Iain and Al Speak Geek
Thursday, February 5th, 2015
What could be a nicer way to spend time than to chat to podcaster, writer and Winterhill cover-artist Al No? Very little, so I’ve done just that. We talked about comics, and books, and Doctor Who and Twin Peaks and The X-Files and…Blue Peter.
Me: I first heard you in your guise of presenter of the Diddly Dum Podcast. So we should establish our Doctor Who geekiness right now: who’s your fave Doctor, what was your fave story, what’s the worst thing that ever happened in/to the show?
Al: I don’t think anyone’s going to top Tom Baker. Although Peter Capaldi’s certainly become a strong challenger for the title. Favourite story? I should say The Myth Makers, but I’ve got a few joint firsts. The Seeds of Doom‘s one. It changes daily – hourly sometimes – so, maybe I don’t have one. My gut reaction to “what’s the worst thing that ever happened to the show” is probably wrong – and possibly actionable – so I’d best not say it.
Me: so how did the Diddly Dum Podcast come about and how has it changed your life? It must be quite a commitment…
Al: The three of us – that’s the Reverend Captain Hullo Porro and Doc Whom – were sending comments in to the Blue Box Podcast. There’d been a mistake – easily done when you’re recording, but I didn’t know that then – and Steve Parkhouse hadn’t been credited as writing the best Colin Baker story, so I’d banged out a message on the part of my commute involving trains. It got read out, which came as a surprise, so I sent another one in. This went on for a while, and eventually the host J.R. Southall invited the three of us to appear as guests on an early episode in 2014. We did the recording, it went well and was a fair bit of fun. I think we all thought it, but J.R. suggested we should have a shot at starting our own, so we did.
Rev’s an excellent designer and artist, Doc knew how to sort out all the mathsy nightmares with feeds and technology and what have you, so that was the bones of what we needed there. I’d done some dabbling with music and mixing so I ended up doing the audio side, more by default than anything. If Rev wasn’t doing the visuals, who knows?
We bounced around for the first few, but soon starting settling down. We’d planned on it being weekly, but fortnightly was more sensible. I did a lot of learning on the job in the first couple of months – some of the early ones aren’t mixed as well as I’d like. As for the life changing aspects… We’ve met some really, really nice people, and I doubt that would’ve happened otherwise. There’re knock-on effects of course, the mixing process is a black hole that even time can’t escape. Lots of very late nights and very early mornings.
Me: I think the reason it works so well, and is so funny, is that in the three of you we find the classic trinity found in a sit-com – the leader, the old curmudgeon, and the innocent dreamer. You’re the Del Boy, while Doc is Grandpa/Uncle Albert, and the Rev is very much the Rodney, sweet and unsullied by the real world. Or for fans of Cabin Pressure, you’re Martin, the Rev is Arthur and somehow that means Doc Whom is Douglas.
But you also twiddle the pencils, don’t you? Or were the stunning Winterhill covers just a fluke?
Al: Drawing’s something I really enjoy doing, and I’ve been scribbling as long as I can remember now. Never found it easy though, I’ve had to work at hiding how hard it is. I got obsessed with comics at an early age, and it all stems from that. I managed to blag myself into A-Level Art by using fanzines I’d made in lieu of a portfolio, and it was an absolute disaster. Oh well. I designed covers for local band demos and endless compilation tapes and drew posters and so on – and learned what mistakes didn’t work that way round. I’ve always doodled when I’m making notes, and when I started up the blog with the Him – working our way on the traditional ascent of the classic series of Doctor Who – I started scribbling in the margins again. And then, after the Daleks invaded Earth, I bought my first proper sketch pad for years and the whole thing rapidly got out of hand.
Me: So which comics obsessed the young you?
Al: Well, comics were everywhere when I was growing up. I think Alan Moore described them as part of the background noise of childhood, and they really were. Although I was getting things like Toby and Fun To Do when I was too small to read, I was fascinated by the art, because back then it all felt very visceral. I can remember old copies of 2000 AD would turn up in boxes that got dragged out when there was a wet play, so this was infant school. The pages were ripped and the covers long gone, but, again, you could piece together a story from the artwork. There was one weekend in particular that kicked everything off, although I might be misremembering or self-mythologising. I read my way, without any help, through the difficult text bits under an episode of Rupert – the paragraph rather than the verse, and got bought a copy of Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster as a reward. Mulched my way through it over the weekend, and that opened the reading floodgates for me much more than anything school had done. That led first to libraries and, ultimately, comic shops via newsagents. I’d read anything that I could – but I didn’t see any difference between the experience of reading comics to that of books, even though they were different media. So, apart from Doctor Who Weekly, I used to get things like Tiger, Speed, Buddy, Buster, School Fun and things like that to start off with. And the Star Wars comic that Marvel put out, with homegrown talent backups strips. They led to odd issues of Hulk Weekly, Rampage and things like that. I’d pick up odd copies of Superman or Batman that’d managed to make it over from the US, but I preferred the black and white stuff really, including the reprints. Around the time Scream! came out, I’d moved onto Eagle and 2000 AD in a big way. I’d read the issues over and over and over, following artists and writers that kicked something fun loose in my imagination. Then it was Warrior, the Eagle Comics reprints of Dredd and other strips. Oh, and Mad. I latched onto a few artists, people like Steve Dillon – who I was a huge fan of, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Alan Davis. Basically anyone with a really clean line. And, writers-wise, it was Alan Moore who was doing all the most interesting work. I was the right age to be swept up with Swamp Thing and the general Brit Invasion of DC that gave us Watchmen and is probably to blame for the upcoming spew of Superhero movies being made by people who are mostly about the same age as me. At a guess. I started writing to Glenn Fabry and he put me in touch with Pat MIlls, which led to Chris Bell and Valkyrie Press around the time they’d taken on the publishing of Bryan Talbot‘s Luther Arkwright. And this all coincided with the fanzines I mentioned earlier – and a series of prints, or something. It was through Chris that I first heard about Neil Gaiman – this was around the time he was starting to drift from journalism into comics. And then I discovered music. So, with the comics and the music, there wasn’t really any time left for school.
Me: School…I read a theory somewhere that it’s what pre-occupies you at school-age that basically indicates what you’re going to do with your life. For me it was co-writing little serials in exercise books. But it wasn’t until I was maybe finishing a-levels that I consciously re-realised that writing was something I could do, and wanted to do, maybe because at some point in my Theatre Studies A-level I’d intuited that I fundamentally couldn’t deal with audiences, so performing was never going to be an option. And I never caught the comics bug until I was around 15, and I religiously read 2000AD for a couple of years, this would have been 1991-1994, although I’m told this coincided with a real creative low-point. My life as a reader went Hitch-Hikers and Target novelisations, to New Adventures and when they ended I was ready for literary fiction. But I do remember loving Doomlord so I must have read The Eagle a wee bit as a kid.
Al: I think there’s a lot to be said for that school theory. I sort of ‘fixed’, for want of a better word, between sixteen and eighteen. Oddly enough, I was in the middle of *my* Theatre Studies A Level when I noticed vocalists are the only members of a band who get by without any musical ability. Audiences weren’t a problem for me – although that might also be down to working on the basis that vocalists don’t require musical ability. Who knows? Around 1991 to 1994 I was mostly reading Sandman, Cerebus and anything by Alan Moore that I could find. Music and film had become much more exciting than they used to be, and I’d started banging out plays. And bands. Me and the Doctor were only talking when he looked like Tom Baker by this point, so I missed out on his literary adventures. Doomlord! Always looked weird as a Fumetti – but what a mask. And anything written by John Wagner and Alan Grant’s worth a look.
Me: So beyond Doctor Who, are you a big SF person?
Al: I think I’m more into horror than science fiction – but that’s probably just my own personal blindspot playing up again.
Me: what scares you?
Al: Fire, werewolves and dentists.
Me: Isn’t that a song by Warren Zevon?
Al: Ha! It looks like it, but no. Not one of Rob Zombie’s either. Fire’s a learned response, the werewolf thing’s probably just primal and dentists… No, not good with dentists. Anaesthetic for a check-up – I’m one of those. What scares you?
Me: Spiders. Spiders and Killer BOB.
Al: Fair play, I can see where you’re coming from with those two. So… Twin Peaks. Discuss…
Me: For me, it was a watershed series in TV history that came out of nowhere, killed the rather repetitive and artless formula of 80’s TV, and raised the bar for drama shows. I’d go so far as to say it has in some way shaped everything that’s come along since. Although it wasn’t particularly cerebral stuff, it has created an era of very thoughtful, ambiguous, sophisticated and risky drama that wasn’t there before. Plus: Audrey. Cor.
Al: Can’t argue with any of that.
Me: Were you a fan?
Al:The first series, the music and Fire Walk with Me all had a big impact on me. I’m keen on Lynch though.
Me: I’ll level: I’m the guy who liked S1 but only fell in love from S2e1 onwards…
Al: I’m going to refresh my memory with a binge before it comes back. I did an X-Files boxset binge about five years ago. Some of it still stands up well.
Me: I went through it all again in 2009 when I was commuting six hours a day. (No, really, Canterbury West to Brentford.) Darin Morgan’s stuff still shines – where is he now? – and seasons 3 to 5 remain mostly great as far as I’m concerned. It all went downhill in s6 when The Cigarette-Smoking Man explained the entire conspiracy direct to camera in the teaser. W.T.F.F?
Al: That Vince Gilligan fellow did alright for himself too. The arc and conspiracy storyline got too tangled and messy. And portentous. I can think of another series that wobbles alarmingly in a similar direction from time to time…
Me: Yes, there’s a *lot* going on under the surface of Blue Peter.
Al: Ha! I never really got into Blue Peter. There was too much backstory already when I first discovered it, and I couldn’t find the novelisations anywhere.