All original text and images İRJE Simpson 1999-2006
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writer of BBC Radio 4 sci-fi sitcom

Nebulous: BBC Radio 4, Thursdays 11pm
January 6th - February 10th 2005

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 projects.

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 ( for the following week.

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.


Robert Simpson: I understand that Nebulous is a co-creation between you and Mark Gatiss. How did that come about?

Graham Duff: 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 that stage.  
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.  

The NEBULOUS crew. Left to right:- Rosie Cavaliero (Paula), Graham Duff (Rory), Mark Gatiss (Prof. Nebulous), and Paul Putner (Harry)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 Doctor Who]

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 format.

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 Nebulous, that you landed your first Doctor Who job. Had you given any thought to writing for Doctor Who before?

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
The Faith Stealer? [Graham's 2004 Doctor Who audio story, available from]

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 Hitchhikers 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 opus....

Me too.

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 amuse them.

Like all those people who loved the League of Gentlemen without ever watching an episode of Doctor Who or an Amicus film....

Hopefully yes.

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 process?

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 Nebulous will contain echoes of Doctor Who, Quatermass and so on.  One reviewer referred to Nebulous 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 Quatermass massive. Rosie Cavaliero as Paula,  looks on longingly at Mark Gatiss' dapper Professor Nebulous. Photo (c) BBC 2005, used with permission

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... though.

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 films.

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 to that?

Nebulous is a silly show.  Fact.  

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 guest villain)?

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 of Rory?

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 individual.

Is this the last we're going to hear (or see?) of
Nebulous 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...



İRJE Simpson 2005

page posted 20 January 2005
reformatted and reposted 24 August 2006

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House of Horror: The Unofficial Hammer Films Site İ RJE Simpson 1999 - 2006
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