The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Bound In A Nutshell


Last night went to see Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead at the Haymarket theatre. What follows is almost a review.

In terms of a production, I couldn’t really fault it. The two lead actors were terrific – I’d seen Jamie Parker in the Henry IVs at the Globe last year, he's going to either become a massively famous film star or play a detective on ITV. All the characters from Hamlet were also excellent and sparkly. The only character I wasn’t totally convinced by was the guy playing The Player; I think the part has a bit more pathos and humour to be found in it, and I found he overplayed some lines in expectation of a laugh, directing them out at the audience rather than addressing the other characters. The staging, lighting and costume were also magnificent.

My favourite thing about it, I’d say, were the scenes were the characters from Hamlet appeared or disappeared, which had a wonderful, sinister, dreamlike quality, like the Queen of Hearts' appearances in Alice In Wonderland.

In terms of the play itself, though, I found it easy to admire but less easy to enjoy. If one wanted to be cruel one could dismiss it as Beckett fan-fiction, its debt to Waiting For Godot is so blatant. But I don’t think Stoppard managed to capture the same rhythms of speech; I think some of his transitions were abrupt, his dialogue clunky, and it would help if the actors didn’t have to stick to a script so rigidly, because I think the dialogue is supposed to sound naturalistic, which requires a degree of flexibility in the performance. I also found some of the ‘clowning’ dreadfully weak. What I did like about it was the great sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, of the characters' discovery that they are fictional entities with no life, no destiny beyond that which has been ascribed to them. I think a lot more could have been made of that.

What marks it out as an early work is that pretty much the whole play, every line, from beginning to end, is asking the same question. The same question being, ‘Did you see what I did there?’ I’d say it’s one of the traps first-time writers fall into, along with naming characters after their mates and listing their favourite pop groups; showing off their learning, trying too hard to be clever-clever, trying to create ‘literature’. I mean, I admire it for going for the ‘Did you see what I did there?’ so boldly, so utterly and uncompromisingly – if you’re going to do it, go for it hook-line-and-sinker – but it comes across as a play written so that it can be studied at A-level. So you have ‘jokes’ about the characters pointing out the plot holes in Hamlet, which is fun but actually pretty cheap and easy; I have made many of the same jokes myself. I mean, Ophelia’s death is just ludicrously camp, isn’t it? And so, in trying to show us how well-read he is, the writer ends up showing us he has nothing original to say. Aah.

Plus he gives way the twist ending in the title. Fool.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Angels


As of today, my new Doctor Who novel, Touched By An Angel, is available in the shops and online. It features the eleventh Doctor, as portrayed by Matt Smith, Amy, Rory and the sinister Weeping Angels, as seen in the TV stories Blink and The Time Of Angels. It’s a timey-wimey, horror-thriller-romantic-comedy. It’s about time paradoxes, nostalgia, love, grief and regret.

What’s it about? Well, the premise is based around a simple question. What would you do if you suddenly found yourself transported back in time 17 years to 1994? Where would you live? How would you survive? That’s the dilemma faced by the character Mark Whitaker in the novel, with the story exploring the potential ramifications of having someone walking around in their own past.

There's also a kindle edition and at some point in the future there will be an audio book read by Clare Corbett.

I’m extremely proud of the end result. I think it’s easily my best novel – I mean, I know people might prefer the other ones more, because they are trying to do different things – but hopefully my writing style has improved. I certainly felt more confident when writing it to delve more deeply into emotion and character than I’ve done before. In fact, the whole writing process was an utter delight, as I found myself being excited, inspired and moved by the story as I told it, and I hope that comes across.

It’s a more personal novel than the others. It’s not autobiographical or anything like that, but of course I’m a similar age to the Mark Whitaker character, and so I drew on some of my memories of the 1990’s. Which was both haunting and cathartic, almost an adventure in time-travel in itself, to realise how much I remembered, and how much I had forgotten. Certainly as a ‘historical’ story it required much more research than usual, because it would be so much more noticeable if I got so much as the smallest detail wrong. And yet, paradoxically, the 1990s and early 2000s are two of the most difficult periods to research, as they’re too recent for nostalgia but pre-date the internet itself. I found the BBC Cult site invaluable.

I shall blog in more detail about writing it at a later date, after people have had a chance to read it. But two more things before I go. The URL for the amazon page for the book has it as ‘Doctor Who Touched Jonathan Morris’ which is both kind of charmingly true and yet also reads like a Daily Mail headline. And secondly, inevitably, I have compiled a Spotify playlist for the book. I may have spent almost as much time compiling the playlist as I did writing the book. These things are important. So the following songs are the ones that ‘soundtrack’ the book, or may have inspired parts of it; they’re not be any means my favourite songs of the era (there are one or two of my least favourites!) but they’re the songs that I strongly associate with certain times, certain aspects of the 1990’s. Quite a few of them are mentioned in the book; many, many more were mentioned before I edited it down.

Doctor Who - Touched By An Angel - Playlist:

1 Christina Aguilera – Beautiful
2 Murray Gold – Doctor Who XI
3 Dawn Penn – You Don't Love Me
4 D:Ream – Things Can Only Get Better
5 Blur – Girls And Boys
6 The Wonder Stuff – The Size Of A Cow
7 James – Laid
8 Transvision Vamp – Baby I Don't Care
9 Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
10 Prodigy – No Good (Start The Dance)
11 Murray Gold – The Time Of Angels
12 Take That – Back For Good
13 Lighthouse Family – Lifted
14 All Saints – Never Ever
15 Robbie Williams – Angels
16 The Corrs – What Can I Do
17 Toploader – Dancing in The Moonlight
18 Sugababes – Run For Cover
19 Natalie Imbruglia – Wrong Impression
20 Elvis Costello – She
21 Murray Gold – I Am The Doctor
22 Blur – Out Of Time
23 Spin Doctors – Two Princes
24 Suede – So Young (Remastered)
25 Echobelly – Insomniac
26 UB40 – (I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Wild West Hero


Out now in shops, and popping through letterboxes in an Amazon envelope, is a new ‘classic’ Doctor Who DVD box set, Earth Story, which features the stories The Awakening and The Gunfighters, the latter of which features a 45-minute documentary written by me called End Of The Line?. The documentary is about William Hartnell’s third and final year as Doctor Who.

I was asked a few questions about it for a Doctor Who Magazine preview; most of my answers weren’t used so I might as well share them with you here.

> The Gunfighters: you've written the main supporting feature. What was the brief?

A documentary covering pretty much everything that happened behind the scenes during Doctor Who's third year, starting with John Wiles and Donald Tosh joining the show as Producer and Story Editor, and ending with William Hartnell leaving the show. With the emphasis on the different approaches taken by the Wiles/Tosh team and the Innes Lloyd/Gerry Davis team.

>What stage of the process did you come in at?

Ed Stradling had already pitched the documentary to 2Entertain, with it being written by Gareth Roberts. Gareth Roberts dropped out because he is an extremely successful and busy television writer. I was available.

> And given that the main axis upon which the piece spins is the diversity of approach to DW exhibited by Wiles-Tosh and David-Lloyd, would you express a preference for one approach over the other?

With the John Wiles and Donald Tosh, the difficulty is that so much of what they set out to achieve didn't end up on screen, either because they were saddled with a 12-part Dalek story, or because as soon as Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis came in they pretty much threw away everything the previous team had originated. I'd say it's easy to admire John Wiles and Donald Tosh's stuff, but harder to enjoy; as well-made as stories like The Myth Makers and The Massacre are, I think Lloyd and Davis's populist, sci-fi thrills approach is what secured the show's future, and which set the template for the type of stories that made me a fan.

I think the documentary has turned out extremely well, largely due to the efforts of its producer, Ed Stradling. It was a particularly challenging one to put together, because it’s an era with relatively few available interviewees and a large proportion of the stories themselves are missing from the archive; in both cases, we had to rely on forms of reconstruction. The biggest challenge, though, was fitting it all into a 45-minute documentary, as all the interviewees could warrant a documentary in their own right. So the end result is very fast-paced, as factually-accurate as it’s possible to get about an area where we’re often reliant on people’s memories, and I think, towards the end, quite moving.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Blood, Tears And Gold



On Monday evening the wife & I went to The King’s Head Theatre to see The Coronation Of Poppea, by Claudio Monteverdi, with new words in English by Mark Ravenhill and a bonus tune by Michael Nyman. I’d been convinced to go partly through its author plugging it, and partly because we’d had such fun seeing Troy Boy we thought this might be in a similar vein.

And it was, in the sense that it was another opera in the back room of a pub, what they call an intimate venue, where one has to keep one’s legs under the seat to avoid accidentally tripping up the performers. And it was a small cast, with minimal staging and accompaniment. In this case, the accompaniment was a jazz trio, with Monteverdi’s chords expressed on bass, sax and piano.

The performers were all very strong, and the direction and dialogue wrung as much sex and drama out of the situations as possible. The first scene was a little worrying, as there was a bit of the ‘I am about to go!’, ‘Please don’t go!’, ‘But I must go!’, ‘Then go!’, 'I shall go but first I shall stay!' stuff that always makes opera seem so baffling whenever they have it on television with subtitles. But after that it gained more momentum, and the lyrics carried more meaningful drama, particularly in the second act when the conspiracy kicks in. Of course, as I know Poppea survives to become Nero’s wife in the Doctor Who story The Romans, there wasn’t as much suspense for me as they might have been.

I think it’s a tribute to the performers that the initial strangeness of Nero being played by a woman faded away very quickly; I don’t think one goes into an opera expecting total realism in the first place. I’d say the highlights were the death of Seneca, in a literal blood-bath, and the closing duet between Nero and Poppea, Pur Ti Miro. This was pretty much the only piece in the opera that featured vocal harmonies; being an extremely early opera, the rest is all sung singularly, or what the internet tells me is call homophonic.

I’m tempted to go and see a full-on opera house production next, but I’d recommend these King’s Head productions as a much less expensive, and much more informal way of getting to hear these tunes. And sung in English too, which I think makes a huge amount of difference in terms of making opera accessible; those television subtitles are always so clunkily-translated, and are always half a minute out of synch with the action so you never know who they refer to.

Monday, 13 June 2011

O Sole Mio



Yesterday was a day of rest. I’d just received the DVDs of a Doctor Who box set I had worked on, so watched The Awakening, a marvellous Peter Davison story about a stone face in the wall of a church, in which Jack Galloway gives a rather camp performance. There’s a scene where he orders to Tegan to put on a May queen dress ‘or I will do it for you’. The DVD bonus bollocks are all very good, there’s a wonderful documentary with interviews with Dorset locals and a fascinating deleted scene with much-forgotten does-it-even-count-as-a-companion Kamelion.

After that, and a couple of episodes of the fifth season of The Office (US), it was time to head into London for a recording of Popstar To Operastar at the London Studios. I’m struggling to remember what else I’ve seen recorded there, probably Graham Norton or something like that. I remember wandering backstage and getting lost in the corridors at night after some TV occasion or other.

But this time I was just there as TV audience fodder, and delighted to be so. I enjoyed the 1st series of Popstar To Operastar, because I have questionable taste, and would have applied for tickets even if the contestants didn’t include my former boss, Andy Bell of the Erasures. I’ve kind of put a bit of emotional distance between myself and those old days, largely because it was too closely associated in my mind with a unhappy time in 2002 and I wanted to get back to being a fan again, as I’d become a bit jaded. And whilst I still think A Little Respect is a fantastic song, I’m not one of those people who wants to watch a band perform the same song over and over again; better that I make room at the front for those who do.

That said, I was still a bit annoyed not to be invited to their Bristol gig. Seven years I worked for them! Seven bloody years!

Only joking. Anyway, Andy was in fine voice, doing O Sole Mio, plus there was Claire from Steps (who I’d seen, many years ago in Wembley somewhere for ITV’s Motown Mania show), Jocelyn Brown and the singer out of Toploader, the band responsible for my least favourite piece of music ever committed to CD, ‘Dancin’ In The Moonlight’. Fortunately he didn’t sing that. The opera guy knocked out some aria or something and Sharleen Spiteri of Texas did that song that Chris Evans played to death back in 1997. And Andy Collins was doing the warm-up.

And in case anyone watching hasn’t guessed; the audience are told before the show begins to applaud the first line of each song performed, and to give every performance a standing ovation. Hell, we’re getting a free show, it’s only polite to show some enthusiasm in return. We were there to have fun, not to be a load of stuffed shirts with opera glasses and programmes explaining why the prince’s son has disguised himself as a hunchback.

More opera tomorrow.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Ordinary Girl


Yesterday I went to Barking for Big Finish Convention Day, in my capacity as person-who-writes-all-the-stories-that-John-Dorney-doesn’t-write. Apparently I am now ‘ubiquitous’. I don’t feel ubiquitous. I certainly wasn’t very ubiquitous at the beginning of the convention as I turned up 15 minutes late, but just in time to join the panel announcing the new companion for the sixth Doctor, Philippa ‘Flip’ Jackson, as portrayed by Lisa Greenwood.

The companion came about as follows; last year we recording a sixth Doctor story, which was at the time rather limply called ‘The Gathering Swarm’ but which was released under the much better title of ‘The Crimes Of Thomas Brewster’. That story is concerns three of the Doctor’s companions, so in order to give events a ‘real world’ perspective, I wrote in the characters of Flip and Jared, two teenagers from east London who had 2010 terms of reference and who could be properly gobsmacked when transported to an alien world. Two normal kids who get caught up in a Doctor Who adventure. In particular, to get a bit of that ‘Misfits’ attitude into Doctor Who, to create two characters who could have walked out of that series and into the TARDIS.

When it came to the second day of recording, and Lisa started recording her first scenes as Flip, I immediately wished I written more scenes for the character, as she doesn’t get a great deal to do in the story. As I mentioned at the convention, there’s nothing better for a writer to hear their jokes being performed with instinctive comic timing, and for even their not-particularly-good-lines to sound well-written and full of drama and humour. That’s how it was with Lisa. The character came right off the page.

And it turns out that Big Finish producers Nicholas Briggs and David Richardson felt the same way, as it was decided – possibly that same day – that we should hire the actress again quickly before she became too successful and famous for us to afford her, as she was clearly headed for great things. And rather than create a similar character for her to play, it seemed the natural thing to do to just bring back the character of Flip.

Now, you might stick in the CD of ‘The Crimes Of Thomas Brewster’ and think there isn’t much to the character of Flip in that story. Which I think is a fair comment, and entirely down to me. But in her first ‘proper’ story, the one which was recorded on Monday and Tuesday last week, she takes centre stage and is given a lot, much more meaty stuff to do. So I’d ask people to reserve judgement on the character until then. I think her first story is one of the best things I’ve written, it had a real feeling of ‘this is special’ during the recording – they don’t always have that feeling! – and I think when people hear the title, and find out what it’s about, they will think that Jonny has gone completely barking mad.

Speaking of barking, the convention was great fun, it was lovely to catch up with old friends and see a few virtual ones in ‘real life’. But the real point of the day was to meet all the people who pay my wages, by which I mean the fans who buy the CDs, not Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery. It’s intensely gratifying and flattering to be asked to sign things I’ve written that people have bought - the more, the better – and one or two people said they’d bought them because I’d written them which was good for the old ego. It was also lovely to talk about my work, about where I got ideas for things from or what I was trying to do with certain pieces, or where I went wrong. I hope there’s another Big Finish Convention Day; consider me converted to conventions, I will go to them all from now on. I will be ubiquitous!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

I Can't Decide


Yesterday I attended a talk at the British Library about Time Travel in Science Fiction. My friend Paul Cornell was one of the experts, along with Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Jo Fletcher, John Gribbin, and one of my science fiction literary heroes, Stephen Baxter.

The discussion was quite interesting, though I’m not sure how much I learned, given that I’ve devoted ridiculous amounts of thought to this subject already. Which sounds conceited, but I don’t mean it that way. Anyway, the chat was more of a category-by-category discussion of different ways time travel has been used in science fiction.

A more interesting discussion might have been to discuss the dramatic implications of time travel in fiction. This is something that I keep on having trouble with. The thing is, you see, time travel creates all sorts of dramatic possibilities, both on a world-shattering scale and on a personal level, and yet if you’re telling a story with time travel you require some sort of ‘rules’ and one of those is pre-determinism, or what Paul called romantic destiny – the way the past, present and future ‘should’ be. I agree with this, but the danger in storytelling is that if everything is pre-determined, can the characters make meaningful choices? Does the wife in The Time Traveler’s Wife have any choice about her choice of husband? If you’re following instructions left by your future self (like the Doctor in ‘The Big Bang’) then not only does that raise the question of where the instructions came from (‘a free lunch’) but whether the Doctor is actually making any decisions. And the danger is that, in a story, if a character doesn’t have meaningful choices, then they’re just clockwork mice running through a winding labyrinth with no wrong turnings. If I could’ve thought of a way of phrasing that question I would've asked it.

Stephen Baxter would have come up with a good answer, since it’s an area he’s explored in several novels, most notably The Time Ships. I got him to autograph my copy of Ark afterwards. I was a proper tongue-tied nervous fanboy, and am indebted to Paul Cornell for introducing me as someone who types out science fiction stories in my own right. I went for Ark because it’s my favourite of his novels, a sequel to his disaster-movie novel Flood. The titles alone probably give you a general idea.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Meet The Stars


Oh. That didn’t last long. My excuse is, busy writing for the last couple of days, and for the first two weeks I was in a recording studio, hearing one of my scripts being brought to life. What it is, I’m not at liberty to say, but I daresay it will be announced with triumphal fanfares soon enough.

Before I get back typing out the current load of nonsense – or ‘working’ as I like to call it – a quick reminder, if any be needed, that tomorrow is Big Finish Convention Day. It takes place at a school in Barking, and in attendance will be something like 60-odd Big Finish writers, producers, directors, script editors, sound designers and last but by no means least actors. I suspect we may actually outnumber the paying attendees. As I understand it there will be interview panels about the various ranges and signings (I am not important enough to be on the “AUTOGRAPHS with a Purchase” list!). They’ll also be selling stuff I expect. I’m quite looking forward to it, these things have a celebratory, reinvigorating effect on the ego.

I have mixed feelings about Doctor Who conventions. I used to find them fun when I was a teenager, just for the thrill of seeing old episodes and meeting the stars, a fun from which became a little jaded in the early 90’s, for various reasons I won’t go into here, and since then my experience of conventions has consisted of gate-crashing the disco at the calamitous 2003 Panopticon and sitting in a long, long row of Big Finish writers at a Barking event feeling like a complete impostor because I’d barely written anything at all.

But then I was invited to attend a convention last month, Utopia 2011, and I found it great fun. I was interviewed on stage with television’s Joseph Lidster, which was unexpectedly fun. I signed things for a couple of hours. And I wore my stylish new cap throughout, arousing much envious comment. And I met some old friends, and made some new friends, and that’s kind of the point of these things, isn’t it?

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Spacelab


Out now in all good newsagents, and due to flop through subscribers' letterboxes at any minute, is the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine.

It contains the usual breathtaking array of features and pictures of disconcertingly rubbery monsters. There’s also a beautifully written tribute to Lis Sladen from Russell T Davies and a picture of Wendy Padbury on page 52 which should possibly have been cropped an inch or so higher.

Anyway, the reason I’m blathering about it here is because it also contains the first part of a new 3-part comic strip written by me, called Apotheosis. It’s beautifully drawn by Dan McDaid, beautifully coloured by James Offredi, and features what I think is my best cliff-hanger yet. It’s the cliff-hanger I’ve been building towards for the last year, the image I started with, all those months ago. The story involves plague robots, nuns with guns, and a spooky derelict space station; so very much in the mould of recent television episodes.

Because I was off-blog for the past couple of months I neglected to plug the previous issue of Doctor Who Magazine, which featured my previous comic strip Forever Dreaming, beautifully draw by the legendary Adrian Salmon. It was quite a tough story to write, for various reasons which I shan’t bore you with here, but I was extremely delighted with the finished result.

Anyway, at the moment I am supposed to be writing the third draft of the next story, so I’d better be getting back to that. Bye.

Additional: Oh, and almost forgot, the magazine also includes previews of my Doctor Who novel Touched By An Angel and my DVD feature End Of The Line?. So two more reasons to buy it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Johnny Remember Me


And he’s back.

After what I am sure has been a welcome respite, I’ve decided to start doing the blog again. For two reasons. One, for the first time in months I’m not filling every waking minute typing three different things on three different keyboards at once like Bruno from Fame. Honestly, I’ve been up til three o’clock some nights, and once even ‘pulled an all-nighter’.

And secondly, I have things coming out to promote, which is more or less this blog’s raison d’ĂȘtre. And if by some unfortunate oversight a day passes in this month without me having something to plug, well, I’ve accumulated all sorts of things to talk about over the past months. Films and plays and pop concerts I’ve attended, albums I’ve bought, books I’ve read, TV programmes I’ve slept through, holidays I’ve been on, exhibitions I've visited. I even went to a Doctor Who convention and had a story broadcast on Radio 4 Extra. It was very exciting.

The main thing I’ll be plugging this month is my new Doctor Who novel, Touched By An Angel, available now from amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, or, if you are a burglar, a medium-sized cardboard box in my office.

I’ll also be plugging my new comic strip in the Doctor Who Magazine, and my Big Finish audios, Doctor Who: Tales From The Vault and Dark Shadows: The Blind Painter. And a Doctor Who documentary DVD extra. Plus there are some book signings and conventions I'll be attending.

And, in the absurdly unlikely event that this blog isn’t enough for you, and my wittering on twitter hasn’t driven you to distraction, I’ll also be plugging some interviews I’ve done; at the moment I seem to do as many interviews about writing as I do the actual thing.

The one other thing I’ll be doing is trying to stick to the 300 word limit.