Alan Barnes Interview

A from the archive conversation With Eddie

Alan Barnes has had a varied career… editor, producer, director, writer, he’s had a thumb in a lot of pies, if you can excuse the phrase. Transfering comic book creation Izzy to audio was just one of the challenges I talked to him about when I hid behind a corner and caught him in a bag as he made his way from Big Finish Towers, and it took two of us to get him into The Mind Probe…

Considering the amount of stories you’ve written for the Eighth Dctor/Izzy in comic form, wa sit a difficult transition to transfer that to audio for A Company of Friends…?

A struggle at first, trying to bottle the essence of a pairing I hadn’t written for over ten years. The key to it was the actually quite horrific realisation that mid-1990s Izzy is now as ‘period’ as 1930s Charley. It’s been weird, actually, to see so many Britpop retrospectives over the summer, culminating in Blur reforming to play Glastonbury. Just the other day, I was watching a documentary about 1990s domestic technology, and how impossibly shonky and limited it seems. All that’s ancient history now… and so am I! I’d never be a hot young 25-year-old again, full of promise, with a 28-inch waist (sigh…). I was going to have to write it from the perspective of a fat old has-been with far fewer teeth.

And of course there’re deliberate Judge Dredd parallels in that story I presume, given your history?

Yes. Growing up, I was a massive 2000 AD fan – there were times when I was probably more of a 2000 AD fan than I was a Doctor Who fan. I loved that whole secret world, with its own language – “Borag Thungg, Earthlets!”, Thrill-Sucker infestations, “Send him to Mek-Quake!”, script and art robots, the Dictators of Zrag… It’s pretty obvious, I guess, that Izzy’s speaking with my voice quite a lot of the time! But having gone on to edit the Judge Dredd Megazine as a grown-up, and having had the opportunity to work with heroes of mine like Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra – too many to mention – I thought it’d be fun to pay tribute to that whole lost British comics industry. The story of Aggrotron! being pulled from the shelves was actually inspired by a comic called Action, which was literally pulped due to its incredibly graphic violence. Things like Hookjaw the killer shark, biting people in half…

Izzy’s Story is of course a lot shorter than your average Big Finish adventure… was the length of that story a help or a hindrance?

Well, it’s a sketch, really – I seriously doubt there’d have been enough meat to sustain a four-parter! But that’s the nice thing about the one-part format – short, snappy stories, recognisably Doctor Who adventures, but which only need to do one thing well. You can still get a point or two across: I think it’s tragic that originated comics have been more or less allowed to die in this country, for example, largely due to magazine distributors’ greed – they’re not interested in selling anything set below a certain price point, and won’t support a title that isn’t dependent on established TV and games brands. At one time, the publishers IPC used to cancel comics when sales fell below 200,000 copies per week! Imagine that: 200,000! Incredible now. Sorry; once you get me started…

Go for it….

…. nope?

Anyway, you’ve written both Doctor Who Magazine strips and Doctor Who Adventure ones.. is there a different approach needed between DWM comic strips and DWA?

Yes, but it’s very like the difference between a four-part and a one-part audio: you need to do one thing well. Get to the point and get off the stage! Yes, you can explore some slightly more ‘adult’ ideas in a DWM strip, but I believe it’s perfectly possible to do some pretty sophisticated stuff for a younger audience – I did a pretty grim World War I story in DWA, a story about the fear of the number 13, and other stupid superstitions… I have a feeling my Bram Stoker/Oscar Wilde two-parter crossed the line, however! That said, I’ve never wanted to write didactically – I really don’t believe the world will be enriched by my using Doctor Who fiction to proclaim that ‘Racism is Bad’, or ‘Iraq: That’s a Bit Messed-Up, Isn’t It?’ Except in [i][b]Gallifrey: Weapon of Choice[/b[/i]], of course, where I did the whole ’45 minutes to attack’ thing. Ugh, never again.

With the new release, Castle of Fear just available, I wondered how important is the internal continuity established in things like Stockbridge? Do you think it can alienate casual viewers?

Certainly, I make an extra effort to ensure that the first story of each three-story arc, as with Castle of Fear, is easy to drop in to. I get very frustrated when I see, on message boards and so on, perfectly well-meaning fans put curious newcomers off by telling them, ‘No, you can’t start listening with Story X, you have to go all the way back to Stories A, B, C and D.’ Actually, you can start pretty much anywhere you like, and as script editor I do all I reasonably can to make each adventure reasonably comprehensible to the first-time listener, by ensuring that significant ‘past’ plot points are restated in dialogue, and so on. There’s a huge difference between points of ‘colour’ – bits of verisimilitude that suggest that this environment is a complete world, like the references to Sir Justin, from The Tides of Time, in Castle of Fear – and a story that cannot be followed without footnotes. I really don’t believe it matters whether or not you’ve heard, say, the previous two Aunty Pat stories before you listen to Death in Blackpool. I don’t doubt Blackpool will be a slightly richer and more meaningful experience if you have, but the story can still be followed. Everyone’s got to start somewhere, and now that we’re up to 127 ‘main range’ audios, 25 New Eighth Doctor Adventures, and God knows how many spin-off series, the BF range must seem huge and mystifying and indigestible to newcomers. Start with the latest release, and I promise we’ll have tried our best to bear in mind that every audio is somebody’s first. But please, don’t feel you need to have bought Storm Warning, say, in order to listen to any of the Sixth Doctor and Charley stories. Really, honestly, you don’t. Like I say, a lot of well-meaning people sometimes give others that sort of impression, but as lovely as it’d be to sell even more copies of Storm Warning, I wouldn’t want anyone to buy it at the expense of the new stuff. Because, bluntly, we need to sell the new stuff more!

But with internal continuity becoming so convoluted and crossing genres like this, it begs the question… is it canon?

We try to stay true to the facts established in the TV series, and within our own audios… but I’m always happy to cherry-pick things from other media, such as Stockbridge, if they lead us off in interesting or dramatic directions. The idea of ‘canon’ as applied to pop culture originated, I believe, with Sherlock Holmes fans, who talk about the Conan Doyle ‘canon’, and go on to talk about fitting in real world facts, or ironing out inconsistencies, or slotting in pastiche fictions, etc, as a Great Game. I think that’s fantastic, a really healthy way to approach it: it’s all a game, it’s something fun… and, more importantly, it’s something that fans do for themselves, they’re not waiting for Conan Doyle’s great-niece’s hamster to declare that, I don’t know, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century is officially canon, but Basil the Great Mouse Detective is not. If you’re interested in putting forward theories as to how everything Doctor Who all fits together, that’s fantastic, play the game, do it. As fans, it’s your job!

Don’t… just… don’t…

Let’s change the subject… we’re all eagerly waiting to hear about the new Eighth Doctor adventues…What can you tell us about the latest season?

That’s Season Four of the New Eighth Doctor Adventures, because Lucie and the Doctor part company in Death in Blackpool… and I can’t add very much more to what’s already out there. The new season is an opportunity to do some new things, introduce some new running characters… including the new companion, introduced in Situation Vacant. I will say that ‘Sit Vac’, as I’ve been calling it, does absolutely what it says on the tin – the Doctor auditions several people for the job of companion, and one of them gets it. The next story, Nevermore, written by me, marks that person’s first trip in the TARDIS, to another planet. The title’s not related to Neverland, by the way – it’s an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe. Beyond that, there’ll be twists and turns, a returning villain or two… and a couple of stylistically quite interesting stories as well.

Rumour has it Sheridan is appearing in the new series. Is this a wink to Lucie or as another character?

I have absolutely no idea if there’s any truth in that. No one would have told me if there were, no one ever tells me nothing! Really, truly – nothing! I’ve only met Sheridan the once. Most of the time, I sit all alone in my little office in Oxford, I sign off on these scripts, then they take them away and they make them. I’m the least well-connected person in fandom – I don’t get invited to parties, signings, conventions, nothing…

And on the subject of the new series… when writing this set of adventures, do you have carte blanche or does Upperboat have a say on monsters/settings/returnees etc?

Yes, they do – dear old Gary Russell stiffed my initial idea for the first story in the Stockbridge trilogy, because both the exact setting and the use of a major historical personage would pre-empt their using exactly the same things in the first Matt Smith season. Obviously, I’m not allowed to say anything any more specific (see, I tell a lie, I do know something!), but it was gutting – I was really looking forward to writing that story, it was a very ‘me’ idea. But I picked myself up and thought of something completely different, hence Castle of Fear. Every now and again it happens, and it’s fair enough that the TV series has priority. So yes, there are some monsters/villains who’ll be off-limits, at least for a time. Sometimes, also, they’ll request we move something to another point in the schedule: for example, Brotherhood of the Daleks was supposed to precede The Doomwood Curse, but Cardiff requested us to move Brotherhood so it wasn’t out in the same month as Journey’s End. Brotherhood was all designed to explore the newly-established Sixth Doctor and Charley dynamic, lots of scenes with the two of them together, but Doomwood kept them apart more – so it wasn’t ideal to have to swap them around. But like I say, fair enough – it’s their sandpit, and we’re happy enough to get to play in a corner of it.

You co-write some of your work. Is this easier or harder than writing alone?

It’s just different. ‘Alan Barnes and Gary Russell’ is a separate entity, I think, from either Alan Barnes or Gary Russell. I don’t see how you can successfully write with another person unless you’re prepared to let go a little bit of your ‘normal’ self, and just… go with the flow. Gary and I ended up writing stuff in the same room, on separate laptops. Normally I’d never dream of allowing anyone else to watch me writing, it’d be like sharing a bath with a total stranger. But we fell into a pattern of working that way. With Orbis, I wrote the script from Nick’s very detailed scene breakdown. Which was a fascinating experience – like painting, or something. A storyline is a fairly cold, mechanical blueprint of a thing; writing the script is about adding colour, finding ways to bring it to life. A real eye-opener for both of us, and it gave us a new appreciation of each other’s strengths, I think.

And on that subject, when writing comic strips, do you have much contact with the artist?

Sometimes, yes. But I’m not an Alan Moore-style control freak, I don’t write three-page panel descriptions. You want the script to be a springboard for the artist, not a straitjacket. Let them do their thing. Digressing again, it’s kind of how I feel about writing audio: the script should be generous, it should give the actors scope to interpret it their way, within reason; it should enable the director, the sound designer, everyone, to show what they can do. It’s not a showcase for ‘I, the Great Author.’ If you want total control over every aspect of the text, write novels, don’t write in collaborative media.

A cheeky one now…I saw a rather unkind (and unwarranted) comment about Nick in another forum concerning the amount of different roles he has: writer, director, performer etc when talking about the new Sherlock Holmes – and this was something that was levelled at the New Adventures too – that there was some kind of ‘creative mafia’ who shared the work around… do you ever feel that this is the case (not about Nick of course!)? Or perhaps that others may perceive it that way, with you yourself of course spread out through a few genres and roles?

This is the ‘jobs for the boys’ question, right? There’s no mafia. There’s no elite. When you see any one writer’s name on lots and lots of things, it tells you that writer is, bottom line, very, very good. Not merely reliable… or clubbable… or fanciable, even. (Definitely not the last of those, I assure you!) But good. There’s a fashionable social theorist, whose name escapes me just now, who’s just put out a book talking about how it takes 10,000 hours of doing anything creative to get to be any good at it. That seems plausible to me. 10,000 hours seems like a mountain to climb when you’ve not had anything published, but you’re up against guys who’ve put that many hours in. But everyone started somewhere. A lucky break or two might get you a bit of the way up that mountain, but you’ll slide right back down again if you don’t keeping pushing yourself harder and harder to get better and better. Just look at the old Audio Visuals, and what guys like Nick, Gary, Bill Baggs and John Ainsworth achieved in their spare time: they put in thousands and thousands of hours of practice, learning to make radio plays to a professional standard, without any expectation they’d ever get paid for it… and that’s basically why BF exists.

The other reason there’s no mafia: as an editor, you’d be utterly mad to employ your mates. What I’ve put some of our writers through – endless storyline drafts, endless nitpicking, sending back whole draft scripts and telling them to start again, then rewriting them myself from beginning to end – I would never do to my friends, because they’d end up hating me! There are enough writers out there sticking pins into voodoo dolls they’ve made of me as it is…

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