Interview by Paul Skevington
The Wireless Theatre Company are a new production team who have been establishing themselves with a selection of original audio dramas, showcasing some of the most promising new talents in the burgeoning aural arena. They are currently working on an adaptation of the Victorian legend of Spring Heeled Jack. Director and co-writer Robert Valentine discusses the making of the monster.
For those of us who have not encountered the Spring Heeled Jack story before, could you give us a brief synopsis?
In the winter of 1837, a mysterious devil-like creature began attacking young women in London and the surrounding villages. He was first seen on Barnes Common by a businessman returning home from work, and he was later spotted in Clapham, Lavender Hill and most famously Old Ford, where he attacked a girl named Jane Alsop. A local man, Thomas Millbank, was accused of the crime and was put on trial in 1838, but he was subsequently acquitted. Some say the real culprit was in fact the ‘mad’ Marquis of Waterford, some say it was an alien or a ghost, but the truth is, we’ll never know. I think that he was most likely not a single person but was in fact a group of upper-class young men, possibly including Waterford, who thought it fun to disguise themselves in fancy dress and attack young women at night. The attacks caused a sensation, and then I think people of all classes took up the practice and that’s how it spread, rather like ‘happy-slapping’ today. Pretty soon, a legend was born, with sightings all over Britain.
What inspired you to choose this particular legend for dramatisation?
I had just finished directing a very low-budget feature film and was starting the editing-process. I wanted to do a hobby-project on the side as an escape from that. Gareth Parker (the play’s co-author) was doing some work with the Wireless Theatre Company, and it struck me that with audio drama you can do a big action-adventure serial with chases and explosions without the need for a Hollywood-sized budget. We had the means of production right in front of us, and they were eager for material. The reason we chose the Spring Heeled Jack legend was that Gareth, years before, had told me about an idea he’d had for a television series about an obsessed detective hunting for Spring Heeled Jack, and I thought it was the perfect Victorian MacGuffin. I think he’d almost forgotten about it by that point, but I said, "Hey, let’s dust that one off and do something with it!" So we looked over his original notes and they had very little to do with historical fact, they were more in the spirit of The X-Files. So whilst we kept the core premise of an Ahab-like detective character, I insisted we follow the actual events of the original case as closely as possible, because that makes for a much better point of departure into the realms of fantasy, and it’s also what made the legend endure until now; it really happened!
How did you approach the adaptation of the original accounts, and what resources did you use in creating your own unique take on the myth?
I’ve always admired stories where historical characters rub shoulders with fictional ones, such as the Flashman novels, Little Big Man, Blackadder, you name it. When you’re writing a period fantasy it’s fun and helpful to couch it in some sort of authentic reality, especially when you’re dealing with an eight-foot monster running around nineteenth century Clapham. Other attempts at dramatising Spring Heeled Jack usually end up as a sort of Steampunk Batman and I think that’s a waste; you might as well make up a totally new character if you’re going to go that way. Besides, I think it’s a no-brainer when writing about a subject like Spring Heeled Jack to include all of the incredible events that actually happened. The Duke of Wellington really did go out hunting for him, and it’d be a crime not to use that. Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography was a great guide too, especially when it came to creating the world of the story.
As a director, is it more important that the play appear authentically period, or that it appeals to a modern sensibility?
As contemporary people, the modern sensibility is the only one on offer to us. The story is written for a modern audience, but the characters within it possess the beliefs and customs specific to their own period. As the director of the piece, what was important during recording was making sure that the actors understood that their characters were essentially Dickensian and to pitch their performances accordingly. In terms of historical accuracy, I think we’ve succeeded in creating a veneer of authenticity that will help the audience to settle in to the tale, but I’m sure we’ve made the police more competent than they actually were! But to answer your question, making the play appear authentically period is merely one tool you use in your attempts to appeal to your audience, so I’d say the latter was far more important.
Can we expect a genuinely Victorian sonic experience from the sound design?
We’re all very used to thinking of the Jack-the-Ripper London of the 1880s and that was something I particularly wanted to avoid. One of the pleasures of writing the London of 1837 is that it wasn’t the vast metropolis that we imagine when we think of the Victorian era; if you travelled very far in any direction you hit countryside. As a result, the soundtrack will include an awful lot of birdsong and farmyard noises for a story that takes place primarily in Clapham and Putney. But yes, we’ve put a lot of effort into creating a Victorian world you can hear.
Genre fans will be glad to know that the cast includes veteran actor Julian Glover, of Indiana Jones and Doctor Who fame. Can you tell us a bit about his involvement?
Not only is he one of the great British actors, he’s the Blarney Stone of pop culture villainy and we just had to kiss him. Metaphorically, that is. When it came to casting, we had a wish-list of about six or seven actors to play Lord Wayland, a Tory landowner with a particular interest in the true identity of Spring Heeled Jack, and Julian Glover was my personal first-choice for the part. It was a wonderful day when we got word back from his agent that he was interested. There is just so much authority and conviction in his voice; he’s an actor of vast and staggering experience. I’m quite simply delighted.
Are there any other stand-out performances?
We have several! Our three leads, Chris Finney, Matt Jure and Jessica Dennis are all superb, and they’re supported by a fantastic cast that includes Ceri Gifford, Simon Cruise, Nick Lucas, Trevor Cuthbertson, Ben Whitehead and David Benson. I wouldn’t like to single out anyone in particular because they’re all wonderful, but I must admit that there’s a character called Fred the Cabbie who is played by Jonathan Hansler whom I’m particularly fond of. When I first heard Johnny utter Fred’s dialogue, it blew my socks off. The script describes Fred as the sort of man Bill Sykes would cross the road to avoid and that’s exactly what Johnny gave us.
Were there any elements of the source material that you chose not to use?
I think we attempted to include, or at least make reference to, every scrap of material from the original sightings that took place from 1837 – 1838. We do take a few factual liberties by relocating the first sighting from Barnes to Clapham, and in our version they occur over the space of a few days rather than a few months. However, we do use all of the major incidents, including the attacks on Mary Stevens, Lucy Scales and Jane Alsop, the carriage attack, the Mansion House letter, the Duke of Wellington’s hunting parties and the trial of Thomas Millbank. We haven’t yet used any events that took place beyond 1840 as we aim to produce another six episodes that will tell the entire story of Spring Heeled Jack, right up until his last sighting in 1904.
What format will the piece be taking, and when can we get hold of it? Will there be any opportunities for a sneak preview?
The three half-hour episodes will be released consecutively by the Wireless Theatre Company but we don’t have a release date just yet. However, the first cut has been completed and I’m sure there’ll be a sneaky-peak ready for you very soon!
What’s next for the Wireless Theatre Company and for Robert Valentine?
Gareth and I are already at work on the next six episodes of the Springheel Saga, and my next project is a post-apocalyptic adventure film called God’s Madmen. In the meantime, though, I’m just very excited to hear the final cut of The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack.