Mark Campbell: Interview

Mark Campbell is the author of two Doctor Who-related non-fiction books – “Dimensions in Time & Space” and the “Pocket Essential: Doctor Who”. Mark is of course a long-time Doctor Who fan and is also a freelance writer; he very kindly spoke to us about his work, life and love of Doctor Who.

Can you tell me a bit about your background Mark? Where are you from, which University did you go to?

I was born in Salisbury, and brought up in Bournemouth until I was 10. I then moved to Swanage, and latterly Poole. At the age of 19 I upped sticks and left home – and never looked back! I stayed in various dodgy digs in Lewisham and Brockley, until I met my wife-to-be Mary and finally ended up in Plumstead, in glorious southeast London. She was studying ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, New Cross when I first met her, but I never went to university myself. I left school at 18 and promptly worked in McDonalds for a year. Which I actually enjoyed when I was living in Poole, but on transferring to the Strand branch in 1987 I found the job an absolute nightmare and left after 3 weeks

Were there any amusing or interesting periods of employment before you got your first break?

Well, I did various office temp jobs – I worked in the accounts dept of the Army & Navy HQ in Lewisham (now demolished) and for a while I was Assistant General Manager of a small furniture company on the Old Kent Road (eg dictating letters and making the coffee) – and then I worked for Foyles Bookshop for a year. After I was sacked – this was standard practice as we were all on a weekly pay and were dismissed without warning – I segued into Books Etc. I worked there for ten years, working my way up to Assistant Manager, at three shops – Fleet Street, Fenchurch Street and, latterly, High Holborn. I really enjoyed the first five years, but then everything became very stale, the family run business was taking over by the vast Borders group, and I got out. Morale was low then, and I understand it’s even lower now, sadly. But it was nice while it lasted, and I got loads of freebies!

So when did the writing begin?

I’ve always written stuff. At school I wrote a play called Tulips in Winter and a science fiction novel called John Jessyck vs The Universe, which is a terrible old piece of juvenile rubbish, and I’d always start writing grand novels and plays that didn’t get beyond the first page. I enjoyed studying English for O level – less so for A – and wrote poetry and all sorts of things. I also wrote and directed a couple of Super-8 epics, both called Ever, each running to about an hour in length. I call them avant garde thrillers and I’m still quite proud of them. Some day I aim to do a third and complete the trilogy, but this time it’ll be on video.

When and where were you first published? How did this come about?

While I was at Books Etc I met a journalist who wrote for the free London weekly paper Midweek and he suggested I submit an article about me being a Doctor Who fan to it, which I did. A couple of weeks later I picked a copy off the newsstands and there was a lovely Paul McGann cover with my article inside, and I nearly had a heart attack! That was my first proper paid piece of writing. It was all terribly exciting.

I believe you write for The Independent? What is your brief?

I haven’t written for them for some time – my fault, as I’m not very good at promoting myself – but they were all published in the paper’s Saturday travel supplement. My first article was ‘Doctor Who locations in London’ (there’s a theme emerging here) and subsequently I tended to specialise in films and TV location guides, but also things like Complete Guides to Westerns and Alfred Hitchcock, all with a travel emphasis. My last piece was a guide to romantic film locations, published last February.

I know of you through your two books, The Pocket Essential Doctor Who and Dimensions in Time & Space. What other books have you had published recently?

Nothing since Dimensions in Time and Space, but I’ve also done pocket essential guides to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and Carry On Films. The latter I’ve just revised for a reissue this year, while a revised Agatha Christie should appear in 2006.

What is the thinking behind the Pocket Essentials range?

The guy who runs the series, Ion Mills is also a book rep who I knew from Books Etc and when I suggested doing one on Doctor Who I never thought he’d actually take me up on it. It came very soon after leaving Books Etc, so it gave me something to do as a new freelance writer. The series’ ethos is to present subjects as snappily and enthusiastically as possible in the minimum time possible. They’re written by experts in their fields, but they’re deliberately irreverent, with the emphasis on opinions rather than dry facts. They run to 35,000 words each, which is very little to talk about something as wide-ranging as Doctor Who. For the first edition, I deliberately chose to ignore books and CDs, but later relented and listed BF products at the back, which was expanded in the 40th Anniversary edition in 2003. I wrote a particularly scathing introduction to the series, which came from my intense irritation at how fans were kidding themselves that there would ever be more Who and were just keeping this false hope alive with endless books and CD stories. I confidently predicted that the programme was stone cold dead and would never return. Thankfully, the BBC read this and decided to prove me wrong, in order to make me like a complete idiot. It is, therefore, all down to me that the series is returning.

How do you classify yourself as a writer? Is there a particular type of text you feel you are good at?

I classify myself as a jobbing writer. I’m quite happy to do anything as long as it pays! I’ve just started doing theatre reviews, which is fascinating.

At some point in your life you discovered Doctor Who. How did the show first grab you?

With an iron glove at the age of six. My first memory of the show is the trailer for Carnival of Monsters which scared me witless. The first episode of Planet of the Daleks I find chilling – still do – while Season 11 probably contains my most vivid childhood images. Linx stalking the battlements of the castle, dinosaurs roaming London streets, the Doctor and Sarah tumbling into Aggedor’s lair, giants spiders clinging to Sarah’s back…even now I still find these scenes extremely emotive.

Which stories stand out for you, good or bad?

As a child, The Green Death, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Planet of the Spiders were favourites. Still are. I think those later six parters are some of the slickest, cleverest Doctor Who stories ever written – as an adult I can appreciate their witty scripts, dynamic visuals and subversive narratives, so they haven’t lost their appeal. Other favourites include Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, The Brain of Morbius and The Seeds of Doom. As I grew up I became pickier, but, randomly, a few other favourites would include Destiny of the Daleks, The Leisure Hive, Logopolis, Black Orchid, Enlightenment and The Awakening. I wasn’t keen on Colin Baker’s portrayal, so tended to dismiss much of his output, but Revelation of the Daleks and Mind Warp are both excellent pieces of TV. As to McCoy, I do like his first season, sorry, as well as The Greatest Show in the Galaxy which is filled with stylish moments.

As to bad stories – where do we start? Generally, I’m happy to watch anything as long as it’s interesting, and it could be interesting for all the wrong reasons. Boring telly is my bugbear, so my worst stories are the ones I’ve found personally dull. They would include The Space Museum, The Monster of Peladon, The Face of Evil, The Creature from the Pit, The Visitation, The Mark of the Rani and, of course, Ghost Light!

Do you have any desire to write Doctor Who fiction?

I’d love to – but I find it impossible to think of new stories. Almost anything that could be done, has been done. It’s finding a new angle, a new twist, that’s the key I guess. I’m also hopeless at storylining and plotting. I can wade in and write the first few chapters, but I never really know where it’s going and I tend to give up on it. I have submitted four book proposals to Virgin and the BBC over the years, but they were rejected on technical grounds. In other words, they were crap. Perhaps co-authoring a book would be an idea – I’d definitely like to try. I’ve co-authored a sitcom pilot with a friend, and that came fairly easily. We did peddle it round the TV companies, but they also rejected it. It was set in a bookshop, and we had the misfortune to submit it as Black Books was in production.

How did you approach writing Dimensions in Time & Space? How did you discipline yourself and organise your research?

By collating as much information as I could from as many different sources. I used Andrew Pixley’s Archives in DWM heavily, as I acknowledge at the front, cross-referencing with In-Vision whenever necessary. Howe’s Transcendental Toybox came in useful for missing book/video information, while there were loads of good websites that also plugged gaps. The Restoration Team helped with technical queries. Ultimately, I wanted to combine the opinionated fun of the Discontinuity Guide with the rigorous factual accuracy of a well-researched text book. I’d been compiling a DWM story-by-story index for my own use, so an edited version of that went into the book. And I really wanted to list all the media releases for all televised Who – books, CDs, videos, DVDs etc. Added to this I thought a section on just what exists for each story and on what medium would be useful, hence the Archive bits, telling you if it’s on 16 b/w film, 625-line monochrome video, whatever. To make it different from the Pocket Essential, I also wanted to have comprehensive sections on non-TV Who, such as the comic strips, original fiction and Big Finish CDs. It is a resolutely non-fiction work, so there is virtually no information on storylines, continuity, bloopers etc. Endless synopses don’t interest me at all, and I assumed that was the case for most fans who are familiar with the series, so I kept story descriptions to an absolute minimum. To me, what makes Doctor Who so fascinating is to see how it was made, not what character did what and to whom.

How long does it take to research a book like that?

I agreed to write it in the spring of 2003, with a deadline of August. What I hadn’t realised was quite how much work would be involved. It was initially slated to be 100,000 words, but came in at 175,000! I ended up working flat out for five months or so, right through the summer holidays. For example, my wife and I went to a friend’s wedding and I ended up sitting in the hotel bedroom typing out cast lists on her laptap into the wee small hours. Not much fun.

Are you looking forward to the new series?

Isn’t everyone? From the recent trailers, it looks absolutely fantastic, and I predict Eccleston will be adored by the general public.

Taking into account press stories and photographs, what do you think of the production so far?

I have been trying to avoid newspaper coverage, as they invariably reveal monsters and plot twists that I don’t want to know about. I’ll buy the newspapers, but then get Mary to take out the Who content so they’re ‘safe’. I’ll look at them once the series has finished in a few months time. But from what I’ve seen, I think the production has a unique look to it and I think it’s wholly commendable that they’ve chosen to make it as Earth-based as possible. Save all the alien city corridors for Series 2!

Do you have any more Doctor Who-related work planned?

I’ve just been given the go-ahead to revise the Pocket Essential with details of the new series. I’ve been told this will be published in August or September, and will appear in the new, expanded Pocket Essential format. In other words, you won’t need a magnifying glass to read it!

Kasterborous would like to thank Mark Campbell for his time in helping us put together this interview. Mark’s homepage Skonnos can be reached at freespace.virgin.net/mark.campbell10/; it contains a wealth of interesting articles and opinions on Doctor Who, plus details of Mark’s other work.


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Christian Cawley

About

A long-term Doctor Who fan, Christian grew up watching the show and has early memories of the Graham Williams era. His favourite stories are Inferno, The Seeds of Doom and Human Nature (although The Empty Child, Blink and Utopia all come close). When he’s not bossing around the news team, Christian is a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology and domestic computing, and enjoys classic rock, cooking and spending time in the countryside with his wife and young children. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.


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