W5TGTW – In The Words Of The Author

Shortly after When Five Tribes Go To War was released in Autumn 2010, Jake Collins, who played Hordriss The Confuser and Gumboil The Guard in the play, interviewed scriptwriter/mixer Martin Odoni about the making of the production, for the The Eyeshield fanzine, of which Jake was editor at the time. This interview was originally published in issue 66 of the fanzine, as part of the semi-regular feature The Audio Play’s The Thing.

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> When developing 5 Tribes, were there any continuity problems with FFR that you had to sort out?

There were one or two minor question marks meshing Aedric’s story from FFR with the expansion of it in 5Tribes. One thing I’d like to tinker with in FFR ‘after-the-fact’ – but must resist the temptation to do so – is to remove the bit where Treguard says that he didn’t know how Merlin really died. His complete ignorance of Aedric seems a little hard-to-credit in hindsight, and 5Tribes doesn’t really help in that regard.

Also, Lord Fear’s reference to building the Dreadnort in his ‘quarters’ is perhaps slightly contradicted by 5Tribes, although it’s not much of a stretch to assume that by ‘quarters’, Fear meant a secret hideout. I felt I had to set those scenes away from Merlin’s presence, because if Aedric had been dabbling in technosorcery right under his master’s nose, it becomes a bit doubtful that it would take so long for him to get caught.

> This play features a lot of cast members. How easy was it to get a full cast together (not literally together, of course!) this time, and how long did it take to gather in all the recordings?

It was kind of the reverse of previous experiences, in that more people kept adding themselves to the cast, and so we went from the usual niggle of everyone having to double-up to almost not having enough parts to go around.

As usual, there were a few drop-outs that caused the numbers to swing back the other way, and one or two parts had to be re-assigned because of difficulties the performers had with portraying the voices. (This is why I wound up doing three voices when I was originally only meant to play Aedric.) But numbers never dropped to a bad level.

Many of the recordings were in within a few weeks. Some of the recordings arrived very late in the process, literally just days before the date of release.

> Merlin fans (like me) might not like to think of Merlin as a totally useless, doddery old fool at times when they are not listening to (and enjoying) your plays. What do you think of Merlin on the original Knightmare – any good points?

I’m afraid that the dominant characteristic of the Knightmare portrayal of Merlin is, by a wide margin, his amnesia. It’s therefore difficult to view him as anything other than a doddery old fool. When you’re an impressionable, credulous pre-teen struck half-dumb with terror at the cartoon horrors unfolding on-screen, he can be a reassuring presence, an oasis of goodness and safety in a desert of darkness and devilry. On the other hand, when you’re grown up and you can plainly see that everything happening before your eyes is in an environment of garishly-painted hand-drawings, and moving at the pace of a lame cart-horse, you cease being too scared to notice that he’s really just a long-exhausted TV stereotype; the wizened-yet-absent-minded old grandfather.

But yes, he did have his strengths, if you had the patience to keep your eye out for them. Many of his words of wisdom were real pearls e.g. “Never be afraid to ask for help… it can be found in the most unexpected places,”, “Anything worth having is worth earning” etc. And, early on at least, he was more morally-attentive than any other character, which was an interesting disposition in such a hostile environment as the Dungeon. These are positive aspects that do come across in 5Tribes far more than in FFR, especially in the wedding scene, and the ‘conference’ with Treguard and Hordriss, early on.

> According to 5 Tribes, Hordriss and Goody were having a spat during Dickon’s quest. Had Hordriss put Goody under a spell to do some sweeping for him while he and Dickon were making their pact? (Just something that occurred to me when listening to Part 3!)

Oh, well the explanation for this is obvious! Why, I’m surprised (though not at all irritated of course – twitch-twitch) that you bothered to ask! Naturally enough, Goodybadwife initially felt very guilty at being so rude to an honest gentlemen, so she offered to meet him to smooth things over. As a peace offering, Goody offered to sweep up for him, and Hordriss accepted the offer to show there were no hard feelings. This was when Dicken walked in. But after he left, and with the job half-done, she got frustrated and walked out grumbling that Hordriss was an ugly, beardy-wierdy slave-driver. And of course Hordriss became angrier than ever with her, and so the feud resumed. I mean, come on, isn’t that all obvious? And no, my eyelid isn’t fluttering on an involuntary reflex.

Rough translation: Oops.

My excuse for the cock-up is… ummmmmm, nope sorry, can’t think of an excuse.

> How do you feel about the finished play?

You can really find your ears turning word-deaf when mixing and editing these plays. Hearing the same words, music and sounds over and over as you desperately, intricately, try to get every single scrap of noise into the optimum spot gradually makes you sick. So naturally, by the time I’d finished mixing this ***two-hour-long*** marathon, I was exhausted with hearing it. Most of it ceased to mean anything to me as I was listening, the voice recordings no longer words in my ears, they’d degenerated into mere sounds!

But the day after I published part 4 was so unseasonably warm and bright that I decided that I might as well go for a long stroll in the park (believe it or not, Salford does have parks – in fact, with MediaCity’s birth on the horizon, the local council is presently trying to convince everyone that the city is sixty per cent greenbelt, which is closer to the truth than you might think). And, in spite of feeling sick of the sound of it, I copied the play onto my MP3 player so I could finally hear the whole thing back in full while I walked.

And I was blown away by it.

Not to brag, but I genuinely was astonished at, and very proud of, how good it was. I was expecting to hear lots of muffled lines, grinding distortion, ill-selected effects and amateurish performances from start-to-finish – I’d been listening to every line so closely for months that I was noticing every tiniest bad nuance in them, no matter how subtle, and because I was hearing them out of order, I could no longer put them into a coherent context, keeping me from seeing any merit. But now that everything was slotted into place, I was amazed to find the whole two-hour block atmospheric, exciting, and on the whole, tremendously well played by the cast. Every few minutes I caught myself thinking, “I mixed this?!? I wrote this script?!? Wow! There’s hope for me yet!”

It’s probably overlong by about fifteen minutes, but even so, 5Tribes is easily better than FFR in my view. FFR was about the right length, but everything else about it was slightly wide of the mark. There were mitigating reasons for that, but that doesn’t make it less true. It wasn’t in stereo, the performances were a bit raw and unpracticed, the effects were limited, some of the dialogue sorely needed redrafting to make it less technical and less ‘smartass-y’, and there were several weak plot-contrivances in the script that I wouldn’t dream of resorting to today. Lord Fear’s maturator machine, for instance, is such a deus ex MacGuffin that if Russell T. Davies had thought it up for an episode of Dr Who, I’d be the first to lambast him for it.

By contrast, despite being three-quarters of an hour longer, the script in 5Tribes is in fact far tighter. There were originally two other scenes that I cut from it (NOTE: this is why there are 44 scenes in the script but it ends on scene 46), and vast swathes of too-witty-to-be-real blah were deleted, between the second and third drafts in particular – imagine how long the play would have been if I hadn’t removed all that! Also, the plot is more coherent, and less dependent on implausibility or ‘writer’s-short-cuts’.

And the performances, at the risk of brown-nosing, were very fine. They were more confident, more settled and largely less hurried than what the original team did back in 2005. There were some faults; Ricky and Martin H’s lines came through a bit muffled, and Matt fluffed a few words here and there, but everybody got the attitude and intonation of their characters exactly where they needed to be. Martin H was absolutely Mogdred from start to finish, blustering and proud, threatening and mocking. Ruzl is now so settled into his Russell Crowe version of Treguard that he could have done it in his sleep. Helen was superb as Malice, especially in the final part – she’s already an experienced stage actress, set to turn professional in the near future, and you can certainly see why. Rosey followed up her fine cameos in Bolt To The Head and Yes, Dungeon Master with great aplomb, once again showing what a rare, versatile gem she is as a voice actress, playing two extensive, very contrasting roles and mastering both of them in no time at all. Jake was even more like Gumboil than Gumboil ever was, while also subtly modfying his portrayal of Hordriss from the one in YDM to make him seem similarly pompous, but far less smarmy. Ricky, after a nervous first take, nailed Skarkill’s voice supremely on re-doing his lines (and his and Jake’s voices complemented each other’s beautifully while doing scene 2). And Matt took his performances as Merlin from the old RPG and fashioned them into something a bit less dream-like, but also adding a very slight sing-song quality to his delivery. His Merlin remains every bit as mysterious as it was in the RPG, but he has given him more substance.

It perhaps missed the elegant Scottish tones that Alec Downs, Clare Speedie or Susan McPherson might have brought to the table if they’d been available again, and it must be said that it would have been very interesting to hear Eleanor Booth-Davey or Emma Venvell, with their husky Oxford-English-Rose voices, playing the sorceresses (as they were originally cast to do back in 2007). But I can’t fault at all what we got in their place.

All in all, yes, this has far exceeded my expectations. Given that we had to resort to making it without the benefit of a studio, I was long anticipating a struggle just to get it up to the level of FFR. That we’ve managed, in my opinion, to make it into something substantially better is a huge credit to all who took part. Proud of you all, guys, love the lot of ya!!!

> (I could be wrong, readers, but I think he likes it!)

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