Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Interview - A Brush with the Doctor ...

Interviewed by Peter Adamson (in 1998)

Alistair Hughes scarcely needs any introduction in Doctor Who fandom; his highly distinctive watercolour and scratch-board compositions have appeared in such mainstream UK Who publications as the In-Vision series of Doctor Who production studies (for which he produced many covers and countless interior illustrations), The Frame, DWB (an imaginative concept illustration for the unmade story The Masters Of Luxor, David Howe's 1993 Thirtieth Anniversary Doctor Who calender (a dynamic interpretation of the summoning of Azal from The Dæmons and the DWM Yearbook from the same year (for Mark Gatiss' story Urrozidnee).

In slightly smaller circles he has contributed to Glasgow's Paisley Pattern and was a founding subscriber to the late Who View. But the publication with which he is now most popularly associated is TSV, for which he supplies commissioned cover art as well as interior illustrations, the odd review, and even some fan fiction.

When he isn't exercising his artistic brilliance in TSV, Alistair works as a designer in Wellington, and his non-Who work can be seen in such magazines as Next and the New Zealand Chartered Accountants Journal.

(Peter) So tell me about your family. Any artists among them?
(Alistair) I'm adopted, so if it were a genetic thing, there's no evidence of it whatsoever in any other member of my family! Perhaps it's because this ability was unusual in my family that they were so encouraging when I showed some early interest in art.

So are you a Scottish Kiwi or a New Zealand Scot? There seems to be some confusion there ...
Yeah it's true there is a bit of confusion. I don't really know how to answer that one. When I returned to Scotland I naively expected to be welcomed with open arms, but soon found that it's the country you grow up in that moulds you rather than the place you were born ... although being born in Scotland is very important to me—in defining my sense of identity.

Were you allowed to watch Doctor Who as a child?
Practically encouraged! It was the classic BBC television programmer's image—Doctor Who was saturday night tea-time family viewing, and for me that meant the whole extended family—as we usually gathered at my grandparents' on the weekends. We'd all be crowded in front of the telly—real textbook British childhood stuff. So I've got very warm memories of being scared to death.

My earliest memory is of the Silurians, but (textbook stuff again!) I'll never forget my first impressions of Terror Of The Autons; that bloody troll doll and faceless policeman—it deserved to be raised in the Houses of Parliament ... terrifying stuff! I always believed it had been the Brigadier's face that was peeled away by the Doctor (of course, it was actually the Auton policeman - must be a uniform thing), and I remember thinking "God, if it can happen to him ..."

Every Who fan seems to have a defining Doctor for their generation. Yours would appear to be Jon Pertwee. Any thoughts on that?
Um ... I knew you were going to ask that question! I think regardless of the fact that it was Doctor Who, he was the earliest character who I wanted to be like and tried to identify with. I felt a connection and only later discovered that there were Doctors before him and others after him - but in this context it didn't matter, Pertwee was the only Doctor around on those scary Saturday tea-times.

Incidentally, I like to think it says at lot about Doctor Who fans that their hero is a cultured gentleman who uses his brains to confront oppression and evil, rather than someone who flies about with his underpants outside his suit, or blows things up with giant guns. I think that's a hopeful sign.

I bet your schoolbooks were covered in doodles ...
Yes, but doodling is one of the few things that I really feel retentive about. To me doodling is a lack of discipline, and you should be using that creative urge for something worthwhile. Even as a child there had to be a definite purpose for me, a brief, if you like. Or maybe I'm just unimaginative!

So what's your favourite monster to draw?
Oh, that would be the Sontarans.

Any more confessions?
First time I saw the Daleks (age 6—Day Of The Daleks) I was hideously disappointed. I couldn't believe it - they were as exciting as a talking fridge. I loved them by episode four, though! And I thought the Ogrons were homicidal old men—must have been the baldness!
Am I the only person who thinks Leela became less attractive when she changed the colour of her eyes? Or am I alone in preferring Romana 1 to Romana 2?

Then there's my belief that Logopolis utilises Christian themes as heavily as Planet Of The Spiders uses Buddhist ones ...

The TARDIS. It's a bugger to draw, as are Daleks. Easy to draw badly, hard to draw well. Agree?
Well, yes, but I'd say with the Daleks less so. The line that nimrod says in Ghost Light about 'a forest of straight lines' describes the appearance of the TARDIS pretty well, beloved as that police box is, but the Daleks have definite character!

Any trade secrets?
Only just get your composition sorted out before your reference material, rather than the other way around, a la Alistair Pearson (although he was under enormous pressure with his deadlines and did extremely well considering this). Good reference photographs should only be raw material to help create an illustration—not the sole reason or purpose for creating one!

Like a lot of artists (including Alistair Pearson) you like to use your vast collection of reference photos. Do you ever worry they'll run out?
Constantly. In fact it's the only reason I buy magazines! In Britain, magazines appear on the shelves the same week they are printed and they're more valid as a news source. But in New Zealand where we receive magazines months later—I buy and use them purely as photographic reference material.

Okay, so tell us about England. How hard is it to get noticed there?
I was living in Scotland of course. Very, very difficult. I had this huge flare of good luck at the start, because I was something new. But it was sustaining publishers' interest and proving myself deserving of it, that was the real challenge.

And of course, when you do land a commission from a client you have been courting for months, it's absolutely guaranteed that three other important jobs will arrive at the same time. I was fortunate to find a good deal of illustration work, not all of it Who-related, of course, and learned a lot about technique, and business in general.

At a Doctor Who convention the actor Julian Glover was speaking about acting, and he said something to the effect that of you have acting in your blood, you have no choice and have to live that life. But he felt sorry for anyone who did because it was such an enormously difficult way to earn a living. I found working as a freelance illustrator to very like that—when it's good (ie. when you have work) it's the most fun and rewarding thing you can ever do, but when it's bad it's truly horrible!

I'm happy to say that I did finally find myself in the equally difficult position of having too much work, but was able to give some of my clients to other illustrators whom I knew—I got a great bottle of whisky out of that!

What was your perception of British fans as opposed to New Zealand fans?
The Brits are far more irreverent. It's a kind of feeling where they hide their true enthusiasm behind a kind of skewed cynicism. At the conventions you'd have somebody dressed as the Doctor, coolly reluctant to talk about the very thing they were dressed up as—it was hilarious in a way. But I met a lot of really great people in UK fandom too. Very clever, very funny people.

Did you pick up any favourite fanzines?
I was involved in the local one called Paisley Pattern. It was incredibly irreverent ... maybe it was naivete, but I thought it was bordering on sacrilegious [against the programme]. I was quite shocked to read some of the things they said (particularly about 'Pertles' which was a 'mock affectionate nickname' for my favourite Doctor; it sounds quite amusing when said with a strong Glaswegian accent) ... but the emphasis was on comedy and fun throughout. Perhaps a backlash against the 'fanboy' image, an expression which was coined about this time.

You certainly did well while you were over there. A calender contribution, several In-Visions, DWM and DWB ...
I was lucky, and I certainly had a great time with it all. David Howe was very challenging and stimulating to work with on the calender—which will always be one of my favourite pieces. In-Vision was always more of a family atmosphere: Jeremy Bentham and especially Justin Richards became friends to me although we only ever spoke by phone (and Justin even mentioned me in his first New Adventure novel [Theatre Of War]—not many people know, or care about, that!) Their regular commissions really helped me develope my skills (and they still send me issues, bless 'em).

The real highlight was probably the Marvel Yearbook illustrations. It's not my best work, but I'd hounded Gary Russell for so long that gettin the commission was enormously satisfying! On the other hand I would have to say that DWB was the least pleasent experience, but that was due to an unrealistic deadline and my own inexperience in not saying so at the beginning.

So who's the guru in terms of Doctor Who artists—Chris Achilleos, Frank Bellamy or Phil Bevan?
Chris Achilleos was possibly the first artist who I learned the name of and looked for his work. But now I would probably say I admire something from them all, rather than any single artist: Phil Bevan for original composition and Alistair Pearson for technique, 'cause Chris Achilleos went on to do that horrible airbrushed stuff!

When Skilleter was good, he was very very good, but my favourite Target artist, and perhaps closest to my guru, was Jeff Cummins. His covers (The Face Of Evil, The Talons Of Weng-Chiang) are beautiful—moody and technically brilliant. I wish he'd done more!

Phil Bevan was of course renowned for going to extraordinary lengths to avoid copying established reference shots and stills, even coercing his friends into posing and taking main character likenesses from programmes outside Doctor Who. Is this sort of thing a concern of yours when so many photos and still are now availiable?
I think as far as likenesses are concerned you're on dangerous ground when you try and fool around with them in any way. You know yourself, if your illustration doesn't instantly resemble the person it's supposed to depict, you've failed as an illustrator in the most complete and basic way. But as far as the figure is concerned, absolutely anything goes - dress your friends and partner up, sketch your own reflection, use figures from completely different sources, take shots of the TV screen. Good figure drawing is important, but have fun!

There's also been a bit of a move into more stylised art, like Adrian Salmon's "Cybermen" strip in DWM ...
I think it's great. It's the backlash to the Alistair Pearson 'the likeness is the illustration' movement, I think. There should be more to Doctor Who art than just copying reference photos. Personally, I try to depict an atmospheric composition first and foremost, then choose the technique and reference material. If the composition suggests a stylised technique—all good and well. I love your line art, by the way ...

I've been asked to put this to you: What do you think the state of NZ Doctor Who fandom artwork is at the moment?
It just gets better and better. Kiwi fan artists are developing their own styles instead of just trying to be Andrew Skilleters or Alistair Pearsons, and the recent new emphasis on strips is great to see because this encourages a whole different way of looking at illustration. I think Paul's policy of encouraging artwork contributions which have a bearing on an upcoming issues articles, rather than just accepting yet another fan drawing of a Dalek or Tom Baker, has helped turn TSV into some more professional, which can give the glossy British magazines a run for their money.

You're a clever sod you know. You get to do video reviews and you've also written fiction ("A New Hope", TSV #51). Why don't we see more of your other talents?
Because I can't write. That fiction piece was something I did years ago and wanted to bring to light simply as an indulgence. I leave the writing to those whose talents obviously lie in that direction. Apart from writing there's really no other way I think I could contribute except for a comic strip, but I would have some very tough acts to follow. I love reviewing. It's basically talking about your favourite programme and forcing your own opinions on other people, but in text instead of speech. What's not to enjoy?

How about "Eckersley and the Badgermen" [Hughes' TSV #52 review of The Monster Of Peladon]?
I still enjoy writing about it! I guess I'm talking about enjoying the action of reviewing instead of the actual subject!

What's Paul Scoones like to work with? Any unreasonable demands? Death threats? Private commissions of Peri and Ace, something like that?
I think if there is anyone in New Zealand most suited to editing fandom, it's Paul Scoones. He's got extreme confidence in himself, but he extends that confidence to his contributors as well. I think that's the balance required. He's devastatingly honest but always in a constructive and positive way (is that a contradiction in terms?) He's also incredibly busy—how do you do it Paul?

We've all got our dream actor to play the Doctor. Who's yours?
Definitely Michael Palin. I think he's so suited to what the next Doctor should be, especially as he's older and crustier these days. As a cross between Phineas Fogg and a mature Indiana Jones he'd be perfect.

We're almost done. Doctor Who—where's it headed?
I'd really like to know if anyone finds this question easy to answer. I believe it should be British made, though not necessarily by the Beeb. Perhaps an independent company, which understand the importance of a solid story and somehow has the necessary budget without having to pander to overseas networks or audiences. I also think that Doctor Who should head backward. By this I mean that I don't think it can be a Nineties entity (I could be very inflammatory and say it wasn't an Eighties entity either).

A friend of mine once said that if he could make a Bond film he would set in the Sixties, because that's where James Bond belongs. To some degree I think Who worked best in the Sixties and Seventies, against that particular social background, and it if were made again it should have that same kind of sensibilty (although in a more enlightened way. Sexism, for example, existed far more blatantly back then, but it can still be depicted as wrong). This Who could be almost a period piece and not even try to be modern or updated (I don't try to write New Adventures, so I can say that), but obviously still make use of state of the art technology where the script required it.

I would like to see historicals (or at least quasi-historicals) and moody, witty drama, not Star Wars or The Terminator. Let's start again with early Sixties London and the junkyard—that's what I'd like to see, even if no-one else does! Having said all that, I thought Paul McGann was great!

If TSV were to end tomorrow ... DWM, RTP! and all that, could we expect you to cope? Would you fill your time finishing renovating the house, or would you just crack up?
TSV is definitely a valuable outlet—the house will always be there, but I'd like to flatter myself by believing that I do keep my leisure activities diverse enough to keep me on just the safe side of Fanboyism!

Could we expect you to draw other characters in Who's absence—perhaps the cast of Babylon 5?
I can't imagine myself sitting down and drawing anything else in the same way I do for TSV. I guess I'd just have to grow up and find some paying freelance work!

Of course you're not the only one to suffer for your art. How does your wife Rose cope with all this Doctor Who nonsense?
As other people apart from myself have said, she's a saint. I've been lucky throughout my life that others have not tried to change me, and Rose is notable in that way. On the other hand, I wouldn't expect her to share my fanaticism either, which makes it all the more satisfying when she does enjoy the odd scene or episode.

One of the hardest things to draw must be a pair of feet, could you draw us some?
Finally, the million dollar question. Alistair Hughes—is there anything you can't do?

Um ... sing? Cook. I thought I could do a Sean Connery impression until someone recorded it, and now I'll never do one again. I still have huge trouble with a roundhouse [karate] kick. And that tounge-curling thing—I can't do that. It's unnerving and absurdly flattering to be interviewed like this, but in the words of Wayne's World: "I'm not worthy!! I genuinely don't think I am any more talented than any other artists who grace the pages of TSV. I've just been fortunate to have professional experience, and I hope that these other artists continue to develop their own talent and find similar opportunities - good luck!

No comments: