1st Broadcast 3rd August 2003 BBC 7
Repeated Boxing Day 2005 BBC 7
Men, Martians and Machines was a pick of the week by The Radio Times
From James Follett is a copy of the script for the show
Men, Martians and Machines
Hallo. Welcome to Men, Martians and Machines. I'm James Follett -- a writer who turned out over fifty scripts for BBC Radio 4 between 1973 and 1986. Political thrillers, comedies, drama- documentaries, but mostly science-fiction, including two series of Earthsearch totalling twenty episodes.
Earthsearch is the main reason why I'm here now, feeling decidedly uncomfortable at being on the wrong side of a microphone, yet excited at the thought of the oddball journey ahead of us to trace the origins of Earthsearch. It's a journey that goes back over half a century to a spotty, and possibily quite nasty, small boy who hated sport and preferred to spend his time in his village library.
Men, Martians and Machines is the title of a wonderful book I found in that library. It's by the late, and now largely forgotten, British science-fiction writer, Eric Frank Russell. I read it when I was fourteen or fifteen, and it changed my life. I'll go into more detail about Eric Frank Russell later on.
Men, Martians and Machines sets the tone nicely as the title of this journey because, in the introductions to each play or extract, I'm going to deal with the men who've helped shape my work. And by men, I mean men and women. The Martians -- really a neat, generic term for all the aliens I've used although none of them are actually Martians. And the Machines bit is because troubles with machines has been a feature of just about everything I've ever written.
There were forbidden fruits in that little village library. The children's section immediately adjoined the adult fiction shelves. For a short-sighted 12-year-old, devouring one book a day on the one ticket I was allowed, and having to read Biggles Flies North (and South, and East, and West) for the umpteenth time and so starved of material that I was reduced to reading Worrals Flies North (and South, and East, and West), the proximity of so many denied books, literally inches from my fingers, was a torture.
`PUT THAT BACK!'
Half a century later I can still hear Miss Foster's imperious cry ringing out across the library. I can still feel her icy, disapproving stare boring into my back as I frantically tried to shove back an `adult book' with a captivating title that I had removed for a quick shuftie.
The book was PRELUDE TO SPACE by Arthur C Clarke. Space exploration was kids' stuff that adults didn't take seriously and yet there was this book taunting me in adult fiction with a title that screamed READ ME! It took about a year of seized moments when Miss Foster wasn't on duty to read the first chapter. Magic. Sheer magic -- the grown-ups actually wrote serious stuff about space exploration -- it was something more than Dan Dare's exploits in the Eagle.
On my 14th birthday Miss Foster grudgingly issued me with four adult tickets. I was in heaven. I grabbed PRELUDE TO SPACE and THE TIME MACHINE. I had never heard of H G Wells but it was another of those screaming READ ME! titles. I finished them all in two days.
The next six months was an orgy of reading. I got through H G Wells, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, in a matter of weeks, and eventually read every book in that tiny library.
Just when I thought I'd read every science-fiction book in the world and losing interest, a reader returned Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians and Machines. I'd never heard of Mr Russell but that clamouring READ ME! title was enough. I grabbed that book and skedaddled out of the library.
Men, Martians and Machines was an astonishing revelation. The story was simple enough and one not unfamilar to Startrek fans today and first used, I believe, by A E Van Vogt in the 1940s. It was about a spaceship that had embarked on a great voyage of galactic exploration -- a theme I would use many years later in `Earthsearch'.
What made Men, Martians and Machines so refreshingly different was not only the incredible adventures of the crew, but that Mr Russell imbued his book with humour -- something I'd never come across in science-fiction until then.
Had it not been for that chance encounter with Men, Martians and Machines all those years ago, I doubt if I would ever have written any science-fiction. Much as I loved the genre, until then I had always found it a little dour and worthy.
I don't think there's anything dour and worthy about the first play I've chosen for this journey. It's called `The Devil to Pay' and lasts only fifteen minutes. I wrote it for the `Just Before Midnight' slot -- a series of plays BBC Radio 4 commissioned in the early 1980s to be broadcast -- as I expect you've guessed -- just before midnight.
`The Devil to Pay' may be small, but I reckon it's a perfectly formed play. It has men, of course, and they include the producer and director, the late and much-missed Glyn Dearman, who produced `Earthsearch'. It has a machine that goes wrong, and it has a Martian. Well -- an alien if you'll overlook my stretching a point by referring to the devil an alien. It has humour which, I hope, would've met with Eric Frank Russell's approval.
One small point: when I said it was perfectly formed: that comment dosen't apply to the sound quality. The tape you are about to hear is a copy that has been cleaned up by the BBC's men and machines to the best of their ability.
I warn you that it is probably the quirkiest
thing I've ever written. Those of a strait-laced disposition may find it disturbing.
Here's the bit I'm going to enjoy on this journey.
(`The Devil to Pay' 14' approx)
Well, I did warn you it was quirky.
Having just listened to it, I'm still a little surprised, even after all these years, that the BBC ever brought it. I wrote it in a couple of hours, throwing out several conventions of radio drama because I never really thought the BBC would accept it. Just Before Midnights were so short that it was easier to write the play rather than send the BBC a synopsis.
I went on to write several more. Not all
science-fiction but this next one is. I can't say that it's perfectly formed
because I've never heard it. I don't think I attended the recording -- if I
did, I'm damned if I can remember it, and I didn't hear the broadcast because
I was out and my tape recorder gobbled up and shredded the tape. I've also lost
the script. In fact, the entire play is an embarrassing catalogue of disasters
from beginning to end. I'll explain when we've heard `The
Invented Yesterday'. A reluctant cue grams:
(Roll: `The Man Who Invented Yesterday' approx 14')
(Ad-lib a couple of comments because I genuinely haven't heard it!)
That one small play, broadcast in February 1980, ought to be subtitled "How I Lost a Million Dollars Without Trying." My sheer stupidity at not seeing the thriller novel potential in the story of a man who uses dinosaur DNA to recreat those monsters is just unbelieveable. I didn't walk with dinosaurs, or even hobble with them, whereas Michael Crighton, with Jurassic Park, took them and the idea for a profitable gallop ten years later. There's no excuse -- I was writing my fifth novel at the time so I should've known better. Never mind; happier times lie ahead.
In late 1977 the BBC commissioned me to write a two-part science-fiction drama for Saturday Night Theatre. The Destruction Factor was about a genetically modified plant that escapes into the environment and causes mayhem. Pretty advanced stuff for over quarter of a century ago although I didn't use the term 'genetically modified' in the scripts because I don't think it had been invented.
David Spenser's direction was excellent, and Lloyd Silverthorne's sound effects were stunning. It was his work on the Destruction Factor that made me very keen for him to handle the technical presentation of Earthsearch.
Lloyd is a perfectionist. For a riot scene he visited the scene of the notorious, long-running Grunwald dispute, and came back with an electrifying binaural recording.
It was his perfectionist approach that could've put us behind bars. One of the scenes called for the spooky crunch of fat tyres on gravel of a heavy vehicle coasting to a standstill with no other sounds that might undermine the dramatic impact of the vehicle's arrival. Lloyd couldn't find a suitable recording so he enlisted my help. We went cruising around Maida Vale at midnight in his beaten-up Volvo, looking for gravely drives. In the end, rather than arouse the wrath of night-shirty householders, we found a suitable churchyard.
It took about an hour to get a recording that Lloyd was happy with. His Volvo's knackered engine had more knocks than a Rory Bremner routine so I had to push the thing. It was like pushing a bloody Challenger tank except that a Challenger is lighter. My fraying temper was not helped by Lloyd's "try not to grunt" admonishments as he did crouched bunny hops alongside his nearside front wheel, cans over his ears, his Nagra tape recorder slung over his back, while holding a binaural microphone close to the tyre.
For the final "take" I had to get that brute of a Volvo rolling down a slight incline, dash alongside (keeping to the grass) and dive into the driver's seat to seize control before the car careered across the graves of Maida Vale's departed. The handbrake wasn't so much a device for stopping the car as a global positioner that pointed at the Pole Star when fully applied. My discovery that Lloyd had spades and shovels in the back of his car in case he ever got bogged down in his search for recordings completely unnerved me. Had we been caught we'd both still be doing time for attempted grave-robbing. And to no avail because the damn scene was cut during final editing anyway.
There were many moving car interior scenes in The Destruction Factor. I've never been happy with such scenes in radio drama when recorded in a studio. There is no correlation between the motion of the car and the actors' voices. Normally, if a car goes over a bump, it will affect the breathing and consequently the chat of the occupants. I voiced my concerns and Lloyd's suggestion to David Spenser, the producer, was: 'Let's take all of us out on the road to record the scenes.'
The scheme worked. Just.
Problem One: the only car available was Lloyd's Volvo.
Problem Two: the interior smelt of dead voles, disinterred graves, and rotting cabbages wrapped in ex-army horse blankets, and the windows had to be kept shut during recording to keep traffic noise down.
Problem Three: the casts of radio dramas read from scripts -- they don't have to learn their lines, and many people when reading in moving cars are prone to be sick. Several members of the cast felt so sick in that dreadful Volvo that they suddenly demonstrated their professionalism by learning entire scenes in a few minutes.
A repeat of the The Destruction Factor is on the cards. Listen carefully to the car interior scenes and try to make allowances for the fact that in one scene, when the characters are supposed to be travelling in a Rolls-Royce, they sound as if they're in the lead tank in the First Armoured Brigade's advance on Baghdad.
The opening of part two was set on the
flight-deck of a jumbo jet. It had to take off and crash shortly afterwards.
Lloyd gave the matter some thought and announced that he knew just the place
to obtain the necessary recording. I declined his offer to accompany him. Lloyd
is an exceptionally dedicated sound man; it's just that I'd rather not be around
when he's being dedicated.
Here's the first thirty minutes of The Destruction Factor. You can judge for yourself whether or not Lloyd Silverthorne fulfilled the seeming impossible brief to come up with a sound effect of a noiseless plant that manages to sound menacing on the radio. Here's the bit I like: cue grams.
(Roll: `The Destruction Factor' for approx 29' 07" to final speech:
EXON: I wouldn't be surprised if there were a whole spate of fires in the near future.
Paul Copley played Howard, and Rosalind Adams was Denise. Special effects were by Lloyd Silverthorne, and the director was David Spenser.
A brief post script before I leave The Destruction Factor and move onto Earthsearch. I was dozing off in the studio control box on about the fifth day of recording when I was awoken by the distinctive voice of Dick Barton, special agent, booming from the speakers. I was shattered. A quick shuftie at the cast list and there it was: the prime minister was played by no less than Noel Johnson -- the voice of Dick Barton! I could scarcely believe it: Dick Barton himself was speaking my lines!
Determined to get Noel Johnson's autograph on my script during the teabreak, I told him how delighted I was that my boyhood hero should be in one of my plays. He made a non-committal noise and disappeared.
"I seem to have upset him," I remarked sadly to a member of the cast.
"Well of course you have," was
the reply. "How do you think he feels having a middle-aged josser like
you sidling up to him and saying how much they enjoyed listening to him as a
kid? I would've booted you down the lift shaft."
We now come to the men (and women) in
the Men, Martians and Machines of Earthsearch. The beginning of this part of
journey takes us to the upper echelons of the BBC. To Monica Sims, the then controller of Radio 4, and Richard Imison, the then head of radio drama.
In 1979, I had the idea for Earthsearch. In fact I had the title but only a very vague notion of the story. I reasoned that what the BBC had done once with The Destruction Factor, they might agree to do again. Instead of buckling down and writing a synopsis, I skipped that part by writing a letter directly to Richard Imison, suggesting another two-parter but about a returning starship whose crew discover that the earth has vanished. A lot of doubts crept in after I'd posted that three paragraph letter.
Maybe I should've observed protocol and had a quiet word with BBC's script unit first before placing my head on the block by offering the head of radio drama no less a half-baked idea. I'd put a foot wrong. There was nothing for it but to wait for the axe to fall.
It fell with a phone call from Richard Imison's secretary asking if I could call in to see her boss whenever was convenient. When the head of radio drama wants to see you whenever is convenient, that means NOW!
I was shown into his office the next day -- the first time I'd ever been in there. There were stories about Richard Imison eating writers for breakfast, lunch, and tea but I had already dismissed them as mischievous rumour-mongering so I wasn't in the least bit nervous at the prospect of this meeting, other than a mild touch of abject, quivering terror.
In fact he was charming, all bonhomie. A big, friendly man, very much as I knew him from his brief visits to studios during rehearsals. "Ah, James," he boomed. "This letter of yours. Earthsearch. I've been discussing it with Monica Sims."
His mention of Radio 4's chief meant that some really long knives were out for me, and that I was top of the lunch menu.
Then Richard Imison's voice cut through my mounting panic. "Could you write Earthsearch as a ten-part serial, James? Thirty minutes each episode?"
He had to repeat the question, and he added, tapping my three paragraph letter: "Do you think there's enough story here for five hours?"
Now, I confess to having floated a few porkies in my career, but, until then they had been mere plywood pram dinghies for sailing close to the wind, but the one I uttered next was the triple-screwed Titanic of all porkies. "Absolutely no trouble at all, Mr Imison," I breezed.
"Splendid!" he boomed. "I need to have a word with Monica Sims, but I think you can say you've got a commission."
An hour later I was on a train home, in such a dazed state that I have no recollection of how I found Waterloo station. Ten episodes! Five hours of broadcasting!
Enough of the initial shock had worn off by the time the train had reached Guildford for me to start jotting down some thumbnail outlines. I know this a cliche, but I wrote them on the back of an envelope. A BBC A4 envelope which I've still got. Before getting down to serious writing, I had to do some very hard thinking. I decided on the same approach that Charles Chilten had used for his classic 'Journey into Space' radio serial which I had listened to, enthralled, as a kid. A small crew so that I wouldn't get too confused, never mind the audience; and a single-strand plot thoughout for the same reasons. Fairly self-contained episodes, and a real cliffhanger at the end of each one.
Okay -- so it was old-fashioned story-telling, but why not? People haven't really changed since paleolithic times, when tribes celebrating mammoth kills, gathered around their campfires and listened to their story-tellers. The need to be told a good story is as basic as the need for sex. Audiences today are exactly the same as those early people, but probably not so hairy, and they have smaller Sunday roasts. After the scripts were written and delivered, Glyn Dearman called me to say that he would be producing them.
Although a gifted radio producer, I have
to be honest now and say that I wasn't exactly dancing in the street at the
news. A few weeks before Glyn had given me a bad fright when he had directed
a Saturday Night Theatre I'd written with the somewhat clumsy title: 'The
Long, Lonely Voyage of U-395'. During recording, Glyn cut and cut that play,
sometimes dumping entire scenes, saying that it needed pace. When finished its
running time was about 72 minutes -- 18 minutes under the contracted 90 minutes!
I thought there'd be a terrible row with nuclear-tipped memos flying back and
forth -- mostly aimed at me. Demands from
the BBC's copyright department for a refund etc.
In retrospect I realise that Glyn had a great deal of editorial courage to place the story, and the listeners, above the need to fit a slot. He was right about the cuts, the play certainly had pace but you can imagine my mixed feelings when I heard that he was to produce Earthsearch. Those scripts would have to be right!
The rewrites as a result of dealing with Glyn's long lists of queries and suggestions ensured that they were right. His ability to spot even the smallest hole in a plot or a continuity hiccup was phenomenal. Nothing escaped his eye. Above all, he was a gifted "story man", able to stand back from the scripts and view them with a detached eye and always bubbling over with suggestions for improvements.
And such was his careful planning, it was possible for the serial to be rehearsed and recorded in ten days -- a rate of one episode per day. It was the normal rate for the production of straightforward drama and was therefore quite an accomplishment when you consider that every scene required a good deal of setting up and testing. As a former actor, Glyn knew and understood the needs of his cast. His gentle but persistent pushing to get the best from them was always accompanied by his acerbic sense of humour. Glyn Dearman's contribution to the success of "Earthsearch" was immeasurable. By way of a tribute to him some years after his untimely death, we're going to start with the second episode of Earthsearch from the first series. It's called 'First Footprint City' and was the BBC's entry for the 1981 Prix Futura in Berlin. By the way, the name 'Challenger' was chosen long before the terrible shuttle disaster.
To set the story so far for us, here's Glyn when he was interviewed on 'Playbill' shortly before the first broadcast in January 1981. He was asked what Earthsearch was about.
(Roll: Glyn's interview tape. Cut presenter's opening question: 'What is Earthsearch about?')
GLYN: It's about an enormous starship....
GLYN: ... and, hopefully, we keep them hooked right the way through ten episodes.
(Roll: First Footprint City. Approx 29')
Once the ten episodes were finished, in the can, I'd a suspicion that the BBC weren't quite sure what to do with it. It was eventually transmitted in a late Tuesday evening slot around ten-thirty. A graveyard slot. I thought that that was it -- that it would be transmitted and forgotten. But an unusual thing happened. Listeners' letters started trickling into the BBC. Earthsearch's ten week run gave it a chance to build up a following. A following with a surprisingly high percentage of younger listeners who had been packed off to bed and had come across Lloyd Silverthorne's weird Earthsearch noises when tuning around.
Emboldened by a favourable audience reaction, Radio 4 started a repeat run of Earthsearch at the plum time of midday on a Sunday, but had to shift an episode to a different time to make room for their coverage of the Pope's visit to England. In Glyn Dearman's words: "All hell broke loose." Readers' letters appeared in the Radio Times protesting about the "lost" episode. In the end, Radio 4 repeated the repeat and I collected two repeat fees plus a commission to write a second series.
Here's where we come to an interesting bit on this journey. Coming up next is the last episode of the first series of Earthsearch, and the first episode of the second series, rolled into a single, hour-long episode. It's the biggest single chunk of Earthsearch that's ever been broadcast and is unlikely to be heard again in this form.
Bear in mind that about a year separates the writing and production of the two episodes. Glyn Dearman was keen to ensure that the join between the two series was seamless and I wanted to inject a little more humour into the second series. Some careful script editing was called for. You can judge for yourself if we succeeded. So sit back for an hour. Here's my favourite bit. Cue grams:
(Roll Ep10 of 1st series of Earthsearch and follow with Ep.1 of 2nd second series. Approx 58').
I have to confess here that out of the twenty episodes those two are my favourites.
Let's have 15-minutes fun -- something completely different and yet it fits in with the final part of this Earthsearch journey. I'll explain afterwards. Cue grams:
(run 'The Bionic Blob'. Approx 14')
She was wearing a diaphanous and very Grecian swirling robe, and not much else underneath. She glided slyph-like across the hotel ballroom towards me, a bewitching, enigmatic smile illuminating her lovely face. She was clutching a paperback with a familiar-looking cover to her magnificent breasts.
I goggled at this gossamer goddess and agreed that she had the right person. I could hardly do otherwise: along with Ed Bishop, who played the private eye, Slim Chance, just now in The Bionic Blob -- you might remember him as the skipper of the earth-moon transit vehicle in Kubrick's 2001, I was one of the guests of honour at a science-fiction convention in which dozens of Trekkers, Seveners (Blake's 7 devotees) and Earthsearchers were gathered for a four-day bonanza of exotic fancy dress shows, watching endless episodes of Doctor Who, and trading science-fiction memorabilia.
Somehow my gossamer vision had got hold of an advance copy of the second Earthsearch book, even though publication was still some time off. She wanted me to sign it. I did so while trying not to indulge in some serious drooling.
The next day, during a book-signing session that seemed unending, I became convinced that I was signing the entire print-run of both Earthsearch books; the Earthsearchers, bless 'em, had collared the lot which explained why I was getting so many protesting letters from readers wondering what had happened to the Earthsearch books.
I replied to them all, counselling patience, saying that BBC Publications would be reprinting. Worse was to follow. There was a hardback edition of the first book, which meant that it went into lending libraries, but there was no hardback edition of the second book, only a paperback, until Severn House published both books in hardback some years later.
Incidentially, Ed Bishop and I were among the four judges of the convention's grand finale fancy dress ball. Some of the fifty or so contestants must put hours into making their costumes. They were wonderful. I considered that the girl dressed as Queen Nefertiti was a definite candidate for first prize but the judges were undecided. To end our dilemma, Ed proposed giving the prize to the girl who had the most "courageous" costume. That would've meant giving it to a young lady whose outfit consisted of little more than three large silver stars. And they weren't stuck that well to her tiara because they kept dropping off.
"Ed," I said, trying to contain my rising panic. "If we do that, we won't get out of here alive. They'll string us up."
Ed eyed the line-up of fifty or so anxiously
waiting girls in their elaborate costumes and decided that maybe I had a point
even if it would be a nice way to go. We gave the first prize to Queen Nefertiti.
I had a spare copy of Earthsearch with me which went to the girl with the three
silver stars as a consolation prize for her undoubted courage.
As for the TV series, the rights have been sold but the production seems to be lost in a timewarp somewhere between Alpha Centauri, Los Angeles, and Sydney.
And now we're at journey's end but there is a quirky little footnote which brings us the full circle.
You may think that the Beeb have accepted all my science-fiction ideas over the years. They haven't. Back in the early 1990s they bounced an idea of mine for a Saturday Night Theatre called 'A Town at the End of Time'. Maybe they'd had enough of my science- fiction -- maybe they didn't like the awful, plodding title. So I shoved the story onto the back burner where it kept nagging me and eventually sent it to my publisher as a possibility for a novel.
He asked to see me and his response took me by surprise. "I think there's enough story here for a trilogy, James," he said.
Shades of my idea for Earthsearch as a two-part radio drama and that fateful meeting with Richard Imison!
The three books are published as The Silent Vulcan trilogy. They are: Temple of the Winds, Wicca, and The Silent Vulcan. I shall be reading them in the near future here on BBC7. Details have yet to be worked out but reading three books, even abridged, means that the project will probably be as long as both series of Earthsearch.
Looking back, I've been astonished and touched by the remarkable loyalty and support of science-fiction devotees. What was a steady stream of appreciative letters in the 1980s and 90s is now a small deluge of emails. Every one is a pleasure to receive (even the less complimentary ones) and every one is an equal pleasure to reply to.
Many thanks for accompanying me on this journey. I've thoroughly enjoyed it, every minute, and I'm happy to end on a slightly threatening note:
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