Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Avengers at 50

I spent last weekend at the very lovely University of Chichester for a convention to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Avengers. I was there under the excuse of my book about Terry Nation, who wrote half a dozen episodes of the show and was story editor for the last season, and I'd like to thank Dr Adam Locks and Michael Holley and their team for inviting me and for organizing such a fabulous event.

It was a wonderful weekend, full of very nice people and an impressive line-up of guests, including (from left to right) four of the great television writers: Richard Bates, Brian Clemens, Terrance Dicks and Richard Harris.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Terry Nation in the Western Mail

There's a fine, lengthy feature in today's Western Mail about Terry Nation, written by David Owens. My thanks to him - I really enjoyed our talk, and it resulted in a very nice piece.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Terry Nation - Top Ten Comedians (part 2)

Following last week's post, here are the top five comedians for whom Nation wrote:

1. Tony Hancock
Britain's greatest ever comedian was in need of something close to a miracle by 1963. One by one, he'd jettisoned his sidekicks - Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr, Sid James - and now he'd left behind the BBC and his writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Nation wrote four episodes of his ITV series, Hancock, and went on tour with him. Some of the material is much better than is generally credited, but it wasn't enough to save the downward spiral of Hancock's career. 'A gentleman never loses his temper. It's a question of good breeding, and you cannot whack good breeding.'

2. Frankie Howerd
'Everybody wrote for Frankie Howerd,' commented Alan Simpson, and one of Nation's earliest jobs - together with his original writing partner, Dick Barry - was contributing material for The Frankie Howerd Show on radio in 1955. With John Junkin he also wrote the 1958 series Fine Goings On. But the best material came with the 1973 movie The House in Nightmare Park, co-written with Clive Exton - 'the film received the first unanimously good press I'd had for a picture in a long, long time,' noted Howerd.

3. Eric Sykes
Sykes was one of the finest comedy scriptwriters in his own right, but sometimes took on more work than he could handle. So it was that Nation and John Junkin were drafted in to script his 1961 radio sitcom It's a Fair Cop. Little has survived of the show, but it was an impressive cast: Hattie Jacques, Deryck Guyler and Dick Emery.

4. Spike Milligan
Milligan gave Nation his first break, welcoming him into the chaotic but star-studded writing agency, Associated London Scripts. Nation, Junkin and Dave Freeman contributed sketches for the groundbreaking 1956 television show, The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d - the first attempt to transfer the humour of the Goons from radio to the screen. Nation was later to acknowledge the debt he owed Milligan by letting him use the Daleks in a sketch for Q6 in 1975 - much against the normal practice of not letting the Daleks be seen in a comedy show.

5. Elsie and Doris Waters
The same team of Nation, Junkin and Freeman also wrote two seasons of the radio show, Floggit's, in 1956-57, starring Elsie and Doris Waters in the regular characters as Gert and Daisy. They're not as well remembered as they should be, but the Waters sisters were among the most innovative acts of the mid-20th century, with a fast-talking but gentle style of observational comedy. In Floggit's they were supported by one of the great casts: Hugh Paddick, Kenneth Connor, Ronnie Barker, Joan Sims, Ron Moody and Anthony Newley (though the latter two were dropped from the second season, allegedly because they were outshining the stars).

Daleks in the media

My thanks to Paul Mount for a nice review of my Terry Nation book in Starburst.

And I ought to mention a piece I wrote for The Guardian last week about Daleks.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Terry Nation - Top Ten Comedians (part 1)

Before turning to science fiction and action adventure shows, Terry Nation cut his teeth writing comedy. And in those early years he wrote for some of the best comics of the 20th century. So in tribute to that work, here's the first half of a countdown of the top ten comedians who spoke his words:

6. Sid James
The 1961 movie What a Whopper was conceived as a vehicle for the country's hottest pop star, Adam Faith, who had made the classic Beat Girl the previous year. What a Whopper wasn't a classic, but it was Nation's first solo onscreen credit as writer, and it did feature a fabulous cast, including Wilfred Brambell, Clive Dunn, Charles Hawtrey, Spike Milligan and Freddie Frinton. And, of course, Sid James, playing a hotel-owner who supplemented his income by poaching salmon.

7. Bob Hope
As a child in Cardiff in the war years, Nation had fallen in love with the likes of Bob Hope and Jack Benny, whose work was broadcast in Britain on AFN radio. Decades later, living now in Hollywood, he collaborated with Andrew J. Fenady on a television movie, A Masterpiece of Murder (1986), starring Don Ameche and Bob Hope. It wasn't up to much, but the idea of writing gags for one of his lifelong heroes provided its own satisfaction for Nation.

8. Ted Ray
Another person heavily influenced by American comedians, Ted Ray drew inspiration from Jack Benny in particular. Along with the likes of Bob Monkhouse, he represented a new style of wise-cracking sophistication in post-war British comedy, most notably in his radio show Ray's a Laugh. Nation and his partner John Junkin wrote for him both on radio - Variety Playhouse in 1957 - and on television, with two series of The Ted Ray Show. A sample line: 'It was a beautiful British summer's night - you could hear the owls coughing with bronchitis.'

9. Jimmy Logan
Most often seen these days in screenings of a couple of the later Carry On films, Logan was in his heyday the biggest live draw in Glasgow. His transfer to television on The Jimmy Logan Show - for which Nation and Junkin wrote nine shows - was, according to Logan, a complete disaster. 'It took me at least two years to re-establish my credibility outside Scotland,' he claimed.

10. Terry Scott
The man who would come to epitomize the suburban domestic sitcom with Happy Ever After and Terry and June appeared in several of Nation's early pieces, including All My Eye and Kitty Bluett (a 1955 radio series written with Dick Barry), What a Whopper and the 1959 movie And the Same to You, for which Nation and Junkin contributed some additional material, and which also starred Sid James and William Hartnell. Unusually, since Nation got on well with most of his collaborators, there was no love lost between him and Scott. 'I hated him,' Nation later reflected. 'It was mutual, we've always hated each other.'

Terry Nation - the Top Ten Scripts

A personal choice of Terry Nation's ten best scripts, listed in chronological order:

The Saint: 'The Inescapable Word' (1965)
'It destroys all life, but leaves no trace of radiation. The classic death ray.'

The Baron: 'Countdown' (1967)
'Latin? I speak it with a fluency which can only come from a very superior English education.'

The Avengers: 'Legacy of Death' (1968)
'When it was known that your friend Steed had inherited the knife, men gathered like birds of carrion from the four corners of the Earth. Avid, covetous, rapacious, all desperate to own that cursed blade.'

Department S: 'A Cellar Full of Silence' (1969)
'Do you remember that devastating explosion that Mark Caine was involved in, in Epilogue to Hong Kong, after pursuing that beautiful blonde, Hussy Abundant, halfway round the world, and it was the explosion that blew her wig off and he realized it was a man?'

The Persuaders!: 'A Death in the Family' (1972)
'Are all the Sinclairs buried here?'
'No. Only the dead ones.'

The Incredible Robert Baldick: 'Never Come Night' (1972)
'He cannot resist the inexplicable. Almost any happening qualifies for his interest as long as it is out of the ordinary.'

The House in Nightmare Park (1973)
'Do I play the piano? Does Paganini play the trumpet?'

Doctor Who: 'Genesis of the Daleks' (1975)
'They talk of democracy, freedom, fairness. Those are the creeds of cowards, the ones who will listen to a thousand viewpoints and try to satisfy them all. Achievement comes through absolute power. And power through strength.'

Survivors: 'The Fourth Horseman' (1975)
'There was a state of emergency declared, but it was too late. There was nobody left to implement it. They even tried to set up a seat of government in the country. There was no hope of that, of course. The administrators died along with the rest of them.'

Blake's 7: 'Countdown' (1979)
'It happens to be the truth. If there had ever been a time when I could have given my own life to save her, I would have done it. The only grain of consolation that I have is that Anna knew that.'

Terry Nation reviews

There have been a couple of reviews of The Man Who Invented the Daleks in the press, which is very nice. Here's Roger Lewis in the Daily Mail and Andrew Martin in the Financial Times.