After teasing fans for a few weeks, this last weekend finally saw the cat let out of the bag on Strangeness in Space. The audio series will be a space adventure from The Minister of Chance’s Clare Eden, Doctor Who’s Sophie Aldred, and staples of 1980s and 1990s Saturday morning TV, Trevor Neal and Simon Hickson. We were lucky enough to grab some time with Sophie, Trevor and Simon to discuss this new project and what fans can expect from it.
STARBURST: How did you come to work on this project together then?
Sophie: It all began probably in about 1980, I suppose. Simon and Clare and I started at Manchester University together doing a drama degree. I was particularly good friends with Simon, and then Simon was very good friends with Clare. Trevor came along about a year later and Trevor and Simon started doing their comedy stuff there. They used to do a Monday night show in the Stephen Joseph Studio in Manchester. That’s where their double act was born. I always used to look at them and think, “Oh wow, they’re so great, that’s so funny. I wish I could be part of that.” And then fast forward all these years later to last summer and we had a reunion of our drama department in Manchester. Nursing hangovers the following morning, Clare sat me and Simon down – Trevor wasn’t there, he couldn’t make it. She sat us down at a café in town and said, “Wouldn’t it be a great idea for your three to work together?” I jumped at the chance, having wanted to for all these years, and that was how it started. So yeah, it’s kind of gone from there really.
Trevor: Clare has been, I suppose, the glue in it all. Clare was our agent when we were doing Going Live! and Live & Kicking, and she’s still our agent – there was a time when we all went our separate ways, but she’s now our agent again. We were talking about different projects, and she’d been working on The Minister of Chance, and we just thought why don’t we do some kind of audio podcast with Sophie. It was sort of triggered by the fact that Simon – I wasn’t even able to go – but Simon, Clare and Sophie met up at a Manchester University reunion and started talking and knocking ideas about for working together again. It just seemed like a really good thing to do and something where we could have a bit of freedom really to just do the kind of things that we enjoy doing, which is daft stuff.
Was there a rough idea for a story in place at that time then?
Sophie: We sort of all came up with it. Trevor and Simon had had this idea. They told me about their ideas and we thought this would work particularly well. Then they went off and wrote the first draft of the first script. I’m one of these people, I love jokes, I love funniness, I love comedy, but I don’t often laugh out loud at stuff. When they sent me the first draft of the first script, I did find myself laughing out loud several times and I thought, “Wow, this is great!” We all have an input into the script, so Clare, who’s producing as well, she and me, we all put in our money’s worth as well. Basically, the main writing is down to Trevor and Simon. When we actually start recording, it’ll probably change again depending on what happens. The basic sort of script is written by them.
Simon: When we first started writing it, because of the nature of something like this, where you can do absolutely anything you want and you don’t have anybody else giving you any kind of rules or anything, it was a case of just thinking what did we fancy doing and then writing it. What we’ve tended to do, in the episodes that we’ve got written so far, is you end up with an overriding arc for that episode but we’re building enough in time that we can go off on these little diversions and talk nonsense and just do whatever we like. What I quite like about that is if we were doing it for anyone else then all of these extra bits that make us laugh would be the first ones to get cut as they’d just have to bash on with the plot. It’s just nice to be able to have a chance to indulge the things we find funny. I guess the aim of it was, it’s just the chance to do what we find funny and hopefully that translates to our audience and works again in a completely new medium.
Now the Trevor and Simon brand of humour that many will be familiar with is one that works for all ages and on a couple of different levels. Is this going to be the case with Strangeness in Space?
Sophie: It’s really going to appeal to all sorts of ages and all sorts of people. Hopefully kids are going to love the idea of these strange people, these people being in space, and there’s going to be monsters, aliens, but always a kind of a comedy twist. We’ve even thrown a bit of educational stuff in there too, but of course adults are going to love the humour and get the jokes, and there’s plenty of 1980s references and so on. So there’s something for everybody basically.
Simon: I think the tone of it, the humour, will suit all ages. I think the actual production qualities of it are very much us wanting to give it the same production qualities that The Minister of Chance had. It will sound like an epic space adventure. Then having said that, it will sound like a kind of, in our ideal world, like a fantastic, epic space adventure but just with two idiots and with Sophie trying to keep some semblance of order in there. I think some bits, I know there’s one episode that will be quite scary, I think. Obviously not scary for a grown person who knows there’s no such things to be scared by, but as an audio drama then it should be something scary, spooky and punctured by the odd element of very banal humour. It’s interesting saying about slapstick in space. When it comes to an audio drama, it’s a different sort of world. What we’re having to do is create the image in people’s mind, so I think there will be elements of it where it will be slapstick. But everyone will be seeing something different in their head.
With the characterisations of Trevor and Simon in Strangeness in Space, are we going to be getting the same kind of characters that we’ve become accustomed to over the years? And Sophie, will there be any sense of Ace to your character?
Trevor: No, that’s not the intention at the moment. It’s not like we’re going to be short sketches or using characters we’ve already created, unless by some sort of weird time warp or a hole in the space continuum we bump into ourselves in the past in character. Sophie would have to explain the science side of how that works. But no, we will be playing daft versions of ourselves and we’re about 25 years younger than we are now, which is rather nice. That’s the only reason Simon’s doing it, to be his younger self. So we’re playing a couple of daft idiots who are much younger than ourselves. We’re an ‘80s-inspired synth-pop duo called Pink Custard who happen to find themselves in space, so we’re very slightly daft, vacuous pop idiots really. We’re going to encounter aliens, humanoids, and recognisable people and situations that have just a slight alien twist on them but that are recognisable. It’ll be nice to just do a fresh sort of thing.
Sophie: I won’t be playing Ace at all, I’m playing a character called Sophie. I’m playing a sort of version of me, I guess. It’s not exactly me, because you can never be exactly you when you’re doing a script. It’s more me than Ace, although we’re all still in our 20s miraculously. It’s a wonderful thing.
And was the concept of this project always going to involve a space-based adventure?
Sophie: No, I think Simon had a few ideas actually. This one, it kind of seemed to fit so well with my background with Doctor Who. So this was the one that we went for.
Trevor: There were a few different ones, but I think the initial thing was the chance to do a sci-fi comedy because of bringing those two elements together of Sophie and ourselves. So we never really thought about doing any other kind of genre really.
So with the series itself, is each episode going to be a standalone story or is there going to be a sense of continuity throughout the series?
Simon: That’s an interesting thing as that was one of our sort of dilemmas. The way it’s looking at the moment is that there will be an arc. There’s certainly a few episodes to set up the world in the beginning, but we’re also aware that people may be listening to them out of order so we wanted to, in a way, have the best of both worlds. So once it’s up and running, if you listen to them out of order then they’re self-contained stories. But there will also be, certainly at the beginning and the end of the series, there will be reasons to come back. So it’s trying to do a bit of both, really.
Given how many of the people who grew up watching you guys on TV now regularly listen to podcasts, did that play a factor in your decision to take this route with a new project?
Trevor: I think what we’re trying to do is, in a kind of way, what we did on Saturday mornings, which is try to have a sense of humour and a style that would… it would be ridiculous to say that it’s universal humour, but at least there’s something for everyone in there. On Going Live! and Live & Kicking, we were very aware that the audience on a Saturday morning ranged from 0 to 90 really; there were kids, there were parents, there were grandparents, there were older brothers and sisters, there were students, and there were people just coming in from the night before. It would’ve been inappropriate to play to one particular audience, but we were given a lot of freedom. I think that’s what we’re trying to do here, really – just create a fab story and an atmosphere and gags that will appeal to people of different ages. And there’ll be some references in there that the younger ones won’t get and vice-versa. Hopefully the spirit of it will make it accessible to all ages.
Given that it is such an imaginative series that could only really be done, bar a multi-million dollar budget, as an audio series, was there any consideration of doing a different project in another medium at all?
Simon: Possibly. The reason why we did it this way is that we do feel it lends itself to younger people. We’re younger versions of ourselves, but as soon as you move into anything visual when we’re us then you have a couple of middle-aged blokes. One thing I would love to do at some point is graphic novels or something – the stories done in another form. But again, these are things to be done way down the line really.
With Clare involved as well, was it just to be the four of your or was there any consideration to bringing some other people into the fold?
Sophie: Literally just the four of us. With the logo we’ve got, Clare knew Lee Sullivan via Minister of Chance, and I’ve known Lee for many years from Doctor Who stuff that he’s done. I’ve always been a great admirer of his work; I really liked several of the kind of comic strips he did of me and Sylvester back in the day. So when we were thinking of doing something for Strangeness in Space, he was just really the obvious choice. He came through with a couple of ideas. The great thing about this whole process is it’s very collaborative. The fact that we all get on so well and we know each other so well is a real help, because it means that everybody’s ideas are valid. We’re not going to take offence at anything anybody says. It’s a collaborative process, including with Lee as well.
Strangeness in Space decided on the crowdfunding route. What are the actual goals in terms of the amount of episodes that you’re looking to produce?
Sophie: We have got a vague idea. Basically, we’re going to record several episodes. And crowdfunding, what a great idea that is. Rather than going the route of production companies and not get anywhere, it’s such a fantastic invention, I think. It’s going to be great to see what we can get and also what we can give back. We’ve already had ideas of perks and stuff like that. It’s going to be really nice to see who we get on board with this. And also to see it as an opportunity for them to be on board. Again, it’s a kind of a collaborative process.
Simon: Clare really handles that, and I think having done this before she knows how it works. Hopefully, the project gets off the ground through that process because what we’re offering is something that people like. In terms of the end product, which is the crucial thing, also the various perks we can offer along the way to make people feel part of the team – that’s another thing I love about the crowdfunding thing; you actually feel part ownership of something. Without being involved in it, it wouldn’t come to be. So I like that you create your own world with people and they all become part of it. Also what it does, and hopefully this is payback for those who take part with us, is it means we kind of do it without any outside interference. There’s no one outside of us telling us what we can and can’t do. Obviously, that also makes it quite scary as the success of it all depends on you, but fingers crossed everything will fall in to place.
Given how Doctor Who is now arguably as popular as it’s ever been and with Thunderbirds set to make a return later this year, did you think of this as the perfect time to launch a new British genre project?
Sophie: Yeah, I’d not really thought of it like that but I guess it is. Science fiction is not perceived as it once was. You don’t have to hide away in a bedroom and zip up your anorak to be a Doctor Who fan anymore. Science fiction is actually something that is much more popular now I think, which is great.
Trevor: It doesn’t really seem to go away, but there does seem to be an increase in popularity for it. This year, we had the pleasure of being invited to a couple of conventions, which was a whole new world to me. But it was amazing. So it’s obviously, you know, something that has an appeal. And Simon and I have always enjoyed kind of cult sci-fi and horror, and a lot of our early conversations were about that sort of stuff. It’s not like we’re jumping on a bandwagon, particularly, it’s just more something that we’ve always enjoyed. Some of the old characters we did were slightly kind of sci-fi based, like we used to do World of the Strange about alien activity on Earth, then there was Live from the Future about a couple of guys from the future who had one long finger. So yeah, it’s something that has an increased popularity and hopefully it stays as popular as it always has been, and it’s good that there’s an audience for it.
Simon: Yes, definitely. Like Trev was saying, I think that’s why we became a nice little partnership really. When we met years ago at university, if you’d have said to us “Do you want to work with someone from Doctor Who?” then we’d have instantly been like “Yes, please.” As a kid growing up, I’m one of the very old people and can even remember watching William Hartnell – I must’ve been 3 or 4 then. But Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee were very dear to me growing up. The interesting thing about Doctor Who, and I think this is my take on science fiction, is I always like science fiction when it comes to Earth as oppose to necessarily going to space, but here we are taking us lot from Earth into space. We’ve created this planet called planet Mearth, which is sort of Earth but not Earth. It’s kind of like having the best of both worlds. With Doctor Who, I always found it far more terrifying when the Daleks were in modern times. There was something about it because that shouldn’t happen; we should be safe on our own planet. But yeah, I was a big fan. The other day, BBC2 were showing 2001: A Space Odyssey and I just remember going to see that in the pictures. I was about 10 or 11 and I didn’t understand a word of it, but I loved it the other night. I love the beginning sequence, but I won’t get too boffin-y. The truth is, the only other genre that would appeal to me outside of science fiction, and which would make it completely unsuitable for a family audio drama, that would be horror. Horror’s definitely my area.
So you don’t think it would be possible to do a well-meaning family horror?
Simon: You could, but when your influences are people like Dario Argento then it’s a bit tricky. I was on Twitter and I put some comment on about how something looked like a Dario Argento film, then somebody came back and said “I can’t believe that Simon from Trevor and Simon is a Dario Argento fan!” If Strangeness in Space is a success and works, then maybe that could be something for our next venture.
With how passionate fans of the sci-fi genre can be, how is it from your point of view, Sophie, given your background in Doctor Who?
Sophie: Gosh, it’s been nearly 30 years now, so to me it’s like family. I just love going to conventions, I love meeting science fiction fans. I’m not actually a science fiction fan particularly myself. I do love watching Doctor Who, I love watching the odd Star Trek movie, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. So to me it’s fascinating to meet people who are usually incredibly bright. There’s obviously a lot of science-y, maths-y people who are attracted to science fiction, which I am not I have to say science-y or maths-y. But I’m always amazed to meet these incredibly bright people who are just really having a great time and so knowledgeable about their subject. It’s great.
And how was it to work with Sylvester McCoy all of those years ago?
Sophie: Oh, it was amazing. He’s still one of my best friends. We just hit it off from day one, really. We share a birthday, we often have a party together on our birthdays, and it’s always brilliant to see him. We still work really well together and I love doing conventions with him and doing interviews because it’s like we work as a double act. We kind of know each other so well that we can work really well off each other. So yes, it’s a joy to work with him and he taught me such a lot because, of course, it was my first TV job. I was watching everything like a hawk and he was very encouraging, always supportive. And the thing about Sylvester is he’s constantly curious about life and people, so that comes in to his performing as well. Even in The Hobbit, he just has such eccentricity about him.
If all goes well with the crowdfunding for Strangeness in Space, when are you looking to get started on the project?
Sophie: Well it shouldn’t be too long, actually. The thing is, some of the scripts are already written. So we can pretty much start straight away, then the editing process isn’t too tricky. It should be a reasonably fast turnaround. We’re just really excited to be doing it.
Simon: If all goes well, hopefully we’ll crack on straight away. I think we’ve already pencilled in various people and places and the things that we need to do. The crowdfunding will take place over the next couple of months, so hopefully May or June we’ll get them made. We would definitely be looking to have them all out around mid-summer, I would hope.
Strangeness in Space opens its crowdfunding campaign on Tuesday, March 24th and will until 10pm on Sunday, April 26th. To keep up to date with the project, be sure to visit the project’s official website.
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