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Interview with Christopher Penfold

Interview with Christopher Penfold

by Marcus Hearn
Part 1: Century 21 Magazine - No. 9 (Summer 1992)
Part 2: Century 21 Magazine - No. 10 (Autumn 1992)
Article Source Provided by: Phill Wright
This article appears courtesy of David Nightingale of Engale Marketing (and Robert Ruiz). See also Johnny Byrne interview

I haven't picked a very good day to interview Christopher Penfold. I'm greeted at the door of his West London home not by the man himself but a plumber who's just taken a break from wrestling with an uncooperative boiler. Before we begin, Christopher apologizes for the fact that braving the cold outside is only marginally easier than coming to terms with the chill inside.

"I've never been much of a fan of Thunderbirds or indeed of any of Gerry's puppet shows," he confesses while pouring enough tea to keep us warm during the course of the discussion. "In fact I enjoy them more now than I did then. Nor do I really have much of a record of any interest in science fiction. I think that what I wanted to do with Space: 1999 was to bring to science fiction a determination that everything that happened on screen, in character terms, was going to be believable. This was because I'd seen the limits of credibility there were on the previous puppet shows and indeed on UFO. I wanted all the characters to behave in a recognizably human way, except of course when they came face to face with paranormal situations. In everyday life I wanted to humanize it. In concept that was something Gerry recognized as a desirable objective."

Christopher guides me upstairs to the relative warmth of his tiny study- a cluttered room which is testament to the fact he is a busy and successful freelance writer. One of his biggest breaks came when Gerry Anderson invited him to become story consultant on what was to become his last truly lavish production. However, the path from relatively unknown young writer to this prestigious job was a complex one.

"After I left university here I worked in Australia for three years. I started off making my living in television and radio production. I'd been an editor and a director but I always knew I wanted to write. I started writing radio scripts for the ABC in Sydney. I did a lot of arts features about Australian poets and home television films about Australian painters and architects. Gradually I started to write my own material and since then I've been writing full time. This was back in 1972."

"I met Gerry at Elstree Studios where I was working on what was my first series as a writer and script editor. It was called Pathfinders and it was a nightmare. The basis of the idea was that it followed the lives of a squadron of the Pathfinder force in RAF bomber command. They knew when they joined the squadron that they had a three percent chance of surviving and I was interested in the way that individuals responded to that kind of pressure. Although the series deteriorated into "Tales From The War" some of them were good stories."

"Gerry was at Elstree at the time working on his series The Protectors. "I think everybody expected Pathfinders to fold and I was actually hired as script editor three weeks before the first scheduled day of shooting and there were still no scripts. Gerry was at Elstree when Pathfinders was in production, and I suppose I was the kind of star of the production because everybody expected it to fold for lack of scripts and by dint of working 48 hours a day it never actually did. That's the kind of thing that impressed Gerry!"

"After Pathfinders I did a feature film at Elstree. This was a musical for Cliff Richard called Take Me High. I haven't seen it for years and I think I'd be quite embarrassed by it now. When I was asked to do it I was no fan of musicals or Cliff Richard. I enjoyed it though and we all had a terrific time doing it. During that time Gerry was having early discussions about reviving UFO for a second series. Originally it was going to be called UFO 2 although I remember other working titles. I think The Space Ark was one of them. Eventually Gerry hit upon 1999 which had been a working title for a long time. Not many of us liked it but, as working titles tend to, it stuck. We all felt it was terribly derivative of 2001: A Space Odyssey and of course a lot of people working with Gerry at the time had also worked on that."

"The initial discussions were, I remember, how to develop the concept of UFO sufficiently to make it both recognizable with the first series and yet a development of it. I think they were planning to use the same cast. There was a big moment during a story discussion when the central idea of Space: 1999 was dropped in. I can't quite remember who it came from. It may have been Brian Johnson, Keith Wilson or it may even have been me. I remember there was a great surge of excitement for the idea that what was actually going to happen was that the moon was going to blast out of orbit. I think that was probably the moment when it ceased to be UFO and became something else. It seemed like a really good idea." He laughs heartily before explaining why his job had nearly gone to an American.

"Gerry and Sylvia wanted me to work on it and they were apologetic that ITC needed an American name script editor. I was very appreciative of that and I believe they went to the United States with the express purpose of finding somebody with whom I could work. I was very grateful to them for that. They found a man who indeed I got on very well with, and to this day George Bellak is a very close friend of mine. George got on extremely well with me but he very soon failed to get on with Gerry. George survived long enough to write the first and second drafts of the story that eventually became 'Breakaway' and he then went off back to the United States. 'The Void Ahead' was his title for it. In fact, quite a lot of what became 'Breakaway' is actually my work."

"George had a very much looser attitude than Gerry towards the mechanics of science fiction. He was much more interested in using science fiction as a vehicle for expanding awareness about ordinary human characters. He was much more interested in human character than Gerry was. He was less concerned with the mechanical plot process which Gerry had in mind, driven largely by the requirements of multi-commercial break broadcasts. George had much less patience with that than Gerry himself did. Also I think that there was a feeling, probably from Gerry, that George didn't have the level of commitment to Gerry and the series that he would expect. For George it was 'another job' and he was still busy writing plays for television in New York and Hollywood. He was living what is actually a very normal life for a freelance writer. Gerry, I think, felt he wasn't giving to Space: 1999 the full commitment he expected. I think also that George came to believe that the work he was doing in the United States was more important to him than the work he was doing on Space. I was very sorry to see George go; he was a very humanizing influence on the whole production. He was a very imaginative man and a very creative writer. We've kept in touch ever since and he's still a very good friend. He now writes books."

How much creative input did Gerry Anderson actually have to the series?

"Gerry had an incredible capacity for storytelling. He loved telling stories, but the problem with Gerry's storytelling was that as Executive Producer, once he'd hit upon a story and convinced himself it was going to work there was very little opportunity for those with him to convince him that maybe it wouldn't work. A lot of the delays we ran into were really delays caused by Gerry's inflexibility over what was often a brilliant story idea. He very often had a mind set which made it impossible for him to accept that in principle something was a good idea but there might be some other way around it. That was often a source of conflict."

"Equally, Gerry was very good when we had those kinds of difficulties in storytelling. He had an ability to cut through a story which had become muddled and inject it with a new sense of purpose. Creatively he was very strong like that. There was an upside and a downside of Gerry's effect on the storytelling."

"I remember Sylvia's input as being largely to do with the way things looked; the style of the series. She did have good contributions to make in story terms but she was never as strong as Gerry in that department. She was very good at enthusing people and encouraging them when difficulties loomed. In actual storytelling terms I don't remember Sylvia's contributions as being terribly significant."

What about the third member of the "Group Three" production team?

"As I remember, Reg Hill was the person who really systematized the process of making the models for the earlier series. He then became responsible for managing the marketing side of Gerry's business. He had a lot to do with the money side of it but I didn't often come into contact with him myself."

"I remember Martin Landau actually had quite a lot to do with the scripts. He certainly wanted his part to work in terms of character and at least needed to be assured that the scripts were going to work from his point of view. So too did Charles Chricton who was a marvellous director for us to be working with. He was also a marvellous break for Gerry who had enormous respect for Charles. I certainly felt it was a terrific privilege to work with him at that stage in my career. My approach to character was pretty much the same as Charles'."

I asked Christopher to explain why he chose Johnny Byrne, another young writer equally inexperienced with Anderson productions, as script editor.

"My approach to television has always been to try and find new writers and I can't now remember what the impetus was for me to call Johnny. I think it was his Play For Today called "Season Of The Witch" with Julie Driscoll [Actually it was The Wednesday Play, the older version of the BBC's anthology programme]. I hadn't met him before but I was interested in his work so I contacted him through his agent. Johnny hadn't actually written very much for television but I suppose nor had I. I think we both learned in tandem. Johnny was just one of the writers to start with but he came in from Cambridge where he was living and spent a lot of time at Pinewood. We had an office there where there was space for him to work so he became a kind of staff writer on the first series. He was very valuable."

"In normal terms the role of the script editor is to commission as well as to take the scripts through their various drafts. One of the things that happened very early on was that we were constrained by ITC to use some American writers. Eddie DiLorenzo was one, and he just happened to be living here so that was convenient. We all got involved in long transatlantic telephone conversations with American writers who had sent in material. We never really had the opportunity to sit with them face to face and tell them exactly what the series was about. It was a nightmare. It wasn't really possible for any of us to work in the conventional roles of story consultants and editors. In the end we all became, in effect, staff writers. As this went on Gerry realized this was hopeless as there was neither the resources nor the time to bring writers over, or take us over there. So this situation, which I think was largely set up by Abe Mandell (the head of ITC in New York),just wasn't working. In the end we became a combination of staff writers and script editors. Eddie wrote a few, I wrote a few, Johnny wrote a few and even the episodes which people like Anthony Terpiloff wrote contained a huge amount of rewriting."

What other forms did the influence exerted from New York take?

"It was relentless. Every time an episode was completed in script form it would be shipped off to ITC and they would make their comments. Unfortunately Gerry was very much enthralled to ITC when he felt his relationship with them was threatened. This was where a lot of disputes arose."

With a look of exasperation on his face he describes the often frustrating process of writing for so many "creative consultants."

"Often what happened was that we'd finally get a script we were all pleased with. Gerry was pleased with it, Martin was pleased with it and Charles was pleased with it. Off it went to ITC and back it came with comments that just tore at the fundamental structure of the thing. Gerry would say, 'Back to the drawing board...'"

"Even when the first episode was made they came with a car to Pinewood to take it all off. They did a Hollywood preview thing and computerized all the responses. Back came all the audience suggestions which were actually to make it as much like their previously experienced science fiction show as possible. It was very demoralizing to have to respond to that. We all felt that sufficient homage had been paid to the requirements of the American market in the way the whole thing had been set up in the first place. We also all felt that the way to succeed in the American market was actually to inject the quality of difference and the originality that we all had to bring to it. It was very dispiriting to feel that time and again when our work was assessed the criterion being used were existing shows of a similar kind. We felt the secret of success was to make it that much different."

He pauses, choosing his words very carefully.

"When people from outside Pinewood started interfering it was definitely a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. ITC allowed too many fingers to dip into it."

Playing devil's advocate, I argued that surely an American network sale was important to everybody involved.

"Well, 'The Avengers' was an example of British television being sold to the American network. The Avengers was a quintessentially English show and none of them had the courage to accept that the qualities we all had to bring could have provided Space: 1999 with the difference that would have given it the network sale. There were key English characters, like the Barry Morse character, which could have been played more English than they were. Having said that, his was the character I was most interested in."

Part 2

In an earlier Century 21 interview about Space: 1999 Johnny Byrne commented that there, "pretty much had to be 80% of John Koenig on screen Had Christopher Penfold encountered this "unofficial bible"?

"Well, I remember the synopsis of Alpha Child. I think the idea of a space child was one which, as I originally put it forward, focussed on another character in Moonbase Alpha. That was a case in point where I think Gerry said 'Let's make the child, in effect, Martin Landau's child.' I'm very hazy in my memory on that one, but in response to your question that was certainly an episode which I remember being turned very early from one fulcrum to another to make Martin the centre. We had a lot of respect for Martin; he's a fine actor. I'm not quite sure whether it was Gerry's perception of what Martin required, what ITC required or whether it came from Martin Landau himself. "

One thing that characterises the first season of Space: 1999 is that it features none of the writers from Gerry's puppet shows. One mainstay of earlier productions conspicuous by his absence is Tony Barwick.

"Tony had written a huge amount for Gerry in the previous three or four years; endless episodes of The Protectors and UFO and so on. He's an amazing craftsman and he was a perfect writer for Gerry Anderson because he could give Tony a brief on Friday night and know that on Monday a script would be available. A script which often let Gerry off a number of dangerous production hooks! They worked very successfully together although it may have been Gerry who perhaps recognised that he'd overused Tony."

What of the other writers employed on the first season?

"Anthony Terpiloff was American but he'd lived in England for many years. He'd written one of the finest television films I'd seen for a long time. It starred Anthony Hopkins, was called Poet Game and was about Dylan Thomas in New York. [The play was not explicitly about Dylan Thomas, but was very obviously based on him. Billie Whitelaw played his wife, and Barry Morse was in a supporting role. The BBC play aired in March 1972.] It was a brilliant piece of work so without Tony having any predilection for science fiction I knew he was a terrific writer and that was always my main criterion for commissioning writers. Eddie Di Lorenzo came via Lee Katzin who'd directed the first episode. That was very useful from Gerry's point of view because it gave him an American writer on the team. I also brought David Weir onto it as he was a imaginative and successful writer of episodes for series like The Avengers and Danger Man.

He was a very cerebral writer with lots of weird ideas, though there isn't actually very much of David's writing left in the scripts for which he's credited. Art Wallace was American and I think he's one of the writers with whom I had long trans-Atlantic telephone calls. Pat Silver and Jesse Lasky jnr. were friends of Sylvia's. They were husband and wife, though Jesse Lasky jnr. died a couple of years ago. They were both very nice people, but not the kind of writers I really wanted to have on the series. In my opinion they wrote very much on the surface and I wanted writers who, as I said, could give depth of character."

The first season directors included some of the finest British talent available. What were his feelings on them?

"I think Ray Austin was absolutely right for the series. Ray started off life as a stuntman and then he made a name for himself as an action director, in Hollywood I think. He had a terrific raw energy he brought to his episodes. Everything I say about him as a director was in a sense the opposite of what I was looking for in writers and maybe that was a good thing. David Tomblin has for years been assistant to Stanley Kubrick and Spielberg. David was a very good action director and I think he directed the first of Johnny's scripts (Force Of Life). I remember I didn't actually have a lot of faith in that script, much to Johnny's disgust!" he laughs. "However the combination of Ian McShane, David Tomblin and Johnny's perception of what they could do in terms of action film-making made it work."

I asked Christopher if he'd noticed any signs of the impending friction between Gerry and Sylvia as their marriage and business partnership neared its end.

"Yes, there were disputes. There were professional disputes which you could see had a personal edge to them. Occasionally Gerry would say, 'Right, we'll have a brainstorming session - let's get Sylvia in.' Sylvia would sit in on a script conference but she would often get impatient with Gerry, feeling she could make her contribution quite quickly and leave. As I recall, Gerry was very much the driving force. What he said usually went."

By the end of the first season, Sylvia Anderson wasn't the only member of the production team to have departed.

"Eddie Di Lorenzo never really fell into the mould of what Gerry required in terms of absolute dedication. Eddie had his own life to lead and his own interests. He regarded Space very much as just a job but within that he wanted to bring what he felt he had to offer to the series. Very often that was what Gerry stamped out. It became less and less satisfying for Eddie but I can't remember the exact circumstances under which he left."

"I left about three quarters of the way through the first series. The conflicts about presentation and development of character as opposed to what I thought was fairly cliched action came to a head. Gradually Gerry, who had a lot of confidence in me to start with, began to lose confidence. Clearly I was not willing to do the kinds of things which he wanted to have done. Looking back, I think the differences made for a way of working which put so much pressure on me in terms of the hours. I always felt that if I could present Gerry with a script he could read from cover to cover and feel good about, then that was the best way to convince him. I often did that, only to be forced to undo things later in order for Gerry to feel confident things were working in the script."

"We parted on reasonably good terms. I'm a very tolerant person and we didn't have any stand up rows. I've spoken with Gerry once or twice on the phone quite amicably."

"Freddy Frieberger later asked me to do an episode for the second series. I wrote Dorzak as a freelancer and I still haven't seen it! I felt that Freddy was a clever, but rather superficial influence on the series. I think he was pretty derivative and I only watched the second series for a little while. I didn't see all of them."

"I think I found Space exciting to work on because I wasn't really a science fiction buff, although it certainly opened my interest in science fiction. I wasn't ever saying, for instance, 'That was a good idea they had on Star Trek, let's see how we can adapt it.' I never had the background that enabled me to compare an idea with something that had gone before."

"I think, of the stories I wrote, the one that worked best was War Games. I think they were all good science fiction ideas. Dragons Domain was also good but I remember feeling that War Games was the most satisfactory one in terms of writing and production. Recently I've encountered some fans who look at me in disbelief when I tell them I wasn't on acid while writing that!" "You can't really see War Games now because it's been merged with Breakaway on the home video. As a combination video that doesn't make a lot of sense to anyone."

Looking back on Space:1999, did Christopher feel that it was perhaps the last epic British science fiction series?

"Well, I think there is a hole at the moment. The BBC have never really understood science fiction. I think Doctor Who is something they've handled for ever without ever really understanding. I remember when I was working for the BBC as a script editor Jonathan Powell would ask me to explain what science fiction was and how it worked. He even asked if I could come up with a new science fiction idea. At the time I wasn't interested in doing that but just lately I've come to think of it a bit more. I think the run of science fantasy that began with Star Wars has really run itself out. I like the idea of science fiction as a vehicle for extrapolating earthly human situations and looking at them in a different light. I think the time is right for a restoration of the kind of science fiction which actually does that."

What paths did his career take after he finished work on the series?

"I contributed three plays to a series called Kids which was about the problem of children in care. I'd also written a ninety minute play, again for London Weekend Television. The next big series I did after Space:1999 was actually science fact. It was a series for Thames called The Brack Report which was really an enquiry in dramatic form into nuclear power and the available alternatives. I really loved that, although it didn't actually emerge in the way that I would have liked. In transmission it got absolutely swamped by the Falklands war. If it wasn't for that it would have created a much bigger public stir than it did. The last episode was in effect the Sizewell enquiry about eight years before it actually happened. I was the first dramatist to be taken to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, and that was by Central Electricity Generating Board over the first episode."

Christopher's next brush with science fiction came when he wrote the second series of the BBC's ill-fated The Tripods in 1985 - the last minute unavailability of first season writer Alick Rowe dictating that he step in. Although the second season was generally better received than the first the BBC decided against dramatising the third book of the trilogy - much to Christopher's regret. "I became a script editor at the BBC and unofficially did a bit of Lovejoy. I then worked with Robert Banks Stewart on Call Me Mister but that wasn't a success. I later did One By One and then All Creatures Great And Small. I then took on a third project simultaneously which nearly broke me. I promoted from scratch a series called Truckers which Jan Needle wrote. It was pretty raunchy and could have been much stronger than it was. It was a good series and it could have gone on."

"I then left the BBC to become a producer. The first job I did was producing a science education series for Channel Four. The series never materialised but the experience told me I didn't want to spend my time being a producer. Since then I've been working as a freelance writer. In the last year I've contributed to The Bill, I've done East-Enders, Casualty, the last Christmas special for All Creatures and at the moment I'm doing a feature film for a French producer."

Before I left Christopher to the duel battle of a faulty central heating system and a blank word processor screen, I asked him how he felt about the imminent Space:1999 video releases.

"Obviously there's still a lot of interest in the series. It's been quite a surprise to discover Fanderson, Which I didn't know about till a couple of years ago when they first contacted me. There's obviously an embryonic cult following there. I know that it's always been very successful in limited cult terms in the United States. What I'd like to think is that it might revive an interest in, for want of a better term, 'thinking science fiction'. There's not much of that about and that's what I was trying to do with it."

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