Christopher Lee & Dirk Maggs Exclusive Interviews

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A Dark and Scary Place

Christopher Lee & Dirk Maggs Interviews - by Ty Power

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*EXCLUSIVE* INTERVIEWS WITH WRITER/PRODUCER DIRK MAGGS & VETERAN ACTOR CHRISTOPHER LEE

['Two chimpanzees shot into space in 1964 as part of a NASA capsule test return thirty-five years later, apparently unchanged, but for exceptional intelligence, exceptional compassion and a deep distrust of Man. Yet the Gemini Apes hold the key to solving Western Medicine's most urgent problem antibiotic resistant super-bugs. Should they be sacrificed to save a child's life? What happens in a world where we are not the only intelligent life on Earth? This is an action-packed space age fairy tale in which survival of the fittest doesn't necessarily mean fittest to survive ...']


The Gemini Apes, a ninety minute audio movie from popular writer/producer/director Dirk Maggs aired at 2:15pm Christmas Day 1998 on BBC Radio 4. On Tuesday 29th September I visited The Soundhouse to watch the recording, and talk to Dirk ... and somebody called Christopher Lee!


As Dirk explains, the idea for The Gemini Apes is eight years old. "We did the Superman stories in the late eighties. In it was a line from Jonathan Kent, when he found the infant in the capsule, that went, 'They've been sending up monkeys and dogs, so I guess they can send up babies as well.' It planted the idea in my mind. They used chimps on the Mercury program, and what happened is a kind of super-chimp arrived. That's where it came from. Instead of being E.T.ish I thought it better to have two, so they were a little team. I asked myself, if they were intelligent and came back thirty or forty years later, what would they want to do, and the answer is they'd want to release all the other animals to save them from a similar fate, from the deprivations of mankind. So I thought maybe they should be up there a long time and acquire intelligence. Man isn't the hero of the piece, but he isn't exactly the villain either. The fact is we've been so rotten to the animal world that it doesn't really want to know us. I thought that was an interesting idea." 

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But this isn't simply an Animal Farm revenge story; there are morals in there too. "I wrote the story up originally as them coming to free the other lab animals, but that wasn't enough. You need a couple of strands going. I had them chased because the military wanted to use the chimps as slave labour or soldiers (you didn't have to send a coffin home to the mother and father if the coffin contained an animal), but that was cynical and predictable. It's people running round with guns; so many people are doing that. I wanted to try another angle: if we acknowledge the fact that we're not the only intelligent creature on Earth, how would that change the way we act towards our fellow animals. I decided maybe these chimps had been used for research into the immune system to fight disease, and when they came back they discovered, purely by chance, they contained the key to antibiotic-resistant bugs. It's becoming a real threat to western medicine. People are dying. In fact, one of our actress' mother died of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis. So it's become very timely.



"When I wrote it I described The Gemini Apes as space age fairy tale, but it's come true in all sorts of ways I hadn't realised. The script was already written and I sent it to Doctor Amy Parish, an expert on bonobo chimpanzees, which our chimps are, and she said most of this stuff is accurate. That was the really weird part. I was working on the principle of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who'd written the Tarzan stories when he'd never been to Africa. I wanted to tell a little moral story. When Amy told me a temporary injunction had been awarded against the US Airforce selling 115 space program chimpanzees to a biomedical research firm with a terrible record in animal care, you could have knocked me down with a feather. I said to her, 'Forget the space age fairy tale; I've now decided it's a work of investigative journalism!' which was a joke. In fact, in the week of recording it there was a documentary about the plight of chimps in the US airforce (Thursday 1/10/98 BBC 2 Horizon). I had no idea about how current an issue it is; it's quite astonishing. Without meaning to it's turned into a topical item." 

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After training as a drama teacher, Dirk Maggs was a studio manager for BBC Radio, working mainly on comedy. In 1988 he became producer in radio light entertainment. His first project, Superman on Trial, a 50th anniversary docudrama, was well received by Radio 4 and they asked him for Batman. After 1989's Batman - The Lazarus Syndrome, Dirk returned to Superman. When Matthew Bannister took over Radio 1 he approached Dirk for a daytime serial and the excellent Batman - Knightfall was born. The Amazing Spider-Man and two Judge Dredd tales were next, the first of which won the Talking Business award 1995 for best production.


Dirk joined forces with Paul Deeley and Phil Horne at The Soundhouse to create Audio Movies Ltd. After a Los Angeles set visit on the blockbuster movie Independence Day, Dirk returned home to script and produce his own sixty minute audio version for Radio 1, starring Patrick Moore, Colin Baker and Toyah Willcox, as before in superb Dolby Surround. Independence Day - UK was Dirk's first foray into film-related material and, aside from winning him the Talking Business award for the second time, it made quite an impression when released for sale. "It reached number sixty-six in the album chart," he confirms. "Quite an achievement for a radio production." In the story, astronomer Patrick Moore comes across as though it was written for him alone. "Yes, he's very good. We had to record some of his scenes separately, and part of the script had to be changed. I had Patrick being possessed by an alien, but Fox didn't want me to give away the fact the aliens can do this, so I had Patrick fight the alien instead." 

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The last genre project was An American Werewolf in London, an audio adaptation of the classic John Landis horror/comedy film, reuniting the film actors Jenny Agutter, Brian Glover and John Woodvine. "It was scheduled for a late night Radio 1 slot, due to the horror content and some bad language. The feedback was surprisingly quiet. Originally, we were supposed to be tying in with the release of An American Werewolf in Paris, but in the end we had no end of trouble clearing copyright. The sales were very respectable (if I had it to do again I would), but I was recycling a movie and that's not what I want to do. I want to do original stories like The Gemini Apes; there's so many retreads of stuff going on at the moment, and somebody's got to say, hey let's do something different."


The Gemini Apes sees a new departure for Dirk, being the first totally original project not based on a comic book or movie. "That really is the point of this, that I was actually in a position to not worry about it belonging to someone else. As an idea of my own I was able to take it wherever I wanted. It makes a change from having to deal with people who own copyrights. It can get terribly difficult; what you can and cannot do with their character. Quite understandable, but tiresome."
 

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BBC Radio were initially reluctant to take on an original story. "Radio 1 were very happy to take Superman, Batman and Judge Dredd, but never really interested in original stuff. My whole idea was to move on to doing original material in the style of the Radio 1 audio movies that we'd been doing. Audio Movies is the name of the company, but it does describe what we do. So many people will say we do radio versions of films, which is absolutely not the case. We've only done that once with An American Werewolf in London, which was brought to me rather than me asking for it. We produce stuff in the style of cinema but without the pictures, because we think it works just as well. It's not a radio play as people understand it from the BBC. I'm not decrying radio plays, but I absolutely believe that what people want nowadays is much more to do with cinema and sounds from commercially produced music. They want something big and exciting that grabs them and sweeps them along, and most radio drama doesn't do that. I refuse to do anything that I wouldn't want to listen to myself. I don't find radio drama attractive. I try to do something that, if I caught a bit of it I'd want to listen to more, and then might get teased into listening to the whole thing. It does mean you have to actually sell ideas to the buyer, who isn't always interested. The world is run by marketing these days, and it doesn't like anything new because it means you've got to acquaint people with it. To interest somebody in something that doesn't contain a well known character or format is very hard indeed. At the same time, if you don't encourage new ideas, where are they going to come from. It's a tricky chicken and egg situation. I pitched it at James Boyle, the Controller of Radio 4; he was 'umming' and 'ahhing' a bit because it was an American subject, which is fair enough. But to his credit he decided to take a chance, and we discussed that we might be able to get a couple of British voice artists."  

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A project collapsed at the eleventh hour through nobody's fault, and Dirk was given just twenty-four hours to fill a slot on Christmas Day for Radio 4. "Of course, that's good news and bad news. It's a very hard day to attract people away from television on, but it's also a prestigious day if we bring out something that's very different. So it became a sort of millstone and I was worried. But I'm pleased with the result and I think it's going to be a great product. I'm hoping if it proves popular, then we will get to have more on the radio."


"I'd actually written the idea of The Gemini Apes up as a short novel/film treatment which I was trying to sell to people. After we did Independence Day - UK I sent a copy to Dean Devlin who said he would read it; then Dean and Roland Emmerich went off to write Godzilla and they didn't have time to read it, so it came back to me. It had actually sat at the agents in Los Angeles for some time, and to my horror about six months later I saw in, I think Daily Variety Report, that there was a project being sold to Jerry Weintraub in Hollywood, who just did The Avengers, called 'The Mercury Effect'. It was basically my plot. Somebody had either amazingly come up with exactly the same story, or worryingly had stolen my idea and adapted it to their own purposes. So that completely crushed me; I thought that's the end of that, it was a good story but what the heck. I was trying this year to publish it as a children's book, but of course English publishers aren't interested in American subjects. Then this summer I thought I'll write it as a film script and have my agent send it out, and maybe someone will see the value, buy it, and it might just see the light of day, in the shadow of this other film, if it ever happens. Be the poor relation, but actually the original. I felt very bitter; the best way to get out of this negative attitude was to write the film script. I had literally just finished it when this slot for Christmas Day came up, and James Boyle rang up and said, 'I'm really sorry, we have a slot and I want you to fill it.' I'm thrilled to bits really, because it means, as should be the case, the original idea of The Gemini Apes gets out before this movie, if this guy did decide to appropriate my idea. If it's a coincidence then good luck to him, but at least I've managed to make The Gemini Apes public. Hopefully, people will love it, because it's important to me that the characters come across as being warm ... it's a very Christmassy story, really. If Frank Capra was making movies today I think The Gemini Apes would be a script he'd look at. That's not to say it's perfect for Frank Capra, but it's down his alley." (* See note at end of article).

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The tapes won't be available for sale at Christmas though. "Because of the way things work and the late notice we had on this, it won't be until spring 1999 at earliest. I'm hoping the BBC Radio Collection will get them out in a hurry, but the world of marketing is a strange and eerie place."


In assembling the cast Dirk employed tried and trusted voice artists, as well as introducing some which were new to his work. "The part of Nadia, the granddaughter of a great Russian geneticist who is involved with the apes, I was going to give to Lorelei King, who I'd worked with on the comic book stuff, but in the end radio wanted an English actress. So I had the invidious task of asking Lorelei if she'd mind not playing the scientist, but play a chimp, which was an interesting phone conversation! But she's a sport; she had a go and turned in a brilliant performance. Gary Martin (also in Spider-Man and Judge Dredd) did all the primate voices except one. The man with the deepest voice in showbusiness, deeper even than Christopher Lee. I was very pleased to get both Gary and Lorelei. I was worried up to the first day of recording that if you couldn't believe these chimps were talking, there would be a big hole at the heart of the show. But with very little treatment they came up with voices that were superb.

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"I originally had in mind William Hootkins (Lex Luthor in the Superman stories) as Drake. He would have been in the show, but after the first week's shooting of a movie with Warren Beatty in New York they left all the exposed film in a truck which got stolen and is probably at the bottom of the Hudson River as we speak. So Bill was not available because his schedule completely went to pieces. I was left with the problem of who to get, and somewhere in the back of my mind was Christopher Lee. A couple of years ago I met John Landis for our An American Werewolf in London. John was at Abbey Road studios recording music for his film The Stupids, and Christopher had come in to do some sort of voice over. John was coming out escorting Christopher and we were able to say hello. I was impressed by him and thought what a charming man. So when Bill Hootkins was suddenly unavailable I rushed off to find out if Christopher was free. Thank God he was and he liked the script. I was very pleased; he turned in a wonderful performance. The character of Professor Drake is a villain up to a point, but a practical man who is trying to survive in his own world. He's a shark swimming in an ocean of other sharks. Christopher played that very well; he's a magnificent actor, and at the age of seventy-seven has undiminished power and charisma. Very thrilled to work with him. He's got a very deep voice and because of the pace of the audio movie, I had to ask him to read a little faster than he would normally do, but at the end of the day it worked very well indeed. Hopefully, he enjoyed himself." 

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Christopher Lee needs no introduction, but it's worth pointing out that he's been in the acting business for fifty-two years, and is still going strong. *Update:  Sadly, Sir Christopher Lee passed away in 2015, aged 93. This feature is dedicated to his name.*


What appealed to Christopher about the script? "The story is set in the US. I play an English businessman, an immensely powerful tycoon, who has got involved in this strange experimental world where the genetic make-up of animals is transferred to humans. Not only is it a fascinating story, but it's almost the truth. It's the sort of thing that's actually happening in the US today. They're experimenting with combinations. To me, this is tampering with nature. If it's for the benefit of humans there's a lot to be said for it, but not if it's misused for the sake of money. In this case, as a typical businessman, my character's ultimate aim is money. But it just so happens that if the experiments work out, and this particular one child who is terminally sick is cured, that gives him public persona. So he covers up the fact he's in it for the money by appearing, in terms of public relations, to be a great benefactor. These apes are sent into space and return years later, almost humanised in terms of intelligence; this man and others want to use these genetic qualities.


"Dirk got on to my agent, and I said I would do it. It was all rather at the last minute. It was only a go project two or three weeks before recording. I never do anything without reading the script; in many ways it's the most important thing. I look at what I'm asked to say and decide whether it's worth doing, and if I can make a contribution to the story. I judge every film on that too." 

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Christopher has worked on many talking books, but surprisingly few audio plays. "The first one I did was a Somerset Maugham. It was many, many years ago. Then I did something which was absolutely fascinating. Ray Bradbury gave me a story called Leviathan 99 and said, 'Can you get this made in England?' I managed to get it made for radio. It's the story of Moby Dick, and the white whale is a comet. I played Ahab, the captain of a spaceship, out to destroy the comet because it blinded him. The thing is, how do you play a blind man on radio! That was twenty-five years ago and probably the last thing I did on radio."


But is there any room for character development in radio? "Yes, but it's extremely difficult. You're working in one medium: orally; at the same time, through the ears of the listeners, you've got to make that character visual. They've got to hear you and say, 'I know that man: this is his age, his shape, these are the clothes he wears.' Unless it's specifically said, you've got to create a realistic character. It's the same as if you're giving a performance in a film or a play, but acting with only your voice. When you're doing it you've got to think that you're acting for an audience, only they can't see you."


Christopher Lee is still regarded by many to be an icon of horror. Has he ever felt restricted by this? "Well, people make this statement; it's not true. I haven't done a film like that in twenty-six years. Maybe it was because of the impact of the pictures when they came out, which are remembered by my generation and others. But the only reason people still connect me with those films and characters is television and video. Sometimes they're not even aware of the fact some were made forty years ago. I've played Sherlock Holmes since then; I've done a James Bond movie; I've done the Musketeers movies, and television. Last year I was in Pakistan for two months playing the founder of Pakistan. So where's the connection?
 

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"I'm practically never approached as a horror actor anywhere in the world. I don't know if people are prepared to believe it or not, but it's the truth. When people come up to me, and I'm glad that they do, it's usually the same conversation: 'Can I shake your hand?' and then quite simply, 'I do enjoy your movies very much.' In fact, now I'm getting more fan mail than I've ever had in my entire career. It's becoming a bit of a problem, actually. And I'm being offered more work than ever. I have to say that I'm saying 'no' to a good eighty percent, but I say to people I'm doing something I haven't done before. What's the point of repeating it? I had to do that at the time, but it was a very long time ago. I have accepted things as recently as the last year and it all went wrong. The money wasn't there in the first place, or it was pulled out at the last minute. Such is the precarious position of showbusiness today. I try to discredit young people from going into it; not because they don't have the talent, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to get a decent role, or make a good career. It's a vocation, a job, a career; it's all those things." 

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To wrap things up, what can we expect to see (or is that hear!) in the future from Dirk Maggs? "I'm doing Stephen Baxter's Voyage. We broadcast starting 15th March next year, on Monday evenings 11:00pm on Radio 4. It's the novel of a NASA mission to Mars that never was, if they'd not done the space shuttle program, but decided to go the other way and go to Mars in the early seventies. How that history might of changed from the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 onwards. A very detailed and accurate book; almost documentary, and superb. It's a big book and a major task; I hope I do it justice.


"Also, I've been speaking to Iain Banks about offering his first culture novel, Consider Phlebas, to Radio 4 for 1999 or 2000. That looks like it may be a possibility. That's the next major thing."


I'd like to thank Dirk Maggs and Christopher Lee very much. They were both very accommodating. I feel privileged to have had the chance to speak exclusively to Christopher. An acting icon and a gentleman.


*Note: Dirk would like it known that in April 2002, after this article was published, he received correspondence from a close friend of 'The Mercury Effect' screenwriter, who assured him there was no connection between the two projects. Coincidences do happen, and Dirk is happy to accept the man at his word.


Dirk was certainly right about the world of marketing being a strange and eerie place; it was felt by the BBC that The Gemini Apes would not have a general enough appeal to warrant releasing the production on tape and CD. Dirk has an excellent track record for them, and if Christopher Lee isn't a big enough selling point, then I don't know who is! 


Since then, Dirk's radio production of SF writer Stephen Baxter's Voyage has come and gone with the same high values that we've come to expect. This one is available for sale on tape and CD.

(Interviews by Ty Power conducted exclusively. A much shorter version of this piece appeared in Lightspeed magazine in October 1998. The full feature appeared on sci-fi-online.com).