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Who is your Favourite Guest Rebel?

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Interview with Niel Bushnell

Interview with Niel Bushnell

Jackie Emery and Ann Worrall
with additional questions by Diane Gies

Niel Bushnell is an animator and author of science fiction and fantasy stories. He has been a Blakeís 7 fan since first watching it at the age of 7, and was a member of Horizon in the 1990s. He created the animated intros to the Blake's 7 DVDs, and Chosen is his first B7 novel.

When Niel was ten years old, he made a list of things he hoped to achieve later in life. One of his main ambitions, lodged between becoming an astronaut and drawing comics for a living, was to write a novel. We began by asking him about his list...

Niel: I was quite an introverted child, but had very fixed ideas about what I would do when I was older. No amount of advice or encouragement from my parents or my teachers would change that. It was more naivety than arrogance, I think. I just wanted to draw comics, and I didnít see myself doing anything else.

My favourite subjects were always Art and English, but at the age of 10 I thought of writing as a means to an end. I fully believed I could write a best-seller and use the money to buy WH Smiths Ė my favourite shop! I studied Art at college, and for a long time I didnít think much about English and writing - not in an academic sense, anyway. I enjoyed writing scripts for comics which I would then illustrate, but back then the art was the really important part for me.

Horizon: What were your early influences from TV / movies / books / comics?

Niel: Star Wars was a huge influence on me. I saw the film at the cinema when I was seven years old. My mother then bought me Star Wars Weekly which started my life-long love of comics. I dipped in and out of Doctor Who, but was more interested in American sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek. When I was young, I created lots of comics inspired by 2000AD and American superhero comics, but they were usually my own ideas rather than direct copies of existing characters.

Horizon: Which came first for you professionally, writing or animation?

Comics came first, which included some writing, but I sort of fell into animation by accident. I was given an 8mm cine camera when I was about 12 years old, and made a couple of stop-motion films with it, but hadnít considered working in animation. I didnít know much about it at all! After college, I co-wrote a comic strip for my local newspaper, which was probably my first long-term writing project. At the same time, I was trying to get work in comics. Iíd managed to do some inking on Deathís Head for Marvel UK, but was struggling to find more work.

My friend Richard Dolan had also been working at Marvel UK, and had picked up commissions at several London animation studios, so he suggested I bring my portfolio to London and heíd show me around. But on my first night in London, Richard broke his arm, and I was left to fend for myself! I went to see one studio who offered me a weekís trial based on my comic art portfolio. I didnít go to see any other studios, I just hoped that the offer of work would come through. Luckily, it did. I was given the week-long trial, which organically extended until I left London nearly five years later. I learned on the job from some amazingly talented animators, and was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and willing to learn.

The studio I worked at in London produced traditional hand-drawn animation. I worked on lots of breakfast cereal commercials, but also some really big films like Space Jam. That was one of the best jobs I ever did; it was constant work for almost two years with a really collaborative group of animators. For most of us it was our biggest gig, so we all were keen to do our best work.

Horizon: Turning to Blakeís 7 Ė tell us about how you first got into the series.

Niel: My love of Blakeís 7 goes all the way back to the original transmission, which I saw at the impressionable age of seven. It gripped me from the first episode, and once I saw the Liberator there was no turning back! Iíve been hooked ever since, and Iíve wanted to play in the Blakeís 7 universe for a very long time. I was lucky enough to animate the intros for the DVDs, but this is the first time Iíve written for Blakeís 7, so this is a dream come true for me.

Horizon: Which of the four series is your favourite? Do you have a favourite episode?

Niel: Oh, thatís a tricky question! They all have something to offer. I love the mystery of Series A, the political intrigue, the darkness of it all. But I also love Series D which is a very different tone. Series B feels very consistent, and really builds towards that bonkers finale. My favourite episode is probably Blake. Itís so unrelenting, isnít it? But I also really like Breakdown, Countdown, Terminal, Gold and Orbit.

Horizon: Do you have a favourite character?

Niel: I think it has to be Vila. I have a similar response to danger: hide and find booze!

Horizon: Has this changed over the years? Childhood favourites often give way to more mature choices, as the viewer grows to appreciate the complexity of the series, and charactersí questionable motivations.

Niel: I think thatís right. I definitely think more of the characters of Cally and Jenna now than when I was growing up. I probably didnít like Vila as much as I do now, but my love of Avon has remained fairly constant. Even as I child I preferred the darker episodes. That hasnít really changed, but I think I can appreciate the humour elements more now that Iím older.

Horizon: What, if anything, would you change about the series if you were remaking it?

Niel: Obviously, if it was being remade today, youíd examine every aspect and make it work for a modern audience, in the same way that Russell T. Davis did for Doctor Who. That would mean changing a lot, but the core concept would have to remain intact.

Horizon: Can you tell us about animating the DVD intros?

Niel: After working in London, I went to work for a computer games company, where I was trained as a computer animator. The first 3D model I built was the Liberator! I heard that there was a plan to release the series on DVD, so I tracked down the company involved and produced a piece of test animation in order to get the work. This was in 2000, and those intros are still being used!

As far as I remember, I was given free rein for the DVD content. I suggested the ideas, which were pretty much approved without too much interference, but there might have been more dialogue than I recall. I was commissioned to produce one intro for each release, but from the second release onwards I wanted to deliver one for each disc! Iíve always been a bit stupid like that Ė over-delivering for the same cost when it comes to things I love. Things got a bit confused for the last release as a new company came in to complete the authoring, and I was left out of the process to some extent. I produced an intro showing the Scorpio moving through the debris of the Liberator, but it wasnít used.
[Horizon: It can be seen on YouTube HERE].

Horizon: Tell us about how and why you joined Horizon, and your interest in Blake's 7 fandom.

Niel: I canít exactly recall how I found out about Horizon, but it was around the time the series was being re-released on VHS, and I think the club details were on the covers. I had bought the videos, and wanted to explore the world of fandom more, so I joined. I loved the magazines; they showed me how lively the fan scene was. I didnít go to any events or meetings, I was a pretty passive member, but they looked like a lot of fun. The only other club I ever joined was the Star Wars Fan Club when I was about ten. That was fun, but it didnít have the ground roots passion of Horizon.

I think the best part of being a fan was knowing you werenít alone. Other people got it too! And I loved seeing the creative aspects of costume making and prop building, or the trips to quarries and other locations. It was that passion that I really enjoyed, even if it was from the sidelines.

Horizon: Chosen is your first Blakeís 7 novel. Have you written other things for Big Finish?

Niel: This is my first writing gig for Big Finish, although Iíve wanted to work for them for years. Iíve bought all the Blakeís 7 audio adventures, plus lots of Doctor Who and Sapphire & Steel. Iím a firm believer in persistence, so I found out the name of the person who was responsible for the range and emailed him to let him know I wanted to write for Blakeís 7. At that point Iíd had several novels published. Iíd also written a sitcom for Radio 4 which didnít get past the pilot script stage, but at least I could show some experience in audio storytelling. Over a period of about two years I kept in touch, politely reminding him that I was still interested. Eventually, he read one of my books and asked me to submit some ideas for Blakeís 7. I sent in three or four brief outlines, one of which was the story that would eventually become Chosen.

Horizon: Did you re-watch the series for writing Chosen?

Niel: Yes! I watched all of Series A to remind myself of the feel in those early episodes. I also have the audio of those episodes on my computer, and I would often play those while I was animating in order to get their voices firmly in my head.

Horizon: How does your book fit in with the TV series continuity, and with the continuity established by Big Finish?

Niel: Itís set between Mission to Destiny and Duel, so itís early in their adventures Ė a less complex part of the continuity. There are some insights into the characters, and one or two revelations, but they donít contradict or spoil anything already established.

Horizon: The audiobook is read by Olivia Poulet, who plays Avalon in the new audio series. Previous Big Finish Blakeís 7 audiobooks were read by original male actors Michael Keating, Paul Darrow and Stephen Greif. Does this novel have a female Ďvoiceí?

Niel: I think thatís a fair statement, yes. One of the reasons I was asked to write for the series was because of one of my novels which features three female lead characters. My story focuses a lot on Cally and Jenna, but also deals with the concepts of family and loyalty, so it seems appropriate that itís narrated by Olivia.

Horizon: On your website, you mention Ď...something living under the stairs that whispers secrets to you...í In Chosen, the heart of the story concerns Cally. Does your under-stair whisperer provide you with a kind of empathy for Callyís telepathic susceptibilities?

Niel: Ha, ha! I really do write a lot of nonsense on my website, donít I? But youíre right, I do explore the nature of Callyís telepathy, and how her abilities are seen by others. It would be horrible to have such a power, I think. Hearing everyoneís unfiltered thoughts and emotions. Itís probably like Twitter on steroids.

Horizon: If you were animating your novel, what colour palette would you use?

Niel: Blakeís 7 has a very brown palette and Chosen feels like itís definitely on that end of the spectrum; ochres and reds.

Horizon: You have a prolific portfolio of books and animation. Which of your work was the most challenging, and which was the most satisfying?

Niel: Some stories almost write themselves. My first book, Sorrowline, was like that, but it still needed a lot of work after that first draft was written to get it in a fit state to be published. I really enjoy writing my science-fiction series, the Arkship Saga, but itís a big story told over six books with lots of characters, so it has a unique set of writing challenges.
Chosen was something Iíve wanted to write for a long time, but it coincided with my father being ill. He passed away a few weeks after I completed the book. [Horizon: Here, we gave Niel our heartfelt sympathies]

Horizon: You live in the North East. Do the climate and scenery provide inspiration?

Niel: I think so, yes. Itís hard to be certain, because Iíve lived here for most of my life. It varies from project to project. For example, Altitude is a very personal book which taps into a lot of memories from growing up in a working-class environment of a small northern town.

Horizon: When writing, do you visualise it or hear it in your mind, or a mixture of both? Are you tempted to provide illustrations for the things you write?

Niel: Yes, I definitely see and hear it. Itís like watching a film, sometimes. I occasionally do illustrate my own work, including cover art or interior images.

Horizon: What would you like to do, that you havenít yet achieved?

Niel: Lots! Iíve got other ideas for Blakeís 7, not to mention Doctor Who. And Iíd really like to write for Star Trek.

Horizon: What would you most like to be remembered for?

Niel: Inventing a working teleport!

Horizon: And finally, some silly questions: If you had to share lockdown with one Blakeís 7 character, who would you choose?

Niel: I think Avon would be good to spend long periods with, just as long as itís Avon from Series A, not Series D.

Horizon: If you had to be locked down in any of the Blakeís 7 settings, which one would you choose?

Niel: Definitely the Liberator flight deck. There is something very warm and safe about it, and itís a fantastic design.

Horizon: When lockdown is over, you can invite a Blakeís 7 character out to a pub or restaurant. Who would you choose?

Niel: Vila would be great fun, but Iíd have to buy all the drinks, so Iíll say Jenna and Cally.

Horizon: Thank you, Niel!

Photo courtesy of Niel Bushnell
Niel Bushnell's website is HERE

Screenshots from Blakes7 Image Library
Cover artwork for Chosen by Mark Plastow

Audiobook now available from Big Finish here: Chosen

The full range of original Blakes 7 novels, audiobooks and audio drama series from Big Finish can be found on their website here BF B7 Hub.

Reviews can be found on Horizon here: Reviews


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