I first heard from Graham Duff back in
2000 when he was working on the first draft of his
scripts for Dr Terrible's House of Horrible, a
BBC2 comedy series, which took inspiration from the
horror films of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon. Littered with
references to the great British horror films of the 60s
and 70s, I found we had many similar interests to discuss.
Following progress of the series from afar, I'd hoped to
run an interview and feature on the series, as I knew it
would interest many of our readers. Somehow that never
transpired, with both of us inundated with different
This last year I've been following
development of his new BBC Radio4 series, Nebulous.
Quite honestly, an hilarious scifi comedy set in the
Earth of 2099, following on from the Withering (something
far more interesting than an ice age). Mark Gatiss from The
League of Gentlemen stars as Professor Nebulous - the
leader of KENT (the Key Environmental Non-Judgemental
Taskforce), something of a cross between Professor Quatermass'
Rocket Patrol Group and Doctor Who's UNIT. The
fusion of such juggernauts, in a new comedy twist was too
much to resist. Acutely observed, witty, intelligent, and
very very silly.
At the time of writing (January 2005),
the series is available every Thursday night from 11pm,
for half an hour, with the episode available to listen to
again on Radio 4s website (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/comedy/nebulous.shtml) for the
I managed to track Graham down in
between frantic writing sessions (his, my own are too
intermittent!), to give us an exclusive interview. We've
covered some of the background to Nebulous as well as discussing his work on Dr Terrible and
Doctor Who. We'll hopefully talk to Graham again at
length about Dr Terrible in future.
I understand that Nebulous
is a co-creation between you and Mark Gatiss.
How did that come about?
Mark and I met on Doctor
Terrible's in which he gave one of my
favourite performances from the series as Hang Man Chang.
At that stage, I was already developing the idea of
a sci-fi comedy. I knew it was going to revolve
around a team of eco-trouble shooters headed by someone
called Professor Nebulous, but I didn't have much else.
I was keen to work with Mark again and from day one, I
knew he was exactly the person to play The Professor -
even though my idea of the character was fairly vague at
Once Mark and I joined forces, we developed the format
quite a lot - the whole idea of KENT having to take in
laundry, the concept of the Withering and so on.
Why are they taking in laundry? Was
that idea conceived in relation to that episode of Dr
Terrible? [the interviewer was thinking about
Chinese laundries at this point - relating the Frenzy
of Tong episode to The Talons of Weng-Chiang in
No. It came from the notion that
KENT should be underfunded and struggling to make ends
meet. We also liked the idea that they'd
be washing the dirty laundry of other government
departments. That it would be a continual irritant
for them, a constant reminder of how low KENT are in the
pecking order .
Is the Withering a prophecy of yours, or just a deep
seated wish to rid yourself of all of life's irritations?
I've been trying to work out how much of those little
bits are yours and which are Mark's?
The index of what was lost in the
Withering is in a constant state of flux. Occasionally
knowledge, inventions and objects are rediscovered or
reclaimed, but life will never be as it once was.
Originally I thought the series should be set in 2000
but appear to have been recorded in 1959 - giving it a
retro futurist feel. But we ditched that and
decided to focus on developing it as more of a sit-com
You and Mark share a love of old British horror and sci-fi.
DId that make the collaborative process easier?
When you share a lot of common ground
with someone, in terms of your influences, it's certainly
possible to achieve a sort of short hand, when youıre
workshopping ideas. Perhaps because youıre not
having to explain where you've nicked the idea from!
This wasn't the first time you've worked with director
Nick Briggs either...
Actually, the first time I worked with Nick was on the
pilot episode for Nebulous which
we recorded in March 2003. Although Mark had
obviously been friends with Nick for many years.
Nick also does the incidental music and
sound design on Nebulous and he
has a great ear for detail, both in terms of performance
and the subtlety of the effects he choses.
I gather it was whilst Nick was editing
that you landed your first Doctor Who job. Had you
given any thought to writing for Doctor Who
The offer from Gary Russell at Big
Finish to write a Who audio came
out of the blue. Heıd been listening to Nick
editing the Nebulous pilot and
liked the idea of a humorous 8th Who audio. Although
I would consider myself a fairly chronic Who addict
- watching some most weeks - Iım really not familiar
with the world of original Who novels
and audios. And it had never occurred to me to
pitch to Big Finish.
What has the response been so far to
Stealer? [Graham's 2004 Doctor Who
audio story, available from www.bigfinish.com]
From what Iıve heard anecdotally, and
having checked out a couple of web sites, it seems to
have got maybe a 70% thumbs up. A lot of people
have said it was nice to have some humour, as apparently
the last season was rather serious and bleak, although I
didn't hear them, so I don't know if that's true. There've
been criticisms that the ending was rushed, which is a
fair point. In my defense, I didn't get asked for
rewrites until three months after I'd submitted my
original script - by which time I was right in the middle
of preproduction on my TV series Ideal.
Consequently, I literally had one day to do the Who
rewrites. Originally I'd left the
ending more mysterious - the Doctor didn't exactly know
what Miraculite was, or what had happened. Gary
wanted more explanation in there - which is completely
fair enough. I opted for a Poirot-esque
outpouring of information at the climax. Some
people have called the concept of the Bi-verity Anomaly
Quartz "techno babble", but I think it's a
lovely, poetic image.
The only printed review Iıve seen was
in DWM [Doctor Who Magazine] which
seemed fairly muddled. The review found fault with
most of the story, then added as an afterthought that it
was "great fun to listen to" - which was, in
truth, my main aim with the project.
Not that I'm comparing myself to him in
any way, but I admire Donald Cotton's Who stories
for the way they managed to be pacy and comic, without
undermining the show's overall gravity. I wanted to
try and create something with that lightness of touch.
I'm not sure if I got the balance right, but it was
an enjoyable project to work on.
Nebulous is your second collaboration with Steve
Coogan'sproduction company, BabyCow, how did it differ
from your experiences on Dr Terrible?
Funnily enough, Iıve been working with BabyCow
Productions pretty much constantly since we made Dr.
Terrible's. Steve Coogan and Henry
Normal have been enormously encouraging and supportive.
BabyCow produced pilots of two shows I wrote - Nebulous
and a darker TV series with Johnny Vegas called Ideal.
And as fate would have it, both series were then
commissioned by the BBC. So writing and recording
both pilots, then writing, recording and editing the
subsequent series, seems to have taken up most of the
last three years.
Following on from that, would you rather be working on
television or radio?
Iıd love to be able to continue to do both. I
don't see radio as a poor cousin to TV. There are
definitely shows, concepts and characters which work far
better on radio. And the production process and
turn around tends to be much quicker than in TV, which is
creatively quite satisfying.
I can't imagine Nebulous
working as well on
television. With the radio format, your brain is allowed
to colour in the detail, and it works far better. Its
hard to think of Harry's mutilated body being as
effective in a visual medium.
Yes, if we were to attempt to do a TV
version, I can imagine there would have to be plenty of
long meetings about the "hows", the "whys"
and especially the "how much"?
Its quite strange, especially as I think your work is
very vivid in tone.
Do you find it easier writing on your own, or
collaboratively as in Dr Terrible?
I'm happy to do either. I love
writing with other people, the buzz of creating stuff out
of nowhere and trying to make each other laugh with gags
and concepts. Things can move very quickly when
you're workshopping stuff. But for me, there's also
a real pleasure in sitting alone in my office, making my
way through a huge stack of CD's and writing. I
write most days and on those days I'll write for at least
six hours. Unlike a number of writers I know, I
don't have any angst about writing. I don't
procrastinate and I don't do displacement activities.
I write. Because to be frank, aside from
making love, thereıs nothing else I'd rather be doing.
This year looks like a good one for genre fans with
Nebulous and another Hitchhikers on the radio. Has
Douglas Adams' series been a source of inspiration?
I deliberately didn't listen to the latest
series, as I didnıt want it to influence me or interfere
with the way I was thinking about Nebulous.
Although I have a small confession to make,
although I enjoyed the Hitchhikers
TV series and Iıve read one of the Dirk
Gently books, I'm not as familiar with Adams'
work as you might expect.
Nebulous seems to take a very different
direction to the Hitchhikers radio series. I'm not
sure that the last radio series worked as well as it
could have. Perhaps Adams was better at adapting his own
work, than anyone else.
Its practically expected of any sci-fi fan these days,
to be familiar with HitchHikers series. I've only
started reading them this year myself, and only heard the
radio series for the first time last year. I know Adams'
work better from Doctor Who, than his magnum
I read some of Mark's comments, that this is a sitcom
rather than a spoof of sci-fi, but there are some very
obvious parodies of tv sci-fi.
Hopefully we've created a format which can contain and
sustain a variety of approaches in it's humour; satire,
parody, word play, overblown sci-fi concepts and so on.
But essentially the series is a sit-com about the
off kilter relationship between the four main characters:
Nebulous, Paula, Rory and Harry. I'd like to think
people who wouldnıt consider themselves sci-fi fans
could tune in and still find plenty to entertain and
Like all those people who loved the League of
Gentlemen without ever watching an episode of Doctor
Who or an Amicus film....
Episode one takes Quatermass
as its source,
and Doctor Who's Claws of Axos is the
role model for episode two. Both Nebulous and Dr
Terrible were full of fond homage's and parodies of
cult film and tv. Do you plan this when the series are
conceived, or does it just come through in the writing
Iıve always felt a greater affinity with the British
sci-fi tradition of characters from the underfunded
margins. As opposed to American genre shows - Star
Trek, X-Files, Stargate,
Man From Uncle - which revolve
around people from big, lavishly funded organisations
with flashy equipment, amazing space ships, sexy uniforms
and so on. British sci-fi often has a make do and
mend feel, a sense of being more against the odds.
It must be ingrained on our
subconsciousness. Always the underdog - even our heroes!
I suppose it's inevitable that
contain echoes of Doctor Who, Quatermass
and so on. One reviewer referred to
as "Carry on Quatermass"
- which made me laugh. But it's important for the
show to stand on it's own feet. There's a whole
generation and a half for whom the name Quatermass
means nothing, so it would be pointless and indulgent to
go littering the script with little in-jokes just for the
The Carry On series never made
it to sci-fi, only Horror, so that seems quite apt. I
find the humour more akin to Mel Brooks than Carry On...
I was watching a documentary on Polanski recently,
which praised his films today, simply because he didn't
find the need to litter his work with references to other
Do you think comedy is getting too much
like that - funny because of the references, rather than
anything else? Certainly whilst Nebulous contains
allusions, it works in that wonderful surreal universe,
like Spaced did on tv, where the program is still
funny, because of the general writing and performances.
Obviously there's comic and dramatic work being produced
which reference the stories, characters and styles of the
past. You can call it post modernism, or you can
say it's just part of the human condition - perhaps stuff
sticks in our consciousness and there's an urge to cross
breed it, or mutate it and pass it on. Certainly
some comedies are vastly enriched by raiding the
reference larder - the way it's done in The
Simpsons or Family Guy
is so sharp and frequently unobtrusive - you don't have
to be familiar with the source to enjoy the gag. Dr.
Terrible's House of Horrible was obviously
far more reference heavy, by the very nature of being an
homage. But if you look at the other things I've
done, Ideal, and Stereonation,
they're reference free and proud! They are, I would
hope, their own beasts.
Browsing through some internet news boards after the
broadcast of episode one, I've seen several allegations
of extreme silliness against the series. How do you react
Nebulous is a silly
You've had some fantastic performers work with you so
far. David Warner being the latest in the line. Was he
someone you particularly admired, and how difficult was
it to get him to agree to play Dr Klench [episode one's
David Warner is one of those actors who
just exudes charisma and class. His voice alone is
a national treasure. The same is true of Graham
Crowden [Crowden plays regular, Sir Ronald in Nebulous].
Between them they've made their mark in some of the
most significant and exciting films of the last forty
years. It's both an honor and a solid hoot to be
able to work with them. Mark had already worked
with David, so that's how that contact came about and I'd
worked with Graham on Dr. Terrible's.
We sent them scripts and they both said they'd love
to do it. With them and Rosie Caveliero and Paul
Putner, suddenly we had our dream team.
It gives the show a real edge, to have the excellent team
of performers assembled. What attracted you to the role
We are very well served indeed by our
cast. I should mention Julia Dalkin who is the
perfect Gemini, as well as providing a wealth of
supporting characters along with Matt Wolf. Matt
played Gerald Corrigan, head of Vartox Paints in the
episode Madness is a Strange Colour,
and the voice he came up with was just fantastic. We
really regret having killed him off now. I like
playing Rory, because he's one of those guys who is
clearly trying very hard to project a particular image,
yet we can tell that underneath he's a deeply flawed
Is this the last we're going to hear (or see?) of
and the rest of KENT?
Both Mark and I feel that we've only
really scratched the surface with this series and we'd
love to do more with the KENT team.
What else are you working on at the minute?
I'm shortly going to be co-writing an
episode of the new Steve Coogan series. Steve's
keen to develop some new characters, so itıs a pretty
exciting project to be involved in at this stage. Like
Coogan's Run he'll be playing a
different character each week.
I also have a couple of more personal projects in
development, but I tend to keep these things under my
hat, until I know they're definitely happening. Otherwise
I tend to look like someone who's pants are on fire.
You don't have any desire to move into films?
Of course. Like many writers, I
have a few film projects floating around, but things move
soooo slowly in the film world, developing scripts can
take years, nearly done deals have a tendency to
evaporate and so on. I do keep developing film
ideas, but I mainly focus my attentions on TV, where
things move that much quicker - although not be the
standards of the real world obviously...
Thanks for taking time out to talk to us Graham.
Hopefully we'll be hearing from you again soon...