❉ We chat with writer Joseph Lidster about Big Finish, Doctor Who, Torchwood, RTD, writing, and his short film ‘Wasted’.
Joseph Lidster is best known for his work on ‘Torchwood’ and ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’. Joe is also co-producer of Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio dramas.
Hullo, Joe! Thanks for taking time out to chat with We Are Cult. Let’s start at the beginning: Tell us a little about yourself and your background. When did you decide to become a writer?
When I was a kid I was really into acting. I think from as far back as I can remember I was in local drama groups and so on. I even joined the local Operatics society with my girlfriend (bless her… not sure why that didn’t work out) and a bunch of presumably-now-dead lovely elderly people. I did GCSE Drama but I couldn’t do a Performing Arts A-level as it clashed with other subjects I wanted to study and I was told that quite a few universities didn’t count it as a “proper” A-level. While we were doing our A-levels we had to do an extra subject and one of the choices was a Media Studies GCSE. I found it really interesting. Basically, all the sorts of things we’d studied about old books in English applied to what we watched on telly and so on. At the same time I was still actually performing in some of the Performing Arts A-level plays (basically through a mixture of evening rehearsals and skiving off the odd lesson at school) and we did a production of Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’. Obviously, it was only a school production but it was pretty bloody amazing. I was playing Salieri and the script just blew me away. I got to play so many facets of one character, I got to have a breakdown on stage swearing at God, I got to seduce a girl, plot against my best mate who was playing Mozart and even eat Ferrero Rocher. And I think I really realised, for the first time, that this was all because of the script. Around the same time I was losing confidence in my acting abilities and I think it was a combination of the Media Studies GCSE and the script of ‘Amadeus’ that made me start to think that actually what I wanted to do was to try and give actors the chance to perform strong drama. I then went to University in glamorous Carlisle where I studied for a Media degree. I learned about the basics behind TV production but, where possible, tried to concentrate more on the writing side of things.
It’s fair to say your first big break was the Big Finish audio drama, The Rapture. Back then, in 2002 Big Finish was the home of all-new Doctor Who adventures. That must have been very exciting!
Oh yeah, it really was. Genuinely, I don’t think anything will compare to receiving that letter saying they wanted to produce it. While my degree was lovely and I had the best time at University, the one thing it hadn’t really done was taught us how to get jobs. So I’d moved to Newcastle and was doing telesales. I’d always been a fan of Doctor Who and I’d kept up-to-date with the Virgin New Adventures and other books but I didn’t really know how to buy stuff off the Internet (I’ve still never used Ebay) and no shops near me seemed to sell the Big Finish CDs so I’d only got a couple of the early Bennys and ‘Winter For The Adept’, I think. I didn’t really know what they were doing (and I certainly didn’t know what I was doing) but I’d had this idea developing for a while. I was really into clubbing at the time because I loved how the combination of booze, mates and trance music just meant my brain shut down and I had a good time. And that had given me an idea… what if aliens wanted to put people into a trance using trance music. So I pitched a Sixth Doctor and Peri storyline about that and sent it off. Gary Russell emailed me back and we went back and forth with it and then I got a letter saying they’d like to produce it – with the Seventh Doctor and Ace. And it was produced! And it was mostly hated! But I still love a lot of it!
Without Doctor Who I’d say it’s extremely unlikely I’d have a career. I’d like to think I’d have still written but it can be very hard to break into professional writing.
You’ve penned several well-received Doctor Who audios for BF – what was the journey that led you to being commissioned to write episodes of Doctor Who spin-offs ‘Torchwood’ and ‘Sarah Jane Adventures’?
It was a couple of things really. By that point I was living in London and one night I met James Goss in a pub and he told me how he’d really enjoyed my UNIT play, The Longest Night. Which was very nice of him. At the time, he was producing the websites for the new Doctor Who TV series and I think I drunkenly hollered “Yeah, well you should give me a job then!” He looked a bit pained and said “That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you.” At which point I think I sobered up pretty quickly. So I ended up writing the fictional content for the Doctor Who sites from The Christmas Invasion onwards. The content all had to be approved by RTD and it meant I had to visit Cardiff a lot so I was getting to know people there.
At the same time, Gary Russell had moved on from Big Finish and was script-editing ‘Torchwood’. RTD apparently asked him what writer he would recommend from Big Finish and Gary, very kindly, suggested me. I was then asked to pitch some ideas for, what I thought were, original ‘Torchwood’ audios or books or something. I then got asked to go and meet RTD and Julie Gardner as what I’d actually been pitching for was the TV series. I was genuinely stunned as series 1 of Torchwood had been one of my favourite TV shows ever and I was already a huge fan of RTD. I met them and that went well and I was commissioned to write an over-commission script (so for a 13 part series they commissioned 15 scripts in case any didn’t work out) and then that eventually became A Day In The Death.
‘Torchwood’ and SJA are the light and dark of the Who universe, one aimed at younger viewers, the other at a more adult audience: How did they compare as writing gigs?
To be honest, they weren’t that different to write for. Everything at the time was very much set in RTD’s clearly-defined universe. It wasn’t just the obvious crossover elements like Vote Saxon and Trinity Wells but everything. Even if ‘Torchwood’ was darker, it was never SO dark that it couldn’t take place in Doctor Who’s Universe. And The Sarah Jane Adventures might have been lighter and aimed at younger viewers, but they were still character-led adventures in which bravery and friendship were seen as the most important elements. Also, I was mostly dealing with the same people in the same offices so it really didn’t feel too different at all. My ‘Torchwood’ episode is about a man and a woman realising that life is worth living because there’s always something new and beautiful out there. My first SJA story is about a teenage boy realising his Dad is always going to be a bit shit so chooses not to have him in his life. I’d argue that that’s a lot darker than my ‘Torchwood’ episode.
Visitors to the Doctor Who Experience are greeted by a film of the current Doctor Who, in a walk-through adventure written by you. As a fan, that must feel quite incredible. What do you think your younger self would think about that?
I actually wrote the whole thing which was hugely exciting! I was asked if I’d like to do it and I jumped at the chance. I love exploring different ways of telling stories and, over the last few years, have been writing for fringe theatre. I think I brought more from the theatre side of writing than from my telly experience. As a fan, I was very chuffed to get Romana in there. As a writer, I was very chuffed that kids were terrified but excited by the whole thing. So yeah, I think – I hope anyway – my younger self would have loved it!
You’ve written prose, plays, audio dramas and for television, what are the opportunities and challenges of each medium?
The only one I’m not overly keen on is prose. I love writing short stories but anything longer than that and I really struggle. Do I describe what rooms look like? Who cares! So yeah, I really like writing scripts and I’ve found that, while there are obvious differences between the mediums, I tend to approach them all in the same way. How can I make an audience fall in love with these characters? How can I make them funny and fun to be around so that the audience is devastated when bad things happen to them and are cheering if it’s a happy ending, crying if it’s a sad ending and so on.
What I’ve found is that theatre does tend to encourage slightly more theatrical dialogue. Basically, your actors are likely to have minimal props or set dressing so they need to say and do everything. Wasted, the short film I talk about a bit later, is a prime example of that. It started off as a short play and when I adapted it for screen I think it lost about a third of its dialogue purely because even though I tend to write what I think is quite realistic dialogue, in this case I hadn’t. The director of the short film could do so much more with the locations, supporting artistes, lighting, movement and so on. We could have close-ups of actors where they didn’t need to say anything, which is harder to do on stage.
With audio, obviously there’s nothing to see but I don’t really think about that. I might go through the script after I’ve finished and check if there’s anything I don’t think the audience will understand but I think if you’re having to write a line like “look at that yellow monster with purple spots coming towards us” then you really need to ask yourself why such a thing even exists in your audio script, let alone why a character is having to explain it.
As for the opportunities each medium give you… I think TV can speak to millions and I think you can really tell any kind of story with it. Audio and theatre allow you to be much more intimate which is especially fun if you like telling scary stories, which I do. Being in a theatre and hearing nervous laughter from an audience as they start to feel just that little bit too scared because of something you’ve written is a brilliant feeling.
Returning to Big Finish, you’ve also been involved in their Dark Shadows series. Doctor Who is a cult with a mainstream audience, but Dark Shadows is almost the archetypal cult series – how would you define its’ enduring appeal?
It’s just like Doctor Who really. It was a TV series where incredibly talented and exciting people decide to tell a story that they simply didn’t have the budget for. It’s not really known over here (bar the not-very-good Tim Burton film) but it was a huge thing in America at the time. I mean, just look at this: https://darkshadowseveryday.com/2014/10/07/episode-497/
That’s one of the actors going on tour across the States and it looks like Beatlemania! Unfortunately, Dark Shadows on television only lasted a few years but it never really went away. I think its appeal wass that, like Doctor Who, it wasn’t really aimed at a specific audience – or rather, it gained an audience it hadn’t really aimed for. Doctor Who was aimed at a family audience but everyone loved it. Dark Shadows was aimed at housewives but kids and students discovered it and they loved it – it’s a soap opera with ghosts and vampires in it – who wouldn’t love that? I think Rob Morris’s article sums it all up nicely! http://wearecult.rocks/50-years-of-dark-shadows
Tell us a little about your latest film, ‘Wasted’. What’s it about?
Ha, for a short film, there’s a long story behind it. Basically, it’s a true story. I was mugged but made friends with my mugger. A few years ago, I was having a very bad day. I’d had a SJA meeting in Soho and it hadn’t gone well and we all knew it hadn’t gone well and none of us were happy with the story. I then rushed home to drop off my laptop as I didn’t want to take it out with me and then rushed back into Soho for a SJA series launch and then a friend’s birthday do. It was the hottest day of the year. I was tired and stressed. I didn’t eat. I did, however, drink vodka. A lot of vodka. And then I left the bar and I got lost. And then two guys stopped me for a cigarette. I gave them a cigarette and went on my way and realised they’d pickpocketed my phone. So I chased after them and got even more lost and… well, watch the film to see what happened next.
A couple of years ago I was asked to write a rapid response play. This is where you go and see a play and then over a weekend a bunch of writers write a bunch of short plays based on what they’ve seen. It was a brilliant play about two soldiers in WW1 trapped in a bunker but what I really got from it was how it was a play about two men who shouldn’t have been friends finding common ground. So I realised I could use my mugging story as a basis for that. The two actors who performed in the play then asked if they could film it. One of them found an amazing director and I then hacked away at the script to make it suitable for screen. And we filmed it. I think, in total, it cost us about fifty quid to make. The director had access to the equipment so were very lucky but everyone on the project worked for free. Bar one afternoon upstairs in a pub, it was all night-shoots so it was exhausting but very rewarding. We’ve had it shown at a few festivals and I’m just really happy with it.
How can We Are Cult readers see it or find out more about it?
If they’re on Facebook they just need to go here: https://www.facebook.com/WastedShortFilm/
If not, they can see or download it from here:
In 2011, you were script editor for another short film, ‘Cleaning Up’ – again, featuring names familiar to Doctor Who fans; namely, Mark Gatiss, Simon Guerrier and Louise Jameson. How did that come about, can you tell us a little about it?
Crikey, that’s going back a bit… I think what happened was that Simon just asked me, as a mate, just to read the script. I think he already knew at the time that it was going to be produced so I really went to town on it – saying what I loved and saying what I thought needed work. He then asked me if I’d script edit it and I said yes. I’ve been script-edited by Russell T Davies and I doubt there’s a better experience for a writer than that so I tried to bring some of that to it. It went through quite a lot of drafts but I really enjoyed doing it and I hope Simon enjoyed working with me. He’d already script-edited me on Bernice Summerfield and we’re good enough mates that we both knew we could be absolutely honest with each other. You can download it here – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/cleaning-up-download-957 – for £4.99 and get all the behind the scenes info as well.
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
For the last few years I’ve been co-producing and script-editing (and sometimes directing) the Dark Shadows range for Big Finish which is my absolute dream job. It takes up far too much of my time but I love it. I get to employ new writers and new actors and I get to play in the most amazing sandpit ever. I’ve not written much for Big Finish over the last few years as I’ve been mostly writing television but when they got the Torchwood license I emailed everyone I knew involved in it and begged/threatened/cried/pleaded to write one. That was One Rule (starring Tracy-Ann Oberman who was also in ‘Cleaning Up’) and, at the recording of that I basically bullied James Goss into letting me write another. A lot of my career is basically down to me shouting at James Goss – who is the loveliest man alive – until he’s too exhausted to say no. So I then wrote Broken (starring John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd) and then I was asked to write for their forthcoming boxset, ‘Before The Fall’.
I’ve also just finished another episode of the kids TV series ‘Hetty Feather’ which has also been a brilliant experience. They’re just a really lovely talented bunch of people who are desperate to make the best TV show ever. There are no egos, everyone’s working together and it really shows in the finished programme. So now… I’m trying to write my first full-length play. I’m doing a couple more audio dramas and a big non-Doctor Who thing I can’t really talk about. And next month we’re filming my second short film. So, keeping busy!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I hate giving advice because I still feel like I’m learning but… always write things down as you never know when you’ll need ideas. Listen to how people talk. Go to places where people talk. You have to write but you really have to go out – go to every party you can, every play, every work do. You need to know people to be able to write about them. Also, google local writers and actors groups and get involved with like-minded people. Let other people read your writing and give you feedback. And listen to it. Never think you’re a misunderstood genius. And actually one thing I would say is that you should try and always have humour in what you write. People want to be entertained not lectured at. So even if you’re writing something utterly heart-breaking or something about a really hard-hitting issue, give us some light. Make us like the characters by making them warm in some way. And then shock the hell out of your audience with what happens next.
What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
It was while I was writing The Nightmare Man for SJA. Originally it made more of the opening narration device and it had a series of scenes of Luke looking out of his bedroom window as Rani went to school – and each day she did it, she was a bit further away from Luke before stopping and waving back at him. It was all a bit nightmarish and really tugging at the heart-strings and RTD said “Joe, this is bloody marvelous… now cut it all.” He went on to say that I needed to have faith in my writing. Over the years I’d done lots of story-telling tricks – right back to The Rapture which had an episode where one scene would end mid-sentence and then the next scene would have a new character following on with the rest of that sentence. And there was a point to that – it was meant to be very trippy. Master had a whispering voice that none of the characters in the story could hear – that was because it was meant to be creeping out the listener. With The Nightmare Man, there was no need for tricks like that and, as Russell said, I just needed to have more faith in my writing rather than trying to hide it behind it fancy ways of storytelling. So I think writers should experiment with tricks and so on but no amount of trickery will disguise a weak story or characters.
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Buy hair product.
Finally, how can readers discover more about you and you work?
Basically, Twitter – I’m always on there: @joelidster