Today I present part one of the Malleus interview with Alan Stevens of Magic Bullet, audio dramatist, writer, and producer of the Kaldor City and The True History of Faction Paradox audio drama serials. In this installment, Stevens discusses what drew him to audio drama and how Magic Bullet came to be, why he recast the Faction Paradox audio dramas, and what makes sound designer Alistair Lock a genius. Alan has an engaging wit and an interesting approach, and the article is embedded with sound clips from both the Kaldor City and The True History of Faction Paradox serials that illustrate why Magic Bullet is a force to be reckoned with in the British audio drama scene. Don’t pass this one by.
(You can go directly to Magic Bullet’s website by clicking on their logo above. Further sound clips from The True History of Faction Paradox can be found in my overview of the series here. Part 2 of the interview can be found here.)
CD: How did Magic Bullet get started?
AS: It got started because I had an idea for an audio series loosely based on a film called Yojimbo. It was by Akira Kurosawa, and it was about this Samurai who had gone into a town and had set about playing two powerful families off against one another as a way to make a lot of money. It was remade by Sergio Leone into a Western called A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood, and again into Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis but this time set in the 1930’s. And I thought, it worked as a Japanese samurai medieval film and it worked as a cowboy film and as a 30’s gangster flick, so I had this idea of an unnamed character, probably played by Paul Darrow, coming into a town or city and playing one side off against another. I had already done some not-for-profit Blake’s 7 audios, a drama-documentary called Travis: The Final Act and two plays, The Mark of Kane, and The Logic of Empire, with sound designer Alistair Lock, and Logic had starred Paul Darrow as Avon, so you can see the connections coming together; in fact a lot of the people who later appeared in Kaldor City originally worked with me on those audios.
(Avon sets course for a fateful rendezvous with Blake in this excerpt from The Logic of Empire.)
At the same time that I was thinking about this, Chris Boucher released a Doctor Who book called Corpse Marker, which, as well as being a sequel to his 1977 Doctor Who story The Robots of Death, was also a Blake’s 7 / Doctor Who crossover, because Carnell from Blake’s 7 appeared in Kaldor City, where the story was set. So I called up Chris Boucher, and I said to him, would you be interested in doing a (audio drama) CD series called Kaldor City? And he said, “What’s your idea?” And I told him about the Yojimbo scenario, and he said “You go away and write a script, and if I like it we’ll proceed from there.”
Also at this time, Jim Smith had held a drunken conversation with Paul Ebbs from BBV about the possibility of doing an audio series with them, and he seemed to think BBV would be willing to do it, so I went away and wrote this script with Jim and came back to Chris, and he liked the script. But when we got back to BBV with the script and the cast we wanted, they weren’t too interested; I think they thought it would be too expensive. Big Finish then showed some interest, but eventually I thought, “why don’t I just do it myself?” So I set up my own company called Magic Bullet. The name Magic Bullet came about because my Blake’s 7 audios used to feature a variation of the Season 4 Blake’s 7 logo, which is a crosshairs, on the spines.
CD: So you weren’t just trying to profit from an American tragedy, then? (laughs)
AS: Well, as Kaldor City’s all about conspiracies, then that also kind of fits. So Kaldor City was a six-part series, and as I was coming towards the end of it, Lawrence Miles sent me an email saying “would you be interested in taking up Faction Paradox, because BBV don’t want to do it anymore?” They’d produced six CDs beforehand. I’d heard of Faction Paradox, but I hadn’t ever read any of the books or listened to any of the audios. So I borrowed the audios from Daniel O’Mahoney, who I was working with at the time on the last Kaldor City, Storm Mine, and the books from my girlfriend Fiona Moore, and thought, I could work with this. So I got back to Lawrence and said “I’ll do Faction under the Magic Bullet label!”
(The opening track of Kaldor City 1: Occam’s Razor. Iago’s arrival, terse and sharp like the character himself, leads directly into the theme.)
CD: Before we proceed with Faction I want to talk a little bit more about Kaldor City. Small start-up companies usually begin with less ambitious, less expensive casts, less experienced sound designers, and even when they can afford top-quality people they usually have more kinks to work out learning the art of writing for audio. Occam’s Razor, the first Kaldor City release, was an extremely polished and professional work right off the bat, with a first rate cast, a tight script, a kicking theme tune, and one of Britain’s best sound designers in the person of Alistair Lock. To be blunt, how did you do it?
AS: Part of it was luck. I met Alistair Lock in 1986, and we’d worked together on Travis: The Final Act, The Mark of Kane, and The Logic of Empire, so obviously when I decided to do Occam’s Razor he was the first person I went to. I had the template of Yojimbo and Chris Boucher’s Corpse Marker book, so I knew the actors I needed to cast, and I already had casting connections from the three Blake’s 7 audios I’d done before. I knew Paul Darrow and got on with him, Trevor Cooper was in The Logic of Empire as well, and Brian Croucher and Peter Miles were in The Mark of Kane. I contacted Russell Hunter through a friend of mine who knew him, and I’d met Russell Hunter myself in 1990 at a convention. Carnell, played by Scott Fredericks in the Blake’s 7 episode Weapon, was difficult to track down, as he now lives in Ireland! I eventually got in touch with him through BBC Residuals, who kindly forwarded on to him a script and accompanying letter- thinking back, it was ridiculous, really, as I’d written a script with Carnell in before I’d even contacted the actor. It would have been a terrible mess if he’d decided not to do it! But he got back to me, “Yeah, sure, I love playing Carnell!” and he rang me up and was a very nice guy indeed.
When you write a script, you write with specific actors in mind. I wrote Iago specifically for Paul Darrow, however, there were a few other people I had in mind if he couldn’t do it. One of them was Alexis Kanner from The Prisoner, I thought he was a fabulous actor. Though interestingly, in retrospect, I think Alexis Kanner wouldn’t have been a good choice because he was a bit too similar, vocally, to Scott Fredericks. But Paul Darrow agreed to do it full-stop, so I was quite lucky on cast.
I think the reason I had a good idea of how to write a script for radio was down to me being a big fan of Blake’s 7 when it came out, and I used to tape record the stories off the screen. This was before I got a video recorder. And because British television couldn’t afford splashy effects, it relied on plot and character and good dialogue, so effectively it did translate very well to audio. Especially if you’d watched the episode and then immediately listened to it, because then what was going on was cemented into your brain. Whereas, I remember there was one episode that I’d missed on first viewing, but my father taped it for me, called Power. Since I hadn’t seen it, I couldn’t always tell what was going on from the audio tape, so I think it kind of taught me unconsciously that certain kinds of visual information have to be communicated otherwise in audio.
And also, doing Travis: The Final Act was a great help. That effectively was going through Blake’s 7 and picking out the character Travis and how he developed and how he worked, and you would find very, very clever infodumps. There was a great scene in Star One where Servalan effectively tells the plot of what’s been happening up to that point to Durkim to refresh the audience. And it was so cleverly, so brilliantly done by Chris Boucher that you don’t realize it’s a huge infodump. So doing Travis: The Final Act really taught me how to write.
CD: How many scripts had you written before Occam’s Razor?
AS: Travis: The Final Act in a way was a script, because I had to amalgamate all these interviews and segues into a documentary. But the first drama I wrote was The Mark of Kane. So Occam’s Razor was my third proper dramatic script.
CD: Big Finish productions recruit a lot of their script writers from people who work in other media – novels, for example. Some of them take to writing for audio right away, and some of them don’t.
AS: There’s an art to writing audio, as with writing for all media. I don’t know if I could write a novel. I’ve done guidebooks. I’ve written guidebooks to Blake’s 7 and The Prisoner with Fiona Moore, and we’re working on one for Battlestar Galactica now.
CD: Did you learn to analyze stories through this fascination and hobby of yours, or were you pursuing this academically in college or graduate school?
AS: Not academically. If I’m interested in something I will move Heaven and Earth. If I really, really want to do something, then I will do it. If I’m not interested, you can’t make me. I didn’t learn to read until I was about nine years old. I was a late developer. The reason I learned to read was I discovered they were doing Doctor Who stories as novels. Doctor Who stories I’d never seen with Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell (the second and first actors to play the Doctor.) So I thought, “I like Doctor Who on T.V. and I want to know what these stories are about, so I will learn to read.” So I think if you’re really interested in something you can really push yourself and do it.
I have an H.N.C. (Higher National Certificate) in radio production, but that came after. I was doing the Mark of Kane and I thought perhaps I should do a course, so I went on the course and I was doing more than they expected or the course required. So the qualification came after, it didn’t come before.
As for the reviewing, you’ve got to understand what a story’s about, so by reviewing an episode of Blake’s 7 or whatever, by deconstructing someone else’s work, you can actually see how it goes together and then hopefully do your own thing.
CD: I certainly understand what you mean by being motivated by passion. Let’s shift gears and talk about Faction Paradox. Could you give a brief description of Faction Paradox, and describe what the Magic Bullet Faction Paradox audios have to offer?
AS: Faction Paradox came about because Lawrence Miles wrote some Doctor Who novels for Virgin Books and the BBC, featuring them as characters. They’re a kind of time-travelling voodoo cult who cause a lot of trouble by creating paradoxes. At the start, they lived in the Eleven-Day Empire, the eleven days left over when England went on the Gregorian calendar. So it shouldn’t really exist, but it does exist, because they’re in there. It’s a paradox. It’s conceptually absurd, but it’s funny. Lawrence then spun it off into, among other things, an audio series for BBV where Faction gets wiped out by the Sontarans who are working with a character called Lolita. Two of the Faction survive: one of them’s called Justine, the other is Eliza. They go off and have loads of adventures. And in the series that I’m dealing with, they’re involved with the Egyptian god Sutekh, who appeared in the Doctor Who story, Pyramids of Mars.
(The enigmatic Sutekh, lurking in the shadows as only he can.)
CD: Sutekh is another name for the Egyptian god Set, correct?
AS: That’s right. If you do a completely original show, it won’t sell. Because people think, “What’s this? I’m not going to take a chance on this.” And even if it has got actors from Doctor Who it won’t really sell, because people think, “Well I want Sarah Sutton playing Nyssa, not Sarah Sutton playing Cathy, or whatever.” And so with Kaldor City I got Scott Fredericks back to play Carnell, and Russell Hunter to play Uvanov, and I sweated blood to get back Taren Capel himself, David Bailie. He’d actually given up acting and had only started up again just a few months before I contacted him, which was enormous luck.
So I said, “What sort of hook have we got on this Faction?” And Lawrence said, “I’ve got an idea of bringing in Sutekh.” I said, “I’m glad you said that, because I actually know Gabriel Woolf, who played Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars.” So I contacted Gabriel and asked him, and he said, “Yeah, I’ll come back as Sutekh.”
(Sutekh takes vengeance on the followers of his brother, Osiris, in this excerpt from The True History of Faction Paradox vol. 4: Words from Nine Divinities.)
So a lot of it takes place with the Egyptian gods: Upuat, Anubis, Horus, and Sutekh, and it’s jolly fun. It’s political – Lawrence Miles really does think through his plots. He really, really knows his series – he’s a very coherent plotter.
CD: The Osirians and the Egyptian mythology that Magic Bullet’s series brought in is a bit of a shift in emphasis from the earlier BBV releases. BBV would bring in Doctor Who related concepts and monsters – the Sontarans, the Peking Homunculi, the prison world patterned after Shada – for one chapter each. (Two CDs constituted a single unified chapter of the BBV releases.) Lawrence Miles is obviously more invested in the Egyptian mythology now, with Sutekh in particular becoming a major ongoing character for 6 CDs. Was this consciously decided to give the Magic Bullet audios a new identity?
AS: Lawrence Miles said to me that he’d always wanted to write a science fiction series based on the Egyptian pantheon since he’d been a kid. I think he saw Faction as a way of doing it. So he had an idea of doing a six-part series with Sutekh, and the various Faction characters also representing figures from Egyptian myth.
There were some changes from the BBV series. I didn’t use Nigel Fairs, who had originally produced the Faction audios. I have nothing against Nigel Fairs, it’s just that A: I didn’t know him, B: He was off to do Sapphire and Steel for Big Finish, and C: I had worked with Alistair Lock, and I couldn’t very well then turn to Alistair and say, “I’ll just go use Nigel.” Especially as we did the first two Factions back-to-back with the last Kaldor City, so it would have been quite expensive, not to say confusing, to have Nigel Fairs there with Alistair Lock: “You’re directing this bit, and you’re directing that.” Ridiculous.
The reason I recast the Faction audios was because if I wasn’t using Nigel, I didn’t feel that I could then poach his actors. We all have certain groups of actors we use again and again, and I observe that a number of the people who have appeared in the original Faction have appeared in Sapphire and Steel and other things Nigel’s done before and since. And also I wasn’t really very happy with this accent that the actress playing Justine had adopted. Because when I was asked to produce the show I went back and read the books, and Justine was this upper-class Victorian girl. And so I didn’t quite understand why she was talking with this Lancastrian accent. Lawrence Miles also wasn’t keen on it. He didn’t really have any involvement with the original CDs – he’d just send a script out and didn’t hear back until he got the CD. So there was a general feeling that the accent was wrong. So even if I did get the original actress back, I’d be saying “could you please change your performance?” So I just recast them. And some fans didn’t like it, but tough. (Laughs)
Truthfully, the last thing I wanted to do was annoy the Faction Paradox fans by recasting the entire series. I thought the best thing to do was minimalize the recasting as much as I could, and in fact I asked Lawrence if we could do the new audios with a completely new set of characters. But he said, “No. Justine and Eliza are going to be in it.” So we compromised, and left out a lot of the characters from the original BBV series, like Lord Sandwich and the transsexual French swordsman, swordswoman, whatever, but kept in Justine, Eliza and Lolita.
CD: In your FAQ, answering this question, you said you wanted to play to Magic Bullet’s strengths and style. What do you feel these are?
AS: One film I was very impressed with was Pulp Fiction, which effectively was a pulp gangster movie with some European art film snuck into it. I like that juxtaposition, and again, Blake’s 7 was also a kind of pulp show, but with some intelligent ideas behind it. I like action-adventure, but thoughtfully done and well worked out. I also like good dialogue and strong characters, and I think that’s what Kaldor City has, and it was these elements that also attracted me to Lawrence Miles’ work.
(In this audio clip from Occam’s Razor,Kaston Iago informs Stenton Rull that he is “not a patient man”.)
And I also like a six-part story where you have time introduced into a show. For example, although The Caves of Androzani is one of the best Doctor Who adventures ever made, at the end of the story, Peri has all these terrible weeping sores on her legs. And the next episode they’ve all gone and she might as well not have been dragged through caves by a deformed maniac while suffering from spectrox toxemia. Because the reset button has been pressed. I’m never a big fan of the reset button. So I think after story one, story two has to reflect what has happened in story one, and the characters have to reflect that as well. The BBV series had self-contained two part releases, whereas our series is a six-part story, and characters come and characters go, but the ripples of what has happened run strongly through it all. Does this make sense?
CD: Yes, it does.
AS: You explain it to me then, so I can find out what I’m talking about.
CD: Generally I would say you have an affection (which I share) for the pulp serial, but mature ones in which the characters evolve over time. There’s some extraordinary examples of this in current German audio drama, Gabriel Burns being a notable example. I think in a way it’s generational. You have children who were brought up in the 1970s on these British TV shows or German audio tape dramas or American comic books, and now those children have grown up and still want to follow those stories and characters, or those types of characters, but on a more sophisticated level.
AS: I think that the reason British TV in the 60s and 70s had strong characterization and strong plotting and clever writing was because they didn’t have a lot of money to spend on elaborate effects, and so that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me. A 50 minute T.V. script is about 5,000 words long. A 50 minute radio script is about 11 to 12,000 words long. Because you can’t do chase sequences very well on audio, you have to fill up the space with talk. So it fits in perfectly with what I like – I like strong characterisation, good dramatic dialogue and intriguing plots, so audio is perfect for me, because that’s all you can really do on it. There’s a scene in Kaldor City: Checkmate where Blayes goes back and has a shoot-out with Iago. If I’d been doing that as a T.V. production, or a film, I would have done it as a huge Scarface-style shoot-out, with security forces storming the house and Iago fighting them off with automatic weapons and all that stuff, but that wouldn’t transfer to audio. It’s a good idea not to have more than two or three characters in a scene, because it can be very confusing for the audience. You’ve got to be more intimate and clever when you’re writing for audio.
CD: For me the purest example of this from your work is a small piece, Kaldor City: The Prisoner, featuring Iago and Landerchild that you did for MJTV’s The Actor Speaks 4: Paul Darrow. It’s just a philosophical discussion, and it’s carried entirely through the dialogue and the actors’ intensity and it’s absolutely compelling. But basically it’s two people talking in a room.
(The Actor Speaks vol. 4: Paul Darrow, featuring an original short Kaldor City play, The Prisoner, by Alan Stevens. Click the image above to visit the MJTV website.)
AS: Yeah, I said to Mark, “How many actors have I got?” And he said, “Well, two.”
AS: Of course, there was a lot of stuff in the news at the time about the Abu Ghraib interrogations, so I thought I’d explore that. But also, in the Chris Boucher Doctor Who story,Image of the Fendahl, there’s some quite interesting stuff in there about how we all know the world is round, but in the old days they believed it was flat and they acted as if it was. I remember there was an old lady I saw years and years ago, and she was losing it a bit, and she was convinced that there was a well outside in the garden. And there was no well there, but the people who were looking after her told me there was a well back in 1937. Do you see what I’m getting at?
CD: Yes, interesting. These things have a conceptual life.
AS: That’s right. So I was basically extrapolating from Image of the Fendahl and The Robots of Death when I wrote The Prisoner. And also I had to fill up 20 minutes. (laughs)
CD: Were you able to record the casts ensemble?
AS: In Faction, from episodes three onwards, the actress who plays Justine and the actress who plays Eliza don’t meet. They were recorded several weeks apart. It’s only through Alastair’s skill as an editor that they appear to be in the same room talking to one another. Also, Chris Tranchell never appeared with any of the characters he talks to, he was recorded separately in a different studio. Neither did Peter Halliday.
CD: Were the Kaldor episodes also recorded like this?
AS: Well, it varies. For instance, Russell Hunter was available on the same days as Scott Fredericks in Occam’s Razor and in Death’s Head, but Paul Darrow was not. But when Russell came back for the next three, Scott Fredericks wasn’t available on the same days he was available, but Paul Darrow was. So in the first two stories, Russell Hunter was in the same studio reacting back for all the scenes he does with Scott Fredericks, but not with Paul Darrow, and for the next three, it was the opposite.
(Paul Darrow (Iago) and Russell Hunter (Uvanov) recorded together. This scene is from from Kaldor City vol. 3: Hidden Persuaders.)
(Paul Darrow (Iago) and Russell Hunter (Uvanov) recorded separately and mixed together later by Alistair Lock. This scene is from Kaldor City vol. 2: Death’s Head.)
The fact is you’re following a script, and there’s only a certain way you can do most lines, plus, you have to have good stage directions, so you don’t have someone whispering “we’ve got to go over there, now” and his companion saying “OK MATE, I’ll FOLLOW YOU!” You’ve got to make sure that the stage directions are clear and you know what you’re doing. But as long as you direct it right, you can tie it all up together. And also, another good thing about audio is that if you have a performance which is poor you can cut it right out. There were a couple performances in the past where someone’s come in and done something and I’ve just thought, “that wasn’t very good at all”, and we just snipped them out and replaced them with another actor. In fact, if you have an actor and he does two or three takes, you can take a line from the first take and put it with another line from the second take, and then can carry on with the rest of the third take. Apparently on another production Alistair was working on, an actress mispronounced a word. And he and William Johnston were able to edit it so that she pronounced it correctly. Alistair himself pronounced a “sh” noise and when it was edited in it just sounded perfect. There’s a lot of great stuff you can do with audio.
CD: It surprises me that you recorded Kaldor in this way, because you had really wonderful chemistry between the actors, and yet they weren’t actually in the same room all the time.
AS: It’s scripts, you see. If an actor knows the character they’re playing, and they’re directed as to what the previous person said or how they said it, then there’s only a particular way you can say a certain line. For example, on one day we got Brian Croucher and Trevor Cooper together, and we recorded all of their lines for three CDs, with me reading in the lines for the missing actors. It’s always a good idea to do CDs back-to-back, you see, it saves a lot of money. Occam’s Razor and Death’s Head were done back-to-back, and Hidden Persuaders, Taren Capel, and Checkmate were all done back-to-back. So on one day we’d record all the scenes involving one set of actors, and on the next, another set of actors. Also, you never do any recordings in scene order, it’s just too time-consuming. It’s not unusual, Big Finish do the same thing as well.
CD: Yes, I know.
AS: Although to be honest, I think they nicked the idea off me (laughs). But it’s very very helpful, because to get all of those actors in the studio on the same day is a logistical nightmare. It really frees stuff up, because you can have someone come in next Tuesday and do it, as opposed to having to be there on the day Philip Madoc is there. Because they’re actors who are working all the time, you’d be very lucky to get them all available on the same day. Alistair Lock is a genius really, a lot of artistry goes into it.
CD: I’ve long been impressed with his work.
AS: I’ve got a good ear for edits. When I listen to other productions, I can often hear if a breath has been edited or cut short. But I can’t hear edits in Alistair Lock’s stuff – it’s seamless, his partner William Johnston does a brilliant job on the dialogue edits. And Alistair’s very very careful about levels, meticulously goes through them and makes sure everything is balanced. He sweats blood literally over it. I’m enormously lucky to have just met him by chance in Cardiff in 1986.
CD: There’s a richness to the soundscapes he does. They have a kind of aural texture and density that is often lacking in the work of other designers. Two different moments that impressed me were the scene with the sun god Ra, a living Sun inside the Ship of a Billion Years, where he somehow communicates the sun’s immensity and ambient power. In Kaldor City, I was always struck by how carefully he constructed the explosion of the company central building in Taren Capel. People often use a single large “boom!” to represent a building exploding, but that isn’t usually how it happens – different parts give out at different moments, setting off other areas in a series of smaller bangs that crescendo.
Getting back to the Faction, you keep saying Magic Bullet’s Faction Paradox line is a six-part Faction Paradox series. Are more planned after that?
AS: It’s written as a six-part series, there are currently no plans to continue it beyond that.
CD: So the two you’re releasing this year are the finale?
AS: Yeah. Retailers told me when I ended Kaldor, “you’re insane, why don’t you do more?” And I replied, “well, it’s a six-part series and now it’s finished. There isn’t any more to say.” In fact, people sent scripts in for Kaldor City 7; Fiona and I even wrote Kaldor City 7 ourselves, and then threw it away, because it just proved to us that the show had come to a natural end with Storm Mine.
There’s this good film called Candyman by Clive Barker. It was a hit, and so the studio insisted on doing a sequel. There should never have been a Candyman 2.
AS: There was even a Candyman 3, and someone on the internet was saying, “Please, God, no more!” I think every story has its course to run, and if you continue beyond its natural end, it will become just a vague, hollow shell of itself. In the last episode of Blake’s 7 there was a huge great shoot-out and they were all killed, and that was it. As much as people protested and asked for the show to come back, it never did, and I think that was absolutely the right decision, because effectively the programme had run its course. And as far as I’m concerned, the Faction storyline concerning the Egyptian gods will have run its course by episode six.
CD: Ever since the first release, the Eleven-Day Empire by BBV, this has been the story of Eliza and Justine. Justine in particular seems to be the Joan-of-Arc heroine who ties it all together. Is this the end of their story as well, or will it continue in other media?
AS: I can’t tell you that because it would spoil the end.
CD: (Laughs) Fair enough. Is this the end then of Magic Bullet, or do you have other productions in mind?
AS: I have no idea. Magic Bullet was formed to do this six-part Kaldor City series. And Faction Paradox came about simply because BBV no longer produce audios, and Lawrence contacted me. So if within the next nine or ten months someone comes along and says, “Hey, I’ve got this really good idea for a series!” and I look at it and think, “Yeah, okay, I’ll go with that”, then that’s what I’ll be doing next.
Lots of people approach me for series. But I only do what I want to do. I’m not in it for the money; if a series breaks even, I’m happy. Sometimes you’ve got an itch and you need to scratch it. It may cause me a great deal of effort and stress, but I have to do it. And that was Kaldor City. And the Faction series, I was really taken with it and wanted to go with it. And Lawrence himself really, really wanted to do this. I think the audience appreciates that. I think they can tell when something’s done with a lot of love, really. Lawrence certainly writes these scripts with a great deal of love and I think that comes over.
Next time: In part two of this interview, Stevens talks frankly about the commercial imperatives and creative opportunities of working with licensed properties, comments on the similarities and differences between Paul Darrow’s Avon and Iago, and explains why you should never trust authority figures.