"You must be joking " In conversation with Roger Damon Price by Jackie Clark. Saturday 10th and 17th September 2005.
© Jackie Clark Sept 2005
At first I wasn't sure how to break the ice with the man who has had such a huge influence on my life, but as soon as we got chatting his jovial and quick-witted nature put me at ease. My first question was the obvious one: "Were you really inspired by a meeting with David Bowie?" At first I thought he had confirmed this, but Roger has now told me that this is not entirely true; something which I find a little unsettling as I've been including it as fact in materials written for various DVD extras for years.
Roger did meet David on the set of a talk show he was directing for Granada - most likely in the greenroom. They agreed on quite a few things, in particular the idea of the next stage of humans being Homo Superior. Roger feels that the lyrics to 'Oh! You Pretty Things' were most likely inspired by The Tomorrow People, rather than the other way around as is usually reported. He knows that David Bowie did watch the series. At the time David was very concerned that people in the industry were trying to influence the way he dressed, behaved etc. and Roger recalls telling him to ignore them and be himself; advice which he gave to most of the young people he worked with during his long career.
I also enquired about the poem which has been linked with the genesis of the show, and was corrected in my assumption that it was of Scottish origin. It was, in fact, written by a Lebanese poet. The full text goes like this.
The PROPHET, by Kahlil Gibran
Roger is proud of his work on The Tomorrow People, especially as it was made on a shoestring compared to the budget given to Doctor Who at the time. He was also pleased to have the opportunity to be so innovative in his approach, successfully producing special effects never tried before. The producer of Doctor Who actually called him up, and asked how he managed to make people jaunt while others moved in the shot. He didn't tell her, and it was two years before the BBC figured it out for themselves. There seem to be a lot of those kind of tricks built into the TP - others in the business had to play catch-up. In Roger's opinion it was always possible, and didn't really cost very much. All it took was for someone to be creative and inventive in their approach.
My next question was going to be how the show was commissioned, but once Roger got into full flow, everything that I'd planned to ask was answered quite spontaneously. Most of the time he had me giggling along with him, as he recounted the varied jobs of his long career in TV.
A short while afterwards, Roger was at lunch in a very plush London restaurant with Darryl Zanuck (producer of 'The Longest Day') when a stranger approached. This newcomer turned out to be a senior executive with A.B.C. TV, and after introductions and a discussion of the concept behind the TP, the executive offered to make the TP a joint US/UK venture. Roger put the idea to the Thames executives, who immediately turned it down, despite the offer of a much larger budget. They simply didn't want any American influence on the show. This is ironic, as it was an American company who, 15 years later, pushed for the making of the 90s series.
When asked about the 90s series, Roger sighed, and it was obvious that he found the second incarnation of his show rather disappointing. He admitted that it was involvement by Nickelodeon executives that convinced him to walk away and leave others to finish the series. Prior to the New Series being commissioned, Roger knew that his shows were having a major influence on Nickelodeon's audience, and resulted in considerable growth in subscriptions to this previously small-scale cable channel. "Word of mouth between youngsters in the playground is far better than any advertising campaign could ever be," he told me. But, in his opinion, as Nickelodeon grew so did the number of top executives. "It's okay having one exec coming onto the set," he said, "but once you run out of seats, you realise the company has become too top heavy". Roger explained that he did want a connection with the original Tomorrow People, and confirmed that he asked Philip to play TIM in the spaceship, but unfortunately the decision was made to cut all ties with the original.
During our conversation Roger frequently imitated interesting accents when recounting a funny story from his life, the best of which were Scottish accents. I asked him about the Scottish connection with the TP, and he confirmed that one definitely existed. His grandmother was Scottish, and she raised him during the war years. He also spent many happy family holidays camping there. On one occasion he arrived in a small village and asked for somewhere to pitch his tent. The local post-mistress directed him to a beautiful spot by the seashore where the water was crystal clear - obvious inspiration for the Scottish village in 'The Visitor'. He was warned to look out for the local landowner, and after some days spotted a giant of a man in a kilt walking toward him across the hills. Approaching the man, he asked whether he was the landowner, and the man's reply was: "You cannot own God's good Earth!" which seems to me very like Bruce Forbes, Andrew's father in 'Castle of Fear.' When this connection was put to Roger, he commented on how astute the observation was (and I have to give credit to Elizabeth Stanway for pointing it out to me when she read the draft of this article). Roger had not seen the correlation before, but agreed that much of that character was based on this man.
The school depicted in 'Doomsday Men' was a direct comment upon Gordonstoun, attended by one of Roger's friends. An establishment where, according to his friend, they endured no glass in the windows, had to wear kilts all the time and were served cold porridge.
By now I was getting a very good idea of Roger's many and varied inspirations for characters and scenes included in the show. The next obvious question was specifically about where the ideas came from. When Roger was a child there was no television, and most people listened to the radio. Roger was fascinated by shows like 'Dick Barton: Special Agent' and 'Journey Into Space'.
After finishing his time in the army (as a paratrooper - something he chose because they didn't have to wear ties as part of their uniform), Roger wrote to every existing UK TV company, but was immediately turned down by their personnel departments - usually because he didn't have a degree. He then bought the 'Film and Television Yearbook', and decided to write to thirty or forty producers instead. In his letter he said that he didn't actually want a job, just a few minutes of their time to ask how to get a job in TV. From these he received three replies and arranged short meetings during which he could ask about how to break into TV work. The first executive he spoke to asked him why he wanted to work in TV and Roger replied that he had been inspired by a particular show. The show turned out to be one produced by the man in question.
Roger showed him some photographs and asked to be considered as a trainee cameraman, but the executive threw the photos back at him, saying that he was a rubbish photographer. The man then took a closer look at Roger's introductory letter, and was so impressed by the style he offered him a position as a writer instead. "How much do you want and when can you start?" At that time this particular man had been sent a list of 480 graduates all hoping to work in TV, and he had to make a decision whether or not to call some of them for interview. In the end he offered Roger the position he was currently trying to fill. In Roger's words: "I met him at just the right moment."
So, the following Monday Roger found himself sitting in his first ever production meeting, working on a show called 'Midland Montage'. He was feeling very pleased with himself and leant back confidently on his chair. Suddenly the chair slipped, and Roger fell through the plate-glass window, landing in the street below. Saved from injury by his paratrooper training, he then tried to regain entry to the building, but no one recognised him and they refused to let him in. This experience didn't seem to put Roger off, and within weeks he was doing more than just writing for the show. His career then went from strength to strength, alternating from documentary work to children's programming. By the time he was 22 years old he had fulfilled most of the ambitions that many people take a lifetime to achieve. But in all this time, Roger's greatest love was for comedy.
One day he was speaking with an executive at Thames, and suggested a sketch show using untrained kids from Anna Scher's stage school doing comedy scenes. "You must be joking!" exclaimed the executive - and the show was born. Roger returned later on with ideas for a follow-up series, and once again the executive didn't quite believe what he was hearing. "You can't be serious?" was his reply the rest is history!
While the topic was on the role of comedy writing, I had to enquire about Roger's use of comedy in The Tomorrow People. He remarked that he had always wanted to write comedy, and as the TP was his only outlet he allowed it to creep into the scripts. It wasn't until after Thames gave him a comedy show to write alongside the TP that he could get it out of his system and return to darker stories. He always thought that those stories worked best. And his favourite? 'Dirtiest Business', for its gritty story line.
After finishing the Tomorrow People, Roger wanted to continue working in comedy, but had to go to Canada in order to get a show commissioned. It was here that he made 'You Can't Do That on Television', starring Christian Tessier, a show which he has a great affection for even today.
Christian's break into acting was not exactly as most of us would imagine. One day Roger was holding open interviews for youngsters to appear in 'You can't do that ' and was waiting in the cafeteria, casting his eyes over the crowd looking for potential talent. "It wasn't down to looks," he told me, "it was a kind of magnetism." A short while later, Roger noticed Christian leaving with his father and he dashed to reception to inquire about this redheaded kid. It transpired that Christian was not at the studios in order to audition; he had come that day to buy tickets to one of the shows made there. Roger ran to the car park and just managed to stop Christian's father from driving away. The young man had never even considered becoming an actor, but Roger managed to persuade him to try out for the part. From this beginning he went on to star as Megabyte in the New Series Tomorrow People.
Roger's suspicion for, and disdain of, authority figures has always been clearly apparent in the TP. When asked whether this was deliberate, he immediately replied: "Oh yes, definitely!" He then described himself as a left-wing anarchist who deliberately introduced many of the anti-war messages into the TP. Trained as a paratrooper during national service at the height of the Cold War, he was assured that, if he were to be dropped behind enemy lines, the Russian people would welcome him as a liberator from Communism. With his characteristic approach towards authority, Roger asked whether Russian troops would experience the same thing from the workers at Ford if they were dropped in Dagenham. Such comments didn't go down well with his commanding officer.
Roger told me about the many influences on his life and ideology; including his time at prep school, where he said he was "traumatised". He also described feuding with his teachers at a private German school close to the Swiss border, where he was taught how to think, rather than what to think, as most schools of the time seemed to do. Later in his school career he went to a boy's boarding school on the Isle of Wight, where the Headmaster was quite a rebel and encouraged free speech and pacifist ideals. All of these influences can be noticed in his writing - if you look deeply enough.
Nonetheless, he now acknowledges that some aspects of what appeared in the show were somewhat overdone - the ribbing of traffic wardens and others sometimes exceeding what was called for. "I watched the traffic warden scene just a few weeks ago and it made me cringe," he admitted. He now feels that a lot of the comedy was out of place in the Tomorrow People.
I went on to ask about 'A Man For Emily', suggesting that Roger wrote this script in order to persuade Thames to give him his own comedy show. "Oh, my God! That didn't belong," he exclaimed. "But it wasn't the reason why I wrote it. The idea of the story was that, even in those days, the media was misrepresenting real life. Everyone knew that the inclusion of comedy was having a detrimental affect on The Tomorrow People, but in those days the way TV companies worked meant that I had a lot of creative freedom. People thought: if Roger wants to put comedy into his show then that's his business - no one would interfere. Perhaps they should have?"
Digressing for a moment, Roger explained a little about the nature of TV in the 1970s. At that time, the BBC and ITV produced about the same amount of original programming. The BBC employed 27000 people, whereas the ITV network had only 6000. This made a real difference to the quality of what was made. These days, people in America are always saying how great early UK TV shows were and attributing them to the BBC, when in fact most of them were made by ITV who, due to their size, allowed the directors and producers much greater freedom. This in turn created much more interesting programmes.
Roger built many of his shows around the individual characteristics of the cast, believing that this was the way to bring out the best in the kids he worked with. He disliked over-rehearsed shows and commented that the TP had way too much rehearsal time; usually one week for each half-hour show. This was borne out by a fascinating story about Roger's work with Jack Wilde. It occurred over the Christmas period when they were preparing a series of five fifteen-minute shows to be broadcast by the BBC in the 'Jackanory' time slot. They had a rehearsal room booked for a full three weeks for Roger, Jack and a chaperone. After two days Jack asked why they kept repeating the scenes, and Roger told him it was to help learn the lines. Jack announced that he already knew all the lines, and went on to prove he did by reciting them all by heart. Roger immediately packed up, and they all went home.
Some time later, during the filming of 'Oliver', Roger returned to work with Jack on the first ever 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary, which was about Jack's life. This required a film crew to arrive at Jack's home at 5 am every morning, and set up to film him rising and having breakfast etc. One day while they were waiting for the crew to install some lights, Jack, who was only thirteen at the time, sat beside Roger on the stairs and said in a voice well beyond his years: "Sometimes, Roger Price, I rue the day I ever met you "
I asked him about 'The Blue and the Green', which is always hailed as the best science fiction of the stories, but Roger sighed and replied that that story was dragged out for too long and not the best. "What about 'Into the Unknown'?" I asked. "That one was very long and boring, and not written by you." Roger then told me how Thames had asked him to re-write it because he was under contract and obliged to do so. But in fact he didn't change a thing, and it went ahead exactly as originally written. I got the feeling that he was losing interest in the show by this point in its long run.
To Roger, any script was just a guide and he was always happy for the cast to exchange lines or give their input into the story. Roger then confessed that at the end of each series he planned to finish it, and would always write that the characters were all killed. Ruth Boswell would come flying into the room once she read it, and beg him to give it a proper ending. I confessed to being in tears at the end of 'Revenge of Jedikiah', thinking as a child that that was the end of the show for good, only to be very relieved when it did return. Roger confirmed that he most likely did intend that to be the very last story.
On working with Ruth Boswell, Roger commented that their relationship was rather like cat and dog. They didn't dislike each other, but disagreed on a lot of things over the production. He feels that this friction was helpful to the show's eventual success, an abrasive relationship adding to the creative process. He described their relationship as sandpaper being rubbed against a match. "What do you get? Fire!" He remarked that Ruth was always questioning him about the show. Looking back, perhaps she didn't do it enough - particularly when they were recording 'A Man for Emily'. Roger went on to explain how she had a very difficult role to fill, and that she did it wonderfully. He needed someone to stand up to him. "She had the title, but I had the power," he commented. "I haven't given her enough credit over the years - for all she did for the show."
Our conversation was winding down to a natural end by now, so I asked Roger to send a message to the fans. He thought about this for a moment, then said the following.
"It's a pity that there isn't anything like the TP in reality. I really did feel as a kid that we might be special and different, but I guess every generation feels that."
I then put the million-dollar question: would he consider making the TP again? "No," he replied. "If I was to do sci-fi again it wouldn't be TP at least not the same sort of show." I then mentioned the CDs, which he seemed to know very little about. "No one asked me my permission," he commented, "but I'm glad they are doing it and it sounds like they are enjoying themselves." He then remarked that he found the commentaries on the DVDs very amusing, and that it's their inclusion which make the releasees interesting.
Were there other stories/scripts written to follow 'War of the Empires'? I asked. At first Roger thought he hadn't actually written this story at all, then he recalled that he did write it, but had moved to Canada to work on other shows by this time and had very little to do with the production. "Yes," he confirmed, "there are more stories I have them in the attic somewhere " (And what we said next is between him and me ;-)
I also mentioned the varied and high quality fan fiction out on the web, and encouraged Roger to look at various web sites and consider reading some of the excellent stories. As we said our goodbyes, I asked whether he would be in touch again. "Anything is possible in the future. I was never hiding "
My last question is most pertinent to those nitpickers amongst us who write fan fiction. How do you spell Barlumin? Is it with a B, or was it written in the script as Volumin? After a few seconds thought, Roger said: "B. a. r. l. u. m. i. n."
I would like to send a huge personal thank you to Roger for taking time out to speak with me in such detail. It was a pleasure. I have always wanted the chance to thank him for the inspiration the Tomorrow People gave me to my life, career and politics. And now, at long last, I have had that opportunity All there is left for me to do is break out!
© Jackie Clark Sept 2005
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