YDM – In The Words Of The Author

Shortly after Yes, Dungeon Master was released in Autumn 2009, Jake Collins, who played Hordriss T. Appleby 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 60 of the fanzine, as part of the semi-regular feature The Audio Play’s The Thing.

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1. Tell us about the various sources of inspiration behind YDM

Outside of Knightmare itself, the chief inspiration for Yes, Dungeon Master, as has already been made abundantly clear elsewhere, is Yes, Minister, and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. But there were also ideas that were taken from Red Dwarf and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I won’t bother listing them, as I’m sure most listeners will have recognised them. (And even if they haven’t, it’ll be more fun for them to try and spot them for themselves, rather than have me point them out.) There was also a nice opportunity for me to sneak a couple of Knightmare in-jokes into the proceedings. Again, I’ll leave it to listeners to find them for themselves. (In fact, maybe The Eye Shield can run a competition about it. Just a thought…)

I shan’t make pretentious noises about YDM’s origins, or try to credit it with being part of some kind of grand literary plan (I mean, it’s not like I’d be fooling anyone); my reasons for writing it were chiefly self-indulgence. I’d obtained all the DVDs of Yes, Minister early in 2006 – I’d often have them playing in the background while I was busy mixing Famous For Retreating – and I noticed that there were similarities between three of the prominent cast members of Knightmare and the three central characters of Yes, Minister. Treguard in his quarrels with Majida would often take on the same hapless, exasperated quality that Jim Hacker could never escape from, Hordriss had a pompous, verbose superiority complex that reminded me of Sir Humphrey Appleby, while Pickle seemed almost indistinguishable from Bernard Woolley. (Because of early casting problems, I swapped Pickle with Folly in draft 2 of YDM. I probably should have changed them back later when the cast continued to change, but I decided not to because, ‘Folly’ sounds more like ‘Woolley’ anyway.

All of that led me to start wondering what it must be like for Treguard to try and run the castle between seasons. What, I began speculating, if the staff of a medieval castle genuinely did behave like a Twentieth Century, elephantine bureaucratic machine? I bounced the idea off my dear brother, Ruzl, and later off Andrew Kenny, and they both gave me looks that said, “The whole concept sounds so stupid, it’s bound to work!” And the idea sort of snowballed from there.

In short, I decided to write the script mainly to satisfy my own curiosity.

Having said that, there was a secondary purpose behind it. Not a very practical one, but still a purpose. I’ve been a fan of YM/YPM since before I was a teenager (oh lord, it began in 1980, how old am I?!?), and I’d often recommended the series to people who’d never seen it. And the irritating response I’d get from so many of them would go along the lines of, “Oh I’ve heard of that. It looks very good, sounds very clever, but I don’t think I’ll bother. I don’t think I’d understand it.” A fair few people whom I’ve had that conversation with are Knightmare fans. So, in order to help them get on the wavelength, I’ve effectively written an episode of Yes, Minister but set it in Dunshelm, and my hope is that it can help a few of those fans understand it better, and maybe even take an interest in the series itself.

2. How long did the entire process of bringing the play to life (from the first draft to the finished MP3) take?

A bit like the timescale involved in creating Famous For Retreating, the answer to this question is deceptive, because of long spells of hiatus. I make it roughly two years and eight months.

As I mentioned in the answer to question 1, the idea first came to me in early 2006, but I was so busy mixing FFR and writing the (at present, still unmade) script for When Five Tribes Go To War (see question 6) that I wasn’t able to start on scripting YDM until the following New Year. The first draft was written very quickly, not least because almost all of the jokes in it were lifted directly from episodes of Yes, Minister, and as any schoolboy will be able to attest, writing quickly is far easier when you’re copyi-… er, I mean when you are drawing research from other sources. (Derivative? Our plays? Neveeeeer!) The idea at that point was to record YDM as a secondary project at the same time as we were recording 5 Tribes, which was scheduled for April that year. But then the recording week was postponed for the usual reasons – the dreaded withdrawals – although on the plus side, it gave me the opportunity to redraft the scripts quite substantially; YDM in its final form is far longer, with several extra scenes in the second half, and some of the early scenes greatly expanded (mainly, I was able to crowbar more jokes in, and make them a fair bit fresher too). For instance, the scene with the Descender, played with such glorious, caution-free gusto by Rosey Collins, wasn’t even written until the third draft, which was only completed in November 2007.

Two more postponements in 2008 led to all audio projects being shelved for about a year. This was except for Andy Marshall’s Bolt To The Head sketch of course, which he’d written in the February of 2008, and which I eventually decided to use as the subject of an experiment in recording projects from home, instead of at studio meet-ups; it was launched in the New Year of 2009, and the end-product, although it did have some faults in it, proved of sufficient quality for me to bring YDM out of mothballs and to see if we could make it the same way. If we can paste together a sketch with people recording the lines at home, we reasoned, we can do a play in the same fashion. I sent the script round to all the team-members, new and old, on New Year’s Day, and gradually was able to build a cast, essentially by letting the team play ‘bagsies’ with the roles. I’d set a very relaxed and vague launch-target of late-summer, early-autumn, and then sat back and waited for the recordings to slowly trundle my way. There were a few cast-changes along the way, due essentially to people finding that their home microphones were just too broken (or just plain bad quality) to produce a good recording, but the changes were accommodated easily. The first scene – scene 2 (Merlin’s cameo) – was mixed as early as March, although mixing in earnest didn’t really begin until June. From there, it was a smooth-ish process, occasionally held up a little as I waited for the last few scraps of recordings to reach me. The only major obstacle was in trying to combat distortion on some of them, but I’d learned some new tricks for filtering out noise, and so the sound field, although still far from perfect, was already tidier than the one on BTTH. The final work was completed on September 2nd, 2009, fully five days before launch on Knightmare’s twenty-second anniversary.

3. How easy/hard was it to assemble a cast for this play, and get hold of all the audio files?

It was a lot easier to assemble (well, maybe ‘assemble’ is the wrong word) the cast than it was for previous projects. Because people would be recording from home, they didn’t have to set aside entire weeks, or look into awkward or costly travel/accommodation arrangements, so drop-outs were a lot rarer. Also, the project was effectively allotted nine months for putting things together, whereas with Bolt To The Head, we’d only really given ourselves about five weeks from the time we decided to try experimenting with it. As mentioned in the answer to question 2, there were still one or two problems with people having to withdraw, but it was far easier to replace them this time, because, again, the substitute performers didn’t have to make any tricky arrangements either.

Getting the sound recordings was a piece of proverbial black forest gateau with lashings of vanilla whipped cream on top (rough translation: cake), as the cast could send them to me by e-mail or via MSN/Live Messenger. My e-mail server does have a slightly nervous spam-filter on it, which meant that sometimes the odd recording wouldn’t get through, but even then it was just a matter of sending again.

4. Was there a point when you thought YDM might never be finished?

Only when the big recording meet-up kept getting postponed. (And I was far more concerned about 5 Tribes when it came to that anyway.) Once the decision was made to record YDM from home, I never had the slightest inkling of doubt that it would be completed, and comfortably inside the schedule.

5. How do you feel about the finished play?

For the most part, it’s a good job and a worthy end-result, especially given the very limited, basic facilities we’ve been using for it. I certainly find it entertaining enough to listen to, and I freely admit that it gives me a genuine chance to snigger at some of my own jokes.

But is it all it might have been? I’d have to say no. Maybe I’m too fussy (members of the RPG team are probably nodding their heads vigorously at this point, as I really got up a few of their noses some years back for being too quick to find fault in footage we were videoing for its sixth season), but I do wince a little at some of the distortion on the soundtrack. I managed to filter out the worst of it – believe me, it sounds a lot, lot worse on the raw recordings – and on most speakers what’s left of it is almost inaudible. But when you listen to the play through quality headphones, the differences between microphones, and also some of the ‘breath-on-the-mic’ and whatnot, are really obvious.

I also have to be brutally honest and say that, except with his Churchillian speech in scene 7, I was none-too-wowed by Ruzl’s performance. (Nor is Ruzl himself for that matter.) Don’t get me wrong, he certainly didn’t do badly, but this is his weakest showing of the four he’s done so far; at times, he sounds almost like he’s giggling when he should instead sound exasperated, and at some other times, he seems to drift onto autopilot.

On the other hand, Rosey’s cameo as the Descender, as mentioned before, is extraordinary; Helen Becconsall makes for a wonderfully-aggressive Majida (worthy successor to Sue McPherson, who, alas, has decided not to do any more Knightmare media projects); as Folly, Andy Marshall is so like Pickle that I wish I’d swapped the two characters back; and Jake Collins’ performance is exactly how I always pictured a fusion of Hordriss and Sir Humphrey to be. (Special kudos for the marvellous delivery of, “Don’t be ridiculous, Folly!”)

6. What are your hopes and fears for producing future audio plays?

I suppose my biggest fear is a little like Jake Collins’ occasional fear for The Eye Shield; the paranoid impression when our labours are finally put on display to the public that no one’s paying much notice. Mind you, I had that same suspicion when Famous For Retreating was released, and then David Forester ran a poll on the Interactive Knightmare website asking who had heard the play and what they thought of it, and within about a month, over seven hundred people had responded, and all of them positively. So I guess a lack of feedback should not be taken as condemnation.

My other fear is that the biggest project we’ve yet embarked on – When Five Tribes Go To War – might never be made. Home recording is fine for a comedy as there’s a slightly shabby, rough-edged feel to it that does little actual harm and even adds to the amusement. But dramas are seriously-intended and demand more polish, and while our techniques for filtering noise have improved sharply, they don’t fully compensate for low bitrates and varying distortion thresh-holds on different microphones. In short, if we’re going to do a drama properly, we really would have to assemble at a recording studio and do the job together on solid equipment. It is proving unbelievably difficult finding a time a large enough cast can meet up at. Worse, the recession has really started to bite, including in the electronic media industry, and prices for hiring a recording studio have surged in the last three years or so. Even if a suitable date can be found for a full cast to attend, actually affording the studio (and accommodation and transport on top of it) will be another big obstacle.

It would be a real disappointment if 5 Tribes were to be shelved permanently, as it’s the only script I’ve produced for the KM Drama team that I’m anywhere near being happy with. With all this in mind, I guess we’ll have to keep other options open…

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