❉ Nicholas Pegg talks Decades, Doctor Who and David Bowie.
Nicholas Pegg is an actor, writer and theatre director, who is best known as author of The Complete David Bowie, perhaps the definitive word on Bowie’s recorded output. Nicholas also acted as consultant on Francis Whately’s acclaimed brace of BBC documentaries, David Bowie: Five Years (2013) and David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017).
A regular contributor to the official Doctor Who Magazine for the last 20 years, Nicholas has also been a Dalek operator for BBC Wales’ Doctor Who since its triumphant return in 2005, as well as having written, appeared in and directed several Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish Productions.
You may also be familiar with Nicholas’ UKIP Shipping Forecast which went viral in 2014.
Last month, We Are Cult told you about Decades, a collaboration between Nicholas and singer/songwriter David Palfreyman, who describe the work as “a great big double concept album with all the trimmings”, released last Friday (July 14) by Diteli Records.
Together with producer/engineer Ian Caple (Tindersticks, Suede, Tricky, Kate Bush), they have created a double album which entwines Palfreyman’s music and lyrics with Pegg’s linking narrative, building into a meditation on the fragility of time, memory, and personal history.
Nicholas joined We Are Cult to give us the inside story on this remarkable concept album featuring a galaxy of guest stars, and to provide some insights into life as a Dalek and as a curator of David Bowie’s legacy…
Hi Nicholas, thanks for taking time out to chat with We Are Cult.
My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
Decades is an ambitious project, vast in its scope and ambition, and you and musician David ‘Malf’ Palfreyman have gathered together a wealth of talents – singers, musicians and voice artists – to weave this narrative together.
Can you tell us a little about what the original impetus for this project was, and how it first got off the ground?
Decades began life in David’s head – he’s the songwriter in this outfit, and it all started with the songs. Dave came to me about three years ago with a great big pile of demos, and he told me about this crazy idea he’d had for a concept album, and asked me if I’d like to come on board and write it with him. Even at that early demo stage it was clear that the songs were something really special, and the whole thing was such an unusual and interesting project – so I said yes on the spot.
How did you and David go about mapping the timeline of Kelver Leash? David’s main talents lie in being a singer-songwriter, musician and arranger and your own background is in writing, acting and directing mainly theatre and audio: What was your and Malf’s working method, did you wear separate hats or was it more fluid?
Yes, I think ‘fluid’ is a good word. Song lyrics and spoken dialogue are two quite different things, and the bottom line is that David wrote the songs and I wrote the scenes, but it wasn’t quite as black-and-white as that. The whole thing was a creative collaboration between the two of us. I would suggest tweaks to the songs, and Dave would suggest tweaks to the storyline. We started out with a huge number of demos – far more songs than we could ever include on the album – and Dave let me pick out my favourites and fashion them into a running order, which we changed around quite a lot as the project evolved, so together we worked out the whole shape of the album. Dave wanted me to create a linking narrative based on the notion of a man looking back on his life – a life whose triumphs and disasters could be reflected in Dave’s songs as well as in my scenes.
Little by little we honed down the track-listing from that big stash of demos, and little by little I came up with ideas for the narrative. I suggested making the album non-linear, darting back and forth between the timelines, and having three different actors playing the lead character at different stages of his life, which opened up some interesting possibilities for the narrative. Then one day I had an idea about a typewriter, and it all started to come together. And while I was nibbling the end of my pencil, Dave was taking his demos into the studio and starting to record the songs in earnest.
Decades harks back to the grand tradition of the concept album – a lineage ranging from epics like The Who’s Tommy or Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, to more esoteric fare such as Godley & Crème’s Consequences, Mansun’s Six and David Bowie’s 1.Outside. Did you consciously approach Decades as working in this loose genre?
Well, I don’t think there was ever a moment when we said, “Hey, this is our Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” or whatever – we weren’t especially influenced by anything specific, but of course it was inevitable that we would end up discussing other concept albums from that great tradition of Genesis and Pink Floyd and all the rest. Let’s face it, David and I are both children of the 1970s, so how could we not? Actually, the one that kept on coming up in conversation was Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
Again, I don’t think it had the slightest bit of musical or narrative influence on Decades, but simply in terms of being an ambitious album with a sense of drama, bringing together music and dialogue and actors, that’s the one that seemed to be the closest comparison to what Dave and I were doing. Also, as you know, I’m a huge Bowie fan, so naturally I found myself having a think about albums like Diamond Dogs and 1.Outside, just to ponder how the great man approached the idea of a concept album – but I don’t think there was ever any sense that they were huge influences on what we were doing. I think we have managed to come up with our own special creation!
In many ways, the art of the longform album could be seen to be a dying art as music is enjoyed as discrete MP3 tracks?
I think it’s fair to say that David and I are both old-school fans of the rock album as a creative form – a coherent song cycle that’s supposed to be listened to all the way through, rather than just cherry-picking a track here and a track there. And yes, I do think it’s a pity that the brave new world of streaming and downloading means that there’s a generation for whom the idea of sitting down and listening to a whole album from start to finish seems to be increasingly remote.
Mind you, I don’t think it’s completely dying out – plenty of mainstream artists are still bringing out albums with that coherency, that sense of the whole work being an artefact greater than the sum of its parts. I’d say that people like Lorde and Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar are still doing that. And even with an album like Decades, we have tracks that work fine as standalone ‘singles’, even though to get the whole picture you definitely have to listen to the whole album in the right order. I suppose that’s another thing I’ve always admired about Bowie. You know, ‘Starman’ is a perfect pop single, but as track 4 on Ziggy Stardust it slots perfectly into the album’s scheme of things.
Were any of the influences or inspirations behind Decades outside of the rock album, or more cinematic or fiction-based?
Oh, undoubtedly. Flashes of Shakespeare and Hitchcock and goodness knows what. As a writer, I think it’s impossible not to absorb influences from literature or films or television or current affairs or whatever. Consciously or subconsciously, it all goes into the melting pot, and things can bubble up unexpectedly when you’re writing – sometimes very personal things that have lain dormant for decades, which of course is exactly what this album is all about. Graham Greene said that every writer must have a splinter of ice in their heart. That might be a rather bleak way of looking at it, but he was right – if you’re a writer, everything in your life is raw material. There’s a lot on Decades that is very personal to me. Not in a direct way – it’s not the story of my life, that’s for sure – but some of the scenes came from quite deep inside. And I know the same is true of Dave’s lyrics. I think if you’re prepared to bare yourself in your writing, it makes for a greater connection with the audience – even if the original context is obscure, and it ends up taking on a completely different meaning for somebody else. But that’s a good thing. I’m into that.
You have a vast range of talents appearing on this album in various guises: Musicians with CVs as long as your arm such as Gary Barnacle, Terry Edwards and David Clayton; some remarkable vocalists including Sarah Jane Morris (formerly of The Communards), Jessica Lee Morgan, Ian Shaw and comedy troubadour Mitch Benn. How did you attract such a variety of artists, and how did they engage with the material and the whole concept – it’s clearly been a labour of love for all involved?
We’ve been overwhelmed by the extraordinary parade of talented people who came into the studio and helped us to make Decades. First and foremost I think it was the quality of David’s songs that attracted them to the project – good musicians recognise good music, simple as that. Some of the artists were people that we already knew or had worked with before – for example, I’d met Jessica Lee Morgan a couple of times via the Bowie connection, although we’ve only really got to know each other properly through working on Decades – and others were recommended by friends and colleagues.
A lot of the musicians were suggested by our co-producer Ian Caple, who really deserves credit as the ‘third man’ on this album. Ian was with us in the studio from start to finish, and he’s a brilliant producer who has worked with so many great artists in his time. One day in the studio he casually let slip that he had engineered for Kate Bush in her early days, at which point I just ground everything to a halt and demanded anecdotes!
So yes, it was Ian who introduced us to Sarah Jane Morris and Ian Shaw, for example. Wonderful artists, and great people to work with. And you’re right, everybody really responded to the material. We have eight lead vocalists and more than 20 instrumentalists on the album, and I don’t think there was a single person who just turned up and treated it as a ‘session musician’ sort of job. Everybody got seriously stuck into the project and brought their own talents to the album.
Musically, both David and Ian are extremely good at encouraging artists to unlock their own creativity in the studio. And we’ve been blessed by some fantastic contributions. I mean, Gary Barnacle – look at that man’s career! He played sax on Bowie’s Absolute Beginners, M’s Pop Muzik, Tina Turner’s I Don’t Wanna Lose You, Level 42’s Lessons in Love, T’Pau’s China In Your Hand… and that’s just off the top of my head. These guys are amazing players, and they all enrich the album.
Perhaps the album’s biggest calling card are some of the artists you’ve brought on board in spoken word roles, many of whom have the word ‘cult’ written through them like a stick of rock: The divine Jacqueline Pearce, aka Blake’s 7 space bitch Servalan; Richard Coyle, much loved as Coupling’s Welsh idiot-savant Jeff, vocal chameleons Jan Ravens and Simon Greenall (I’m Alan Partridge), and most notably, the legendary David Warner, of RSC, From Beyond The Grave, Tron, and Big Finish fame. Again, how did you go about attracting these artists and how responsive were they to the project?
I guess this side of things was my department. One of the reasons that David contacted me in the first place is that I have a lot of experience in both writing and directing audio drama, so I took on the responsibility for casting and directing the narrative sequences as well as writing them. Richard Coyle is an old friend of Dave’s, and he was the first to come on board, and the other actors were people I either knew already, or whose work I admired.
David Warner is a good friend, and I wrote the role of Kelver Leash with his voice very much in my head, so I was thrilled when he said that he’d like to do it. Ditto with Jacqueline Pearce – I wrote the part for her, and she plays it just perfectly. In terms of the subject matter, I suppose there was a sense of wheels within wheels there. David Warner and Jacqueline Pearce are wonderful actors, and that’s why I approached them, of course – but they also happen to be figures who play hugely significant roles in my own personal decades, thanks to things like The Omen and Blake’s 7 that I adored as a boy, so that gave the whole project an extra layer of piquancy for me. And of course David and Jacqueline happened to be contemporaries at RADA back in the early sixties, so they had a personal connection too. Decades within decades!
Edward Holtom, who plays Kelver Leash as a boy, is a very talented young actor whose CV would be the envy of performers three times his age. He’s played Oliver in the West End and he’s done Shakespeare at the Globe and all sorts. I worked with him a few years ago in an audio production of Treasure Island, in which he played Jim Hawkins to Tom Baker’s Long John Silver, and he was quite exceptional. He’s a bit older now and he was a perfect fit for the teenage Kelver, so again that was a case of Edward being my first choice for the part.
And then we have the fabulous Jan Ravens and Simon Greenall doing the honours in various multiple roles. I needed versatile voices for those parts, so why settle for anything but the best? How did you describe Simon and Jan? Vocal chameleons – well, absolutely. Those two are at the very top of that tree. I was thrilled when they said yes. What a great time we all had in the studio. I suppose some of the scenes on Decades are a little on the morose side, but we had an absolute riot recording them!
How long did the album take to make, from its initial conception and the guest artists’ contributions outside of their other commitment, to the design of the album to the gorgeous trailer and promo video filmed on Dartmoor?
All in all, it has been about three years in the making. Dave initially came to me around about the beginning of 2014, and he started recording the first proper tracks a few months later. To begin with it was a very slow process, because we were both working on other projects too, and Decades was a sort of background rumble which gradually gathered momentum over the first year or so. By the end of 2015 we had recorded pretty much all of the backing tracks and about half the lead vocals, and I was finalising the script.
We recorded the dialogue in January 2016, while lead vocals on some of the songs were still being worked on. We shot the Dartmoor video with Sarah Jane Morris and the three Kelvers more than a year ago, in June 2016. That was another wonderful experience. So many happy times working on this project.
Then we did the final mix of the album with Ian Caple at the end of August last year, and since then it has all been about designs and layouts, and shooting more videos, and getting everything ready for release.
So yes, it’s been a long process. And it’s not over yet. We have more videos in the pipeline. In fact, I’ve just been looking at some test edits for the video of Eyes Wide, which will be coming out later this year. It’s looking rather splendid.
What has the initial response to the album been like so far?
Very heartening. People have been saying such lovely things. It’s funny – you can live with a project like this for so long that you end up having absolutely no idea what people will make of it when it’s finally released. But the response so far has been wonderful. We couldn’t be more delighted.
It wouldn’t be a We Are Cult interview if we didn’t touch upon your two main cultural connections: Doctor Who and David Bowie. Now, some of our readers will be aware that you followed in John Scott Martin’s plimsolls as a regular Dalek operator for the 21st century series of Doctor Who, but you’ve been involved in the Doctor Who world since you wrote for fanzines in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you scripted one of the first Big Finish audios, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, and we gather you are a close personal friend of DWM columnist The Watcher. Do you pinch yourself daily that you are part of a series that you grew up with?
Oh, constantly. You should see my arms. Covered in bruises from that daily pinching. As a child I was obsessed with Doctor Who, and by the time I was a teenager I was a fully paid-up convention-going fanboy. So was David Palfreyman, by the way – that’s how we first met, at some Doctor Who event way back in the 1980s. I was one of the thousands at that famous Longleat convention, and I queued up for Patrick Troughton’s autograph and wrote dreadful articles for fanzines and all the rest of it. So yeah, ending up professionally involved in Doctor Who on various levels has been pretty amazing.
As an actor I’ve been fortunate enough to play great roles in plays by Shakespeare and Rattigan and Wilde and Ayckbourn, and it’s all been wonderful, but deep inside me there’s a seven-year-old boy who still wriggles with excitement at the thought that he grew up to become a Dalek. And when the moment came that we did a Dalek episode with the beautiful, brilliant Lis Sladen, who was ‘my’ Doctor Who companion when I was a boy – that was a real pinch-yourself experience. It’s always very sociable when we’re making Doctor Who, and we all hang out together in the hotel – there were some great nights in the bar when we were making that one. And on set, we’d finish shooting a scene, and Lis would sidle up to me in my Dalek and whisper through the grille, ‘How was that for you?’ I was in heaven.
Back in 2000, Reynolds & Hearn published the first edition of The Complete David Bowie, which was the first book to look exclusively at The Dame’s recorded work in detail, uncovering new angles on old material, highlighting unheard outtakes and rarities, bolstered by fresh research and original interviews with those who had worked with Bowie over the years in various capacities.
The Complete David Bowie has been regularly updated over the years, with the latest edition published by Titan Books last year. How did a lifelong obsession become an ongoing body of research?
I suppose The Complete David Bowie originally evolved out of my frustration that nobody else had written it yet! I had read a lot of biographies of David Bowie, some of which were very good, others maybe less so – but nobody had written a book whose primary focus was on Bowie’s work rather than on his life. It’s a fascinating life, but I was far more interested in his music and lyrics and videos and films.
Also, every book that I’d come across tended to hit the accelerator as soon as it reached the 1980s, dashing through everything after Scary Monsters in a few pages, as if it were nothing but an irrelevant footnote. At the time I began researching my book in the 1990s, Bowie was in the middle of one of the most exciting and creative phases of his later career – that fantastic burst of creativity that gave us things like 1.Outside and Earthling – superb albums, but at the time, nobody was giving them much house room. I wanted a book that gave equal weight and consideration to every stage of Bowie’s career, from the very earliest days to the very latest, treating it all as worthy of analysis, and taking the time to join the dots and consider the themes that came up time and again on the canvas of his career… so, rather pompously, I thought, ‘Well, if nobody else is going to do it, I’ll give it a go!’ And then I began to realise how long it would take. But I got there in the end.
Did you receive any feedback from David Bowie himself on your work, before he died?
Yes, I did. I’m delighted to say that David was always very kind and very supportive of the book, and that meant the world to me. Whenever a new edition was published, we would always send a parcel of copies to David’s office in New York, and every time without fail he would write a kind, funny little message in one of them and post it back to me. So those copies are among my most prized possessions, as you can imagine.
The Complete David Bowie established you as a major league authority on David Bowie, which led to you acting as advisor on two superb BBC documentaries, Five Years (2013) and The Last Five Years (2017). What were those documentaries like to work on; it must have been hard work but also deep joy, given the wealth of previously unseen footage and the unique testimonies of Bowie’s collaborators caught on camera.
Yes, it was a great pleasure to work on those programmes. They were both made by the same team, headed by the director/producer Francis Whately. I first met Francis about ten years ago when he invited me to be a ‘talking head’ in a Bowie-related episode of a BBC series called Seven Ages of Rock, and we got on well.
When Francis was planning the Five Years film, he called me up again and asked if I’d work as consultant on the programme. Our first meeting to kick around ideas for the Five Years documentary was in the summer of 2012, an afternoon which I remember very clearly because it was the day that the Olympic torch was carried through the BBC at White City, in the run-up to the London Olympics. Francis and I were sitting there having a brainstorming meeting about a David Bowie documentary, while just through the window, about twenty feet away, Bruce Forsyth was posing with the Olympic torch for a huge pack of cameras. What a peculiar moment that was.
There was much joy and plenty of hard work on both of those documentaries. What’s great about Francis is that he was tireless in his determination to get something new and previously unseen on screen. He and his team really went the extra mile to make sure that it wasn’t just the same old clips that we’ve all seen a hundred times before. And part of my job was to suggest some of the rarer and more obscure things that I knew were out there.
The researcher on those films was a brilliant lady called Miriam Walsh, and she did amazing things, digging through the labyrinths of the BBC archive to find lost nuggets. It was Miriam who discovered that unseen 1974 footage from the Alan Yentob film – there was much celebration the day that turned up, I can tell you.
It was a joy to work on those films, just as it was to work as consultant on the Royal Mail stamps and the V&A exhibition. The press screening in London for The Last Five Years was quite an occasion. It was the day before the big tribute concert at Brixton Academy, which meant that a whole lot of Bowie’s band members were over from the States, and of course most of them appeared as interviewees in the film – people like Gail Ann Dorsey and Mike Garson and Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard. So they all came along to the screening that night. It was a very emotional experience to watch the documentary with them. There were some tears at the end.
Finally, what are your aspirations for Decades and beyond, and what else are you working on that our readers might be interested in?
Well, naturally I hope that Decades does well. So far it seems to be striking a chord with people who hear it, so I hope that many more people discover it, and enjoy it, and tell all their friends about it!
As for what I’m doing next… well, as a matter of fact I have just been working with David Warner again. He’s playing King Lear in a new audio production for Big Finish. I adapted the script, and I’m also playing the Duke of Albany. It’s directed by Barnaby Edwards, and he assembled a fabulous cast – we have Mike Grady as the Fool, and people like Paul Shelley and Trevor Cooper and Ray Fearon, and Finty Williams as Cordelia, and Louise Jameson and Lisa Bowerman playing the ‘Ugly Sisters’ as we kept calling Goneril and Regan in the studio! It’s coming out in November. Oh, and I’m also in the very early stages of working as consultant on a new Bowie-related project, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to be very irritating and not tell you anything about it, because it’s currently subject to the official secrets act. Watch this space!
How can our readers find out more about you?
You can find me on Twitter at @NicholasPegg. I mostly rant about incompetent politicians and tweet silly jokes and obscure references to Doctor Who and David Bowie, none of which will come as much of a surprise to anyone who has read this far.
Thank you very much for your time!
My pleasure. Thanks again for having me!
❉ Decades was released on 14 July 2017 on double CD, double vinyl and digital download. To find out more and to order your copy now, visit the Decades website.