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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Fringe Benefits: Manchester prepares for invasion by Robots of Death

Robots of Death poster
Matt Badham talks to Gareth Kavanagh – Greater Manchester Fringe Chair and Lass O’Gowrie pub co-owner – about the upcoming Manchester Fringe Festival and, specifically, the Doctor Who inspired play Robots of Death that is part of it - and features a one-night only appearance by Blake's 7's Paul Darrow.

The inaugural Greater Manchester Fringe Festival is taking place in July 2012, and will feature a whole range of drama premieres, live music, dance, stand-up comedy, visual arts, literature and workshops.

Matt: Why and how did you decide to set up the Manchester Fringe? What's your history, specifically, when it comes to promoting the 'Arts' locally?

Gareth: It’s a very organic process that has developed over a few years to be honest. We really turned on to entertainment in the aftermath of the Smoking Ban in 2007, and started with a modest programme of live music gigs, quizzes, a retro video gaming night, comedy and small drama one and two handers.

Out of this came a realisation that although it takes a huge effort to get these things off the ground, there is an audience for this kind of thing, notably fringe theatre. So, we got involved quite heavily in the 2009 (sadly defunct) Not Part of Festival (both as programmers of in-house shows and as host to people wanting to put on gigs) before launching Lassfest in 2010 which was a month long fringe festival bespoke to the Lass. This grew into a slightly larger Lassfest in 2011 and spawned a January Midwinter Lassfest in 2012, before we decided to get others involved through the Greater Manchester Fringe.

Of course, in theory we could have just sat on Lassfest and kept it all to ourselves, but that’s both selfish and short sighted. It’s been great collaborating with other venues although, I accept it’s not for everyone. It takes a certain level of confidence and trust to do it.

Matt: What's the programme like? How have you programmed it, in terms of the practicalities of working with multiple venues and the 'artistic' approach when it came to your programme, i.e. what sort of shows have you gone for and why?

Gareth: To be honest, every venue is a little different. As this is the first one, we’ve made a decision at the Lass to ‘hard programme’ the majority of the slots with in-house productions, with a minority of slots for travelling acts. It makes for a lot of work, but it does give us a solid base of things that are sometimes trickier to attract like genre drama. It also lets us build on areas in which we have a strong track record, notably revivals and retro television adaptations.

Matt: What sort of opportunities do you hope the Fringe will offer new/emerging (maybe even established) artists/writers/actors?

Gareth: It’s a great platform for all levels. For artists starting out, it’s a virtually risk free opportunity to test material out in front of a live audience. For more established artists, it’s an invaluable opportunity to test new material, polish existing sets raise cash before embarking onto pasture more pricier like Edinburgh.

Likewise, is there a business angle here... an attempt to bring punters (and their money) into Manchester at a time of recession...It’s exactly that. It’s no coincidence that Lassfest grew out of the two quietest months for us – July and January and in a University dominated city centre, I think we’re not alone in suffering the Summertime blues when the students all go home. I think that opportunities can grow out of recessions, as you innovate and create to combat troughs in the market.

I also believe that the kind of levels of genuine co-operation I’ve witnessed between venues would have been unthinkable five years ago when things were booming for bars in Manchester.

Storm Mine
Matt: What are the picks of the Fringe... the shows personally that you are looking forward to?

Gareth: Gosh, so much good stuff in the pipeline it’s difficult to choose. There’s a ton of good stuff at the Kings Arms, notably Dev’s Army which I’m determined to see. Peter Slater’s House that Stank of Death will be extraordinarily good at the horror themed club Satan’s Hollow, as will Robots of Death in Fab. And that’s before I think about Storm Mine (the Robots sequel), Porridge, Together in Electric Dreams (featuring 1980’s incarnations of Sir Clive Sinclair and Lord Sugar) and Year of the Sex Olympics – an adaptation of Nigel Kneale's 1968 TV play.

Matt: How did you decide on Robots of Death as your 'lead' show?

Gareth: Well, given the Doctor Who links, rudely ambitious nature and the presence of TV legend Paul Darrow on stage for one day only playing the lead, it seemed to make a decent curtain raiser for the Fringe. I have a theory that occasionally theatre and Fringe suffers from (a largely unjustified) reputation for being up itself. By tacking productions that people can quickly get their heads round or trust, like Doctor Who it means these productions make for pain-free introductions into the rich world of Fringe.

Matt: How do you solve the problem of the Doctor-less nature of your show?

Gareth: Well, it’s not the first time we’ve tackled this issue. Back in January, [Doctor Who producer] Russell T Davies was outrageously kind enough to allow us to adapt his 2008 episode of Doctor Who Midnight – a episode which helpfully features a group of characters in the equivalent of a single train carriage. It could have been practically written for stage.

However, neither us nor Russell owns the Doctor. That character is owned by the BBC, so his part had to be played by someone new. But in many ways, it’s a lot easier to solve than you’d think. However you look at it, a Doctor shaped hole remains in the plot so we just fill it another way.

With Robots, the solution came by transposing the Doctor and Leela with Iago and Blayes – two security agents from a Doctor-less spin off series of audio sequels to the 1977 Doctor Who series Robots of Death. Naturally, this has meant a few narrative shifts to the story, but it’s pretty clever stuff and happily the original serial author Chris Boucher agreed to the retooling.

Imagine taking a Roger Moore Bond movie and replacing Bond with Jason Bourne within the narrative and you’re there….

Matt: Why should the punters come to see RoD when they could just buy the DVD?

Gareth: Well, for one it’s a different experience. This tale will cleverly unfold right in front of our eyes, you’re there on the Storm Mine. Buy the DVD by all means (it’s excellent), but it’s a different pleasure.

Matt: What makes RoD suitable for stage adaptation?

Gareth: Like a lot of sixties and seventies television, it’s a disciplined piece of writing with longer scenes than modern TV, less scene changes and a smaller pallet to fill. And we were encouraged to think more use our imaginations back then. Taking all that on board, it’s actually a lot easier than you’d think!

Paul Darrow

Matt: You've got Paul Darrow on board for one night only. How did that come about and what do you think he will bring to the show?

Gareth: Paul Darrow is simply a television god for those of us who grew up with Blake’s 7 in the late 19760s and early Eighties, and his performances as Kaston Iago in the Kaldor City audios are a logical continuation of his work in Blake’s 7. Inviting him down was always one of those ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ daydreams, but it was Alan Stevens of Kaldor City (and who has been adapting the Robots and Storm Mine scripts for the stage for us) who made it happen.

So, we have for one day only Paul Darrow playing his Iago with the rest of the cast and audio co-star Tracy Russell as Blayes. How can’t you get excited about that? It’s the British equivalent of William Shatner dropping by to read a Star Trek script. It’s mouth-watering.

Matt: Please tell us something about your pedigree as a producer and the pedigree of the various other cast/crew members working on RoD.

Gareth: I’m a huge television fan first and foremost, in particular genre material and forgotten gems from the golden age of television in the 1960s and Seventies. More importantly, I’m mad enough to get these things on the stage and seem to be trusted by the rights holders, despite only having been active in this field for 12 months.

I see the Producer role as one of commissioner, organiser, occasional authority figure, buck stopper, catalyst and initial project starter. I work with some talented people and most of the time, we go on to work together again. Sometimes I'm very hands on, other times I get it going then step back.

So far, I’ve been proud to produce Coronation Street 1968, Hot Fat, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Porridge, Midnight, The Year of the Sex Olympics, Together in Electric Dreams, Robots of Death, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads and Storm Mine. And there’s more in the pipeline for sure.

Matt: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about the show?

Gareth: Robots of Death is exactly why I became a Doctor Who fan in 1977 and our redux version is a sophisticated polish of the ideas that made it so great, albeit with a twist. It’s brilliant.

There are more details at the Greater Manchester Fringe website www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk/

The dates of the various performances are -
FAB Cafe Premiere of Robots Of Death and Storm Mine: 1 July 2012
Robots of Death (FAB Cafe): 21 - 24 July 2012
Storm Mine (Lass O'Gowrie): 28 - 30 July 2012

- This story has been cross-posted across The Forbidden Planet blog, DownTheTubes and SciFiPulse.net. Special thank to Gareth, Matt, Ian at SciFi Pulse and Joe Gordon at FPI

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