The Boat House
Stephen Gallagher: The Boat House is set in Leningrad and the Lake District and is the story of a young woman from Russia who, in the pre-Glasnost era spent time in the prison psychiatric hospital in Leningrad, and who now – in the post-Glasnost era – has been able to leave Russia, and has entered Britain as an illegal immigrant.
She is looking to find herself a place in British society, and the way that she does it is to find work in the restaurant trade in the north-west of England, in Cumbria, which is an area where I set Chimera, and which I’m returning to now because I love the landscape up there.
But, of course, what happens is that she brings with her the psychoses which were fostered in the prison hospital, where she went in a sane person and came out a not-quite-so-sane person, because the regime in the prison hospitals of the time was such that that was the situation it engendered.
I’ve been working on it since about 1984. I went over to Leningrad in 1984, did the research in the city there, and picked up a lot of useful facts. I also picked up hepatitis while I was over there! Within a couple of months of coming home it incubated and then whoom! That was it, you know. The liver said, I’m taking a holiday now, you carry on without me.
Of course being freelance, I didn’t have a job to knock off and get sick pay from. So I was sort of going the ten yards to the study every morning and plopping in the chair and carrying on working. Hepatitis is like a six month disease to get over. I think I had two weeks in bed and was then back at work again.
I did the first draft of Boat House under the influence of the virus. Afterwards I came back and read it, and realised that no well person could ever have written it. It didn’t hang together, it didn’t plot properly, it didn’t make any sense, but, there was some really bizarre and wonderful stuff in there. So in a way, I was kind of glad of the illness, as it had given something as well as taken something away.
I then began to rewrite and polish, and I remember I got a letter from a fairly prominent editor at the time, which advised me that I should not spend time on this book and should not follow the path that I was following, and perhaps if I would go down and have a meeting with this editor and another senior editor, we could thrash out a few ideas. Basically the idea was that ‘we editors will thrash out the ideas and send you away to write them up.’
This was in the really low point of my career, just before I did Valley of Lights. I never followed up on that, and I’m rather glad I didn’t. Instead, I shelved The Boat House and worked on Valley of Lights, which was quite a difficult thing to do really, because not only was The Boat House on the shelf, Oktober was on the shelf as well, from the year before, because nobody wanted to touch that either.
And then Valley sold, and Oktober sold in the wake of that, and while those two were coming out, I started work on Rain. I broke off Rain and started work on Down River and sold that, then I came back and finished Rain, and then after Rain I went back and finished The Boat House.
Paul Tomlinson: So anyone who comes to plot your development as a writer…
SG: Oh yeah, it’ll be a career for somebody!
Valley of Lights
PT: Valley of Lights is quite an ‘American’ book…
SG: I’ve been… kind of complimented on the fact that Americans can read it knowing nothing about me and work on the assumption that it’s by an American author. They don’t see through it. And really, the only response to that is that it was written in the plainest of plain English. Only in certain areas of sentence construction, in certain choices of grammar, where you have to make a choice between American speech and English speech, did I choose American speech.
Because Valley of Lights is the first thing that got me known and because it was written with an American setting and American characters, and was written with something of an American voice, the thing I’m saddled with now is that people coming to my later stuff have a sort of mental carry over from that. They criticise me for… One guy said to me that he was half way through reading Down River before he realised it was set in England. I look at Down River, and one of the first things in the story is a police raid on a tower block in an inner city somewhere, and I think: How could you possibly think this was anything but an English scene? Certainly from the point of view of looking at the language, I don’t see it that way.
It’s going to be one of those things I’m stuck with, I’m sure. I certainly don’t ape American mannerisms in writing. What I do envy the Americans for is a certain fluidity of language which I don’t think we have in Britain. It seems that whenever any of us sit down with a pen or at a typewriter, we immediately hark back to those old school lessons… I remember, when I was at school we had a textbook called The Queen’s English, which was full of ‘how to construct a sentence properly’ — and I well remember having an essay handed back to me with great scoring marks through it: you could never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’: you could never have a one line sentence: you could never have a sentence that didn’t have a subject: you couldn’t have a sentence that didn’t have a verb in it. And now, every time I do that, and break those rules for conscious creative reasons, I sort of make a mental chalk mark on a blackboard… it’s me versus the teaching establishment.
PT: Did you get on well at school?
SG: I was okay. I was never top of the class, I was always number three or number four, which suited me fine. There were people who were at the top of the class and they were the object of resentment and envy of all those who were at the bottom of the class. By being where I was, I escaped all that. I wasn’t a conspicuous swot, so I could do quite well without losing out socially.
PT: Were you the classic loner?
SG: I was an only child. I’ve never been lacking for friends, but I tend not to have close friends who I’m with all the time. I’ve got a handful of friends scattered throughout the country and around the globe, some of who I’ll not see for five years, then I’ll pick up conversations with them as if the time hadn’t passed.
I’m not usually gregarious. My working method involves me walking on the hills with the dog for half the day, and sitting at the typewriter with the same dog curled up in the corner for the rest of the day. I’m perfectly happy like that.
PT: Valley of Lights also differs from your other work in that it has a supernatural element…
SG: Follower is supernatural too, but it’s out of print at the moment. New English Library have acquired it for re-publication, but it hasn’t got any scheduled date of publication yet. Follower followed Chimera.
Oktober was borderline supernatural, but with a sort of logistic underpinning to it: the notion that here is a drug that gives you access to the collective subconscious could be supernatural, it could be science, it depends on whether you consider Jungian psychology a science or not.
The Film of Valley of Lights
SG: We’re now around draft ten. There’s a strange and convoluted story about how that movie never happened – or is still in the process of never happening.
When I originally wrote the book, I had this sort of on-going relationship with a director – we were determined that we were going to get a feature off the ground together. He hadn’t done a feature before, he had a background in rock videos, and had just joined a partnership with a couple of other rock video producers and directors, and they were looking for a first feature. I was about mid-way through working on Valley of Lights at the time.
We had previously tried to get a Follower movie off the ground, and that had gone about fifty percent of the way down the line and never happened.
I gave this guy the pages of the novel I’d done to date, to take over to the States with him when he went over there to do some MTV work. He thought it was great and had me send over the pages by courier, virtually as I did them, and it was all very exciting and gave the impression of great movement. Actually, what he was doing was showing it around and getting some interest.
The thing about movie people is that every writer, when he sits across the table from a producer, is thinking: This guy holds the key to success for me. This guy can transform my life. This guy can work magic.
And what you little realise is that the guy on the other side of the table, for all his front and the fact that he’s picking up the bill for the lunch or whatever, is thinking more or less exactly the same thing. He’s looking for a writer who can do the magic for him.
What happened then was that I changed agents, to a new agent who was very tough and very professional who had done a lot of this kind of thing before, had seen it all before, and who said: Okay, these guys have done enough showing it round without having paid anything for it: that stops until a contract is signed.
So the deal was formalised, he took an option out on Valley of Lights, and a little bit of money changed hands. A year came and went, and the guys were still showing it around. I finished the book in that time and delivered it to the publisher. I did the screenplay in that time. We got into the next year, the book came out and it was very, very well received, and was something of a breakthrough for me. And these two guys were still showing it around and still hadn’t actually got a firm deal on it.
At the end of the second year, my agent said to him: Look, either show us some solid evidence of a deal, or get off the book and we can take it somewhere else. At which point they stumped up the entire purchase price and bought the film rights, with no deal on their side. I had no idea at that time where the money came from. But they were obviously confident enough and keen enough to make that kind of gamble.
What was happening during all this time was they were taking it to people like Newline, who would take it, look at it, and send it back with some note like: This is not for us. And they’d give this, this and this reason. They were giving their reasons for turning it down. What was then happening was that these guys were taking those turn-down reasons and in their own minds saying: Well, Newline turned it down for this reason, therefore if we have a rewrite which takes care of that, Newline will therefore buy it.
Now the truth of this situation is that everybody in Hollywood, and everybody in the film business, is looking for reasons to turn things down. Because turning something down is the safest bet.
If something comes along with a huge amount of charisma riding with is, and a big name and with a huge amount of publicity behind it, then okay, it becomes a safer bet to take on than to turn down.
They were coming to me and asking for rewrites on the basis of these reasons, and I – being enthusiastic and very hyper, and positive about the whole project – was saying: Okay, yeah, if we’re that close to a deal, of course I will do a rewrite.
About nine, ten rewrites later, it was becoming fairly clear to me – even though it wasn’t becoming incredibly clear to them – that this was not the way to do it. That rewriting on the basis of rejection was wearing the script down. It was just destroying it. And everything I thought was worth doing in the first place was being lost. I finished up with this rough-looking, baggy thing that I didn’t feel that I owned any more. It wasn’t my Valley of Lights story any more. It was really a series of accommodations to answer the criticisms of people who weren’t going to buy it anyway.
There is a quote from Anne Rice which I wish I’d seen before, which says never rewrite on the basis of rejection, always rewrite after acceptance. If I’d seen that and taken it to heart, then maybe I’d have been saved some of the intricacies of rewrite hell.
But what eventually happened was that it was coming up to… two years ago now – I remember the date, because my dog died in the morning – and I got a ‘phone call in the afternoon saying: Martin’s been in touch with me and he’s just wondering… he’s had this very promising rejection from another company, and he’s wondering if maybe you could do another rewrite.
And I counted, and we were up to rewrite number eleven. I honestly can’t repeat what I gave as my answer.
PT: How can you have a ‘promising’ rejection?
SG: Exactly. And that, more or less, was the end of the two-way traffic with these guys. I’m still on very friendly terms with them, no problems there, but as far as Valley of Lights is concerned, my feeling was that the whole process had burned itself out.
What I didn’t realise was that these two guys, in order to acquire the full film rights were not using their own money. They’d borrowed money from Zenith to do it. And Zenith therefore had a stake – not a controlling stake, but a stake — in the whole project. And also what I didn’t realise was that there was a time limit on this, and the time limit ran out this Spring . Which meant that, because these guys hadn’t made the film by then, all the film rights reverted to Zenith. So Zenith now hold the film rights to Valley of Lights.
Zenith have a producer there, who was formerly with the Moving Picture Corporation, called Nigel Stafford-Clarke who, unbeknownst to me, undertook the heroic task of reading all eleven drafts and going through them and working out, more or less, what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. And then he did something for which I will be eternally grateful: He tore them all apart and did a stapled-up version, which was like a new draft which I’d had no hand in, but which was all my material. And he sent it to me, rather tentatively, sort of expecting me to hit the roof.
I read it and was over-joyed, because it was my story again. Everything that I had been unhappy about putting in, but had put in at the behest of those guys in order to try and get a sale, or because it was their ‘creative input’, all of that was gone. And suddenly, just the plain, pure storyline was going through it. All it needed was a half dozen pages of rewrite at the ending, just to tie everything together a bit more neatly, and that was basically it.
We then had a script that was recognizable and that I could be perfectly happy with, and which I felt was a true representation of the book.
So now, Zenith have taken over all the wheeling and dealing and are setting out looking for finance. The difference, of course, is that now we have one of the major British independents – which in a world scene is, I know, not a huge player, but in terms of getting something made, it puts you further down the line than you would be with a couple of unknowns – we’ve got a major British independent backing Valley of Lights with its credibility.
Now having said that, I haven’t a clue what is going to happen about it. I don’t know when it’s going to be made… If it’s going to be made… Or what it’s going to look like if it is made.
From my point of view, it gives me no worries to think that it will take a longer rather than a shorter time, simply because in the period from the book’s publication to now there have been quite a few movies which have used the central theme of the story in other ways. One thinks of Jack Sholder’s movie The Hidden, which was in development at Newline when they were shown the Valley of Lights script. I was all prepared to be really ungenerous about it and mutter darkly about the idea of rip-offs, and the fact that they actually had their hands on my story and several elements from it reappeared quite nakedly in The Hidden. But then I actually saw the movie and I rather enjoyed it. I thought it was a well made piece of work, and I thought: What’s the point in carping? Where’s it going to get me?
PT: But in a way, the idea goes back to John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’…
SG: Oh, yeah. Kim Newman pointed out to me that the actual plot elements go back to The Purple Monster Strikes from Beyond, and he reeled off a whole list of similar movies.
PT: There seems to be a distrust of authority, or the establishment, in your work: of the police in Down River, of scientists in Chimera…
SG: I think that’s basically an empathy thing. I worked for about five years for Granada television, and as a researcher for other companies for a couple of years before that, and that’s the only time, apart from vacation jobs, that I’ve been in paid employment. I’ve been freelance otherwise. And I reckon that during my time as an employee I recognised something universal in the structure of that company, which can be applied to just about any organisation in the world. Anybody who’s worked anywhere would be able to be in tune with the experiences I had there: some of the back-biting that went on; with some of the selflessness you found there; with some of the total selfishness; with the guys who’d turn in and do their hours, and spend the entire day carping about everyone else, and then clock off and go home, and who you knew would just die unhappy, whatever happened to them further down the line.
So I thought that this surely had to be applicable to anything. It had to be applicable to the medical profession; it could be applicable to the police, where you’ve surely got a certain proportion of saints and you’ve got a proportion of sinners, and you’ve got a proportion of time-servers… any kind of human structure has got this same kind of dynamism within it. Having realised that, one then applies it to those whom one trusts and those who have power over one, and it’s hard to give them selfless and undying respect in that kind of situation.
In the case of the police, it would be nice to have the kind of blue-rinsed Tory matron’s dream of the police as selfless heroes who are just waiting out there to protect us from the evil hordes who want to burgle our houses and trample on our delphiniums. The fact is, what’s out there is a bunch of human beings who happen to be wearing a uniform and working to a certain set of rules, some of which are slavishly followed, some of which are bent or reinterpreted, and all of which, if you’re lucky, at the end of the day, come out in a positive way for society. But it could just as easily come out in a negative way.
I think if you are in a dynamic situation, then it could go either way. The same is true of the scientific establishment. I did a lot of reading when I was doing Chimera, on animal research and the people who were not speaking up for animal research, but speaking out against the anti-vivisectionists. They were returning again and again to the same argument: Is it a laboratory rat or is it your baby? They were simplifying it down to that. And the actual background to it was nothing to do with that. It was all to do with their ambitions, their career structure – one team trying to get ahead of another team; there were commercial pressures there too. There was pride. There was envy. Every human trait and failing was present in that process, as it is in the police, and as it is in a cub-scout group.
The distrust that I have of authority is a healthy distrust that I would have of any organisation that has power over the individual. Being an individual myself, I do have an angle of interest there.
PT: How did you get into this genre?
PT: Because you’re not strictly a ‘horror’ writer, you edge more towards the mainstream thriller…
SG: What I’m out to do is find my own genre, if I possibly can, because I think I have in me something to do which nobody else is doing. The biggest problem it offers is a marketing problem. I go away and do what I want to do, and if I’m happy with it at the end of the day that’s fine. It then gives… I mean, a book like DOWN RIVER – do you market it as horror? It isn’t really horror. Do you market it as crime? Because if you market it as crime you’ll probably lose the horror audience, and you risk not pleasing the crime audience because they’re looking for something other than this weird kind of police thriller with these dark and mythic underpinnings. So the angle that’s being taken with the promotion of them down at N.E.L. is really to try and carve a niche, rather than join a bandwagon. This is a much longer and slower job than would be the case were I a straight out-and-out horror author who could be marketed in horror terms.
N.E.L. have a very strong horror list – they’ve got Stephen King and James Herbert, who’re the two biggest sellers in the genre in Britain – and they’re steadily acquiring everyone they can get their hands on, tempting them away from other publishers. This is great, because it means that you have this great in-house expertise in handling the genre.
But then there’s me, having been acquired as part of that drive, and I’m heading off in another direction.
The thing is, I suppose, to make the name big on the books and then hopefully people start to recognise that first and the title second. But I won’t pretend that I’m there yet, by any means. This certainly isn’t the time to throttle back and have a rest. It’s still an uphill climb. We gain readers with every book, and hopefully those who come along to the new stuff will want to pick up the older books as well.
The way I see it, the only way that I’m going to continue to do that is by keeping the frame of mind I had four years ago, when I was sitting at home in the study, no publishing contract, nobody out there wanting to know, and the whole world waiting to do nothing but send me rejection letters: whatever I was doing then is the basis for whatever success I have now. To try and think too much now, and to try and calculate or try to second-guess the market or the audience now, I’m sure would be a fatal mistake. It didn’t work when I tried to do it in the early days. It only worked when I stopped doing all that and looked inward: to stop looking inward now would be a bad career move.
PT: Do you get final say in how your books are promoted, the covers that appear on them?
SG: I get influence, I don’t have authority there.
PT: Because I saw the original jacket for the hardcover of Rain…
SG: That circulated, did it? That was what I called the Fiesta Readers’ Wives cover!
PT: It was the sort of cover where you wouldn’t want to sit reading the book on the bus…
SG: You’d be embarrassed, wouldn’t you? There were problems over that. We went through three covers on Rain. I was reasonably pleased with what we ended up with, although it would have been better to have started with a concept and carried it through. It would have been cheaper as well. It’s in nobody’s interests to have repeated re-designs of covers like that, because it costs money. And the money all comes out of the budget, and the budget shows up on the balance sheet at the end of the year, and the balance sheet at the end of the year determines the advances that can be paid out to authors next year.
Radio & Television
SG: The Last Rose of Summer was the first professional sale I made. It was six half-hour episodes, and I think I got a hundred quid for the lot. World rights.
But it was the thing that got me on the road. I’ve never been back and re-read it, I haven’t a clue what it’s like. But I expect it’s a bit thin and derivative.
I thought at the time that it was the best thing since sliced bread, and only afterwards did I look back and realise that it was something of a recycling of the classic science fiction scenario that everyone has a crack at at one time or another, which in a way was the basis of 1984 – the notion of a society that is corrupt and rotten and oppressive, and where only one person has the keys in his hands to change it.
PT: But you were re-doing it for radio.
SG: Yeah, and it got it out of my system, and it got me noticed. It got me my first publishing contract; it got me my first agent – okay, I’m not with the same publisher any more and I’m not with the same agent, but that doesn’t invalidate the experience. It was a stage of one’s life that one couldn’t do without, and one wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for that.
PT: You did other radio stuff after that?
SG: I did, yes. I think a lot of the skill, or any of the craft, I’ve picked up, I learned by working for BBC Radio 4. Because it’s an incredibly free medium. The fact that I was working in the Saturday Night Theatre slot, which is a broad thing that will encompass anything from thrillers to science fiction. But it’s a kind of ‘popular’ writing slot as well; it’s not the sort of afternoon play where you’ve got to watch yourself because you’re addressing a daytime audience, and it’s not the Radio 3 where you are consciously intellectual all the time. It suited what I was trying to do down to the ground.
I did about half a dozen things there – some of which I’m quite proud of, and a couple of which I couldn’t even tell you the story of.
There was a thing called A Resistance to Pressure, which was probably the weakest thing I’ve ever done. It was the second thing I ever did for them – and it taught me a lesson. The first thing I did for Radio 4 was a thing called The Humane Solution, which went down really well, had a nice cast, was really well directed and well-produced. And after that they said if you’ve got any more ideas, let us know and we’ll commission one of them.
So I ran home and immediately started scribbling, because I knew there was a market there waiting to be met, and I came up with an idea to suit the market. And it was fatal.
I sold them the idea, they commissioned it, and it was the most difficult thing to write, because basically I didn’t know where I was going with it: it was sold on the basis of half a page, and really all I had was half a page. When it came to actually expanding it to 90 pages, I was in trouble and I started discovering all kinds of flaws.
It wasn’t a failure, it filled its slot, probably held its listeners, but it is not anything I look back on with any great pride. But it taught me a lesson: Don’t go cooking something up just because there’s a market for it.
If someone writes now and says: I’m doing a short story anthology, have you got something for it? I don’t run away and write something for it. I write back and say: If between now and the deadline I come up with anything that fits in with your plan, then of course I’ll submit it. But otherwise, please understand that I don’t want to go giving you something second rate simply to give you what you’re looking for, because I can’t work that way.
I vastly prefer books to writing for television or radio. In a way, radio is the freer of the two media, because with tv you’re always up against ‘what we can show in the time available; what we can actually do in the studio; what we can afford to show’. And although it presents itself as a visual medium, the hard fact is that tv is mostly radio with pictures.
I remember Colin Whelan talking about the development of Chariots of Fire and at one time that was mooted as a possible tv film rather than a cinema feature, and he said something that was fairly telling: he said when it was due to be developed for television it changed its nature entirely, and instead of being about events, it became conversations about events.
And this is true. On television you don’t really show anything, you show people talking about things. Conversations in rooms is what 90% of television is about.
If you go beyond that, car chases shot for television, for example, tend to be a bit embarrassing. You sit there thinking, let’s get on with it.
PT: Does having written for tv and radio affect the way you write novels?
SG: It affects the working method that I have. In that I still develop dialogue and everything separately. I do a first draft where I just rough in the main points of the story, and then I go into it and develop the main points of the story, and then I do a separate pass where I just do the dialogue between the characters.
Having said that, I don’t do it in script form, and the dialogue that I do would not work in script form. Because when I have subsequently gone back and adapted the book for the screen, as I have with one or two of my things, I can’t use that dialogue again because it doesn’t play as scripted dialogue. It’s a totally different style of writing altogether.
But simply in terms of what you do at any given time to put this jigsaw of the book together, then yes there is a hangover from… specifically the radio plays. Not from tv, which is a compromised medium which I think bastardises your style if you let it dominate too much, because you’re accommodating the system: what can be done within a budget and within the time available and with the talent pool available.
That has to be considered as well, because in television you’ve got an attitude which is quite different to that in feature films. In feature films every shot tells a part of the story; in television, and I’m sure a lot of people who work in television would howl in dismay and anger at me saying this, but in television what you basically get is coverage. You stage the thing, you stand the people there saying their lines, and then you put the cameras around them.
You look at something like the scene in Jaws that Spielberg did. A very, very simple scene, just Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider, the three of them sitting below decks in the boat having a conversation.
PT: Comparing scars…
SG: Yeah, that’s it. And were it television, you would have a camera on each of them, and maybe a master shot. You shoot your master shot to set the scene, then film the close-ups on each of them, and hand the whole thing to an editor.
I actually had an eight millimetre print of JAWS at one time, and I ran it back and forth actually counting the number of set-ups in that one simple scene – slightly different framing, slightly different camera position – and in that one scene with three people having a conversation I counted, I think, seventeen set-ups.
What Spielberg was doing was setting up each shot to match what was being said in each particular line, for the length of time that he was staying with that particular person. And it was much more effective because of it. You don’t get that, there isn’t time to do that in television. There isn’t the budget to do it, and a lot of the time there isn’t the talent to do it.
The Chimera TV Adaptation
SG: In 1979 I read a book by a guy called Vance Packard, who in the Fifties had written a book about the advertising industry called The Hidden Persuaders. He wrote this book called The People Shapers, which drew together a lot of scientific theories of the time and tried to project them into the future, to give us some idea of what kind of impact current advances in medicine and technology, robotics and prosthetics and that kind of thing, were going to have on our society.
One of the things that really, really struck me, out of the whole book, was a two-page spread about the future of genetic manipulation. Bear in mind that in 1979, genetic manipulation was not a hot issue, it was something which was not known of by the public, and it was something that didn’t set fire to people’s imaginations because it was something that tended very much towards the stuff of science fiction. It was kind of Cordwainer Smith territory, with the idea of the human society with beings adapted from animals making up the lower ranks of society and doing the dirty jobs.
But I found myself taken with this idea. I’d done some radio at the time, and I’d got my first book in print [The Last Rose of Summer], and I was looking for a subject for a big, mass-market, mainstream novel. I thought that in the idea of mass-produced sub-humans by the year 2025, which was the prediction of the Rand Corporation study that was quoted in the book, lay something of a subject for me.
So I went into the background of it a little bit. Through the British Science Fiction Association I contacted a geneticist and said: Look, what are the odds on this? What kind of problems are we talking about? What kind of time-scale are we talking about? And what kind of results are we talking about?
He gave me a very conservative estimate: I wouldn’t really bank on getting production-line sub-humans until at least fifty years into the future.
My experience in these things is that, really, the last person you should talk to for a serious estimate for something like that is the practicing scientist, because what they will always do is base their estimate on technology as it stands that day. They will give you a very conservative estimate. What they will not do is take into account the fact that the technology of the day will, in two years’ time, have advanced to a degree. And in five years’ time will have advanced to a much greater degree. And any estimate you make based on today’s technology is going to come down and down and down if you take into account the development of technology.
So he wasn’t doing that, so I very presumptuously and arrogantly did it for him. I thought: I don’t want to be too science fictional about this. I want to set something in a real world, that is recognisable and that can engage the reader directly. So I set it in the far off future world of 1987! Remember, this was written in 1979.
I wrote the book, and sold it to Sphere Books, and it was a nice little sale and it sold quite nicely, and vanished – as I thought – without trace. It gave me enough of an income to go full-time freelance, and I’ve been full-time freelance ever since on the strength of it. And I thought that was the end of it.
I sold it for adaption to BBC Radio 4 in 1984, and it went out as a Saturday Night Theatre, and it got some nice reviews. But again, it caused no great ripples and it vanished without trace.
Until, in the year 1987, which is the year in which the thing is actually set, I got a call from a guy called Simon Moorhead, who was a location manager for the BBC. He said: You don’t know me, we’ve never met, but five years ago I bought a copy of Chimera and I thought it was one of the best books I’d ever read; I said to my wife: If ever I branch out and become a producer, this is the work I would like to option and produce. And his wife then read it and said: Well, if I had the money I’d buy it for you.
What happened was, all these years down the line, the guy got to a level of frustration in his work at the BBC, and yet also a level of financial equilibrium, and they sort of came to a point where they could now afford to do this. His wife bought him a six month option on Chimera as a present, and gave it to him to see if he could make it as an independent producer.
The story is not quite as simple a fairy tale as that from his point of view, because what happened was that he put up the family money in order to take six months off, and I was so impressed with this that I quite happily conspired with him to produce a brochure for the project, a portfolio of ideas of how I thought it could be developed into a four hour tv project.
He shopped it around all the tv companies — the BBC and all the independents — and with about a week to go before the six month option expired, he rang me up and said: Look, I’ve not been able to do anything practical with this, but Zenith Productions are very interested in taking it over, would you mind if I sold it on to them, so that they have the chance to come back to you and renew the option?
Of course I had no objection to that. I was hugely grateful for the faith that he had shown. So the rights of the property passed into the hands of Zenith. They then commissioned four one-hour scripts from me. Suddenly I found I was in a relationship with this company who were showing a lot of faith in me, because they were commissioning the scripts entirely on spec. They then used these scripts to shop around the market, and again they all gave much the same response, which was: We think this is very good, but quite honestly, we think it’s not for us.
At one point it looked as if the BBC were going to go for it. Then they said: We’re very sorry, but we’re doing something similar of our own. And our own is something we’d prefer to gamble on and we think it’s so much better, and it’s something called First Born. And that actually wrecked it at the BBC.
Chimera is set in the present day. It’s a genetic-manipulation thriller. It’s a variation, not so much on the Frankenstein theme… if anything it is closer to The Island of Doctor Moreau, which was the basis for the movie The Island of Lost Souls.
It comes from early in my career, the 1979 novel. Today I tend to look for, and to find, what is monstrous about the human being. In those days I was looking for what is human about the monster.
It’s quite a sad story. What happens in episode one is that you have a scene of absolute mayhem, which ends with the ‘to be continued’. It’s an apparently morally black and white story of a monster on the loose: but over the next three hours, what we do is try to qualify and explain that. Until finally, the John Lynch character, Peter Carson, sets out to penetrate the cover up and find out what is actually the truth behind his girlfriend’s murder. And he ends up the one person in the world who is actually prepared to protect the murderer.
It was rather nice that we managed to keep that all the way through, because I had these nightmares about having meetings with executives who’d say: Well, we can’t see the murderer actually becoming sympathetic in any way. We can’t do that, can you put some scenes in which actually qualify that.
We’ve got a higher level of gore than we are used to seeing on British network television. The way that we achieved that in the finalised print was… First off, in the story meetings, we had handed out to us the IBA’s network guide-lines on violence in programmes. We all very dutifully read them, and we all very carefully put them into the wastepaper basket and went our own way after that.
I don’t know whether you ever heard the story about the old Carry On films, where, whenever they wanted to get one of their risqué jokes through — back in the days when Carry On films actually were risqué — they would put an even ruder one in first, to kind of take the censor’s attention, and while the heads were down in the preview theatre scribbling away in the notebooks, the joke that they actually intended to get through would get through.
So what we did with Chimera, and I’m surprised we got away with as much as we did, when all the big-wigs from Anglia — who did little more than approve the script in the first place and then sign the cheque, and then didn’t see us again until it was in rough cut form — came along to see the rough cut they saw, for example, the stabbing scene where the girlfriend gets it, and we had the knife going up and coming down about five times.
I was sitting behind the Anglia people when they saw this, and I saw the heads go down and the pens scribbling, and sure enough, afterwards when they were going through their notes saying what had to be changed, and what they weren’t happy about, and what they maybe didn’t understand, up came the fact that in the stabbing scene they had noticed that there were five stabs: could we take out a couple of those to temper it?
And wherever that happened — and there’s tons more! — it was a case of: There’s a slash and a fall and three drops of blood, could we take out a couple of the drops of blood, just to temper it a little?
But of course, the whole point was that the whole thing had been extensively over-edited anyway: so that the five stabs were there, but we’d only ever intended to have three stabs in the first place, and two additional ones were there simply to give the executives something to ask to be taken out.
My view is that we haven’t had genuine horror on the box since the early days of the BBC and the Quatermass series. In a way, the way that Chimera has been done is the best way that it could have been done. I’m not 100% happy with it, and there are things in it I’m not all that keen on; and there are things in it where I would quite happily get the whole crew out again and reshoot scenes. But there’s no economic way that would ever happen. We had a delivery date and a fixed budget, and there were people doing their jobs, and I had to hand it over — it was their baby then. You can’t hang on to it when you’re merely the writer.
I must say that I had more input on this than I ever have on a programme before. And what is on the screen represents, to a greater or lesser extent, what I originally wrote, to a greater degree than on anything before. So if there is any flak thrown at this, I can’t really say: Don’t blame me, blame them, it was out of my hands. If there is any flak, I’ve got to stand up and take it, because I can see a good 70% of what I originally intended up on screen.
Originally published in the fanzine Other Times