Audio & Podcasts Interviews & Profiles

Richard O’Brien & Sophie Aldred Interview – The Barren Author (Series 2)

The Barren Author – a modern-day take on the stories of Baron Munchausen – returns for a second series on audio, courtesy of Spiteful Puppet and AUK Studios.

We caught up with co-stars Richard O’Brien and Sophie Aldred, along with producer Barnaby Eaton-Jones, for a chat in which we found out the only thing worse than an unreliable narrator is an unreliable Zoom connection…

SET THE TAPE: Richard, you’re still playing the Brigadier here; Sophie, you’re still the mysterious Smith. So, just tell us a little bit about those characters, and how you connect with them.

 RICHARD O’BRIEN: Over to Sophie first.

SOPHIE ALDRED: Well, Smith… I’ve really enjoyed recording the second series, because Smith in the first series, I mean she’s acting as a kind of like, a bit like a Doctor Who assistant, funnily enough. She’s the one who asks all the questions, you know, the equivalent of “What’s happening, Doctor?”. But in the second series, she kind of… she’s beginning to weave with the story a bit more, and it was fun to have more to do, more of the action, and she’s beginning to sort of question what the heck’s going on as well, and really where is this whole thing heading, and who is this guy, and what’s the whole reality of it as well. So, it’s been fun to develop the character further.

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STT: Richard, how does it feel getting back into the Brigadier?

RO: Well, I liked it this time, because in the first series it was almost as if Sophie and I were on the telephone to each other, discussing my book and what was going on, or on Zoom perhaps these days. But in the second series we actually get together, we travel together, we’re in an air balloon together, we go through all sorts of… we go to my family home together, she meets my eccentric brothers and sisters. She’s much more engaged in the journey the second time, we’re a kind of couple, almost I think maybe… I won’t say lovers, but firm friends, I think, by the end of it, which is terribly nice.

SA: Certainly, very… Smith becomes very fond of the Brigadier, and becomes very concerned for his wellbeing, and she’s the sort of ‘can’t live with him, can’t live without him’ by the end.

STT: Speaking of being concerned for his wellbeing, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say at the end of the last series he shot himself out of a cannon, so a bit of a cliffhanger. I just wondered if when you got the scripts for the second series – Paul Birch’s scripts, I believe – did it go places you didn’t expect? Or did you expect there to be any more? Like, how was that?

RO: Well, my first words to Barnaby were, you know, there better be a story, because otherwise it’s just a garrulous old man going on, and it’s a bit like listening to your grandad that’s got Alzheimer’s if we’re not careful. There had to be a plot, and no matter what sort of plot, there had to be a good plot, and we got it, thankfully. It is off-the-wall, obviously, by default. But it’s not just a silly garrulous old geezer that’s just, you know… Otherwise, no-one’s going to take interest in something that doesn’t go somewhere – it has to go somewhere. I’m a great believer that there’s no art without craft, it’s a mantra of mine, and in a story there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end, and I’m very hot on that. I’ve had this argument with people time and time again: writing songs is a craft; painting pictures is a craft; acting is a craft. And anyone that goes and says they’re an artist – “I’m an artist” – no, fuck off. You know, we’ll tell you whether you’re an artist or not, you don’t tell us.

STT: [laughing]

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BARNABY EATON-JONES: Richard did this brilliant thing in, I can’t remember which episode it was, but his brilliant note when he got the script was ‘this character’s not real, he’s not grounded’, and because obviously the series is, you know, quite big in itself, it was a brilliant note just to say although it is, you know, absolutely mental in places, everything has to be grounded in reality, because then otherwise it doesn’t work. And so we rewrote – Paul and I rewrote one of the characters, because Richard said it’s just too big and he’s not real, and so he has to be real. And that was a lovely note to get, I think it was about halfway through the second series, so I really appreciated that, because it meant that we kept on the straight and narrow, so although it’s a fantastical series, everything had to be real, so that was nice.

RO: Yeah, so I think I remember saying something like ‘it may be impossible, but it has to be plausible’.

BEJ: Yeah, absolutely.

SA: Yeah, that’s brilliant.

STT: Speaking of things being plausible and possible, you veer into time travel quite a lot in this series. Sophie, you obviously have some experience with time travel, so I just wondered how the Brigadier compared as a time travelling companion.

SA: [laughing] Equally eccentric, I’d say.

RO: I love the word ‘eccentric’, it gives you a licence. If they say you’re mad, you’re fucked, but if they say you’re eccentric, you get away with murder. [laughing]

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STT: So, Richard, I guess not technically your first experience with time travel either – Time Warps, and whatnot. How did you feel about that element coming in?

RO: I was more intent on making sense of what I was saying. The journey I was on didn’t really matter to me as a performer, it was how I delivered it that was what I was embracing. The journey itself was something for the listener. My job was to make it sound plausible, and to win the lines, really. It’s like telling a story to your children, a bedtime story, you know, you have to make it interesting – not too interesting that they stay awake, of course, because you’re trying to get them off to sleep. [laughing]

STT: There is some pretty interesting stuff in the first episode, and I knew eventually – I’ve grown up watching your stuff, Richard – I knew that the day would come when I get to ask you: How did it feel to punch the Loch Ness Monster in the face?

RO: [laughing] It was marvellous, absolutely marvellous. There was a Spanish bastard that was watching things that was annoying, because he was just around the corner, and I had to tackle him a lot later on, it wasn’t easy, and the Queen was watching from across the Loch, it was difficult, but we got there. We got there in the end.

STT: I’m glad to hear it. So, that’s a good example of the tales are pretty tall in the series. How much bigger are the tall tales in Series 2, as opposed to Series 1, would you say?

RO: I think it’s rather fascinating that we introduce the rest of the Brigadier’s family, in the different shapes and forms. He’s tucked away in the wilds of Oxfordshire, I think, family home down there somewhere, and I can quite understand how it works, because I’ve met some of these families that have been entrenched in the, you know, in the grand old pile, and have been there for years – and eccentric as fuck too, you know. So, I’ve met all these people – not necessarily ones that have vampires for brothers or, you know, a sister attached to MI6 – but, you know, I’ve met these eccentric English people, and they do… [connection freezes]

STT: I want to hear the end of that tall tale. [laughter]

SA: When he unfreezes.

STT: It’s going to come in at a really good… I hope for the last line of whatever that was. [laughter] No. Sophie, should I ask you about the…?

SA: Yeah, I was going to say about going back to what you said about the time travel, I think that kind of the circumstances like the time travel or whatever, of course it’s great, but the main thing about drama is the relationship, and relationships between the characters. So, in a way it doesn’t matter. But what does matter is the relationships.

STT: Do you feel like you get to get more involved in that this time around.

SA: Yeah, that was really great, actually, to be more involved. It’s sort of like Richard was saying, that they’re actually physically together, and that makes for the development of the relationship. And she becomes part of, much more part of his world, she becomes an intrinsic part of his story, and gets kind of caught up in the whole madness of it.

STT: I was going to say as well, like, tall tales these days, do you think that’s a little bit of a lost art? Is it an old-fashioned thing that we don’t really do anymore? It’s got that kind of vibe about it, do you think that’s true?

SA: I think that’s a very good point, actually, that we don’t tell… I haven’t heard people talk about shaggy dog stories for years. And there’s a great art, isn’t there, to the shaggy dog story. I mean, we love stories, don’t we? Human beings, we survive on stories, and I suppose our stories nowadays are lots of, kind of, gossip and news, but actually to have a… it’s like, I’m thinking of Norse mythology for some reason, but you know the way that people would sit around and tell these great tales, sagas, and it is a bit like a saga, isn’t it, this?

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STT: So, did you know – I don’t know, Barnaby, correct me if it’s okay to say this is the last series, is that right? That’s what you mentioned.

BEJ: It is the last series.

STT: Is it okay to mention that, or is that…?

BEJ: I thought the first one was the last series, until Richard said we must do another one. [laughter]

STT: That’s what I was going to say, is did you know this was going to be the last one?

BEJ: Well, he did say… well, he asked for a second series, and then said but it would be lovely to sort of end it, so we made sure that it had an ending, but also that it was slightly open-ended, so that…

SA: Just in case, yeah.

BEJ: Just in case.

STT: So, in way of a teaser, of the first episode includes Richard, sorry, the Brigadier punching the Loch Ness Monster, which is quite a listen, like, how do you get bigger from there? What can people expect?

BEJ: [laughter] Well, just…

SA: Oh, you’ll have to wait and see! Come on! [laughter]

BEJ: I can tease that space is involved at one point, so, outer space. So, I think that’s quite big.

STT: You heard it here first: Space is involved.

[Everyone laughs]

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STT: You know, I’ve… go on, yeah.

BEJ: No, I was going to say, Richard and Sophie, I wanted to… I should’ve said this earlier, really. They’re so incredibly natural as actors, and Richard was saying earlier about just being, rather than sort of acting it, that’s what makes it work, because it is a hugely odd series, but the fact that they are so good at being so natural, and that you can believe what they’re saying, that’s what… it’s a lovely thing. So, it really makes the whole thing sing, so kudos to both of them, really, for making it work.

SA: Awwwww, thank you so much.

STT: Was the process of recording this one any different from the first one? Or was it the same sort of COVID style recording sessions?

SA: No, I just got inside my airing cupboard with all the towels and sheets, and pressed ‘record’, and listened out for toilet flushing and cars going by, helicopters as well, and, yeah, and away I went.

STT: So, you went, you know, into space, travel through time, all from your airing cupboard.

SA: All from the airing cupboard.

STT: Richard’s setup looks a little grander than that, from the background.

SA: Yeah, he’s alright. New Zealand were a lot better, I think, with the way they sorted COVID, so he could go into studio.

STT: Congratulations on it, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the first episode, it’s really good. I was slightly devastated that you never got that cheese & onion pasty.

[Everyone laughs]

BEJ: Maybe she does.

STT: Exactly, yeah. I’m dying to find out about that pasty.

With thanks to Richard O’Brien, Sophie Aldred, Barnaby Eaton-Jones, Alan Ronald and Lee Thacker. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The Barren Author – Series 2, a co-production with AUK Studios, is coming soon via digital platforms and directly from Spiteful Puppet.

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