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.


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