Occasionally people ask me to do interviews for book and fanzines. Recently, Kenny Smith was asking about the Sarah Jane Smith audio that I wrote for Big Finish for a forthcoming Big Finish Companion. That reminded me that I’d done an interview for Will Brooks and his Sarah Jane fanzine (to be published in the new year). And that in turn reminded me that I’d done an interview with Ben Cook in 2003 for a previous Big Finish book.
The way these things work is that I answer questions and the authors chop out the boring bits and weave the rest into their publication. So for the sake of nostalgia, here’s the Q&A I did for Ben back in 2003.
GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT WRITING ‘MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE’
Okay, a bit of background information … When and how did you get into DOCTOR WHO?
I must have dipped in an out of the Patrick Troughton episodes, whenever there wasn’t something that a visiting relative insisted on watching instead on ITV (usually the Wrestling on World of Sport with Kent Walton).
The first evidence that I was hooked was in my Junior 1 A5 jotter at school. For my Monday Morning “what I did at the weekend” writing exercise, I would describe what had happened in the previous Saturday’s episode of “The Silurians”. I must have given my school teacher the impression that, while other kids were obviously going swimming or horse riding or visiting their relatives or riding their bikes, I must have been locked up by my parents with nothing else to do.
Subsequent evidence included a model dinosaur (a tough decision—it was either that or a large-format illustration to celebrate Manchester City). The dinosaur was made of old egg boxes and pipe cleaners and glue. To this day, the smell of Cow Gum makes me think of Jon Pertwee, who I remember with much greater affection than Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee. Not least because all I got back from Man City in the end was a badly-photocopied sheet of untidy autographs.
What is it about DOCTOR WHO that appeals to you?
It’s been a constant in my life, particularly my childhood. It was Jon Pertwee at primary school, Tom Baker at secondary school, and later it was Peter Davison at University. By that stage, of course, I’d got involved with fandom, writing articles, producing fanzines, and going to conventions—so it became more than a backdrop to my life, it was my hobby.
What are your strongest memories of DOCTOR WHO on television?
Too many to recall. If it were just a handful, then I’d feel like those people who can recall “the one with the maggots”, or “the one where they broke through the shop window”. And that would never do, eh?
And what are your strongest memories of Sarah Jane Smith on telly?
I was tremendously excited to find, from a close reading of the 1973 Radio Times Doctor Who Special, that there was to be a new companion. I was in secondary school by this stage, and being a naïve youth it was slowly dawning on me that these people were actors, and not just characters on TV. And there was an article (with large colour photo) of the new companion. So I enjoyed seeing her in Lincoln Green for her debut story, and there was a thrill of horror when she was controlled by the spider on her back in “Planet of the Spiders”.
But it was her sparky relationship with the new Doctor that really captured my imagination—how she responded to his taunting in “Ark in Space”, her terror and blindness in “Brain of Morbius”, that extraordinary Andy Pandy outfit in “Hand of Fear”. And then he went and abandoned her in South Croydon, the brute. Life wasn’t the same after that. K9 & Company didn’t even get transmitted in the North West of England.
Also, I want to know a bit about your career outside of DOCTOR WHO. What do you do when you’re not writing DOCTOR WHO adventures?
I’m a line manager in a software development laboratory that is part of the world’s largest multinational IT company. My team is a couple of dozen staff working on human-computer interaction and technical publications. I also have a couple of young sons: they are about the age I was when I first started watching Doctor Who. Their favourite Doctor is Rowan Atkinson.
So, how did you come to write MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE? Tell me the story. Were you asked? Or did you submit a proposal? What happened?
I had been invited along to the first Big Finish meeting where the original DW audios were discussed, but for some reason I couldn’t attend. So through a combination of poor timing and indolence I had not submitted any script ideas to Big Finish, though I’d always said I would like to have a go. So I suppose I’d been looking for an appropriate opportunity.
Unlike some of my DW author colleagues, fiction isn’t a full-time job for me, so it’s a matter of finding or making time to write. And if I’m going to do something professionally, I want to make sure that I won’t let the publisher down because (unlike many conventional hobbies) other people depend on you and there are companies with money at stake if you don’t deliver on time.
Then I was invited along to a convention in the North East of England, Dimensions on Tyne, where Elisabeth Sladen was one of the guests. She said that she was doing this series of Sarah Jane Smith audios for Big Finish, that I’d been recommended to her as someone who might write a good script, and that she’d like to ask me to submit ideas. I said that I was very flattered. Indeed, I was so flattered and taken aback that instead of adopting a suave and nonchalant attitude, and saying “why yes, how kind of you to ask, here are three brilliant suggestions and one of my business cards” I actually said “er… thanks… yes… um… was I alphabetically first on the list…?” Instead of treating me like an obvious loon, she continued to encourage me to contact producer/director Gary Russell.
So I did. I got the series outline from Gary, I submitted a story that fitted in with that, and mine was one of those that Lis and Gary chose.
Were you confident that your story would be taken up by Big Finish? Or did it come as a complete shock? What was your reaction to the script being accepted (shock, delight, horror …)?
I don’t know whether I was confident or not. One of the virtues of submitting a story proposal, rather than producing a whole script, is that it’s not such a big thing to shred if it gets rejected. I don’t know how many other people pitched ideas (though I know of at least one that didn’t make it).
I wrote the proposal in a tremendous rush over one weekend. I’d met Lis and Gary at the convention in November 2001. I also met Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts at the convention, and chatted to them in the green room although, for some reason, we chatted about lots of things except for the Sarah Jane Smith audios. Come to think of it, we didn’t even talk about Doctor Who very much either. Anyway, I didn’t get the series details from Gary until December, and he wanted submissions by the following week. My wife’s parents were visiting that weekend, but I made my apologies, sneaked off to my study, and bashed out a suggestion to meet the submission deadline.
Then I didn’t hear back for about a month, and rather assumed nothing was going to happen. I checked with Gary shortly into the New Year, and to let him know that I was about to go out of the country—to New York on a business trip. And that’s when he e-mailed me back to say that he and Lis had chosen mine as one of the five.
David Bishop, who is much more organised than I am about these things, and had a first draft of his script available before I’d even written a word of mine. He was kind enough to send me that draft, and so not only was I able to see how someone else had interpreted the regulars (Natalie and Josh), I was also able to steal his Microsoft Word template for my script.
However, I was slightly taken aback to discover on reading his script for “Test of Nerve” that he had written a story about a terrorist attack on the London Underground—the suggestion for story three. Now, I thought that I had pitched for that slot (mine was set in Scotland, and involved a fish farm—thrilling stuff, eh?) and so I knew I was going to have to give it quite a different spin. Gary’s guidance as script editor was invaluable. We agreed that I’d keep Sarah out of the UK for much of the story, keep Josh in the UK, and cut down on Nat’s involvement to stay within the time limit for the play.
Oh, and could I submit the script in the next two weeks, please?
On this basis, therefore, was my reaction to the commission one of shock, delight, or horror? It was a combination of all three.
And I’m particularly interested in anything you can tell me about how the SARAH JANE SMITH audios came about in the first place. What was your first involvement with them?
My first involvement was being invited by Lis to suggest ideas for a script. I knew the first two had been commissioned from Terrance and Barry, and that the other three slots were available. I had thought that I’d submitted something for story three, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was writing the “season finale”.
It wasn’t clear at the outset whether Miss Winters was definitely in the series, and so my outline allowed for her role to be taken by another character (with suitable changes to the motivation). In my first draft, it’s Miss Winters who pretends to be a journalist and meets up with Sarah, and so the “reveal” at the end is when the CEO that they’re going to gatecrash in India turns out to be… the person with whom Sarah has spent most of the adventure! In the end, that character became Wendy Jennings instead—a younger character—and Miss Winters makes her surprise appearance at the conclusion of the adventure instead.
What part do you feel you personally played in shaping the direction of the SARAH JANE SMITH audio range?
I think I’d be flattering myself if I suggested I’d shaped the direction very much at all. I suspect that mostly I got things into other people’s scripts because I was the first one to mention them in my script—the name of Sarah’s TV series and her former company, for example. There were some back-references to her pedantry about “less” and “fewer” as well. I proposed that Sarah’s changes of address should be mentioned in earlier scripts. And in the first draft of the script, Harris was a different character, though I noted that Sarah had not met Harris in person during “Test of Nerve” (which I’d read before writing my script) and suggested that he could play the role in my script, too. So I had some ideas how they might save on production costs by cutting down the number of different actors!
Where did the idea for the plot of MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE come from? What was your brief? What were your influences? Did you have to do much research?
I had followed some discussions about fish viruses in Scottish fish farms, and how a mixture of government incompetence and industry indifference had exacerbated the problem. And then I found out about a World War II biowarfare experiment that the UK government had conducted in the Indian Ocean.
I’d also written a previous audio for Paul McGann—his first “return” to Doctor Who after the TV Movie (in a short story that he read on a BBC cassette called “Earth and Beyond”). I’d set that story on the Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean that I had visited with my wife several years previously. I thought there was more I could do with that sort of remote location, somewhere that took Sarah Jane far away from her friends and away from the European technological environment where she’d feel more comfortable—and yet where, ironically, she was more at the mercy of her enemies’ technology while her friends frantically tried to get in touch. My first thought was to send her on holiday to Barbados.
Were you confident that the SARAH JANE SMITH series would be a success?
Yes. The Doctor Who audios were, and are, terrific, and Lis Sladen’s enthusiasm for the project was tremendous. Plus Terrance and Barry were writing two of the scripts! And the other authors were David Bishop (who’d done a Judge Dredd audio for Big Finish) and Rupert Laight (who had written TV scripts). And then me. But by the time they got round to “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”, if my story bombed, listeners would already have been treated to scripts from four experienced drama writers.
How do you find writing for Sarah Jane Smith? What did you want to do with character?
It was terrific. I could “hear” Sarah Jane’s voice in my ear from all those years of watching her on TV, but I could also imagine how her character might have developed over the years. I agreed with Gary and with Lis, who both wanted an edgier, more self-reliant character. I also liked the idea that, in my script, she was going to be emotionally and physically distanced from her remaining friends, so it’s more fun writing for that sort of character—one who is under pressure, and who has to drive the plot.
Did you talk to Elisabeth Sladen at all during or after the writing process?
After the convention, Lis sent me an audio interview that she’d done for MJTV productions, one of their “The Actor Speaks” series. That gave me some insights into how she saw the character might have developed since being unceremoniously dumped in Croydon with a stuffed owl in a cardboard box. And it also provided me with the current sound of Sarah Jane’s “grown-up” voice.
Lis suggested a couple of changes to the submitted script, via Gary, that made Sarah more in control of her first meeting with Wendy on the boat—and we discussed that in a phone call, too. It was all very cordial and constructive. Lis was also kind enough to thank me for writing a lovely script.
What were you aiming to achieve in the relationship between Sarah and Josh?
When I wrote the script, I had a Mancunian in mind for Josh, because that was the original character brief. That informed some of the wording of the dialogue. Once Jeremy had been cast, and the script got in to the studio, there were some adjustments. I liked the idea that he was able to be a cheeky fellow countering Sarah with sarcasm. You have to have a bit of tension, even if it’s just friendly, to make the characters’ dialogue come alive on the page and keep the plot ticking along.
And what about the character of Natalie? What did you make of her?
I wrote her so that there was a kind of mother-teenager tension between her and Sarah, given that their interaction is that slightly distanced and impersonal effect you get on the phone. At the time I did that, I didn’t know that Sadie had been cast as Natalie. And on reflection if I had known perhaps I would have been a bit more cautious about using that mother-daughter thing as being too obvious, or maybe a bit impertinent of me.
As it happens, I’m glad I didn’t know and that I just plunged in! I think their interactions spark very nicely in the finished version. I was sorry that, on the day I was in the studio for the recording, Sadie wasn’t there—all her scenes had been done on a previous day.
We don’t see Nat, and unless she develops a squeaky wheel then you wouldn’t know she was in a wheelchair. There’s a tricky line you don’t want to cross, where mentioning her disability can be a way of defining her, and the character deserves better than that. David Bishop had already done a story where her disability was a plot point, so I just kept people aware of it by having her joke casually and naturally about it to Josh. Similarly, we know why it’s Josh and not Nat who gets on the plane to Bangalore, it doesn’t need spelling out.
Also, could you tell me a bit about what you wanted to do with Miss Winters in MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE? How many times did you have to re-watch ROBOT?!
I originally planned that Miss Winters was Wendy Jennings—actually so close to Sarah that Sarah cannot see her. When Wendy is talking on the train about whether Sarah does follow-up pieces on people she’s written about in the past, that was originally designed be to be Miss Winters secretly taunting her.
Patricia Maynard today looks quite unlike Hilda Winters from “Robot”, not to mention in any case that she was playing a role, and not herself, all those years ago. When she “does” the voice, you can recognise it (and very chilling it was to hear her adopt it again at the microphone, I must say—her natural speaking voice is quite unlike Hilda’s more strident tones). After so many years, then, it was quite plausible that Sarah would not recognise Miss Winters, and that Hilda could use this against her.
Because it wasn’t confirmed that Patricia was available until quite late on, I wrote a first draft script in which she did not appear at all. Wendy was therefore an older woman who linked up with Sarah in the Lakshadweep Islands, and was later revealed to be the CEO of a company that Sarah did an exposé on many years previously. When Patricia came on board, Gary and I rewrote the closing scenes to have Wendy as a younger woman working for Hilda.
I remember “Robot” quite well from its very first transmission. Although I haven’t seen it more than once or twice since 1974, and I’ve read Terrance Dicks’s book a couple of times, I didn’t re-watch the video or re-read the novelisation before writing “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”.
Okay, this is an important one … Could you talk me through the process of writing MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE (as far as you can remember)? What initial ideas were discarded? Which bits did you have trouble writing? How did the story develop from draft to draft? Tell me what was happening inside your head during the writing process.
Some of this is covered in previous answers. So the other bits of the process were like this…
I’d wanted to do something starting with an answerphone message for a while, and had scribbled some ideas in my notebook for this. Originally, I’d thought this would be the start of a short story, but obviously it works really well for an audio. And because Sarah was emotionally and physically distanced from Josh and Nat as the series reached its finale, it fitted in really well. If you leave a message, you don’t get the interaction of a regular conversation, so there’s the possibility of misunderstanding. And even if you’re on the phone talking with someone directly, you don’t get the body language and facial reactions always to get the meaning correct—it’s prone to misunderstanding, and that was good for the purposes of the story.
Another thing that I decided to do was up the stakes for the season finale. I’d imagined the Sarah Jane Smith series as very UK-based, and I liked the idea of getting Sarah away to a more unusual location. I don’t think I knew then that Sarah was travelling abroad with Josh for story four. But once Gary and I agreed that Sarah would spend pretty much the whole of my story out of the UK, I looked around for another venue for my finale. Originally that was set in a Scottish Loch, with the Scalar offices in a castle. But once Gary suggested keeping Sarah’s action almost entirely abroad, it made sense to go for a bigger finale and so I moved it all to the world’s biggest system of dams, the Parambikulam-Aliya project in India, and the Scalar HQ in an old colonial building. That in turn meant I could use the Lakshadweep Islands (off the western coast of India), rather than the Caribbean location I’d first envisaged for Sarah’s holiday.
The more I thought about the distance between Sarah and her friends, the more I realised I could do with phones. It can be a slight cheat, because there’s more likelihood that someone will describe what they can see to the person on the other end of the call. I tried to resist that, assuming that the listeners would be able to work out when lots of things were happening at once. For example, Josh carries on two conversations at once while he’s on the plane; he’s talking into the seatback phone to Nat, and at the same time ordering his posh nosh from the cabin crew; so as well as pushing the story onwards it also is a bit of fun at Nat’s expense, because she’s stuck in an internet café while he’s away enjoying himself. I also quite liked the idea that Nat could “witness” Josh getting beaten up because she was listening to him over the phone—on that occasion she’s helpless to rescue him because she doesn’t know where he is, rather than because she’s stuck in her wheelchair.
Throughout the writing of the script, I tried to keep in mind stuff I’d heard in other audios that did or did not work—to avoid the latter, and emulate the former. I wanted the dialogue to sound snappy, as though motivated by people actually talking with each other rather than at each other. And at the top of each scene I imagined what the background noises were going to be like—how that might affect the way characters spoke, what it told you about the location that therefore didn’t need to be explained in the dialogue. My favourite of these is when the sound of the Coimbatore train fades at the end of one scene into the noise of Nat typing on her keyboard in the next scene.
Because I was on a business trip away from home, I had to write some of the script while travelling or in my hotel during the evening. Some of the airport and plane scenes were written, therefore, while I was in a New York airport, or flying over the Atlantic. The scene set in Brandt’s hotel room was written in my hotel room. I’m not always this Stanislavskian about writing fiction.
I think I also had a deadline for submitting a story to Paul Cornell’s Bernice Summerfield collection A Life of Surprises at about the same time. So it was a busy time for me.
Gary reworked the end of my original submission to introduce Hilda Winters into the conclusion. I had a look at that draft, and did I bit more rewriting on those new lines. Elisabeth Sladen also had some constructive suggestions, including a request to put Sarah more in control of her first conversation with Wendy on the malmi’s boat. There weren’t many changes after that.
In the very early stages of producing my outline, there was another scene after the riverside shoot-out. It was set on the dam (or possibly in the turbine room), a final confrontation with Sarah facing down Miss Winters and Brandt just too late as the barrels of brucella virus go into the reservoir—foaming away before her eyes (which she would describe in her horrified dialogue, of course); and then she got locked in there while Winters and Brandt fled the scene and left her for the authorities to find her. Was it curtains for Sarah? No, because resourceful Josh had got to the barrels first, and substituted industrial-sized containers of Indian-brand Fairy Liquid—and then he and Sarah had to flee the scene before the authorities arrive, because Sarah s implicated in an unsuccessful attempt from which she will have to clear her name.
Looking at the amount of stuff already in the outline, I decided that this finale was going to make the script far too long, and arguably too over-the-top. So it got chopped, and Josh now makes his heroic appearance at the riverside instead.
Any initial working titles?
I didn’t give it a title when I submitted the outline. Gary and I were exchanging e-mail about something called SJS – Title? for a while. Once I had decided, it was always called “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. I wanted a title that didn’t sound like a typical Doctor Who title, something that might have been an episode of The Bill or Casualty, a “realistic” drama series rather than a “fantasy” drama series.
How much did the script have to be rewritten before recording? Any major changes?
Most of the changes happened between the original outline and the first draft. Apart from the usual script-editing sorts of things, there were not so many changes between my submitting the rehearsal script and it being recorded, with one major exception. That exception was the inclusion of Hilda Winters, something that Gary and I agreed would need to be handled flexibly until Big Finish confirmed that Patricia Maynard was definitely available to play the part.
What did you think of Elisabeth’s performance in MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE?
She was terrific, wasn’t she? Hers was the only character where I knew the “voice” before writing the script. I didn’t know, for example, who would be playing Dr Brandt, so I wasn’t anticipating anything about the actor’s performance. So with Sarah Jane, I had a clear idea of what I thought her performance would be—even though I was writing her as a more central character than in the TV series.
And when it came to the recording, she brought so much more to it. If she thought there was a duff note in the dialogue, she’d suggest an alternative. And by the time she came to record my episode, she’d already established this rapport with the other regulars, and so the whole thing came alive in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
On the day that “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre” was recorded, they also did some pick-up scenes from other episodes. So I was there when Lis did the scene by Lavinia’s graveside, from “Comeback”. That was just wonderful, very moving.
What did you think of the rest of the cast that the director assembled? Are they how you’d imagined their respective characters to sound like?
Unlike with the central character, and maybe Miss Winters for the concluding scenes, I had no preconceptions about the other cast members. I don’t know, if they’d told me they were casting Peter Miles in the production, whether it would have helped or not—I mostly know Peter’s Doctor Who performances, especially Nyder, so I might have made assumptions about how he’d play the role, instead of letting him find the character from my script.
I was quite keen to have an Indian character, because non-UK characters (extraterrestrial aliens excepted) were a whole crowd of people that I couldn’t remember Big Finish doing much with. I steered away from Americans, because they had done those before, and with mixed success I’d felt. I confess that I hadn’t known before the recording that Jeremy James and Toby Longworth would be in mine, let alone that they’d done so many different and distinctive characters for Big Finish previously. So at first it was a surprise to find that Toby (definitely not Indian) was playing Chakravarty. But what a great job he did—getting the character to slightly “put on” the Indian accent when he was pretending to be a taxi driver, but without going all Mind Your Language about it. And then, when revealed as a villain later on, doing a more Indian-RP version—I think he was basing it on Art Malik, and very well too.
Wendy was originally written to be rather older than Louise Faulkner played her, because I’d initially planned for that character to be Hilda Winters in disguise. In the revised script, Gary had suggested that she be the daughter of a former SRS villain, Jellicoe from “Robot”, so that changed things slightly. Apart from a section of dialogue in the Coimbatore train, where Wendy talks about how she became a journalist, very little in the dialogue needed to be changed to make her younger.
How did you find working with Gary Russell and Jason Haigh-Ellery?
I didn’t work much with Jason, though I think I first met him years ago when he was a mere stripling, and nursing a pint all evening in a London pub. I’ve met him on other occasions since, but for “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre” my work with him was just getting him to sign the contract and then sign the cheque. He does that very well, I must say, and I’d be very happy to work with him again on this basis for increasingly large amounts of money.
Gary I have known for many years. Indeed, we were stripling contemporaries, flogging our fanzine wares at conventions half a lifetime ago. The writing and editing on this audio turned out to be unexpectedly rather hectic, with short deadlines and fast turnarounds. If this had been with someone I didn’t trust as much as Gary, I think I’d have been a lot more worried. With someone who you know personally and professionally, you can be a bit more relaxed even when things are frantic.
Did you attend the actual recording? Did you enjoy yourself? What was the day like? Any behind-the-scenes gossip – however trivial or weird?!
Yes, I went along to the day on which most of mine was recorded. It was great fun. I’d not been the recording of a radio play or an audio before, though I’ve been to quite a few TV productions, so I sort of knew what to expect of the etiquette on the day.
It was a shame not to meet Sadie, but all her scenes had been recorded already. On the other hand, it was the day when all Miss Winters’ scenes were done, so (hurrah!) I did get to meet and talk to Patricia Maynard. We all went out for lunch together, and I had the most wonderful time sitting at one end of the table with Elisabeth Sladen and Patricia Maynard and talking about our families. Although actors get to work with each other on and off over the years, this was the first time that the two of them had met since doing Robot, so they were “catching up”. Robin Bowerman told us about his (then forthcoming) role as Henry Ledbetter in Emmerdale.
After the recording, we all went for a pint, and Toby Longworth taught me a couple of magic tricks that I have subsequently used to amaze and baffle my relatives. One of them is so simple but effective that I taught it to my six-year-old son, Samuel, who now amazes and baffles his grandparents with it. The other involves a cigarette and, as far as I know, Samuel doesn’t know that one yet.
Do you enjoy listening to your work being recorded? Or does it feel strange …?
Oh, great fun. Once the script has been written, you have to let go of it. It’s in the hands of the cast and the director. So I kept quiet unless I was invited to comment. Well, OK, except for a couple of brief moments. One was a continuity thing I spotted, that I politely asked Gary about so that he could decide whether it was worth fixing on the day. (It wasn’t obvious that Winters and Harris were driving away, so I suggested an additional line to make that clearer.) The other was when one of the actors pronounced “CEO” as “see-oh” rather than as an acronym for Chief Executive Officer.
Some of the scenes from my script were recorded on different days, so they’d already done some of “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre” before I got to the studio. They’d tried to phone me on my mobile a couple of times, to get some of the Indian pronunciations clarified. I didn’t hear these messages in time, unfortunately, so they decided for themselves. Not that I would have helped much, anyway, because to me they were just names off a map of the Indian subcontinent, or from Air India web pages. There was one speech of Wendy’s that’s full of them: Anamalai, Coonoor, Kotagiri, Udhagamandalam and so on. That needed a couple of takes.
What do you make of how DOCTOR WHO fans have received MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE?
They seem to have enjoyed it, don’t they? I put summaries of reviews on my website, http://anghelides.org [that was the old site, before this blog] so I’ve seen a few of them. With it being the season finale, there’s maybe a tendency for reviewers to comment on the whole series rather than specifically my story, and some of the comments are about whether there’ll be a series two. I suppose it’s nice that fans seem to want a series two!
And what did YOU think of the final product? What did – and didn’t – you like? And please, be as honest as you can. Gary has promised NOT TO KILL any writers who slag off Big Finish productions. And I believe him!
I really enjoyed it. It was very exciting to get my first audio play through the post! There are some things that worked out differently to the way I’d expected them, but that’s not to say that they matter or that I didn’t like them. The pronunciations of some of the words—Scalar and Chakravarty— weren’t what I had expected, but who cares? There was one typo in the script that was performed and recorded “as written”: the virus turns out to be “fat-replicating” rather than “fast-replicating” as intended. Not that it matters, unless it turns out that we have an unexpectedly-large number of endocrinologists subscribing to the series.
I had imagined the voicemail system to be a real human intonation, but with that stilted intonation you get from separately-recorded voice fragments pieced together—you know, the way that the intonation rises unnaturally at the end of numbers. The “robot voice” they used works just as well, and also saved on casting another voice. At one point I thought that I was going to have to write out all the possible combinations for the voicemail, along with other stuff like tannoy announcements for the airport and railway station, but that wasn’t necessary in the end.
The music soundtrack incorporated Indian themes, which was splendid and the effects—the sea, the restaurant noises, the train, the airport, the car chases—were great. And the fruit bat.
The Big Finish “Writer’s Guidelines” say at one point: “feel free to stretch both the listener’s imagination and BFP’s technical bods”. So at the top of one scene I wrote the direction: “The sea is shussshing up the sandy beach, slight wind in the palm trees. A lone fruit bat utters a fitful cry. (OK, the fruit bat isn’t essential. But I bet your effects guy can do a mean impression.)” Once I found out that David Darlington was doing the effects, I teased him constantly about how impossible this would be. He hunted one down, of course. A sound effect, I mean, not a fruit bat, obviously.
My only disappointment, I suppose, was that the CD booklet was a bit below par compared with the others in the series. They had changed the colour plates to incorporate the photo of Miss Winters, smiling over Sarah’s shoulder on the front cover (the early pre-release publicity version did not have her there, to preserve the big surprise for Test of Nerve). But the registration of one film must be a bit cockeyed, and that makes the text harder to read. The inside CD sleeve didn’t print at all, and there were a handful of typos. But if all I can find to quibble about is the packaging, that must give you some idea of how much I like the actual audio!
And best of all, of course, is hearing the dialogue come alive in the performances of the talented cast. Even better than I imagined it—I’m so pleased with that. Jeremy James as Josh makes me laugh out loud, even though (or possibly because) I wrote the dialogue, and Sadie Miller really sparkles as Natalie when she argues with him and with Sarah. And although it’s invidious to single anyone out of the cast for particular praise, it would be remiss of me not to thank Lis Sladen for her enthusiasm from start to finish.
What is it about storytelling that appeals to you?
Getting a reaction from people. The first reaction is mine: I’m delighted to say that I’m a terrific audience, and quite shamelessly laugh at my own jokes when I’m writing.
The second audience is the editor—whether it’s a novel, or a short story, or an audio script, I want to amuse or divert them enough to take it further. In the best cases, that sparks further thoughts or suggestions or observations from the editor, and that’s even better for the writing. When I co-wrote The Ancestor Cell for the BBC, Stephen Cole was a good audience for me, and I for him.
The final audience is the reader or the listener, and reaction from them comes a lot later—in reviews or in the e-mail that people send me, or occasionally when I attend conventions. It’s always great to hear from them how much they have enjoyed my writing.
An additional audience for audios, which I hadn’t thought too much about before writing “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”, is the cast. Their reaction to the script is a direct component of the final product. Their belief in it, their enthusiasm for the words, their understanding of the story, are vital. And I think any author has to love getting a positive reaction from talented actors.
If you were writing MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE again today, what – if anything – would you change?
I don’t know that I’d change all that much. With more time, maybe I’d have seen if anything could be dropped from earlier on to allow for that additional confrontation scene in the turbine room. There are one or two bits of dialogue and business I might have tidied up to make the logic of the final edit clearer. If things had been different for Patricia Maynard’s availability, I’d perhaps have featured her more in the earlier parts of the script. But on the whole, I think it all worked out rather well.
I’m particularly interested in any deleted or alternative scenes – i.e. scenes that were cut from earlier drafts of the MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE script or scenes that were changed considerably by the final draft. Are you able to send me any? Or point me in the right direction?
I’ve attached a couple of these (below) from the draft before Hilda Winters was introduced into the script. The first is the train scene where Sarah and Wendy discuss Planet Three (while this is going on, you’ll recall, Josh and Nat are talking in hospital about the Scalar company—that scene didn’t change). The second is the “reveal” where Sarah first finds out that Wendy Jennings isn’t who she seems.
And I’ve already mentioned the final scene that I dropped from the outline (above).
ONE FINAL THING (FOR NOW!) …
The plug! Using as many – or, indeed, as few – words as you like, could you sell MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE to readers of the Big Finish book who haven’t yet bought a copy of the CD? A free advertisement! An opportunity to bump up your royalty cheques! Tell our readers what MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE is about and why everyone should buy a copy …
What’s it about? It’s about a tenner. Go and buy it, you’ll love it. In fact, buy two copies, and give one to a friend.
AND, ERM, ONE OTHER FINAL THING …
There will be a bullet-point section in the chapter on SARAH JANE SMITH entitled ‘Thing to listen out for …’ or ‘Stuff you may have missed …’ or ‘Trivia’ or something. So, do you have any random titbits of trivia on MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRE for me to include? Or how about any in-jokes in the script? Point them out to me! Nothing is too insignificant. No, really! Any bits of info that haven’t been covered by the questions above …
- “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre” has a continuity link to my Sarah-and-K9 story “Moving On” in Decalog 3.
- I wrote two versions of the “Writer’s Notes” for the CD booklet, and let Gary choose which he preferred.
- Harris was originally a South African called Willem Dehaan.
- I made up Bandaru Chakravarty’s name by picking two different names from an Indian government site. In my first-draft outline he was called Dean Stolz! Chakravarty isn’t credited on the CD booklet, he is listed only as one of the two taxi drivers.
- Wendy Jennings was originally revealed to be Helena Cartwright, the CEO of BioGuard (a company that was mentioned earlier in the series). Think it was BioGuard—I may be getting confused with an underarm deodorant.
- Displaying my ignorance of London roads, I wrote a scene where Sarah’s taxi takes her from West London to Heathrow via the M25.
- Sarah’s original alias on her business card was “Jane Bowman, Writer”.
- My ten-year old son took the Author photo that appears in the CD booklet.
- Because of the events of The Ancestor Cell (which I wrote for BBC books with Stephen Cole), fans hold me responsible for the destruction of all the available K9s.
RIGHT, THAT’S ALL FOR NOW. YOU CAN GO AND HAVE A LIE DOWN.
20. Int. Bangalore/Coimbatore train.
CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS SCENE. RAILWAY STATION SOUNDS AS BEFORE FROM OUTSIDE. MORE MUTED AS THE TRAIN DOOR SLAMS SHUT. GUARD’S WHISTLE AGAIN.
SARAH: [CONTINUED.] … I thought I might have missed you.
TRAIN STARTS OFF, AND BUILDS SPEED THROUGHOUT THE SCENE.
WENDY: Don’t worry, I hadn’t forgotten you. Here’s your ticket.
WENDY: You look worried. I thought you might be more relieved to have got here. Any messages?
SARAH: Nothing new at the office. Now, once we get going, can I have a look at the stuff you’ve got on Scalar’s work? The stuff about Cynaro?
WENDY: Ah. [BEAT] That’s all back at the Planet Three office. In the files. On the server. Damn.
SARAH: [SOFTLY.] Because you can’t get back in to get it. Since you were made redundant.
WENDY: Oh. How long have you known?
SARAH: Long enough, it doesn’t matter. We can still work on this story together. If you want to.
WENDY: I got into journalism quite late, when some of my contemporaries were thinking about early retirement. I spent much of my early career running events, scientific research, and only recently into science journalism.
SARAH: So why leave?
WENDY: Planet Three had to rescue the company share price. They’d bid too high to retain their licence at renewal time, so they laid off the older and more expensive staff. It was such a generous redundancy offer that it seemed stupid to say “no”.
22. Int. Bangalore/Coimbatore train.
STEAM TRAIN HAS REACHED FULL SPEED NOW: THE USUAL CHUFFING SOUNDS AND RATTLING OF THE TRACK.
SARAH: So, Wendy, what’s the set-up when we reach Scalar?
WENDY: Remember you said Planet Three hadn’t removed your voicemail access?
WENDY: Well look, Sarah. They forgot to reclaim my I.D. and journalist accreditation. So I’ve used it to get an interview with Scalar’s C.E.O.
SARAH: It’s not a very flattering photo of you. Reminds me of someone, but I can’t remember who. An old school friend, maybe.
WENDY: Poor woman, if she looks like that! And less of the “old”, if you don’t mind. I can’t be more than five years older than you.
SARAH: Sorry. Though I haven’t been very kind to my friends back home, recently. Maybe I should call them.
WENDY: Put your mobile away. We’re in the valley now, you won’t get a signal. Talk to them when we reach Coimbatore. If the time difference isn’t too bad.
SARAH: They work odd hours, my friends.
WENDY: Can journalists have close friends, d’you think? Can one get that get that level of trust if they know you’re an investigative journalist?
SARAH: I think so. Yes. [BEAT.] I hope so.
WENDY: What about the people involved in your stories. Do you keep in contact? Ever wonder what happened to them?
SARAH: What, do follow-up pieces on them?
WENDY: That’s not really what I asked, is it Sarah?
BRING UP THE RATTLE OF THE TRAIN TRACKS AND CROSS-FADE IT INTO THE NEXT SCENE.
33. Int. CEO’s office.
BIG PLUSH OFFICE, LOTS OF CARPET AND BIG CURTAINS TO ABSORB THE SOUND. BUT THEY WILL RAISE THEIR VOICES A BIT BECAUSE IT’S A BIG ROOM.
DEHANN: In you go.
SARAH: Wendy! Thank goodness. Look who I’ve brought with me from Lakshadweep. And did I mention my lunatic taxi driver from London? [PAUSE.] Wendy, are you OK?
WENDY: You’ve got that worried look again, Sarah.
SARAH: You’re not all right, are you? What have they done?
CHAKRAVARTY: I’ll get the car ready.
WENDY: Yes, all right Chakravarty. Dehaan, you stay here.
WENDY: Sit down, Sarah.
SARAH: I think I need to.
WENDY: I‘m quite all right, as you can see. [PAUSE.] You really don’t remember me, do you?
SARAH: From Planet Three.
WENDY: [IRRITATED.] No, not from Planet Three. Oh, look closer Sarah. Use your supposedly excellent powers of observation and deduction. I may have lost a bit of weight, got a lot older.
SARAH: [PONDERING.] I thought I recognised your I.D. photograph…
WENDY: You must meet so many people, Sarah. Meet and discard them in your journalistic career. You may profess to care about them. But be honest – all you really care about is the story.
SARAH: You used those words in your defence, didn’t you?
WENDY: Ah, illumination at last.
SARAH: Helena Cartwright. Business executive. You used to run Bio-Guard.
WENDY: [SAVAGELY.] Yes, I used to run Bio-Guard. [CALMER.] You ruined my business twenty years ago.
SARAH: I exposed your company’s irresponsible business practices…
WENDY: [OVER HER DIALOGUE.] That was your story.
SARAH: [CONTINUED.] I exposed your practices, I identified your culpability…
WENDY: [CONTINUED. OVER SARAH’S DIALOGUE AGAIN. LOUDER, ANGRY.] Those were your lies and your misrepresentations.
SARAH: [CONT’D. FIRMLY] … and I got compensation for the miserable victims in your workforce and your customers…
WENDY: [CONTINUED, OVER SARAH’S DIALOGUE AGAIN. FURIOUS.] Enough! That’s enough!
SARAH: [CONT’D. FIRMLY] … and you went to prison for a long, long time. Not long enough it seems.
WENDY: [QUIETLY AFTER SARAH HAS FINISHED SPEAKING.] That is enough. Unless it’s time for a follow-up story on me, Sarah?
SARAH’S MOBILE PHONE RINGS IN HER HANDBAG. SHE IS SURPRISED. OVER THE NEXT FEW SPEECHES, SHE TAKES IT FROM THE HANDBAG AND THE RING TONE GETS LOUDER.
WENDY: That will be your young colleagues. Calling you to warn you about me. Go on, answer it. But be aware that Mr. Dehaan is trigger-happy.
SARAH: I hope he doesn’t bear you a grudge for the ashtray.
WENDY: I thought Dehaan’s performance was almost as good as mine. Answer it!