I think it hit the zeitgeist; I think the branding Dangerous Visions is a very good one. It kind of says on the label what’s in the tin. The audience seemed to really go for it. Seasons come, seasons go on Radio 4, but it was one of those moments where you could just tell the audience really locked into what we were doing.
The history of doing science fiction on Radio 4 may be a long one, but it’s not a particularly detailed history; I think that science fiction has a really strong role to play within the drama on the network, and I think it’s one of those things that when you create a bubble around it, it has more of an impact than just drip feed it through the schedule. We were very pleased with the reception.
You’ve got a similar format this season: adaptations of classics and a lot of new material…
If it ain’t broke, don’t fiddle around with it, is my view.
I’m not sure he is the pivot. Philip K. Dick and Bradbury have got level pegging there. They’re two key writers in the genre who come at it from two very different angles.
I think the extraordinary thing about Ray Bradbury is that those stories are now over half a century old, and yet they still feel really current. The important thing for us on Radio 4 is to do science fiction that cuts through and resonates. J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is also half a century old but it still feels incredibly prescient. I think you can say the same about both Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury: they haven’t dated. Their fingers were so on the pulse of the future that the future is only just catching up with them.
The stories in Brian’s adaptation – there’s ‘Kaleidoscope’, which feels like a precursor of Gravity…
That’s an extraordinary story!
And it turns up at the end of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star; and then there’s ‘Zero Hour’ which is being turned into a network series in the States. Why were those – and ‘Marionettes, Inc.’ – chosen from all the stories in The Illustrated Man, or is this just The Illustrated Man Part 1?
We sat down together with the two production teams of The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, and worked out how we could complement each other and get a progression out of two collections which in some ways interlock, and in other ways are totally distinct. We chose the stories out of The Illustrated Man which weren’t too close to The Martian Chronicles. The only other proviso that I gave to [producer] Gemma Jenkins was that we don’t do ‘The Veldt’, because we did a version of that five or six years ago, which won a Sony Award and is really familiar. The other important thing that we wanted to do with The Illustrated Man was to make sense of the overarching narrative around the tattooist. That was the guiding principle behind the choice of the stories; whether or not we do some more I haven’t really thought about that very much. I’m just very keen to see how this one plays out.
The thing which struck me about The Martian Chronicles, which I hadn’t read before, is they are so American. They’re so much about the frontiersmen of America, and the world of Mars is kind of a cross between deep space and the badlands of Texas, with a bit of Ancient Greece thrown in. Just from a sociological, anthropological point of view, they’re just brilliant stories about the way we live now in America.
The Illustrated Man, there’s a kind of perversity about the stories which is extraordinary. As two collections of stories, they are brilliant, and I don’t think Radio 4 would want to do science fiction which didn’t have that underlying brilliance to them.
I enjoyed last year’s new stories perhaps slightly more than the adaptations, perhaps because I’m not the world’s greatest J.G. Ballard fan…
There we differ.
I went with the offers which I thought were strongest. We built the commissioning around Trevor Preston. I think he is one of the great screenwriters. When Toby Swift said that Trevor had this novel in his bottom drawer that he’d written several years ago, and wanted to revisit it and turn it into a drama – I didn’t know if it was going to be a Dangerous Vision or not – I leapt at the opportunity.
The interesting thing about Trevor is he’s written three or four plays for us over the past four or five years which have been extraordinary and really unlike the screenplays he made his reputation with. He’s a writer I will bite people’s hands off to get on the network.
That was the driving force behind the original writing for Dangerous Visions. It was only when I started reading the novel that I thought, ‘this is absolute Dangerous Visions territory’. If anything, it was probably Trevor’s novel that decided me we should run a second Dangerous Visions.
Last year, there was a 15-minute strand in the morning – The Testament of Jessie Lamb; this year there are three readings in a late night slot. Was this just to mix things up a bit?
Yes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but much as I liked Jessie Lamb, I felt it sat slightly uncomfortably in that slot, whereas I think the Afternoon Dramas played out very well and the Saturdays and the Classic Serials also played out very well. There was nothing burning a hole in my pocket thinking ‘We’ve got to put something in there’ but I was quite keen to keep the brand running across other strands. The readings that Gemma Jenkins has produced seemed to fit into what we were doing. We’re pleased to have those. There’s no kind of deep conspiracy theory around why we haven’t commissioned anything for the morning!
I liked Jessie Lamb – it’s a very disturbing book – but it didn’t feel like a mid-morning listen to me, whereas something like Billions, Ed Harris’ Afternoon Drama, felt perfectly at home in the afternoon. I was keen to continue the brand across the afternoon, but marginally less keen in the morning.
At one point I was thinking maybe we should run The Illustrated Man across those, but I think it’s better to create an entire unity around the Bradbury collections because they cast a very distinct spell. One of the things I was concerned about was keeping the narrative going so it wasn’t too broken-backed; I think they work very well as this collection of very strange stories.
Sibley always seems to bring things out of the stories you might not notice otherwise…
The thing that’s coming up which Brian is working on at the moment is [T.H. White’s] The Once and Future King. I’m very excited about that; it starts on November 11th. It’s a six-part Classic Serial. The treatment that Brian and co. pitched to me was utterly compelling – their take on The Once and Future King is dead clever… and that’s all I’m telling you!
Thanks to Emma Russell for her help with arranging this interview.
Dangerous Visions begins on Saturday 14th June; all plays will be available via iPlayer for 7 days after broadcast. Full details can be found here