Pete Tyler, Bobby Shaftoe, and my Dad

Those of you who’ve read the introduction to my Doctor Who script ‘Father’s Day’ in the series one script book will already be slightly familiar with my Dad.  I based a lot of Rose’s Dad, Pete Tyler, on him.  He’s a self-made man, a bit of a wheeler-dealer who finally made good when one of his ideas struck gold, and then held on to become responsible, serious and successful.  
     I know it sounds a little weird, also to me now in retrospect, but I didn’t actually tell Dad about that introduction, even about the existence of the script book.  He’s in his eighties now, and wouldn’t notice it without me doing so.  I didn’t think much about that decision at the time, but now I think maybe I didn’t know if he’d appreciate the references to him in there, because he’s a very stoic chap.  I talk about a dream I once had, where he tells me he’ll go to war rather than me.  The piece is really about me appreciating the sacrifices he made, and how I know he’d do what the Dad in ‘Father’s Day’ does.  I think most Dads would.  
     Anyhow, on the same day that Terrance Dicks called me to talk happily about the reference to him in that intro, my brother also called, to say he’d seen the book in a shop, and had told Dad about it.  So, on Christmas Day, I took a spare copy of the script book along to give to Dad.  He sneaked a quick look while successfully hiding from me and my nephew that we’d both bought him the same cricket DVD.  
     A few weeks later, I asked Mum if he was okay with it.  She said she thought he was pleased.  That is, he hadn’t complained about it.  I assume that he’s proud of me on the same basis, apart from on my wedding day, when he told me he was and rendered me nearly unable to make my speech.
     A couple of days ago, I was surprised when Dad produced a photo album I’d never seen before.  All his shots of his service days in the Far East.  ‘That’s the Maharajah’s private swimming pool… there’s me jumping in.’  ‘I swapped the three acres of land on the island in return for that mule.’  There was a photo of a young Japanese woman, with kanji characters on the back, a picture of a girlfriend that he’d taken off the body of a dead Japanese soldier.  It struck me as a gesture that was gentle and aggressive at the same time.  ‘I couldn’t be as brave as they were,’ he said.  ‘Charging in with just a sword.  Taking ears and testicles for trophies.’  He was there right through to the start of what would become the Vietnam conflict, when he was ordered to free the Japanese soldiers he was guarding and arm them to fight the Communists who the week before had been his allies.  
     He once took ‘a week off’ to go hunting for your actual buried treasure with his brother, Billy, who’d popped over from an entirely different theatre of war, and a French landowner.  He kept volunteering for missions that struck him as interesting.  Like shoving very reluctant mules on parachutes out of the side of a DC-3 aircraft for guerillas in the jungle below, under fire, and watching as they were all exploded on the way down by anti-aircraft shells.  He was promoted and demoted three times.  A sergeant once yelled at him that he’d got three stripes and Dad only had two.  Dad replied that he’d had more stripes than the sergeant ever would.  
     Those of you who’ve read Neal Stephenson’s excellent Cryptonomicon may understand how I’m now very attached to the character of Bobby Shaftoe in that book, who had the same sort of random, adventurous, terrifying, Far East war life that my father did.  That maybe a lot of men back then did.  Stephenson seems to have not only done his research, but to have made the same emotional connection with the past.  
     I’m now very glad I wrote that introduction, and wonder why it took me so long to do so.  
     

The Orange Rising Star Award

Ignoring the rather precise imagery of the name (and the winner is... Betelgeuse!), I think it would be rather nice if Chiwetel Ejiofor, the villain in Serenity, won this.  Not only because he’s an incredible actor, with a range of stunning turns to his name, but because Jonathan Ross insists on calling him ‘Chewie’.  It's one of those polls we get to vote for online.  It's announced with the, erm, Orange BAFTAs (and the winner is... mandarin!) in February.  You can go vote here:http://www.orange.co.uk/entertainment/film/baftasVoting.php

First Steps in Anime

In the last year or so, we’ve been exploring the vast world of anime and manga.  Some of the clich├ęs about the limited subject matter of Japanese animations are true: I’m always pleased to encounter a series that doesn’t feature a giant robot.  And some are false: you’re not going to stumble across violent porn unless you go looking for it.  Dear old David, who runs the White Horse Bookshop in Faringdon (well worth a visit), was aghast when I ordered The Anime Companion for Caroline.  ‘Is that the sort of thing she likes?!’ he murmured.  I’ve yet to ask exactly what sort of mental picture I conjured up, but he now waves at me in a kind of rakish way.  
     A series like The Excel Saga, Japan’s version of The Goodies, where each episode is a parody of something and everyone can be blown up and be cartoon whole again next week, is an amazingly swift way to learn about the details of Japanese culture.  The installment that parodies American animation (our heroine goes to America and ends up in a ghetto full of ridiculously sweary heavily armed macho kids) is a revelation in itself.  Ranma ½, another crazy comedy, about a boy who’s cursed to turn into a girl when he gets wet, is also genuinely funny, especially in the episodes featuring Ranma’s deadly martial arts enemy, who would wreak terrible revenge on him, if only he didn’t have such a terrible sense of direction.  We see him going across town via a range of mountains and the Tokyo Tower.  
We’ve learnt that slow pans across tables loaded with gorgeous food are very popular, a detail of a country that experienced famine in living memory that I guess might be invisible and normal to the Japanese themselves.  We’ve learnt that High School is the entire heroic world for Japan even more than for America.  We’ve learnt that Japanese pulp storytellers treat Christianity with the same jolly lack of knowledge with which Western pulp storytellers approach Australian Aborigine belief.  
     We know Nekokoneko is a sweet little kitten sitting on top of a cat.
     We know nothing.
     I get the feeling that a lot of the best work is in shojo: stories for girls.  Evangelion, the much-loved classic of shonen, stories for boys, swiftly becomes a deeply pretentious non-adventure about… okay, I know they’re not giant robots, but if it looks like a giant robot and acts like a giant robot… A lot of shows for all the family don’t really engage with adult interests in the same way that the best Western pulp does, because modern anime sprang out of nostalgia for those funny old shows from a Seventies childhood that had, erm, giant robots in them.  
     So what do I think genuinely works for an adult audience?
     Azumanga Daioh, which means ‘Azu’s Comic Strip for Daioh Magazine’, but is also a pun which I don’t understand, is a class act.  It’s about a group of Japanese schoolgirls… no, wait a second!  It’s about the friendships and running jokes amongst a very recognisable bunch of Japanese schoolgirls.  It shies away from ‘fan service’ (that is, deliberate jiggling) in favour of stories about exam pressure, sports and the impossibility of dieting.  Their teacher, Miss Yukari, is amoral, cynical and teenage in a very true young teacher way.  The gang are pleased, for instance, to discover that they’ve all been moved up a class together, only to realise it’s so Yukari doesn’t have to remember any new names.  The original manga, uniquely in my experience, is in the form of four panel newspaper style strips, so the jokes are wry and laid-back.  Best of all, Azumanga has a weirdly heroic dimension as Sakaki-San, the most sporty and admirably cool of the girls, spends all her school life trying to pet the same cat and always being bitten by it.  That wraps up in a very moving way at the end of her school days (because each anime spans a school year) in a way that Charlie Brown never managed when it came to kicking that football.  
     Rurouni Kenshin is a boy’s anime with a lot of girl interest.  It concerns the titular Kenshin, a warrior who wanders Japan in the historical era immediately after the civil war that forced Japan to encounter modernity and the rest of the world.  He used to be bloodthirsty, now, like Shane, the world’s got too civilised for him and he only wants peace.  He displays the ideal of male temper: always smiling in a calm, unperturbed way, but certain of his values, and willing, only if pushed to absolute necessity, to create high speed swordplay havoc in defence of the innocent.  With a blunt sword, because he won’t kill anymore.  He’s calm, that is, apart from when his new landlady, the lovely and fierce Kaoru, gets annoyed at his cool and starts throwing things.  Then, and this is where a whole visual vocabulary comes into play, he might become a little animated toddler with bulging eyes.  Because in anime and manga your emotions govern the way you’re depicted.  Most of the time, Kenshin is drawn in lovingly realistic swoonsome detail.  But when he’s being an innocent old-world klutz, ma’am, his physical shape becomes silly to match that.  It takes only a moment to completely get it, because it’s a very intuitive thing: ‘I was so embarrassed, I felt that big!’  Kenshin’s serial adventures are genuine historical drama with very sweet leads and a sense of moral courage.  
     But my absolute favourite, as we speak, is Fruits Basket.  It’s a very simple idea: an orphan girl meets the family of a guy she knows at school.  There are thirteen of them, distant cousins, brothers and sisters, and they’re all cursed: each of them becomes, under stress, one of the animals from the Chinese zodiac.  Not only that, their characters are apt for their signs, so the Rabbit is kind and a bit annoying, the Snake is a grandiosely flamboyant omnisexual, etc.. Our heroine’s kindness and positive attitude are set against problems between them that seem cosmically fixed.  She’s helping to bring the Rat and the Cat closer together, but aren’t they always going to hate each other?  There’s gentle comedy, but there really are no adventures.  This is an endlessly interesting exploration of pure character interaction, and the writer of the manga, Natsuki Takaya, is a genius.  It’s utterly addictive, because it gets you deeply involved very quickly.  The art style, all frozen moments of thought and emotional turning points that take up whole pages with a single expression, is absolutely expressive.  
It’s also a good demonstration of another weird cultural detail: it’s almost required for Japanese schoolboys and girls to have same-sex crushes.  Sakaki-San is worshipped by the ever-trembling Kaorin, and at least two of the zodiac males have been involved with other men.  But as soon as they’re adults, a vast homophobia rushes in and puts an end to all that.
Of course, rather than any of the above, the best way to sample the absolute height of Japanese animation is probably to watch any of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, like Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, or the best movie of all time (well, up there with One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing), My Neighbour Totoro.  But I’ve already gone on too long.  
I humbly await recommendations and pointers from those with more experience in this matter than I.  
     
     
     
     

The Attraction of the Centre

The last couple of weeks have seen a vast change in British politics.  David Cameron has started to unveil his plans to change the Conservative Party, while Charles Kennedy has been forced out of the leadership of the UK’s third party, the Liberal (now Suicidal) Democrats.  
     Plus, thanks to Celebrity Big Brother, I can enjoy voting George Galloway out of something!
     But let’s talk Tory.  I’m motivated to write this mostly because of an interview with Ed Vaizey on last Sunday’s Talking Politics.  Vaizey is the Tory MP for the constituency where I live, and sufficiently close to Cameron that it’s often presumed he speaks for him.  I was shocked to find that I agreed with the general thrust of what Vaizey laid out as the New Tory attitude.  Some of that is obviously down to my age: at 38, it’s about time for me to see signs that I’m swinging to the right.  But a lot of it is, I think, down to a desire to see the New Labour mission completed no matter what, that is to say, to see the centre continue to dominate British politics, particularly in terms of schools and the N.H.S..
     At this point I should emphasise that I see the supposed Blair/Brown divide as something of a mirage, a vision Old Labour have constructed for themselves (and that New Labour have chucklingly colluded in) so that they can feel they have a champion who might actually inherit the leadership.  Policy differences between a future Brown Labour leadership and the current Blair one would probably be vanishingly small.  (And in recent interviews, Blair’s been crowning Brown as his obvious successor.)
     But let’s fantasise for a moment that a Brown government did take some real steps to the left, with the aim of getting the whole Labour movement behind the parliamentary party once more.  Let’s assume that I, and people like me, had to watch as the vast gains of New Labour in terms of social justice were put in danger by a party that once more was flirting with the giddy joy of being unelectable.  
     In those circumstances, I might feel, for the first time in my life, and it amazes me to say this… that I could actually vote New Tory.  
     Let me explore the reasons.  
I was very impressed when Vaizey declared that he supported the Iraq war, and would support, subject to terms and conditions, new military actions abroad in the future. (A very Socialist point of view, that tyrants are not to be tolerated.)  I was also impressed by a Cameron quote that ‘not all Political Correctness is bad’.  I was delighted beyond measure by the horrified reactions of the Daily Mail to the movement of the last few days: they’ve started to claim that the Tories are now the most left-wing party, in purely economic terms, in Britain.  
     Now, obviously, this isn’t Cameron and his mates winging it.  These seductive viewpoints will have been focus group tested, broken and re-broken by the sort of political hacks that I deeply admire, and precisely aimed to hit me, and people like me, right between the eyes.  The mirage that had me for a moment there, in front of my radio, was New Labour By Other Means, a government toying with the idea of drug use becoming a subject for radical libertarian thought, in which a Blairite reform programme would go beyond schools and hospitals and into the police force.  Old Labour, in this scenario, would be happy again where they prefer to be, in the cosiness of opposition.  
     But, I’m relieved to say, the mirage was broken.  It was broken by the thought of right wing David Davis, still sitting there in the Shadow Cabinet, now presumably biting his tongue so often he must be living off mushroom soup.  It was broken by the thought of Cameron’s promise to legalise fox hunting.  And it was broken by his stance on Europe, which at first sight seems breathtakingly askew with his bouncy new libertarian/liberal fusion.  But let’s take a closer look at that…
     The thought has swum into the public consciousness that a future Conservative government might pull Britain out of the European Union.  (It was pie in the skied on Question Time, and has popped up in online bookmaker Paddy Power’s long odds list of things David Cameron might do next, and these things don’t happen by accident.) Now, this is a radical thought, and previously a very right wing one. (Myself, I think such a pull out would be the final nail in the coffin of British manufacturing.)  
Cameron’s first act as Tory leader was to have his MEPS remove themselves from the EU centre right coalition.  That was seen at the time as the right wing thing one does in order to then be able to do lots of left wing things.  And it was that.  But I think it also signified a genuine New Tory movement out of Europe.  For, I think, two reasons.  Firstly, to take a far fetched scenario seriously until it becomes not so far fetched, it could be that Cameron is planning the UK to be, for the last decade of oil use on planet Earth, a pomped-up high tariff seller of the black stuff.  Secondly, if one removes the question of Europe from British politics, then the Tory right, or Old Conservatism, if we may call it that already, would lose its big campfire.  Without Europe, the Daily Mail isn’t going to persuade a bunch of angry right wing Tory MPs to jump ship and inflate some ridiculous one issue party like UKIP to a point where it could cut into the New Tory vote.  
All very clever.  Serious applause, you brilliant hacks.  
But it only got you so far.  The mirage popped.  
But just for a minute there.  Just for a minute…

The Quest for BBC Space Themes

When I was eleven, I was bought (for Christmas, I think), a cassette called BBC Space Themes.  I’ve still got it.  It’s the one which, on the cover, has the Apollo Command Module, the starship Enterprise, the TARDIS and the Liberator from Blake’s 7 all floating in the same starless void.  Which is kind of apt, because back then the BBC owned all of space.  Patrick Moore, the Goodies and Terry Wogan, all living in TV Centre, would all talk about the NASA missions James Burke covered play by play, and Doctor Who, The Outer Limits and the aforementioned (and actually apostropheless, but I just can’t bring myself to do that) Seven played in the same future that Horizon speculated about.  And of course I was fascinated by all of it, mentally thinking ahead to when Voyager would encounter Uranus, and when we’d see a total eclipse in Britain, and calculating how old I’d be then.
     I remember my joyful thought that BBC Space Themes was actually too good, that here were too many delights in one place, that when I played it it surely wouldn’t contain everything the case promised.  
     Here’s the running order, as printed: Apollo; Moonbase 3; A for Andromeda; The Sky at Night; Apollo Soyuz; Journey Into Space; Space for Man and The Case of the Ancient Astronauts; Blake’s 7; Star Trek; Quatermass; Tomorrow’s World and Dr. Who.  
     Now I’m an adult, the future is here, and the cassette tape has been replaced by the ultramodern MP3 file.  And I’d like to listen to this album that could now be called Chill Out With Womblike Childhood Sky Wonder on my computer.  So I set about searching for the individual tracks.  The TV Cream website swiftly provided me with Moonbase 3 and Blake’s 7.  The former is a stonking Dudley Simpson/Dick Mills/BBC Radiophonic Workshop job that manages to say gritty, mysterious and romantic, with a middle eight that sums up the 1970s attitude that one day we’d all be living in jumpsuits in domes on the moon.  None more spacey, that’s how much more spacey this could be.  The latter is a stirring, now rather familiar march that ends on what my Mum called ‘my favourite bit’, the synthesizer ‘warp warpppppp’ as the episode title came up.  That sound takes me straight back to that odd moment in a boy’s life where he starts to want a bit of scary and shooty in his spacey.
     The Apollo/Soyuz link-up mission was majestically introduced by Aaron Copeland conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in his own ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’.  And ITunes had exactly that, assuming Aaron only popped into town to do that the once.  Amazingly, it also had what I thought would be the hardest track to find.  BBC Space Themes includes not the original version of the Star Trek theme, but a mad, jazzy lounge version on strings and brass by Johnny Keating and his orchestra, dating from 1972.  It makes the future sound very laid back until suddenly it goes all porno funk Theme From Shaft on our Klingon arses, then gets spikey and jittery with what sounds like a mouth harp solo.  No, really, it’s lovely!  I can only guess that the same copyright difficulties made the cassette and the online service choose the same option.
     And that’s as far as I’ve got.  I’m sure it’ll be fairly easy to get the original Delia Derbyshire version of the Doctor Who theme from somewhere, so I’m leaving that until last.  For Quatermass, I have the London Symphony orchestra playing Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, but conducted by Sir Colin Davis rather than (of course) Andre Previn.  And that would obviously make all the difference.  As would anything other than Frank Chacksfield and his orchestra doing ‘At the Castle Gate’ for The Sky at Night.  The Tomorrow’s World version I seek is Sir Johnny Dankworth’s bouncy jazz original.  The Apollo mission BBC coverage used, rather obviously but wonderfully, 2001’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, which I can’t get from ITunes in its Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Carl Bohm version unless I buy the whole album!  It’s like they know about BBC Space Themes!  (And about my love for the Geoffrey Palmer narrated version of ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’.)
     The oddest aspect of this search so far is that Peter Howell, whose Case of the Ancient Astronauts (the theme to a Horizon documentary that scared the living daylights out of me as a Dannikenophobic youth) is incredibly radiophonically groovy, and who was quite a figure in prog rock, is mentioned only twice on the entire internet.  He seems to have cast a druidic spell to vanish from the public consciousness.  If you’re reading this, Peter, we all love you and we want you to come home.  (And could I have a copy of that theme, please?)
     Of course, I could just use a program to translate the cassette contents directly into MP3 files.  But that would take away some of the boyish glee of discovery.  

Bernice Summerfield merchandise

The first batch of long-promised Benny merchandise is now available to buy online. Do go and have a look. Artists and copyright holders are all getting appropriate royalties. Any suggestions for what the second batch of merchandise, sometime towards the end of 2006, should include are very welcome. (And Simply Icons itself is a wonderful service if you yourself happen to have a character you want to merchandise, or a few t-shirts you want to print for a party.)

The Bernice Shop Thing can be found at:

http://www.simplyicons.com/eshop/minishops/169/

Enjoy, and buy! Make us all several pence!

New Year Aims and Resolutions

I made three New Year’s resolutions last year, which, in retrospect, were unusual for resolutions, in that they weren’t actually anything I had full control over.  They were: to get a new novel published; to get my own television series commissioned, and to write at least one issue of an American comic.  

I got quite close with all of them, and all the ‘quite closes’ remain ongoing, so I’ve decided I’m just going to keep all three of them for this year.  Plus, I’ve added a fourth, which I am in charge of: bringing my weight down to 85kg, which, if not the Full Peter Jackson, will still be a bit of a haul.  Faringdonians are already used to seeing me pacing with my pedometer: all the way to the Old Barn and back is still only 5000 paces or so.  

The status of the Original Resolutions is as follows: I’m 40,000 good words or so into the new novel, which my lovely new agent is waiting for me to finish before he attempts to sell it.  The 40,000 words keep changing, of course, as I keep having new ideas and writing them down on small pieces of paper.  It’s called Chalk, and it’s the story of a boy growing up in Wiltshire in 1982, with all the bloodthirsty magic and suffering that naturally goes along with that.  It’s me finally getting the courage together to write my obvious novel about bullying, the glory of outsiderness, and hyper-vigilance.  (That’s a name for my default state of mind, where I anticipate trouble on a much more distant radar horizon than one really should.)  There are two narratives, adult today and child in the past, and each chapter is basically one intense memory forcing its way up into the present.  I will finish that this year.  

Then there’s the television show: I’ve been working with a wonderful pair of BBC bods, Diederick Santer, who produced Cutting It, a couple of the recent Shakespeares, and now Jane Eyre, and script editor Catherine Moulton, who’s on every third TV show at the moment,  on something that right now is called Super.  A new draft to exec specifications was sent up to the higher floors of the BBC just before Christmas, and we’ll have several weeks to wait before hearing if we’ve got it.  It’s my girl superhero show for Saturday night: lots of comedy, adventure for all the family.  I met Diederick, who I’d known briefly in the old days of LWT, in the ‘green room’ at that huge, very bad Doctor Who convention, Panopticon, last time it was on.  He’d blagged his way in and was grazing on the buffet, a dandy as always in his cutting edge fashions.  (You know, that so sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not!) We started having regular pitch meetings at which we’d mostly just talk about old TV, but, after a few false starts, we found an idea we wanted to run with, and Super is it.  I hope it goes to series, because not only is it the TV show I’ve always wanted to write, but working with those two, between long chats and many cups of tea, is an absolute joy.  The friendliness comes out of the professionalism, I think.  They’re both so good at their jobs that it’s okay if we spend a few minutes talking about The A-Team.

And in the field of comics, thanks to an introduction furnished by the lovely Mark Millar, I showed my Doctor Who episode to a charming editor at Marvel.  He asked me if I’d like to have a go at doing a new mini-series about an old character, and I’ve pitched a couple of drafts of a plot to him.  (I’m being a little vague here, because we haven’t had a conversation about what levels of secrecy Marvel require.)  We’ve also talked about artists, and I’m excited about some of the names that have come up.  Marvel are tremendously welcoming to new talent, with a development officer called Ruwan who is very courteous and helpful.  And so self-deprecating that he could be British.  Let’s hope that happens.  (The series, I mean, not Ruwan becoming British.)

Apart from that, I’m currently in the middle of a script for the first season of a new BBC adventure series, for which I’m writing episode three.  That’s a hell of a lot of fun.  I’m talking to various indie production companies about some very exciting future projects.  And there are a few more cool things.  Including the online Tales of Faringdon, which I’m hoping might make a book down the line.

Caroline, meanwhile, will hopefully gain her Doctorate this Summer, and will then be setting off into the world of vicar training.  I’m hoping she’ll make Archbishop, because then we get, well, a palace.  

85 kilos, eh?  There are some very tasty crispbreads around these days.  So they tell me.