Ben McKenzie is a Melbourne-based actor, comedian, writer, feminist, improviser, voiceover artist, presenter, game mechanic, scientician, rogue nerd and ginger. He’s also one of the organisers behind the recently crowdfunded Girls On Film Festival 2014. John Richards is writer of the acclaimed ABC1 comedy Outland, and former host of the iconic Melbourne-based TV podcast Boxcutters as well as a filmmaker, media journalist, and presenter. Check out John’s upcoming workshop on podcasting.
Together, they FIGHT CRIME. But more importantly, they make magic. In 2013, The Year of Doctor Who, Ben and John created Splendid Chaps, a Doctor Who live show podcasting event spread over 12 months. In 2014, they spun off from this project to run a successful Kickstarter campaign for Night Terrace, their very own comedy science fiction audio series, starring Susan from Neighbours and a house that travels in time and space.
It seemed appropriate to interview them together…
You’ve been working this year on Night Terrace, a SF audio series that you crowd funded via Kickstarter. How is the production going, and why should we be excited about the end result?
John: We’ve finished recording and our sound wizard David Ashton is in the middle of sound design and editing. And it’s amazing. Well, the listeners will decide if it’s amazing, but I’ve been absolutely thrilled at the results. We have an astonishingly high-powered cast, who were all happy to take part because they loved the project so much. So many people off the telly! And I think it works both as comedy and as science fiction, which is exciting.
Ben: Yes, that was one of the things I was really keen on about this project. Kind of like early Red Dwarf – the comedy doesn’t just spring from parodying sci-fi clichés, but rather tells interesting sci-fi stories that are full of character comedy and jokes. It’s been such a great collaborative process, not just working with the amazing cast – though Jackie Woodburne is a dream to work with! – but the whole creative team. I came up with the basic premise of a woman who had retired from saving the world for a secret organisation, but the team added the house that starts randomly travelling through time and space, the idea of my character, the hapless student and door-to-door salesman Eddie, and “Sue”, this sinister presence who just keeps showing up in impossible ways… All these things mixed together brilliantly! It ended up being both lots of fun to write, though also quite hard work at times, keeping the jokes and plot flowing and all in a 25 minute episode.
Splendid Chaps was a massive undertaking last year, a monthly live show and podcast celebrating every era of Doctor Who. What did you take away from the experience?
John: It was one of the best experiences of my life. I met so many amazing people and was exposed to so many great opinions and perspectives. Not just on Doctor Who, but on life itself. I sound like a hippy. But we really did meet such fantastic people, guests and audience alike. Even discovering that people at Big Finish listened to it!
Ben: The little community that gathered around us was so wonderful! I don’t think we expected that to happen. I mean, it’s not like we were huge, but to consistently sell out these little rooms all over Melbourne and have the same people coming back time and again… Two relationships started from people meeting each other at Splendid Chaps! We worked hard to make the show feel inclusive and welcoming and I think we managed to pull that off.
John: The episode on Doctor Who and Religion was incredible. I felt honoured to be able to listen to these clever, passionate and honest people discussing their views and experiences on religion. I remember thinking at the time I’d never imagined I’d ask a priest how she could possibly believe in god, let alone in front of an audience in a pub during a show about Doctor Who…Ben: I still catch up with Avril now! And we’ve made friends with many of the other guests too. Having guests was absolutely the best decision we made; all those different voices made sure it wasn’t just the Ben and John and Petra show! We learnt so much and met so many great people.
John: I also get to count Ben McKenzie and Petra Elliott among my super-bestest friends now, which is clearly a win.
Ben: Awwwww, John…I feel that way too! Though of course we only ever get to see each other when we’re working on Night Terrace these days…
John: I also remember my absolute thrill of standing in the wings for our Christmas show, watching Petra and a full band performing a sexy version of “I Want To Spend My Christmas With A Dalek” – with a Dalek – and thinking “this moment shouldn’t exist, but it does. We made this happen”. The music section of the show was my absolute favourite, hearing people reinterpret and reinvent all these strange novelty Doctor Who songs, and then the awesome Casey Bennetto wrote and performed an original number for us which was an absolute honour.
Ben: The songs were so great! I also loved Lee Zachariah’s parody of Gangsta’s Paradise, and the covers of all those terrible Doctor Who songs – including Australian ones! Georgia Fields did an amazing cover of the Bullamakanka one, Keira Daley assembled an all-star band for an obscure track by Jackson Zumdish, an Adelaide group…I still can’t quite believe those things happened. I listen to those songs often.
I kind of hope that after this there will be more Ben-and-John-and-the-team productions, because I’ve loved all of your collaborations so far. What can we look forward to from you both, together or separately, once Night Terrace is done?
John: The Splendid Chaps team is the best. Ben, Petra, David and new pseudo-chap Lee Zachariah are wonderful people to both work and have coffee with. I love the fact that we managed a collaboration in the middle of Splendid Chaps, in the stage show Songs For Europe: Two Short Plays About Eurovision (directed by Lucas Testro). I was very proud of how that come out. We’re doing Night Terrace, obviously, and it’s been such a great experience we’ve all started discussing ideas for season two. We’ve been throwing around ideas for a festival-of-geekery but Ben is always doing a million projects so we’ll get to it eventually. And I think we’re all aware there’ll be more one-off Splendid Chaps shows sometime.
Ben: It’s not a million, John… But it is a lot. At the moment I’m working on the team for a new feminist film festival, the Girls On Film Festival, I have a few other podcasts in the works, I’m designing two major projects and another festival with my live games company Pop Up Playground, and of course then I have to have a job or two that pays the bills…okay, maybe it’s a million! I do hope eventually we find a good excuse to do another Splendid Chaps show, though, there’s so much more to talk about. We keep mentioning the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who in Australia, which is early in 2015, I think? That might be a good enough excuse, but we’ll only ever do one-offs now. The want to keep the original year as something special.
John: Meanwhile I have three TV series floating around in various states of development, I’ve written some sketches for a BBC radio show, I do pop-culture features for DNA Magazine and I’ve been teaching courses in podcasting.
What Australian SF stuff have you enjoyed lately?
Ben: I have so many projects I barely get to read much of anything these days; the closest to Australian SF I have at the moment is more fantasy! I recently picked up a copy of Justine Larbalestier’s new book “Razorhurst” at the Melbourne launch, and I’m really looking forward to starting it. I loved her collaboration “Team Human”, which was a kind of anti-Twilight, as was Van Badham’s “Burnt Snow” which I read last year with my little book club. I’m also really keen to get into Sean Williams’ Twinmaker series, since I’ve been seeing snippets he’s been posting from the upcoming third book, and I love a good exploration of a sci-fi concept most works take for granted!
John: Catherine Smyth-McMullen just sent me one of Norma Hemming’s original plays to read. It’s called The Matriarchy of Renok. It’s from 1958. I’m on the cutting edge of Australian science-fiction.
The media and publishing world has changed so much over the last few years, with new platforms, business models and technology emerging all the time. How has this affected you creatively, as writers and performers, and how do you see it affecting your work in the future?
Ben: It hasn’t made much of an impact on my work as a live performer – except that you sometime encounter this expectation that if someone misses a show, they’ll be able to watch it on YouTube! Like an iView for live comedy. But I am passionate about crowdfunding. There are so many platforms now with different models and I think it’s such a brilliant way not only to fund artistic projects bit increasingly an artistic career; to make it viable by appealing directly to the people who are gonna love your work, rather than a massive distributiion company or publisher who only wants things they can sell to millions and make huge profit on. We can operate sustainably on a much smaller scale, and that’s really down to the Internet.
John: Splendid Chaps and Night Terrace wouldn’t exist without the rise of the internet and the growing audience for web-content. I have a perverse love of the way that the idea of a“mass audience” is dying. The future will belong to Hulu and Netflix, not Channel 9. Places people can see the shows they are passionate about, not just the ones they’re willing to sit through. The financial models are still working themselves out, but we’ll get there. Australian television will never make Night Terrace, and in some ideal alternate universe there’s a series 2 of Outland playing on Hulu!
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at:
Tansy Rayner Roberts