Cult Q & A: Eddie Robson

We’re asking, they’re answering. This week: Eddie Robson, creator of BBC Radio’s ‘Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully’.

Many of you will know Eddie Robson for his Doctor Who audio plays for Big Finish Productions, notably his episodes of BBC Radio 4 Extra’s Doctor Who series starring Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith.

Eddie’s television credits include Sarah & Duck, Hollyoaks, Floogals and The Amazing World of Gumballs. He created the sitcom ‘Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully’ which ran for two series, and has written for various sketch shows including ‘That Mitchell And Webb Sound’ and ‘Newsjack’, which he also script-edited.

His comics work includes scripts for 2000AD, Marvel, IDW, Doctor Who Adventures, Transformers Prime and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and he’s worked extensively as a journalist and critic, writing for publications including The Guardian, SFX, Film Review and Death Ray.

In July 2015, Eddie published his debut novel, a sci-fi comedy/conspiracy thriller called ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, through Snowbooks, and a revised edition of his book ‘Film Noir: A Critical Guide To 1940s & 1950s Hollywood Noir’ was recently published on Kindle by Dutch Tilt.

Eddie Robson (Photo: Sami Kelsh Photography)

What were you like at school?

At primary school, not the most popular but I got on with everyone OK. Then I went to grammar school, where I got bullied for a while and was fairly miserable. Then when I was 15 I started hanging out with the kids who got stoned and listened to Jimi Hendrix, and I was OK after that. The other thing that happened around then was that, having previously been very much into science and maths, I had a complete reversal and my favourite subjects were English, history and art. I had no great ability with art but I really enjoyed doing it.

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

When I was five I saw Simon Le Bon on TV and I wanted his job. I remember drawing a picture of this at school when we were asked this same question. Then I wanted to be an architect, but really that was just because I loved Lego. Then when I was twelve, I remember quite clearly that I was walking home from school, thinking about writing stories, and it struck me that maybe I could be a writer. I’ve never wanted to be anything else since then. Occasionally when I’m suffering some new career setback, I remember making that decision when I was twelve and I think: If you look at it that way, things have gone quite well.

The only problem I have is deciding what kind of writer I want to be, in terms of genre and medium. I sometimes wonder if, had I just focused on screenwriting, or just on comedy, I might have made more progress by now. But maybe not. It’s just how I am, I think.

What advice would you give to your teenage self?

Focus on scriptwriting, because journalism will start to collapse almost the moment you break into it. And get a haircut.

What are your best and worst qualities?

Best: I think I’m quite open-minded. Worst: I can get really bad-tempered with people I have to share close quarters with.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Pizza chef at Deep Pan Pizza in the summer of 1998. Though I did a seven-month temp job for a security systems company, managing the paperwork for a big deal they were doing in Kazakhstan. The paperwork was enormous, it filled a shelf that was literally about fifteen metres long, and it all had to be translated into Russian (not by me). It was tedious, the office was full of arseholes, and the deal fell through in the end so it was a complete waste of my time. The only thing that made it better than Deep Pan Pizza was I got to sit down.

Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nicholas Bloody Parsons: ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’

Who were your heroes growing up?

At various times: Paul McCartney, Dennis Potter, David Platt, Orson Welles.

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

This is impossible to choose. Television is great – all these Johnny-come-latelies you get these days proclaiming the “golden age of television” are just trying to cover for the fact they didn’t notice how great television is sooner, so they have to pretend television began with ‘The Sopranos’. I’m going to say ‘Mr Jolly Lives Next Door’ – it’s flawless. I don’t think a better fifty minutes of comedy has been made.

Monty Python: Is it funny?

Yes. Some episodes are patchy in retrospect, but that’s often the price you pay for innovation – not everything will come off.

What was the last film that you watched?

‘The Only Son’, by Yasujirō Ozu. I’d never seen any of Ozu’s films before, but a friend picked some up for me in the BHS closing down sale. Four Ozu films for £1.33 is not bad value.

What film could you watch every day?

I very rarely rewatch films at all, there’s too many good ones I’ve never seen and I don’t have a lot of free time. Getting two free hours to watch a film at all seems miraculous. I can’t imagine watching the same film every day, that would drive me insane.

What’s your favourite film soundtrack?

Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’. I’ve never seen the film, but I got a review copy of the soundtrack and I still listen to it often. I know lots of writers listen to film soundtrack music when they’re working, to set the mood – I’ve never done that, I don’t enjoy original soundtracks without the film. The music just slides off me. I pretty much listen to BBC 6music all day, every day.

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

I loved ‘The Nice Guys’ and when Shane Black said he’d like to do a crime buddy comedy with two female leads, I decided my ideal cast for that would be Jennifer Lawrence and Salma Hayek. I’m not sure who else I’d put in it… Mads Mikkelsen and Kate Beckinsale maybe.

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

Maybe ‘Nocturnal Animals’? It was alright, but I really liked Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’ and I love Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, so I thought this was a surefire winner. If you have Amy Adams in your movie, maybe let her do something.

Which record would you recommend and lend to a friend?

Dangerdoom’s ‘The Mouse And The Mask’ is a terrific record that’s not that well known. It’s by MF Doom and Danger Mouse and is loosely a concept album based around Adult Swim cartoons. It’s rare to find a record with comedy interludes that keeps making me laugh – all too often, they just get tiresome.

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

I generally don’t like lending people things. I’m not sure I’ve ever lent someone a record, ever. In terms of especially valuable ones, my signed 7” of Super Furry Animals’ Play It Cool is very precious to me.

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

My copy of ‘The BFG’ signed by Roald Dahl. I could replace any of the others easily enough.

What’s your definition of what makes something cult?

It’s tricky. I think if it inspires obsessive interest in quite a lot of people, it’s cult. People sometimes say ‘It can’t be cult if it’s popular’, but I find it odd to argue that, say, ‘The Prisoner’ isn’t a cult TV show – it feels like a quintessential cult show to me, because it creates its own world, you feel like you can go deep inside it – but it was on primetime ITV, it was hardly a well-kept secret. I also think you can call something ‘cult’ if it’s not well known, but the people who know of it love it.

What are you reading at present?

I’m midway through ‘Threads’ by Sophia Bennett, ‘Writing The Romantic Comedy’ by Billy Mernit and ‘A Brief History Of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James.

Most of our readers will be familiar with your work on Big Finish’s Doctor Who audios. What it’s like writing for audio drama, and how you first get the BF gig?

I first got the BF gig through my fanzine work – I helped edit a Bernice Summerfield fanzine, I wrote short fiction for it, and from there I did short stories for BF and then audio plays. The benefits and drawbacks of audio are pretty obvious – you’re not limited by budget, but you do have to guide the listener through every situation. This is all the more apparent with sci-fi and fantasy – you can create alien creatures and worlds, but you have to be able to describe all this stuff which the listener has no reference point for. What’s really nice about audio drama is working with a small team: it’s less pressured and you’re not being pulled in several different directions.

‘Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully’, L-R: Peter Davison, Katherine Parkinson and Julian Rhind-Tutt.

Tell us a little about your BBC Radio series ‘Welcome To Our Village, Please Invade Carefully’. How did that come about, and what’s it like having such a fantastic cast?

I started by sending sketches to Gareth Edwards (not the one who directed ‘Rogue One’), who was the ‘Mitchell & Webb’ producer, and he liked them and passed my name to other radio producers who needed writers for sketch shows, and I also submitted material to any open-door shows around. That was how I ended up working with Ed Morrish, who asked me if I had any sitcom ideas I’d like to develop. The first of those didn’t come off, but the second was ‘Welcome To Our Village’.

It’s amazing what good casts you can get in radio, because it’s such a small commitment for the actors – they can do a six-part series in three days. It makes the writing a good deal easier when you know your cast, and that there are things you can give them which they’ll be able to do really well.

You’re a writer for ‘2000AD’, what’s it’s like writing for one of British comics’ most iconic flagship titles?

It’s amazing how well ‘2000AD’ has sustained. I wish we still had a dozen weekly anthology comics, because I love that form. It’s somewhere you can really go nuts, and I send them the ideas I couldn’t imagine doing anywhere else – they’ve been doing stuff that’s nuts for forty years now. They’ve invited me to their big 40th birthday event in February, and it’s an honour to be asked.

It’s been ten years since Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor was first paired with Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller, and you wrote several stories for that range. What were the highlights of working in that series?

Developing the character of Lucie along with Alan Barnes, Nick Briggs, the other writers on that first series, and Sheridan herself was a joy. Some aspects of the character were there in the original document we got sent, some we found as we went along – her surname and background ended up being drawn from Human Resources, for instance (she was going to be a hairdresser). And then we heard Sheridan’s brilliant performance and that fed back into it. That was a genius piece of casting, because most people hadn’t seen Sheridan’s range yet, they’d seen her in ‘Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps’ but, as everyone now knows, she can basically do anything you give her. I saw her Hedda Gabler, she really does have it all. People really responded to Lucie and I think all those things played a part.

I really enjoyed working with the fifty-minute format, where we could write it more like the TV series is now, and I think I ended up doing some of my best episodes in that format. And it was a great team to work with – I remember when I was developing Grand Theft Cosmos, Barnaby Edwards rattled off all these details about 19th century Sweden which I put straight into the script. He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable.

You’ve recently updated and reissued your guide to film noir. What is it about that genre that appeals to you?

It’s the heightened, stylised chaos of it. There are few things I love more than a mind-bendingly complicated story with a clear emotional through line to keep you centred – writers who can pull that off have my greatest respect. I prefer that to realist crime fiction, or the more orderly world of the whodunnit – I can enjoy a good example of any genre, but I’m not bothered about puzzles, I don’t try to guess the ending. What I like are reversals and payoffs. And even the noirs that don’t do that, I like the sense of another world existing side-by-side with the everyday one – whether it shows people slipping into that world, or people who belong there. I updated the book with some more recent films, and I thought ‘Nightcrawler’ did that superbly. And as I went through the whole book, I was really struck by how the noir I like is the stylised stuff – the genre went more realist in the 1950s, but almost as a reaction against it, you had amazing baroque films like ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (a great, great cult movie) and ‘Touch of Evil’.

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

The music journalist Peter Robinson once said, if you work from home, get dressed in the morning before you start work and put shoes on. It’s tempting to work in your pyjamas, but don’t. Treat it like a job.

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

My wife, Catherine Spooner, has supported me when my career didn’t support itself. Without her I’d probably never have been able to quit the day job.

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

No, sometimes they’re great, sometimes they disappoint you. You judge whether it’s worth the risk. I adored Paul Cornell’s Doctor Who novels when I was a teenager: I met him, he’s a great guy and he’s helped me out a few times in my career.

What would you like to be your epitaph?

“He had a go.”

We are at a bar, what are you drinking?

Lager – Kirin for preference – or pale ale.

What are your three favourite cities?

Vancouver, Stockholm and Amsterdam.

What do you do to chill out?

Watch and play sport. My top sports are football, tennis and snooker – I like cricket too but I don’t pretend to know anything about it. Much as I love reading books and comics, watching film and TV, listening to radio – but all of those are work, and sometimes I need to do something that isn’t, that has no narrative. If I go and play six-a-side, I can stop thinking about work for an hour. I also play computer games, but those have increasingly advanced narratives these days so it becomes work again. I actually like games that don’t have one. Puzzle games, sports games, racing games.

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

No, I don’t think I’m that interesting really. I don’t really write about my life – if I do, I add some vast fictionalised element. ‘Welcome To Our Village’ is loosely inspired by where I grew up, but Katrina’s parents aren’t based on mine. The personal aspects of my writing are much more oblique.

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

The variety of it, I suppose. I’ve written a lot of different stuff and I really enjoy that. I might be deluded but I feel like I could turn my hand to most things, provided it’s the sort of thing I like to read/watch/listen to.

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

‘Welcome To Our Village’, I think. Because I don’t think a lot of other writers would have come up with that. For all its flaws, it’s very me. When it finished and I came to pitch something else, I remembered how hard it was to get it made. Some people have said ‘When are you going to write another radio comedy?’ I’ve never stopped, I’ve pitched them, I’ve written the scripts but they haven’t got picked up. All writers, even successful ones, have loads of ideas that never happened. I’m always working on new stuff – I’m developing three different sitcoms, I’ve got a TV crime drama I’m shopping around, another TV thing that’s a sort of cross between ‘This Life’, ‘American Horror Story’ and Angela Carter’s ‘Several Perceptions’, kids’ shows, a radio drama. I’ll be over the moon if one of those happens. Any other writer I know would be the same. So inevitably you hold onto the ones you got through.

I was also very pleased to get my novel, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, published, and I’d like to get another novel out there – I envy novelists who decide what their next novel is going to be and just write it. I’ve written half of a thriller that’s aimed at the older end of YA, and I’m determined to finish it this year.

You’ve recently been working on the kids series’ ‘Floogals’ and ‘Amazing World of Gumballs’. What’s that been like? Can you tell us a little about it?

Yeah – I love animation, I don’t think there’s been a time in my life when I haven’t watched cartoons, and so it’s something I’ve always wanted to get into. I really have to thank the people at Sarah & Duck, which is a superb show and writing for that has really opened doors elsewhere. ‘Floogals’ is a really smart idea, it was described to me as a cross between ‘Mork and Mindy’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘The Borrowers’ – it’s about three tiny aliens investigating human behaviour by observing life in a family home.

‘Gumball’ is one of the best-written shows on TV, it’s won several BAFTAs for its writing, and it’s an honour to be given a shot at writing for it. It’s properly team-written, too – they generate the storylines in-house, then two writers collaborate on the first draft, then another two do the second draft, then it goes back for final rewriting and storyboarding. It’s totally different to how I’ve worked before, but it’s really effective and one of the best jobs I’ve ever done.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

I do have upcoming projects, but I can’t talk about all of them! I’ve got some more TV work on the horizon and some Doctor Who Big Finish things in the pipeline including Time In Office, a very comedy-heavy one starring Peter Davison, and a Short Trip about the Time War, All Hands On Deck, starring Carole Ann Ford. I’ve got a three-part story, The House Of Gilded Peak, in 2000AD soon and I’ll be at the 40th anniversary event in February. And there’s a Doctor Who event in Lancaster on 3 March where I’ll be in conversation with Paul Magrs.

How can our readers discover more about you and your work?

You can always find out more about me at my Twitter page, @EddieRobson, and my sometimes-updated WordPress site, I also have a Wikipedia page, but they’re threatening to delete it, so if you feel like adding some references to it to make me look more important, feel free.

Thank you for taking time to talk to us!

Thanks for asking me!

‘2000AD: Forty Years of Thrill Power Festival’ takes place on Saturday 11 February 2017, 10:00am – 7:00pm, at Hammersmith’s Hotel Novotel London West.

The new edition of ‘Film Noir: A Critical Guide To 1940s & 1950s Hollywood Noir’ by Eddie Robson is available for download now from Amazon, RRP £5.00

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