Tuesday, 10 May 2011
John Dorney Interview
What can you tell us about your acting background?
Acting was just one of those things I always did at school. I’d not really been sure what I wanted to do as a career, but I always did enjoy doing plays. When I was twelve I went to audition for the secondary school production of Merchant of Venice, and we read the trial scene from the fourth act. We were allocated parts according to order of appearance and how we were sat around the room, and by pure chance I was given Shylock to read, the best part in the play. The director liked my reading and cast me. I was the youngest actor in it! I got bitten by the bug. I did think about doing other things, I was pragmatic enough to know there wasn’t any money in it. But in a reverse of the traditional parent/child discussion my mum and dad persuaded me to go to drama school instead of trying to be a lawyer or a dentist as I’d thought.
I did three years at drama school, LAMDA in Earl’s Court. Left in 1997 and have been a jobbing actor ever since. I’ve got to do some wonderful theatres, like playing one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan at the National Theatre, and some great parts – I’ve done national tours in The Caretaker and Humble Boy. I’ve worked solidly if unfamously (is that even a word?) ever since.
What made you decide to take the leap from acting to writing?
I think they were both always there, so there wasn’t really a leap. I love doing both, and the joy of writing is you can always do it to a professional standard even if no-one’s paying you, so I’d just beaver away at it all the time.
I’d always written stories at school, I’d won prizes for poetry and scripts. I’d written a thirty minute house play at school that was a comic version of James Bond (a pastiche, rather than a parody – even at that age I thought sending it up would be cheap, and tricky since Bond is a self-parody anyway… so just tried to do a proper plot with more jokes). It was called ‘Always isn’t Forever’ and when I look back I’m surprised by how inventive and advanced it was. Yes, it was a kid’s script, but there were some really lovely jokes, and weird moments of surrealism. In particular I loved the ending – James Bond sacrificing himself in an explosion to save the world. I don’t know what I was on.
So I’ve always been doing it. I remember at the end of my first term at drama school we had to do a Christmas show, and it was linked by a couple of guys playing Statler and Waldorf. For some reason I can’t remember, I was earmarked as the writer of the year so had to come up with their lines. It was a great way to learn how to write jokes – each segment had to have a gag about the previous piece, then link to the next. I’m still very proud of one of the jokes: ‘If those were Carols… she can keep ‘em!’ which was something of a delayed reaction line, getting a laugh midway through the next sentence as people caught up.
I think it was that year I decided to write a stage play. I’d got quite obsessed with Pinter and my script, Neighbourhood Watch, was very heavily influenced by him, and is basically unperformable, though some of the dialogue is good. However the best way to learn how to write is by doing it, so it was an incredibly valuable experience.
I didn’t write masses more until I’d left drama school – a few short plays here and there – and in the unemployed months decided to take a crack at a full play. After a few false starts I realised I shouldn’t try to write a play I thought people would like – I should just write the play I wanted to write. So I abandoned the treatise on the nature of evil and the play about stray dogs (!) and wrote Cowboys, a sad little comedy about a man who’s given up his life for his disabled brother. And that was the first play that convinced me I could genuinely do it and I wasn’t just deluded.
Cowboys was eventually put on at the Royal Court theatre in their Young Writers festival of the year 2000 (easy to remember). I’m still very proud of it. And after that I didn’t really stop.
Solitaire had been pretty much universally adored, and with good reason. Was it your idea to move away from the traditional Companion Chronicles format and write a two-hander instead? What prompted this, rather than writing it in the 'house' style? What gave you the idea to explore the nature of games? Was it a desire to push the boundaries of what format could do? Did you choose the character of Charley or was this companion handed to you? Do you feel that 'less is more' in that by restricting yourself to two characters and one location it forced you to be imaginative and inventive?
The basic premise for Solitaire came from David Richardson. David is an unsung genius and I don’t think he always gets the credit he deserves for the stuff he comes up with.
So, yes, he provided the brief of Charley, the Toymaker, all dialogue, playing a game. Oh, and maybe the Doctor as a ventriloquist’s dummy using her voice, to reference Magic Mousetrap. And I took those ideas and ran with it. As I think I said in the sleeve notes, it was a challenging brief, but those are always the most exciting. I wasn’t especially scared of the idea of an hour long two hander play – I’m a theatre writer at heart, so long dialogue scenes are what I do – as long as I had enough plot and ideas to explore.
The plot came relatively easily – I’ve always enjoyed the strange sub-genre of claustrophobia or deathtrap movies – Cube, Phone Box and Saw (the original) are good examples – and though I’ve not seen them yet, Exam and Buried have a similar feel, if what I’ve heard is to be believed. People trapped in what appears to be a game where they have to figure out the rules and how to survive. The biggest influence was oddly a film I hadn’t seen, only heard about, when I started writing, but now have seen – Fermat’s Room, a Spanish thriller involving mathematicians solving puzzles in a room that’s slowly contracting. Worth a look. It’s a genre Who’s never really done – people say ‘Something Inside’ is a Dr Who version of Cube, but that’s because it’s in a vaguely similar location, not because there’s anything similar in the style of story.
So once I started with that premise, I knew I wanted Charley trapped in a single deadly game, trying to figure out the solution. And it plotted itself. When I started figuring out the story, I genuinely had no idea what the solution to the game was, I just hoped I’d come up with it. Which is what happened! (SPOILERS AHEAD!) I liked the notion of the vent dummy, but didn’t want to use it throughout the play – it would have felt like I was writing a three hander and just pretending it was two people, which wouldn’t work. You have to commit to the notion of a two hander. But if Charley knew it was the Doctor, why wouldn’t she let him figure out the answer? Therefore she couldn’t know it was the Doctor, therefore she had to be amnesiac. This was a relief in a way – Charley has one of the most explored back-stories in Dr Who, but little of it is written down anywhere, making her history a nightmare to research. So this meant I could focus on who Charley was a personality without having to worry about the baggage.
And it lead me to the cliffhanger. If she didn’t know the dummy was the Doctor, she could easily kill him by accident. When I thought of this, I realised that I could get the Toymaker to say ‘Game Over’ – the perfect, and to date unused, Toymaker cliffhanger!
But it lead to a problem. How do you get out of that? The Toymaker wouldn’t say ‘Game Over’ if the Doctor wasn’t actually dead. He’s not stupid. I toyed with the notion of Charley smashing down the door (as it was at that point) and rescuing him, but that just seemed trite. I think it took me about a week to figure out the solution – that the Toymaker was playing the game too and it was lying to him.
This was originally supposed to be a revelation at the top of part two… but something niggled me. I’d already figured out the title was Solitaire. A game for one player. But if the game was being played by two people… wasn’t the title dishonest? I was uncomfortable. So that lead me to the solution of the game… that it did only have one player and that was the Toymaker. We’d just been looking at it the wrong way. I’m a big fan of the rug pull – it’s there’s in Remember Me and Echoes of Grey too, and at least one other audio I’ve got coming up that I don’t want to spoil! So I ran with that.
Exploring the nature of games came with the territory. I’d decided I didn’t want to look too much into what makes Charley tick – she’s been explored in amazing depth already so it would have been covering old ground - Scherzo in particular is almost a proto-CC. I wanted to explore her character through action and deed rather than in the more usual CC style.
But the Toymaker was rather more open for discussion. I do think of Solitaire as almost as much of a ‘Villain Chronicle’ as a CC and I was intrigued by what makes him tick.
I’ve always been a huge fan of games playing. I’ll always pester my family for a board game over Christmas and can waste entire train journeys playing Catan or Carcassonne on my phone.
In particular, there was one evening when I’d been on tour when the cast and director of this particular show played Trivial Pursuit in a hotel in Cork. And I found the differing responses to the game fascinating.
One girl, my chum Cathie Harvey (who will become relatively familiar to BF fans soon, coincidentally) is an Oxford educated historian and she’d kick everyone’s arse at the game. But she’d also mouth clues and mime answers to the other players, which I hated. If I don’t know the answer, I don’t want a clue, I want to play the game properly, or I don’t see the point.
One other player, who I won’t name, was also very, very smart… but really took against the game and became something of a jobsworth. She refused the director a correct answer because it wasn’t precisely what was written on the card, and bemoaned the game’s definition of history. As if the whole thing was a serious test of who was the smartest person in the room. And I hated that too. Yes, I want to win, but if I’m not having fun, what’s the point?
So I realised that how we play games is very revealing about who we are. I wanted to ask myself why I enjoyed games, what I thought the best way to play them was. And I wanted to look at what the psychology of the games playing mind is. Why do we play? It seemed to fit the character and my own personal obsessions.
Certainly, the smaller scope allowed me to be more creative, and explore ideas. I do enjoy writing with restrictions as it gives more for the imagination to play with. My other CC briefs have just been the companion’s name – and both times I’ve added my own restrictions to give myself a starting point.
I’m still very proud of the play and hope I’ll be able to do something that dense again soon. You don’t really get the opportunity to explore concepts intellectually or in detail in a full cast play, especially if it’s action heavy. There’s usually something to think about in my stuff, I hope, not always, but usually, but I want to explore an idea with some rigour again soon.
Incidentally – no one’s picked up that there is the tiniest bit of traditional CC in the story. As a little gag to myself, Charley does briefly narrate something that happened in the past (when the TARDIS is caught) for about a line or two. So it is a traditional CC… just with a really enormous framing story and a tiny flashback.
Is there a particular era of Doctor Who that appeals to you more? You've written a First and Second Doctor audio as well as co-adapting the Dalek pilot. Do the early days of the show hold more appeal, and if so, what is it about them that does appeal so much to you?
I love most eras fairly equally, albeit in different ways. I find some of the Pertwee era a bit of a struggle – too many long scripts without enough scope or story to justify it – but even then you have gems like all of season seven, and Carnival of Monsters. And I’m one of the few people who likes Monster of Peladon, Colony in Space and Invasion of the Dinosaurs! But apart from that, I love them all!
I did a chronological rewatch of the first and second Doctors some time back. It’s a great experience, and it certainly points up how marvellous Hartnell is. He’s dismissed way too often, but when you watch all of them it’s amazing how hard it is to accept Troughton or anyone else afterwards (though you do get used to them!). In particular, the first three stories work so well watched in order, I really wouldn’t want to do them any other way from now on.
The show in those days is also dazzling, and hugely underrated. Fans these days have been spoilt a bit and will complain the stories are slow (which isn’t the same as bad, imo) but you really shouldn’t watch them all in one go. Episode at a time, as they were meant to be seen. And I love them.
What’s particular dazzling about the Hartnell era is how brave and ambitious it is. Look at season three. A twelve part epic. A one parter without the regulars. A historical that pretends to kill the Doctor (but actually barely features him!) A story which stops half-way through and then continues the story many years later. A comedy that suddenly becomes a tragedy before you notice. A Brechtian musical comedy, for crying out loud. The show has never been that experimental again.
With Companion Chronicles the brief is to try to fit the era. But that’s really tricky with the Hartnell years. You can evoke the Tom Baker period by imagining it’s a story taking place in a couple of sets. But you can’t think ‘how would they have done this on a 1965 budget’ because they didn’t. The Web Planet (which I adore – watch it an episode at a time and switch off your cynicism, it’s wonderful!) is the most beautiful case of reach exceeding grasp I’ve seen in my life. How the hell did they think they could do it? So I wanted to write a story that the 60s production team would have made… but it would have looked appalling. And I wanted to set it in season two because everyone does season one and two is the season with the most numerous great actors in the TARDIS. No other season has four absolute stonking performers as regulars.
Because I always like to justify the second voice somehow (if it’s just another character I always want to know why they get a voice over someone else) The Rocket Men has an interesting structure. I’d decided I wanted it to feel like a four part story… where only episode three exists. And yet you get all four episodes. Sort of. In two parts. On one CD. That’s all I’ll say for now!
The Troughton era I love just as much, but for different reasons. Plot wise, it’s a little dull – the much touted monster season is basically the same plot every story, with the exception of Enemy which is my favourite of the season! But it’s got lots of brilliant actors and characters. Troughton is, and always will be, my favourite Doctor, arguably defining the role for ever, and as I’ve said over and over again, the combo of him, Jamie and Zoe is the best TARDIS team. I adore the way they interact and could write them for ever.
Special Features was an ingenious concept of setting a piece of drama within an audio commentary - once you had decided that was the approach you wanted to take was it difficult to carve a narrative within this framework? Were you conscious that this was going to require two stories being recorded?
I think the basic story took about a week to come up with once I’d had the idea. Lots of thinking, walks in the park, turning it over and over in my head.
Oddly enough, I’d had another high-concept idea about a year before, that was liked but never really went anywhere, but it was useful training for the concept. Because you sort of have to sit down and block out what you can and can’t do. Ask yourself the natural questions.
For example – it would have been easy just to tell a story that happened in the past through the gaps in the commentary discussion. This still sort of happens… you have to piece together most of the Doctor’s previous encounters with the Rasht through implications and unspoken detail – precisely how Nyssa gets involved, for example. But that’s terribly passive – a script about a story, rather than a story itself. For me, playing with the form is all well and good, but unless there’s a specific need to tell the story that way, it’s a stylistic trick, a gimmick. It’s why I prefer Urgent Calls (the phone play) to Live 34 (the radio broadcast play) despite both being brilliantly well written – because Urgent Calls couldn’t be told any other way. The narrative justifies the format.
I had no idea that it would require two plays – in my head, the background sound would be cobbled together from other audios, muffled. It was Alan Barnes who insisted on doing both. If I’d known it would have both… I’d probably have been a bit more ambitious with having them interact (there’s a bit of this in the audio, albeit less than in the first draft though). Probably have had Nyssa trapped in it or something similar, needing to be brought out of history into the modern day.
It was slightly nightmarish to write. I scripted it in two columns, indicating specific moments of crossover and interaction. And because the main plot was in the commentary, I had to structure the film storyline (which does sort of make sense) around the order I needed the information to arrive in the commentary. So Nyssa’s character isn’t with Bromley at the beginning of the film because otherwise we’d lose the exposition about her storyline. And the opening scene is a direct parody of traiditional Dr Who opening scenes because I thought there probably wouldn’t be a theme tune and I couldn’t open with ‘hello, I’m Martin Ashcroft and I directed x’ without people thinking it was the CD extras and risk them switching off.
Nonetheless, I’m very happy with the finished piece. I think it satirises the medium in the way I wanted it to, tells an interesting and unusual story, with some good twists and reveals and is fun for the audience. I’ve been told I tend to write melancholic and depressing stories (I recall the DWM review of Echoes saying the ending was downbeat in the extreme, which I’d genuinely never realised until people told me) so I’m delighted to have written what’s essentially a comedy. It is sort of my natural arena.
What can you tell us about your eagerly awaited Jago & Litefoot script for the next season?
Very, very little, as you’ll appreciate. It’s slightly atypical Jago and Litefoot, so I’m not sure how it’ll go down.
It is one of my favourite scripts, though. I had intended to write a play about why actors and performers act and perform, the love of the crowd, that sort of thing. As it turned out, it’s about heartbreak. And I suspect inordinately depressing. Typically of me!
Jago and Litefoot are terrific fun to write. As is Leela. Brilliant actors, brilliant parts. You can hear the voices so the lines just flow out. I tend to impersonate them as I type to see if the lines feel right in their voices. It’s one of the reasons I love the series as a listener – it’s genuinely my favourite range, so a privilege to be part of it. Any other mini-series go to the bottom of the listened pile, J&L is devoured as quickly as possible. Preferably in the dark with a glass of port.
Can I say anything else? It features a homage to the Brian Friel play Translations. And one sentence (six words at the end of the penultimate scene) is probably my favourite line I’ve ever written. It genuinely made me cry to type. Which makes me both an egotist and a wuss.
That’s probably it for the moment. Wait til June!
Your appearance in A Death in the Family was integral to the plot in a very fundamental way. The intricacies of the story were very cleverly thought out, and need more than one listen to fully appreciate. Of all the stories you've been involved in, would it be fair to say that this is the most complex?
Very much so. I’d go so far as to say that on a structural level it’s probably the most complex and ambitious piece of Doctor Who in any medium ever. An absolutely impeccable piece of construction. But even then, construction and complexity is nothing without heart, and it’s got that by the bucket-load as well, which I think people seem to forget when they reel in the glory of the engineering. It takes Ace and Hex and Evelyn to such depths of exploration that only the heartless can’t be moved. I’m so proud I’m able to have, literally, played a part in that production. It was obviously brilliant from the get go, who wouldn’t want to be involved?
I was in the lucky position that I, coincidentally, knew Steve already, and so during the process he sent me some of the drafts of the scripts and I recall working my way through them with an increasing sense of awe and wonder. And absolute jealousy! In particular, the moments in part four where all of the little throwaway lines you don’t realise are significant come together and you realise how skilfully the piece has been put together… that was properly gasp inducing. He’s a genius that man, and that is not a word I use lightly. We were sat in the pub recently and he explained a concept he had in mind for something he’s working on, something awe inspiringly huge and complex and imaginative, and he said ‘it practically writes itself’. For someone with a mind as brilliant as his that may very well be true, but for mere mortals like myself it would be the work of years of graft. He’s so busy with other projects that he can’t do too much Doctor Who, sadly, but even with his necessarily limited output, the man is incredible and we’re all very lucky that he’s playing in our sandbox!
The Lost Stories have been a huge hit, a wonderful glimpse at what might have been. What approach are you taking with the third season? When it comes to script editing duties do you nip and tuck the scripts or have there been any occasions where you have had do some major rewriting?
Well, it varies on a case to case basis.Only one of the stories appearing in the third season is based on a fully completed script. The others are a combination of storylines, and partial scripts with outlines (actually, there’s one where I think a full script may have existed, but the original author largely abandoned what they’d written originally, so I’m not sure how much there was in the first place).
My feeling is that you have to gauge all sorts of factors. If you have a full script, you sort of have to make that (unless the original author wants to change it), because the audios fulfil the role of an historical document in that case. With the series 3 story that was a full script the original author was no longer with us, so one of our writers adapted it, leaving the original by and large totally intact. We wouldn’t have wanted to touch it anyway though – the script is brilliant. Epic, moving, and just generally astonishing.
When your story is based on a synopsis only, I think you’ve more leeway. These stories would have required some development to get to the screen, and so I’d say it’s legitimate to give the plots a restructuring, a bit of development and expansion as required. It becomes more like the process on a regular Who audio, just with a more detailed brief. Sometimes the work required is minimal, just a matter of adding some cliffhangers and bulking up the action, other times you rework things. Equally, it often comes down to the specific taste of the author, and how much they feel they want to change. Some don’t want that much input, others are prepared to shift things more fundamentally as long as it’s still the same story at heart. There are a few aspects of my adaptation, The Elite, that are very definitely me, and the ideas it explores are preoccupations that have occurred to me, but they were all inspired and derived from the original synopsis Barbara Clegg submitted and all of the key scenes and ideas from that are retained. If you’re not doing the storyline, then there’s no point. Basically we’re all working to the same ideal – we want to make the best story we can.
Are they any other Doctor and/or companions that you would relish the chance to write for? If so, what especially appeals about them?
I think I’ve done most of the people I’d like to write for, either in the stories I’ve already written, or others yet to be announced. I suppose I’d like to complete the classic Doctor set, and do every old series Doctor in some form (two to go!). But I’ve been very blessed with who I’ve had to work with.
Frazer Hines is probably an obvious omission. I’m a massive second Doctor fan, so I reckon it would be great to work with him, though I adored Wendy and her work on my CC so much that I’d be very sad to let her go – Echoes was a very demanding script that she pulled off brilliantly. Wonderful woman. I wish Ian Marter was still alive. Harry is possibly my favourite companion, certainly up there somewhere, and I think a Harry CC would have been a jolly good show, old bean. But sadly not to be.
Other than that… Matt Smith. I think it’s an amazing performance. Probably my favourite new series Doctor, and I say that as someone who loved Tennant to bits. That’s not that I’m saying I want to write on the TV show as such (not that I’d complain), but that I reckon he’d be a great actor to write for.
What can we expect from you in the future?
More of the same, really. Not a lot I can talk about. I’ve had one script recorded that hasn’t been announced yet, and probably won’t be for four or five months at least, I’d guess. It contains one of my all time favourite scenes. Keep an ear out for the word ‘persiflage’, that’s the one I’m talking about.
I’ve a couple of full cast pieces for various ranges, not necessarily Who – I’ve just finished a three disc script which is draining in oh so many ways. There’s another Companion Chronicle being developed. We’ve a title and a basic concept, I just need to fill in the gaps.
After that, I know what my next two projects as a writer are, plus a good few others as script editor. I’m not gone for a while yet, in other words.