CHRIS GOLDEN AND THE “GHOSTS OF ALBION”

Best-known for his novels, including Strangewood and Straight on ‘til Morning, Christopher Golden entered into the realm of uber-pop culture with his contributions to the mythos of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, working on both the popular comic book and tie-in novels (as well as writing the storylines for the two X-Box video games). It was on the comic series that he first collaborated with “Buffy” actress Amber Benson, with whom he wrote the best-selling one-shot issue entitled “WannaBlessedBe”. Shortly thereafter, the duo was contacted by the BBC to create a brand new flash-animated series for the multimedia giant’s internet arm, BBCi. Originally, the team considered the BBC’s proposed storyline to be “too ‘Buffy’-ish”, and came up with their own supernaturally-driven alternative-history story. Ultimately, with Benson directing the voice talent (which consisted of such luminaries as Anthony Daniels and Emma Samms), the resulting Ghosts of Albion received record-number hits from surfers across the world.

Now, with a planned DVD release of the original series, the BBC approached the pair to do a sequel, which should begin production later this year. “What’s happening with the “Ghosts Of Albion” BBC situation?”, Golden parrots back to me, gathering his faults. “We have been delayed for several months by some difficulties the BBC was having in pinning down an animator. And Amber and I were reluctant to sign off on a contract and begin work until we knew who that animator was going to be. Because, you know, we’re concerned about the quality of the material. Not that we have any doubt that the BBC will do their best, but because the choice of animator is going to be a major business situation there. I believe we have resolved all outstanding issues. We’re just waiting to see a sample of that animation so we can sign off and get to work. If all goes well and if all goes as planned, we should see the second hour serial of “Ghosts of Albion”, which is called “Embers”, in September. Or October at the latest. They may do some things (other than techno-friendly Flash animation). Even in the time since we did the first one there have been certain advancements. The basic facts of the matter are, yes, many of us have much greater access to technology, but they still have to make it accessible to people who are less caught up with things. But let’s face it, it’s online. It’s never going to look like Pixar as long as it is online. That said, Amber and I are looking to developing it in other forms as well.”

There have been some members of the so-called “literati” who have scoffed at Golden’s teaming with a lowly actor. After all, he’s a world-famous author with a dozen published novels to his credit. Then again, the same scoffers have turned their derision towards his work in the comics industry, so there’s just no pleasing some people. Golden’s collaboration with Benson was actually his second high-profile “Buffy” team-up—the first was none other than James Marsters, who played the fan-favorite “Spike” character on both “Buffy” and it’s spin-off, “Angel”. But it was Benson with whom he really clicked, almost rivaling his long-standing creative relationship with writing partner, Tom Sniegowski.

“What’s interesting is anytime you’re dealing with an actor, people automatically assume that they’re idiots and that they can’t write or they can’t do all of these things. Amber really came to her creative career looking to do a number of different things. She is an actor and a writer and a director and a producer. And she’s done all of those things. At the time when I first met her and the subject of writing came up, her mother was there and she mentioned that Amber had written several plays. And I said that I would love to read one, and they sent me a play of Amber’s called “Albert Hall”. Which was actually produced in L.A. last year. And I read that and said, ‘Wow! Okay, she’s capable of doing all of this stuff.’ And from there we wrote comics. I think mainly due to the comics the BBC approached us and asked us to do something as a team. Subsequently we did a (Ghosts of Albion) novella serialized online that will be available later this year as a limited, signed hardcover through Subterranean Press. And then they just announced the deal we did with Del Rey Books. We’re doing a series of Ghosts of Albion novels. And any moment now Eden Studios will be announcing the deal we made for them for a role-playing game. So there will be a core book with the game—it’s just going to be loaded. It’s really steamrolling now. Obviously we’re hoping that this will end up with some TV or film situation, but who knows?”

Many fans (as well as detractors) have cited the many similarities between “Ghosts of Albion” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. “Ghosts” tells the story of a brother and sister—Tamara and Ludlow—who inherit from their father the responsibility of protecting Victorian England from the onslaught of demonic forces, aided by the ghosts of such luminaries as Queen Bodicea, Lord Nelson and Lord Byron. By the broadest comparisons, anything that involves a strong female character battling the supernatural will be compared to “Buffy” without fail.

“There are people who bring it up, but you can stretch it and make the comparison to a lot of things,” Golden says. “I enjoy the same things that influenced (“Buffy” and “Angel” creator) Joss Whedon, so none of this is new to me. People are always comparing my original vampire novels, the Shadow saga, to “Angel”, because my character, Peter Octavian, in the first book (Of Saints and Shadows) is a vampire detective. And yet I conceived Peter Octavian in 1988. The first novel was written in ’94. Again, it’s just a matter of the influences that led to my creating Octavian led to Joss creating Angel. The flip side of that, (in) “Ghosts of Albion”, it’s not Tamara alone, and she’s not chosen. The duties and responsibilities are given to her, and her brother as well, by her grandfather. So, you could do that—you could go through all kinds of places. Let’s put it this way, the idea of somebody inheriting the power to protect the world supernaturally did not originate with us and did not originate with Joss either. You could compare it to so many different things.”

With the whirlwind nature of production, Benson and Golden had a surprising amount of control over the BBC series, the design of the characters, etc. More control is always preferable, but Golden seems to have few complaints. “We had veto power. We made a great many suggestions, but beyond that – we described the characters in the script and we had veto powers over the finished product. I had a good comfort level there with (animation studio) Cosgrove Hall because Steve Maher and I sat and talked, and he described to me the palate they were going to use because of Flash, they had to use a lot of blacks and so on. And as he described it to me, I said ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool. It reminds me a lot of Hellboy. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Hellboy.” And he laughed. Not only was he familiar with Hellboy, but he’d read the Hellboy novels that I’d written. So I knew right there that we were in good hands and that he was going to go for a certain look that I was going to appreciate.”

One of the chief design influences that fans have noted is the striking resemblance that lead character Tamara has to Amber Benson. This seems to have been lost on Golden. (It is largely a long-distance writing relationship, however, so he can be forgiven for not having a strong idea of what his partner looks like—I’m kidding, Chris!)

“You know what’s funny? A number of people have said that and I don’t see it. I don’t. Maybe it was on purpose. But I honestly don’t—the character of Ludlow looks exactly like Leslie Philips, the character who played him. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much of that modeling they did. I don’t know. You’d have to ask Cosgrove Hall.”

The original “Ghosts of Albion” is constantly entertaining. It contains a dense, thrilling story, a richness of character and real sense of history. As an animated series, it leaves a bit to be desired, but such is the limitations of Flash. But the BBC has been responsible for keeping radio drama alive for the English-speaking world, and no one does this area of entertainment better. So it’s no surprise that “Ghosts” comes across more as a visual radio play. This, too, was planned.

“I think the difficulty in watching it in one sitting to me is that it was written—by order of the Queen herself!—no, by order of the BBC, it was written to be accessible by audio only,” Golden says, referring to the many fans who would be accessing the site through dial-up modems. “And in addition to that, it was written in that serial format. That caused two problems. First, to my mind, is that there are bits of dialogue that are completely unnecessary, and things that are overstated so that you can listen to it without the visuals. So that hampered us a little bit in the rhythm we would have preferred with the dialogue. And then the second bit is that it was broken down serially, if you’re watching it in one go, you have a lot of repetition. Now, generally, they’re not the same words, but there are a lot of things that are repeated three or four times. And when you sit and watch it in one go, it’s very obvious. We’re going to do our damnedest this time to avoid that. For a couple of reasons: one, we’re going to assume that people who saw part two saw part one. And more importantly, the audio component is no longer an issue. We’re going to write it for video and it isn’t necessarily something that has to be accessible for audio-only audiences. Right there that frees us up a bit.”

But for the technological limitations, neither Benson nor Golden limited themselves in terms of the depth of the storytelling, and both partners worked hard, and in conjunction with Cosgrove Hall, to create a believable world in which these characters can live. It was important for Golden to believe that they were recreating Victorian England in order for the story to work. “Let’s face it, 1830 was not that long ago, in the great scheme of things, and I think that people have an image of that period of time being one in which people did not travel the world. Maybe it’s true that most people didn’t, but that’s one of the most magical things about that era. Anybody who got on a boat, or went for a long journey, was discovering things that they could not possibly have any familiarity with. It’s so difficult for us to conceive of such a thing today. I mean, I was saying to my wife today, the media is so up-in-arms about this bird flu. Bird flu has been around for years. But the reason we’re so up-in-arms about it—two things: a) the media are all over the world, it’s an international media; and b) it is something that can travel now, because there isn’t a corner of the world that is untouched by business and travel. So it’s just that we’re losing the mystery of foreign-ness of the world. And that’s what we’re trying to capture, not only in the animated “Ghosts of Albion” but in the first novel. I can’t really give away too much about it, but there’s a great deal about the mystery of foreign-ness in it. One of the things we were trying to explore with the character of Nigel is: here’s a guy who is clearly English, but he’s clearly not-only English. He’s traveled a lot and there’s a lot more going on with him than is immediately evident. Thankfully, a lot of the visual research was done by Cosgrove Hall, and character-wise things developed over time.”

The titular ghosts of the title, Lord Byron, Lord Nelson and Queen Bodicea, are spectral bodies who aide and guide our heroes through the treacherous realm of the demonic forces. For some, it is this trio that truly make “Ghosts of Albion” what it is, in terms of reaching entertainment heights. For this reviewer, Daniels’ pompous-yet-commanding Nelson comes off the best, while Samms’ too-English Bodicea leaves a bit to be desired. At the very start of the idea, the writers had not even locked down which famous ghosts would appear.

“The BBC had suggested a few and Amber and I went back and forth. I believe—and this is the thing with collaboration, it becomes difficult to remember who suggested what—but I believe that Amber was the one who suggested Byron. Which I thought was a wonderful idea. Byron was a character that Tim Powers used in The Stress of Her Regard. Our Byron is quite different, obviously, but that book made me interested in Byron as a character. Our Byron is used quite a bit for comic relief. The magical origin of Byron in our mythology is actually pretty cool, and I hope that we get the chance to delve into that a bit at some point. Nelson—and I could be completely wrong in this—but I believe he was my idea. And then, Bodicea was originally not going to be the queen we used—we had a different queen in mind, but the story editor who was working with us at the BBC suggested Bodicea, who I up until this point had never heard of. And Amber and I independently of each other went off and researched Bodicea and came back and said ‘Oh, yeah, we have to use her! She is just way too cool!’ So we jumped on that right away. And as we go forward we will see a lot more ghosts as well, but not all of them will be famous.”

As for this reviewer’s niggling complaint: “Well, we had Emma Samms, you know? So she sounded like Emma Samms to us.”

For all the difficulties and smaller problems, the partners are very happy with the finished project (obviously, or they wouldn’t be considering pursuing it further). The satisfaction in Golden’s voice just pours through the phone. “You know what, I actually think that it came out really well. If you can watch it all the way through and keep in mind its origins, I think it’s pretty damn cool. There’s never been anything like it on the ‘net. I enjoy watching it quite a bit. I think we did all the things we wanted to character-wise and story-wise. I think it’s pretty horrific and gruesome, I think there are some great characters. I wish we could go back – again – and edit the script a little bit for those issues that I mentioned before. There are some areas that I would speed up a bit, I think. But all-in-all I’m very happy with it. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to hone it.”

Having finally reached a point in his writing career where, he says, “I no longer have to take on work-for-hire”, Golden has been concentrating on finishing his latest novel, The Boys Are Back, beginning the next draft on another called Lost Girls, as well as countless other projects with his longtime partner Sniegowski—including a fantasy series for Aladdin books called The Outcast. With all that on his plate, he is still looking forward to collaborating further with Benson, on the next Ghosts of Albion series and beyond.

“It’s really funny, I’ve always been interested in film, I’ve always been interested in television, but writing novels and comics is, sometimes, how I make my living. And as a family man, I don’t have the luxury of throwing it all to the wind and spending half a year writing scripts that may not ever get bought. That said, Amber and I have almost completed the first draft of an original horror screenplay. It’s almost done. Actually, I think this morning I think I worked out a spot in the third act that we felt was missing something. I think I worked out what that missing something is. Tom Sneigowski and I wrote a spec TV pilot a few years back that we’re still thinking about. And I have a manager out there who’s working on a few things in my favor. And – how can I say this? I got a phone call – an inquisitive phone call from a cable network executive last week that could lead to something really interesting. But all of that stuff is so completely up in the air it’s barely worth mentioning. Am I interested in film and television? Yeah, I always have been. But novels are not only my first love and my passion. They’re also how I make my living.”

Visit Christopher Golden at his website.

Check out the outstanding Ghosts of Albion.




Posted on November 19, 2004 in Interviews by

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