02 March 2015

Interview: Joseph Lidster

Joseph Lidster has written scripts for theatre, radio and television, including episodes of Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Wizards Vs. Aliens and Millie Inbetween. You can find him on Twitter here.

Good evening Joe. Thanks very much for agreeing to this.

No worries.

Dark Shadows: Bloodlust, the series you recently co-produced with David Darlington, has been met with great critical acclaim. 

We were hoping for a positive response purely because we'd put so much work into it. Also, I personally loved it. I loved the storyline, the scripts, the acting, the music, everything. So yeah, we were hoping for a good response but I don't think we were prepared for just how well it was received. We've been very happy over the last few weeks, that's for sure.

When did you first start putting it together?

Me and David started talking in July 2013, I think. We sent Big Finish our initial pitch document in August and then, when that was approved, we contacted Will [Howells] and Alan [Flanagan] and started discussing storylines.

And how did you come to decide on the writing team? Alan and Will had only written one Dark Shadows audio each prior to Bloodlust. Without wanting to detract from either of them, to an outsider they may not have seemed like the obvious choices.

Both of them had proven themselves to be a) fantastic writers and b) interested in the series. They'd both watched episodes and become actual fans of the show. Practically, though, an important thing was that we all lived in the same city. We knew that the writers needed to physically meet up to chat about ideas (and drink lots of wine). We could have discussed everything over email - and obviously once we started writing there were lots of email discussions - but nothing compares to having a group of writers in a room just batting ideas back and forth.

That makes sense, especially the wine! How did you go about devising and splitting up the plot? How much was known about each episode when it was assigned to its writer?

It was all very complicated! We discussed which existing characters we were using and devised our new characters. We then worked out the main storyline. The series was split into two blocks - episodes 1-6 and episodes 7-13 - and we worked out how the storylines would progress over 1-6 with a vague idea of where we were going for 7-13. We then worked out roughly what needed to happen in each episode. After that I wrote up a more detailed plan for each episode - basically giving each character/storyline a different colour and plotting them over the episodes. We then talked about whether we had any preferences as to which two in the first block we wanted to write. For example, I was very keen to write episode 5 as it had the vibe of one of those EastEnders episodes set at night - it's basically a few small combinations of people talking. Will was keen to do Episode 1 (which I was very grateful for as it was by far the hardest episode to write). When we got into the second half of the series, Alan specifically wanted 7 and 12.

I see. How much influence did you all have on each other’s scripts and did any bits of others' surprise you?

It really was a group effort. Everyone read every draft of every episode and gave notes on every draft. We had a read-through of 1-6 with us reading the characters and gave notes on that as well. It wasn't so much a surprise but what really worked was how by having three writers working together, the characters became much more interesting. For example, I felt that on a couple of occasions, Alan had overwritten Kate and Andrew BUT it made me realise that me and Will had underwritten them. That was so important because it really made us sit down and look at each character and see who was working and who wasn't. And if a character wasn't working then we had to sort it.

Frankie was a character, for example, that we really struggled with. He's an everyday working class man but that, in itself, doesn't make him interesting (especially as he's often partnered with Kate, who's very British, has a career, has an interesting backstory and is basically an alcoholic) so we added elements such as hints of underlying anger issues and, then, I suggested casting Roger who has a very distinctive way of speaking and we tweaked the dialogue to match that.

It’s really interesting to hear you talk so candidly about the creative process. How hard was it logistically to produce? Nowadays, there's quite a lot of information available about the creative side of the role, but not so much about the rest. And there are quite a few recording dates listed for Bloodlust...

Ha, it was genuinely one of the hardest things I think me and David have done. You're looking at 25 actors in three cities on two continents working from a 675 page script. It's almost impossible to get that to work but somehow we did. I think only two things weren't recorded - a couple of Kathryn Leigh Scott's lines (one of which David managed to fake by editing together from other lines she had recorded) and a section of Stephanie Ellyne's dialogue, which we recorded later. The trickiest thing, I think, is getting the levels right. You look at Episode 7 which is a lot of people in one room talking. Some of them are on a stage, some are in an audience. People are having little quiet private conversations, shouting up to the stage, shouting from the back of the room and the front of the room and so on. So many of those actors recorded their lines individually or in groups of two or three over the space of a couple of months.

So we had to really liaise with our LA director, the fantastic Ursula Burton, to get things like that right. We'd also record different takes over here - getting an actor to say their lines normally, then say them again but a bit louder and so on. For example, if a scene specifies there's a thunderstorm, then we'd say, "Can we do it twice - once normally and one again but speaking up over the storm, to match how the US-based actors do it?" I think it all comes together but yeah, there were a lot of sleepless nights!

Well all the hard work paid off; the results are seamless! When the opportunity presented itself, it must've been irresistible to release the last episode on the same night as Lucy Beale's killer was revealed on EastEnders?

Ha, that wasn't planned at all! That EastEnders storyline did influence us a great deal. It made me look at shows I love, such as The Killing and Twin Peaks, and examine what makes them work. In many ways, in those shows, the important thing isn't actually whodunnit. It's all about what happened. What are the secrets each character has about the night of the murder.

We know when the cliffhanger to episode 4 of The Killing is that X lied about where they were that chances are they won't be the killer basically because there's a load of other episodes to go. So what's interesting for the audience is discovering why they lied. And that's what EastEnders has done brilliantly and it's what we really tried to do. And, again, it's why every single one of our characters had to be interesting - both in how they were written and how they were performed. We wanted the audience to suspect everyone.

Well you had me completely confused!


Looking back on it, is there anything about Bloodlust you'd change?

I don't know that I would. It's not necessarily that I think it was perfect (although like I say, I do love it) but more that I can't think of even a small thing we could go back and change that wouldn't have a huge effect on everything else around it purely because it was so multi-stranded. It really was like a house of cards - every line, every character, was necessary.

Yes, I can see that. In fact one of Bloodlust's greatest strengths in my opinion was how interlinked everything was.

You've mentioned before that you always wanted to be an actor before getting into writing. Several of your contemporaries (Alan and John Dorney, among others) do both. You have done a couple of bit-parts, but would you still be interested in acting in a more prominent role now if the right part came along?

To be honest, I just don't think I'm good enough. It's always fun on the UK recording days because we'll get an actor in, or two or three together, and I'll read in all the other characters for them to play against. So you could put together a version of Bloodlust featuring me doing my best impressions of Angelique, Maggie, Trask etc. It's the closest I think I'll come to professional acting and I don't think it's something anyone wants to hear!

There's a subscriber bonus right there! Speaking of which, can you give us any exclusives about this year's six remaining Dark Shadows releases, the Dramatic Readings?

Not really, sorry!

Aw, spoilsport!

All of them are set after Bloodlust - although a couple of them are characters telling us about events that happened prior to Bloodlust, The idea, though, is that all of them move the story along for our characters. They're six standalone stories but there are serial elements.

Now, next year is of course the programme's fiftieth anniversary. Do you and David have any ideas about how you'd like to mark the occasion within the realms of Big Finish?

We've got a few ideas but we haven't been commissioned further than the already announced Dramatic Readings so it all depends on sales and so on. But yes, we certainly have a few ideas - a few too many ideas actually - about where we'd like to go next!

Would you like to do another mini-series in the same kind of format as Bloodlust?

Oh, yes, definitely. It was so rewarding seeing such an active engagement with the series on the forums and so on. It's the hardest thing I've ever done but I'd do it again like a shot.

Excellent! Do you have any particular favourite characters from the original show?

Julia Hoffman is possibly the most fascinating character there's ever been on television but generally they're all fantastic - thanks often to a brilliant cast. It's one of those shows where you don't notice when a character is missing because there's not a dull one amongst them. It's one of the reasons we knew the casting for Bloodlust was so important: our new characters had to try and be as distinctive and interesting (without being OTT or caricatures) as the original series' characters.

Was there a particular reason, beyond already having so many characters, that you chose not to bring her back?

Basically because we'd have to recast her, sadly. And so much of Julia is down to Grayson Hall's astonishing performance. I'm not saying we'd never do it if the right story came up but that story wasn't Bloodlust.

As I mentioned above, this series has been received fantastically, by fans and those less familiar alike. Do you have a particular favourite comment you've read?

Actually my favourite comment was a conversation I had a with a friend of mine. He bought the series despite not being a fan of Dark Shadows or audio drama in general and he - genuinely - loved it from Episode One. After Episode Four or Five, I think it was, we were sat in the pub and he was desperate to tell me that he thought he had worked it all out. He'd actually got the set-up right but not the killer. That someone with no interest in Dark Shadows had become so invested in the story, well that's just the highest compliment really.

As a newcomer to Dark Shadows, I had a similar experience. It's really heart-warming that it had that much of a reach though.

You've done a lot of writing beyond Dark Shadows though, and even beyond Big Finish. Would it be fair to say that it's all happened off the back of Doctor Who story The Rapture?

That's certainly where it all started, yeah. Although it's not exactly the most popular story Big Finish have ever released. But yes, that's where it all began!

So Gary Russell's to blame!

Yup! It's all his fault!

Gah, curse him. He also commissioned your Torchwood episode, of course.

Well, he was responsible for me meeting Russell and Julie. I'd already been working for BBC Wales on the Doctor Who websites. By then Gary was the script-editor on Torchwood and he recommended me to them.

Speaking of which, there's talk of new Torchwood radio plays going round at the moment. I don't suppose you'd know anything about those?

I don't, sorry, but if I hear anything definite then I'll be hammering down the doors to write one!

That’s great news!

Having contributed to TV spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, the official website, various printed collections and the audio adventures, you must be the person who's got closest to writing for Doctor Who without actually having done so!

So how about it?

Yeah. I basically get emails from Cardiff saying "Joe! We want you to write Doctor Who.... the Experience!" But I love it! I've been so lucky in what I've been commissioned to write!

Yes, you just missed out... again!

Oh, it's hardly missing out! The last few years have been amazing!

Undoubtedly. You've said before that you'd only like to write another Doctor Who audio if the right story came along. Has that happened yet?

It's more that I feel I've done lots of them so I'd be more interested in writing one if it especially appealed to me. I like variety. I love writing kids TV but I also love writing dark short plays for an adult audience. One minute I'm writing a short story about the Cybermen, the next I'm writing a 13 part audio supernatural murder mystery, the next I'm writing John Watson's blog. For me, that's the appeal of being a writer.

Well, variety is the spice of... err... writing. Moving on, what's your guilty pleasure Doctor Who story?

I adore Silver Nemesis. I can see it's not the best but I genuinely don't understand how someone can't enjoy it - it's funny, silly, bonkers Doctor Who. Stopping alien invaders using jazz is something that could only happen in Doctor Who. And Lady Peinforte is a delight!

I love Delta and the Bannermen for similar reasons! There's something adorably naff about some of the McCoys, isn't there? Now, if you had to be locked in a room with one actor who's played the Doctor and forced to watch one story with them for the rest of eternity, who would it be, and which story?

Oh crikey! Christopher Eccleston because I think he's an amazing actor and a really interesting person. As for which story, maybe An Unearthly Child?

Interesting choices! And if offered a one-way trip to any place and time, where would it be?

I'd love to go back to my childhood, actually. See how it compares to my memories.

That's a great answer, we've not had that before! Taking everything you've written into account, what would you say you're proudest of?

Hooray! I don't know, actually. I'm so proud of The Rapture because it was my first professionally-commissioned piece of writing. I'm incredibly proud of my first short play - Nice Sally - because it was an amazing experience and the audience reaction was fantastic. At the moment, though, I'd have to choose Bloodlust. I'm just so proud of what we achieved with it.

It's worth remembering that your career was effectively started by sending a pitch off. Beyond practising and practising, would you say the most important thing for budding writers is to be proactive?

I think so yeah. Join a local writers’ or actors’ group. Look at the BBC Writers’ Room website. [link] But, yeah, just keep writing. And don't limit yourself. If you want to write because you want to write Doctor Who then you're doing it wrong. Doctor Who might be what's inspired you to write but it shouldn't be the only thing you want to write for. And go out. Go to parties, go to the pub. You need to know how people talk to each other, how they interact and so on.

Finally, we've talked about the future a little already, but is there anything we've not discussed you have planned for the immediate future?

I was really happy last year to do my first non-sci-fi TV - a kids’ show called Millie Inbetween - so I hope I'll get to do more of that. Other than that, my big plan this year is to finish a full-length film script and to write a full-length play for the theatre.

Well the best of luck with those. Joe Lidster, thank you very much for your time.

No worries! Thank you!

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