Monday, 25 September 2017

An interview with BOB BAKER, Shoestring writer & script editor

K-9 creator Bob Baker needs no introduction to fans of archive TV.  From his work with Dave Martin on the original series of Doctor Who to collaborating with Nick Park on the multi-award winning Wallace and Gromit films, he has written for many different film & TV genres for over 40 years.

In 1978/79, Bob Baker contributed a script to a new BBC1 detective programme called Shoestring, and subsequently became the 2nd of the series' script editors.  In this interview from 2011, he talks about the experience.

How did you come to be commissioned to write for Shoestring?

It was after Dave Martin and I had split and I hadn't got any work for nearly a year, when I had a call from Robert Banks Stewart who told me Richard Harris and he were doing a new private eye series called Shoestring and would I be interested in having a go at an episode?

It was to be set in Bristol and a bit of an influence came from the telefilm Dave and I wrote called Machinegunner.  So, I went to see Robert at the BBC and we hammered out a story, finally called "Knock For Knock".

A precursor to Shoestring was comedy thriller "Machinegunner" (1976), an HTV telefilm written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin.  It starred Leonard Rossiter as a seedy Bristol debt collector turned private investigator.

This was presumably very early on, given that “Knock for Knock” was only the second episode produced – and is still setting the situation up.  How much freedom did you have in the character and story?

I was delighted to be given episode 2 which was the first episode with the character up and running, so to speak.  I worked closely with Robert to ensure a tight story and then got about the business of writing it.

As Robert said on the phone this weekend "what a cracking episode that was" - and perhaps groundbreaking, for the time, in that we used a black lead guest character.

In Bob Baker's "Knock for Knock", a patient under dental anaesthetic (actress Cassie McFarlane) remembers important details about the car accident which killed her husband.

Did the ideas for “Knock for Knock” come from anywhere in particular?

I really wanted to have a go at rogue antique dealers, members of my family had been 'done over' by a charming young man who took them to the cleaners!  There was also a piece in a newspaper that took my eye, about a patient under anaesthetic, remembering details of a certain events.

Guest star Shirley Anne Field with Trevor Eve in "Knock for Knock", set in the world of antiques dealing. With thanks to Werner Schmitz for the image.

Was the production team influenced by anything specific when formulating Shoestring?  Robert Banks Stewart has mentioned The Rockford Files as a possible influence – anything else that you recall, either from the world of film/TV or literature?

I think this is a question for RBS, he has always made striking and pretty original stuff.  I think he liked the energy of good American productions like Rockford plus of course an engaging and likeable lead character.

I must say RBS has a knack for good casting.  We used to talk mainly of feature films and I suppose, tried to make each episode like a mini movie.

Amongst Bob Baker & Dave Martin's last work as a writing team were three episodes of Shoestring's predecessor Target (which also had a West Country setting)

Would an all-film production like Shoestring – still relatively uncommon at the time - be written differently from a videotape show, and if so how?

No, it was not written any differently than other film/TV scripts, but you had a wide selection of locations to draw on.

Was there a show ‘bible’ for Shoestring’s writers? Or was it all in Robert Banks Stewart’s head?

Yes, there certainly was a 'bible' which every potential writer would see to get the main thrust of the show and characters.

Did Bristol, the setting for the show and your home town, dictate the type of story the programme would deal with – and in what way?

I think the stories were pretty universal, having Bristol as a background was an added bonus I think.  Naturally some were "provincial" subjects, but the drama and emotional situations were more important. I think episodes such as "An Uncertain Circle" had a resonance with a coastal town like Bristol, as you say, my home town.

I might add that using Bristol as HTV did for films such as "Thick As Thieves" drew the comment from a critic, that the whole piece was "absolutely specific, and therefore universal".  I feel that could apply to Shoestring too.

Trevor Eve and guest Anna Nygh in "An Uncertain Circle". An all-film series like Shoestring was still unusual for the BBC of the late 1970s.

At what point were you asked if you’d like to become script editor?  And what was your reaction?

Robert came to Bristol and asked me to show him some locations, it being my "patch".  During our tour of the town Robert asked me if I'd like to be Script Editor.  I of course accepted.

It was fantastic, and a real boost after the work famine I'd experienced.  It was also the beginning of a move toward producing which I finally got round to when I worked at HTV in the 80s.  However, I found it damned hard work, but I learned an awful lot.

How were the writers commissioned?  Did they work to suggestions for stories from yourself and Robert Banks Stewart, or did they have ‘carte blanche’?

Either way.  Usually we would meet with a potential writer and ask if they had an idea they would like to work on.  If this was, for some reason, not viable, i.e. too like another story, or just plain out of the story parameters, we would try and re-focus the story or beef it up in some way.

You simply cannot give "carte blanche" to writers on a series, there has to be a continuity and a sort of special feel to the series, shaped by its creator.

How does the structure of a 50m detective drama differ from, for example, a four-part Doctor Who?  Is one easier to write than the other?

Doing a one-off episode has to have basically three acts - act three solving the problems uncovered in act one and investigated in act two.

A 4-part Dr Who is a different kettle of fish, not only do you need to have each episode building to the end of episode 'hook' where our hero is in mortal danger, but also mini-shocks at around every 5 minutes, situations of conflict, a chase, or confrontation... I enjoy writing either way.

Both are hard to write, believe me!

Around the time of his stint on Shoestring, Bob Baker also penned his only solo Doctor Who story, "Nightmare of Eden".

Did writers ‘get’ the concept of Shoestring easily, or did the commissions tend to need work to be ready for production?  And if this was the case, what kind of problems were you coming up against?

The main problem I think was that some writers couldn't seem to grab the sheer excitement of the Shoestring concept, and things like the links with the radio station were ignored.

Some writers didn't get it at all and came up with unacceptable scripts, sometimes rejects re-jigged from other series!  So that meant 'muggins' as script editor had to get to work on it.  Again Robert and I would thrash out a revised story-line and I'd come back to Bristol and write it over a weekend!

Your credits as script editor are for the episodes “Listen to Me” (written by Terence Feely), “Higher Ground” (Dave Humphries), “An Uncertain Circle” (Robert Bennett -- pen name for Robert Banks Stewart himself), “Stamp Duty” (John Kruse), “The Link-Up” (Peter King) and “Find the Lady” (Philip Martin). Is there anything in particular you recall about working on any of these episodes with their writers?  Any favourite episodes?

I remember "The Link-Up" best, because I was a keen yachtsman at the time (on other people's yachts of course!); also, Dave Martin and I had begun research into the Round The World Race yachtsman who had cheated.  So I was well placed to infuse a bit of knowledge into the script.  It remains my favourite episode after "Knock for Knock".

Bob Baker's script editing credit for episode "The Link-Up", written by Peter King and directed by Douglas Camfield

What did the experience of script-editing Shoestring, and working with Robert Banks Stewart, teach you as a writer/scriptwriter?

I really learned a lot working with Robert and I am eternally grateful to him for the chance of getting involved with all aspects of the production process, which held me in good stead afterwards.

I think he taught me that you have to be tough to script edit, and I think that's what I learned, to think of the quality of the show, believe in it, and make sure scripts are of a very high standard, and if they're not, then intervene.

Do you think the series could be revived?

If only.  It is still a viable story concept.  I actually wrote a concept idea for local radio.  Three minute links between music, where Eddie told his story.  The local radio station was keen, but couldn't afford to pay for it!

No, I'd love to see a revival and I know loads of other people who remember it fondly.

Many thanks to Bob Baker for recalling his time on Shoestring.  There is more from Mr. Baker on the series in his autobiography, "K-9 Stole My Trousers" (Fantom Films Ltd, 2013).  Visit his website here.

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