Cult Q & A: Tony Lee

❉ “Terrance Dicks believed I was going to corner him and wear his face like a hat.”

“Always meet your heroes. I’m lucky to now call several of the Doctors that I grew up with as friends, and not once have I felt I shouldn’t have met them. The actors, writers, singers, whatever that you grew up worshiping, they’re just people. Like you. Definitely meet them. Talk to them like real people. And you never know, you might get something out of it.”

A multiple-time New York Times Best-seller List and Eagle Award winning Writer, Tony Lee has worked professionally for over thirty years, including a decade in trade journalism and media marketing/creation for radio. Since returning to comics in 2003 he has written for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Titan Publishing, Markosia, 2000ad and IDW Publishing amongst others, writing a variety of creator owned titles and licenses that include X-Men, Spider Man, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Superboy, Starship Troopers, Wallace & Gromit and Shrek.

Outside of comics Tony Lee has written several novels aimed at reluctant readers published by Badger Learning, as well as several audio plays for Big Finish – and he has audio series and several films and TV shows in development.

In addition to this, Tony travels the world with his Change The Channel school tour, aimed at helping reluctant readers into picking up books, and is writing a Robin of Sherwood full cast audio for Spiteful Puppet / ITV.

What were you like at school?

I really want to say how I was the cool kid of the class, or the class joker – anything like that – but to be honest I didn’t really have a great time at school. I was a skinny kid, and I was bullied a lot, especially in Senior School. Because of this I became a quiet kid, the one who doesn’t stand up or step forward, or say anything. And I stayed like that until about Year 10 when all hell broke loose, I came off the rails and I proceeded to fail all my exams. I tried to be part of the cool kids, and that meant ignoring my homework, lessons, all that.

I ended up retaking everything. And then as soon as I could I went to college rather than Sixth Form at the school, so I could reinvent myself as something better.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

To start with it was an actor – we had a Drama teacher, Mr French who was an ex- stage actor and he made it sound like the most incredible life. He even left teaching to go back to it, so that left a mark. But this was the mid eighties, and computers were starting to appear. I could code in basic and I honestly thought that my ability to make simple shapes would equate into me becoming Richard Prior in Superman III and controlling the world.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Don’t try so hard to be popular, it doesn’t affect you at all in the real world. And ignore the bullies, because years later they’ll turn up at your signings trying to be your friend.

Oh, and also, don’t spend your life trying to go out with Catherine Kemp. She has a… different… partner choice ahead of her, and you’re sadly not biologically compatible.

Who were your heroes growing up?

MacGyver, Doctor Who, Commander Koenig from Space 1999, Robin of Sherwood, I had a ton of them. All on the TV, and all talking to me.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

I was a door to door appointment getter for a security alarm company. We’d knock on doors, explain that due to the rise in crime there were security specialists checking people’s houses, perfectly free of charge and we were just setting days and times. Of course the specialists would turn up, do a cursory glance and then try to sell a security system.

On one night in particular, we knocked on a street only to find that Watchdog had done a piece on our company at the same time. I was even invited in by one house to watch it. I left shortly afterwards. They’re still in business though.

What are your best and worst qualities?

This is always a hard question. Worst qualities is easy – I’m self critical, I’m prone to procrastinate, I’m quick to argue, especially on the internet and I’m often a bit of a know it all, especially on something I know well. Best qualities? I’m imaginative, which means that I’m quick to come up with ideas. I’m empathic, I’m – I don’t know. I try to be someone who, when you meet someone at a convention will take the time to speak to them, and make them feel like they’re worth talking to – I hear so many people say that other guests treat them like ATMs, sign, pay, go – I want people to know that if they come to talk to me, I genuinely want to hear them. And I like dogs. Is that a quality or a life choice?

What do you consider to be the single greatest piece of television ever?

Too many answers. But for an actual event type thing I’d say something like Ghostwatch. It was something never seen before, and it’s still being talked about years, decades even later.

You thought I was going to say Doctor Who, didn’t you!

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Definitely. I used to come home from cubs at age 9 and it’d start just after I arrived home. For years I thought it was normal to play the piano nude.

What was the last film that you watched?

I, Tonya. I’ve been trying to get through my award screeners, and that was next on the list. That said, the last film I saw in the cinema was Black Panther.

What film could you watch every day?

Quite a few, actually! But probably Ocean’s Eleven, Empire Records, Major League, and Limitless are the main four.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

Anything by Brian Tyler. Currently I flit between The Mummy and Now You See Me 2. So so films, great soundtracks.

Which four actors would you like to see in a film together and which genre?

This differs every time I watch a TV show or film. Currently, I’d love to do a film with Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Morgan Freeman and Jason Momoa. Imagine that as a film!

Which film, book or record last disappointed you the most?

Bright. I had high hopes for that, but it was terrible. And it was such a shame because it’s an idea that had massive promise, crapped away by suits and ideas.

Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?

Peter Cetera, Solitude / Solitaire. Seriously. It’s my go to record when I need a pick me up, and has been since I first bought it thirty years ago. More recently, anything by Caro Emerald.

Which record wouldn’t you let out of your sight?

Well, I had Solitude / Solitaire on my wall for a while…

Which book would you save if your house was on fire?

My father wrote a memoir a few years ago. It was the first time my brothers or I heard many of the stories about his childhood in Ireland. It means a lot to me.

I love books, but they’re just things. If the house is burning down, I’m getting my wife, my dog and my macbook out. And maybe all my vintage Star Wars figures. 😉

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

If people still go on about it, even when there has been no news on it for a while. I’m not one who says ‘Supernatural is cult TV’. It’s still going, so that’s just POPULAR TV. Not cult. Wilderness years Doctor Who was cult. Blakes Seven was cult. The Prisoner, Robin of Sherwood, MacGyver, all cult. Even Fantasy Island had cult followers.

What are you reading at present?

Chris Fowler’s Bryant and May series, and Peter F Hamilton’s Mindstar books.

Which other writers have inspired you over the years?

So many, and in so many mediums. Books, comics, screenplays… Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, William Goldman, Steven Moffat, Steven King, the list goes on. Terrance Dicks was probably the first – I told him this a few years back, I think he believed I was going to corner him and wear his face like a hat.

Is there anything unique about yourself that you would like your readers to know?

I am definitely not unique. Although I’m probably the only writer who a) was a Covent Garden street performer and b) was paralysed from the thighs down at one point due to back trauma…

Outside of your work in comics, you’ve written several books aimed at reluctant readers, and have also been reaching out to this audience with your Change The Channel school yours. Can you tell us a little about how this came about?

Absolutely. I was a reluctant reader. I didn’t like books. Not that I couldn’t read, I could read fine – I just found them boring. My imagination was better than the books I was given, I would be finding better ways for the protagonists to do the things they needed to do, without people dying. I was fourteen when I put down Lord of the Rings because Gandalf hadn’t called the eagles to just drop the ring in the volcano.

So fast forward to ten years ago – I’d gotten into books through reading comics. I was doing a book festival because of one of my Walker books and I watched writers talking to kids like they were idiots, only wanting the kids to buy their book. This annoyed me so I started the ‘Change the Channel’ tour, where I went to schools and talked about how I, a reluctant reader myself got into reading. I don’t talk about my books. I don’t sell my books. I wanted to inspire the kids rather than sell to them. And I use things like games, TV, films, anything I can to compare to reading, so that the kids will eventually pick up a book. I’ve been doing it for ten years now and I don’t intend to stop soon. I’ve had people who saw me years ago turn up at conventions because they’re now comic writers. It’s the best feeling you can have.

What element of your work gives you the most personal satisfaction?

Actually, it’s that. Having kids read books because I’ve inspired them to is pretty fricking awesome.

What has been the most rewarding project in your professional career so far – and why?

Probably Doctor Who: The Forgotten – I was able to put everything I wanted to write as a child into this story, and wrote tales for all (at the time) ten Doctors. I’ve had people come to me telling me that it made them cry, and also that it a) got them into Doctor Who and b) got them into comics. Which is exactly what I wanted from it.

You’ve always got a number of projects in development – do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell our readers about?

Currently I’m writing the script to a full cast audio play called , Robin Of Sherwood: The Trial Of John Little, which is coming out later this year and is going to start Michael Praed. Which, considering that this was one of the shows that made me the man that I am, is an incredible honour. Especially as I’m writing the characters I grew up with so that the actors that played them can return to those roles.

I’m also working on a ton of things I can’t talk about, and tomorrow I sign a contract that gives me the rights to a book I’ve tried to get hold of for almost a decade, so that’ll be taking up my time for a while. And I’m writing a TV show with Mark Sheppard of Supernatural fame which is shaping up to be a solid thriller.

What’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?

Getting into the room where things happen is easy. Staying in the room is hard. And then you need to find a new way back in because every time you get in, they close off that entrance.

Truest thing I was ever told. Also, there are people who’ll stay with you through good and bad – and there are those who use you when you have something for them and leave when you’re no use any more. Always look for the former.

Who has had the biggest influence on your career, and how has that person changed your life?

Honestly? Again there are so many. Chris Ryall of IDW probably tops the list. He contacted me out of the blue for Doctor Who, and gave me a shot when most people wouldn’t, considering the calibre of writers wanting to write for the comic. If I hadn’t written The Forgotten, I wouldn’t have gotten the ongoing, and that opened a lot of doors.

Apart from that, probably Teresa Focarile. She used to be a Marvel editor, and gave me my first comics gig. And again, that changed my whole life as suddenly I had an X men book, and people wanted to talk to me.

Do you think it’s true that you should never meet your heroes?

No. Always meet them. But expect to be underwhelmed. I’m lucky to now call several of the Doctors that I grew up with as friends, and not once have I felt I shouldn’t have met them. And in May I hope to meet the Robin of Sherwood cast. I’m super nervous about that.

But the actors, writers, singers, whatever that you grew up worshiping, they’re just people. Like you. Definitely meet them. Talk to them like real people. And you never know, you might get something out of it.

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

Cherry coke. I stopped drinking a while back and now only have the occasional Guinness, mainly as a meal substitute!

What are your three favourite cities?

London, New York and Edinburgh. Prague and Los Angeles come in close behind. Sydney was fun but sterile. I lived in Birmingham for ten years too, so I suppose I should add them in.

What do you do to chill out?

Watch TV, listen to podcasts, play with my dog.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

As in on my gravestone? ‘Don’t look round, but I’m standing behind you.’

How can our readers discover more about you and your work? (ie website, social media, etc)

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter I’m all the same name – @mrtonylee. I’m also at www.tonylee.co.uk


For more information about the ‘Robin of Sherwood’ audio dramas including Tony’s forthcoming instalment, visit the Spiteful Puppet website!

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