Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Robert, first of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. So for those readers not familiar with you, you're a writer, director and producer of radio, podcasts and other audio dramas and you're probably most noted for your cold war radio drama 'Red Moon' set in a world in which the Soviets were the first to land a man on the moon. What was the inspiration behind that story and how did you first get into Alternate History?
Alternate History is a fascinating subgenre and, so far, this has been my only stab at it. I suppose more of my work has been in the Secret History subgenre, really. The inspiration behind the story came by asking the question of what binary event of the twentieth century going the other way would make the most exciting and interesting alternate history thriller. The moon landing was the first thing that sprang to mind, and the story pretty much suggested itself instantaneously, as did the title ‘Red Moon’. If the Americans had failed to put the first man on the moon, they wouldn't have let the moon race end until they'd put the first base on it, and so on. The end scenario is that by 1979, America and the USSR have armed lunar bases with their missiles trained at targets on Earth.
In many ways 'Red Moon' is a standard cold war spy thriller in terms of plot and characters, and it works on that level, all good Alternate History stories have to be good stories first of all, but you clearly have a lot of fun with the changes to society as well. What do you think are the main advantages of an AH setting when it comes to telling stories, mostly the novelty or do you also find there's more freedom in terms of where the plot can go if you're not holstered to real history?
I'm a huge fan of spy fiction and conspiracy thrillers – everything from ‘James Bond’ to Len Deighton and John le Carre, and TV shows and films such as ‘Edge of Darkness’, ‘Threads’ and ‘JFK’ – so this was just a way of approaching that broader genre with a science-fiction spin. Obviously, the big thing that Alternative History allows you to do is to explore all the 'what might have beens' of history. For example, in ‘Red Moon’ there's an Inner London Monorail service on Regents Street, Graham Crowden is the fourth actor to play Doctor Who and the British government took up a terrifying Home Office proposal to train psychopaths to take over the running of the country in the event of a nuclear strike. However, whether you're writing purely historical fiction or alternative historical fiction, you're bound by the history of the world you're writing. In that way, you never have complete freedom; you're basically creating new rules for yourself to follow.
'Red Moon' was very well received, it won the Best Audio Drama in the 2019 BBC awards. When you originally pitched the idea to Wireless Theatre, did everyone there know this was going to be a hit or was there some reluctance with going for an AH story?
Mariele Runacre-Temple at Wireless invited Jack Bowman and me to come up with a new sci-fi series of some description, as previously we'd co-written and produced a fantasy-adventure series for them called ‘The Springheel Saga’. We'd formulated the idea for 'Red Moon' a couple of years previously, but as Trump had just become president in America, and half the country had voted for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, waking up in a hideous alternate reality suddenly felt very topical. None of us could have imagined it being as successful as it was, but Mariele was aware that Alternate History was a popular subgenre with podcast listeners, so there wasn’t any resistance to the idea. In fact I think she even did an online sci-fi survey for Wireless listeners, just to make sure it was a genre people would be interested in, and Alternate History was voted the most popular choice.
Obviously AH is going through a bit of a golden era in terms of TV representation, do you think the existence of stuff like 'Man in the High Castle' help open doors for your own story or, on the flipside to that, did the existence of Apple TV's 'For all Mankind', which tells a very different story about a world where the soviets win the moon race, worry anyone that you'd be overshadowed?
I think that all the success of 'The Man in the High Castle' did for our conversation with Mariele in 2016 was serve as a contemporary example of some popular entertainment in the same genre. And I wasn't actually aware of 'For All Mankind' until your question about it, and I just had to look it up. To be honest, I don't think either show has affected 'Red Moon' either positively or negatively, unless 'For All Mankind' has queered the pitch for 'Red Moon' ever getting a TV adaptation, that is!
For 'Red Moon' you acted as writer, director and producer. Which of those roles do you think you're most comfortable with or do you intend to pursue all three in the future?
I'm very happy to continue doing all three, really. It's all storytelling at the end of the day. Writing is like oxygen to me, but the casting, directing and overseeing post-production are equally as important. In recorded media, and in audio drama specifically, editing the dialogue and sculpting the performances in post is pretty much the final phase of the writing process.
As well as 'Red Moon', you've worked on lots of other audio dramas from Doctor Who stories for Big Finish, to the sci-fi series 'Hypnopolis' for BMW. What to you is the great attraction of working in that format and how did you get into working with Wireless Theatre on this kind of project?
The great attraction of audio drama out of all the recorded media is that you're barely limited by budgetary concerns, and you can tell stories on a vast canvas. Wireless Theatre was founded by Mariele Runacre-Temple in 2007 at a time before audio drama was popular outside of the BBC, but Mariele was extremely perceptive in realising that thanks to the birth of the MP3 player, audio drama had the potential to be huge. And she was right. I was just lucky to get involved at a time when there was relatively little interest or competition.
Obviously in radio you need to be more direct with your exposition because you don't have pictures but you also don't have any limits on special effects, do you think this allows you to go bigger in terms of the stories you tell and how different the society you imagine can be?
Personally, I try to be as indirect as possible with my exposition, despite audio's need to compensate for what the audience can't see. For me, the skill with which you dispense visual and spatial information to the listener is one of the key things that divides good radio writing from bad. But to be honest, dealing with exposition is as much of a challenge when you do have the visuals. And yes, in some ways audio allows you to go bigger, or at least it allows you to go bigger without needing a bigger budget, but most good drama is focused on a handful of characters when you get down to it. ‘Red Moon’ follows its main character, Eddie Sloper, on an investigation leading to a vast conspiracy, but apart from a few sweeping backdrops and action sequences, the drama is actually fairly concentrated.
Podcasts are obviously booming and during the current global pandemic, audio dramas have become a way to avoid the difficulties in filming locations. Do you feel that audio dramas have a bright future and that in particular we'll see more AH stories told in that format?
Podcast drama is definitely here to stay, and more and more of them are featuring big-name Hollywood actors. Thanks to remote recording, it's the medium that's been the least affected by the pandemic, and I've found myself extremely busy this year as a result. Alternate History will no doubt thrive, and I think audio drama is a great medium for the genre, in part for the very simple reason that period-set drama is inherently expensive on screen.
You've worked with some well-known fantastic actors, Philip Bullock and William Hope in 'Red Moon', Laura Dern in 'Little Women', how challenging do you think it is to have to act with your voice and not be able to use your face at all?
Voice acting is a very specific skillset and I kind of think of voice actors as a breed apart. William Hope, for example, as well as doing loads of films and television, has appeared in a staggering amount of radio. Obviously, these skills can be acquired, and some actors have a natural gift for it, but I have worked with actors who'd worked exclusively in film, theatre and TV for whom it's been a bit of a shock. Obviously, on screen there's so much you can convey with your eyes and physicality, but when you're behind the mic all you've got to communicate every subtle nuance and thought is your voice. So yes, it definitely presents an actor with a unique set of challenges.
What are your current and future projects? Do you think you have any more Alternate History stories in you and do you, yourself, have any ambitions to get into TV or novels or are you happy remaining in audio dramas?
I think working across multiple media is the best way of never getting bored. At the moment I'm writing a lot Doctor Who for Big Finish Productions (which is basically heaven for me!) as well an unannounced project for BBC Radio 4. Thanks to the pandemic, making too many plans is perhaps a little unwise, but I would like to return to filmmaking at some point as it's a medium I miss working in. In terms of subject matter, alternate history and secret histories are subgenres that delight me, but I think it's also increasingly worth us looking at real-world history and recognising that the history we think we know is very much one that's been written and curated by straight, white men. There are a lot of aspects of history we’ve ignored or never been taught that need to be acknowledged without having to invent new histories. It’s a cliché to say that history is written by the victors, but it’s definitely written by the powerful, and especially now, that power needs questioning. Of course, used correctly, Alternate History can a brilliant way of doing that.