Treat The Script Reader As A Viewer

There’s a script note I’ve given rather a lot over the years – to myself and other writers – and yet it doesn’t get talked about all that much (except for this week, when a post by the mighty James ‘Sitcom Geek’ Cary reminded me to write this). Since launching my Script Notes service a few months back, I’ve applied this note to a fair number of the varied and splendid TV and film scripts I’ve received.

Don’t tell the script reader things which the viewer won’t see or hear onscreen.

It’s easy to fall into this trap.  Why?  Because we’re keen to communicate with the reader and get them on board.  We want them to enjoy the script and get the story, without getting confused.  But our eagerness leads us to forget that readers enjoy scripts most when experiencing them as a viewer would – when they’re picturing the drama in their heads and gleaning all information solely from what’s ‘onscreen’. 

So if your script’s action lines start sidling up and whispering privileged information about offscreen stuff, you run the risk of snapping them out of their own imaginations.  You can remind them they’re reading a script rather than watching something.  Suddenly they’re no longer visualising, but processing purely written information.  You also make it harder for them to gauge how well the script is actually telling its story onscreen, where it counts.

Here are some examples of imaginary action lines which commit this cardinal sin…

Linda lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.  She’s been awake for hours.
How do we, as viewers, know how long she’s been awake?

Dan props up the bar, nursing a whiskey.  He’s thinking about what Susan told him this morning.
How do we, as viewers, know this?  Even an Oscar-winning actor would find themselves hard pressed to convey specific thoughts using only their facial muscles.

The massive and imposing Stornbecker 8 spaceship glides into view.  This vast behemoth is home to over 200 scientists who specialise in the latest cloning techniques.
How do we, as viewers, know it’s home to over 200 scientists specialising in the latest cloning techniques?  Sure, we’ll hopefully gather this stuff in subsequent scenes as we venture inside the ship, but why tell the reader up front?  It’s a waste of a line.  And more importantly, the reader is no longer wondering, ‘Hey, I wonder who might live in a spaceship like this’.  Let’s look at another example of robbing the reader of questions…

Pete runs breathless past the 18th hole, towards a pub called The 19th Hole. Something falls from his jacket. He stops to snatch it from the ground, then takes a moment to study it: a photograph of his dead wife HELEN.

How, in the name of all that’s holy and unholy, do we, as viewers, know that’s his dead wife in the photo?  This, by the way, is the first time we’ve encountered Helen in this imaginary script and so we have no idea who she is.  And crucially, we shouldn’t yet.  When we read the script we should have the exact same experience as the viewer, wondering who the woman in the photo might be.  So from this point on, the script reader and the potential viewer are having two completely different experiences.  And since the Mystery Photo Woman would have been a good hook, the script reader is actually less engaged.

Sometimes we writers fall into this trap by mistake, in early drafts.  Other times, we try it as a crafty cheat, to avoid having to find ways to convey information, either visually (ideal) or by dialogue (the last resort).  But it’s very much a false economy and can cause real problems.  If Helen is never established onscreen as Pete’s dead wife, she’ll forever remain a mystery for viewers.  The writer has told the script reader but never the viewer.  This is an outrage!

So, we need to watch ourselves when it comes to this stuff, especially when flip-flopping between prose and script (and it’s arguable that ‘show don’t tell’ still applies just as much to prose as it does to script, even though the prose writer gets to communicate directly with the ‘end-user’.  Depending on the narrator’s POV and story, we should still ideally be looking to convey things to the reader via characters’ surface lives – through their gestures, spoken words and actions.)  As a general rule of thumb, look out for these three warning signs:
  • You find yourself writing about what a character “feels” or “thinks”...
  • Or using the word “clearly” or “obviously”, which often tends to be code for “I’m not sure how to convey this visually”, eg ‘Tim is obviously finding this new bar job a struggle’, instead of something like, ‘Tim, caked in sweat, pours two drinks at once.  He glances over at a row of frustrated, waiting customers, then knocks a stack of glasses over.  Smash!’
  • Or naughtily delegating work to the director and/or actors. One example of this might be starting a scene with ‘Lisa, Colin and Tom are chatting on the sofas. Suddenly, the door bursts open’.  Guess who has to supply the actual words these people were chatting?  That’ll be you, unless this is some kind of crazy arthouse-improv show.

Are there exceptions to the above?  Should we never write little asides for the reader’s sole benefit?  Yep, there are always exceptions.  When introducing new major characters, it’s more of a matter of taste as to whether you tell the reader their relationships to each other (‘TED holds the door open for his elderly mother IRENE’) – provided, of course, that you also remember to establish these onscreen.

Another example might be giving the reader a brief reminder of a smaller character’s identity, eg ‘Rob, the homeless guy from earlier, stares menacingly up at Tara’s window.’  The viewer will have the advantage of instantly recognising Rob from earlier, but the reader will thank you for a prompt.

Such small exceptions aside, scriptwriting is all about visual storytelling.  And that’s why we must treat reader and viewer as one and the same.

British Fantasy Awards 2015: Jury Duty

Here's an unusually brief post to say how delighted I am to serve my third summer of jury duty for the British Fantasy Society's British Fantasy Awards 2015.  I'm handling Non Fiction in the distinguished company of Johnny Mains and Laura Mauro.

Over the last couple of years, it's been great to help hand gongs over to the deserving Pornokitsch and Speculative Fiction 2012, but now the process begins afresh. You can see the full list of juries here.

The lists of nominees will follow in due course.  Naturally, I'm always especially interested in the Best Horror Novel category, in which I'm very much hoping to see the mighty likes of Sarah Lotz's The Three, Lauren Beukes' Broken Monsters and MR Carey's The Girl With All The Gifts up for awards.  Glad I don't have the task of judging that one.

Bye for now and don't, whatever you do, stare into your bathroom mirror for more than seven seconds, unless you want to free what's trapped within the glass.

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Blind Dates And Dialogue Writing

I enjoy the Guardian Weekend magazine.  Well, about 63 per cent of it, which is pretty good going on their part.  Lately, I've noticed a trend in one of the mag's regular features, which can unexpectedly inspire fiction writing and dialogue in particular.

The Blind Date feature sends two strangers for an evening in a restaurant, then quizzes them individually about the experience, placing their answers in two columns side by side.  One of the questions is What Did You Talk About?, and it's this one we'll focus on here.  Take a look at the two sets of answers to this question, from six different Blind Date features, and notice something which unites all of these examples...

Yes!  When the participants are asked what they talked about during their date, they each recall completely different subject matter.  Literally not one thing the same.  This doesn't always happen in the Blind Date feature, but about 75 per cent of the time.

This phenomenon has little to do with blind dates in and as of themselves.  Neither does it mean each person has appalling short-term memory or is  being dishonest.  It is, however, relevant to writing dialogue, because it underlines how everyone tends to have their own conversational agenda.  All too often, we're lost in our own little egotistical worlds, convinced that the other person really is "genuinely interested" in that dissertation.

And of course, the reality may differ.  Unless a conversation is particularly focused for some reason - urgency perhaps, or politeness, or the involvement of a gun - it doesn't ping perfectly back and forth, with each side neatly answering the other every time.  Surprisingly often, two simultaneous conversations are happening, about different things, or the subject matter gets tugged to and fro.  Each party is much more interested in certain subjects than others, for their own reasons, just as they each take different things away from the conversation.

So next time we're writing dialogue, it might be an interesting technique to ask ourselves this: if each of our characters was asked what they talked about during this conversation, might they say entirely different things?  And might the conversation gain authenticity and dramatic tension as a result?

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Five Things I've Missed About Spooks

On Thursday May 8 2015, Spooks returns to our screens - but big screens this time, as opposed to TV where it first ran for 10 series.  Four years after the show reached its climax, the movie Spooks: The Greater Good is upon us.

Oh my God, I love Spooks.  Haven't seen the film yet, but you can bet that's happening soon.  So, why was the TV series so great?  Let's hack into my memory banks and exercise covert surveillance on the contents...

(Spoiler note: Never seen Spooks?  This piece contains mild spoilers, but no name-specifics about the fates of characters during its run.  It does, however, name one character who endured throughout and is on all the new movie posters.)

Spooks entices you into a world to which you'd otherwise have no access.  The scarily seductive micro-universe of MI5.  Sure, it's MI5 played for razor-edge drama, but it's about as much of an authentic feel as you're likely to get, without subsequently being bundled into a black van in the middle of the night and vanishing forever.  It's a relative safe, entertainingly vicarious look into that mind-boggling world via majorly souped-up TV specs.  There's no question however that Kudos managed to mirror, and sometimes even pre-empt, the global climate when it came to terror, espionage and lurking threat.  Its finger remained squarely on the pulse, as well as the trigger.

Ingeniously, Spooks makes you care more about these characters by dint of the fact that any of them could die at any moment.  This was established early in Series One, when one character had their hand dunked into a deep fat fryer, followed shortly afterwards by their head.

This seriously horrific scene was matched only for intensity during Spooks' entire run by a sequence in Series Five in which a really likeable Section D character was psychologically terrorised by two thugs, then murdered. That's still one of the most disturbing and haunting things I've ever witnessed on TV - and despite myself, I love to be disturbed.  How often does drama properly shake you and feel like it's doing something forbidden?  Spooks plays hard, fast and loose with its people, keeping you on the edge at all times.  No-one is safe.

Spooks moves fast.  As the producers have noted, the show munches narrative like a nuclear-powered Pac-Man (okay, I'm paraphrasing).  It's clear that, while assembling each episode's plot, writers have been encouraged to pile in as many shocks and twists as possible.

The show worked hard to anticipate your expectations, subvert them and then throw the whole thing into a blender roughly ten minutes from the end.  Dear God, that whole bomb plot has been a decoy!  This is actually about feeding the Prime Minister headfirst into a cement mixer while his weeping children watch!  Spooks not only moves fast, but it's jam-packed with brain-warping plot goodness.

Spooks tempers its brutal ice with heart.  Behind all the explosions, gunfire and nail-biting transferrals of confidential data to USB sticks, the show has always wisely striven to give their agents a personal life.  A recurring thematic question throughout Spooks' run has been how MI5 operatives can balance their work with their often sorry excuses for home lives.  Drama's most likeable characters tend to have one thing in common: altruism.  That's arguably why the two most evergreen professions in long-running drama are medicine and law enforcement.

Spooks' characters constantly have to value the greater good above their own lives, even if it means losing colleagues who have also become friends.  I'll never forget Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones, the finest of Spooks' square-jawed leads) throwing up into a sink upon hearing a fellow operative getting shot in the head over a comms link, then having to immediately pull himself together in order to deal with the ongoing crisis.

Section D's quotation-spouting, scotch-sipping monarch has remained the decade's sole constant as horrendous things happen to his agents, whose heads he regularly has to place on chopping blocks for Queen and country.  Peter Firth is consistently astonishing in the role.  He's the absolute master of underplay.  Where other actors might belt out the lines, Firth practically whispers them - and his increasingly weathered expressions tend to say far more than his mouth.

Harry is a truly superb character.  Never predictable.  A man who relies on his gut instinct and remains steadfast in making impossible decisions while all around is madness.  Most importantly, I think, Harry is never entirely knowable.  We've spent 10 years with the man, but have remained muzzled at just the right distance.  More than close enough to empathise with him, but never enough to work out what makes him tick.  Frighteningly, if Harry turned out to be a Russian spy all along, our hearts would sink with the realisation that we never really, truly knew anything about him.  It would be entirely gutting, but all the more so for its plausibility.  That's a really tough trick to pull off in drama's leading characters, but it's common among its best.  Harry Pearce, The Doctor, Peter Boyd (Waking The Dead), Vic Mackey (The Shield)...

Fundamentally, then, Spooks was the most arresting and dynamic drama series the BBC ever made without the aid of a blue police box.  I was so sorry to see it 'go dark' and I really hope Spooks: The Greater Good both honours and revives the format.  Off to the cinema with us...

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Barry Newbery's Big Doctor Who Day Out

Back through the Time Vortex in 2007, I had the pleasure of writing a Doctor Who Magazine feature which covered designer Barry Newbery’s visit to Cardiff’s Upper Boat Studios, where Doctor Who was then being made.  Between 1963 and 1984, Barry worked on more episodes of classic Doctor Who than any other designer, starting with the very first story, An Unearthly Child.  On the day of our studio tour, the man was great fun and the experience was enhanced by the ever-galvanising presence of one Russell T Davies.

This week, I was very sorry to learn, courtesy of a DWM tribute feature, that Barry passed away in February 2015 at the age of 88.  Here, to commemorate his 2007 reconnection with the show to which he made such a big contribution, is that DWM feature of mine, with the original side panel incorporated into the main text.  To help put you in the picture chronologically, Series Three of New Who was airing at the time of our visit, so the ending with the Titanic smashing through the TARDIS wall was top-secret (but wasn’t by the time this feature hit the magazine.)  I’m pretty sure a couple of the pictures here, which I took myself, have never been seen before…

Barry Newbery and Russell T Davies at Upper Boat, 2007
“GORGEOUS, ISN'T IT?” Russell T Davies hoots rhetorically.  He swats aside the yellow police-style tape which stretches across the TARDIS’ entrance and strides aboard. “Every time I walk on this set, I just love it.”

No, Russell hasn’t randomly decided to show DWM the TARDIS set for the 23rd time: he has even more special guests in tow. Chief among them is one Barry Newbery. This legendary 80-year-old served on 74 episodes of Doctor Who right from its 1963 birth, making sporadic contributions across each of the first five Doctor’s tenures, ending with 1984’s two-parter The Awakening. Among the stories on his remarkable resumĂ© are The Aztecs (1964), The Ark (1966), The Gunfighters (1966), Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970) and The Brain of Morbius (1976).

So when Barry’s daughter Jo wrote to BBC Wales, saying that this design-god thinks the new show is “bloody marvellous” and would love to see the new series’ production base, Russell and co were only too happy to extend the invitation. Jo’s come along to Cardiff’s Upper Boat Studios for the ride, as has Barry’s wife Zena.

It’s March 15 2007, and the TARDIS is looking… untidy. The floor’s littered with dust and rubble. Blame the Titanic (oh, do you realise how nice it is to finally be able to write about that Top Secret Ending? Do you?)

“Terrible things have happened at the end of this series’ final episode,” Russell explains to Barry, “which no-one’s allowed to breathe a word about! Right now, it looks like it’s been sitting here since 1963. Waiting for you, Barry. Waiting for you!”

“Are these hoses for steam?” asks the designer, pointing at some TARDIS tubing.
“Some of them are,” says Russell. “Others have lights inside.”

Barry smiles. “I remember an actor dressed as a monk accidentally getting steam up his robes from a hose like that! I went rushing down, trying to seal up this hose which had broken off.”

“That must’ve been The Time Meddler,” grins Russell, loving it.

Barry stabs the air with a forefinger. “That’s the one!”

FORTY-FOUR YEARS after Doctor Who launched into production, some aspects of the show’s creation remain constant. Designers are still key: without them deciding how the writer’s words will actually look onscreen, a major part of the production process is missing. Yet as Barry gazes around the cavernous TARDIS set – a couple of metres higher since its 2006 move from Newport, fellow fact-gannets - he can see how things have changed.

“Well, we could never have done something like this,” he admits. “Thing is, this TARDIS *stays* here. All our sets had to be broken down and
stored. It meant that we had half a day to assemble everything. Everything was lightweight, because it had to be moved about with ropes and pulleys. It took four men to move the central column, which did slow things down.”

“Quite a lot of sets are fixed these days, like Coronation Street,” says Russell. “The Rovers always stays in place.”

“Sometimes we used the TARDIS interior twice,” reveals Barry. “We’d push the console away and put another set inside.”

He’s quick to point out that he didn’t actually design the original TARDIS control room. That honour fell to Peter Brachacki (“We called him Bracket because it was easier to say”), who would also toil on Blake’s 7. After Peter worked on Doctor Who’s pilot episode, Barry took over as designer, adopting an ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude. “When I remade the TARDIS control room for An Unearthly Child, it was a case of man-hours and keeping costs down, so it didn’t have the degree of work that Pete’s had. Bits of it got dumped because they were too heavy – very exotic but too heavy. So then we had three walls, including the one with the door. And we shot in Lime Grove’s Studio D - one of the smallest studios in the building!”

Russell broaches the subject of another Doctor Who gem, albeit one sadly missing from the BBC’s archives. “You did Marco Polo, didn’t you? So sad that it was lost. It looks gorgeous in the telesnaps.”

“Yes,” says Barry, “it would have been wonderful if they’d still got Marco Polo because I was really pleased with that. I remember having this fish tank with water running down into another big tank with goldfish in it and lovely leaves. But it wasn’t seen on camera!”

“Directors, eh?” tuts Russell. “Oh well. They’ll find Marco Polo one day, in an old footlocker. It would be glorious to see it now. So do you prefer the historical ones to the futuristic?”

“Oh yes. I was always able to get my head around technical things, but all that stuff is boring, isn’t it? I like people doing things. Living. Which they did, in the historical stories.”

The new series of Doctor Who, of course, tends to root itself in the present.

“Yes,” considers Russell, “whereas the old show almost never did the present-day.”

“The Dalek Invasion of Earth did present-day with the Daleks going over Westminister Bridge,” notes Barry. “But how did they get over the steps and things?”

“They flew, Barry! They could always fly – we just never saw it.”

Barry shakes his head. “I have no idea how they do those amazing computer graphics.”

“Me neither, really!” shrugs Russell. “I just know who does it, and what it costs. It’s like another world, isn’t it? I was watching some flying Daleks this morning, for Evolution Of The Daleks. Beautiful.”

He gestures off the TARDIS set. “Shall we take a look at the Hub?”

Torchwood's Hub (BBC publicity shot)
TORCHWOOD'S BASE of operations, a mere stroll away, is as impressive as ever, despite presently being in a state of renovation. The level of detail remains highly impressive – right down to those utterly realistic polystyrene bricks in the walls. “This is the main precinct. And that’s the team’s board room up there,” says Russell, pointing. “Newly restored, because it was destroyed by a monster.”

Upper Boat’s resident art department production manager, Jonathan Allison, arrives to greet Barry and family, noting, “We were very lucky with the Torchwood set: we had a lot of preparation. We started work on it in January 2006 and we were filming at the beginning of May. Because it would be high definition, we knew you’d be able to see every detail.”

“When we see it on screen,” adds Russell. “It’s all very wet, with water running down. I really want it to be flooded. Can we do that yet?”

Jonathan smiles and shakes his head.

“Ahhh come on,” goads Russell. “We can just use some big strong men with buckets!” He turns to Barry: “The one thing that’s a nigtmare for computer graphics is water. In Hollywood it’s easy, but for us it’s a nightmare. Every week I come in and say, ‘Can we flood this?’ and The Mill go, ‘No!’ Eventually, someone will create a bit of software which will make it cheap…”

What did Barry make of Torchwood?
”I didn’t watch it,” he says, with that wonderful bluntness which eight decades on this planet earns you. “But I’d like to see it now.”

Russell, Barry and DWM climb some steps, to an upper walkway. It’s surprisingly far from ground level.

“What did you think,” wonders Russell, “when they handed you that first Doctor Who script? Did you think, ‘They’re having a bleedin’ laugh?’”

“I was never ever critical of a script,” says Barry. “It was my job to put it onscreen and make it work in a studio. It was a problem to be solved. So I would look and it and think, ‘How can I do this?’ With that first story, bones were easy enough to get hold of, but skulls weren’t. Someone came up with the idea of vacuforming them. We set about getting art students to make heads.”

Some skulls in a cave, yesterday
“And The Cave Of Skulls was born,” smiles Russell. ”Where are those students now? ‘My skull was once on Doctor Who’, they’ll say.”

Barry joined the BBC in 1959, with a background in exhibition design. He worked in an adjacent office to up-and-coming film-maker Ridley Scott who he “didn’t talk to much, as he seemed to be a very busy man”.

“Back when you started,” says Russell, “designing must’ve been quite a rare job, nationwide. You were quite elite, weren’t you?”

“I suppose we were. We had a tremendous build-up of different talents. I worked as an assistant for seven years – that’s how everyone learnt how to be a designer. You couldn’t do a course. After I retired, I did a bit of art-school teaching for people who wanted to work in television design, but it’s difficult. They’ve got to understand how a studio works and how scenery goes together.”

“When did you retire, Barry?”

“1984. I was 57-and-a-half.”

“And did you miss it?”

”No. I was on holiday from then on!”

WE LEAVE TORCHWOOD – sadly not through the big circular door – and head outside. Passing the Blue Box cafĂ© (no, really – it’s blue and everything), we enter another studio. Here, a huge set from The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords is slowly being dismantled.

“This was the Valiant!” announces Russell. “Great big aircraft carrier type thing. And over there is a flying car from the Year Five Billion. The VW of its time.”

“I shall take your word for it,” chuckles Barry.

“I could be making it up,” admits Russell. “Actually, this set’s the moonbase! But no, the Valiant is beautiful. Perhaps our finest yet. Shall we have a look at the Daleks in their little room?”

Needless to say, we do. Inside a glass-fronted store-room, we mingle with three dormant exterminators.

“Like they’re looking at you, isn’t it?” says Russell. “It’s the same design, really. We didn’t drastically change it.”

“Ray Cusick, who designed them,” notes Barry, “got £130 from management for contribution to BBC. Terry Nation became a millionaire.”

“But poor old Terry died first,” says Russell. “What would you rather have? So was The Daleks’ Masterplan a fun one to work on?”

”I did the second half,” says Barry. “There were elements in it which I quite liked: when the TARDIS landed on the volcano. And when Daleks went to Egypt. I had to make scaffolding for Egyptians to climb all over.”

“Marvellous,” beams Russell. “Now, let’s leave the masters of Skaro!”

Being a designer, was Barry gagging for the advent of colour TV?

“Well, we did design in colour,” he says, “So that both we and the actors knew what we were doing. Black-and-white actually helped me out, because I could use a green settee and a red settee and they’d look right, because they were both the same colour! I believe ITV often only used greys. That would’ve been terribly boring.”

On the way to the next store-room, Barry pulls off a remarkable coup – he momentarily forgets Russell’s name and gets away with it. Men have died for less!

This chamber’s a beauty – it’s full of masks and bits of monster. Scarecrows, Judoon, Cybermen, you name it. Barry picks up a Clockwork Droid mask from The Girl in the Fireplace. “That’s quite a smile, isn’t it,” he admires. “Malevolent. Trying to design creatures like all of these would terrify me. I never did anything like that.”

Barry with Jonathan Allison
THE TOUR COMPLETE, it’s cups of tea all 'round as Barry and co settle in Doctor Who’s art department offices. Russell bids everyone a fond farewell, then is forced to dash off for one of his myriad exec producer duties. Production designer Edward Thomas is unfortunately in the middle of moving house and is waiting for a skip, but Jonathan holds the fort admirably, leafing through some concept designs for a fascinated Barry.

“Our designs were never particularly complicated,” says the older man, “because we never had enough time. I’d have four weeks to design and draw each episode, and I’d be working on four episodes simultaneously. Then there’d have to be time for the actual filming itself. Every new thing we did was a challenge.”

“You don’t know what you’re designing from one script to the next, do you,” Jonathan enthuses. 

“Torchwood’s great, but you’re spending a lot of time in the Hub. With Doctor Who, the TARDIS is your only standing set and that’s it.”

While Barry’s Upper Boat tour obviously highlighted differences in production over the years, did he notice anything familiar?

“Nothing! Walking onto the Torchwood set was the closest I got to real scenery – the sort we had in the studio. Mind you, we never had it quite as well-finished and detailed, because we didn’t need to. It would’ve been wasted on those early cameras.”

DWM would naturally be remiss if we didn’t drag a little behind-the-scenes gossip from this great man – especially given his straight-talking candour. The finest anecdote we uncover concerns 1977’s wonderful The Invisible Enemy.

“I enjoyed that - the one where the Doctor went into his own bloodstream. [Visual effects designer] Ian Scoones handled the interior brain, with all the synapses for them to walk through. The director Derrick Goodwin wasn’t very good, though. He was making a real pig’s ear of it.”

“No-one really knew what was going on, with this Colour Separation Overlay business,” explains Jonathan. “That technology was very new and hadn’t really been used before.”

“I was with costume designer Ray Hughes, watching all this happen,” remembers Barry. “He was pouring me great big glasses of gin, because I’d finished. So I ended up going to the control room and taking over! I said to the production assistant, ‘Can you get them to move a bit to their right now?’. I did it all, because I was pissed. So that was great fun. Sadly, I gave Ray all the sketches I did for it. And I never got ‘em back!”

We start talking about the Doctors of Barry’s time. “William Hartnell was the best Doctor Who,” praises Barry. “A great actor. One of his stories I enjoyed working on was The Gunfighters, although it didn’t half get a canning! I wrote to Yale University and asked if they had any photographs of Tombstone. They sent me a pile, which someone later nicked! That street outside the bar looked so very long because the scenic artist who painted it was superb. I tried to make The Gunfighters look like what I’d always seen on film: the classic western. Because that’s what it needed. I remember the lighting man walking down the street in a stetson and spurred boots, getting into the feel of it! He’d been to America…”

Of all the stories Barry worked on, does he harbour a sneaky favourite?

The Masque Of Mandagora: splendid purple robes 
"Looking back, the one which possibly gave me the most pleasure was The Masque of Mandragora, in terms of how successful I’d been. To actually build a 15th Century palace and decorate it in the way [the Venetian painter] Carpaccio did it? Lovely. Was it in colour?”

It certainly was, sir. Splendid purple robes and all.

“There was a lake we used at Port Merrion,” he continues. “A very nice place to walk around. On the edge of the lake, I built a pedestal with a Greek frieze on top. One local fellow said to me, ‘Oh, wonderful. Can you leave it there?’”

1976’s Fourth Doctor story The Masque of Mandragora introduced the TARDIS’ second control room, as designed by Barry. It boasted wood-panelling, with a central console surrounded by brass railings. “You know, I could run the TARDIS just as easily from here as I could from the old one,” the Doctor told companion Sarah Jane Smith in the story. “Come to think of it, this *is* the old one.”

Explains Barry: “The show’s producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, said he thought we ought to have a new TARDIS. So I designed that one and it appeared for a few stories. It was very much in a gothic style. Jules Verne was the main influence there, and his story 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It wasn’t too expensive to build, as I was very careful not to waste money. I may even have used one of the walls from the old TARDIS!”

Barry shrugs when asked how he felt when the original console room reappeared seven serials later, in The Invisible Enemy. “If that’s what they want to do, that’s what they do. You can’t get upset about it. Some designers got cross with their directors, calling them little bastards!”

Barry Newbery (1927-2015)
He adds: “A while back, someone wanted to rebuild that control room: they were opening up a new resort. So I did all the drawings again. It all fell through, but if anyone else wants to rebuild it, I’ve still got these drawings!”

So, as the time comes for The Travelling Newberys to drive back for London’s Clapham Common, how’s the mainman enjoyed his Upper Boat visit?

“It’s been wonderful. I’m very glad I came. It was nice to see the inside of the TARDIS, even though it had been partly blown up. I’d seen it already so much onscreen and things always look enhanced on the tube, so it was a bit of disappointment, in that it wasn’t as brilliant and glittery as it is on the screen. But that’s the magic of TV. And the finish on the Torchwood set was superb.”

What has continued to attract Barry Newbery to Doctor Who – even decades after he laboured on it?

“I enjoyed all my Doctor Who stories,” he says without hesitation. “I consider them all something to be proud of.  So why wouldn’t you continue to enjoy it, whether you’re working on it or not?”

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Ghostly Green Screen: Hitting The Reader Where They Live

It's good to make the most of the medium in which you write.

Sometimes this means doing things which only your medium can do.

The unfilmable book.

The unbookable film.

I've always loved how prose fiction is a collaborative medium, between writer and reader.  An intimate kind of contract.  The writer divulges a handful of details – or a whole cartload, if they’ve had too much coffee and can’t stop themselves – then the reader almost becomes the production designer and creates the finished result in their own cerebral screening room.  As a result, infinite, subtly different versions of your story exist in an infinite number of heads.  That sleazy Baton Rouge bar on the page, for instance, will be imagined in a billion different ways by a billion different readers.

With that in mind, I decided to write a ghost story set in the home of whoever happened to read it.  The story, A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home, would take the form of a letter from the previous tenant of the reader’s home, warning the reader that the place is haunted.  I would lay down the prose equivalent of green screen, onto which the reader would overlay rooms in their own home.  That way, each version of the story would be entirely unique.  Everyone would picture their own living space, in which terrible things would happen. 

All prose uses this mental green screen, to some degree or another.  This story, I decided, would just happen to wallpaper an entire home with the stuff.

I fell in love with the idea, even though there were consequences when I came to write.  I soon realised that it would be all too easy to break the story's 'spell', if I wasn't too careful. There had to be the following…

I couldn't assume anything about the layout of the reader's home: they might, for instance, be in a studio flat.  So I had to boil down all mentions of areas in the abode to the basics, which ended up being Bed, Sofa, Living Area, Kitchen Area, Bathroom.  I felt I could rely on everyone having those things.  No stairs.  No garden.  No wood-panelled study reeking of cigarillo smoke.

Because the reader's home could obviously be anywhere in the world, I could make no mention of the neighbourhood whatsoever.  I could only refer to it in the vaguest possible terms.

One slightly aggrieved Amazon reviewer would later grumble that the narrator doesn't use the Internet to track down the previous tenant.  But here's the reason for that: I had no way of knowing how long the reader has been in their home. Could be 40 years! Because the narrator lived there directly before the reader, this dictated that the narrator's placement in time needed to be completely flexible.  So no internet.  No mobile phones.  I didn't actually state that the narrator doesn't use these new-fangled resources either.  Vagueness was the key.

As you can imagine, these three key elements were quite the straitjacket when it came to writing the story.  But what the story loses in detail, hopefully it gains by not breaking the spell.  In ensuring that the reader goes on imagining their own home throughout, rather than going, “Hold on, I don’t have a vodka luge by the TV!”  And very conveniently for me, the narrator's vagueness is motivated by their insistence on giving as little information about themselves as possible.  They don't want to give the reader their name - not even their gender - so them playing fast and loose with facts hardly seems out of place.  Besides, they're describing a home which the reader already knows.  Why would they need to describe the kitchen to them again?

Once the story was ready for publication, another thought struck me.  Imagine being able to create a separate, unique, ‘deluxe’ version of this story, tailored to the reader.  Ditching all that vagueness, it would feature their name, their hometown, their address, mention of whether they're in a flat or a house.  It would namecheck a local hotel, a bar.  Then imagine this bespoke story being printed as a letter and snail-mailed to the reader's home.  So that's what I did, and ever since, the popularity of the Paper Edition of A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home - aka the Scary Letter - has really surprised me.  It's the evil gift which keeps on giving, whether people buy it for themselves or for others.  Celebrity customers for the Paper Edition have included Ghost Stories co-creator Andy Nyman, stand-up comedy supremo Tiernan Douieb and The Shining Girls’ author Lauren Beukes.  And whereas the prose story inevitably falls rather flat if the reader's home is a new-build, somewhere along the way I created a special New Build version of the story for the Paper Edition, if it became necessary!

Whether people read A Sincere Warning... for the first time on a screen or on paper, they tend to respond very well to the story’s ‘ghostly greenscreen’ approach, with many berating me for ruining their lives and sleep patterns!  Which has to be a tremendous result in anyone’s language.

Here are the places you can buy A Sincere Warning… if you dare...  

Amazon UKAmazon US Amazon Canada
Amazon Germany Amazon France Amazon Italy
Amazon Spain Amazon Japan Amazon Brazil
Amazon India Amazon Mexico Amazon Australia

And here’s the Scary Letter site, dedicated to A Sincere Warning’s Paper Edition.  Goodbye!

Top photo: a still from the film Grave Encounters 2.

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