Saturday, 6 August 2011

INTERVIEW: Author, Alwyn W Turner

As part of my reporter/ contributor role as Geek Girl on the radio show The Geekend, I was really chuffed to get Alwyn W Turner as my first on-air interview. I'd like to thank him for being a wonderful guest and for writing his latest book; 'The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation', which I devoured and also reviewed on the live broadcast. I think I can now remove my supportive third wheel, as my journalistic vehicle steps up a gear. After reading my interview with him, I would also highly recommend popping over to his personal website, which is a really good read in itself.

This interview was aired on The Geekend, Radio Reverb on 30th July 2011.

GG: I don’t know if you remember, but the Avengers 50th Anniversary a couple of weeks ago, I actually bumped into you.
Alwyn: That’s right yes I do remember meeting you, it was a really good weekend.

GG: What were you doing while you were there?

Alwyn: I was speaking on a panel about the impact of the Avengers because Terry Nation worked as the script editor for the final series, the one with Linda Thorson in it, and he wrote several of the episodes in it. So I was there in that capacity.

GG: Yes a great time, and I ran up to you hurriedly just to say ‘I’m half way through your book, really love it’. (Laughter)

GG: Anyway, about the book which is what the interview is about today, your book ‘The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation’, briefly, how exactly did it come about? What was your driving force for writing it?

Alwyn: It came originally from a publisher that I’ve worked with on several other books. My editor came to me and said he was interested in the subject of Terry Nation. I obviously knew of him, and the bit that really interested me initially when I first came across Terry Nation when I was young, was his connection with Tony Hancock, who was a big hero when I was growing up; and still is my favourite comedian. I knew Terry Nation had written stuff for Hancock, which was very seldom seen. I don’t think the series that he worked on has ever been repeated. So I think that was what intrigued me to start with. That, and the other thing was how he moved from comedy into scaring the daylights out of generations of children. (GG laughter) But of course it turns out that he wasn’t very unique, in that there were various others; Dennis Spooner for example started out in comedy, before moving into Doctor Who and other things. So it was the connections that existed there and the fact that he had such a long and very varied career that took you through a whole history of British television really, at a time when that was all still exciting and new and people were trying to work out what you did with TV and how you wrote for it; and he was part of that.

GG: Fantastic, I don’t think there are many biographies out there about Terry Nation at all?

Alwyn: There was a book out a few years ago that was a very academic study; a very specific aspect of his work that focussed entirely on the science fiction of his work. So I think part of the appeal of Terry Nation is that there was so much else as well. Obviously there’s the Daleks and obviously Survivors and Blake’s 7, but there’s also all those adventure series for ITC ,The Avengers, and then the early days in radio comedy and a bit of TV comedy. I think it is interesting to look at the whole, rather than just focusing on the stuff that he’s best known for.

GG: He was also quite the character wasn’t he, how would you sum him up as a person from your point of view, after writing this book?

Alwyn: I think he comes over as being a very cheerful and happy man who lucked into extraordinary success and made a huge amount of money from it, and I’m not sure that he ever believed his luck, because it’s not generally the way to make a fortune; writing for television. And indeed that isn’t where the money came from; it came from all the merchandising of the Daleks and the spinoffs and so on. But I think he was quite cheerful about that, it seems. And unlike a lot of people who have invented the great icons of popular culture; Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes and so on, he doesn’t seem to have resented the Daleks at any stage. He was very happy with what he had done and very keen to keep on doing it. He didn’t want to denounce them, although he did kill them off to start with and that was before he realised how popular they were going to be.

GG: They kept on coming back didn’t they.

Alwyn: Indeed, you can’t keep a good Dalek down. (Laughter)

GG: Absolutely not! I have to say from reading this book it’s very evident you have watched a lot of TV as research, whether or not it was for the book or just because you love the TV in general…?

Alwyn: You have to catch up; there was a lot of stuff of Nation’s I still hadn’t seen to start with, and particularly those Hancock episodes which I’d never actually seen before despite how much I’d loved Hancock; it had never occurred to me to track them down. Eventually I did find a bootleg DVD of the episodes, and that was part of the fun of it.

GG: You’ve actually mentioned quite a few of the things that he’s done, plus the Daleks of course in the title of your book; those ‘living, bubbling lumps of hate’ as Nation once called them. But personally, what would you say is Terry Nations stand out contribution from his very extensive body of work? He’s done so much.

Alwyn: You can’t really get away from the Daleks, just because they are so extraordinarily well known; people who have never seen an episode of Doctor Who still know who the Daleks are. Read any political blog and there will be somebody being cited as Dalek voiced or in form. It’s part of the language and that is so rare for a writer to create something that is so powerful and permeates culture so heavily.

GG: And ‘Dalek’ made it into the dictionary in fact.

Alwyn: Indeed, absolutely, which he was very pleased with (though incorrectly described as ‘robot-like creations’; they are in fact cyborgs). Writing, I think probably the first three episodes of Survivors I suspect are the best television work that he did. There’s more subtlety in there and more space;  less of the chasing and the sprained ankles and all the other things that people associate with Nation’s Doctor Who work. But you can’t get away from the Daleks, as ultimately that’s how he knew he would always be remembered. 

GG: And of course it’s not just series and characters he was famous for, but also the character arc; which was quite prevalent in soaps like Coronation Street , but he actually brought it into the sci-fi series and is used in many sci-fi series currently. The story arc is a recurring storyline for a character that spreads over a number of episodes, or even a number of series.

Alwyn: Yes that was new at that time, as you say it is absolutely standard now for anything. But it was how television evolved, and particularly because so much was dominated by America; which was obviously several years ahead of Britain and the popularisation of television. Because America is dominated by these vast numbers of franchises and regional variations where you can’t guarantee that episodes will be shown in the right order, it became standard that you did single episodes that could stand alone regardless of what order in which they were shown. When you caught them, the order didn’t matter as they would tell the story within themselves. It was therefore quite a radical development with Blake’s 7; when you did have these stories that ran over the entire series, and you would end a year of say 13 episodes with the final one leaving you with a cliff-hanger, that you had to wait 9 months to see resolved.

GG: And the cliff-hanger again was a very new thing wasn’t it?

Alwyn: Yes well it is an extension really - Nation grew up in the 30s and early 40s and would have watched all of those old Republic series at the cinema; the cliff-hanger took up the last five minutes of each episode and first five minutes of the next. But he took that and he extended that out to something that was a different territory I think. It’s difficult to tell how much of a direct influence that he had – I think to some extent that he can claim that he was originating something new with that.

GG: You also mentioned in the book that during these BBC dramas of that time and that era, budgets were so small, the focus was essentially entirely on the script and the actor; quite rightly so. But things have shifted somewhat in the BBC and with the new series of Doctor Who which was first aired back in 2005. Do you think the news episodes have become too polished?

Alwyn: I think some of the charm is lost, I have to say. I can see that times have changed and people’s expectations have changed. One of the reasons Doctor Who died off in the 80s when the audiences were dwindling was that the scheduling went completely awry; but also because people had higher expectations. Once you’d moved beyond Star Wars and the big budget movies, it did look a bit creaky on TV when you weren’t spending any money on it at all. So one can see that it does need to change, and I still have a fondness for it. You watch an old William Hartnell episode and it would be messy and people would forget their lines a bit, particularly Hartnell, and you can see the joins; there’s still something rather attractive about that I think. I don’t know whether it would work for people seeing it for the first time possibly, but I still have a fondness for it.

GG: I do too, I’ve just started watching Hartnell’s episodes and obviously the BBC episodes these days have all sorts of CGI and BBC orchestras adding to them.

Alwyn: That’s certainly one of the things you notice when you watch the originals is just how quiet they are. A modern Who episode is almost constant music, which can get a bit much. You can see it with the remake of Survivors that they did recently. The original series of Survivors had no incidental music on it at all; which was an accident because there happened to be a strike that disrupted the filming, this being the 70s. The time schedule didn’t allow for incidental music to be written and performed. But the result was that it was absolutely silent. You had these long shots of deserted English countryside with no music telling you how to feel. And that can actually be really quite intense in a scary way. You don’t have any cues to prompt you, whereas on the remake you can feel yourself being pushed and a bit manipulated.

GG: I’ve read the book and it is hefty but a very valid piece on Terry Nation, I really did enjoy it. I missed my bus stop three times because I was so engrossed in it. It also paints a really wonderful tapestry of times and just the social and economic climates. You’ve got moments in the smokers den that was the Associated London Scripts office, where nation worked for many years, to a night Nation spent locked in a hotel room with Hancock. So what is it about this era that you are most drawn to? You’ve done a few books on these social eras.

Alwyn: That period has long fascinated me, Britain in the 50s is a really intriguing place. There was the generation that had fought in the war and come back wanting to build something new, but then there were the ones just below that, like Nation, and a whole load of other writers in his time; Brian Clemens, Dennis Spooner and so on, who were slightly too young to have served in the war, but felt that society was starting to open up in the mid-50s. There are a couple of photos of Nation of that time with his co-writers of that period; John Junkin and Dave Freeman, and they’re wearing the characteristic clothes of the time, shapeless cord trousers, big baggy jumpers and the un-Brylcreemed hair. That was the same generation that was creating the angry young men of the time and this sense that there was a New Britain to be built. And it tends to get a bit forgotten as the 60s were so noisy and so self-promoting, and rightly so; it was a phenomenal period in its own right. But it overshadowed the 50s I think sometimes, and people don’t remember just how exotic some of this stuff was and how exciting things were and that the possibilities that were opening up, and Nation was there. The same as a lot of other people, he came to London because there was a feeling that something was going to break here and that there were possibilities for new people to come through. The one thing that runs through all of those people, the angry young men and the comedy writers and all the others who were there, is they tended to be people who hadn’t been to university; they’d left school at 14 or even earlier some of them, and were there making it on their own terms. And I think the 60s becomes much more dominated in the comedy field particularly by Beyond the Fringe and the Oxbridge generation that came into it. There’s something a little bit more raw and more exciting about the Associated London Scripts’ Spike Milligan, Galton and Simpson and Eric Sykes; incredible writers!

GG: Oh to be a fly on the wall.

Alwyn: Yes, Johnny Speight as well! There was a superb concentration of talent that was just gaffered around this ramshackled collection of offices over a greengrocers in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a superb little period.

GG: Finally, I have to ask you, I can’t find it anywhere online; what does the W in ‘Alwyn W Turner’ stand for?

Alwyn: (Laughter) It just stands for William. I use it because there is an Alwyn Scott Turner who is an American photographer, and so I’m trying to distinguish myself from him.

NB: This interview must not be used anywhere without credit or my permission.
Posted by: Geek Girl Kerensa Creswell-Bryant
Geek Girl, Updated at: 20:28

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