Following Mat’s thoughts on the current state of the man’s exploration of space, the conversation turns back towards that Great British institution, the BBC Visual Effects Department. How did Mat feel about the department’s closure?
"Frankly surprised that it lasted as long as it did? Given that all the other original design groups had been closed – Set Design, Costume and Makeup – it was a wonder why VisFX survived. However we were reasonably efficient and although don’t ask me to quote actual figures, I always got the impression that we were the most cost-effective of all design groups, in that we lost the least amount of money each year.
Programmes will invariably disagree to efficiency – if any Department was a convenient scapegoat, it was Effects… Looking back though, perhaps what was most irritating is that it didn’t quite make 50 years – only 49, (1954 – 2003). Very BBC that…"
Jack Kine, Ian Scoones, Ron Thornton, Bernard Wilkie and Mike Tucker and yourself all contributed to an excellent body of work. Who do you remember most from your time at the BBC Visual Effects Departments? "My first ‘effects influence’ had to be my first designer when I worked on the OU programmes, Gerry Abouaf, a very good illustrator and designer, and model-maker.
However I suppose the first ‘generally accepted as special effects’, influence I had was Ian Scoones, who of course had come from the Gerry Anderson era of Thunderbirds, and so was also a very creative designer and model-maker. Though, as Ian will admit, electronics were not his thing, hence me getting the TARDIS lamp to flash! I’ll also single out Ron Oates, (sadly dead for many years) who was one of the designers in the ‘Main Department’ when I moved there. Ron showed how things could be made very simply from cheap materials, but still made to look good on the screen – which after all, is what it’s all about.
The line for ‘specialising’, (if we ever did?), in miniature work, runs through Bernard, to Ian, to me, and to Mike. Ian was Bernard’s assistant; I was Ian’s, and Mike assisted me for a good length of time. (‘I taught Mike all he knows – then after five minutes he started learning for himself…’)"
You’ve done some great visual effects in your career – in a line of work where it’s expensive both in terms of time and money to make mistakes, you must have some impressive successes? "Possibly my most impressive one-off effect I designed and organised, (and the organisation is just as important as the design!), was to chuck a 1½ ton yacht off the back of a low-loader – on cue. This was for the short-lived TV series ‘Truckers’, and which went 99% perfectly, (I missed the spot it was supposed to land by a few feet…) but for which I didn’t get a credit…
However if you want to restrict it to the best ‘bangs per bucks’… the ‘gate’ exploding at the end of the Doctor Who story, Warriors Gate
My most significant TV series I worked on was ‘Magnox’ – otherwise known as ‘Edge of Darkness’ – which besides probably being the BBC’s most significant drama series ever done, was the best BAFTA I never got… And I say this with all modesty as the programme was nominated for, I recall, 13 BAFTAs, and won 11. But I wasn’t nominated, as there was no category for television special effects – film, yes, not TV. So I content myself with the thought… However I was in the film – I’m one of the frogmen in the boat on the reservoir!"
Throughout his time with the BBC, budgetary concerns dominated the shows Mat was working on. Were there times when this was to the VisFX team’s benefit? "Kid’s TV’s answer to ‘Red Dwarf’ – ‘Space Vets’, went for three seasons with no budget. It’s main spaceship star, The Dispensable, ended up crashing during most stories. One occasion was on a desert planet, which besides hiring the background sky cloth initially produced for the Timoté TV commercial, used about 12 bags of tinted sawdust as the ‘sand’. The Dispensable had to fly low in shot and spectacularly crash into the desert.
At this point one initially thinks along the lines of – ‘Now if we stretch a wire here; suspend the model there; run a line to pull it at this speed here… oh sod it, just throw it in…’ So we did – it saves getting rid of wires, and if anything breaks, well what’s superglue for? And I have to say it was the same method – and logic – used to crash Star Bug on the ice planet for ‘Red Dwarf’!"
Before I asked Mat what he thought of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who, I was interested to find out what he’s up to this year. "Eastercon [April 14-17, 2006 – Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow] is mainly a writers convention, although, OK, I am a writer, not in the ‘SF’ sense. However it appears they are branching out with ‘other people’ being invited, and I suspect many aspects of ‘special effects’ and maybe even ‘what’s happening in the factual space world’ may crop up?"
Mat’s association with Doctor Who goes back to the early 1970s, and of course Mat was also responsible for everyone’s favourite legless dog K9. Was he happy with the new series?
"I think Russell Davies pitched it just about right. It was the right gap between the end of the original run – with Sylvester, I omit the ‘TV movie’ at this time! – and the start of the ‘New Who’. It had to have better production values, which it certainly has, though I’m not quite sure of the new TARDIS interior – I think it’s a bit too ‘bitty’. However Christopher Eccleston made an excellent Doctor, and even if he went after one season, remember he did 12 more episodes than Paul McGann! David Tennant has yet to totally explore the role I feel, (having only been seen in the Christmas Special), but there is no reason to think he won’t make an excellent 10th Doctor."
And the re-introduction of K-9 this spring? "It was something me and Mike (Tucker) joked about during the first run of the New Who. Then middle of 2005 he phoned and said ‘Guess what…’"
I thank Mat for speaking to us, but as the interview draws to a close I’m curious to know if the man who probably knows K9 best was contacted by the current Doctor Who production team… "As at the time of doing this, the story has yet to be transmitted, so you’ll have to wait and see…"
You can find out more about Mat’s work at his website www.smallspace.demon.co.uk.