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Wild, Unattached Footnotes on Discworld

I first met Terry Pratchett a long, long time ago, probably around 1987. I think that the third Discworld novel Equal Rites had been published and the fourth, Mort, was imminent. Terry had written a few books previously but the first couple of Discworld books, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, had been both critically and commercially successful.

      I mention this because several Pratchetty things have coincided of late. I watched a DVD of the 2006 Sky adaptation of Hogfather. I picked up an almost complete run of Discworld books from my local charity shop and set myself the task of re/reading them all in order. Good Omens, the novel which Terry co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, was adapted into a well-publicised Radio 4 series broadcast over Christmas. And I found myself spending some Chrimbo money on A Slip of the Keyboard, the collected non-fiction of young Mr P.

      Discworld started out as a straightforward spoof of Tolkienesque sword-and-sorcery fantasy tomes but over time became much, much more than that. Terry’s decision with the third book to abandon his central characters from the first two – inept wizard Rincewind and naïve Twoflower, the Discworld’s first tourist – meant that he started writing about the world and its assorted kingdoms (though mostly the city of Ankh-Morpork) rather than the adventures of a bunch of recurring characters. Which is not to say that Discworld, now running to about 40 volumes, isn’t full of recurring characters: stern Granny Weatherwax and jovial Nanny Ogg the witches, long-suffering, brave Sam Vimes and his increasingly diverse City Watch, Mustrum Ridcully, bumptious Arch-Chancellor of Unseen University and his staff of academic misfits, and Lord Vetinari, Machiavellian Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, an idealised ‘benevolent dictator’. And then of course there is Death, who appears in all but two of the books (but makes up for it by being in Good Omens and one of Pratchett’s kids’ books, Johnny and the Dead).

      What has been remarkable over the past however-many years has been watching Discworld develop, dragging itself from quasi-medievalism into an approximation of the industrial revolution (all powered by magic). At the same time, the tropes of Tolkienesque fantasy have been left behind and oft-times the books are closer to comic horror now. The melting pot of Ankh-Morpork now includes vampires, werewolves, zombies and – my personal favourite – the Igors. Compacting Frankenstein’s monster with the hunchbacked assistant who helped to create him, the multifarious Igors with their interchangeable body parts and optimistic demeanour (and ever-prethent lithp) are always tremendous fun. Yeth, Marthter.

      As Discworld became a publishing phenomenon in the early 1990s, two things happened. One was that it became part of my world. Terry was for a long time adamant that he didn’t want there to be any sort of ‘Discwold Fan Club’ but he consented to be an honorary member of ‘Octarine, the SF and Fantasy Humour Appreciation Society’. This was a club set up (in those pre-web days) by some Nottingham-based members of the Hitchhiker’s Guide society who roped me in as newsletter editor. Some of my earliest journalism was published in our quarterly mag, Tales from the Broken Drum.

      In those days, Terry was a frequent guest at sci-fi conventions. On one memorable occasion some students at Hull University organised a grand event aimed at both computer geeks and science fiction nerds. It was called Compute for Charity and the Octarine committee headed up North with an audacious plan to produce a fanzine, from scratch, over the weekend. We packed relatively enormous computers, scanners and printers into someone’s car and when we got to Hull … there was no-one there. There was us. There were the organisers. And there were a number of slightly confused-looking authors who had been invited, including both Terry P and Neil G. But someone had forgotten to actually publicise the event to punters.

      Nevertheless, we threw ourselves into producing a one-shot zine (there wasn’t much else to do, frankly), soliciting contributions from the authors who were attempting to mingle with each other. Terry gave us a handful of funny ideas which he had not yet found a use for in any of his books, which were published under the title Terry Pratchett’s Wild, Unattached Footnotes to Life. I don’t know how many of these things we ran off the photocopier but it must have been less than a hundred. I’ve still got one. For a Pratchett completest, I suspect it’s probably some sort of Holy Grail.

      The other thing that happened was that Discworld started to be adapted into other forms. There were a number of Radio 4 serials which Terry wasn’t overly happy with and some stage adaptions which he loved. And of course, film people came sniffing around. The most likely candidate for a ‘Discworld film’ was the fourth book, Mort, in which a young man becomes Death’s apprentice. It’s one of the best novels, doesn’t rely on any prior knowledge and has a clear, self-contained story which is ‘high concept’ enough to be encapsulated in my previous sentence. One of the stumbling blocks was finding a way to effectively present Death himself using what were then state-of-the-art practical effects. The other problem, according to Hollywood, was that the mainstream US public would never accept the Grim Reaper as a sympathetic character. This was shortly before Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey was released. Nobody, as the saying goes, knows anything.

      In the mid-1990s, the special effects problem was resolved, or at least avoided, by adapting Discworld for the small screen as a cartoon. I was at SFX by this time, based in Bath not too far from chez Pratchett, with whom I was still in contact. I was also in contact with legendary British animation studio Cosgrove Hall and made several visits up to their offices in Manchester. In fact, I was such a frequent visitor that one year I was invited to the staff Christmas party. That company (which had previously animated Terry’s ‘Truckers’ books) adapted two Discworld novels for Channel 4: Soul Music, in which rock’n’roll comes to Discworld, and Witches Abroad. Both books functioned as reasonably stand-alone titles and were animated using traditional drafting techniques, bolstered by some new-fangled CGI for sweeping establishing shots of the Discworld itself, sailing through space atop the giant star turtle Great A’Tuin.

      At that time, SFX was looking to produce some sort of one-shot ‘special edition’ spin-off so I proposed a tie-in to the Discworld cartoon. I knew Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall. I knew Terry. I knew Terry’s agent. I knew the writers and the animators. I knew people at Terry’s publisher. Basically I had all the contacts I needed to blag the rights to publish an official spin-off one-shot magazine for free. And that’s just what we did, with me as editor. Terry came over to Bath for a lunch and a fairly definitive interview. I went up to Chorlton to get the full inside story of the cartoon and then set to interviewing the impressive voice cast.

      No less than Christopher Lee was the voice of Death and, by great good fortune, I had just done a big interview with him and been able to get some quotes about the role. Some of the other cast proved harder to get hold of due to extremely snooty agents. Jane Horrocks’ agent not only refused to allow an interview, she also ridiculously claimed that she was unable to send us a headshot photo for ‘copyright reasons’. So we cut a picture of Bubble out of some AbFab wrapping paper and scanned that in. I did get to talk with June Whitfield (Nanny Ogg), who seemed slightly confused by the whole thing. Annette Crosbie (Granny Weatherwax), Neil Morrissey (Mort) and Graham Crowden (Ridully) also had useless, obstreperous agents. Whereas the largely unknown actors playing supporting roles couldn’t have been more helpful, enthusiastic and accommodating.

      One person I won’t hear a bad word against is Les Dennis, who played the Fool in Wyrd Sisters. He was quite happy for his agent to pass on his personal mobile number and chatted with me about the show and his other work, including a great trivia point that no-one else ever discovered. Get this: when Les was just starting out as an actor in Liverpool he was in a fringe theatre company with Clive Barker and Doug Bradley! In an alternate universe, he could have been Pinhead and Bradley could have dressed up as a teddy boy on The Russ Abbott Show

      The Cosgrove Hall cartoons weren’t as successful as they should have been but I remain immensely proud of the SFX Discworld Special. It was a decade later, when special effects had advanced considerably, that the first live action Discworld adaptation appeared, which was Hogfather. Brian and Mark had actually considered this tale of the Discworld equivalent of Christmas as a cartoon but wisely dropped it in favour of their eventual choices.  The Sky version was a big budget affair which largely got made because of the involvement of David Jason, who had carte blanche to make whatever he damn well wanted.

      Well now I’ve finally seen it and boy, it’s terrible. Rather like the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, it ticks some fanboy-pleasing boxes (ooh look – a cameo by Nobby Nobbs; ooh look – the Death of Rats) without working as any sort of coherent narrative. Despite a three-hour running time, lots of explanatory stuff has had to be omitted while unnecessary stuff has been kept in. It’s really difficult to see how anyone unfamiliar with the books could ever make head or tale of it: so there’s a magical world on a giant turtle and it’s sort of medieval but Victorian too and they don’t have Christmas but they have Hogswatchnight but the Hogfather has been kidnapped by ethereal beings who rule the universe so his place is being taken by the Grim Reaper whose grand-daughter is a magical nanny and meanwhile some wizards are improving their bathroom plumbing and a psychopath is planning to kill the Hogfather by taking over the palace of the Tooth Fairy. WTF?

      Jason played Death’s manservant Albert, an incidental character who was, because of the actor, made much more sigificant and, ridiculously, is front and centre on the DVD sleeve. Not helping matters is the languid direction by Vadim Jean which is totally at odds with Pratchett’s literary style. Terry is a big, big film fan and many of the scenes in his books are inherently cinematic, full of zingers and punchlines like something from a Marx Brothers movie. The books have pace. The TV version has none.

      Hogfather was followed by a version of The Colour of Magic, again directed by Vadim Jean and with 68-year-old David Jason cast this time as Rincewind, a character traditionally depicted as in his early thirties. This is probably equally terrible, although I believe that the 2010 Jason-free version of Going Postal is probably a lot better and more accessible too, being the debut of glamorous conman Moist von Lipwig so not laden with back story. I’ll give Colour of Magic a miss but I’ll try and find his one.

      I found myself after Christmas with a WH Smith voucher and perusing the shelves, I spotted that Terry’s non-fiction work had been collected so I treated myself to the hardback. A Slip of the Keyboard is divided into four sections: amusing pieces about the world in general, musings on literature, authorship and a writer’s life, and serious stuff about causes for which Terry has, in his dotage, become a figurehead – Alzheimer’s and assisted suicide. The fourth section is much shorter, containing just one item: a collection of random funny ideas entitled ‘Terry Pratchett’s Wild, Unattached Footnotes to Life’. The gags that Terry scribbled on a hotel notepad for me and my mates to stick in a fanzine at an empty computer/sci-fi event are now in hardcover on the shelves of Smiths. And that’s why I had to buy the book.








MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.