Dirk Maggs

Dirk Maggs is no stranger to radio, possessing a prolific background of quality audio dramatisations - or audio movies, as he prefers to call them. He has experience of writing and script adaptations, producing and directing. The high-tech mixing of radio full-cast dramas was pioneered by Dirk. Previous projects created for radio include two Superman, two Batman and two Judge Dredd serials, The Amazing Spider-Man, An American Werewolf in London, Independence Day: UK, Stephen Baxter's Voyage, Agatha Christie, The Gemini Apes (see my Apes piece for a more detailed description of Dirk's earlier work), and even Peter Pan. Ty Power spoke with him as
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Box Set: The Complete Radio Series was released by BBC Audio...

Ty Power: How did you first come to work for the BBC, before you went freelance, and what was your first job there?

Dirk Maggs: I joined the BBC as a Trainee Studio Manager, operating the old tape machines, rattling teacups in plays, editing recording tape with a razor blade and sticky tape. It was really fun, but at first I was keen to get into television, which I managed to do about a year after qualifying. I very quickly found that I didn't enjoy television, it was too limited as a storytelling medium, so I went back to radio.

TP: Did you do a Producers course with them?

DM: I did a BBC Production 'A' course in the mid 80s, with a bunch of great people who have since become very senior bosses.

TP: How did you first get involved in the scriptwriting side of things? And was Superman on Trial your first writing job for them?

DM: I've always written for my own amusement but wanted to work in BBC Light Entertainment. The only way I could prove I was up to the standard required was to offer some of my scripts as programme ideas, and one of them became Superman on Trial, because thankfully I was offered a job.

TP: Personally, I think that Batman: Knightfall was your pinnacle achievement of the comic book adaptations. Do you have your own favourite?

DM: I don't really have favourites because I can always hear stuff I could have done better, including Hitchhiker's. It's a never ending quest for perfection. Batman was fun but there's a lot of aspects of it that I wish I could redo.

TP: Batman: Knightfall and Superman: Doomsday and Beyond are due for retail re-release in 2006. Is this because they are two of your most popular broadcasts, or simply to tie-in with Batman Begins and the impending Superman live-action feature? Do you think there's much chance of Batman: The Lazarus Syndrome getting a first release in the shops?

DM: My main Batman and Superman titles were re-released in the USA earlier this year [2005] to coincide with these new films, and BBC Audiobooks are finally re-releasing them here. I'm really pleased and so are a lot of people who have been trying to get their hands on copies. Of course the great thing is that they're on CD for the first time, which means at last you can get the full quality we built in so long ago. And hear some of the dodgier edits more clearly.

In an ideal world the other series like Adventures of Superman and Batman: The Lazarus Syndrome would get a release, but sadly I don't think the powers-that-be are adventurous enough to negotiate the necessary deals. We can but hope.

TP: Each of the roughly two-hour dramatisations must be a veritable masterclass in self-motivation. Strict deadlines mean a lot of hard work in a very short period. Do you enjoy the pressure, or only appreciate the end product when you get time to breathe again at the end?

DM: Paul Deeley and I used to stay up till dawn on these projects getting them just right. I still remember his head slowly dropping onto the keyboard at 4am one night as we attempted to get Superman Lives/Doomsday and Beyond just the way we wanted it.

As the years go by I have to say it doesn't get any easier, in fact every production raises the stakes and I get more nervous about matching past efforts. However as certain broadcasters commission less of my kind of material, there's less to worry about, I have a nice little plumbing business lined up, in fact.

TP: What signs do you look for that someone is a good radio actor? For instance, is someone who moves around the studio necessarily better than another who might stand at the microphone and constantly change the inflection of their voice according to the situation?

DM: Actors who have an 'ear' for what the microphone does to voices are the ones to treasure. It's more than a range of voices. Bob Sessions, our Batman, had just the one voice but it was perfect for what I wanted and he knew just how to pitch it at the mic to get every nuance of every line.

Then there are others like Lorelei King, who is a bloody genius because she thinks in sound when she's working in a radio studio. I'm such a fan of the actors I'm lucky enough to work with. Alison Steadman is brilliant too. Simon Jones and Geoff McGivern bouncing off each other as Ford and Arthur, Michael Roberts, Toby Longworth, Rupert Degas... the list goes on and on.

Cast and crew of Batman: Knightfall: (From Top left) Dirk Maggs, Eric Myers (Sargeant Harvey Bullock), Michael Roberts (Ventriloquist/Scarface), James Goode (Scarecrow/ Nightwing), Bob Sessions (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Michael Gough (Alfred), Daniel Marinker (Robin), Vincent Marzello (Mayor Krol) Front Row: Lorelei King (Montoya), Alibe Parsons (Dr Shondra Kinsolving), Kerry Shale (Jean-Paul Valley/The Joker).

TP: In the early nineties a lot of the Manga dubbing that was traditionally done in the UK (for American soundtracks) was moved overseas. Has this affected, at all, the quality of American vocal artists available in the UK? Have many of them moved back to the US?

DM: Not to my knowledge, though Bill Dufris, our Spider-Man, went back to the USA and was Bob The Builder for quite a while over there. I miss Bill. A lot of the other usual suspects are still here, thank goodness.

TP: The Dolby Surround sound was pioneered by you during your time at the BBC. Was your partnership with Paul Deeley the result of lucky happenstance, or did you actively seek out a sound man who could help you make your dramatisations sound like the movies?

DM: By sheer chance, having spoken to Douglas Adams about how our (doomed) attempt to record The Tertiary Phase in 1993 should be mixed into Dolby Surround, a flyer from an independent studio arrived in my office at the BBC, saying: "We have mixed in Dolby Surround". I went and discovered the Soundhouse, met Paul Deeley, we clicked and have worked telepathically ever since, like a sort of two-headed person... oh, no, that was Zaphod, wasn't it...

TP: Your Audio Movies company was relatively short-lived. Can you tell us a little about the situation surrounding the decision to shut it down? Was it a case of responsibility lying heavy on you to constantly find work for your fellow directors?

Paul Deeley (sound engineer) & Dirk Maggs

DM: Being perfectly honest Audio Movies died because the BBC stopped commissioning the stuff we specialised in, and at that time the BBC was the only game in town for audio theatre/radio drama. I got very weary of beating my head against the brick wall, it was horribly dispiriting - and still is.

Now with the advent of Internet distribution of audio product and download to mobile phones and personal entertainment pods I am starting a new production company to make the next generation of audio drama.

There's a lot of people who enjoyed what we were doing, who aren't being catered for by mainstream broadcasters, so I'm hoping we can supply a need there, and to get the usual suspects involved... it's very exciting.

TP: I understand you've got plans for podcasting. Can you tell us a bit about that?

DM: Yes, I'm currently setting up a podcasting-type production company. Robbie Stamp, Douglas Adams's business partner (and Executive Producer of the HHGG movie) introduced me to two terrific blokes, Paul Weir (highly experienced in musical composition, sound design and software development) and Richard Adams (an expert consultant on interactive media).

Building on our combined skills, in 2006 we intend to launch a website dedicated to excellence in audio entertainment. This we propose to call Perfectly Normal Productions. The name - apart from being a gentle tribute to Douglas, who inadvertently brought us together - is a sort of ironic hallmark, a calm, quiet reassurance that "perfectly normal" in our book means "superbly excellent" compared to anyone else.

The site would offer serialised material for download to the new generations of phones and media players. The plan is to produce and distribute a clutch of insanely great audio productions, direct to the many people who demand something more exciting from their earbuds than much of what is currently available.

TP: When you approach something, like the directing of Agatha Christie tales for radio, I would assume they are targeted at an older audience who maybe wouldn't appreciate the modern "whizzes and bangs". How do you revert to an older style of radio while keeping it fresh and contemporary?

William Dufris, who played Spider-Man (Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man) and Judge Caligula (Judge Dredd: The Day The Law Died).

DM: For older listeners' plays and series I still try to keep a strong visual element and a high sound effects quotient (which for me equates with big visual set pieces or necessary action sequences). But, generally speaking, the mix is more conservative with speech - a good 3db higher relative to FX than on the whizzy stuff.

TP: Why do you think the UK still has a good range of radio plays compared with other areas of the world. When William Dufris (Spider-Man, Judge Caligula, etc.) was interviewed for Sci-fi-online he said that the US doesn't have that many audio plays.

DM: Bill is right but there's a growing market in the US thanks to iPods etc., especially with people travelling long distances as a matter of course.

Audio theatre / radio drama exists in a medium that works in ways that television and film can only dream about. It allows the audience to participate in the thoughts and emotions of the characters while providing special effects generated by the most sophisticated computer on the planet - the human brain. For listeners in surround it also constitutes the first genuinely 3-D form of recorded entertainment.

I'm just hoping that the new generation of phones and iPods proves the limit to which the visual medium can convey real drama - that people would rather have widescreen entertainment beamed directly onto the Imax screen of their imagination, than squint at a piddly 2.3 inch screen... and you can get the ironing done...

TP: By all accounts, Ben-Hur was quite a large production for American radio (with a cast of thousands, it seems). What's the origin of that one, and what was your involvement?

DM: My friend Philip Glassborow was, and is, involved with a US organisation called Focus On The Family Radio Theater. It basically makes classic entertainment with a moral core for Christian radio stations and general distribution, and Ben-Hur was on their list of proposed recordings. I have always wanted to tell that tale in audio terms and they were kind enough to give me the chance.

It did have a large and illustrious cast, including Russell Boulter, Martin Jarvis, Timothy Bateson, Peter Goodwright, David Simeon, and Colin MacFarlane as Messala... it was the best fun to direct.

TP: Does it worry you that you're known purely for radio, when you've also made forays into TV and film?

DM: I don't enjoy being 'known' very much at all, especially as people assume that getting a directing credit on something like Hitchhiker's means you're immune from unemployment and impervious to life's knocks. But it comes with the territory.

My biggest concern is to make sure I'm able to work across all media. I do love audio work and beat the drum for it to the point of deafness, but it's nice to put it aside sometimes and work on other projects. In fact it's nice to work, period...

TP: Many of our readers will not be aware of your involvement in large and small screen ventures. Can you enlighten us?

DM: Well I have voice directed for animation and video games, including The Animated Mr Bean with Rowan Atkinson, The Magic Roundabout Movie with Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue, and Broken Sword III with Rolf Saxon and Sarah Crook. I have directed picture stuff in the past and would like to do more in the future, but it's a much more frustrating and cumbersome business creatively than pure sound.

TP: Now that all three of your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy dramatisations for radio are out on CD (and indeed have been included with the original two in a box set) how do you feel they went over all? And what has been the initial reaction from media and industry?

Dirk Maggs (Director) and Paul Deeley (Sound Engineer) listen to the recordings for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

DM: There have been some astonishingly nice verdicts from critics and listeners, but also there have been some astonishingly vitriolic ones too. One I particularly treasure on a certain book selling Internet site slags off a whole series in a hissy fit and adds: "Dirk Maggs is not Douglas Adams and never will be," which was the one objective and sensible thought in the entire review.

The movie has had the same range of responses. In the end, there will always be folks who feel you've taken liberties with their personal property. But, as Douglas used to say, they'll get over it.

TP: Did your long-time involvement with BBC Radio comedy help you with the tone when adapting the books for radio, or do you think Hitchhiker has a distinctive humour all of its own?

DM: I think you had to have been there, as it were, to make it possible to finish the saga at all. BBC Radio Light Ent, as it was in the 70s when Douglas and Geoffrey Perkins were there (under Department Head, David Hatch), and the 80s, when I was among the next generation of occupants (under Martin Fisher and later the much-loved Jonathan James Moore), is very much an analogue for the offices of The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy as Douglas describes them in the books.

On a daily basis the first floor at 16 Langham Street was mostly deserted from twelve noon until three pm, as everybody was out at the pub. Therefore it is quite likely that much of the comedy output of the BBC radio networks at that time was actually accomplished by casual visitors, who found the offices empty and thus could easily have sat down at the typewriters to bang out the odd sketch for Week Ending or News Huddlines, or indeed the entire formats of all of the quiz shows that were running at the time.

Some of the Hitchhiker's cast and crew at a Forbidden Planet signing

TP: The Hitchhiker productions probably had the largest cast you've had in this country. Was there a feeling of the BBC treating this with more respect than normal, because the best-selling first book is so much loved?

DM: Respect... hmmm.... Put it this way - the Production Company, Cast, Producers, Director, Composer and Studio personnel worked themselves into the ground making these three final series as good as they could be, and the BBC website editorial team should be singled out for doing a great job backing us up.

TP: Can you imagine these kick-starting modern radio serials again? With your successful track record in radio, I would have thought the BBC would be constantly at your door demanding more adaptations and new material. Why do you think they are so short-sighted in this respect?

DM: You'd have to ask them, I'd love to find out...

TP: If you could only be a writer, producer or director, which one would it be?

DM: I think being all three in audio theatre is the most fun you can have with the lights on.

TP: If you were to direct an audio play of your life, who would play you and why?

DM: Lorelei King [pictured right]. She can play any part and she's lovely to work with.

TP: If you were a car, what model would it be and why? (think about what's attractive and practical to different groups of people - this will hopefully tell people who your target audience is).

DM: A 1958 Studebaker Hawk. Because I'd like to look that classy. What that says about my target audience I have no idea. My target audience is people like me, I guess.

TP: What next for Dirk Maggs? What follows Hitchhiker's, and what plans for the future?

DM: Well with things being on the quiet side I'm attempting to write a novel for kids based on my 1998 Radio 4 Christmas production, The Gemini Apes. It's nice to work on some of my own material for a change, and I'm really enjoying writing for it's own sake.

TP: Dirk Maggs, thanks very much for talking to us.

Dirk Maggs: "Here's a very recent picture of John Sargeant presenting me with the Audio Producers Association Award for Hitchhiker's (in the 'Best TV & Film' category ... go figure!)"

For more information on Dirk Magg's past projects check out Ty Power's Website

Click here to buy the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Complete Radio Series for £48.00 (RRP: £80.00)

Return to...

banner ad