Thursday, 19 March 2015

Dead Man Talking #22 - Stephen Volk

Strachan McQuade (deceased) Interviews Stephen Volk

Have to say I was more than a little thrilled when ITV Encore announced the near-legendary Stephen Volk was tasked with script-writing duties for the forthcoming TV adaption of Phil Rickman's 'Midwinter of the Spirit'. As a fan of the television drama, 'Afterlife' - a harrowing tale that explored the complex relationship between a talented/tormented medium (Lesley Sharp) and a highly-sceptical psychologist (Andrew Lincoln) - I couldn't have hoped for a better choice to transform Rickman's books to the small screen.
More recently Volk's was the writer behind the recent box-office supernatural chiller, 'The Awakening' starring Rebecca Hall and Dominc West. For many people however, his name will be forever remembered for 'Ghostwatch' the BBC hoax 'live' Halloween broadcast that scared the crap out of half the country when it was aired. 
In between writing screenplays, Volk has published two collections of short stories, 'Dark Corners' and 'Monsters in the Heart', as well as an award nominated novella, 'Whitstable' that featured the actor Peter Cushing in his latter days doing battle with a contemparory monster. His new book, 'Leytonstone' is available this month from Spectral Press. 
I'm also chuffed to bits that I'll be sharing book space with Stephen Volk later this year when we both have short stories published in an anthology of morbid tales inspired by the writing of M.R. James. 

Stephen Volk

Strachan McQuade R.I.P.

McQuade: Welcome back to Dead Man Talking. To set the scene for this interview I thought it might be appropriate to have a cup of tea by candlelight in the Glasgow City Morgue. I’m not sure why, but the pathologist has left behind some sheet-covered cadavers on the dissecting tables. Hopefully they won’t cause a disturbance. Hoi there! Volk! Stop peeking under that sheet and get over here. This isn’t Jim’ll Fix It, you know. 

Volk: I hope not! That bleached-blond clown always gave me the creeps. By the way, you can’t slander a dead person, but they can haunt you. I just thought I’d point that out.

McQuade: In Savile’s defence he did at least provide a whole generation of shell-suited, bling-flashing ruffians with a proper dress code. Without Savile they’d likely still be wearing Harrington jackets and Sta-Prest trousers. Now Volk, before we start, may I take this opportunity to congratulate you on the now notorious BBC spook-spoof that fooled an entire nation - Ghostwatch.

Volk: It fooled me! In that the reaction when it went out (Halloween, 1992) was a bit over the top. None of us were expecting that. Personally I thought the viewers generally might think “eh?” for about ten minutes, then “get” it, then go “ah!” and hopefully enjoy it for what it was. Which was a ghostly drama done in a particular way, (i.e. it pretended to be going out “live”).

McQuade: It certainly caught me out. I didn't even realise Michael Parkinson was dead when you recorded it.


Volk: His career might have been on life support, granted. Specsavers adverts at the time, I think. Though he is a legend.  Give the man his due.

McQuade: Furthermore, I do recall there was a post-broadcast slew of newspaper headlines, one of which involved a bloke who beat up his wife and claimed the show was directly responsible for his actions.

Volk: Yes. I believe so. Lots of tabloid fodder.

McQuade: That particular story reminds me of when I convinced my late wife that our church manse was haunted by the ghost of an 18th century sex-crazed Libertine, and whenever she caught me dallying with the village post-mistress, I always claimed, 'The ghost made me do it.'

Volk: Well it makes a change from “The Devil”...

Fun-time Fanny

McQuade: Hmmm... to be fair, the Devil was directly responsible for my horse-interference conviction, but that’s another story. Anyway, my dead Libertine ploy rebounded somewhat when the wife got wise to my ruse and turned the tables claiming the manse had acquired a new spectre, an East Neuk trollop by the name of ahem... ‘Fun-time Fanny’ who forced her into a series of sordid encounters with the butcher, the haberdasher and some bearded bloke who occasionally visited our kirkyard to do gravestone rubbings. 

Volk: Fun-time Fanny… Is that a new Channel Four series? If so, I reckon it’s a winner.

McQuade: Just shows what you know. I pitched the idea to Channel Four last year and they said it was too high-brow for their viewing audience. Righto, let’s dispel with the banter. My first question is this – in relation to that wife-beating, ghost-blaming newspaper article, have you ever committed an evil deed such as the non-return of a library book, or simply dropped a tea cup while washing the dishes, and then blamed it on a ghost? Or even a werewolf for that matter?

Would You Buy a Used
Hearing Aid From This Man?
Volk: I once responded to a “free hearing aid” advert in the paper simple because I fancied having a bit of plastic in my ear like Mr Spock. I was about ten. Sadly I was rumbled. One day A salesman knocked the door. I was upstairs sitting on the toilet at the time. I thought “Shit!” My dad knew what was going on and invited the salesman in, just to embarrass me. Which it did.

McQuade: That’ll teach you not to lock the toilet door. I remember one time just before a Sunday service I was in the bathroom inserting a suppository when our cleaning lady walked in. She startled me so much my sphincter went into spasm and I had to perform the whole service with my finger up my chuff-pipe. Thankfully it eased off towards the end and I was able to shake hands with my congregation on the way out. Unfortunately that was point the suppository kicked in and I had to beat a hasty retreat to spare my parishioners further calamity.
You mention in your bio that you dislike your cat. I myself detest those sly, sleekit creatures who spend all their spare time hanging around with witches and working on stratagems to steal a tasty slice of fish off my dinner plate. Is your cat a practitioner of the dark arts or is it just a rubbish colour? (ie ginger) And by the way – did one of those stiffs on the tables behind us just break wind?

Volk: No, they always smell like that. As for the cat, it is an Abyssinian (called “Asbo”), so a sort of fawn dappled colour – very beautiful, which contributes to it feeling innately superior to its keepers. It never shows an ounce of affection and if you stroke it, it bites you. If you tickle its tummy it gouges its claws into the back of your hand. Touching little things like that. And throwing up as soon as you’ve fed it in the morning. And once you’ve tidied up the vomit, then the thing is crying to be fed a second time. Bloody hell! I think cats were designed to test writers, to warn us against getting to up ourselves. But I often think when mopping up cat sick of a morning: “O, the glamorous life of a screenwriter!” 
McQuade: As a vomit-mopping, glamorous screenwriter, part of your job is to deconstruct and create a treatment of other writers’ work in order to squeeze it into shape for television broadcast. Do you ever worry the writer’s feelings will be hurt at seeing their pride and joy torn apart and then reassembled as something radically different? Or do you blithely assume they'll be too busy rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of the extra money to be made from TV exposure to care either way? By Jove, that smell is getting worse by the minute. Are you sure you haven’t trodden in dog’s dirt on your way here, Volk?

Volk: Dog dirt is like a bad review – you can never get it off your shoe. But yes… I hardly ever do adaptations, so for almost all my work your question is irrelevant! However, in the case of adapting a novel when I do, I feel strongly your job is not to do please the NOVELIST but to do justice to the BOOK. The truth is, the novelist will never thank you if you do a decent job, and neither will fans of the book, so while I WANT the novelist to be happy, I honestly cannot worry about that or I’d be frozen in my tracks and obviously it’s important not to be. As one screenwriter once said, there are two pieces of advice: if in doubt look in the book, and if in doubt, forget the book. (Whether the novelists are gleeful at their fee or not doesn’t bother me either – though I think it might be better for the author to get distance from the production and not fret about the outcome: he or she has the book published, so their opus remains intact whether we do a passable TV/film version or cock it up.)

Spot the Cabbage

McQuade: I once entered a competition called Spot the Cabbage. It was similar to Spot the Ball, only instead of marking an X where you guessed the ball was you had to... yes, I'm sure you can work out the rest yourself. And before you scoff, Volk, it's harder than you think to guess where exactly on a football pitch you'd find a cabbage. Anyway, first prize was the opportunity to write an episode of my favourite Scottish TV program. Naturally I choose 'Dr Finlay's Casebook' and caused no end of bother by having the elderly Dr Cameron embark on a spree of morphine induced euthanasia while persuading his patients to sign all their money, Premium Bonds, and livestock over to him in their wills. It took the scriptwriters at least a dozen episodes to get the program back on track, and I sometimes worry that episode may have given Harold Shipman an idea or two. My question is this, if you won Spot the Cabbage and were given the opportunity to write an episode for either:

a) Star Trek 

b) Rent-a-Ghost

c) Terry and June

d) Anything else you can think of

Which one would you go for?

Volk: Sherlock. Possibly. Or the old Jeremy Brett incarnation, really – or Cushing or Rathbone, both of whom are my favourite Holmeses. I’ve written Sherlock Holmes stories in print – and I’m writing a series of stories at the moment with Sherlock in them, though in a very different context to any we’ve seen him in before, in that he is the young “Watson” figure to another great (greater?) detective. Have a look in The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad at my story “The Lunacy of Celestine Blot” and you’ll find out who that is. It’s out soon, if not on the shelves already. The TV show I’m re-watching at the moment and never tire of is The Avengers with Steed and Mrs Peel – such a lovely witty double act, and such bonkers, imaginative stories – quite unique. My dream project would be to revive that. I think it was the show that got me excited about TV drama when I was young, the idea of continuing stories with the same characters, which I eventually got a chance to do myself with two seasons of the ITV
series Afterlife (starring Andrew Lincoln and Lesley Sharp). Those ABC/ITC shows of the sixties were fantastic though, and amongst my fondest memories is The Prisoner, which baffled my parents, and consequently I absolutely loved (though I didn’t completely understand it at the time: now I think it’s possible the most radical and one of the best TV dramas ever made). Nowadays there are great shows to wax lyrical about too – imagine writing Penny Dreadful in particular: as a staunch fanatic about Victorian gothic and Hammer horror, I would love to.

McQuade: I have been informed you possess a drawing of Britain's most evil man, former top dog in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the beast himself, Lesley Crowtherly. Heavens knows why the BBC ever allowed him to host a top children's TV programme like Crackerjack. Do you feel you identify in some way with this rogue, apart from the fact you look so alike?

Volk: I’m fascinated by Aleister Crowley, yes, the old trickster. But not because he is like me – because he’s the absolute polar opposite of me! What a vile old bastard he must have been, deeply intelligent and knowledgeable of all things arcane and esoteric, a massive ego, and deeply manipulative and predatory. All of which I hope I’m not! I didn’t get interested in him when I was younger like a lot of people who dip into the occult when they discover supernatural fiction. However, lately I got obsessed by him through my interest in Dennis Wheatley and the two crossed paths (as they both did with Ian Fleming, interestingly enough). I’ve dabbled with a TV series ideas featuring Crowley, and I’m still interested in developing that, but I’m also writing a completely different novella about him later in life, too. Which I’m excited about – though that won’t be ready for at least a year.

McQuade: I tremendously enjoyed your novella ‘Whitstable’ which featured my favourite vampire-hunting Doctor Who actor, Peter Cushing. Does your latest book ‘Leytonstone’ feature any other classic British horror actors such as Boris Karloff or even trumpet-tooting Roy Castle? And while you give us a run down on the book I’ll go check which one of those corpses is venting that abominable stench.

Volk: Sadly ‘Biff’ Bailey, that thief of voodoo riffs who reaped the consequences of his actions, doesn’t get a look in (though Kim Newman and I once pondered the thought of doing an anthology of stories about him!). No, ‘Leytonstone’ is about the boyhood of Alfred Hitchcock. There’s a famous story the director repeatedly told – and recounted when he received his American Film Institute Life Achievement Award – that his father once took him to the police station when he was little and had him locked up either overnight or for a couple of hours, and when the lad was let out again his father said: “Now you see what happens to naughty little boys.” This had a deep effect on Hitch (so he claimed), not least in that he developed a lifelong fear of policemen, evident in many of his movies. Anyway, I was intrigued by this childhood incident of terror and trauma (for me it was emblematic of what might put a person on the road to terrifying others for a living) and first wrote it as a short film called Little H (the script of which appeared in my first story collection, Dark Corners  published by Gray Friar Press). After I’d written that I was nagged persistently by the feeling that there was more to be explored in the characters and ideas I had set up. I didn’t know whether the “short” was the first act or the third act of something bigger, but after a few years I started to work out what that was. (You can’t rush these things!) So in essence that’s what developed from a small acorn into what became the novella ‘Leytonstone’ which will be published soon by the wonderful Spectral Press (publisher of ‘Whitstable’). I’ve been tremendously gratified that the reviews so far have equalled the rave reviews garnered by ‘Whitstable’ – I honestly never thought lightning could strike twice but I’m delighted to say it seems to have done. 

McQuade: Sorry, I missed half of that. I got my hand stuck in that fat man’s stomach. You’d think these lazy pathologists would stitch them up properly before buggering off home. Still, at least we now have soggy biscuits with our tea. 
One last question. One of your current projects involves transforming Phil Rickman’s novel, ‘Midwinter of the Spirit’ into a three part TV drama. Has this posed any particular challenges given that Rickman’s readers can be a pernickety bunch and will blame you for anything they feel doesn’t stay true to the original book, not to mention holding you responsible for everything from the font used in the closing credits to the casting and the use of false moustaches.

Volk: I am sure the fans of the book/s (and of the much-loved main character, Merrily Watkins) will be girding their loins for the disappointment! No, seriously, I hope they won’t be, but again if you fretted about that you’d get nowhere. My job is essentially an ongoing and fluid negotiation between the author’s raw material, the producers’ notes, the channel’s expectations, and my own take on how to make the material work in a different medium. There is a surprising difference between how characters work on the page and making scenes “playable” for actors. But what drew me to the books – apart from the intoxicating mix of crime and the supernatural – was that the character of Merrily, a woman vicar, is not at all preachy and in fact rather sceptical – and as far from the movie idea of an “exorcist” as possible. Though she is entering this world of being a Deliverance Consultant (as it is called in the C of E) she’s an everywoman, but she is full of flaws, almost at times an emotional mess. Certainly in this book she’s nothing like an expert. But what I loved most was her relationship with teenage daughter, Jane, after the recent death of her husband, which is when we pick up the story. That and the books’ setting against a backdrop of British landscape and Christian and pagan history – that seems to me very different from anything on TV at the moment, yet also very “ITV” at the same time. I’m tremendously excited about this project, which should be coming to your screens in the Autumn on ITV Encore as one of their very first original dramas. Especially as the amazing Phil Collinson (famous for Doctor Who) is producing, and I just heard who we’ve got to play Merrily and she is just perfect (and no, I’m not telling you who!).

McQuade: Well, thanks for that Volk. I have a chiropodist appointment soon and have to rush off. That vile stench is still annoying me however, I wonder if it’s coming from that woman with so much pubic hair it looks like she’s wearing a sporran. What’s that? How do I know about…? Um, no need to go into that now. Look, just bring the candle over and hold it right here. No, a bit closer… 

BANG (Editor - Well, fancy that...)

McQuade: By Jove, it was her after all. Erm… sorry about you losing those fingers, Volk. I imagine you can still type with one hand. 

Volk: I actually type with two fingers. But I’m very fast. They’re ablur a lot of the time, I tell you… ABLUR! 

McQuade: No need to shout. I’ve got a proper hearing aid. Not one of those malfunctioning Vulcan models that tends to apply a death-grip to one’s ears after a few hours. Anyway, thanks for the chat and do remember to pick up those fingers before you leave. Especially the one that landed on the hairy woman’s sporran, or they might think Savile really is haunting the place...

Visit Stephen Volk's web page

Buy Stephen's new novella 'Leytonstone' 

Buy Whitstable

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