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Interview with Johnny Byrne

Interview with Johnny Byrne

by Marcus Hearn
Century 21 Magazine - No. 5 (Summer 1991)
Article Source Provided by: Phill Wright
This article appears courtesy of David Nightingale of Engale Marketing (and Robert Ruiz). See also Christopher Penfold interview

There can be few people better qualified to reassess Space: 1999, Gerry Anderson's most lavish and controversial live action drama, than Johnny Byrne. However, serving as a script editor and writer on both seasons of the show must seem a small feather in the cap of a man who can now be regarded as one of the country's leading television writers.

Space: 1999 was an early step in a career which began with the publication of the famous novel Groupie in 1968. More recently Byrne has worked extensively on Doctor Who, One By One, and, of course, All Creatures Great And Small, a programme his writing has had a possibly unequalled influence on since its very first series. Despite having worked on so many other projects Byrne's soft Irish voice seems to betray more than a little pride at having been involved with Space: 1999, and despite the problems associated with it he expresses no regrets.

I asked him firstly about the chain of events that led to his working in tele-fantasy. "In 1970 the BBC asked me to do a Play For Today called Season Of The Witch which starred Paul Nicholas and a wonderful jazz singer called Julie Driscoll. As a result of that Harry Salzman asked me to write and rewrite some scripts for him. Chris Penfold then fetched me up to Gerry Anderson's place and I said I was available. We were talking about a planned second season of UFO"

In terms of drama Gerry and Sylvia Anderson always found it very difficult to deal with people. 'People' meant they were outside their control whereas puppets were much easier to control. Of course puppets presented a technical problem which was solvable whereas people presented a people problem which is frequently insolvable!" Gerry could manage with people but you could see in the look, in the situations and even in the stories that he wasn't really happy dealing with them. Creatively, his thoughts were very technical and heavily plot orientated.

I think Lew Grade, who was the big money man, would have gone to the next stage of UFO, but he really wanted something that was going to have all the bells and whistles of a big international hit. He saw this as a big way of getting into the American market. However it suffered from all the problems of this - if you're going to make a transatlantic series then why not make it in America? Why get British writers to try and write American dialogue, stories and situations? The thing they might have liked was English writers doing their own thing and creating a universality in terms of stories and characters. After accepting the post of script editor, partly because "l was a writer and it was very hard to get hands on experience of making films,' work began on the new series in earnest. They brought in some very expensive people from America and you had this pecking order - there pretty much had to be 80% of John Koenig on screen. This quickly became an unofficial bible. You had an expensive star there and he had a function.

In trying to keep to those artificial restraints Commander Koenig was frequently trying to do the sort of things he had no business doing. If there was a dangerous mission to be flown in an Eagle he would insist on doing it whereas Alan Carter couldn't."

I wasn't responsible for commissioning the writers, that was Chris Penfold. I would consider and estimate the stories that were coming in." As well as this Byrne wrote eight episodes in the first season including those starring Joan Collins (Mission Of The Darians), Ian McShane (Force Of Life) and Judy Geeson (Another Time, Another Place). However Space: 1999 had proved to be a troubled show and, although successful American syndication in 1975 dictated a new series be made changes were on the cards...

After what I call the hiatus between seasons one and two I was the only survivor. Eddie de Lorenzo and Chris Penfold had gone. I was somewhere in one of the back offices of another building so they couldn't really get at me!" I was asked to prepare and do a whole breakdown of the twenty-four episodes of the first season and I gave them all a rating from five stars to no stars. I was very hard, even on myself. Then I was offered the job of preparing for the new season.

At the end of the first season Gerry and Sylvia parted and it was very traumatic business." Sylvia Anderson's departure from the show, following her separation and later divorce from Gerry, contributed partly to the appointment of former Star Trek producer Fred Freiberger. Did working on the show become less pleasurable following such controversial changes?

It became different obviously. I didn't wish to be story editor as I felt my life would have become impossible working next to Freddy Freiberger - as much as I liked him as a person.

I told them I didn't want to be story editor and said I would just write three stories for the next season. Also at that time I was getting married and we were expecting our first son Jasper.

We were living in Cambridgeshire and in the process of buying a house in Norfolk so there were other reasons for not wanting to stay on. I was there to creatively gear Gerry up and I proposed three stories, the first of which was called The Biological Soul and was roughly what later became The Metamorph except there was no Maya in it.

It was about a man called Mentor who had a biological computer called Psyche. It was roughly the same story except Fred Freiberger gave him a daughter who was, of course, the Metamorph. I also did a story called Children Of The Gods which I wrote before Freddy came. I think this was probably the best script I wrote but it harked back to the first series and it was junked. Gerry said it was the best script he'd ever read although Freddy didn't like it. I don't know what happened to that don't even have a copy of it. If the series didn't receive the same acclaim in this country as it did in America then it was surely not for a lack of talent behind the scenes, as Byrne is quick to point out.

"Working with him Gerry had, for example, Charles Crichton, who did some of my best stories with. Even then he was a legend and is a brilliant film maker. Also there was Ray Austin and a magnificent director called David Tomblin, who previously had done The Prisoner. He did my best episodes and now does all of the special second unit shooting for Spielberg - he won't move without him. There was no expense spared with the people they used. I have to say that was very fortunate to join Gerry when I did.

Despite his fixed ideas in character and plot he always gave 100% of himself and inspired the writers, certainly this one, to reach higher standards of work. Like many before me, I found Gerry was a forcing ground for whatever talents I possess. What I learned while working with him has remained with me to this day. As the subject drew to a close I asked Johnny Byrne whether he regretted that Gerry Anderson didn't pursue the direction his work was taking in the 1970s.

I think it's a shame - I think he could have gone on to do the kinds of things that Ridley Scott did. He was brilliant at getting the right kind of talents, but in a way that which was best about Gerry very swiftly became a cliche. It was great to see the reassertion of certain standards and values, for example the editing in his productions was wonderful.

However he should have stayed that side of the counter, and have the nature to go for the talent on the other side and trust it.

Interview Double-Bill By Marcus Hearne Part Two: Terrance Dicks

Terrance Dicks is probably best known as former Doctor Who script editor, writer and author, with nearly seventy novels on the subject to his credit. Other television work has included such diverse programmes as Crossroads and The Avengers. To some he may be remembered as one of the men behind the BBC's highly regarded 'classic serials' or as one of the most prolific children's authors in the country. His evident surprise at the raising of the subject indicates that Terrance Dicks is not often remembered for his season two Space: 1999 story, The Lambda Factor...

I wrote a very weird episode, the whole thing was very strange. Basically I heard from my agent that they were making the show in England and were going to take a certain number of scripts from English writers. As the show was being made in England I think they had to do an agreement with the Writers' Guild. My agent told me they were looking for scripts but warned me that no-one he knew had managed to sell them one! I went down to Elstree or Pinewood where they were making it and had a very peculiar meeting with Fred Freiberger who was the American producer and terribly high powered. He said, "We're in the middle of discussing our storyline aren't we?" and I said, "No". Then he said, "but you've read all our material and seen the other films", and I said "No . He told me briefly about the show and said that if I had any ideas to give him a call. I went away thinking it was never going to work but after a while I got a nagging feeling that I really should give it a go. I worked out an idea that was basically about a combination of science fiction and the supernatural. The moonbase, and in particular the Martin Landau character, were haunted.

I phoned up Fred Frieberger and this voice at the other end said "OK, shoot. " I told him the story and after a long silence he said, "We have a deal, I will call your agent" and he put the phone down!

A contract came through, I wrote the script, sent it off, after a while the money came through then I never heard anything. I never got any feedback or an invitation to the shooting - nothing, not a word. The whole thing faded from my memory until an American Doctor Who fan told me he'd seen my Space: 1999. I didn't even know it had been made! I did eventually see it when it got relegated to 10 o'clock one morning on ITV.

There had only been minimal tinkering but it was basically the show as I wrote it. I had one meeting and one phone call and that was it."

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Thanks to Robert Ruiz