With the release of Spiteful Puppet‘s audio comedy-drama The Barren Author last week, Set The Tape managed to catch up with its stars Richard O’Brien and Sophie Aldred to talk Baron Munchausen, inspirations, and airing cupboards…
SET THE TAPE: The Barren Author – the first thing I want to do is make sure that this interview is as Munchausian as possible, and that we struggle to tell the truth from the lies and that it’s all fantasy from reality is blurred. So I should start by saying that Richard is dressed in a full suit of golden armour for this interview, surrounded by various exotic animals, aren’t you. Is that right?
RICHARD O’BRIEN: [Laughing]
STT: So with that in mind, tell us a bit about The Barren Author and your part of The Brigadier.
RO: OK. Well fire away with a quiz question while I change into the lamé.
STT: [Laughing] Yes, so tell us a bit about The Brigadier and a bit about The Barren Author generally.
RO: Well The Brigadier is kind of ageless in a way, he’s difficult to get his age. At certain times he seems to be like a seventy year old looking back at his younger self, but then we come to, into a world where he’s engaged in an activity where um – once again of course he could be, he would be lying wouldn’t he – he’s young and fit and beautiful and you go ‘well that’s pretty impossible really’ but – it’s a bit like, it’s a bit like being in the presence of somebody with dementia that is somehow rather still very entertaining.
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STT: You didn’t mention the moustache; that’s clearly a very important part of the character. Would you like to tell us a bit about the moustache?
RO: The moustache? Well the moustache is once again – I don’t have one, does he have one? Yes he could – I mean who knows? He’s – he looks like Brad Pitt at some stage or other, but y’know, it’s all a little kind of – and others, y’know, Brad Pitt with size 15 feet, y’know. [Laughing.] We haven’t had him in – oh yes we have had him – in the water but you didn’t mention his big feet as flippers, we missed that one Barnaby [Eaton-Jones, producer, who is also on the Zoom call]. That would be very useful.
STT: Tell us a little bit about how you came to be involved in this.
RO: I got seduced by Barnaby making an overture to my lovely agent. Another woman of mystery, Jean Diamond, she seems to have been on the planet for several hundred years and yet she seems to remain ageless. She’s a delight. Then I said yes for some reason – they caught me at a weak moment.
STT: So, [The Barren Author is] an adaptation of Munchausen, so how does this compare to other versions or adaptations of Munchausen?
RO: Munchausen – I think probably, I think we can call the Terry Gilliam version definitive, in a way. He approached the legends as written and did a splendid job. We’re in the modern world and it’s just this fantasist talking about his life. It’s a bit like being with Donald Trump if he was living next door to you and wearing a woolly cardigan.
STT: I listened to the first episode today, and it reminded me a little bit of Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry at Rawlinson End – just in the writing and in the performance. Is that an inspiration? Or if not, where did some of the inspirations for the performances come from?
RO: No, I have no inspirations. Inspirations for voices maybe, sometimes. There’s actors that, in the olden days, actors didn’t even bother to change their voice. I mean if you think about Rommel – who was that? What was the name of the actor that played Rommel? He talked like that all the time [doing impression of James Mason], he never changed his voice, whether he played Rommel or whether he played the man next door it was always the same. Jimmy Stewart used the same voice for every character, and it’s very interesting that these actors, they got ‘Isn’t he marvellous! Isn’t he marvellous!’, and it was – they never changed, did they. They just, they were the same person in every film but they were man of a thousand voices, each one the same, weren’t they.
STT: Speaking of voices though, I’ve only heard the first episode, but is that you doing the various accents throughout?
RO: The Scots one? I’m not sure I should answer you, particularly, specifically. [Laughter, as our interviewer is Scottish.] Should I own up? I don’t know.
STT: You can tell the truth or…
RO: Alex Harvey [Scottish musician] was a dear friend of mine. Alex Harvey, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and I used to love his tales. Billy Connolly was another famous Scots voice, absolutely delighted everybody around the world. We’ve got very used to the Scots voices haven’t we, over the years. I suppose Gordon Jackson [actor] was the first famous Scots that was internationally kind of recognised as a Scots voice.
STT: I can definitely hear a bit of Alex Harvey in that first episode, now that you mention it. A little bit of channelling there. What other accents can we expect in the next episodes?
RO: It’s strange, I’m the sort of person that if I’m having a conversation with somebody and I’m talking about somebody I generally go into their voice. I have to be very careful sometimes because it sounds like you’re making fun and I don’t intend to do so. But if I’m telling a story about somebody that has an accent, I find I start to do them without thinking about it.
STT: Tell us something about Sophie Aldred’s character in this. Can she be trusted? I’m not sure from the first episode, so tell us a bit about her.
RO: She’s a disengaged voice, and Munchausen’s not quite sure whether she has a further agenda other than as a book publisher. I think quite to the end she seems to be, to me, myself, to be inoffensive, but who knows, there may well be something other going on there but as far as I’m concerned – me, Richard, is concerned – I don’t find her devious, however I think Munchausen does.
STT: We’re doing this interview via video call, which is a bit of life imitating art there because the series takes place over a video call. How was it recording it, presumably remotely, and how do you get on with that sort of tech personally?
RO: Well I’ve done the voiceovers for animated movies and other things and I find it’s much the same. You are in a room somewhere, just away from the producers and whatnot. It’s a bit like doing adverts actually, it’s not a million miles away from doing an advert.
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STT: So, the arts at the moment generally, with everything that’s going on in the arts, they’re taking a bit of a hit at the moment, but radio productions and audio productions are thriving. Do you think there’s a bit of a renaissance for this kind of art or this kind of format?
RO: Well by default I would imagine. I think by default. Yes, because isolation and social distancing and all the rest of it – yes by default it’s having a heyday.
STT: Are you a fan of radio in particular? Do you have any…
RO: Love radio! I love radio. Radio 4 is one of my favourite – was always one of my – I’m sorry that we don’t have a Radio 4 out here in New Zealand [where Richard is speaking from]. I liked Radio 4 for Play For The Day, The Moral Maze, discussions of that sort, comedy. A truly entertaining radio station I think, and I wish we had one similar out here.
STT: For anyone intrigued by this production, that might not have listened to radio productions before, why would you suggest that they give it a go?
RO: Well I don’t know – if they’re at a loose end.
BARNABY EATON-JONES: I think that’s the perfect answer.
STT: How have you found recording The Barren Author and other audios in lockdown?
SOPHIE ALDRED: I’ve actually enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the fact that I don’t have to get up, and get out, and go on a train, and pay a lot of money to get into a studio. I have missed speaking to people. I also have missed the kind of camaraderie you get of going into a studio and seeing people. I’ve enjoyed the fact that I could record pretty much whenever I like, so that could be in the middle of the night if I feel like it. It’s quite nice being able to just pop into the airing cupboard and record my lines – which is where I am now – and I would definitely say that I would like a mixture of the two in an ideal world, so recording some things in studio and some things at home would be perfect.
STT: What would you say most attracted you to appearing in The Barren Author?
SA: The scripts – I thought they were brilliant, very funny. Also, I have to say I was attracted by the idea of working with – or, rather, not with, because we weren’t together in the same place or time or even recording together – but to be doing something a little bit different with somebody from a different cult programme, which is great.
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STT: Have you got any favourite Brigadier-type tall tales that you can tell us?
SA: Oh, my goodness. It’s so funny though, because I don’t really… What I love is actually things that sound like tall tales, but actually turn out to be the truth. So, yeah, that’s what I prefer, but what immediately springs to mind is a lovely story about when my brother was little, he had this little friend called Adam, and Adam was a great one for tall tales, and he used to talk about his granny, who was an amazing character, and he came from a background of mountain climbers; in fact, I think his mum and dad had actually been up Everest with Chris Bonington, and my brother used to come home and tell all these tall tales that Adam had told him in a very solemn way, and that was lovely. The one I remember most of all is that he told my brother that his granny had climbed up Mount Etna, which turned out to be the case, but the bit that didn’t quite ring true was that she apparently slid down Mount Etna on a hot piece of lava, and I think that’s a particularly Brigadier-type tall tale. I think children are brilliant at them, and I think that what we all love about this type of character is the imagination and the kind of scope of… wouldn’t everybody have loved to have done all of those things that people who do tell tall tales tell?
With thanks to Richard O’Brien, Sophie Aldred, Barnaby Eaton-Jones, Alan Ronald and Lee Thacker. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity. The Barren Author is out now from Spiteful Puppet.