As part of our series of articles turning the spotlight on publishers in the independent sector (our sequel to last year’s Books! The Best Weapons in the World! – A Guide to Independent Doctor Who Publishing feature), this week we’re taking a look at What Noise? Productions.
“Four or five years ago,” says David Darlington, “the notion of running my own production-cum-publishing company would barely have crossed my mind; I'd have said I had quite enough to do as it was. Essentially the genesis of What Noise lay in my being directly offered, out of the blue through contacts in the audiobook industry, the chance to produce an audiobook of the autobiography of actress Sheila Steafel, the print edition of which had just been published by a company called Apex. After a lot of detailed thought, I realized the only way to do this properly – unabridged and all – was to do it completely on my own; trying to pitch it to another company, even one of the other companies for which I already worked, would have been an agonizingly slow process, with a lot of guaranteed effort but no guarantee of success. But always at the forefront of my mind with Sheila's book was that, commercial considerations aside, I really wanted to make that project happen – I believe that it's an excellent piece of work that thoroughly deserves to be read and heard. So I did it myself – and thus was a production company born...
“Connections between What Noise and the world of Doctor Who/SF/telefantasy are a bit semi-detached. My involvement with Doctor Who actor Matthew Waterhouse came about because, as freelancers are wont to do, I hustled a few ideas, one of which was pitching to Hirst Books the idea of doing audiobooks of some of their titles. Matthew and I recorded a couple – abridgements of his Doctor Who memoir Blue Box Boy and his first novel Fates, Flowers – before Hirst seemed to cool on the idea rather. Instead of abandoning the project mid-stream, I – as I had with When Harry Met Sheila – just took on the responsibility myself. I decided around then to make a proper recording and production of Tony Keetch's brilliant Dennis Wheatley horror spoof The Devil Take Your Stereo – this was an idea he'd first had for a one-man stage show which we'd tried out in audio form, and various half-baked demo versions of which we'd been playing around with for years without ever really committing to anything useful. Add to that my long-standing wish to adapt my friend Francis O'Dowd's kids' fantasy novel Wishhobbler into audio form, and suddenly I had not just a company but a catalogue...
“Because I already have a day-job producing talking books for the RNIB plus a lot of freelance audio and writing commitments – to Big Finish, AudioGO and DWM among many others – What Noise was, for the first couple of years, basically a hobby commitment. It's only in the last year or so that the company has stepped up output and branched out into new arenas. The most high-profile venture – slightly out of Starburst's remit, I suspect – has been the audiobook adaptation of Scottish crime novelist Chris Brookmyre's collected short stories, Jaggy Splinters. I've adored Brookmyre's work since his very first novel Quite Ugly One Morning – I'd hugely recommend his current Jasmine Sharp series, plus his 2006 novel A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil, which I've read five or six times – and I'm delighted with the result, not least because Chris himself contributed to the finished product as a narrator. Matthew Waterhouse and I discussed options open to him once his original print publisher went under; we both wanted to keep his various books, his Doctor Who memoirs most obviously, in print. I'd also been in conversation with Doctor Who scriptwriter Chris Boucher about possibly producing an audiobook version of his fan-published novelisation of his troubled but brilliant 1987 TV series Star Cops; that was put on the back-burner during a period of enforced inactivity for me, and eventually I decided to put out the print edition in the first instance; thus the 'Head Music' imprint came into being.
“(For those interested, the two names are inspired by the names of favourite albums by Kissing The Pink and Suede respectively. When I set up the company, it was a toss-up between 'What Noise' and 'Head Music'; the former won out as the latter sounded too much like a music record label rather than an audiobook/drama publisher – however, it was later to present itself as a great name for a print publishing imprint.)
“In terms of print titles, we have all Matthew Waterhouse's books and the remarkable Star Cops novel plus e-books of Wishhobbler and Tony Keetch's brilliant Desmond Stirling memoir The Devil Talks The Hindmost available at the moment – all of which I'm very pleased with – plus a few plans simmering away...
“Having become a co-producer of Big Finish's Dark Shadows range in late 2012 on top of all my sound and production commitments to both them and AudioGO, I'm quite prepared for any growth for What Noise to be slow, gradual and sustained; the 'ethos' of the company, if it can rather grandiosely be said to have such a thing, is only to commit to projects that really interest me enough to devote time to them, rather than throwing shit at the wall. I'm hoping in the near future to commission another independent producer to take charge of a couple of projects, including a full-cast drama and an anthology e-book, plus I have Matthew Waterhouse's third novel, Precious Liars, currently in production for release in a few months.
“I've been appreciating the energy of many of the small-press publishers surrounding Doctor Who and TV-related publishing at the moment – a lot of work is clearly being produced as much for love as for money, which is healthy. As a reader, you don't have to want to read everything to appreciate their existence, but it's nice to be able to pick up a couple of things here and there – like, say, Keith Miller's Doctor Who fan club memories, Richard Marson's JNT book, or the Justyce Served book about the Audio Visuals fan audio drama series – which simply could not have existed in previous generations. I'd like to think What Noise and Head Music will stay in touch with that...”
Precious Liars by Matthew Waterhouse
(Excerpt from the forthcoming novel)
A deep rose red butterfly smears the dawn sky over the city. It descends earthward towards Washington Square and then up, over the roofs of Jones Street, where it drops again, passing a large billboard advertising a Broadway thriller, on which a black shadowy figure wielding a knife stands against a background of red so exactly the butterfly’s red that for a moment the tiny wing-beating creature is lost. Then it is a blood-red teardrop on the cheek of the hunched black shadow. It moves downward. The shadow weeps blood.
Now it has left the printed image and is backgrounded by brownstone: a red petal against the bark of oak.
It is late September now, but Leo Berger Levin is dressed in a summery white suit, and a white brimmed hat shadows his eyes. He is aged perhaps sixty, slim, standing on the sidewalk of empty, noiseless Bleecker Street breathing in the early morning coolness of the unwoken West Village. An early drifter crosses the far end of the street. It is not yet six fifteen. Leo is leaning against a pink Rolls Royce, its interior lined with teak. He has never learnt to drive, but this morning he has driven this car with wild exhilaration.
The butterfly swirls over him and touches down ever so lightly on the roof of the car where it rests for just a moment, a tiny cherry dolloped onto a huge strawberry sundae.
The butterfly rises to Leo’s white-suited arm. Leo beams, and he says, “Damn you, Lucius!” and lets out an enormous laugh which bowls down the street. The butterfly hops onto his first finger and then it is off again, in a silent swoop across Bleecker, streaking the air with its colour until it is lost to Leo’s sight though for a second after it has gone a ghost of red remains to his eye, a splash of paint against a whitening sky.
The butterfly comes onto Minetta Lane, approaching the windows of the 33 Minetta Lane building, where Tony and Peter are standing in their kitchen. Tony fills two squat glasses with orange juice. He hands one fat drum of sunlight to Peter and holds his own up for a moment, to see the revolving flecks of pulp. Just as he holds the glass to the light, the butterfly passes, its redness seen through the heart of the orange, a ball of hot fire.
The butterfly’s wings trigger a memory for both Tony and Peter: a memory of red. Because they have been lovers for longer than they were not, each can see the memory come to the other, as if it’s etched on an eyeball.
“Ah yes,” says Tony to Peter while Peter sips his fresh-squeezed orange juice, “the Shakespeare Lady. There’s a kind of wild red, always makes me think of her.” Peter is in his dressing gown, Tony in nothing but a black t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Billie Holiday. Peter is the taller, with light, sandy hair and a blandly appealing face, Tony shorter, darker, slightly but not overly camp.
“Maybe that butterfly’s her.”
“I can damn well believe it. Flying like Ariel.”
“Or going to the fairy kingdom, like Titania?”
The light outside has begun to change. The sun is rising over the West Village, promising a bright day, lighting the area they call their kitchen though it is really just a stove and a counter and a couple of cupboards in a corner of their neat little home on the first floor of 33 Minetta Lane. It smells of new ground coffee, the pot on the counter is warbling, like exotic birdsong. Soon the coffee is ready. They drain their juice glasses and Tony pours a mugful of the steaming brew for Peter and a mugful for himself. They laugh in remembrance of the Shakespeare Lady, then fall into silent reflection.
Once, another night, in a bed in a white-walled apartment, a naked man of astounding beauty turns in his sleep. He looks maybe twenty-five but he cannot be so young. His lover, awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, watches him. It is hot, the blankets have been thrown off, and he sees the tattooed butterfly etched on the man’s right hip ripple as he turns. Many times he has kissed that hip, kissed that butterfly, felt it beat against his lips. He moves to kiss it now, so softly that the sleeping man sleeps on. The butterfly’s wings, deep, deep red, beat weightless as moonlight. Around the butterfly, the skin of the hip in this summer heat in the white room is whiter than moonlight on the Hudson, weird, fantastical.
The Shakespeare Lady could be found, most every evening, early, for many years, on the sidewalk in front of the music bar called The Bitter End on Bleecker Street in the West Village, not far from where Peter and Tony are now drinking breakfast drinks. On occasion she failed to show up, but mostly she was there, offering the pleasure of her talent for a modest sum, calling out to anyone who passed by, “Hi, honey,” or “Got a minute?”, her voice smokily, soulfully deep but firm, not raspy.
Through the sheer force of her presence she drew eyes. She had beautifully rich skin the color of 70% dark chocolate. Her compact, narrow frame was no higher than five foot three, but she carried herself with a proud, upright dignity that made her seem tall. In this she was like David Garrick, who had dominated the English stage in the early part of the nineteenth century, though he was tiny. Like Garrick, the Shakespeare Lady, by her strange charisma, seemed taller than nearly anyone, though she was shorter than most.
Many of the West Village locals were fond of her. Tourists were enchanted by her. She was exactly the kind of incredible eccentric they had hoped to see in New York, and, once seen, her performances were fly-papered to the memory. It was fun for visitors to show their friends back home their photographs and to say how crazy she was and how everyone in New York was ripe for the nut house. If the Shakespeare Lady had had a stronger business sense, she would have done well to have printed up some photographic postcards, which she could have autographed and sold.
Not everyone looked on the Shakespeare Lady with favour. Some people gave her the cold shoulder, some paced faster as they passed by her. They thought she was a beggar. She wasn’t. She was an artist.
Day in, day out, she wore the same set of shiny red clothes. A long red cloak hung around her neck, useful for dramatic effects: it could be swooshed at moments of anger or tension or comedy, and as it floated on the air it hovered for a second like an enlarged butterfly. She wore also a shirt of a deeper red and, deeper still, a scarlet skirt which fell to her knees. Her stockingless knees were exposed, rough, scratched, as if she had spent a lot of time kneeling on concrete. There were big brown builder’s boots on her feet.
Once she began to intone Shakespeare, this clothing became suggestive of histories and magicks, of soliloquies near arrases and declamations on horseback, of comedies of girls who passed as boys. It was all costumes in one. It could be clownish, jester-like, or, if its silky sheen was lit by a passing headlight at dusk, fairyish maybe, goblinish, puckish. With an adjustment of the cloak on the shoulder it could be courtly, or, with a bracing of a fist, warrior-like. If the cloak fluttered, it underscored a bitter, brilliant, islanded conjurer, or, raised up to the face, that island’s bitter, true owner, or twisted high over the head the ghost of Sycorax his mother.
“Good... evening...” she said to, in this instance, a young, attractive straight couple who were looking at the ‘Playing Tonight’ list in the Bitter End’s window. The Shakespeare Lady spoke slowly, allowing each word its own space, in which to breathe and drip meaning. Her speech had that hypnotic quality which makes people listen, even in the bustle of the street. “I... am... the... Shakespeare... Lady.”
“Huh?” said the boy. “You are?” said the girl.
“Oh yeeesss.” She maintained a pause for dramatic effect. Then she continued, with intense, sonorous force, like a tidal wave of molasses. “I received... great... critical acclaim... for my work with the Public... Theatre here in New... York... and with the Royal...Shakespeare Company in London... England.” She sighed and looked humble, as if accepting an award. She pulled her cloak around her throat and though her fist clutched only a furl of silky cotton, it might have been a statuette. She glanced down at her boots. “I am a graduate... of the... Actors... Studio.” Her voice was a whisper now.
“You are?” said the girl.
Another measured pause. Did her lips move for a moment in the counting of the beats?
“And... of the Juilliard... School... of Musick.” She hit the ‘c’ of music with a firm cluck.
“Wow,” said the girl.
“And from the Royal... Academy... of the Shakespearean... Arts... in... London, England.”
“Great!” said the girl. “Terrific!” said the boy.
“For a small... donation... I will now... recite... a piece of the Bard.” While her right hand held onto the statuette, close to her heart and throat, the left moved up the air with monarchical grandeur, knuckles outward, first finger inclined to the sky, like Lady Macbeth giving an instruction to a courtier. Then the hand moved back downward until it stopped, at breast level, palm upward and open.
No, she was not a beggar, she was an artist. But even artists have to eat.
The boy looked at the girl, who looked back at him; her lips pressed together, her eyes hard. He could always read the messages in those eyes, and right now they said, don’t you dare walk away, Ryan. If he wanted to get laid tonight he had to pretend he was charmed by the chance to see Shakespeare on Bleecker Street. He pushed his fingers into his pocket and rattled some coins around and drew out three quarters and a nickel and, to quickly masked annoyance, a crushed five dollar bill, wrapped around one of the quarters. The Shakespeare Lady looked with laser eyes at the little heap of cash.
With dazzling unexpectedness – a much-rehearsed gesture, no doubt – she pulled her open hand towards herself, away from the little heap of money, and balled it into a dramatic fist, one that might rage at hurricanoes. A moment later, the other hand shot out – and dropped the statuette; the boy saw it fall heavily and hit the sidewalk, and shatter into thirty-nine pieces – and now, before you could say Titus Andronicus, this palm lay open. The boy placed his cash on it. He noticed a long lifeline. The Shakespeare Lady took her reward with a gracious smile identical to that with which she would in an alternate universe have accepted a statuette, another one.
“Would you... like... Hamlet...or... would you like... Titania?”
“Hamlet,” said the boy, who did not know who Titania was. “Titania,” said the girl, who had studied the Dream in high school.
A long silent moment crawled by.
“Something is... descending upon me. The angel of inspiration.” She made a strange fizzing sound, as if inspiration was a soda fountain. “I am... I am... I am... feeling...yes... yes... is it?... It is! Yes!” Her features darkened and lengthened and saddened and she became a troubled intellectual as she channelled the tragic Dane. She was in the dark flickery shadows of torch-lit Elsinore Castle; the Bitter End was cool grey battlemented stone.
On the other side of Bleecker a mother pushed a baby carriage. The wheels squeaked: wind through the battlements?
The Shakespeare Lady stood back and closed her eyes in the final gathering of the character in her soul and then... she opened them wide and embarked on the most famous soliloquy in all literature, her interpretation illuminating in the pattern of its emphases and rhythms:
To be or not to be, That is the quest-eeeyon...
Her first finger shot upward, as if to point the quest-eeeyon.
Whether...? It is nobler in the mind to suffer the sliiings and arrows of OUT-RAGEEOUS fortyoon...
It was not a drearily naturalistic reading. It was the kind of thundering rendition it might be imagined could emerge solely from rigorous study at the Royal Academy of the Shakespearean Arts in London, England.
“Wow,” said the boy. The girl kicked him in the ankle.
“It was really great,” she said to the Shakespeare lady. She gave her another five and her boyfriend watched the bill cross from her hand to the other, thinking that even in overpriced En Wy that was the price of a Budweiser.
An old man wandered past, swinging a butchered pheasant in one hand and a butchered rabbit in the other. He looked angry at the world. And down Bleecker Street there came a huge pink Rolls Royce with darkened windows, which paused briefly outside the Bitter End and then purred onward. The boy and girl looked at the car and the boy forgot The Shakespeare Lady. He could only keep one thing in mind at a time. Usually it was sex but now it was this cool car.
“One day,” whispered the boy to his girl in mystical awe, “I’m gonna have a car like that and we’re gonna have a chauffeur gonna drive us around in it, honey, and we’ll drink champagne all the time. Only my car, our car, baby... it won’t be pink.”
“What color will it be?” she whispered dreamily. She liked pink, but would settle for another
He thought for a moment. Green? Red? Black? Gold?
“Blue. Midnight blue.”
Midnight blue. That sounded dark and romantic. It made her think of trips to sophisticated night clubs. It made her think of cocktail lounges and chic designer evening dresses. She put her head against his shoulder as they walked away.
“Midnight bloop,” she echoed.
He was audible now only to her.
“And we’re gonna be driven around the city and drink champagne all the time and I’m gonna make love to you on the blue leather seats. We’re gonna have blue leather seats. And we’re gonna have a little TV screen and we’ll watch old romantic movies and we’ll look at the people going by and we’re gonna have tinted windows so they can’t see us but we’ll see them. And I’m gonna make love to you all the time, baby, all the damn time.”
They passed up MacDougal and headed for Washington Square.
So, on many a dusk-drenched New York evening, pedestrians on Bleecker Street thrilled to the mastery of The Shakespeare Lady. In the beams from street lights she looked weird and fantastical.
There is an old saying about artists who never get a big break: don’t give up the day job. The Shakespeare Lady had a day job. Portions of the daylight hours, sometimes mornings, sometimes afternoons, on rare occasions both, were spent outside a coffee shop near Waverly Place, Arabica@West Café on Gay Street. Here she was the Poetry Lady. She offered to recite for small change a poem: it could be one by Byron, To His Fair Mistress, or one by, she said, Tennyson, La Belle Dame sans Merci, but in reality it was always Byron and never Tennyson, just as in her Shakespearean guise it was always Hamlet and never Titania.
“Thank God for the Shakespeare Lady!” says Tony to Peter, who has now finished his first cup of coffee and is stirring cream into his second. “Let’s drink to her!”
Tony clinks his own new-filled mug which is illustrated with the poster from that Technicolor masterpiece Meet Me at the Guillotine, against Peter’s warm full mug, which has Cornelius from Planet of the Apes on it.
“To her! Let’s drink to her for keeping art alive in the Village.”
By the twenty-first century, so much money had flowed into Greenwich Village that most of the creative people who had been the alternative message to the city’s grinding whisper of ‘Make money! Make money!’ those poets and actors and folkies and jazz musicians, had been forced out by the high rents.
A few people were relieved to see the back of them. A crotchety old man, buying a pheasant and a rabbit in Ottomanelli’s meat market, looked through the window onto the street and saw an NYU student with long hair wander slowly past, fingers wrapped around Leaves of Grass, title outward.
“That boy is affecting dreaminess,” said the old man disgustedly, taking his pheasant. “There is nothing duller than a would-be poet who feigns dreaminess.” The butcher handed him the rabbit.
Yet many boys getting rich on Wall Street moved to the Village because they wanted to rub shoulders with poets who affected dreaminess. They wanted to be there at the sophomore performances of the next Bob Dylan, only to find when they arrived that the next Bob Dylan had moved over the river. “The rents are too damn high,” everyone said.
Even the bankers could not wholly kill the spirit of the old, weird Manhattan. Somehow a few geniuses and oddities clung on to the faded romance of the Village, making the journey down from Harlem, where there could still be found, in corners of poverty, a cheap cockroach-infested room, if your heart was set on being a poet or a madman, or from the other boroughs, sharing the subway with pastry chefs and tailors and accountants and furniture salesmen.
No-one knew where the Shakespeare Lady went to after midnight.
It had always been a pleasure for Tony Partridge and Peter Easton to walk along Bleecker and find her. They gave her money and listened to her recitation. Sometimes they found themselves part of a little group, sometimes they listened alone. She never showed the slightest sign that she recognized them...