Wednesday, 30 July 2014

21st Century Poe: Moyamensing photos

Just before setting off for Edinburgh for my super spectacular storytelling show 21st Century Poe: Moyamensing at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, I trimmed up my brand new moustache (which my wife hates, by the way) and got into costume for a few photos. Frankly, the resemblance between me and the Divine Edgar is starting to look slightly creepy.... Tickets for the show can be booked HERE....

Friday, 11 July 2014

GHOST ZONE - The Making Of... PART TWO

(With my serial GHOST ZONE back on BBC Radio 4 Extra this Sunday at 6pm & midnight - CHECK IT OUT HERE - I'm just giving a bit of background here. In the last installment, I talked about the background to the writing of the piece. Here I'll talk about the actual production....)

BBC Scotland was still without a radio drama recording studio, in the protracted run up to the construction and opening of the Glasgow Pacific Quay studios that are used today, so as with a lot of my plays of the time we recorded at an independent studio the BBC rented in the village of Pencaitland, a drive of the better part of an hour outside Edinburgh. It was a quaint, quiet little place, almost like a real life Inchbrae (the fictional village's name, by the way, is down to no more or less important a fact than that I happened to lose my virginity, many years before, in a place called Inch House in Edinburgh). Those of us who weren't driving through used to meet in Waverley Station in Edinburgh and get mini-bussed (or maxi-taxied) out to the village.

I remember stepping into the converted school house that was the studio on the very first morning to be greeted by an almost psychedelic, swirling soundscape of strange sounds. Going along the corridor to the control booth, I found director Bruce Young and sound man Lee McPhail playing about with abstract alien soundscapes with all the happy glee of two schoolboys hopelessly lost in a game with Star Wars toys. If there's an unsung hero to Ghost Zone, it's certainly the sound man Lee McPhail. By the time Ghost Zone was recorded, it wasn't customary to credit technicians, so none of the countless people who've heard the serial have ever heard Lee's name, which is a bit like leaving Douglas Trumbull's name off the credits of 2001 or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. A big, bluff, down-to-earth Scottish bloke, the sort of guy who'd snort derisively at any attempt to characterise him as an artist, he was an artist on Ghost Zone, nonetheless. It was kind of wonderful: often on bog-standard realist BBC radio drama, a technician like him often doesn't get to do much more than evoke a soundscape of kettles boiling, toasters popping or cars passing in the street, but here suddenly he had the chance to conjure this whole fantastical, phantasmagoric soundscape.

Anyway, we got down to the readthrough with the assembled cast, the whole five episodes in one go, at which point it became clear we were STILL going to be running short here and there. I can recall having to run out to the desk in the corridor, typing up an extra couple of scenes, printing them and then passing them to Carrie, Bruce Young's assistant, to distribute. I recall the 'helicopter landing' scene which introduces both Beth and the Captain in Episode 1 was written in exactly that way: it's quite a nice intro to two major characters, and I do love the sound of a helicopter, but it was written from scratch about five minutes before it was recorded. People hearing about this after the fact have said "Ooh, that must have been terrible, weren't you stressed?" But in fact I found writing new material much less painful than cutting existing material.

The cast performed well, but I know it was a challenging experience for them, particularly because all those fantastic sound effects we could hear up in the control room weren't audible to the actors - because you need the 'cleanest' possible audio on the voices, they had to perform to a completely silent background. Gayanne Potter playing Jill said it was like "green screen acting": they never really knew what the background was going to be, on top of which - for her character especially - there's a super intricate psychological journey, through the anguish of loss to all kinds of interwoven layers of reality and unreality, present tense and memory. I suspect at times the experience was as bewildering for her as for her character. Also, of course, if you're a Scottish actor, you're used to doing a lot of social realist drama: science fiction isn't a genre you get much chance to work in, not like it would be in blockbuster-era Hollywood. There was a running joke between Gayanne and Lesley Hart, playing her daughter, over who might be playing their characters if it was a Hollywood blockbuster: they pretty much decided on Sigourney Weaver and Christina Ricci - which wasn't the way I saw it all! (Maybe Diane Lane and some-brilliant-but-completely-unknown-kid-from-nowhere). Afterwards, I know that many of the actors were astonished to hear the final result: Simon Tait (a.k.a Dan) played Arnold Schoenberg in my play A Breath From Other Planets shortly afterward and was raving in the green room about how impressed he'd been (he also said he'd met Gayanne and she'd told him how impressed she'd been: Bruce sighed and said 'She never told me she was impressed...')

Anyway, it went out at the very tail end of 2004 and seemed well received: I noted there was a warning about disturbing scenes being tacked on for the Seventh Dimension, and it was only then I realised how dark and intense, how bloody and tortured, some of it could seem - I wonder if there wasn't some faint echo of the then-ongoing and bloody chaos in Iraq, the intricate and seemingly endless living nightmare, the out-of-our-depthness, of it all: science fiction is a sort of litmus genre that compulsively reflects its era even when it seems to be spiralling off completely into self-contained fantasy. There's nothing explicitly about cold war tensions in It Came From Outer Space, about McCarthyite witch hunts in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, about Harold MacMillan's government in Quatermass 2, yet they're all there as surely as in any documentary of the era.

But it's all maybe more personal than that: this is a science fiction / horror story in which the worst horror is not the extraordinary, the alien, the 'other' - the creepiest thing is the sheer oppressive normality of at least the facade Inchbrae presents: I wanted a story in which a back garden barbecue or a village fete would be as creepy as that vault full of slimy facehugger eggs in ALIEN. Jill is a woman who's escaped a conventional domestic role and the creepy thing is that the alien force doesn't want to eat her alive or plant a chestburster in her belly... it wants to drag her into the 'good little wifey' paradigm she's escaped in the outer world. I suppose this ties in to my feelings about the world in which I grew up: Newton Mearns, my childhood home, is in the Scottish lowlands rather than highlands, but I'm struck now by how similar it is / was to Inchbrae: a sunny, well-behaved place of the most conformist normality - with deep veins of poison running underneath, like underground currents. If you want my direct vision of Newton Mearns, you should check out my novel Aztec Love Song to see my direct take on 'the Mearns', but it occurs to me there's as much of the Mearns in Ghost Zone.

How do I feel about Ghost Zone now? I suppose I'm ultimately happier with CATCH MY BREATH: that was developed from a screenplay written several years before, so by the time it got into the studio I'd literally had years to polish my ideas about it, while GHOST ZONE had to be written from scratch at very short notice: it's bursting with rich and interesting ideas (probably more so than CATCH), but I would have liked a bit more time to polish some of them. And I suppose I'm ultimately more of a Gothic Romancer than a hardcore SF writer: as I said in the previous installment, when it comes to SF I definitely see myself as on the surrealist wing of the genre, rather than the nuts'n'bolts serious scientific speculation end: Ghost Zone, I think, probably makes more sense ultimately if seen as a kind of surrealist psychodrama, closer to a Strindberg dream play or Bergman's Hour Of The Wolf than to Arthur C. Clarke. But it's probably the best received of the Radio 7 / 4 Extra pieces I've done and I know is highly regarded here and there - I even recall coming across on some BBC message board or other the suggestion that it was where the US TV series LOST got all its ideas: I can't remotely see the connection myself (though I only ever watched the first episode.), but if there's a brilliant lawyer out there who thinks he get me some money out of this completely groundless suggestion, he's welcome to try.

I kind of liked the ending: it seems a sort-of happy ending, but the moment you start to think about it, the darker and more complex it gets: what's going on there is most definitely NOT a strategy a psychoanalyst would recommend for getting over a loss. I even toyed with an idea for a sequel, called Ghost Land, that would have shifted the action to a run-down seaside resort (just like Losey's 'The Damned!'), but as with my Tunguska idea all those years ago, I never got past the first act!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

GHOST ZONE - The Making Of.... Part One.

I see BBC Radio 4 Extra have finally got round to putting GHOST ZONE back on. It's on at 18.00 this Sunday 13th July, plus a midnight repeat, with presumably the other 4 episodes at the same time on the four Sundays that follow. You can access it HERE on the BBC website. So, as I did with CATCH MY BREATH, I thought I'd do a little behind-the-scenes piece on the genesis of the piece. Here's PART ONE....

It was mid-2004 and I'd been trying to sort out the pitch for my Arnold Schoenberg play A Breath From Other Planets as a Radio 4 piece when there suddenly came the news from Bruce Young, my regular director at BBC Scotland, that BBC 7, as the digital channel then was, was looking for new material for their Seventh Dimension slot. Well, I'd always wanted to do science fiction, and on as grand a scale as I could get away with, and so I immediately said I'd give it a shot.

The only problem was they wanted pitches in quickly, so there wasn't a lot of time to go off and think. I racked my brains and remembered something from my very beginnings as a writer.

When I left school at the age of 16, the world very strangely refused to take seriously my ambitions to be a writer and I found myself shoved into a work experience job with Eastwood District Libraries, just south of Glasgow (you want to be a writer - well, be a librarian, instead! You still get to live in the world of books!). It was perhaps the most concentratedly dismal six months of my life: I had to wear a shirt and tie, which meant the hyper-sensitive skin of my neck was raised in red welts by the end of a working day - and the single consolation I found in actually reading the books was frowned upon. I recall one day being caught by the chief librarian of Mearns Cross Library secretly reading James Dickey's Deliverance on the floor behind the bookstacks. I had just got to the famous male rape scene - with its extended musing on the internal damage being sodomised by a hillbilly might induce - when that frowning visage loomed above me, more intimidating still than any mountain man protecting a still.

Alas, this didn't even get me sacked, so I had to persevere. But one further consolation emerged when I got the chance to search through a box of old books due to be dumped. In there I found a dog-eared copy of the tie-in book for the old Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World TV series. And in that was a chapter devoted to the Tunguska Incident in early twentieth century Siberia when a great big 'something' (meteor? asteroid? alien spaceship that crashed while taking on water?) exploded, devastating a vast area of the remotest Russian countryside. The Clarke book (yes, I know it's ghost written...) even had evocative photographs of whole stretches of Russian forest laid flat by the blast. Well, this stuck in my mind and, during my lunch breaks I would escape from the District Library offices into nearby Rouken Glen Park, there spending a brief, blissful hour wandering the atmospheric ravine, making up in my head the stories that - I supposed - would one day win me fame and fortune.

And I particularly played around with the Tunguska incident. What if - I thought - you had a story where, within weeks of the Tunguska explosion, a group of Russian scientists wander through all those miles of catastrophically blasted landscape... and find, in the middle of it, a little Siberian village where nothing seems to have happened, where peasant life is going on as normal, not a single building damaged. How did you survive the blast? - ask the scientists. What blast? - say the villagers. But of course there was going to be more to it than that....

Yet I was a long way short, at the age of 16, of developing the discipline of getting things solidly down on paper, or even carrying an idea through to a proper conclusion. So all I wound up with was that pretty decent 'first act' without any idea of where to take it thereafter. It got shoved on a shelf along with so many other almost-brilliant ideas from that era.

And yet, years later, when Bruce Young asked for a science fiction idea - and quick! - that old Tunguska 'first act' popped back into my head - and I thought, what if I finally come up with the remainder of that story? I didn't, by this point, want to do a period piece set in Siberia a hundred years ago (I'd already done a Russian drama in A Hundred Miles just a couple of years before and Bruce didn't like me to repeat myself). But what, I thought, if I took my Tunguska story and set it instead in contemporary Scotland? It also combined with a more recent idea that I'd never got as far as formally submitting, an idea called "Can Just Vanish", about a Scottish village that simply vanishes off the face of the earth one day, with those left behind trying to explain the mystery and understand the loss but never managing to do so: a piece designed more as Kafkaesque parable than science fiction adventure: I suppose we were all still trying to process 9 / 11 back in those days (which I suppose leaves its own ghost in Ghost Zone in the form of that immense dust cloud.)

I wrote a quick, but detailed pitch (not quite the same as the final serial: I remember the alien ship successfully taking off at the end) entitled, rather wonderfully I thought at the time, "A COLD PLACE BETWEEN PLANETS". Yes, I know that's the most pretentious title a science fiction story ever had (and that's saying something), but I rather liked it, thought it had a poetic quality. Bruce Young, probably quite rightly, thought it was horseshit and told me to come up with something simpler. GHOST ZONE, I patched together in about two minutes flat, a kind of tip of the hat, I suppose, to 'La Zone', the ghostly otherworld in Cocteau's 'Orphee' and the Forbidden Zone in the original Planet Of The Apes (the scenes therein a very definite influence on the first episode). I was never that happy with the title, but it stuck and that's that.

A few weeks later I had dropped in to see Bruce at the BBC's grand old studios in Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow: he dragged me into his office, sat me down and told me he thought he had good news - although BBC 7 hadn't formally accepted the idea, they'd just been on the phone wanting a finalised budget. So we were effectively commissioned -- but this was late August and we were going into the studio in early November, so I didn't have a lot of time to write a five part drama. Classical music's always been my drug of choice when it comes to getting writing done, so I headed back through central Glasgow, impulse-buying a couple of CDs: Gyorgy Ligeti (whose music I desperately, ineffectually, wanted as the background score: it worked for Kubrick, after all) and Tristam Cary's score for the Hammer film Quatermass And The Pit -- and then I had to head up into the Scottish highlands... because at this point I was having to supplement my writing income by guiding walkers on the long distance hiking trails... so Jill's job in the story is a direct rip-off from my own life.

This added further pressure to my writing schedule: I was basically spending long days guiding people up and down mountains and then sitting down in the evening for two or three ours in the quietest spot I could find in some claustrophobic youth hostel to scribble out long-hand the next few scenes of Ghost Zone,and then typing it all up at the weekends when I got home. But in other ways, of course, it helped the piece: those moody scenes in the first episode of clambering across the dust-swathed mountainscape were informed by the fact that I actually was spending my days clambering through misty mountain passes like the Devil's Staircase above Glencoe.

Influences? There's clearly a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky's two science fiction films, Solaris and Stalker, in there: the alien intelligence that uses people's memories as raw material and the idea of the guide leading people into an alien wasteland (although, as I say, my own experience as mountain guide was a more direct influence there.) I HAD been a big Tarkovsky fan, but frankly by the time of Ghost Zone the passion was spent, at least as far as those two films was concerned, and so Ghost Zone was almost a direct contradiction of, rather than homage to, those films: I was a bit weary of the pious puritanism with which Tarkovsky drained out all the traditional thrills and spills of less pretentious science fiction - and was determined to put them back: to do a kind of kick ass Roger Corman version of Stalker, as it were.

The most crucial influence was a very particularly British tradition of science fiction drama. Heaven knows, in radio it would be easy enough to simulate a spectacular clash of galactic empires on a modest budget. But I was much more interested in the aesthetic of the Hammer science fiction films of the late 50s and early 60s: the Quatermass films (one commentator pointed to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers as an influence, but I'd point more relevantly as far as 'alien takeover' stories are concerned to Quatermass 2, where the journey to the remote spot where the takeover has happened is a journey by outsiders across a remote ghostly grey British landscape), X- The Unknown (set on a Scottish moor, albeit actually shot in some quarry in the home counties) and, supremely, Joseph Losey's The Damned. There's no real plot cross-over between the latter and Ghost Zone but it was supreme in my mind as a stylistic, atmospheric model: my dear old Granny had cable TV and every time The Damned showed, crudely panned and scanned, on Bravo or TCM or whoever it was that was had it in their repertoire, I'd hurry to her house and commandeer the TV. Nigel "Quatermass" Kneale's The Stone Tape actually gets a direct reference: I'm not sure I'd actually seen it at this point, but I'd heard of the theory behind it. You could also throw in Village Of The Damned, and by extension the work of John  Wyndham (such as the Kraken Wakes, a set book when I was at school.)

But what that all adds up to is a very particularly gritty, down to earth aesthetic of British science fiction: no fancy costumes or futuristic sets, a contemporary setting, tight-lipped and unglamorous characters, a particularly bleak and otherworldly use of British landscape, edgy political undertones.

Listeners nowadays can be excused for thinking the references to Iraq are to the more recent war there, but in fact back in 2004, that conflict was still ongoing and so the references are to the Desert Storm conflict of the early 90s. But certainly the sense of 'Iraq' as a symbol for a kind of moral and pointlessly violent chaos that would scar and haunt anyone who survived was very much in my mind.

So anyway I wrote and wrote and got the script finished on schedule. As we neared production, it became clear we might be facing an almost unique problem in my radio experience: the script might actually be too short. It was just fine in terms of page length and word count, but a lot of the dialogue was so fast, so rat-a-tat-tat, that in a couple of episodes at least we seemed set to run a few minutes short. Like I say, this was fairly unique with my scripts: usually you aim to be, and are, just a teeny bit long, allowing room for manouveur in the edit suite, and at least two of my plays Olalla & Rough Magick had to lose whole chunks in the final edit just to fit the slot. But here Bruce was asking me to write extra material the weekend before we went into studio.

In one particular instance this was fortuitous: on the Friday before we started, I went to a concert of classical music in Glasgow: Holst's The Planets was on the bill, a bit of a war-horse but a piece I'd been fond of since childhood. And as the final piece, with its ghostly female chorus, filled the Royal Concert Hall I let my mind drift and free-associate and came up with the scene in the fourth episode where Jill gets a momentary vision of the planet the alien intelligence comes from. I couldn't, frankly, give a toss if it's scientifically feasible for a planet to descend into a kind of Arctic winter every night and thaw out into tropical lushness every morning: the image came to me, instantaneously complete, like a kind of pure and perfect surrealist vision... and I'm of that school that's closer to surrealism than to Scientific American in its approach to the science fiction genre. The scene was shoved in at the last minute to pad out that short-running fourth episode... yet it's my favourite scene in the whole story, and by a country mile. As in my horror work, sheer beauty is always the highest aspiration.


Friday, 4 July 2014


Liam Proctor has just completed a great poster for my Edinburgh Fringe show so couldn't resist posting it here. Tickets already shifting and you can book here:

Here's the poster: