danger Man look like?

Drake remains a British citizen, troubleshooting global security matters and getting his orders via the London office of an international organization. Which could still be NATO, which since 9/11 has (in reality) expanded its membership and operates a 'whoever attacks one of us, attacks all' policy. While he reports to London and occasionally touches base there, that's not a big part of the show. My perception is that for the network audience, a UK element would add spice to the mix (see the Season 4 opener of Bones) but too much would work against us. So we mostly see Drake working with American agencies or, when alone, with American citizens or interests. I think that one of the reasons why audiences failed to warm to The Philanthropist was that the overseas settings made them feel too remote from familiar culture. When the network audience travels, they want to feel at home when they get there.

In shows like Alias and Heroes we’re far more adept at recreating exotic places on the backlot than we used to be. But I’d say the first production move would be a block of shooting on the streets of modern London with our lead and his basic wardrobe, to build up a library of establishing and linking material for use in future episodes.

In our pilot I would introduce Drake undercover as an American, then have him drop back to his British accent (to the surprise of other characters) in those moments when he’s not pretending to be someone else.

The one big element that we no longer have access to is the Cold War. Or do we? We’ve got Putin in power, and we’ve just seen a major spy swap, so maybe it’s not quite the outdated trope that we all imagined.

What we do have is a world where silent espionage has been replaced by the threat of public violence. Now, one of the things about the original Danger Man was its comparatively realist tendencies. Its villains didn’t live in volcanoes. Drake did not single-handedly avert threats that we know would be dealt with by entire organisations. But what we have is a fragmentation of the world into factions with their own specific grievances, their own specific networks, and their own particular objectives. We have diplomatic crises where things go wrong and require quiet repair. We have high public figures who misbehave, and those who would seek to exploit their resulting vulnerability. There will always be stuff that needs quietly sorting out.
Well, that was it. I didn't get very far with Man in a Suitcase, either. As with Danger Man, whether that reboot could succeed without its magnetic, famously difficult leading man (Richard Bradford) remains to be seen.

You can find my earlier post and thoughts on Man in a Suitcase here.