Thursday, 29 December 2016

Reaction Stations

This year got off to a good start for me in January, when during an e-mail conversation with the editor of the Doctor Who Magazine special editions, Marcus Hearn, he casually mentioned that perhaps I could write something for one of the specials at some point.

This resulted in me doing quite a few bits and pieces for Marcus for various of the special editions across the year, and now in December there's another one out.

The end-of-year "yearbook" specials usually focus on the making of the series. But as there wasn't a full series of Doctor Who this year, this year's edition covers all manner of spin-off media and fan activities.

I am particularly pleased with the article I've contributed, about reaction videos - videos people post online of themselves reacting to watching episodes of Doctor Who. It sounds an odd idea if you've never watched one before, but they can be very interesting, and many of them are quite charming. I'd watched quite a few on and off since around the time of the 50th anniversary in 2013, and was pleased to be able to speak to several of those whose videos I've enjoyed for the piece. I was very fortunate that so many of these bright young things from across the world were happy to talk to a random stranger who messaged them online about wanting to write an article about what they do!

I'm pleased with the article both because I think it's a good piece, and also because it's very much about the newer part of fandom. I am a crusty old Doctor Who fan and not one of the modern tumblr generation, but I was pleased I was able to write - hopefully well, or at least informatively - about one of the newer aspects of appreciating the show.

Oh, and I was also pleased with it because I came up with the title, and I think it's always a good sign when the editor likes a title you've suggested so much that they keep it!

The Doctor Who Magazine 2017 Yearbook should be available at your local WH Smith's and all other good newsagents for the next couple of months or so.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Under review

The big exclusive for the New Statesman magazine this week was their interview revealing the supposed "return" of Tony Blair - whatever the hell that may or may not end up meaning.

But it turns out that buried deep inside was a piece rather more surprising - and flattering - to me.

On Friday afternoon, on a whim I did one of the searches I do on Twitter from time-to-time for "Radio Norfolk", just to see what people are saying about us and our programmes. It rarely produces anything much of interest, but this time I came across a link to the online version of a piece in this week's edition of New Statesmen - "A Luchtime in the Life of Radio Norfolk".

On the contents page, the sub editor makes it sound a lot worse than it is!
New Statesman is a magazine that I'd certainly heard of, and know has a good and serious reputation, but had never actually had cause to ever pick up a copy of myself, nor seen anybody else ever reading. Nonetheless, their imposing nature made it seem unlikely they'd reviewed one of our programmes. However, not only had they, but it turned out that rather bizarrely their radio reviewer Antonia Quirke had written a piece all about my own little weekly programme - Treasure Quest: Extra Time. Specifically, the edition from last Sunday, the 20th of November.

It seems an odd choice to review, being a spin-off from a much better-known and more listened-to programme. It's also rather embarrassing for the station, as you'd hope if a major national magazine were going to cast its eye over one of our shows, it'd be one of the really good ones. Certainly if I could have chosen, I'd rather she'd have done one of our "big" editions of Treasure Quest itself, or one of my documentaries.

I had to initially look at the things through the cracks in my fingers, but actually I did all right. Her description of me as "usually equable" suggests she's a regular listener, so I think she went fairly easy on me. The review seems to be laughing with rather than at the programme, anyway, and refreshingly despite being a review of a Radio Norfolk show, there is not a single mention of Alan Partridge! (And I wasn't once described as "moribund...")

Overall it's a flattering piece, and certainly enjoyed her description of me / the show as "...part-smiling, part-peevish." Slightly odd to see myself referred to as "Hayes", like some sort of Billy Bunter-ish schoolboy, but they say that all publicity is good publicity, and it could have been a lot worse!

Actually, this isn't the first time my radio work has been reviewed in a national publication, nor is it the unlikeliest one in which such a review has appeared. The journalist Louis Barfe used to live in our broadcast area, and writes a radio review column for The Lady magazine. In 2012 he reviewed both an edition of Treasure Quest (mentioning that the clues "...would have been rejected as too cryptic by the producers of 3-2-1") and my documentary Radio in a Roundabout Way (kindly calling it "a fascinating programme made with care, as I'd expect from BBC Radio Norfolk"). He's also, I discover when looking back for these pieces, been kind enough to mention Treasure Quest a few times since even though he's moved away!

Closer to home, the Eastern Daily Press's radio reviewer Stuart Lake did a nice piece about Treasure Quest in 2009, calling it "a wonderful example of a local radio programme." He also did a preview of the 5 Live version of my Ayrton Senna documemtary in 2014, a programme which was also previewed, and made a "today's choice", by the Radio Times's radio editor Jane Anderson, which I found particularly thrilling having been a reader of the magazine for as long as I can remember. You feel like a proper producer when something you've made has had a write-up in the Radio Times!

Jane Anderson's Radio Times write-up of the 5 Live version of my Senna documentary, from 2014
In terms of my writing, I've had a few nice comments on the Alice Flack stories on Amazon, and back around the turn of the century I there was a glowing review by Julie Rogers for a short story I'd written in one of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society's "Cosmic Masque" collections. However, as said review appeared in the society's own publication Celestial Toyroom, it probably wasn't the most independent piece in the world!

Julie Rogers' review from Celestial Toyroom of a short story of mine in Cosmic Masque 26
Overall, I've had very kind verdicts on things I've made down the years, this week's included. So I can't complain at all - I've been very fortunate! I just hope I continue to be as lucky as and when I eventually get a novel out there... But I'd be happy if it gets noticed by anybody at all, in any respect, if and when that happens!

Oh, and I did go out and buy a copy of New Statesman for the first time after learning I had been reviewed in it, of course! Thanks Antonia... I did play Forever Autumn in the end, though!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Programme Pieces

A couple of new bits of my writing have made it out into the world this month.

Last weekend we held our eighth annual Treasure Quest Live stage shows in aid of the BBC Children in Need Appeal, wherein the cast and crew of the Sunday morning show I produce on BBC Radio Norfolk take part in various games and features on stage at the Norwich Playhouse, all in aid of the charity. I produced the two performances, which raised over £4500. Of this total, £785 came from donations for a printed souvenir progamme I put together.

It wasn't the most spectacular souvenir in the world, but it did turn out much better than it could have done given that as well as writing the bulk of it, I also did the design myself and put it together in Microsoft Publisher. I'm no designer, so it didn't look amazing, but it was functional enough! Our boss, Peter, came up with the clever idea of not putting a set price on it, just letting people make whatever donation they wanted to the charity in return for a copy, and it worked really well, raising much more than I had ever hoped or expected.

Also out this month is the latest Doctor Who Magazine "bookazine" special, Invasions of Earth.

Just one piece from me in this particular one, the episode guide entry for The Christmas Invasion, a story I love a great deal so it was a pleasure to be asked to do the piece on it. Next month, DWM's end-of-year "yearbook" special is out, and fingers crossed I should have a lengthier feature piece in that, with which I am rather pleased... More on that as and when it appears!

Monday, 29 August 2016

Space Station Norfolk

A year or two ago, I was looking through the Sunday morning papers at work, ready to go on and do the paper review on Sunday Breakfast with Anthony Isaacs, when I noticed an article in one of the broadsheets which piqued my interest.

It was about the government’s plans to build a space base in the UK for commercial space flights, and part of the article mentioned that in the 1960s consideration had been given for building a rocket base in Norfolk. I was vaguely aware that Britain had once launched its own satellite into space, from Australia, but I had no idea that they’d considered launching from Britain, much less from in the county where I live and work.

I did a quick search online, and found an article written by ex-BBC East TV man Dean Arnett to tie-in with a television feature he made back in 2006, telling the story. I immediately thought this could be a good subject for a radio documentary, especially given that in radio we’d have more time and space (excuse the pun…) to explore the story than had perhaps been available to Dean. I discussed it with Anthony, who as assistant editor is also one of my bosses at the station, and he seemed keen, but it lay fallow for a while as I worked on other things.

Earlier this year I ended up talking about the idea with Anthony again, and he was still enthusiastic, giving me the go-ahead to start working on it properly. I began work in June – speaking to the writer Nicholas Hill, who Dean interviewed back in 2006, but also recording interviews at the Science Museum in London, and on the Isle of Wight where most of the British space programme of the 1960s was based. I also of course went to Brancaster, where the Norfolk rocket base might well have been built had history taken a different path.

As a little aside, there was an interesting moment when I was travelling to do some of the recordings on Friday the 24th of June – the day after the EU referendum. I was heading down to London early as I was recording my interview with Douglas Millard from the Science Museum at 9am, then making the journey down to the Isle of Wight to speak to the chief designer of Britain’s Black Arrow rockets, Ray Wheeler, that afternoon, then staying in Newport overnight before recording at the rocket’s engine testing base at High Down on the island the next morning.

The previous day the trains from Norwich to London had been seriously disrupted by flooding caused by heaving rain, so rather than risk missing my interview at the Science Museum I decided to cancel my plans to take the train and head down to London by coach instead, which meant I found myself in the salubrious environment of a MegaBus from Norwich Bus Station just before 5am.

For most of the way down I was listening to Today on Radio 4. At a quarter past eight, David Cameron stepped out of Downing Street to make his speech in reaction to the outcome of the referendum – telling the country that, as a result, he would be resigning as Prime Minister. As I listened to him speak, I could hear crowds cheering or jeering at the end of Downing Street, and as I looked out of the window of the coach I noticed a cheering and jeering crowd at the end of a street the coach was now crawling past.

My knowledge of London geography is minimal, but I was suddenly aware that we were in fact going past Downing Street just as Cameron was making his speech – so I can say, in a manner of speaking, that I was there at this particular moment of history. The coach was creeping forward so slowly in the traffic that I was even able to take a picture to mark the occasion.

If I were a better writer than I am, I'd like to pen a "state of the nation" novel telling the story of the man with the carrier bag; who he was, where he was going, and what he was up to...

Anyway, the recordings were all duly done, and I finished putting the programme together last week. I called the documentary Space Station Norfolk – not the best of titles perhaps, but I thought it riffed nicely on Ice Station Zebra! – and it will be broadcast this evening at six o’clock, available of course for 30 days afterwards via the BBC iPlayer, here.

It’s also results in another bit of writing for me. Twice before, for my Sherlock Holmes and Ayrton Senna documentaries for the station, I’d written tie-in features for the Weekend supplement of Norfolk’s main local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, to help promote them. A few weeks ago I decided to drop the editor of Weekend, Trevor Heaton, a line to see if he would be interested in having a piece about Space Station Norfolk as well, and he kindly agreed to take it.

I was pretty sure I’d done a decent job on a good story with the article, but I didn’t know until I saw the paper on Saturday that Trevor had once again made it the Weekend cover feature. This was particularly pleasing not simply because it got the piece more attention and saw it promoted on the front paper of the paper proper, but also because it meant I completed a hat-trick of EDP Weekend cover features, with the Holmes and Senna pieces also having made the cover. (Fortunately, only one of them required me to dress up in costume!)

My hat-trick of EDP Weekend magazine cover features from recent years!
The piece also appeared in Saturday's Evening News, the EDP's sister paper for Norwich, and there is a version you can read online on the EDP's website, here.

So there we are. I hope people like the documentary if they get the chance to hear it this evening. If you’re interested, there’s a preview clip available here, and a photo gallery you can browse here.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Back to Flack

About a year or so since I started working on it, and much later than it ought to have been, a second Alice Flack story, Voices in the Dark, is now finally online on Amazon’s Kindle Store!

It’s only 35,000 words, and I started writing it last summer not very long after I put the first one up for people to buy, and it reached my self-imposed target of twenty sales before making another one available. But despite having completed a good chunk of it last year, I found myself getting distracted by various things towards the end of last year. I wrote a non-fiction Doctor Who book which probably won’t ever see the light of day; I had last year’s Treasure Quest Live! to put together; I made a radio documentary about writing, and then into this year I suddenly found myself getting paid actual money to write pieces for various Doctor Who Magazine special editions, and doing more documentary work.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I actually finally sat down and got to the end of Voices in the Dark, the second adventure for my late-1940s-set investigator Alice Flack. I showed it to a few friends to help pick up general feedback and typos, and finally got it up online yesterday.

Once again, it has a lovely artwork cover by David Lavelle – the cover’s been ready for months, so poor David has had to wait for the world to see the fruits of his labours!

It also again managed to make it into the charts, climbing into the lower reaches of the Kindle Store’s Top 100 for “historical thrillers”. Admittedly this was only on the basis of a tiny handful of sales, but hey, I’m not complaining! Its release has also seen a tiny little spike in sales (i.e. three!) for the first one, The Ruined Heart, which is a good sign if I continue to put more out.

Will there be more Alice? I’d like there to be, I have ideas for several more, and have even started writing the next one. But as for whether it reaches the light of day… well, let’s see if Voices in the Dark can pass the 30-odd sales mark the first one has so far made! I promise if it does appear, however, it won’t take another year this time!

If you do want to buy the new one – and my ego would be wonderfully massaged if you did! – it’s available from Amazon by clicking here. Thank you!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Location, Location, Location

There's another new Doctor Who Magazine special edition out, and I am very pleased to be able to say that I have another couple of pieces in it!

This one's all about the location work on the show down the years, and there's one piece that I was specifically asked to do by Marcus the editor, which is quite flattering, and another which I pitched to him which he liked.

The one Marcus asked me to do basically tells the story of the different ways the show has been shot on location over the decades - from film to OB video to the current single-camera methods - and why these changes have happened. It's quite a meaty topic to try and summarise, but I was very pleased to be asked to do it as it's exactly the sort of thing I have enjoyed reading in DWM down the years, and I'm quite proud that I was considered a decent pair of hands to handle such a feature.

I was also quite pleased with the title of the piece, Outside the Spaceship. Partly because it was my idea, and it's always quite nice when an editor likes your title and keeps it for the actual feature! And also because I was immensely pleased with myself for a punning reference for anybody who's familiar with the debates over the season one story titles... quite a niche audience, I admit! Although I was disappointed to realise it's a gag which has been done before, as it's what DWM used to call the Beyond the TARDIS column for a while back in the 1990s.

The other piece, the one I pitched to Marcus, is an interview with the designer Spencer Chapman, who worked on The Dalek Invasion of Earth back in 1964, which was the first Doctor Who story to include a major amount of location work. Famous for the Daleks going across Westminster Bridge, and all of that.

The special is out today, and you should be able to find a copy in WH Smith and other good newsagents over the next couple of months.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Adventures in History

I have been lucky enough to write for another Doctor Who Magazine special! Off the back of contributing to the special effects edition earlier in the year, I asked if I could help with any other upcoming specials and was asked to pitch for Adventures in History.

This is one of their big ‘bookazine’ specials, this time concentrating – as the title would suggest – on some of the Doctor’s adventures through Earth’s history. It came out this week, and I have been able to contribute three features – an episode guide for The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve; an accompanying interview with the story’s co-writer Donald Tosh; and a tiny little box-out feature to go with their piece on Gerry Davis, comparing the BBC’s 1964 Culloden with the Doctor Who story The Highlanders.

Many thanks again to the editor of the DWM specials, Marcus Hearn, for letting me contribute and smoothing out some of the bumps in my prose!

My recent work for DWM resulted in a rather special evening last Saturday, the 4th. I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from Tom Spilsbury, the editor of DWM proper, inviting me to a party they were having in London to celebrate the magazine’s 500th issue, which came out last month. I’ve done so little for them that I half-imagined I might have been invited due to some administrative error. I ummed and aahed about going, as I wouldn’t really know anybody there and might have felt like a bit of an interloper, and I’d have to get the late train back from London as I was working as usual on Sunday morning. But in the end I decided it would be a nice chance to perhaps meet some people whose work on DWM I have read and enjoyed for 20-odd years now, so I decided to give it a go.

And I am so glad that I did! I was nice to meet once again the magazine’s deputy editor, Peter Ware, who I met at the Adventure in Space and Time premiere back in November 2013 and is the reason I got to write for the magazine in the first place. It was very nice to meet Tom in person, too, and I very much enjoyed having a nice chat with former editor Gary Gillatt, who became editor shortly after I first started getting the magazine as a 10-year-old at the end of 1994. Gillatt is quite possibly the finest summariser of the experience of being a certain type of Doctor Who fan, with his editorials back in the cap capturing how it felt so well, with so many lines which stick with me to this day… “Doctor Who fans know who the Controller of BBC One is; normal people don’t, and don’t care…

I also chatted a bit with scriptwriter and novelist Paul Cornell, who I met 12 years ago back when the UEA hosted the National Student Television Awards, and he came along as a guest speaker for the event and I conducted the interview with him. Despite having only met him once, such a long time ago, he seemed quite happy to chat as if we knew each other rather better than we actually did. Also Alan Barnes – another former DWM editor who I’d interviewed down-the-line for my Sherlock Holmes documentary back in 2013 (he’s also the author of the book Sherlock Holmes on Screen).

There were several very nice people whose work I didn’t know or with whom I hadn’t communicated before, including many who were sickeningly much younger than me – I spent some of the evening chatting to the woman who edits the Doctor Who range for Penguin Books, who told me that she was 26. 26!! Bah… There were a few actors around, too – I was very pleased to get the chance to thank Sophie Aldred for her work on an era of Doctor Who which means so much to me, and had an amusing encounter with a cheery Daphne Ashbrook, who’d been collecting glasses and made a point of lining them up on the bar in front of me while I was waiting to be served. “I’m gonna put this one here… and this one here… and this one here…

I’d spotted that Steven Moffat, currently still the main man of Doctor Who, and Mark Gatiss, his collaborator on Sherlock and also a Doctor Who writer, were at the party, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk annoying them or embarrassing myself by trying to say hello. But at one point, as I was walking through to another part of the bar, I realised that Steven Moffat was standing right next to me, on his own, not speaking to anyone, so I decided to take the risk.

Hello,” said I. “You don’t know me at all, but I just wanted to say thank you for all of the great episodes of Doctor Who that you’ve written…”

I shook his hand, and I don’t recall exactly what he said but it was something along the lines of “thank you, you’re very kind.” I was rather thrilled!

I had a slightly longer conversation with Gatiss, shortly before I left and just as he was leaving. I thanked him for An Adventure in Space and Time, told him how I’d been in tears at the BFI premiere of it (“So was I!” he claimed) and told him a little bit about the feature on Donald Wilson I’ve hopefully got coming up in DWM at some point in the near future. He seemed quite interested, although I fear through nerves I ended up shaking his hand three times in quick succession, which probably made me seem a bit weird.

So I had a lovely time, met lots of lovely people and felt immensely proud and pleased to be even a tiny little part of the history of a magazine I have enjoyed so much down the years, and by extension an even tinier part of a programme I have always loved so dearly.

Plus, there was cake! So a fine evening all round!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Special effects

Last time I wrote an entry here, I mentioned that I was possibly working on something else for Doctor Who Magazine.

Well, that "something else" ended up being three things - three pieces for their latest special edition, this one concentrating on special effects, which came out last week. Special effects isn't an area I would consider myself to be a particular expert on, but editor Marcus Hearn very kindly liked two of the ideas I pitched to him, and also suggested another idea for me to go and work on, all of which I think ended up being quite successful.

So now, on the shelf of your nearest WH Smith's or other good newsagent, you can find the special effects edition with pieces by me on the effects company Trading Post, on the alternative effects made as optional extras for the DVD range, and an interview with Eric Alba, the effects supervisor on the 1996 TV Movie.

Plus, of course, there's a lot of other wonderful stuff in the magazine, all beautifully laid out and designed.

Stemming from this, it seems as if I will also be contributing a couple of items to their next "bookzaine" special, too, this one concentrating on the historical stories. I've been extremely fortunate - actual, paid writing work, about a subject I love and enjoy writing about!

I still haven't finished off the new Alice Flack story, however. I've been very busy with radio work, but really do need to knuckle down and get it done soon, especially given that David Lavelle has already completed the cover art!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Latest doings

Once again, a pathetic failure to keep up with this blog with any kind of regularity, for which I apologise to anybody who has any interest in reading the thing – which fortunately can’t be very many people, as I haven’t had much in the way of complaint for the absence of entries! Probably just as well.

I’ll try and be a bit better at adding updates as 2016 goes along, but we shall see.

It’s not as if I haven’t had things to talk about. In November I actually launched another blog, born from my previously-stated love of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Called Watching the Carol, it’s intended as an ongoing project to watch and review as many different film and television versions of A Christmas Carol as I can find. I managed to get a good few in before the end of 2015, and later this year I shall take up the thread again. It’s quite good fun to do, and although pretty pointless, isn’t everything?

 Not very seasonal for February, I realise!

I also finally finished my long-planned documentary about why so many writers seem to flock to Norwich at the end of last year, and it was broadcast on BBC Radio Norfolk twice over the Christmas and New Year period. It wasn’t one of my best programmes – it lacked a bit of colour, and was rather on the dry side. But it was interesting to do, and I did get some nice comments about it both from people who were in it and people who weren’t, so it was by no means a disaster.

I’ve already made my next feature programme, too – not really a proper documentary as such, as it’s a collection of lots of individual stories without any kind of overarching narrative, but it’s going out tomorrow at 12 midday. It’s part of the big pan-BBC People’s History of Pop initiative – a drive to try and tell the story of what it was like to be a music fan in the pop and rock era through the stories of music lovers, with tales of favourite gigs and venues, and special pieces of memorabilia.

We knew late last year that the BBC Local Radio stations were each going to be making a tie-in programme for this, and I was interested in doing it, but it was only at the beginning of last month that we found out it was going to be on as soon as the 7th of February. I’m quite pleased with it – there are some nice stories in there, and I hope I’ve done them justice. Here’s one of my favourites as a preview:

In the world of my fiction writing, I have been sort of doing a few plans and scribbles for a couple of new ideas, but nothing solid yet. I haven’t heard back from any of my last few submissions of Another Life to agencies, but did send another one off last month. I do have a second Alice Flack story very near completion – I did the bulk of it last summer, but got sidetracked by other projects for work and elsewhere in the autumn and never got it completed, but I should do so soon. The superb David Lavelle has kindly accepted another commission to do the cover for this one, so it should be up as an e-book on Amazon sometime this spring.

Non-fiction is proving to be more fruitful. After I had my David Fisher interview published in Doctor Who Magazine last year, I mentioned how I had a possible idea for another piece for them, which I then got very heavily into researching and writing. It ended up being too long and too difficult to illustrate, but having had a bit of a gap from it I have been able to edit it down a bit more pragmatically, and found what I hope are enough photos to go with it, and it looks as if it may possibly appear in the magazine sometime this year. I’ve also had discussions about something else related to DWM too, which looks as if it could result in another piece… Again, more on that if and when. But a very positive start to the year in terms of actual professional writing for which I actually get paid! I know that sounds horribly mercenary, but as I’ve said before, if someone considers your material worth actually buying, it does feel like a validation of what you do, and that you do actually have some sort of ability.

Oh, and I did finish that Scarrowbeck thing for the Treasure Quest Facebook page and Children in Need in the end. It was complete crap, apart from the first chapter, but the fans kindly donated £180, beating the target I’d set, so it wasn’t entirely worthless.