Monday, 12 September 2011

INTERVIEW: Writer and producer Brian Clemens

What a wonderful chap. Brian Clemens chuckled and plugged his way through our interview with ease, like the seasoned pro that he is. Renowned for the ever-so classy handling of his slice of UK cult-televisual pie, most would say it was The Avengers; that quaint, idiosyncratic upper-class British adventure-cum sci-fi production, that Brian's name would ring most familiar. Not the only celebrity in the family, Brian is permitted to boast about his achievements; he even has a medal to show for it all...

The following interview was broadcast on The Geekend, Radio Reverb on 10th September 2011. 

GG: Creator, producer, scriptwriter, playwright; Brian Clemens is the man responsible for some of the most bold, inspired and much loved British television series of the 60s and 70s, including The Avengers, The Baron, The Protectors, The Champions, Danger Man and more beginning with ‘the’, one of the busiest scriptwriters of his generation, Brian was even awarded an OBE in 2010 for his contributions. With other works including Hammer Horror films, and a Ray Harryhausen classic to his name, welcome to The Geekend Mr Brian Clemens, how are you?

Brian: I’m fine thank you. You missed out The Professionals (laughter) which I created. It’s going to be a movie too.

GG: When’s that coming out?

Brian: I think about March 2013 (currently in development). Lionsgate are backing it.

GG: Hah I’ll be front row for that!

GG: I have to kick off by asking you about the incredible series The Avengers. You were essentially its linchpin; you wrote the original pilot episode in 1961 and then you were the script editor, associate producer and main scriptwriter for The Avengers series (ITV, 1961–1969). How did it affect you, finding success from it?

Brian: Well it affected my bank balance mostly (laughter). I co-produced it too, so I had total creative control, which you wouldn’t get nowadays. It was unique; not in that era, but compared to now, it would be controlled by committee, and committee designed the camel as you know (laughter).

GG: The Avengers in the 60s and 70s was part of the golden age boom of British television, the cream of the crop essentially. You were also in the same belt of the likes of Dennis Spooner, Galton and Simpson and Terry Nation. How did it compare writing in the 60’s and 70’s to writing in the 90s and currently? Is it more corporate? Was there an ‘anything goes’ feel that has been lost over the years?

Brian: Well when I started writing back then, most of generic television in Britain was written by about ten or twelve writers, of which I was one. Dennis Spooner worked for me and I worked for him and so on. Because I was at Elstree Studios doing The Avengers and whenever we had a hiatus where we took a short break, Dennis or Terry Nation would come in and ask ‘can you write one of mine?’, on a series they were doing. That’s how I got on The Persuaders! The people that made television, they loved it. Lew Grade loved it. Nowadays I have a feeling if the accountants could prove if they could make more money turning the studio into a poison gas factory; they’d go for it.

GG: Wow. That’s an answer and a half!

GG: Speaking of The Avengers again, you were of course the man responsible for casting the beautiful and fantastic Diana Rigg as the replacement to Honor Blackman in the series. Were you nervous about how the transition from Cathy Gale to Mrs Peel would go? As it had potential to be the demise of the series?

Brian has worked on a number
of series from the 60s through
to present day.
Brian: No, not nervous at all. I was quite optimistic really. Honor had left to go on and do the Bond movie (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), so it was an opportunity to bring in a younger and an as interesting person. I don’t want to demarcate Honor; she was lovely, and is lovely. It is The Avengers 50th Anniversary this year, and they had a huge celebration at Chichester University.

GG: I know, I was there – it was a great event!

Brian: And Honor was there, and Linda (Thorson). And so was I. So it was just a pragmatic decision. We tested about five or six young ladies, all of talent, and then decided that Diana was the best one for our purposes.

GG: Quite excitingly, you were also part of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) possibly made most famous by co-writer and creature creator Ray Harryhausen. It also starred another Bond Girl Caroline Munro and Doctor Who’s Tom Baker. What was it like working with Ray, who you co-wrote the film with?

Brian: He co-wrote the story; he didn’t actually contribute to the script. I had lunch with him about a year ago. It was wonderful to go to his house in London; on every floor he has got these fantastic bronzes of all these monsters he’s created throughout the years. It’s like living in monster-land. It was a happy experience. I worked with Ray and his partner Charles Schneer, I mean his business partner, I have to qualify that these days (laughter). It was all very amenable and great fun.

GG: And what a film to have worked on! 

GG: You have worked on so many series, including the 1976 sequel series The New Avengers (ran for two series) and 90s techno-crime series for example (which despite having a four series run, critics don't hold it the acclaim it deserves in my entirely biased opinion). I assume you put just as much effort into writing a pilot or an initial series, not necessarily knowing the outcome. Among all your success stories, how was it for you, going so far and then having the occasional series deemed a flop? 

Brian: The New Avengers was not a flop; it probably made more money that the old Avengers. What happened was that we were guaranteed money by a Frenchman who was a bit of a crook. When his money run out, my business partner Albert Fennell and myself actually paid the artists and the writers and actors ourselves to keep it going. To get the money, we had to then surrender four episodes in Canada, which is about the worst place to make an Avengers 'look', as The Avengers was essentially based on British myth. It’s always foggy here and we exploited Britain’s past, in a way.

GG: The New Avengers took on an extra partner (Gareth Hunt) – so it was quite different to the original. It still had Patrick Macnee, but all loyalists to the original series may not have seen The New Avengers as it should have been; the next generation.

Brian: It had some of the best scripts, but the problem was it had had quite a lapse in time, Pat had grown older and had arthritis in his knee so wasn’t jumping around like he had once, so I brought in Gareth Hunt as his legs, as it were. I replaced his legs with Gareth Hunt. (Laughter) Dear Gareth who sadly isn’t with us anymore unfortunately. (Gareth passed away in 2007).

Another show which had fantastic scripts (which Brian created and produced) is My Wife Next Door, but they haven’t launched it on DVD yet. It's my (1972 BAFTA winning) comedy series and I’d really like that to be re-released. (A not so subtle hint, hint, BBC.)

Brian's favourite episode of
The Avengers:
The House That Jack Built
GG: You never know…

Brian: You never know…

GG: And remakes seem to be the trend at the moment.

Brian: Well that was my plug.

GG: And nicely placed (laughter).

GG: I have to say that my favourite Avengers episodes were the ones that had a science-fiction edge to them; with the man-eating plants from space (Man Eater of Surrey Green), the various episodes featuring cybernauts and the perhaps Hitchcock inspired episode with killer birds (Cat Amongst the Pigeons). Which episodes for you stand out as the most enjoyable ones to write?

Brian: I think the most interesting one I wrote was The House That Jack Built; that was black and white too. Mostly the ones you just mentioned were black and white; we wanted to start in colour, but that would have cost about £3,000 more and they wouldn’t put the money up for it. So what happened was the first 26 episodes of The Avengers, which are amongst the best, are not shown very often because they are black and white.

GG: Your writing style reflects a very tongue in cheek sense of humour at times, your character writing especially; the relationships within The Avengers,  Steed with his various partners, or with Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair and Tony Curtis’ Danny Wilde in The Persuaders! ; even in your Hammer Horror film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Great, great comedy element. You  also have a huge sense of a love of adventure and the advances in technology. Is this is a family trait, as you are indeed related to Mark Twain, the American humourist and author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?

Brian: (Laughter) Yes I named my two sons Samuel Twain Clemens and George Langhorne Clemens after him, as you see Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens; so I thought I’d capitalise on that (laughter).

GG: And rightly so (laughter). So the humour does run in the family…

Brian: And also the writing. Both my mother and my father wrote sort of potted life stories and my father’s is terrific. So it must be a gene. And my son has finished writing the basis of a feature film; they’re looking for finance now to turn it into a full feature.

GG: I’ve read about this, doesn’t it have the vocal talents of Roger Moore?

Brian: Yes!

GG: Brilliant, so what was it like working with Sir Roger again?

Brian: Roger’s great fun, he did this as a favour for me and Jo Lumley is going to be in it, or associated with it. Roger and Jo are good friends. The Lighter is lots of different stories, lots of different genres, only linked by the lighter that passes from hand to hand to hand. It’s interesting, quirky and funny. I always like funny.
GG: That’s very evident (laughter).

Brian: Hitchcock, who is my all-time favourite sort of hero, he made lots of very grim films – but there was always the relief of humour. In Psycho there is humour. That’s very important, to give the audience release; you can screw them up so far, but then you must give them a little release of laughter.

My stage plays, no matter how grim they are, I always put in scenes that contain humour. I guess that’s the way I write.

GG: One other spot I made was The Persuaders! Is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary, so congratulations!

Brian: Yes that’s right, there is an event happening for it which I unfortunately I can’t attend but Roger will be there so he’ll hold the fort.

NB: This interview must not be used anywhere without credit or my permission. 

Posted by: Geek Girl Kerensa Creswell-Bryant
Geek Girl, Updated at: 21:43