Friday, 11 July 2014

GHOST ZONE - The Making Of... PART TWO

(With my serial GHOST ZONE back on BBC Radio 4 Extra this Sunday at 6pm & midnight - CHECK IT OUT HERE - I'm just giving a bit of background here. In the last installment, I talked about the background to the writing of the piece. Here I'll talk about the actual production....)

BBC Scotland was still without a radio drama recording studio, in the protracted run up to the construction and opening of the Glasgow Pacific Quay studios that are used today, so as with a lot of my plays of the time we recorded at an independent studio the BBC rented in the village of Pencaitland, a drive of the better part of an hour outside Edinburgh. It was a quaint, quiet little place, almost like a real life Inchbrae (the fictional village's name, by the way, is down to no more or less important a fact than that I happened to lose my virginity, many years before, in a place called Inch House in Edinburgh). Those of us who weren't driving through used to meet in Waverley Station in Edinburgh and get mini-bussed (or maxi-taxied) out to the village.

I remember stepping into the converted school house that was the studio on the very first morning to be greeted by an almost psychedelic, swirling soundscape of strange sounds. Going along the corridor to the control booth, I found director Bruce Young and sound man Lee McPhail playing about with abstract alien soundscapes with all the happy glee of two schoolboys hopelessly lost in a game with Star Wars toys. If there's an unsung hero to Ghost Zone, it's certainly the sound man Lee McPhail. By the time Ghost Zone was recorded, it wasn't customary to credit technicians, so none of the countless people who've heard the serial have ever heard Lee's name, which is a bit like leaving Douglas Trumbull's name off the credits of 2001 or Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. A big, bluff, down-to-earth Scottish bloke, the sort of guy who'd snort derisively at any attempt to characterise him as an artist, he was an artist on Ghost Zone, nonetheless. It was kind of wonderful: often on bog-standard realist BBC radio drama, a technician like him often doesn't get to do much more than evoke a soundscape of kettles boiling, toasters popping or cars passing in the street, but here suddenly he had the chance to conjure this whole fantastical, phantasmagoric soundscape.

Anyway, we got down to the readthrough with the assembled cast, the whole five episodes in one go, at which point it became clear we were STILL going to be running short here and there. I can recall having to run out to the desk in the corridor, typing up an extra couple of scenes, printing them and then passing them to Carrie, Bruce Young's assistant, to distribute. I recall the 'helicopter landing' scene which introduces both Beth and the Captain in Episode 1 was written in exactly that way: it's quite a nice intro to two major characters, and I do love the sound of a helicopter, but it was written from scratch about five minutes before it was recorded. People hearing about this after the fact have said "Ooh, that must have been terrible, weren't you stressed?" But in fact I found writing new material much less painful than cutting existing material.

The cast performed well, but I know it was a challenging experience for them, particularly because all those fantastic sound effects we could hear up in the control room weren't audible to the actors - because you need the 'cleanest' possible audio on the voices, they had to perform to a completely silent background. Gayanne Potter playing Jill said it was like "green screen acting": they never really knew what the background was going to be, on top of which - for her character especially - there's a super intricate psychological journey, through the anguish of loss to all kinds of interwoven layers of reality and unreality, present tense and memory. I suspect at times the experience was as bewildering for her as for her character. Also, of course, if you're a Scottish actor, you're used to doing a lot of social realist drama: science fiction isn't a genre you get much chance to work in, not like it would be in blockbuster-era Hollywood. There was a running joke between Gayanne and Lesley Hart, playing her daughter, over who might be playing their characters if it was a Hollywood blockbuster: they pretty much decided on Sigourney Weaver and Christina Ricci - which wasn't the way I saw it all! (Maybe Diane Lane and some-brilliant-but-completely-unknown-kid-from-nowhere). Afterwards, I know that many of the actors were astonished to hear the final result: Simon Tait (a.k.a Dan) played Arnold Schoenberg in my play A Breath From Other Planets shortly afterward and was raving in the green room about how impressed he'd been (he also said he'd met Gayanne and she'd told him how impressed she'd been: Bruce sighed and said 'She never told me she was impressed...')

Anyway, it went out at the very tail end of 2004 and seemed well received: I noted there was a warning about disturbing scenes being tacked on for the Seventh Dimension, and it was only then I realised how dark and intense, how bloody and tortured, some of it could seem - I wonder if there wasn't some faint echo of the then-ongoing and bloody chaos in Iraq, the intricate and seemingly endless living nightmare, the out-of-our-depthness, of it all: science fiction is a sort of litmus genre that compulsively reflects its era even when it seems to be spiralling off completely into self-contained fantasy. There's nothing explicitly about cold war tensions in It Came From Outer Space, about McCarthyite witch hunts in Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, about Harold MacMillan's government in Quatermass 2, yet they're all there as surely as in any documentary of the era.

But it's all maybe more personal than that: this is a science fiction / horror story in which the worst horror is not the extraordinary, the alien, the 'other' - the creepiest thing is the sheer oppressive normality of at least the facade Inchbrae presents: I wanted a story in which a back garden barbecue or a village fete would be as creepy as that vault full of slimy facehugger eggs in ALIEN. Jill is a woman who's escaped a conventional domestic role and the creepy thing is that the alien force doesn't want to eat her alive or plant a chestburster in her belly... it wants to drag her into the 'good little wifey' paradigm she's escaped in the outer world. I suppose this ties in to my feelings about the world in which I grew up: Newton Mearns, my childhood home, is in the Scottish lowlands rather than highlands, but I'm struck now by how similar it is / was to Inchbrae: a sunny, well-behaved place of the most conformist normality - with deep veins of poison running underneath, like underground currents. If you want my direct vision of Newton Mearns, you should check out my novel Aztec Love Song to see my direct take on 'the Mearns', but it occurs to me there's as much of the Mearns in Ghost Zone.

How do I feel about Ghost Zone now? I suppose I'm ultimately happier with CATCH MY BREATH: that was developed from a screenplay written several years before, so by the time it got into the studio I'd literally had years to polish my ideas about it, while GHOST ZONE had to be written from scratch at very short notice: it's bursting with rich and interesting ideas (probably more so than CATCH), but I would have liked a bit more time to polish some of them. And I suppose I'm ultimately more of a Gothic Romancer than a hardcore SF writer: as I said in the previous installment, when it comes to SF I definitely see myself as on the surrealist wing of the genre, rather than the nuts'n'bolts serious scientific speculation end: Ghost Zone, I think, probably makes more sense ultimately if seen as a kind of surrealist psychodrama, closer to a Strindberg dream play or Bergman's Hour Of The Wolf than to Arthur C. Clarke. But it's probably the best received of the Radio 7 / 4 Extra pieces I've done and I know is highly regarded here and there - I even recall coming across on some BBC message board or other the suggestion that it was where the US TV series LOST got all its ideas: I can't remotely see the connection myself (though I only ever watched the first episode.), but if there's a brilliant lawyer out there who thinks he get me some money out of this completely groundless suggestion, he's welcome to try.

I kind of liked the ending: it seems a sort-of happy ending, but the moment you start to think about it, the darker and more complex it gets: what's going on there is most definitely NOT a strategy a psychoanalyst would recommend for getting over a loss. I even toyed with an idea for a sequel, called Ghost Land, that would have shifted the action to a run-down seaside resort (just like Losey's 'The Damned!'), but as with my Tunguska idea all those years ago, I never got past the first act!

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