James Follett is one of the UK’s most prolific writers. He turned out over 50 scripts for BBC Radio 4 between 1973 and 1986; including two series of the science fiction classic – Earthsearch. His work spans many genres – political thrillers, comedies, drama – but it is for science-fiction that he is best known. He wrote two episodes of Blake’s 7 – Dawn of the Gods in Series C and Stardrive for Series D.
You can find out more about James' work at his website: http://www.james-follett.co.uk
This interview was first published in Issue 1 of Scorpio Attack, 2005.
SA: Were you always interested in Science Fiction?
JF: Yes – from an early age with Dan Dare’s exploits in The Eagle. But my interest really started when I read Eric Frank Russell's Men, Martians and Machines at the age of 14. I had read other science fiction novels but it was this book that truly captivated me. The story was simple enough and one not unfamiliar to Star Trek 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.
SA: How did you come to write for Blake’s 7?
JF: David Maloney and Chris Boucher had a problem with a script that was either not delivered or was unusable. Chris and I had the same agent. I was volunteered by my agent George Markstein, the creator of The Prisoner TV series, to produce a script in a week.
SA: The series lost Gareth Thomas as Blake before the third series was filmed and new characters were introduced. Did this cause problems when writing your script?
JF: Both my Blake’s 7 scripts were effortless. All I knew at the time was that Gan had gone. I hadn’t watched many episodes but it was easy to pick up.
SA: Where did the idea for Dawn of the Gods come from?
JF: I’ve no idea! It’s a long time ago! I do recall that I was actually encouraged to reuse certain ideas from Earthsearch on the understanding that no-one would notice. Of course a number of people did notice!
SA: What did you think of the finished episode?
JF: I thought the direction was sluggish, but that was true of a lot of television at the time. Blake’s 7 had the additional burden of special effects which was not reflected in the budget.
SA: The fourth series of Blake’s 7 was commissioned very late in the day and the scripts were pulled together in a rush. Did this cause problems for you?
JF: One hell of a rush and problems galore! The law of TV is that three series of anything is the natural length. I was watching the last episode of Series C. At the end of the credits a continuity muppet said that B7 would be returning in the autumn. I was aghast. The Liberator set had been sold for firewood weeks before. Having been put up and struck several times, the damned thing had reached the stage of being held together with OOS gaffer tape, and in-shot Sellotape. I got a frantic phone call from Chris Boucher wondering if he'd dreamed it. From what I could glean, the drama series editor had been going through the AR figures at home while the last episode was running. He discovered that B7 had held onto a sizeable audience despite being up against Thames's Kenny Everett Video Show. He called the BBC and instructed continuity to announce the return of Blake’s 7. I met up with Chris a few days later in Union House. All we knew at the time that Michael Keating and Paul Darrow were available; the rest of the cast was a grey area. No overall storyline for the fourth series had been worked out; we didn't even have a ship. As is usual with my fire-fighter work, I would produce a one-off story that could be slotted in anywhere and would write it in about a week. I got down to work and wrote the script, using dummy names for the three unknown characters. This is not the way characters should be developed! I recall phoning Chris asking if he'd come up with the name for the new computer. "Slade," he said. I said that I thought it an odd name but it was, I suppose, as good as any. Later, when I received a copy of the rehearsal script, I realised that I'd misheard Chris. Every one of my SLADE references had been changed to SLAVE.
SA: The Space Rats were clearly based on Hell’s Angels; did this involve much research?
JF: Yes -- Hell's Angels indeed. No research required. As Vila remarked, all they were interested in was speed, sex, tattoos and drugs; and that the blokes were just as bad.
SA: The costumes for this story are rather over the top! Do you think this detracted from your storyline?
JF: Bloody costume designers. The costumes were much too smart and elaborate. If I recall, my script said that you got a basin full of their smell just by looking at them. I wanted Atlan occasionally wincing as though he'd been bitten, picking wriggly things out of his beard, and crushing them.
SA: Avon is very strongly written in this script and is particularly ruthless. What did you think of the character and the actor, Paul Darrow?
JF: Paul Darrow actually upped the ruthlessness in the scripts. His view was that if one is going to be a villain do it properly. After all there wasn't a spark of humanity in Jane Austen's Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
SA: Did the script editor, Chris Boucher, make many changes to your scripts?
JF: Hardly any. A few nips and tucks for continuity but that was about all.
SA: Were you disappointed when Blake’s 7 was cancelled and would you have liked to submit another script?
JF: No. Two was enough. It was amazing that the series went to a fourth series so I suppose it could have then gone on to five or six or even more. I think that’s why Chris Boucher left the last episode open, just in case.
SA: How did Earthsearch come about?
JF: I had the initial idea in 1979 and pitched it as a two-part drama. I was taken aback when they asked for a ten-part serial as I only had a vague idea of the storyline. I decided on the same approach that Charles Chilten had used for his classic Journey into Space radio serial that 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 throughout for the same reasons. Fairly self-contained episodes, and a real cliff-hanger at the end of each one.
SA: What did the BBC make of it?
JF: 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.
SA: Earthsearch was broadcast the same year as Stardrive. This must have been a busy time for you?
JF: The whole of the 1980s was a hectic time! In that decade I was also churning out novels.
SA: Were you pleased with Big Finish’s version of Mindwarp on CD?
JF: I first met Jason Haigh-Ellery when he was in his teens and an Earthsearch fan. He's a great guy therefore it pains me to say that I was far from happy with his production. This is largely my fault because I should've made a special effort to attend the recordings even if it meant flying back from Spain. The central character, Ewen, declaimed centre stage to a back row too much. When he talked about his obsession with his search for the mythical outdoors, it should've been played with quiet intensity, close to mic. I'm an old hand at working in a radio studio; my ear knows what works and what doesn't work. Normally I'm loath to use an oar with directors but I will if it is necessary. Much of the music was intrusive, and as for those strangled computer voices...
SA: You now work mainly as a novel writer. Do you ever miss writing for TV and Radio?
JF: Radio sometimes. I've wasted too much time on stillborn TV projects to miss it. That I've been paid for work on TV projects that have been cancelled doesn't mitigate the feelings of frustration when it happens, and it was happening a lot in the 1980s. A pilot script for Mindwarp for Thames was actually commissioned.
SA: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
JF: Yes -- to see a filmed TV series of my Silent Vulcan trilogy. The three books were actually written with TV in mind -- minimal special effects and number of locations.
Thank you James.
Find out more about James Follett's Blake's 7 episodes here: