Sunday, 21 August 2011
How did you first get involved with The Scarifyers?
I’ve known Scarifyers creator Simon Barnard for many years, and we’ve been trying to write things together for most of that time, initially with little success. Then in 2005, out of the blue, he asked me to meet up with him one lunchtime to discuss his latest idea. So I got the train up to London and made my way to the swanky bar that Simon had chosen, and sat as he talked me through his tale of two old men battling a reincarnated Rasputin. At that stage it was called Department Zero, and the story was very sketchy, but I could see that it had promise. And one of the most promising things about it was that Simon was proposing to produce the story himself, from script to CD, which meant that unlike any of our previous efforts, this was guaranteed to lead to something.
Such was Simon’s faith in the project that he asked me to go off and think of ideas for the second story while he was finishing the script for what became The Nazad Conspiracy. I did give him a few comments on the finished script, and a handful of my lines are in the finished version, but other than that it was entirely Simon’s work from beginning to end, which I think is a very impressive achievement. I try not to let him know that, though.
Your first story was The Devil of Denge Marsh. Where did the idea come from?
Initially all I had to go on was that Simon wanted something “sci-fi” to contrast with the supernatural tone of the first story, which I translated as meaning that there would be aliens behind it all this time rather than ghosts. I also sat down and made a list of interesting things that had happened in the late 1930’s in case any of them suggested a story. My dad suggested the invention of RADAR – which was actually slightly too early for 1937 – and then my wife suggested the Acoustic Mirrors on the south Kent coast – which, as a precursor to RADAR, were even earlier. However, the image of these spooky concrete monoliths looming out of the foggy marshes was such a great one that I didn’t want to let a few facts get in the way, so I decided that in the Scarifyers world they weren’t mothballed in the early 1930’s but were instead taken over by an eccentric millionaire for mysterious reasons of his own. It seemed obvious to use Alastair Crowley again as he was so much fun in Nazad, but once we’d gone down that road the story twisted away from science-fiction and back towards supernaturalism (and eventually towards Lovecraft, whose work was a peculiar mix of the two). I wanted Sebastian Malherbe to be an old foe of Crowley’s to reinforce the idea that Crowley is a kind of hero in the Scarifyers world, and for plot reasons he also became an old enemy of Lionheart’s.
There were a few ideas that had to be dropped, though, as we were still experimenting with what exactly The Scarifyers was. It originally started in Whitechapel police station and featured both Chief Inspector Fang and Doctor Slither, but eventually I junked all that as the story was taking too long to get started. I also thought about including Colonel Black, who had been mentioned at the end of Nazad, but somewhere along the way we decided that it would be better to keep him as an unseen figure, so he was replaced with Caulfield-Browne - who’s a lot more fun in that supervisor role, mainly because he’s so useless at it. (On which note, Colonel Black’s non-appearances eventually started to annoy me as it felt more like a loose-end than an in-joke, which is why I brought him into Secret Weapon just so we could get rid of him.) And lastly, Simon was for a while quite insistent that the story would feature fish people, but I thought it was a terrible idea so I quietly dropped it. Knowing him, he’ll probably do it one day.
Why did you introduce elements of the Cthulhu Mythos into the story?
Yet again this is an idea that I can’t take any credit for (I’m sure there must be something in that story that I thought of myself…) It was once I’d decided that the ultimate threat should be a giant tentacled monstrosity from another dimension that Simon suggested we make it a creature from Lovecraft. I’d never read any Lovecraft at that point, so I went off and did some research, including reading an entire short story collection to get a feel for the language and the atmosphere – most of which I then ignored in favour of parodying The Wicker Man. I think the creature was briefly Cthulhu himself, then Yog Sothoth (a name I knew from a song by The Fall), before Simon suggested that Shub Niggurath would be a good choice as there never any stories dealing specifically with her, so we could basically do want we wanted. I know that Lovecraft fans are acutely aware of all the glaring mistakes we made, but believe me, it could have been even worse. Especially bearing in mind that I later found out that Simon’s only knowledge of Lovecraft comes from playing the role-playing game ‘Call of Cthulhu’.
In the story you introduced Dunning’s writers group, The Fantasists. Were they based on anyone in particular?
Ah! At last, something that was entirely my idea. I knew there must be one… Well, it’s not much of a secret that The Fantasists are loosely based on the Inklings, which was a similar group that existed in the real world at around the same time and whose best-known members were J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. From the outset I wanted to explore the world of Dunning’s literary life, and put him in this context seemed like an obvious idea. To make it both funnier and easier to write I decided that the Fantasists should all be terrible writers, as we’d already established Dunning to be.
It would be too samey if they were all fantasy writers, though, so in the end I just made Arthur Nesbitt a fairly straight parody of Tolkien and then created a few more characters who weren’t based on specific Inklings but instead on combinations of other writers from other genres. Wally Webber is inspired by Frank Richards and all the other writers who slaved away for decade after decade churning out short stories for boys’ magazines, though his work is more in the style of H Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. As a kind of nod to C S Lewis’s religious bent, I made him a vicar. Cheesewright seems to inhabit a space somewhere between HG Wells and all those writers of science-fiction potboilers from the 1940s and 50’s, but for no apparent reason with the personality of an egregious Yorkshireman.
Do you prefer writing for certain characters?
Right from the start, when I was making suggestions about the script for Nazad, I felt a certain affinity with Dunning, and set about making him even wetter and fussier than he was originally. I may even have been responsible for his catch-phrase “Oh Crumbs”. Anyway, ever since then, when we get to the point in the story where our heroes get split up, Simon takes the Lionheart scenes and take Dunning’s. It makes sense, as Lionheart – and now Harry Crow – talks in quite a clipped, abrupt style, which suits Simon’s writing, whereas Dunning is considerably more waffly, which suits mine.
I should feel proprietorial about Caulfield-Browne, as I invented him, but for some reason Simon has ended up writing most of his appearances since Denge Marsh – which is good, as it’s broadened the character out beyond being just the PG Wodehouse rip-off that I imagined. However, I’d like to take him back under my wing – Caulfield-Browne, that is, not Simon – and stick him in a really Wodehousian situation, such as a Gentlemen’s club (though, being The Scarifyers, it would have to be a sinister Gentlemen’s club), to see how he behaves. And maybe I will.
Basically I enjoy writing the more verbose or pompous characters, such as Harry Price from King and Country, and sarcastic villains like Montague Blake in The Magic Circle. I also had great fun with Oliver Cromwell, despite the fact that it was entirely Simon’s idea to write him as an “oafish Brian Blessed” – something I’d never have thought of in a million years. But this is probably why Simon keeps me around - he’s not particularly good at that kind of character as he has a very limited vocabulary.
After Denge Marsh you collaborated on further episodes with Simon. How do you write together?
We get together on a regular basis in a nice quiet pub and discuss all things Scarifyers. If someone has an idea for a story we’ll talk around it until it starts to solidify into a storyline, and then one of us – usually Simon – will take it away and write it up. Because we both have day-jobs, it can take months or even years for the germ of an idea to get to this stage, though we are getting better. Anyway, once the outline has enough detail to almost qualify as a scene breakdown, we go through it with a red pen and decide who’s writing what. There aren’t any hard and fast rules to govern this process, apart from the fact that, as I said earlier, I get the Dunning scenes while Simon gets Lionheart (and also, oddly, any “drunk” scenes. For some reason, he’s extremely good at writing those – I guess he’s just had enough practice).
We both rewrite and polish each other’s work, until we’re both happy with it - though Simon always insists on having the final say, for no better reason that that it’s his idea, his company and his money.
Do you have any say in the casting?
I’m allowed a say, but whether Simon listens or not is another matter! No, we talk about casting endlessly, so I’m sure my ideas filter into his brain eventually, but the only piece of casting I can remember that came directly from my suggestion was Gabriel Woolf in For King and Country. It was obvious that he would be a superbly sinister Matthew Hopkins, but it was only after seeing him being very silly indeed on a Doctor Who DVD extra that I realised he could also play the dual role of the comical Inspector Natterjack, and after that he was, in my mind, the only man for the job.
As for the casting of the non-guest-star roles from our repertory company, Simon normally draws up an initial list and I’ll certainly make suggestions if I think someone would be especially suited to, or unsuited to, a particular role. This is particularly useful if I’ve written a part with someone’s voice – usually, to be honest, David Benson - in mind.
What are the recording days like?
They’re great fun, for everyone except Simon. Oh, and Toby, the sound engineer. The cast get to lounge around in the green room nattering among themselves when they’re not needed, and they usually let me sit with them, in exchange for making occasional cups of tea. Simon, however, has to spend the entire day locked in the studio; the schedule is always so tight, due to the appalling length of our scripts, that he can’t afford to relax for a second. Poor bloke.
When Nicholas Courtney passed away recently, was there any question of the Scarifyers ending?
It was certainly a possibility. It was something we discussed when Nick first became ill, but we didn’t really want to think about it at the time. We spent a long time hoping that he would make a recovery, as he had after his earlier stroke. It wasn’t until it became sadly obvious that he wasn’t going to be able to record another story that we were forced to make a decision, and we both felt that there was plenty more that we could do with the Scarifyers, but only if we could do so without tarnishing the memory of what we’d done with Nick. David Warner was our only choice for a successor, and if he hadn’t said agreed to do so you probably wouldn’t be reading this now, as we may well not have carried on.
What’s your favourite Scarifyers story?
Ooh, difficult. Denge Marsh seems to be very popular with the fans, and I think it’s because it is at heart quite a traditional story, with a nice uncomplicated plot and a consistently spooky atmosphere. I think we’ve written much better stuff since, but something about the combination of elements that make up the story is very satisfying. For King and Country is also very good – it has some of our scariest stuff, such as the Matthew Hopkins apparitions in the first episode, and some of the funniest with Oliver Cromwell. And, of course, Black Comet is also very funny. I think my favourite might be Secret Weapon, though, as we managed to keep the tone consistently good-natured thoughout, and I think it’s just very listenable. Of course, The Magic Circle might also be a contender, but it’s a little too new to be sure!
Can you tell us what the future holds for the Scarifyers?
I don’t think we’re going to tinker with the formula too much, as we seems to have developed a following who think we’re doing the right thing, but also because I think we’re providing something unique(ish) – the combination of comedy, action, detective, horror, sci-fi and supernatural elements that we’ve stumbled across is something no-one else seems to be doing, possibly for good reason. (The Jago and Litefoot stories produced by Big Finish are the closest I can think of, and they’re great.)