Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Joe Lidster Interview

Did you always want to be a writer growing up?

Originally, I wanted to be an actor. I was in a couple of drama clubs and did well in a couple of national competitions but, as I got older, I just began to lose confidence in my own abilities really. At around the same time, we did a school production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in which I played Salieri. It was a brilliant production – superbly directed with excellent sets and lighting and costume and so on - but what I really got from it was just how amazing the script was. I'd always enjoyed writing but I started to realise that I wanted to be able to give other people the chance to perform a part like Salieri. About a year after we'd put on the play, I was working on a supermarket checkout and this customer recognised me. She said that I'd given her child nightmares after they'd seen our production. And I really realised then that that emotional reaction had all started with the script. I wanted to make people cry and laugh and for them to be scared and gripped and desperate to know what would happen next and I realised that I'd have the opportunity to do that more as a writer than as an actor.

What did you enjoy watching/reading in your formative years and who do you take your inspiration from?

It's the old clich̩ but definitely Doctor Who and, especially, the novelisations. I don't think I really got that the old Doctors and companions in the books I borrowed from the library were all part of the same series I was watching on telly but I loved them all the same. They were just so exciting. I also loved the Narnia series Рmy favourite book of all time is The Magician's Nephew which, again, like the Doctor Who novelisations, is just a brilliant adventure with great characters and ideas behind it but, also importantly for me, simply told. Then, TV-wise, as I got older, I loved shows like Cracker and Twin Peaks. They told big, important character-led stories but weren't a struggle to watch Рthey were very clever without feeling as if they were trying to be unapproachably intellectual or high-brow. They worked as pieces of entertainment but with a real depth to them.

The Rapture was your first writing assignment. How did that come about? What was your starting point for the story?

I'd graduated from university with a media degree which, while I'd had the time of my life doing it, hadn't really set me up for a career or anything. I knew the basics of how to make a short film and I'd learnt the technicalities of how to write scripts, but the one thing I hadn't really been taught was how to get an actual job. I certainly didn't know how people became a writer – and in those days, I didn't have access to the internet or anything so I just really wasn't sure what someone like me did next. So I pretty much took a year off and had a very drunken time working in telesales in Newcastle which was great fun but I eventually ran out of money and had to move back in with my parents. I knew I needed to start making some decisions about what I was going to do next so I started to apply for any jobs I could that were remotely related to writing and TV production. I sent my CV off to hundreds of places, acted in a terrible improvised short film, applied for jobs as runners and TV presenters while at the same time working in WH Smiths. I'd also had, years before, an idea for a Doctor Who novel which I realised I could pitch to Big Finish as an audio. I'd only heard one of the Bernice Summerfield adventures but I thought it was worth a try. I was big into my clubbing at the time (sadly, I'm far too old for all that now) and I'd had an idea about aliens trying to take over the world with dance music and drugs – which seemed, to me, to be a perfect modern-day version of the Yeti on the loos in Tooting Bec scenario. So I wrote it up and sent it off and, to my surprise, after a year of being rejected for everything else, I got a letter back from Gary Russell saying he'd be interested in taking it further.

The score is one of my favourites for any Doctor Who story…do you think the Ibiza club scene translated well for an audio story?

I think it was an interesting experiment. Clearly, it was (and still is!) one of Big Finish's least popular releases. It has its fans but it's generally seen as being the audio equivalent of stepping in dog muck. Obviously, I'm biased and think it has merit. I'm very proud of the first two episodes. I think Episode One is a very good, well-structured, quite traditional Doctor Who Episode One. I think Episode Two is bonkers and I'm not sure whether it works but I think it does something Big Finish have never really done before or since – which I'm sure some people are grateful for. I do think, looking back as a writer, it falls apart in Episodes Three and Four and I learnt a lot from that – you can have the wowiest opening of anything ever but if the climax to your story is basically a weaker version of your Episode One ending then people really aren't going to care. It's nothing to do with the Ibiza setting or featuring characters who drank and took pills, it's quite simply that the plotting isn't up to scratch. I also do think I suffered slightly from things that were outside my control. For example, I didn't know that some fans were tired of the Ace angst which I'd been asked to put in.

I'm still proud of it though. I think it tries to do something different and I think the characters are interesting and well-developed. I like how it uses clubbing and depression and religion and the mystical history of Ibiza – it's got a lot in there and I do feel as if it's about something – it's not just trying to fill in a gap or be a pastiche of the old TV series. It's not generic or bland and it got me noticed so, for that, I'm grateful.

Did you enjoy writing for the Master and where were you looking to take the character when you wrote for the villains’ trilogy? What did you think of the finish production?

Master was the complete opposite of Rapture in so many ways. I was asked to write it rather than having to pitch. I also wanted to do something very different – so whereas Rapture was big and loud and full of young people, Master was quiet and controlled, with older characters. I think the big difference was that my first story had been about so much – probably too much. It had been, I'd assumed, the one Doctor Who script I'd ever write so I'd thrown everything into it – depression, religion, relationships, continuity, dance music, angels, growing up, love and so on. With Master, I was being asked to take a villain from the TV series who, I felt, beyond some superficial mannerisms, didn't really have much of a character. He could be charming and terrifying, and I'd loved him as a kid watching the series, but underneath that, there didn't seem to be any real depth – we never knew what he wanted the Earth or the Universe for. He also, pretty much always, failed in whatever his plan of the week was.

I looked at what he had successfully achieved which was the deaths of many people and decided to explore that angle. I'm fascinated by serial killers (not in a creepy way!) because I love looking at how people can be outwardly so very different to who they are really. My favourite characters I've written for (such as Owen in Torchwood and Clyde in The Sarah Jane Adventures) have been people who find it difficult to express their feelings. If there's a problem in The Rapture is that nobody leaves a single feeling unmentioned. All that tied in nicely with me wanting to tell a spooky, haunted house drama about people with secrets. Without wanting to sound too pretentious, every character in that story is wearing a mask – they each have a secret and it's those secrets being revealed that drives the drama.
It's been a long time since I've listened to it but I was very happy with the finished play. The cast are fantastic, David Darlington's music is brilliant and I think the whole thing comes together really nicely.

Terror Firma saw the eighth Doctor return to our universe only to be greeted by Davros and the Daleks! Was it daunting to write for these iconic creations? Your take Davros was truly terrifying – what is it that makes this character tick?

Daunting is the wrong word as basically you just have to get on with it but, yes, I was aware that people would have expectations that I probably wouldn't fulfil. What's great about Davros and the Daleks, though, is that they have such distinctive voices. They are characters that, once you've written a line of dialogue for them, you know instantly whether it's something they'd say or not. I suppose the actual daunting thing was that they've such a huge fictional history – and I quite like my stories to be accessible to people who might not know the entire history of Doctor Who. Terror Firma had to follow on from so much so it was tricky trying to make it a drama in its own right and not just a continuation of about 43 other stories.

With Davros I had to find a way to empathise with him so I focussed on the fact that he was now this ancient creature – again, with an element of the serial killer in him. At some point in his life, he made a decision that set him on that path and if only someone had stopped him or he'd made another choice then he wouldn't be the man he'd become. I really enjoyed writing for C'Rizz as well because I thought he was a fascinating idea for a companion and Conrad was so good at making him funny and sweet and likeable and then suddenly dark and terrifying. The final scene of Terror Firma is one of my favourites.

Peri’s homecoming was the central feature of The Reaping. How did you envisage the character’s backstory and was it vital to give her a massive emotional journey in this story to continue her adventures with the sixth Doctor? Do you think the sixth Doctor and Peri have translated well onto audio?

The Reaping came about because Gary asked me to write a Colin vs the Cybermen story. I'd grown up with the Sixth Doctor and the Cybermen had always scared me more than the Daleks so I was really grateful for the opportunity. I asked to write for Peri as, again, I'd grown up watching the character and I was also worried I wouldn't be able to write for Evelyn without making her a caricature. I think Nicola is one of the most underrated actors who worked on Doctor Who – Peri gets this fantastic, New Series-style first story but after that she's often written as an argumentative, moaning damsel in distress. We're explicitly told she has a family waiting for her back on Earth so I'd wondered what the emotional fallout had been about her not returning home. I then realised that actually she might have done and that whatever happened could be the catalyst for how her relationship with the Doctor changed before Season 23. It also gave me the chance to write a big scary American-style horror zombie movie featuring the Cybermen which was fun!

I think the Sixth Doctor and Peri have translated brilliantly to audio because Colin and Nicola are just so good. They weren't given the opportunity onscreen to do much other than snipe at each other so it's been fantastic in the audios how we've seen that the Sixth Doctor and Peri really are the best of mates.

How did you feel about bringing Tegan’s character back for the first time on audio in The Gathering? What are your thoughts on her relationship with the fifth Doctor?

Oh, I change my mind about Tegan all the time. There's something very modern about her which I like and I think in her later stories when it's just her and Turlough she can be great fun but she's also just so miserable and argumentative at times. It's not the writers' or Janet's fault, it's just such a silly decision to have someone in the TARDIS who actively doesn't want to be there. She's much more fun once she chooses to return of her own accord.

Bringing her back was a challenge. At that point, it was quite a major thing for Big Finish as Janet had been adamant that she didn't want to return as Tegan. Of course, she's now back as a regular so a bit of the pressure is off. If I'm honest, I don't think it's my best story. I think it was Janet who was insistent that Tegan would be killed off so she couldn't do any more. I didn't want to do that as I felt it was a bit obvious and that we'd never see any emotional fall-out from it. I also felt that the return of Tegan was a big triumphant thing and I didn't want to turn it into something horrible and miserable. I was told, though, that I had to keep the open-ended brain tumour ending, which, frankly I didn't particularly like either. Working on an ongoing series, though, you sometimes have to write storylines you wouldn't personally have chosen to include.

It's actually the play I listened to most recently and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It feels very modern and I like how the scenes in the first episode overlap and are told in the order of how each character experiences them. I was surprised when, in an interview, Janet said she felt I'd made the Doctor and Tegan too antagonistic towards each other as she herself had insisted on adding lines about how whenever he turned up people would be mowed down by Mara or whatever that awful speech was. If there is a problem with the script it's that my own personal view is that Tegan looked back on her time with the Doctor as basically a gap year. There were bad experiences but it had also been this great crazy adventure. And then, once it was over, she brushed herself down and got on with her life. That aspect of the story, though, is fighting against the relentless misery of a science fiction brain tumour.

You got to turn Evelyn into a monster in Bedtime Story. Do you find writing horror comes naturally to you and are you a big fan of the genre?

I guess I'm more of a fan of horror than I am of science fiction. Most of my stories are relatively light on sci-fi elements. I prefer horror because I think it causes more of an emotional reaction. It's not about world-building or spaceships or detailed alien cultures. It's about making the audience sit on the edge of their seat terrified as to what's going to happen next. The reason I turned Evelyn into a monster, though, was also because I felt a simple, Tales Of The Unexpected-style horror story would suit the 25 minute slot better than something more complicated. I also thought it would be fun as Evelyn is quite a cosy companion. She's got bite but she's also very motherly and likes cake and so on. Making her the monster was just quite fun really.

Of all the Doctors/companions you had the opportunity to writer for in the main range which were your favourites and why? Are there any stories that you are particularly proud and are there any that you would go back and writer differently if you had the chance now?

I'm not sure whether I've any favourites. They were all great to write for in different ways. I enjoy writing for Colin as he's just a lovely bloke and a great actor. Writing for Paul, India and Conrad was very exciting because they felt new. They were Big Finish's new series. You could do anything with them and it could have big consequences. I've fond memories of Terror Firma as well because I became and stayed good friends with Conrad and Lizzie Hopley, who played Gemma Griffin. As for things I'd go back and do differently? I tend to try and not think like that because there's not really any point. Yes, I'd probably change the ending of The Rapture. Yes, I'd probably make changes to The Gathering. But each play has aspects that I'm incredibly proud of and I learnt so much from writing each one. I was so incredibly lucky to have the opportunities I was given and I'll always be so grateful to Jason Haigh-Ellery and, especially, Gary Russell for taking a chance on me.

You have also written for Sapphire and Steel, Bernice Summerfield and The Tomorrow People ranges. Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to each series? Do you have any particular favourites of the stories that you have written for these ranges?

I loved writing for the other ranges as there tended to be a bit more freedom. That was especially true with Sapphire and Steel and The Tomorrow People as Nigel Fairs really encouraged writers to do what they wanted. He wanted each story to be, first and foremost, a strong drama and it was so exciting working with him because of that. I love the Bernice Summerfield range but, because it's more of an arc-led series, there wasn't quite the same freedom. Saying that, I'm very happy with both my stories for that range. 
Again, it's difficult to choose a favourite as, while I'm sure they're all flawed, I'm incredibly proud of each one. I think The Mystery of The Missing Hour is great fun. I think Aftermath is a very lovely, superbly-acted human drama. I'd probably choose Daisy Chain though which I just think, out of every audio play I wrote, does everything I wanted it to. It's got a fantastic cast and Nigel's direction and music is just perfect.

In 2011 you became the co-producer of the Dark Shadows range. Can you tell us a little about this range for those who might not have dipped their toes into it yet?

Dark Shadows was a 1960s soap opera that, when it wasn't doing so great in the ratings, decided to add a vampire into the series. It was like Dalekmania. It just went huge. The programme became this absolutely bonkers and brilliant soap opera about ghosts and vampires and werewolves and time travel and parallel universes.

With the audios, what we've tried to do is create a series of plays that will appeal to the fans and to people who've never seen the series. What we say to writers is to think of it as Tales Of The Unexpected. They pick a character from the TV series (such as Quentin the immortal werewolf or Angelique the witch) and then write a story that works as a self-contained spooky drama. James Goss, my co-producer, and I then worry about the continuity and any ongoing arcs. I'm really proud of what we've achieved. The audios were already doing well with existing Dark Shadows fans in America but we've managed to attract quite a few new listeners recently. I'm also very aware that I owe my career to Gary Russell and Big Finish so I'm enjoying having the opportunity to give new writers and actors a chance. This year, for example, we've two writers who've never written for Big Finish before – Kymberly Ashman and Aaron Lamont – and they've both bought something new to the series. Each of our plays is very different because they're very writer-led which is something I'm really happy about. Again, we're not just trying to pastiche the old series – we ask each writer to create a spooky, fun, clever drama for a modern-day audience.

You have also written a number of short stories (Short Trips) and a novella (‘On Trial’) for Big Finish. Are there restraints to writing short stories because of their condensed length or does that make it more of a creative challenge? Is there a full-length novel in you waiting to come out?

I'd love to write an original novel and I've a few ideas but the truth is that I find writing prose incredibly difficult. Writing that novella nearly broke me! I enjoy short stories because they can be very intense to both write and read. I think the trick is to tell a story that can only be told as a short story. They tend to be, plot-wise, quite simple and to focus more on atmosphere and character which I really enjoy.

How did you come to make the leap from audio work to television?

I wrote a load of stuff for Big Finish which was a great experience. I learnt so much and really developed my skill as a writer. I was then very lucky when, one evening, I met James Goss in the pub. He was in charge of the BBC’s Doctor Who website at the time and we sort of knew each other vaguely. He came over to say how much he’d enjoyed one of my Big Finish plays which was nice. I was possibly slightly drunk and said that he should employ me. James said that they were actually looking for a freelancer to write the content for the fictional websites they were going to be doing from The Christmas Invasion onwards. We swapped emails and he employed me. So I wrote all those fake websites and videos for Mickey and stuff from that first Christmas special up until and including Series 3’s Martha’s Myspace blog. 

That was a great experience because I was being script-edited by the television series production team.
Then, when they were developing Series 2 of Torchwood, Gary Russell (who was by then working as a script editor on the show) suggested that Russell and Julie meet me. Russell knew my work from Big Finish and the websites and was keen to find new writers for the TV series.

It was, frankly, terrifying and I had to work incredibly hard because I knew that this was probably the one chance I’d get to achieve my ambition of writing for television and also that I was working alongside some very experienced TV people.

So I went to lots of meetings and we discussed various ideas. I was initially employed to write an over-commission (basically a spare script in case one of the others fell through) but then, during the drafting process, it was decided that mine would be made. Then it was a case writing a draft, getting notes or having another script meeting then writing the new draft. And so on and so on. I learnt so much from that process – especially from Russell. He just knows how to make scripts work. He can spot problems instantly and he forces you to really work your hardest, to be the best writer you can be. Even now, I chat to him on email and he gives the best advice on what I’m working on.
It was terrifying and exciting and mad, but at the end of the day, you just have to get on with it and do the best you can.

Your Sarah Jane Adventures episodes have received much acclaim. I have always found that your stories took a much more adult approach to the series giving the central characters of the episodes significant development (be it Clyde, Rani or Luke). Is it a much more arduous process writing for television than for audio?

Thanks! And yeah, I was lucky to be given those stories as they really appealed to me as a writer. As for the process, it's more arduous in that you have more bosses, there's more pressure on you and you tend to do more drafts but basically, writing is writing. You do your best whatever the format is.

Were you encouraged to writer for a children’s series or to pitch it more towards the Doctor Who audience. Did you have much material cut?

No, we were encouraged to write it as an adventure drama series. Nobody involved ever talked about having to dumb it down for kids or anything. I think in the three years I worked on it, the only note I got from CBBC was that when a character was being transformed into the Berserker, their teeth couldn't change. Obviously, you're aware of language and content that wouldn't be suitable and you have to be aware that some very young children would be watching so you'd try to avoid too many scenes of people just sitting around chatting, but other than that, I wrote it as I would anything else. We never really talked about Doctor Who as, although there were obvious links, we were creating our own standalone show.

Were you encouraged to push things as far as they could go?

I suppose so but never just for the sake of it. We were asked to write good strong adventure stories which had the usual depth and emotion that any other story would have.

You always seemed to get the characters voices spot on – did you have much conversation with the cast to see how they saw their characters developing?

Thanks. No, I didn't talk to the actors much before writing a script but it was always nice to get their feedback afterwards. Like I say, I was lucky to be asked to write three very character-based stories. I enjoy taking a character and exploring what makes them tick. It's great to try and develop and explore other sides to them. It helps that I was a huge fan of the show so I felt like I knew the characters.

Who was your favourite character to write for in the series?

I genuinely loved them all. They were all great to write for and it was fun putting them in different combinations and situations. If I had to choose a favourite, it'd probably be Rani. I think Anjli brought a real warmth and humour to the part that was great to develop. In some ways, Rani reminded me of a young Sarah Jane – she was funny but hard-working and ambitious. She cared passionately about things but was also flawed and made mistakes.

What was your favourite episode of the three that you wrote?

Probably The Mad Woman In The Attic which still makes me cry. I think I get the mix of horror and drama and laughs and tears right and I think the ending is beautiful. To be honest though, I'm very happy with all three of them. It was such a great series to be involved in.

As a Doctor Who fan was it a genuine thrill to get the chance to write for Elisabeth Sladen?

It was a thrill to write for her because she was such a great actress but when you're working on a series, you have to switch off your Doctor Who fanboy brain and treat Sarah Jane like you would any other character. And she was such a fantastic character – spiky and funny and ditzy and sad and clever but flawed. Lis was just brilliant and I loved finding fun things for her to do – like putting her in a nurse's uniform or turning her into a nightmarish elderly version of Sarah Jane.

How would you sum up your experience on the show?

It was one of the hardest jobs but it was also one of the best. It really was a show where everyone worked as a team. The entire cast and crew cared passionately about making it the best show on television. I think we created something very special and, even now, when I talk to kids in schools, they remember everything about it.

Was there a great deal more freedom writing for Torchwood given its adult nature?

Not really, to be honest. You still had restrictions – especially as it was moving to BBC2 and I know there were issues with the language and smoking in my episode. The one freedom I guess I did have was that I could have longer scenes that consisted of purely dialogue as you know an adult audience will watch that whereas a very young child might get bored waiting for the next explosion or big scary alien.

How did you find picking up the pieces of Owen’s death and the aftermath?

I thought it was a fascinating storyline but, to be honest, I was just so excited and terrified at the prospect of writing for telly that I just got on with it and tried not to think too hard about how important the storyline was as part of the show's history. As with writing for Davros and the Master, I found that the best way to look at it was to find some way to make the situation something you could empathise with. I likened his experience to depression. He was cut off from everything and presenting an exterior that masked his true feelings. Burn is such a fantastic actor that it was just such a brilliant opportunity to give him stuff to do.

Was it a challenge to write for this cast of characters?

It was great because I loved that original Torchwood line-up. They were such flawed characters which is so much more fun to write for than outright goodies or baddies. There was something quite dark and twisted about the way they lived – and something very human. The one problem was that there were so many of them – I remember a long meeting where we discussed who could go on the mission to Richard Briers' house simply based on how many could fit in the car.

You have written a number of Torchwood audio books as well – do you find the series translates well onto audio? Can you tell us about your latest audio book, Red Skies?

I think the audiobooks allow you to tell more character-based stories. You can be a bit more insular because you know that people buying them are going to be fans who already love the characters and the show itself. They're a great opportunity to explore what makes the characters tick and get inside their heads.

What can you tell us about the new CBBC show Aliens vs. Wizards that you are contributing to?

It's Wizards Vs Aliens now! I have to be honest, when we first started, I was genuinely worried that it would struggle to be as good as The Sarah Jane Adventures. But it is. We're at the stage of seeing early edits of the episodes now and it's just so brilliant. Big strong adventure stories but with a real heart to them. The cast is fantastic and the whole thing just feels so fresh and exciting. I can't wait for people to see it.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

I've just achieved a long-term ambition by writing a play for the stage. It's only ten minutes long but it's going to be performed and I can't wait to work on it further. It's part of a theatre festival that'll be on later this year – Other than that, I'm working on more Dark Shadows, a comic, meeting TV companies to discuss ideas, and doing a Dorian Gray audio for Big Finish. I've got my fingers crossed that they'll want me back on the Sherlock blogs as I love doing those. I'm also writing a film to be produced by Tom Guerrier – So yeah, I'm keeping busy!

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