A Day in Kaldor City: 8 August 2002
by Douglas McNaughton
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 299
When I was 11, I wrote to Jim'll Fix It asking for a trip to the BBC to watch Doctor Who being recorded. To my chagrin, I never even got a reply, never mind getting to swan about on the set of "The Deadly Assassin" as I'd fondly imagined I would. However, a quarter of a century later, my wish came true (sort of) when I wangled a trip to London to visit The Moat Studios and write an article about the recording of the Kaldor City series of audio dramas...
I'm getting up at six in the morning in the middle of the summer holidays in order to catch a train to London. My friends think I'm mad, but it's all in a good cause - the next Kaldor City audio dramas are being recorded and I've been asked along to the second of the recording days. Today, we're recording scenes to be used in two CDs in the series, "Hidden Persuaders" and "Taren Capel".
In the green room at the studio, Russell Hunter is full of beans and telling us about an imminent visit by David Cronenberg, whose daughter is married to Russell's son. Russell has recently been trying and get hold of Cronenberg's films so that his wife Una - who hasn't yet seen all of them - can get acquainted with her in-law's work.
Scott Fredericks has arrived and is about to record a scene with Russell. Scott - who a minute before was smoking in the green room and chatting about the flight over from Dublin - magically recaptures Carnell's delivery. It's a bit uncanny to hear that familiar bored, superior, can't-be-bothered voice through the speakers. Russell, meanwhile, slips back into Uvanov's voice as though it were 1977 all over again. As the day goes on, several people comment that if you're not looking at Russell as he performs, you instantly picture him the way he looked in "The Robots of Death" - hat and all!
The recording of the first scene goes perfectly under the direction of Alan Stevens and Alistair Lock, who's also doing the post-production. However, Russell is having problems as there's a bit of rustling from his script being picked up on the microphones, as he turns the pages. To solve this he starts tearing out pages and laying them out across a music stand. "Shame to trifle with this masterpiece," says Scott Fredericks playfully, "Could have made a lot of money selling the script on."
Time for a break, so it's back to the green room. Peter Miles has arrived. Fanboy moment number 1: Oh my God! It's Nyder! Peter Miles has always held a special place in my Doctor Who memories because he looks very like the dentist I had when "Genesis of the Daleks" was transmitted. As he's here working on another Who related project, how does he feel about the show? "Michael Wisher and I used to do Davros and Nyder at conventions but since he died I haven't done so many conventions. We never thought the Davros and Nyder double-act would take off the way it did. I was very busy at the time so we just went in and got on with it. It was just another job. But it keeps coming back - it was just shown again on BBC2 in 2000."
Back in the studio, there's a weird crossover moment as Scott Fredericks reads out a long speech for "Taren Capel" about robophobia. It could have come out of the script of "The Robots of Death", but is being delivered by the Blake's 7 character Carnell. Alistair asks him to do it again, but enjoy it more this time. "I'll try..." replies Scott, with a sigh.
In the green room, Nicolas Courtney has arrived. Fanboy moment number 2: Oh my God! It's the Brig! "Hello Russell," he says, greeting Hunter, "It's a long time since we worked together last". The two then reminisce about doing a Callan together in 1967: other people who were in that episode included Burt Kwouk and Ronald Radd. Russell launches into the story of how Edward Woodward's nickname came about. "Ronnie Radd was the originator. He said one day, 'Edward Woodward - that's a very easy name to remember. No matter how you say it, it still sounds like a fart in a bath'. Woodward was furious and stalked out of the rehearsal room. Now he's claiming that Olivier made it up!"
Jim Smith is the co-writer of "Hidden Persuaders". I collar him as he passes through the green room nursing an exceptionally large mug of coffee. How did he come up with the plot? "Originally I wanted to do something about an attack on some sort of industrial plant. I had a few ideas for scenes and set-pieces (none of which made it into the final script, strangely) and I attached them to the idea of a giant industrial machine which bellowed oxygen into the atmosphere of Kaldor. Sort of pollution in reverse. We know Kaldor is a colony world from both "The Robots of Death" and Corpse Marker, and whilst I'm very bored with the idea of "terraforming" I was interested in the idea that the atmosphere on Kaldor might be slightly thinner than is healthy, and that the inhabitants would have to build these huge Oxygenator plants to enrich the air. Actually a lot of this goes back to 'Occam's Razor', where in order to justify a joke we had in the script, Alan and I did some research into rhubarb. No, really, we did. The idea was to find a reason why they'd have heard of rhubarb on - why they'd have taken rhubarb to - a Colony world. During this ridiculous research, entirely undertaken to justify a line that made us laugh I found out that rhubarb is the second-best oxygen-producing plant there is. That is it converts carbon dioxide into oxygen more efficiently than any plant on Earth except one - I forget which one - so I had this semi-comic idea of all these industrial rhubarb farms on Kaldor producing oxygen. This got me thinking about the idea of air-as-utility like water or gas, and I just thought, 'What would we do if someone turned the oxygen off?' For a while the working title for the script was 'The Rhubarb Conspiracy' - even though there's actually no mention of rhubarb in the finished script - until Fiona came up with something much better to call it in fact." Seeing as he'd mentioned her, I asked Jim about the nature of his collaboration with co-writer Fiona Moore.
"I've written things with a lot of different people, partially because I'm a great believer in third brain theory, and partially as a series of attempts to disguise my own lack of talent! [Laughs]. Writing with Fiona was very different to writing with Alan, say, or with [Doctor Who novelist] Mark Clapham, whom I went to University with and with whom I wrote a book about Ally McBeal. With Mark and Alan it was a case of sitting at opposite ends of table or a phone line and throwing ideas and jokes at one another. With Fiona on the other hand, it was a lot more disciplined. I'd write scenes and lines and then pass them to her through Alan - whilst he was wearing his producer's hat - and she'd do the same in reverse. She brought in lots of complex, rich ideas to my brutally comic terrorism thriller. I think on balance she did the clever bits and I did the jokes [Laughs]. Like I said, the title is hers, it's a reference to a very influential text on media and social control, The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. Fiona's an Oxford-trained anthropologist, PhD no less - whereas I'm more of a straightforward hack writer type. Fiona deserves a lot of credit for the good stuff in the play, there's a section in the middle, the siege element, which I found tremendously difficult to even imagine, and Fiona did some terrific work on that. I was much happier working on stuff like the opening funeral scene, all the bitchy one-liners and the interplay between the characters. That's the sort of thing I like doing really, the contrast between the 'court' i.e. Uvanov, and the 'rude mechanicals' shall we say, i.e Cotton and Rull. It's all ripped off from Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I'm very enamoured of - I'd say influenced by, but that's a bit pretentious really - people like Middleton and Webster and Marlowe. Alan is too, actually." So, I ask, how does it feel to be writing for the world of Kaldor City as established by Chris Boucher? "It's a joy. It's great to play with someone else's toybox! World-building is the in thing at the moment - look at the new Star Wars films, and Lord of the Rings and so on - and it's so much fun to do something like that. In 'Death's Head', which is a brilliant, brilliant script, Chris Boucher takes us into bits of Kaldor City that we didn't know existed, he conjures up this whole society, with its haves and have-nots and fliers and gentlemen's drinking clubs and storm research centres and the like. It's exciting just to be able to react to stuff like that, to try and add other layers and elements."
I ask about the casting of the many characters who populate Kaldor City. "Well, Trevor Cooper who plays Rull, for instance, was in Chris Boucher's TV series Star Cops, and Chris envisaged Rull, as written in Corpse Marker, for Trevor. So it would have been silly to hire anyone else to play the part really. Iago was absolutely created - as written in 'Occam's Razor' - for Paul [Darrow] to play. I'm enormously fond of Paul, both as an actor and as a person. Have you ever heard his impersonation of George Formby? It's brilliant. And as for the amazing Scott Fredericks - well, when we tracked him down he said 'I'm so glad you contacted me - I wouldn't want him to be played by anyone else.' Russell Hunter said a very similar thing actually, and so we slowly assembled this exceptional cast. Russell's a brilliant actor. I love watching him work because he manages to find subtleties and humour and strength and depth in some lines of dialogue that I didn't notice were there. In some case, you realize, we're talking about lines I've actually written. That's how good he is."
In the green room, Russell's come up with a great silent gag where someone mistakes a chocolate finger for a cigar, and as they try to light it they wonder why there's melted chocolate dripping off the end. This leads him (somehow) onto the subject of having candles in pubs. Russell doesn't approve. "All that wooden panelling! It's not a good idea. That's why I run my own pub. It's called the sitting room. The booze is cheap there too." Then he tells a story about his eye operation which makes us all want to run for the hills...
Back into the studio for Nicholas Courtney's scenes; he's playing a kind of elder-statesman news presenter. He runs through his lines and I go all fanboy again. That wonderful voice! He's joined in the studio by Jasmine Breaks - the Dalek-controlling little girl in "Remembrance of the Daleks" - who is playing a newscaster reporting on a disaster in Kaldor City. Alan and Alistair are very impressed with her delivery - "She's terrifying me," says Alan approvingly, "She really chews her way through the words." Jim notes that she's got the Chris Morris influenced cruelty of the newscaster's dialogue exactly right. There's one snag however - she keeps saying Uvavnov instead of Uvanov, but this is soon corrected. (In fairness, Russell points out he was looking at "The Robots of Death" last night and noticed that Tom Baker never pronounces Uvanov twice the same way either.)
A rehearsal room has been set up for the photo-calls. Andy Hopkinson, the photographer, has worked for BBC Visual Effects and has brought along a number of handy props including a Voc head, a skull, and a couple of Blake's 7 guns and teleport bracelets. Nicholas Courtney has finished recording and is having his picture taken. Did he enjoy this morning? "Excellent! Fascinating! Especially as I didn't know what I was doing. No, well I did..." Andy hands him the Voc head. "Have I got robophobia?" His next Doctor Who work involves a couple of conventions. Does he still enjoy them? "Well, in the absence of proper work... yes, of course I do, because I know lots of the people there, so they're always fun to do."
Snoozing in the green room is Patricia Merrick, who plays Justina. It turns out she's a bit of a fan as well. "I loved Doctor Who, I sometimes watch the Daleks and it takes me back to being seven again. I watch 'The Robots of Death' before we do these audios to get into the mood." The Kaldor City series isn't her first professional brush with Doctor Who either. "I was in The Zero Imperative with Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy. That was a little bit strange as Jon Pertwee was my Doctor when I was growing up. They were all really lovely people so it was nice to work with them, including Louise Jameson and Caroline John."
It's now about 6.30. Most of the actors have gone and Russell is back in studio to record a very long speech of Uvanov's. How does he do it? I reckon he's been talking non-stop since 9.30 in the morning. Checking for coffee cups, I go off to the darkened rehearsal room where the props are. One of them particularly catches my attention and I lift it from the table. Fanboy moment number 3: Oh my God! I'm holding the skull of... well, you'll have to get the CDs to find out.
Photographs copyright Andy Hopkinson/Alan Stevens 2002