Saturday, 4 February 2017

Share and Enjoy


Wow I've really played a game of chicken plugging this. Okay, "Time Spanner" - the thing whose progress I've been charting on this blog the past ten years - finally had a pilot recorded in June and was then broadcast on Radio 4 a month ago, which means you now have just one day left to listen to it. Sorry.

And look who turned up to the recording! 
Ben Moor! Ned Mond! Julia, Joel, Jason, Katy Wix!
(Wedding photographer: Stephen Evans)

Has it really been ten years in the making? This interview from September 2007 suggests not: There I talk about wanting to write a vehicle for myself about a homeless wedding planner instead. What I think I realised soon after that interview however was that if I was going to write that, I'd have to research wedding planning, and I wasn't very interested in researching wedding planning so opted instead for this sort of cosmic science-fiction fantasy - You know "Doctor Who"? That. 

Beautiful pic for the Radio Times by Thomas Flintham

Of course it's not really "Doctor Who" (Carrrie Quinlan's got that gig sewn up.) It rips off so many ideas from so many sources that hopefully I can't be fingered for any specific theft. The real impetus behind Time Spanner is probably the comics I read in my teens, when comics seemed to be doing something amazing, when Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" created a playground in which Peter Milligan's "Shade the Changing Man" could hang back on the benches coolly composing existential thought experiments with painted covers by Brendan McCarthy, while the more popular kids like Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" entered everything and won the gold, exactly the same impetus behind that strip I did about a slacker sent on a mission by an angel twenty years ago, now that I think about it. Sorry. Obscure references. Bad. 
Also I wanted to write the show to which "Peaches En Regalia" was the theme tune. 

 Team Spanner photo by Amanda Benson
l to r: Jeremy Limb, me, David Mitchell, John Finnemore, London Hughes, Belinda Stewart-Wilson

So yes I'm sorry I haven't given you blog-readers much notice of this culmination. You'll probably want to listen to it three or four times, that's what all the cool dudes are doing. John suggests as much in this very nice piece. "John" as in John Finnemore, who played Laika - both in the finished thing and in that first read-through that he let us do in his flat six years ago. (Organising those read-throughs was the only deadline I had for finishing a script.) Also present at that first read-through was the show's producer Gareth Edwards, who I suspect experienced even more ups and downs trying to get this commissioned than I did. For me this was always the dream. You're a fool to be disappointed if you don't get your dream. But Gareth managed it.

And a lot of the "refining" John writes about was the result of conversations I had with Gareth both in emails and in person, and indeed in the final edit where a tenth of the show had to be cut to meet the running time. I only know this by checking the original script. It didn't feel like a tenth because Gareth clearly cut the right tenth. It was Gareth too who suggested that I call this other dimension "Heaven", rather than as it stood in the 2010 draft, "Uberspace". "Uber" didn't mean then what it does now. Similarly the choice of an unhinged, dictatorial reality-television-starring property developer as the story's heavy seemed a lot more light-heartedly surreal back in 2010. Here's the problem: Among the many exciting things comics were doing back in that exciting period I mentioned was the refashioning of Superman's arch-enemy Lex Luthor into a satire on Donald Trump. And it wasn't just Lex Luthor. By the release of "Batman Returns" you couldn't budge for superheroes pitting themselves against wealthy philanthropists secretly trying to take over the world, all of whom provided the seed for Kraken.

So I hope Time Spanner gets a series. Of course I do. But what's funny has changed so, just between you and me, I might have to rethink where it goes. That's the problem when you grow up reading surrealist apocalypic dystopia. But it's also exciting. Far worse for the fate of the show would have been if everything was now fine. I'm still glad I didn't go with that wedding planner idea. Shall we cheer ourselves up further by looking at more of Amanda Benson's lovely rehearsal photographs?

Here's our Kraken. I had asked for Jon Hamm but what are you going to do? It's worth mentioning that if it wasn't for David Mitchell I wouldn't be writing comedy at all and I certainly wouldn't have written this. He effectively joined Gareth as midwife for the last two years of this thing's birth.

Returning for a second to Jon Hamm: I love Mad Men creator Matt Weiner's motto "Subtext is Pleasure" and I was keen that the dialogue in Time Spanner should sound pretty natural and leave as many jokes unsaid as possible, if that make sense. The problem is that commissioners are only going to read your script once, if that, and even if by some miracle they do correctly interpret every nuance and fluff the actors who end up having to perform the thing are only going to be spending a single afternoon with these words as well, so you have to make it absolutely clear why people are saying what they're saying on the first read. It's not Shakespeare. And it was David who suggested the solution. Stage Directions. Here's an example:

Needless to say all David's ideas were good. Here I think he's suggesting John be given a stool:

And here he is holding a script in front of his face because the character he is playing is on the other side of a door. John as Laika is urging me on. I as Martin am literally miming holding a cup of tea because I'm new to this.

Oh yes. That name. "Martin". I wanted - as we all want - something basically normal but a little unfortunate. "Martin Gay" just came up in conversation eight years ago and I thought: Bingo! It wasn't until two years into the drafting that I realised I'd plumped for exactly the same name John had already chosen for his own feckless sitcom hero, and by then it was too late. This might be why nobody in the episode ever actually addresses my character as just "Martin".

London! Secret weapon. Gareth always said Gabbie was the key. Here's another indicator of how long I've been writing this: I was writing for Laurence and Gus when I first thought of Gabbie. Isy Suttie was in the cast and I thought she might make a good Gabbie and then, by a total coincidence, she was cast as someone called Dobbie in Peepshow. That long ago. Anyway, auditioning actors for Gabbie might have been the most grown-up thing I've ever done. Everyone we saw gave beautiful, intelligent readings but London Hughes actually reminded who Gabbie was. I don't mean that she reminded me of Gabbie, I mean she reminded me who Gabbie was, and why Gareth was so right. There's a surplus energy in Gabbie you can't transcribe and without which very little Martin does in this episode really makes emotional sense. So we were very lucky with London. If you want more of her - and of course you do - try here.

Far right: B-Stew gets into the zone. She took a porridge of archetypes and instantly made sense of it: Angel, yes, Muse, sure, but also Femme Fatale, Bell Dame Sans Merci, Cylon, Siri, White Witch, VALIS, the Sorceress from He-Man, that weird female Buddha from Monkey Magic, "M", and if this is a rip-off Doctor Who, the Doctor - a character referred to in the script simply as "the Voice" so nervous was I of pinning her down, Belinda took all this and simply made it sing.

And completing the team, second from left, the unweildily talented Jeremy Limb from The Trap and Music. You can hear his own science fiction comedy epic Event Horizon Crescent here. If Time Spanner is a baby I always wanted Jeremy to be Godfather. In the Green Room before the recording, as final tweaks to the script were being made, it occurred to me how lucky I was to be in one of the best writers' rooms ever assembled. So thanks again to Gareth and to all the cast for keeping me company. And thanks to everyone who came to the read-throughs and played the roles and helped them exist a bit more. And thanks again to John who always seemed to love this thing in all its forms. Which meant it was probably good. Which meant I stuck at it.

Have I missed anything? OH! THE LINK! Here
(And you can like it on here too.)
((And also broadcast that same belated epiphany was Now The Twelfth Night Show, which I loved appearing in, and which you also have a day left to listen to.))


  1. Thank you for putting all this together – very interesting to read about the origins, and everyone's contribution, and to see photos! I hope Time Spanner gets the opportunities it deserves. (Which is to say, good opportunities, because it is very deserving.)

  2. Ah, the long-awaited blog entry about Time Spanner – just the very thing we needed to get over the fact that it’s only a matter of hours before the show is no longer available for listening. (Though if I have to be completely honest, I might have recorded it. Or not. Don’t tell the BBC. I’m still anxiously waiting for the pilot to be available for purchase, either as a download or an actual CD. Paws crossed.)

    I think I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed Time Spanner. Annoyed everyone and their dog by going on and on about it, quite possibly. Speaking of dogs, I love what you did with Laika there. I still remember how awful I felt when I first read about her story as a kid – how the poor thing was never going to make out of it alive, no matter what the public had been led to believe; so thank you for proving that in fact ‘dead dogs can be funny and sad’. (And speak in John Finnemore’s voice on top of that. Because he’s a very good dog, and that’s scientific fact.)

    I completely agree about London killing it as Gabbie. And I admit there were a couple of instances when Martin Gay – oh, how brilliant you were as Martin – made me think of his namesake from another sitcom; though to be fair, he also reminded me quite a lot of one Arthur ‘I-am-so-excited’ Shappey in at least two separate occasions, in point of fact. I might have listened to Cabin Pressure one time to many. Sorry. (Not sorry.) Also, I need to know more about Mr Kraken. And the Angel-Muse-Lady Wizard. And the little flying robot whose name I’m not entirely sure how to spell.

    So, yeah, I think I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to the pilot so far. The writing is beautiful, from start to finish – but what really fascinates me is the part where Laika describes Martin’s journey through time and space. I grew up loving everything about science; and though I deleted most of what I studied at university, I still believe you did a magnificent job at addressing such matters as spacetime and the curvature of the universe.

    The fact that I hope the show gets commissioned for a full series (and possibly more) goes without saying. Please let us know if there’s anything we could do to ensure that this does in fact happen. And thank you for being amazing on JFSP too; as I believe you pointed out somewhere, Martin Gay would be ever so pleased to discover that St Ives is in fact a theme – though I’m not sure how that RSPCA-nightmare of a train would fit in the corridor of a self-storage unit. But then again, he’s not the one how inverted a goose, so there’s that.

    Oh, and happy 5th of February too. I hope it wasn’t too miserable. Nobody is merry on this day, unless they go and listen to the song. (Which I did. Several times. Alternating between that, and a musical about a man-eating piano. I will never understand why Mr Tall Tales Finnemore didn’t call in a couple of professional monster hunters to deal with the cursed instrument. Oh well.)

    So long, and thanks for all the laughs. They’re very much appreciated, even more so in these times we’re living in. Looking forward to more of your work, in any shape or form it comes in.

  3. Great, found your blog! So I can say it directly: Time Spanner is brilliant comedy, please write more. Maybe a little faster though :)

  4. Letter's page! Like a proper comic!

    Tealin, thanks again.
    (Any Cabin Pressure fans unaware of tealin's work should head to for something like a second Christmas.)

    Lothiriel, again thanks again. We are all Arthur. I spent a lot of February the 5th, as I spent most of January, coughing. Your other points will hopefully be addressed in later blogs. A bit. Thanks again again!
    (For everyone else, here's the 5th of February song

    Baraclough, thanks also and yes, yikes.

  5. Oh and as spelt in the script, it's "Mr. Mergatroid", even though the far more common spelling is Murgatroyd. Because "-oid" is more robot-y, and also I got it wrong.

  6. As a humble listener, I have no idea of how R4 commissioning works, or even of how to petition them or make it known what we like or dislike. Which is a bit unusual in this day and age, where everything else has a 'Like' button or ratings control or text box for feedback. Do you have any clues as to what to do?

    Separately, I'm thinking that making a radio programme ought to be the kind of thing that doesn't need big apparatus to bring about. Can't you just do it yourselves?

    Also, Tealin's illustrations! Wow!!!

    So, how about a website with 6 x 27min episodes of Time Spanner (recorded in someone's shed) with illustrations? If I were a rich philanthropist that's a thing I'd support. I'm not though.