Jude Constable and Jackie Emery
Eddie Robson is a writer of books, radio plays, comics and short stories, and has worked as a freelance journalist for various science fiction magazines. He has been writing for Big Finish since he was 22, contributing many stories and plays to their Bernice Summerfield and Doctor Who ranges. His audio plays Phobos, Human Resources and Grand Theft Cosmos, produced by Big Finish and featuring the eighth Doctor, were broadcast on BBC Radio 7. The pilot episode of his sit-com Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully was broadcast BBC Radio 2 in July 2012, and the actual series begins on 7th March 2013.
Born in 1978, Eddie did not see Blake’s 7 when it was first aired, but was introduced to the series by a friend when he was 15. Having set out to watch an episode one evening, they then went on to watch fourteen episodes in a single sitting....
Horizon: That sounds like quite an evening! Did you watch the episodes in order, starting with The Way Back, or were they a random selection? And why did you eventually stop when you did?
ER: We started with The Way Back and watched in order. I was pretty much pre-sold on the show – at that age I was watching loads of old fantasy TV like The Avengers and Randall & Hopkirk, and I’d heard a lot about Blake’s 7 because Doctor Who Magazine had reviewed the videos as they’d come out. We only stopped because we ran out of episodes – my friend’s dad only had the first seven releases at the time.
Horizon: So after that marathon viewing, when did you catch up with the rest of the series?
ER: I started to pick them up a few months later, when they were re-released on VHS at £7.99 each. Then I ran out of money and started borrowing off-airs - another friend's dad had recorded the fourth series when it went out in 1981.
Horizon: Do you consider yourself a Blake’s 7 fan?
ER: It depends how you define a ‘fan’, I suppose. When people are working professionally on something, they often seem to feel obliged to say they’re a fan, but with me, I’m hesitant to do that because I know what being a fan means and it almost feels disrespectful to people who know something absolutely inside out. For instance, there probably isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Doctor Who, and I know there are people who feel like that about Blake’s 7. And there’s only so much room in your life for obsessions – if you have too many, by definition they can’t be obsessions! But I still have a strong attachment to Blake’s 7 because it’s something I was hugely into as a teenager, and those are the things that stay with you, I think.
Horizon: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? Can you remember what it was that appealed?
ER: I clearly remember thinking at the age of about 11 that I could do it. I remember telling my sister, "I might be a writer when I'm older." And she said, "What, YOU?" And then I didn't tell anyone about it for a few years. But it was a eureka moment. It wasn't a particular thing that appealed, I just knew it was what I wanted to do.
Horizon: Are there any particular writers that have influenced you?
ER: Loads. Almost too many. I'm not very good at narrowing my focus - almost everything I like, I've tried to write something like it, or still harbour a desire to. Spike Milligan, Alan Moore, Paul Auster, Clement & La Frenais, Bret Easton Ellis, Philip K. Dick, Angela Carter, Daniel Clowes, Joss Whedon, Douglas Adams, Evelyn Waugh etc.
Horizon: Can you tell us about your first work that was professionally published?
ER: My first professional writing was a piece for Doctor Who Magazine for their 20th Anniversary issue, about seeing Planet Of The Spiders in a tent at Glastonbury. This was in 1999, long before Doctor Who was fashionable. But my first fiction writing was a ropey Bernice Summerfield short story called The Light That Never Dies, which Paul Cornell commissioned from me after reading my Benny short stories in a fanzine I used to run. I haven't looked at it in years, but I remember it as being very undramatic. But I was 21 and still learning.
Horizon: How did you come to write for Big Finish? Did you pitch for them or did David approach you?
ER: Gary Russell approached me, actually. I'd pitched him some audio ideas after doing a couple of short stories, and he hadn't taken me up on them, and I'd sort of given up. Then, out of the blue in 2005, he asked if I'd like to pitch a Doctor Who. He needed some stand-alone scripts that could drop into the schedule in case other scripts ran into problems, and Simon Guerrier, who I'd written stories for in Bernice Summerfield anthologies, suggested me. So I did the script, and sure enough they needed it and it moved up the schedule. That was Memory Lane for Paul McGann's Doctor. It went well, and the timing was very fortunate, because they needed a load more scripts for McGann very soon after that, for the first BBC7 season. And after that, I became a regular writer.
Horizon: Do you actually have to be a fan to write professionally for a cult show?
ER: No, but I do think you have to understand the show. I think it takes an amount of thought about how a show works. But then, I think a decent writer would put that thought in, if they’d seen something and enjoyed it. I couldn’t have written for The Tomorrow People when Big Finish were doing that, because I’ve never seen it. Whereas, although I wouldn’t class myself a Star Trek fan, I’ve thought about how Star Trek works and I think I could write it.
It also depends who the audience is going to be. If you were re-launching Blake’s 7 for TV, you wouldn’t be thinking about who’s a fan, you’d be looking for the best writers who seemed a good fit for the show, because it’s got to hit a broad audience well beyond the fans. But for something like False Positive that’s mostly going to be heard by fans, having a fan write it is a good thing – I’ve got a fair idea of what people want to hear.
Horizon: Was False Positive your first foray into writing Blake's 7?
ER: Yes, it’s the first Blake’s 7 thing I’ve written. David Richardson approached me – they needed writers for the second box-set and he asked if I was familiar with the show. And I was. Even if I hadn’t been, I’m a professional writer and unless I really dislike something or have no sense of how to write it, I’ll say ‘Yes of course’ and do the research later. But Blake’s 7 is something I do know well, and I’m really fond of those characters, so it was an exciting gig to be offered. I didn’t know Big Finish were doing B7 until then – and I leaped at the chance.
Horizon: Earlier, you mentioned that you couldn’t have written for The Tomorrow People, because you had never seen it. However, now you say that if you were asked to write something you were unfamiliar with, you’d say yes, and research it later. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?
ER: Yes, that does seem to be a contradiction. I suppose it depends on the audience. Something like a Tomorrow People audio I'd struggle with, because it's going out to a fan audience, who expect and deserve a level of knowledge about the show. Whereas, for example, I wrote stories and comic strips for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles magazine, and all I knew about that was what I vaguely remembered from growing up in the 1980s. But that was something I felt I could research - the stories were very short, so you didn't need a great depth of knowledge.
Horizon: Were you specifically asked to pitch for a story featuring Blake, or was that your own choice?
ER: I was asked to pitch for Blake. It’s the way David tends to work, in my experience. He’s asked me to do four Companion Chronicles for Doctor Who, and each time he said who he’d like me to pitch a story for. It’s how he manages the mix of characters and stories.
Horizon: So how did you feel about being asked to write for Blake?
ER: Very pleased. He’s often overlooked in favour of Avon, who on the surface seems a more complex character. But Blake has a lot of layers too – his memory’s been all messed up, he’s been a freedom fighter and then forced to become normal and gone back again. The force of his personality must be extraordinary, which is a challenge to communicate.
Horizon: You've really captured the essence of Blake's character – polite, effortlessly able to take control, interested and interesting, while still remaining focussed on his cause. What preparation did you do in researching him?
ER: I picked out a few second-season episodes to rewatch, to get a sense of where his character is at this moment – Shadow, Weapon, Trial and Killer. Trial was the most interesting one, dealing with his guilt and self-doubt. Even then he never loses his humour – Gareth always keeps a handle on that. But in episodes like Shadow and Killer, as you say, he quickly takes charge of situations, plans carefully, but can change tack easily.
I’ve always thought Blake was typical of 20th-century revolutionary figures, who were often more middle-class and comfortable than their followers, and had the luxury of being able to stop and think about the social and political situation whilst the people they wanted to help were too busy trying to stay alive. That really informed my view of him – he’s trying to raise people’s consciousness, and that’s a hard thing to do without patronising them.
Horizon: In False Positive, Blake appears to be struggling to remember things that have happened to him, and his mind is tampered with by drugs. As this was such a feature of Blake’s past, was your idea to deliberately re-establish the themes of the early episodes?
ER: It wasn’t the original idea, I was just playing around with things which might work as building blocks for the story. But when I started to develop it, I immediately thought I should use that stuff. I’d intended for it to be more of a theme – it went into the background a bit – but it’s something that was always in my mind. In the show they never fully establish how much he remembers about his past, and eventually it falls by the wayside.
That said, the inspiration for the story does come from The Way Back, when we learn that the Federation routinely drugs its citizens, and I reasoned that this would be particularly resonant for Blake – it’s what kept him docile for so long. So that was a restating, yes.
Horizon: Blake attracts a lot of controversy as a character and there are those who say that capturing his inner voice would be a difficult thing to do. Did you find it difficult, or did you find it came naturally?
ER: I think I sidestepped that issue to an extent, because it’s not his inner voice – he’s monologuing at someone else, and although it’s done in an unnatural way – which I covered with the use of Lian’s ‘techniques’ – it’s not what Blake would tell himself either. We don’t necessarily find out what his actual thought processes are like in this play: it’s clear he does hide some things. But I tried to present his pragmatic side – I think when you’re dealing with such high ideals, you must have to take everything one step at a time or you’d be crippled with indecision.
Horizon: There must be intriguing dynamics, in terms of seeing established characters through new eyes?
ER: Yes, and I deliberately made Lian a character who didn’t know Blake, and in fact assumes he’s a fantasist – she assumes things like this just don’t happen in a Federation-controlled universe. Again, if you return to The Way Back you can see lots of people exist in the Federation without being aware of the conflict that’s happening.
Horizon: Lian’s musings and subsequent discussion on the theme of whether Avon would shoot Blake – was that an intentional reference to what happens in their future?
ER: Yeah, obviously that has resonance with the end of the series! But that only happens because Avon believes that Blake has changed. It would never happen with their relationship as we see it here, and Lian is wrong to think it might.
Horizon: With regard to the dynamic between Blake and Avon, you came up with two particularly notable lines: 'perhaps Avon is merely a device which (Blake) uses to offload responsibility for his own extremes of behaviour', and 'Avon never liked to be carrying the smallest gun in the room'. What is your take on their relationship?
ER: Blake clearly trusts Avon and relies on him, for reasons that are obscure to everyone else. Why does Avon stick with this operation, even after they lose Blake? Is it purely because Blake trusted him? Did Blake make him trustworthy simply by trusting him? Rather than coming across as a character inconsistency, I think it’s what makes Blake’s 7 intriguing – we’re left with the sense that Blake can see something in Avon that nobody else can, maybe not even we as viewers can see it. The line Lian has about them, more than anything, reflects that she can’t quite make sense of their relationship either – and at this stage she believes Avon is a figment of Blake’s imagination. That’s also why she assumes Avon shot him – she reads their relationship as a psychodrama that can’t possibly last. But it never occurs to Blake that Avon would do this.
Horizon: A new character, Nyrron, was introduced in Liberator Chronicles 1 and returned in another story in Liberator Chronicles 2. Lian is the second new character to have a voice; she was a good character, and was well performed by Beth Chalmers. Do you have plans for her also to return in a future story?
ER: I don’t, but I’d be willing to bring her back and explore how her experience with Blake has changed her. Did she go on with her life? Did she report him? Did his words affect her? It would be interesting, certainly.
Horizon: The structure of False Positive, which incidentally is also the style used for Solitary, is that of one character retelling a story in response to questions from another. Was there a particular reason why you used this style; is it one you've used before?
ER: I hadn’t done it before. It was something I’d heard Simon Guerrier do in his Doctor Who Companion Chronicles, where the guest character is in a framing sequence, listening to the main character relate the story – and then the framing sequence turns out to have a narrative of its own. Deciding something about the structure at an early stage can be helpful in working out what the story’s going to be.
Horizon: Do you prefer writing full-cast plays or this type of narrated story?
ER: I slightly prefer full-cast, because I enjoy doing dialogue and you get more chance for it there – but I also like to mix things up and do different types of play, so doing the readings is great. They do have their advantages – you don’t have the perennial problem of subtly telling the listener where you are, what the aliens look like and so on, because your narrator can just do that.
Horizon: Can you tell us something about your scriptwriting process?
ER: I’m an enthusiastic advocate of the ‘draft zero’ approach. Rather than thinking of your first draft as ‘draft one’, which implies it’s something that works as a complete script, think of it as ‘draft zero’ and don’t worry about the problems. If you realise you should have set something up ten pages earlier, or that you just can’t think of a good line to end this scene, or that the whole thing works better if one of your characters is a different gender – don’t worry about it. Keep writing until you get to the end – make a note if you’re concerned you might forget. It takes the pressure off, and it’s easier to fix problems from the perspective of a complete script.
Horizon: In False Positive, Avon uses the code-word pleonectic. It’s quite an obscure term - where did you find it, and why did you decide to use it?
ER: Oh, that was just Googling for synonyms. I wanted a word that was unlikely ever to come up in conversation!
Horizon: Do you have any more B7 scripts in the pipeline?
ER: Yes, but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet!
Horizon: Now that you’ve written for Blake, are there any other B7 characters that you would particularly like to write for?
ER: Vila was always my favourite. I’m under no illusions – I’d be the most cowardly one on the Liberator, too.
Horizon: Apart from Blake's 7, which of your Big Finish plays are you the most
pleased with - and why?
ER: It's probably still Human Resources, from that first McGann season. It was loads of fun and is exactly how I like to write Doctor Who. But I also still like Urgent Calls, the one-parter I did for Colin, because I really like the idea and how it plays out. It had a lovely simplicity which meant that the result was quite close to what I envisaged. You always think these things are going to be good before you write them, otherwise you wouldn't bother - so the ones you like are the ones that live up to those initial hopes.
Horizon: Can you tell us about your BBC Radio 2 sitcom, Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully? Is there a series in the pipeline?
ER: Yes, I've just finished writing the series. It's recording in February and airing in March. I had a spell at the beginning where I seemed to have lost the ability to write it, but once I got over that hump it went OK. It really helped that we'd done a pilot, because it fixed my sense of who the characters are and that makes the stories easier to generate and the dialogue easier to write. I don't know, it's hard to judge until it goes in front of an audience, but I think the scripts are good. I'm really looking forward to the recordings. I'm not dreading it. Not yet, anyway.
Horizon: To finish with a silly question that’s been discussed on the Horizon forums: If you could take any of the Blake’s 7 characters as a “Plus One” to a bar – who would you take, and why?
ER: Dayna – incredibly gorgeous and could protect me if a fight started.
Horizon: Thank you very much for the interview and for your time.
ER: No problem. Thanks for asking me such great questions.
You can read more about Eddie on his website EDDIE ROBSON and follow him on Twitter @EddieRobson
Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully stars Hattie Morahan, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Peter Davison. Episode 1 is broadcast at 9.30pm on BBC Radio 2 on 7th March, with subsequent episodes airing every Thursday in March. The official Radio 2 site is here: WELCOME TO OUR VILLAGE
Photo of Gareth Thomas and Beth Chalmers courtesy of Big Finish
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