I stumbled across the following recently which had appeared on an early version of this blog (July 14th, 2009, to be precise), before the blog self-destructed shortly afterward (one of a handful of blog implosions over the years). I like to recapture this sort of thing for the modern incarnation of Assorted Nonsense so that it doesn't get lost to time and also because it keeps alive the memory of some important, interesting people in my life.
aka “Inspector Nickles”(Photo by David Cooper, Shaw Festival.)
I was fortunate enough to work with Neil off and on over the course of two or three years. Although they don’t mention it in the notice at CBC.ca, one of Neil’s many accomplishments was starring as Inspector Quentin Nickles in The Investigations of Quentin Nickles , for CBC Radio’s Mystery Project.
Working on these plays I had the opportunity to observe Neil’s craft up close.
You had to be a skilled actor working on these shows. Producer/Director Barry Morgan was a one take wonder. Rarely did we ever make it up to take two. So the actors had to get it right the first time, and they almost always did. If we had to do a second take it was usually because one of us technical types had screwed something up, or one of the sound effects engineers was caught on tape snoring during a brief siesta (that actually happened once).
Neil also wrote/adapted several radio plays; I remember recording and mixing two or three wild and crazy examples of his work. The names escape me now, but I recall them as full of mirth and inventiveness.
I remember Neil Munro as not only a consummate professional but as a genuinely warm and friendly man. He deserved better than to have died at 62, it seems to me. As Truman Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.
In Neil’s case, I’m afraid someone eliminated the third act altogether.
So long, Inspector Nickles.
My friend and colleague Barry Morgan, whom I referenced in the post, responded with a comment which I thought was gently chiding in nature. I realized that I may have irked him slightly with my remark about doing everything in one take. I hope not, because Barry was a great guy and I hate the thought that I might have annoyed him.
Anyway, here's what he wrote in response:
Writer, Producer, Director, All Round Nice Guy
Joe, a really nice appreciation of Neil.
Perhaps I can clarify the “one take” reference.
It was because Neil brought his incredible energy and focus to the rehearsal session before we ever got to the studio floor. The work was already done. And beyond that his electricity energized his fellow cast members to the point that the performance bar was raised far above the level of `excellent`.
We have enjoyed a long history of fine radio actors from the days of John Drainie, Jane Mallet, Frank Perry and a great many others. Neil Munro was certainly among the front rank of those incredible talents.
It was a great privilege to have him around to make all of us look better.
As I’ve written earlier, after the success of the Faster Than Light pilot, we did not receive a green light to proceed with a series. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The Director of Radio Programming at the time, Adrian Mills, did not reject the show outright. The following summer James Roy, now Acting Director of Radio Drama, approached me about doing another pilot for a summer run of the show. Presented in a half hour format, it would be Faster Than Light “light”. Unfortunately, James had no budget for it.
No problem. We took a radio play directed by Bill Lane from the archives and built a show around it. I wrote a frame for the show about auditioning for a new host. Rob’s main competition was a robot called Huey (played by Julian Ford) whose main claim to fame was starring as a robot in the classic science fiction movie Silent Running with Bruce Dern. Huey didn’t get the job. Linda Spence also acted in this pilot as a fictional Associate Producer. The concept for Faster Than Light was gradually crystallizing in my mind: it would be a fictional show about making a science fiction radio show. A show within a show. Very meta.
The summer series didn’t pan out, though. James was willing to proceed, but with no funding and very little time to write and produce ten episodes, I didn’t think I could do the show justice. Seeing as it appeared we’d have an opportunity to try again later with proper funding and adequate time, I opted to wait.
That fall we did get funding to do another pilot. For this attempt, I brought in Fergus Heywood to co-produce. Fergus had been highly recommended to me by Greg Sinclair. He enthusiastically agreed to help out. We were assigned Alison Moss as Senior Producer, who I always loved working with. I would eventually work with her on the summer replacement series Next with Nora Young. So it was a good team.
Chris Boyce, Head of the Program Development Committee, organized a facilitated session to help us further define the show. Fergus, Alison, Rob Sawyer, Chris Boyce and I all sat down to figure it out. Richard Handler, an experienced Arts producer, was also involved. This third pilot was a serious effort, but the whole spirit was completely different than the first pilot. The show would be half hour instead of an hour. It would include one full cast radio play instead of two, and it would not include a continuation of Captain’s Away, although I had written several episodes.
Chris had us come up with a mandate:
“To fire the imaginations of Canadians by presenting thought provoking encounters with masters of science fiction and fantasy along with engaging dramatizations of their work.”
When we were finally ready, I hired Wayne Richards to write and record original theme music for the opening of the show. We would use an original composition from Fergus Heywood for the closing. Having decided to make the theme of this pilot “The Other,” we secured the services of Cathi Bond, an experienced freelancer, to produce a short documentary on “the other” in science fiction films throughout history.
I wrote a high production frame for the episode that consisted of three parts. In the opening, a mad scientist creates a host for the show in an homage to Frankenstein, a classic “other” in science fiction. The mad scientist was played by Tony Daniels, who did a brilliant German accent as Dr. Frankenstein. Once the host has been created, he takes over and introduces the show. After the first part of the show, a second interlude or frame features the mad scientist conducting an experiment in which he accidentally transforms himself into a fly (an obvious homage to The Fly). Rob the host returns to usher us into the next part of the show, an original adaptation of Born of Man and Woman by Richard Matheson, adapted and directed by Barry Morgan. The end credits featured Rob as the host along with the mad scientist. Not realizing that the fly trapped in the studio with him is the mad scientist, Rob swats him.
I was attempting to seamlessly mix representational radio with presentational radio. The drama and the high production intro, middle and extro were all representational. You listened to those the way you would watch a movie or television show. They weren’t talking directly to the audience. They were meant to be entertaining as opposed to informative. Whereas the bits with Rob talking directly to the audience, and Cathi Bond presenting her short documentary, were presentational. The trick was to guide the audience from one style of radio to another without confusing them.
Ultimately the fate of the show would be determined by the Program Development Committee, a group of several experienced broadcasters assembled by Chris Boyce. I remember one of the members of this group listening to the opening of the show after I had finished mixing it. I was quite proud of it. I thought it was funny and that the sound effects and mix had achieved what I’d set out to do. This person listened to it, gave me no feedback whatsoever, and left the studio. My impression was that he didn’t get it, and didn’t like it. This did not bode well.
We finished the pilot and submitted it to the Program Development Committee. A representative of the committee phoned me sometime afterward to tell me the bad news. They weren’t going to pick up the show as it stood. They just didn’t think it worked. More work was required.
I didn’t entirely disagree. I didn’t think it had worked as well as the original pilot. The original pilot had had room to breathe. It possessed a certain charm. We hadn’t overthought it. The elements stood on their own. Rob brought a passion and an authenticity to it. The second pilot had itself been a Frankenstein monster. I liked the frame we had created for it. But I had been forced to edit the heck out of the radio play that I’d borrowed from the archives to make it fit. Even the audio quality of the radio play hadn’t been up to snuff; it had originally been recorded on tape and sounded a few tape generations old. The third pilot had more going for it. I liked the frame. I liked the opening and closing music. I liked Barry Morgan’s Richard Matheson adaptation. I liked Cathi’s piece. But somehow it didn’t all gell the same as the original.
Nevertheless, the committee still hadn’t given us a definitive “no.” They offered us a chance to make yet a fourth pilot. By now people in the drama department were calling me Wing Commander Joe, I had so many pilots under me.
So, with a thread of hope still dangling before us, Fergus, Rob, Alison and I got together to talk about it. Rob made the point that maybe the show needed to be more serious, that our problem was trying to mix humour with seriousness. Thinking of shows like MASH and Life is Beautiful, I didn’t think that was the issue, though it could well have confused the Development Committee. Rob also objected to the CBC’s obvious efforts to make the show “stealth” science fiction. They didn’t want the show to be overtly about science fiction and fantasy. They wanted it to be something else that happened to include science fiction and fantasy. I agreed with Rob on this point. There seemed to be a slight bias against science fiction and fantasy. And not only that: against radio plays, too. Against storytelling. Against the representational. (This would be made abundantly clear when the entire radio drama department was shut down a few short years later, ostensibly as a response to financial pressures.)
Which was too bad. Because by now I had refined the concept even further. I was thinking that the host should be a sonic sorcerer, with the power to do anything, be anywhere. This concept, coupled with effective, liberal use of sound effects, would have several virtues. It would allow us to harness the enormous imaginative potential of radio. If the host wanted to be on the surface of Mars, he could be there in the blink of an eye—faster than light, if you will. If he wanted to lasso a comet by the tail, he could. He could pilot a spaceship, visit Heaven or Hell, single-handedly battle an army of knights… or simply conduct an interview. It solved the conceptual problem of how to veer from the fantastic portions of the show’s “frame” to the magazine elements of the show:
FEMALE VOICE: (TREATED) Incoming vessel. You have three seconds to identify yourself before we open fire.
HOST: (TWO SECOND BEAT) (TREATED) I’m Robert J. Sawyer, commanding Faster Than Light on CBC Radio. Be advised that if you open fire, we will respond.
FEMALE VOICE: Acknowledged, Faster Than Light. What, may I ask, will you respond with?
ROB: How about an interview with Canadian Independent author Maaja Wentz?
You see how it would work? Playful and imaginative. Veering seamlessly from fantasy to reality. It would itself be science fiction and fantasy while presenting the same to our listeners.
Alas, it never happened. The committee never did say no outright, but the truth is, Faster Than Light as we conceived of it never stood much of a chance. What we wanted to do was too much at odds with what the powers that be at the time were willing to let us do. Greg Sinclair was head of the drama department at the time (but did not represent the Program Development Committee… I felt he was on my side). We discussed the project and mutually decided to pull the plug. To make it work for the CBC, we were going to have to turn it into a show that none of us believed in or wanted to do. Greg informed Rob Sawyer.
We never got the green light that I had dreamed about for so long.
Still, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I’m proud of all three pilots. Rob and I became friends. I thank him for his generosity and time in trying to make it work. Later, he asked me to read and comment on the third draft of his novel Rollback (about a man and a woman in their eighties who agree to undergo a procedure to make them younger. It only works on the man. Of course, this has huge implications on their relationship. It’s a great read.) Rob made the protagonist a CBC Recording Engineer/Producer, which is what I aspired to be. He also featured me as a character in the novel, on page ninety-nine.
I went back to my normal life working on other people’s radio shows. That year CBC Radio launched a show called WireTap. I could barely make myself listen to it, out of jealousy, I suppose. Finally listening to an episode one day, I found myself impressed. I wrote the producers of Wiretap and told them how much I liked the episode, which had included some scby Roience fiction. I used my cbc.ca email address so that they would know that it came from a colleague. Nobody from the show ever responded.
Had I managed to get Faster Than Light on the air, I would have personally responded to every single email the show received.
Certain projects that I worked on generated “take aways.” Lines that were too good just to forget about. The project might have been good or lousy, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the quality of the take-away. Some take-aways were crude and cannot be repeated in polite company. Others were crude and can perhaps be repeated in polite company. Others were just funny… at least to me.
For instance, I once worked on a radio play called “Heart of a Dog” in which a character kept muttering (in a Russian accent) “arsefessor” (don’t ask me why) to refer to another character who was a professor. For years afterward I would hear my colleagues muttering from time to time, “Arsefessor!” (Hey, I never said these take-aways were in any way socially beneficial.) The thing is, after you’ve worked on one of these plays for a month or two (or three), certain words and lines got burned into your brain.
Another take-away came from an adaptation of the play Trojan Women. The play called for one character to summon the warriors to the ship by calling out, “To the ships!”
So one of our sound effects engineers — I’ll call him Pat — was called upon to utter these immortal words, as all the actors had left by the time the crew realized that this line hadn’t been recorded. Pat was a brilliant sound effects foley artist but a quiet, unassuming man. So when called upon to cry out “To the ships!” he said it as if commenting on the weather, not as if summoning an army to battle as the script called for.
On the second take Pat generated enough enthusiasm to make the line sound like he was asking for someone to pass him a jar of peanut butter.
The third take sounded like a question: “To the ships?”
Each take fell woefully short of the necessary vigour, but became increasingly hilarious for the crew in the control room. And the line, “To the ships!” became the rallying cry of the CBC Radio Drama department.
I worked on a summer replacement radio series called NEXT once with host Nora Young and producer Alison Moss. They were so great to work with, and indulged my passion for high production radio with bits like this one, which introduced one of the episodes.
Boy I loved making stuff like this.
Here’s the script, with the actual produced version at the end.
NEXT: A Host of Data
SFX: OFFICE AMB BG
NARR: Indefatigable Nora Young surfs the net, quietly sipping tea.
NORA: (LOUD SIP)
NARR: She is thinking furiously:
NORA: Hmm… I wonder what today’s show should be about?
NARR: Friend and colleague Alison Moss appears in the doorway.
ALISON: Hey Nora!
SFX: KNOCKS OVER TEA CUP
NARR: Startled, clumsy Nora knocks her tea onto the computer.
SFX: COMPUTER SHORT CIRCUITS
NORA: Dag nabbit!
SFX: OFFICE AMB BG OUT
SFX: WOOSHING DATA STREAM
NARR: A freak chain reaction occurs. Our hapless host is drawn inside the computer!
SFX: NORA LANDS WITH A THUMP INSIDE COMPUTER
NORA: Oof! (GRUNTS IN PAIN) Where am I?
NARR: Nora is trapped in a virtual landscape of ones and zeroes. Drowning in a sea of binary information, Nora comes face to face…. with herself.
DRONING NORA VOICE: Nora Esmerelda Young, born nineteen sixty-four, daughter of Clem and Doreen, brothers John, Alfred, Immanuel, postal code L2N 3G5, (CONTINUES BG)
NORA: (OVER VOICES) All this information… about me!
DRONING VOICE: (CONTINUING) Favourite food: schnitzel, last purchased July 28th, 2004 at Loblaws on the corner of Dufferin and Brock…
NARR: Clever Nora can only to come to one conclusion:
“…others write about the future…van Vogt writes from the future…”
Unknown, Mid-Twentieth century
Ah, it’s the missed opportunities that bug me most. Here’s another one.
I pitched the following to my friend and colleague Bill Lane, master dramatist, who joined forces with me to pitch it to the radio drama department. In this age of podcasting, I believe it remains a solid, valid pitch:
It’s hard to make a living writing fiction in this country. It’s even harder to do it writing science fiction. Manitoba native Alfred Etan van Vogt did so and became one of the most respected SF writers of his day, on a par with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. His work remains enormously popular in the U.K., France, Brazil and Sweden, and yet few Canadians have ever heard of him. We are lousy at celebrating our own.
And this is a Canadian whose work should be celebrated. His work profoundly influenced the entire field of speculative fiction. He once successfully sued the makers of the movie Alien for $50,000 US for ripping off his work. And without Van Vogt and his tales of the Space Beagle, there would have been no Star Trek.
With typical Canadian modesty, he once described himself as “a bright but simple fellow from Canada.” Others hold him in higher esteem. He possesses, according to Charles Platt: “…a compelling presence, an intensity, a slightly mad gleam in his eye, and when he writes he comes up with eerie powerful journeys into symbolic depths of the psyche. When you open one of his novel you open the subconscious. He writes dreams.”
van Vogt… was not hard and cold and unemotional, in the manner of Clement, Asimov and Heinlein. He could balance his cubic light years and the paraphernalia of super science with moments of tenderness and pure loony joy.
…van Vogt had…nothing less than the ability to deliver (a) total alienness within (b) a hugely panoramic background that (c) seemingly lacked reason and yet came together to (d) end by making total if terrifying sense.
Let’s wield what influence we possess to increase the Canadian public’s awareness of one of our own, a giant in his field, whose work deserves to be celebrated.
After many years of creating well regarded but relatively unlucrative short fiction, van Vogt turned his attention to the full-length novel. His first, and by some accounts his most famous, was Slan. Written while Vogt was living in Ottawa, Slan recounts the maturation of a mutant with telepathic powers and enhanced intelligence in a world hostile to his kind.
(It) was a paralleling of Ernest Thomson Seton‘s The Biography of a Grizzly: the pattern of Grizzly was: his mother is killed at the beginning, and the cub is on his own. He doesn’t find an old lady to help him, but he manages to find a place where he can hide for his first year or so. By then he is the equivalent of Jommy at nine — stronger than all the lesser animals of the forest; but he’d better stay away from full-grown black bears, etc. Finally, he comes to what Seton called in his heading: “The Days of His Strength.” He is a full-grown grizzly bear, king of the forest and mountains. For the most part I didn’t need parallels like that, but that one struck me as being interesting, and I used it automatically.
A.E. Van Vogt on his work Slan
Although a fun story with plenty of action, Slan is permeated with themes of fear, discrimination and alienation. Eminently suitable for adaptation to radio, the opportunities for creative, exciting sound design abound.