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Dark Shadows: The Enemy Within Jul 30

Dark Shadows: The Enemy Within cover

“Cyrus, I haven’t been completely honest with you…”

Cyrus Longworth has a secret. On the outside, he’s the quiet handyman helping out with odd jobs. But his neighbours don’t know about the voice inside his head.

Sabrina Jennings has a secret. She’s just moved in across the street, here to teach at the local school. But her new husband is nowhere to be seen.

They could live happily ever after. But the dark secrets of Collinsport cast long shadows…

So, nearly a year ago I pitched a treatment to the producers of Big Finish‘s Dark Shadows audiobooks. It was for a story called The Enemy Within featuring the characters of Cyrus Longworth and Sabrina Jennings. It was commissioned at the beginning of this year, the script written in the winter and the actors recorded in the spring, in both the UK and America. All those performances were edited together, atmospheric music was added, a lovely cover was designed and today the final hour-long drama is released to the world.

Most people in the UK who have heard of Dark Shadows will know it from the Johnny Depp film, but the original show was a soap opera that ran on American television from 1966 to 1971 – though sadly never broadcast on terrestrial TV over here. Unlike other soaps, it took a distinctly supernatural turn and over its run of more than 1,200 episodes featured vampires, werewolves, witches, warlocks, time travel… all produced at a rate of five episodes a week, with the added challenge in the early years of recording as live. It was a brave, innovative and brilliantly mad show and one of the many cult series that Big Finish has brought back to life on audio.

The good news is that you don’t need to be familiar with hundreds of episodes of the TV show to follow the plot of The Enemy Within. We learn about the main characters as they learn about each other, so although they have back stories, you can enjoy the drama (and, dare I say, the comedy) even if you’ve never seen an episode of the show. And if you do know the show… well, there are what I hope are a few treats scattered through the story.

I’m really pleased with the finished play. The cast are great and I’m particularly chuffed to be bringing back Lisa Richards’ Sabrina and Chris Pennock’s Cyrus for the first time since 1970. (Although not exactly this Cyrus – on TV we only met a Parallel Time version. Yes, they did parallel universe plots too!)

Thank you to all involved in bringing this to life, and in particular producers David Darlington and Joseph Lidster for commissioning the story, and to them and script editor Alan Flanagan for their excellent script notes. The play is available on CD for £9.99 and as an immediate download for £7.99, so do go and buy it!

The ongoing adventures of my Coke Zero friends Jul 04


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Significant Others May 24

I’ve not written anything on here about theatre. I can tell because in creating this post, I’ve just had to add a “Theatre” category. And yet in the last few years I’ve been to more shows than I can remember, made friends of numerous lovely and talented actors, directors and writers, and had a number of short plays of my own staged. I’ve written enough now that I’ve added a list of it to a new page – partly because there is nothing I like more than making lists and partly because if I don’t write it down somewhere, I’ll forget myself.

I think I’ve almost reached the point where I don’t feel self-aggrandising to call myself “a writer”. Almost.

The latest project I’ve been involved in was quite a different beast. My first four short plays were submitted to various short play nights and staged because the producers liked them. The Pensive Federation’s Significant Other Festival works differently: they picked writers, directors and actors and tasked us with producing ten-minute plays from scratch in just ten days – five for writing and five for staging.

That’s exciting – but also much more daunting that I expected. To have someone say, after a pretty rigorous selection process, “We want you,” is a great feeling. They’re committing to put whatever you choose to write on stage – they’ve put their faith in you that you’ll turn out something good. One way to respond to that is to free yourself of all constraints, knowing you can finally write whatever you want and it will still make it into production; the other is to worry about whether what you come up with in a compressed period of time will live up to the expectations of the people who selected you. That was me – and add to that an expectant director and two talented actors, all of whom deserve a good script to work with, and the stress builds up…

Fortunately, it’s worked out brilliantly.

I had a few starting points from which to build the story. The plays would all be two-handers and the writers were asked to bear in mind Pensive’s ideas of “the magic in the mundane” and “the extraordinary in the everyday”. The theme of the festival is significant others so some kind of relationship should be at the heart of the play. I knew my actors were in their twenties, one male and one female. There were ten props I could use as I pleased: a fedora, an umbrella, a torch, an old book, an Action Man, a tin can, an iceberg lettuce, a length of electrical cable, a wrench and a wallet. And I was allocated one of the ten genres: noir.

The plays weren’t required to be set within their genres; rather, we could mine the genre for tropes, themes, and style. I took mine to heart, devouring the Wikipedia article on Film noir. I used the genre to dictate the structure of the play and also the behaviour of one of the protagonists. There was another concept I wanted to weave into the story (spoilers!) and from the two ideas, the characters and plot evolved.

Which makes it sound simple when it actually involved brain-racking, panic, self-doubt, and conversations with writer and director friends about whether my slightly risky idea was really viable for a play only ten minutes long. It’s difficult to get any distance from what you’re writing when there’s such a tight deadline so it was a massive relief to hear from the producers – the people who’d given me ten minutes of stage time on trust – that they were happy with the final script.

When I arrived uncharacteristically late for the first rehearsal on Saturday, director Cat was already drilling the cast in a climactic moment from the play – and they hadn’t even got inside the rehearsal room yet. It was fascinating watching the characters develop as actors Caitlin and Dom connected with them. What can be more fun than watching your play, barely dry on the paper, come to life over three hours? Especially when, as the writer, you can just sit and watch and don’t actually have to do anything. While I was able to explain my thinking behind parts of the script, at this point in the process it’s really down to the cast and director to bring their own interpretation, which is the beauty of collaboration. Unexpected things happen, different approaches are tried out and the characters come to life. It became our play, not mine.

The show opened at the new Park Theatre in Finsbury on Tuesday and I got to see it Wednesday night. I hadn’t known until then that our play was the first on. As the Significant Other Festival is the first show in the Park Theatre’s Morris Space, that means I wrote the first play ever performed in that space. Which is pretty cool.

More importantly, the play works really well. Cat, Caitlin and Dom have achieved everything with it that I wanted when I came up with the idea. I’d be very happy if it was a play I’d written months ago; as a piece produced from nothing in ten days, I’m delighted.

Programme entry

Ten plays. Ten minutes each. Ten pounds. You can see them for yourself until Saturday 25th.

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Eurovision 2013: The final May 17

It seems only a few days since the semi-finals kicked off in Malmö, probably because it was. But now it’s time to look ahead to the Big One. No, not the rollercoaster. Not a long-forgotten Sandi Toksvig/Mike McShane sitcom, references to which will be lost on almost everyone, resulting in a convoluted sentence that adds nothing. No. I’m talking the Eurovision final 2013! 26 songs, 12 hours of voting and the chance for one country to take away the coveted joint prize of the Eurovision title and the financial millstone of hosting 2014′s competition.

Let’s meet the teams.

  1. France – We open with our cousins over the English Channel. They’ve become quite good over the last decade at dropping something refreshing and different into the Eurovision pot and this is one of those. It’s not going to blow the contest away but it’s different, coherent, passionate and a good use of three minutes
  2. Lithuania – A surprise qualifier for Tuesday’s semi-final. Andrius may have screen presence but this is still a song in desperate need of a melody. Not amount of hair gel and staring into the camera can make up limiting yourself to three notes.
  3. Moldova – Like so many songs this year – especially the solo female vocalists’ – this rather takes its time to get going. It could do with a stronger finale but no-one will be listening because it’s all about the dress.
  4. Finland – Krista Siegfrids went down very well with the crowd on Thursday, topping off a camp display with a same sex kiss that overjoyed the audience in the stadium but led to Turkish television refusing to screen the semi-final. The lyrics are controversial – by turn demanding and submissive – but there’s no doubt this has a strong balance of playfulness and tunefulness. It should do well.
  5. Spain – A long folky introduction often serves as a warning but once this gets some percussion behind it, it’s not bad. It’s fairly unmemorable but not unpleasant.
  6. BelgiumLove Kills came alive on Tuesday night. It came across much better than I expected and will hopefully do the same again in the final. After a good sixth in 2010, Belgium spent two years failing to qualify so it’s about time they had another decent result. This upbeat number might well trouble the top ten but it’s a strong field.
  7. Estonia – Loo break.
  8. Belarus – I’m by no means the only person to have noticed that Belarus is taking full advantage of Turkey’s absence from the contest this year. Presentation, production, music, performance, nonsense lyrics: it’s all straight out of the Ankara playbook. This should do well although it can’t be allowed to win as Belarus is an entirely inappropriate host for the contest. Look out for the daring rhyme “Solayoh/We play-oh”.
  9. Malta – Yes it’s twee, but there’s something endearing and positive about this simple song that forces you to like it. Gianluca’s performance on Thursday night wasn’t especially powerful and this might get lost in the grandstanding of the final.
  10. Russia is another country that I wouldn’t want to see hosting but this, with its marginally hypocritical lyrics about everyone loving one another and ending violence, could do well. It’s another number that really takes off for the final third.
  11. Germany – Blimey, this rips off last year’s winner Euphoria something chronic. It may not actually have plagiarised Loreen but it’s certainly fallen into the common trap of trying to emulate the previous victor’s success by copying the style and approach. It loses points for that and also because I wasn’t a big fan of last year’s winner, of which this is a pale imitation. Bah.
  12. Armenia – I’m sure I heard booing in the hall when this qualified from the second semi-final and, however gauche that way, I can undersand why because it’s proper naff. The lyrics are the main fault – “Lonely planet/Who has done it?” – but at least there’s a key change.
  13. Netherlands – Now we get to the good stuff with a run of six strong contenders. First up is Anouk with her birdie song. She has a great voice, although I’d've liked it to be a bit stronger in the semi-final, and the song is refreshingly different – understated and musically lush. I really hope this does well.
  14. Romania – I hope this does well too. It’s quite audacious and Cezar gives it his all (though will hopefully get them back later). Sure, there’s a gimmick, but the underlying song is strong enough to work with it. I’ll say no more because it has to be seen to be believed.
  15. United Kingdom – Heeeeeeeeeere’s Bonnie! The latest act given Eurovision day release from the UK pop retirement home to take part in Eurovision is Gaynor Hopkins (call her by her name) carries the UK’s vain hopes this year. An experienced performer with a track record of touring Europe, she should do all right – although that’s what we said about Englebert last year. This is perfectly serviceable but sadly not the kind of dramatic power ballad that we associate with its singer. It’s a grower – admittedly not helpful when you only have one performance to hit home – and there’s a strong middle eight but after that it fades to nothing. If it wasn’t the UK’s entry, we probably wouldn’t look twice at it. Fingers crossed for top ten.
  16. Sweden – the host country have decided to keep to the dancey type of song that won them the contest last year. It’s by no means as distinctive as its predecessor and is slightly overwhelmed by Robin Stjernberg’s vocal gymnastics but it’s nevertheless a catchy and upbeat track. I hope he doesn’t grin as much as he did in Melodifestivalen.
  17. Hungary – Like Malta’s entry, this was less strong in performance on Thursday night than it is in it’s studio recording. Frankly, singer ByeAlex looked terrified by the whole thing. I hope getting through to the final has perked him up because this is a nice little song, another gentle track that’s a bit different from the crowd, and it would be a shame if it was let down by a performance that holds back.
  18. Denmark – This run of six ends with the bookies’ favourite and another potential winner from northern Europe. I could do without the cliché flute but you can see why this has attracted a lot of attention. Mix together a catchy chorus, syncopated percussion and good backing vocals and you’re halfway to the prize.
  19. Iceland – I can’t say anything negative about this other than it’s rather bland. It builds up nicely and has a good singer behind it but after the previous six, this is a good opportunity to make the tea.
  20. Azerbaijan – This won me over much more on Thursday night than it had previously. Very clever staging and a singer who exudes confidence complement a fun if fairly familiar song. I’ll even forgive “Hold me/Unfold me.”
  21. Greece – Like Azerbaijan, this worked much better than expected on stage. I’m entirely on side with a song that says alcohol is free and I rather suspect the UK will give this plenty of points. There’s funky instrumentation and a memorable chorus – worth a look.
  22. Ukraine – Bless the giant at the beginning (no, really) but it’s a terrible idea that adds nothing. It’s two styles stitched together as if it can’t quite make up it’s mind – or is cynically trying to appeal to two different demographics. The danger is, of course, that you alienate both. Will probably do better that I’d place it.
  23. The last of the automatic qualifiers is Italy and I’m not sure it would be in the final if the country didn’t put so much money in. There are a few OK moments scattered through the song but on the whole it’s pretty dull even if, like so many of its competitors, it improves towards the end.
  24. Norway – Despite the annoying bleating noise, this is another strong entry from Scandinavia. I’d've liked a bit more oomph in the performance on Thursday night. The song has a relentless drive to it but the vocals need that stark power to pull it off.
  25. Georgia perhaps turned in to BBC Three’s How to Win Eurovision because this is certainly by the book. It left me feeling a bit flat but you can see why it could do well, especially if the audience have forgotten the dull opening by the time it reaches it’s worthier conclusion.
  26. And finally, benefiting from the relief and greater attention afford the last entrant, it’s Ireland. Already growing on me in the run-up to Tuesday’s semi-final, this still took me a bit by surprise – and not just for it’s cynical but welcome approach to staging. This could get a very high placing if it comes off on the night.

There you go. Denmark’s a favourite but it’s quite an open field, especially with every one of the former Yugoslavian states out of the running. Will their votes stay east? Will Scandinavia retain the title? Will millions of viewers across Europe believe in a Welsh lass called Gaynor? Only time will tell. And if you’d like to cast your judgement alongside, you can download my 2013 scoresheet.