17 September 2015

Jonny Morris Interview

“I was very wary, very conscious though that it shouldn’t just be Doctor Who vs Thatchos, that the point I was making wasn’t about Thatcher per se – it was about the world we live in today.”

t’s a Tuesday morning in late July. This means it’s mostly grey and dreary outside, but the fact that it’s the midst of the British summer also means for a few seconds at a time it is mind-bogglingly hot. I am in my bedroom. Jonathan Morris is not. Yet thanks to the power of the internet – that thing you’re using to read this very article – we’re about to do an interview.
                Jonny, as he’s known to most, is a prolific writer when it comes to Big Finish Productions’ audio output. His work for the company up to now has for the most part been on Doctor Who and a few of its spin-off series, but he’s also contributed to various other popular ranges including Survivors and Dark Shadows.

he most recent work of Morris’ released by Big Finish is the Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford story We Are The Daleks, and it’s here we begin our discussion.
                In 2014, an article was published in Doctor Who Magazine written by Morris with the same name as part of an issue dedicated to the Daleks. The piece questioned and studied why they were the series’ most enduring villains, and essentially concluded it was because we – humans – are the Daleks. This philosophy is detectable in the seventh Doctor story, but Jonny says that the link between the story and the article isn’t as tangible as you might first think.
                “The article didn’t inspire any ideas for a story at all, but it got me thinking about the Daleks and how they work as monsters. What is it about them that’s scary? Several things, of course. For The Curse of Davros I wrote them as toddlers, locked in a tantrum state. With We Are The Daleks, it started because Alan [Barnes, script editor] asked for a Dalek story and I wanted to do something more like Power or Evil [both of the Daleks] – a story which shows the Daleks’ intelligence where it’s their morality – their immorality – that makes them frightening.
                “They have a lot of similarity to that blind, fanatical belief in the free market – that the poor and weak are feckless and lazy, and deserve to suffer. They totally buy into the whole idea that being able to crush lesser beings underfoot is in some way a good thing.”
                But as far as We Are The Daleks could be said to be a commentary on the state of Britain in the late eighties, it takes on a whole new meaning when considered in the context of current global events.
                “If the Daleks came along and offered cheap oil or cheap manufacturing,” Morris continues, “our politicians would go along with that – whatever party it was. They would. They’d have no choice. I mean, it happens today with how we deal with oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And look at China; these used to be the bad guys but now they’re business partners who we’re desperately trying to attract ‘investment’ from.”
                Morris states in the writer’s notes accompanying the story that it wasn’t intended to be any kind of political allegory. Yet on listening to We Are The Daleks, I was struck by the decidedly left-wing angle it seems to exhibit.
                “Well, it is a political allegory,” Morris says, “but it’s not party political. Labour, Lib Dem, Tory governments, they all end up making the same kind of compromises. But, yes, there was a bit of that kind of monetarist evangelism you had in the mid-eighties. This idea that [the incumbent Conservative government] had that their idea of how the world worked was true, in defiance of morality and the facts was quite a Dalek-y mind-set. And so I had fun with a few little nods to Thatcher and the whole ‘There’s no such thing as society’ notion.”
                Many viewers and listeners seek Doctor Who stories for the respite they offer from the numerous and seemingly endless troubles of the ‘real world’. Morris’ words about the troubles and machinations of modern society hit home harder than perhaps any previous story has. A lot of listeners will latch on to the political trappings of this story through the character of Celia Dunthorpe, who would seem to be an upfront Thatcher cipher.
                “It could’ve been subtler but I thought, for once, let’s not be subtle.” He says. “Let’s go big, bold and obvious. Do something different! If anything, Celia was based on that small band of right-wingers that made John Major’s life hell in the mid-nineties. I loved them, I thought they were hilarious. They should bring them back.”

his isn’t Morris’ first time writing for this particular Doctor/companion combination though. Flip-Flop, released in 2003, saw the pair entangled in a format-breaking adventure with the Slithergees. How different did Morris find writing for the seventh Doctor and Mel twelve years on?
                “Is it only twelve years?” he shudders. “I thought it was more like twenty. It feels more like twenty.
                “It was completely different. I took a totally different approach. You see, last time, I was very much enamoured and impressed by what Gareth [Roberts] and Clay[ton Hickman] had done with The One Doctor, so I wrote the seventh Doctor and Mel as a kind of pastiche of how they were written back in 1987, all that Pip ‘n’ Jane stuff where Mel comes out with these incredibly grammatical baroque sentences.
                “And so for Flip-Flop I was re-watching those stories – [Time and the] Rani, Paradise Towers, Delta [and the Bannermen], Dragonfire – and all of that was feeding into my script. I was very consciously writing in a ‘Season 24’ style. Whereas with We Are The Daleks, I ignored that stuff completely. I wrote Mel as though she was a character from the modern series, being played by Bonnie Langford, the actress she is now, not the TV personality she was back in 1987. I didn’t even watch any of the older stories. Some people say it recreates the era anyway – which is lovely – but it wasn’t something that happened consciously.”
                Flip-Flop is something of a controversial story if you dig deep enough on the internet. Most people focus on its primary selling point – that you can listen to the discs in either order and it makes sense – but a lot of people object quite heavily to the subtext on immigration.
                “Flip-Flop is weird,” Morris concedes. “It’s so long ago that it feels like it was written by a different person. Some people say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done but it’s not the story I’d write now.”
                He has commented before that the more controversial elements may have been the result of reading too much of the Daily Mail. Now though, Jonny refutes this.
                “Reading one page of the Daily Mail is reading too much Daily Mail. I don’t think I’ve ever read more than that. It wasn’t about my own views. Writing can sometimes be about that, it can sometimes be very personal, very autobiographical, but sometimes you can say the complete opposite of what you think. If anything, Flip-Flop was about taking the mickey out of a certain kind of head-patting patronising view of multiculturalism that you’d find in The Guardian – the ideas that ‘minorities’ are automatically oppressed and deserve special treatment. That’s what Flip-Flop really is – the invasion of the planet of Guardian readers.”
                So far, we’ve only discussed two of Morris’ nigh-on boundless sum of stories, but politics have played a big part in the basis of each. How much does he think his own view informs how he writes?
                “I don’t know,” he surmises. “I approach things from a certain moral perspective, and in the simplest terms that works out as rich boss bad, poor worker good. But what actually makes writing interesting is creating moral dilemmas where there are no easy answers. A lot of it is about where you draw the line. You’re always trying to create those sorts of situations, because that’s what drama is.”

witching tracks a little, I’m interested to know what else might inform Jonny’s work.
                “Two examples pop into my head,” he says when I ask if he’s ever been directly inspired by a piece of music. “A comic strip I wrote called Supernature [for Doctor Who Magazine] was inspired by an old seventies disco track of the same name which was later covered by Erasure, with all sorts of animal and jungle noises added. And I wrote a Jago & Litefoot story [The Age of Revolution] which was inspired by The Kinks’ Green Preservation Society, where the manifesto of the villains in that story is based on The Kinks’ in that song; the idea that we must all get back to Victorian values. I think The Kinks were taking the piss though. There must be others though. Stories come from anywhere; often it’s just an atmosphere or location.
                “I sometimes listen to music to get into the mood to write, if I find I need to get into an ‘I am a good writer! I am good at this! I can do this!’ mood, which can sometimes take hours. But while I’m writing, I’m in the zone, so any music would be a distraction. At the moment I’m listening to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds far too much because I’ve only just got into it and I’m wondering why I didn’t have this when I was eight! I’d have loved it! They should do a Big Finish in that style.”
                As much as he enjoys his music though, Morris admits he doesn’t keep up with modern artists as much as he used to.
                “When you get to my age, you tend to accumulate people that you’ve followed through their careers, so for anyone new to grab your attention, they need to be very unusual and special. I’m painfully aware that a lot of the acts I think are current are actually from five or six years ago now, which is comparatively ancient.”
                I have to agree with Morris here, although his music taste isn’t a complete write-off as he’s a fan of Marina and the Diamonds, the clever chap.

n April of this year, an adaptation of Russell T Davies’ 1996 seventh Doctor novel Damaged Goods was released on two discs. Jonny had the job – the honour, as he puts it – of scripting the story.
                “I think it is very, very good. The whole package, everything – the sound design, the music. It’s very strong.” he continues. “I was quite surprised listening to it, how hard it was, how it didn’t pull punches. Sometimes listening to these things can be quite a passive experience, but Damaged Goods grabs you by the throat. You are gripped and it shows what can be done. That’s the standard we have to reach from now on. Sometimes with these things you’re worried about rocking the boat but, you know, you have to try to push it as far as you can go.”
                Did the process bear any similarities to adapting the Lost Stories Morris worked on – Philip Hinchcliffe’s The Valley of Death and Johnny Byrne’s The Guardians of Prophecy – a few years ago?
                “They were both similar in the sense that I was trying to capture the tone of a particular era, doing the whole ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…’ thing of trying to make my own voice as invisible as possible and write as Russell, or Johnny, or Philip. But I kind of try to make my own voice as invisible as possible anyway. I don’t want all the characters to sound like me, I’m boring.
                “And the other way they were all similar is that I was working from something that didn’t have a ninety-minute structure, so I had to find a way of taking an existing story and restructuring it as well as adapting it for the audio medium. It’s nuts and bolts stuff, but it’s stuff I enjoy and I think is one of the things I’m good at.
                “I don’t know if I’d like to do any more novel adaptations. It depends on the book, really. Damaged Goods was a book that, when it was announced, people said would be impossible to adapt. And it was a very difficult one to do, but that’s what made it exciting for me, the fact that it posed a huge challenge. So I’d only want to do ones of at least equal difficulty. Transit maybe.”
                The 1992 Ben Aaronovitch novel was divisive to say the least after its publication. It saw the Doctor land in a world of ‘hard’ science fiction, drugs, sex, violence and swearing. It is regarded by some as the archetypal Virgin New Adventure, the embodiment of all the associations which that label may bring.
                “I mean, it’d be lovely to do The Witch Hunters but really if anyone’s going to adapt that it should be [author] Steve Lyons. But generally speaking, my feeling is that I’m not going to top Damaged Goods - I should go out on a high.”
                How would Morris feel about his own 2000 novel Festival of Death being adapted for audio?
                “Well, to begin with, like with Flip-Flop, people sometimes say, ‘Jonny, Festival of Death was amazing, the best thing you’ve ever done!’ which is lovely but always leads me to think ‘Really? That was the first thing I did! So it’s been diminishing returns ever since?’. I’m initially reluctant to go back to a book which, if I did adapt it, would require so much work because there are parts of it which are quite a long way away from great. I’d rather adapt it that someone else but it’s a moot point really, because it’s not going to happen. The rights remain with BBC Books – I never bothered to take them back when it was out of print because there was always the possibility it might go back into print, which turned out to be the case. It’s out of my jurisdiction…”

ith only a couple of exceptions, thanks to latest DWM comic Spirits of the Jungle, Morris has now written for all the Doctors.
                “Well I haven’t done John Hurt yet,” he comments wryly. “How do I sleep at night? It would’ve been nice to have done a Companion Chronicle with the first Doctor. I listen with envy to the audios that Simon Guerrier did with Peter Purves! But I wouldn’t have written stories as good as those. I’m kind of happy that I did a little first Doctor bit in Tales from the Vault [the 2011 Companion Chronicle] and I’ve written first Doctor short stories, so I consider him ticked off the list.
                “Jac Rayner’s first Doctor audios are absolutely magical too. She and Simon do the first Doctor much better than I would. I’m happy to sit back and let them do the work and have fun of listening to it.”
                So far, it may seem that Morris has worked only on Doctor Who, and while to a large extent that’s true, he has also delved deep into the worlds of its associated series, most notably Jago & Litefoot, for which he’s written an impressive eight episodes.
                Jonny has previously detailed the discrepancies between the idealised Victorian society of Jago & Litefoot and the reality on his own blog. How do the inconsistencies sit with him?
                “It’s an interesting question,” he muses. “I think the smoke and Hansom cab world of J&L is very alluring, but the fact that it is always a pastiche of a pastiche, that it isn’t historically accurate, makes me uncomfortable. I think the Victorian era is much more varied and interesting than the impression you get from the fiction, which all tends to be set during the 1890s, which is as far away from Dickens’ Victorian London as we are from the 1960s. So it’s always a bit weird when you get bits of Dickens’ stuff in J&L, because part of me wants to go ‘That’s wrong, that’s bad history.’ But on the other hand, it’s all Victorian, isn’t it?
                “My feeling is that you should always be as historically accurate as possible, except where it gets in the way of the story, in which case you are allowed to deliberately get things wrong. There is no excuse for unintentionally getting your history wrong!”
                The series is prescribed to a certain degree by script editor Justin Richards, who has creative control of the series.
                “He’d write up these three hundred-word synopses of what would happen in a story, which were incredibly helpful in terms of knowing what bits of the story arc would happen in which episode, where you were going and where you had been, and so on. But these would only have about a sentence on what the actual story was, he’d always leave lots of room for that. So for The Spirit Trap I think the synopsis said ‘Jago and Litefoot investigate séances run by’ whatever the character’s name was. The rest would be up to me.
                “I much prefer doing standalone stuff, which is why I’ve tended to be asked to write the first ones from each set because they tend to be the ones with the least ‘arc’ stuff. My next one [The Year of the Bat], even though it’s not the first in the box, is pretty much standalone.”

o move to another spin-off series from the good Doctor’s adventures, would Morris be interested in writing an audio drama for Bernice Summerfield? After commissioning him for last year’s Mask of Tragedy, it could be said that James Goss, the series’ current producer, owes him one.
                “Yes, he does. James Goss owes me big time! Goss, your name is on the list. The list of people who owe me.
                “I’m afraid I feel a bit of a fraud in that I’ve never listened to the Benny adventures. I’m sure they’re great – how could they not be with all the amazing people who have written them and been in them? – but I really think the people who write them should be people who are fans of Benny, who would jump at the chance and get a lot out of it, rather than me.”
                One of Big Finish’s other series that Jonny has written for, with no connection to Doctor Who, is Survivors. The third series, featuring his second episode, Cabin Fever, is out later this year.
                “I think it’s darker,” he says of the upcoming set. “I read the scripts for Series Two, and it’s darker than Series One. I’m not sure how much darker it can get but they seem to be trying to find out! But I don’t think Survivors would lend itself to a comedy episode – or would it? Maybe the Scorchies [James Goss’ musical alien puppet creations] could turn up. But my story for Series Three is, again, me going off and doing my own thing. It’s mostly a standalone story, a flashback to the early days of the outbreak.”

As our time, which Jonny has very graciously extended, draws to a close, I have just one more topic I would like to cover. Although he’s done a lot of work as a script editor as well as writing – including Simon Guerrier’s very first piece official Doctor Who story The Switching – Morris has never crossed into the territory of Scott Handcock and former flatmate Joe Lidster in the form of also directing and producing.
                “I wouldn’t do it like Joe,” he laughs, “I’d be good at it. Ho ho. No, well.
                “I have no interest in producing at all. It’s all organisation, booking studios, sending out contracts, and so on. And although I could do that, it’s the sort of admin work I’ve been running away from all my life.
                “I’d love to direct. I’ve sat in the studio enough times to see how it’s done, to know which button on the desk you should press before you swear, and it would, frankly, be great to have more control over my own work. Not just through the recording but through the post-production process too. At the moment it gets taken away from you, and that’s cool, we’re all grown-ups – it’s not ‘My baby! My baby! What have you done to my beautiful baby?!” – but you know, just as television writers get to sit in the edit suite and offer suggestions on how things could be improved, it would be lovely to have that chance with Big Finish stuff. And they wouldn’t have to pay me!”
                So if you’re reading this, David Richardson and co, you know where to look for some fresh blood. And if anything does come of this Jonny, I expect the standard 25% fee in the post.

hroughout my time chatting with Jonny, the impression I’ve got of him is absolutely the one I had hoped for. Jonny is endearingly humble and self-deprecating but takes an admirable and justifiable pride in his work. His stories are treasured by the masses. Even if they don’t know his name, Jonny’s work has brought countless readers and listeners great pleasure. Here’s hoping the Morris magic continues to spread for many years to come.
                Happy birthday Jonny.

Who is the most famous Doctor Who-related person in your contacts?
I’m lucky enough to count Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies amongst my friends. I don’t know any of the Doctor Whos personally but I think those two are kind of top, aren’t they?

Is the McGann/Eccleston regeneration still your favourite, as it was in 2012?
Um, no. If I had to choose favourites – sorry Colin – I’d say the Davison to Colin one is the most dramatic, and the Eccleston to Tennant one is the one that moved me the most emotionally. It was a really tear-jerking goodbye.

When are the Slithergees coming back?
When the world is ready for them.

Was Adric really your childhood hero?
Possibly, a bit.

What was the last Doctor Who story you watched and what did you think of it?
Last of the Time Lords, which I thought was magnificent, hilarious, bold and clever. But it could probably have done with losing 5-10 minutes in the edit.

What is the most notable piece of Doctor Who merchandise you own?
Do books and CDs count as merchandise? I have the underpants. I have a pair of slippers with the McCoy logo. I don’t know. The thing I prize the most is a signed and dedicated copy of SynthespiansTM by Craig Hinton, bless him.

Any final words to close the interview?
5/10. An average romp.

Thanks very much to Jonny for his time. You can visit his excellent blog here.

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