Messing with Motown

Last night’s Australian Idol had a broad and straightforward theme: Motown. Plenty to choose from over two decades there, so what the hell was Emily (who I’ll admit has good pipes but who otherwise annoys the hell out of me) doing singing ‘River Deep Mountain High’? Yes, it’s a 60s classic, but in its infamous original recording by Ike & Tina Turner, it was not a Motown release. While it was covered some years later by The Supremes & The Four Tops, that doesn’t make it a Motown song — or if it does, then you could equally do a number by the Beatles or from the soundtrack of Funny Girl, since Motown acts covered those too.

Not good enough. And how Emily qualified for a touchdown when she had at least two dud notes is beyond me. I’m scared she’s going to be this year’s Casey Donovan — an annoyingly limited talent with a good sob story who gets championed by Mark Holden all the way to the finish line. Though if she is this year’s Casey, she won’t be selling many records in 2006.

Torchwood should be good, touch wood

Having spent more than a decade neglecting Doctor Who on screen, the BBC isn’t wasting any time catching up. Not only has it commissioned two further series of the show itself, it’s also now approved what is only the second televisual Who spinoff. (The first, K9 & Company, is not normally mentioned in polite company.)


Torchwood, due some time in 2006, will be an adult-oriented drama, set in Cardiff and featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the character portrayed by John Barrowman who created such a splash in the latter half of the latest Who run — not least because of his willingness to sleep with every passing alien, regardless of gender. Despite the name (an anagram of ‘Doctor Who’ used by the production team), Harkness himself, and a promise the story will be “seeded” in the next Who series, there’ll be no direct Who connections once it starts running. Russell T Davies, the main force behind the Who revival, is writing and producing.

On the whole, this can only be a good thing, though the fact that the series will go out on BBC Three and will have a modern-day setting suggests it won’t get the extravagant budget the Who series enjoyed. However, if all the other actors are of Barrowman’s calibre, it’s bound to come off well. Whether it means Captain Jack won’t appear in Who again remains to be seen.

(Incidentally, it’s a bizarre coincidence that the first post I’ve done post-Whovention is also Who-related . . . better broaden my celebrity gossip horizons pronto!)

Gusworld’s Whovention banquet photo frenzy

Clearly, I have no sense of restraint or shame. After coughing up a small fortune for a vaguely rare Who annual, I then splurged further amounts of money for the right to sit at the same table as India Fisher at Saturday night’s Whovention banquet. Obviously, this makes me seem like a complete deranged fanboy, but it made for a good evening (and kept the charity coffers filled). India’s outgoing, cheerful, full of good stories about the acting industry and living in London (I know nothing about the former and a reasonable amount about the latter), and was clearly enjoying her trip.

Having already sunk this far into low-grade public behaviour, I figured I might as well go the whole hog and get pictures with all the guests. So here they are.

Whovention 7: India Fisher

India Fisher: simply a lovely person.

Whovention 7: Deborah Watling

Deborah Watling: compact and charming.

Whovention 7: Frazer Hines

Frazer Hines: and I didn’t even mention Emmerdale.

Whovention 7: Rob Shearman and India Fisher

Rob Shearman, India Fisher and yours truly. Again.

I also asked Rob Shearman if he had in fact remembered my drunken remark about coming to Australia last year. It turns out he did, but, as he said, “I couldn’t imagine it was ever going to happen.” It was that kind of event.

Adultery, killing penguins, unwise disclosures and excessive spending

Spot the TARDIS . . .
While this Whovention is technically Doctor-less, having four international guests more than makes up for it. Today was largely dominated by interview sessions with the four imports, all of whom made for entertaining viewing.

Of course, if you’re a dedicated Who fan and you’ve read all the reference works, then the odds of any of the stars coming out with an anecdote you haven’t encountered before is fairly low. I often find the best bits are when the actors describe other elements of their career, since these are stories we haven’t run into before. Frazer Hines’ tales of what children tell him when invited on the stage during pantomimes (one young girl explained that she was there with Mummy and Uncle George, “the nice man who comes and stays when Daddy is driving his lorry”) were particularly amusing.

Whovention 7: Frazer Hines

Frazer emerges from the TARDIS to an applauding crowd.

Whovention 7: Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling

The stools were so high Frazer lifted Deborah onto hers for a later interview session.

I’ve tended to find at UK conventions that the people associated with Big Finish provide the best and freshest Who-related tales — quite possibly because they’ve done the work in question much more recently and haven’t been doing the convention circuit for twenty years or more. This was certainly the case today.

Rob Shearman gave a fascinating account of the writing process for Big Finish, which seems to involve a lot of random pitching of ideas in pubs followed by frantic creative bursts. We learnt that he can write an audio script in around two weeks; in contrast, work on ‘Dalek’ for the new TV series stretched for over a year. For that reason, he said he thinks it’ll be a while before he writes for TV Who again, if only because there are so many other projects he wants to pursue and committing to the series makes that largely impossible.

Whovention 7: Rob Shearman

Rob Shearman: exhausted by not getting an aisle seat on the flight over — which really does suck if you’re a tall guy!

Of his Big Finish scripts, he loved Robert Jezek’s performance as Frobisher in The Holy Terror and The Maltese Penguin, but really doesn’t fancy writing for penguins. He got his revenge by killing Frobisher in a short story for a fan anthology. Jubilee is about “an hour too long”, he reckons, though the central concept is good.

He enjoyed working on The Chimes Of Midnight but thinks that it leaves too many questions unresolved — he pitched it as a “haunted house that isn’t” story, and forced himself to write an episode a day, creating a series of “great cliff hangers” that he didn’t always get around to resolving. (Personally, I think it’s a great story.) The Unbound script Deadline is his personal favourite from his Big Finish, though he says he’s received loads of hate mail about it. And he wrote Scherzo, the Eighth Doctor/Charlie two-hander, on his honeymoon.

Whovention 7: India Fisher and Rob Shearman

“Is it too early to ask for a drink?”

Whovention 7: India Fisher and Rob Shearman

Forced to sit apart to reduce microphone interference.

India Fisher bubbled with enthusiasm over her trip to Australia so far (she’s been here for a week and is hanging around for another fortnight after the convention finishes). She kept mischievously pointing out that since Big Finish producer Gary Russell wasn’t here (he’s a constant presence at UK conventions, and has been at the last couple of Whoventions as well), she could say whatever she liked about him. “Of course, with the Internet it’ll get back to him even before I’ve said it,” she added. So for the record: Gary never tells anyone anything until the last minute, often casts actors with just a couple of day’s notice, and is infamous for only wanting a single take when directing. None of this would cause him any sleepless nights, I suspect.

Whovention 7: India Fisher

India (shoeless for comfort) smiles at the crowd.

India’s keen to pursue more comedy work (ideally in a Catherine Tate-style sketch show), but says she’s very happy doing audio work, which is coming her way in ever-increasing volumes thanks to her ongoing work with Big Finish (where she’ll soon have done more than 30 stories). She boasted that only she and Nicholas Courtney had full copies of the script for the anniversary story Zagreus, since printing a full script for everyone would have consumed huge numbers of trees.

Whovention 7: The assembled guests

During the lunchbreak, we got another treat: the first public screening of ‘Paris In The Springtime’, the making-of documentary that will feature on the DVD release of City Of Death. This was both informative and amusing, neatly mixing archive footage and documents, contemporary interviews and even a cartoon-style retelling of ‘A Gamble With Time’, the story which Douglas Adams was forced to rewrite radically over a single weekend to create the finished script.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point out that, as usual, I became consumed with competitive envy during the charity auction and ended up paying a small fortune for a signed Doctor Who 2005 annual. Well, it is for charity, after all, and it did boast a bunch of signatures from contributors to the annual (including Rob Shearman, Clayton Hickman, Steven Moffatt, Tom MacRae and Dave Houghton) who I’ll probably never track down otherwise.

Whovention 7: The assembled guests, again

Trivial? Who?

Whovention 2005 kicked off on Friday night with a traditional staple of fan conventions: the trivia night. From my own point of view, this had the potential to be highly embarrassing. If you dumped me in a room with 20 random strangers, the odds are good that I’d know more about Doctor Who than any of them. If you dumped me in a room with 20 Who fans, however, I’m likely to be one of the least informed.

I blame the fact that I’m obsessed with so many other things as well — if I could convince myself to just have one major obsession/collecting interest/tragic hobby, I would really be able to specialise. But that ain’t gonna happen. So my normal tactic is to volunteer to write down the answers — I might not know much about the topic, but I can do a reasonable impersonation of a secretary.

In the event, our team table managed to perform quite respectably (we never deluded ourselves we were going to win a prize), and I even came up with a couple of answers that no-one else at the table knew. It helped that all the questions were in fact Who-related: at previous Whoventions, there have been other sci-fi related questions, which always throw me completely. We totally sucked at one of the picture rounds — naming characters from various stories over the years — but did manage the improbable feat of identifying a Portugese translation of a Who Target novel.

India Fisher and Frazer Hines help read the answers.

In truth, half the reason everyone shows up at trivia nights is to get an extra chance to gawk at the celebrity guests. All four of this year’s overseas imports — India Fisher, Frazer Hines, Rob Shearman and Deborah Watling — appeared, and Shearman demonstrated his fanboy credentials by helping his table get the top trivia score (even though he left early and skipped the third round, which was entirely about the 2005 series). India was, as usual, charming and self-deprecating, Frazer always comes alive at these gatherings and Deborah made the customary jokes about being short. The lighting in the room was lousy for photography (as you can see), but hopefully there’ll be more opportunities tomorrow. All in all, a great start to the event.

If at first you don’t succeed, rake up the old stuff

Darren Hayes’ second solo album, The Tension And The Spark, was infinitely better than his first, Spin, but largely failed to set the charts on fire. So now his record company is pursuing the inevitable commercial course: whipping up a Savage Garden greatest hits compilation, Truly Madly Completely, just in time for the ever-lucrative Christmas market.

Cross-promotion ahoy!While the band only released two albums before breaking up, they did actually have enough singles success to make the concept of a greatest hits album less laughable than one involving, say, Sabrina. Indeed, some fans online have criticised the fact that not every single has been included (‘Universe’ and ‘Chained To You’ are the obvious exclusions, though I’m personally not worried by the former’s exclusion).

Instead — and in the absence of any attempt to get the band to reform — what we get are two new Darren Hayes tracks, ‘So Beautiful’ and ‘California’, plus five B-sides which form an almost-complete selection of the band’s non-album tracks. For no obvious reason that I can discern, however, ‘Memories Are Designed To Fade’, one of my favourite SG obscurities, has been excluded.

‘So Beautiful’ is also set for single release, and will apparently appear on a new Hayes album due next year as well. Whether this kind of cross-marketing will help it sell better than Tension is another matter.

Of course, none of this is going to stop me from buying the compilation, but I can’t help but imagine that we’ll be subjected to a more comprehensive anthology in a few years time. In the meantime, this release might finally give me an incentive to update the long-moribund track-by-track listing for the band I started so many moons ago. But don’t let the anticipation kill you.

Rendell speaks out

Updated the Ruth Rendell section of my site with this interview transcript from a recent appearance on NPR. Rendell has been slogging the promotional trail in the US for Thirteen Steps Down (which came out everywhere else in the world a year or so ago), and will presumably face a similar series of tasks for the next Wexford, End In Tears, when she returns to England. The interview itself doesn’t offer much new information — it’s one of those ‘we’ve got a list of prepared questions and we’re not going to deviate just because you’ve said something interesting’ affairs — though I’m sure that Crown (her US publisher) is grateful for the exposure.

Whovention ahoy!

The Chimes Of Midnight, authored by a certain R. ShearmanThis weekend, I’ll be happily attending Whovention 7, the latest in the Doctor Who Club of Australia’s series of biannual get-togethers. Given the success that the new series has enjoyed, I imagine things will be a tad more crowded than at previous Whoventions, which can only be a good thing, really.

One of the special guests at this year’s event is Rob Shearman, who has written half-a-dozen audio dramas for the Big Finish range of audios, as well as the Dalek episode from this year’s TV series. I had a quiet chuckle to myself when I learnt Rob was attending. On my regular trips to the UK, I often attend UK Who conventions — they’re much more frequent over there, in large part because the actors and other Who celebs don’t have to travel very far to get to them. At the Dimensions get-together last November, Rob was one of the guests, and during a rather drunken conversation with him at the bar, I suggested that he should line himself up to be a guest at the next Australian convention. I have no idea if this half-tanked suggestion had any direct influence, but on the other hand, he is showing up . . .

Australia’s technology future

The new issue of the Bulletin that hits stands today has a fairly lengthy article by me on Australia’s technology prospects, complete with a couple of nifty sideboxes that possibly have more news in them than the main overview article. It’s part of a series the magazine has been running on how the land down under will look in the near future. Fun article to write, though I had to complete it to a rather tight deadline only to have it held off for an issue — a not uncommon occurrence in the world of news weeklies.