Five books to keep you sane during the robot occupation

A shorter version of this first appeared in the Big Issue on 9th February 2015…

Morse Code Martin (Roy Hudd) and Nathan (James Tarpey) discuss the classics in a scene from Robot Overlords © MEDIATOR 452 LIMITED/BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE 2014
Morse Code Martin (Roy Hudd) and Nathan (James Tarpey) discuss the classics in a scene from Robot Overlords © MEDIATOR 452 LIMITED/BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE 2014

Robot Overlords shows us a near-future where Earth has been invaded and occupied by an overwhelming force of Robots from another world. Everyone has been confined to their homes, and while the Robots’ purpose here is a mystery, they’ve promised to leave after seven years.

So what books would I grab to keep me sane during the occupation…?

SAS Handbook by Jon ‘Lofty’ Wiseman (Harper Collins)

SAS handbook

As used by Connor (played by Milo Parker in the film) to identify edible mushrooms, this is the only book I know of with a chapter on how to survive a nuclear explosion, an essential bit of info when your enemy has defeated every army on the planet (though, to be fair, they do make it clear that the odds aren’t great for surviving a nuclear holocaust). Also check out the Homefront chapter, with excellent advice on food storage, rationing, vitamins and filtering and sterilising water. Of course, for when times are really bad, there’s the obligatory bit on drinking urine.

Also available as an App, not that you’ll have any use for that once the robots destroy your phone.

Reader’s Digest DIY Manual (Readers Digest)

readers digest diy

In Robot Overlords the Volunteer Corps are humans who have chosen to collaborate with the robots by delivering rations, making repairs etc. But these are exactly the kind of humourless sociopaths you find in every level of bureaucracy (best represented by Robin Smythe, Ben Kingsley’s character in the film), and so you don’t want to be relying on them to fix a leaky tap. I’ve had a copy of this for twenty years and it’s so clearly laid out that even an idiot like me can use it with only the occasional flood and mild electric shock.

Asterix and the Big Fight by Goscinny & Uderzo (Orion Children’s Books)

Asterix and the big fight

There are many works of literature to inspire a burgeoning resistance against the invaders, but I can think of none finer than the seventh instalment in the Gaulish saga in which our heroes stage an enormous punch-up to save their village. A bit of genuine light relief in all the trauma.

Cooking For Blokes by Dr. Duncan Anderson and Marian Walls (Sphere)

cooking for blokes

When the Volunteer Corps deliver your weekly ration of unleavened bread, unidentifiable grey meat, and misshapen vegetables, you’ll need more than a little imagination to keep things exciting and varied at the dinner table. My wife bought me a copy of this when we first started living together and it set me in good stead when all we could afford was unleavened bread, unidentifiable grey meat, and misshapen vegetables.

Great British Songbook (Wise Publications)

great brit songbook

And finally, something to keep you going through those long winter nights of the occupation. As a busking level guitarist (ie: a bit rubbish) I can select any one of over 170 songs from Keep The Home Fires Burning and We’ll Meet Again all the way through to erm… Careless Whisper and I Believe In A Thing Called Love. And if you do drive your fellow housemates mad with your caterwauling, then it’s big enough for them to beat you to death with, and makes for good fire fuel.

Robot Overlords by Mark Stay is available now.

First look at Robot Overlords – excitement level: high!

Our chums at the BFI have released this cracking little behind-the-scenes vid for Robot Overlords. It features action, robots, our awesome cast, Jon, Piers and my big flappy hands…


… but don’t let that put you off. Tickets for the festival are on sale now and you can get them here. And the video is below, enjoy!

*Edit! I’ve learned that this vid might not play outside the UK! Gah! As soon as I have an international version I’ll pop it up. Sorry!


London Film Festival – Robot Overlords Tickets Now On Sale!

Tickets are now on sale to the general public for the 58th BFI London Film Festival!

ROBOT OVERLORDS – co-written by myself and Director Jon Wright – is part of the festival’s Family strand and there will be two showings:

Saturday 18th October at The Vue, Islington at 16.15

Sunday 19th October at The Vue, Leicester Square at 12.45

Tickets are on sale on 18th September from 10am and you can find out more about the festival at the official BFI site here and here’s our page with all the details.

Apart from a lucky few who came to our preview screenings, this will be the first time the general public gets to see the film on the big screen. Many people have worked incredibly hard to make this film look and sound mind-blowingly good, and these venues will really do it justice, and you get to see it with a festival crowd — there’s nothing quite like it.

As always, for news on the film do please follow @Robot_Overlords on Twitter — there’s some very cool news just over the horizon, so watch this space…

Until then why not while the time away by pre-ordering the book of the film?

Why bother going to the cinema?

I took my mum to the cinema to see PHILOMENA last night…

The last time we saw a film together was in 1978 when she took me to see STAR WARS for the second time. I remember chatting to an old lady on the bus on the way there and telling her how excited I was, and she tried to look sympathetic but told me she didn’t understand any of that spaceman stuff.

That wasn’t mum’s last ever visit to the flicks – not long after she saw ABBA: THE MOVIE and had a great time – but she stayed away after that. It was around this time that my dad, one of those people who has to have the latest gadget*, bought a VHS recorder. Why go to the movies when you can watch them at home? A man used to come door-to-door on our Hornsey estate with a typed, mimeographed list of films available to rent. Our first ever VHS rental was SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, and I would scan the list for more, intrigued to know what kind of movie LEMON POPSICLE could be (there were no illustrations whatsoever to give us any hints or clues). I begged dad to let us rent FLASH GORDON, only for him to point out that the film listed was actually FLESH GORDON and not entirely suitable for children (he, uh, saves the Earth from Emperor Wang’s incredible sex ray, according to the trailer)…

Things got better, of course. To the point where I have HD TV, a Blu-Ray player, 5.1 digital surround sound, Sky Movies, and Apple TV with Netflix streaming and a few hundred DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. If the robot occupation ever did become a reality, I’d be well set for the rest of my life.

But I still go to the movies. In fact, I reckon I’ve already seen more films in the cinema this year than any other. So why, when you take into consideration getting a babysitter, paying for parking and over ten quid for a ticket, do I still go to the cinema?

In short, the memories.

For example…

Seeing all the STAR WARS movies

Going to the West End for the first time with dad to see THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN. I don’t remember much about the film, but remember the bright lights of the stores and restaurants in Chinatown making a big impression.

Going on a school trip to see SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS after we did it as a school play (I was Grumpy… typecast from the start).

Watching GHOST BUSTERS on a ferry to Ireland in a storm. The ship listing heavily from side to side added considerably to the feeling of horror and unease.

Watching THE GOONIES while on a soccer exchange in California. I was horribly homesick, but this had me hooting with laughter.

Swinging on lampposts and singing the Raiders’ theme after seeing INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE.

Bluffing my way into TOTAL RECALL with my best mate Tim (our first 18 movie – we were only 17… yes, shocking, I know).

Deciding to see GOODFELLAS with my A-level drama class after going to the West End to see a play, only to discover that it had closed the previous week (a great bit of planning on the part of our drama teacher). In the row in front of us were a pair of little old ladies who must have just come from the wrestling as they revelled in the film’s visceral violence while sucking on bonbons.

Bumping into Claire at a screening of ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES. We weren’t seeing each other at the time, but it’s since become “our film”… aww, stop puking at the back.

My first free preview of a movie was CASINO, hosted by Transworld, the publishers of the book. Free food and drink and a private cinema?! Nice. I could get used to this.

Taking Claire to see RESERVOIR DOGS and knowing that she was the girl for me.

Taking my young nephew to see the 1997 re-release of STAR WARS (he fell asleep).

Watching SKYFALL with the kids – their first cinema Bond movie – and seeing their little faces light up at the big screen mayhem.

And many more that I won’t bore you with now, but these are all about sharing an experience that you can’t get when sitting in your own living room. I always feel a tension when a film begins. Partly it’s “will that twat who was chatting all through the trailers continue to do so through the film?”, but it’s more to do with what kind of emotional rollercoaster is this story going to take me and my companions on today?

Going with mum last night was a shared experience. Having a drink and a chat before the film, I learned stuff about her that I never knew before. Watching the film we laughed and cried together, and I suppressed a giggle when she called the nuns “Bitches” just a little too loudly near the end.

And that’s why I go to the movies.

*An expensive habit that I’ve inherited from him big time.

In defence of the Ewok nation on #starwarsday

For the full debate on this important issue, head over to the Gollancz Blog…

Here’s my side of the argument:

At a recent Gollancz marketing meeting (yes, we plan this stuff) it was suggested that someone write a blog entry about the divisive and controversial subject of Ewoks. What followed was like a scene from a Western, where chairs are scraped across the floor, tables thrown to one side, as gunslingers reach for their sidearms.

Divisive doesn’t even begin to describe the hot passions on display.

The arguments against the Ewok peoples are slim, getting old, and, let’s be honest, racist.

1. They’re too cute

Naysayers will argue that they’re “too cute”, as if Lucas hadn’t done cute already…

Aww... look at that widdle poonum!
Aww… look at that widdle poonum!

But they’re far from cute. When they go into battle, they hit the Stormtroopers in their blind spot, smashing them on the back of the head with socking great lumps of wood. The vicious little buggers really lay into the Emperor’s most elite legion, using fight techniques surely honed in the nightclubs of Blackpool, “Glass him Teebo! Cut his face!” (there’s a reason the Ewoks don’t get subtitles – they’re uncouth, sweary, little mofos…)

And we can’t say that we didn’t see this coming. After all, their first reaction to finding armed outsiders was to try and spitroast Luke, Han and Chewie (I’ll let that image settle for a moment).

Cute?! Do me a favour…

This little hoodlum has already swiped your wallet and keyed your landspeeder.
This little hoodlum has already swiped your wallet and keyed your landspeeder.

2. They’re dumb

Dumb, eh? Well I would point m’learned friend to their keen sense of strategy. When it all kicks off, the Ewoks are smart enough to draw the Empire’s forces away from the safety of their bunker and into the woods, into the Ewoks’ own territory. This gives them the upper hand, using the forest itself against the invaders. Pity the poor crew of the AT-ST smashed between two logs. They didn’t stand a chance against these cunning little warriors.

Film fans will know that Lucas very nearly made Apocalypse Now. In the battle for Endor, Lucas finally gets that out of his system – this was his chance to do Vietnam, he just chose to do it with short, hairy football hooligans.

3. They’re only in the movie to sell toys!

There are those who suggest the Ewoks were a toy marketing ploy… because up till then Lucasfilm hadn’t even thought of releasing any toys from the film. Oh, waitasec…

Got, got, got, NEED!
Got, got, got, NEED!

Oh, and these are kids’ films, you big galoot! What kid wouldn’t love a movie featuring teddy bears beating the crap out the bad guys? The Ewoks tap into a huge childhood fantasy: if you’re small and repressed, you’re going to love these guys. Anyone who doesn’t, must be the Empire!

4. Self loathing.

There may be a scientific explanation for the irrational hatred of the Ewok nation: one’s age. As brilliantly explained in an episode of How I Met Your Mother, it could simply be down to when you were born:


You may have been young enough to enjoy Star Wars, but too much of a cynical teenager to fully appreciate the Ewoks. Yes, if you hate Ewoks, you had lost your innocence by 1983 and that’s heartbreaking.

So there you have it. The Ewoks are awesome, and anyone who says otherwise is a cynical, old racist. The defence rests…

My Robot Occupation Movies #3 – Life Is Sweet

Third in a series – Imagine for a moment that the world has been invaded and occupied by an army of robots, and you could only grab a handful of DVDs before you were incarcerated… what would they be?

It was the 90s, and poster budgets were smaller then...
It was the 90s, and poster budgets were smaller then…

“Mum! Mum! You have to see this!”

Have you ever watched a film that was so uncannily like your own life that you were convinced that the film-makers were monitoring and recording your every move? For me, LIFE IS SWEET was that movie.

I’m not talking about the events in the story, but all the way through there were little character moments that chimed so precisely with the world I lived in (still living at home with mum, dad and sister, in a house too small for us all) that once I finished watching it, I rewound the tape, dragged my mum and sister into the room and made them watch it too.

They did so, with wide eyes and open mouths. One scene in particular had them screaming with recognition…

We were used to seeing a sort-of hyped-up reflection of reality in soaps on TV, but they were always done in such a rush, with such a sense of melodrama, that it was hard to take them seriously. But Life Is Sweet is a Mike Leigh movie. The actors spend weeks, if not months, working on their characters, rehearsing and refining them through improvisation. It’s a fairly unique method of film making, but gives the dialogue a naturalistic rhythm that would look impenetrable on the page.

To say that this film was a major influence on my early writing, especially my first play, would be a massive understatement. It gave me licence to write characters that sounded like people I knew.

Leigh gets a lot of flack for being patronising to his audience, characters and even the working classes*, but in Life Is Sweet, and the better-known SECRETS AND LIES, I saw truthful representations of ordinary people I recognised, and the trials they faced. Not epic struggles against monsters or aliens, but just people coming to terms with life in an ordinary suburban world. I’m learning that story is all about characters discovering who they are, reconciling the conflicting parts of their own selves. If you can pull that off, whatever the setting, you’ll have the ingredients of a great drama. And Leigh’s films have this in spades.

*Though I only ever see this criticism from middle class journalists, so…

Our Robot Overlords – that thing I’ve been working on…

Please note: This was originally blogged over at the Gollancz blog. Be sure to visit them often for all your SF&F needs!

Now that Gillian Anderson has spilled the beans, I guess I can talk a little more about OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS, the script I’ve been working for the better part of the last two years. So let’s if I can do this without dropping any mahoosive spoilers or enraging the producers.

Your friendly, neighbouring robot Sentry.
Your friendly, neighbourhood robot Sentry.

Director Jon Wright and I have a straightforward method of working: I plough ahead and make a complete mess with the first draft, then Jon comes along behind me and tidies up, then I do another pass and tidy his stuff, and so on and so on until, about 18 drafts later, we have something that looks like a script.

Robots started with Jon describing a dream where he was trapped inside his house, with heavily-armed robots stomping outside. He knew instinctively that the second he stepped outside he would be toast. We started bouncing ideas back and forth and it very quickly became clear that this was very fertile ground for a cracking movie.

We decided early on that it should be a family film, but with a real edge to it: proper peril, lots of action, explosions, death, running and screaming. We were inspired by the kind of movies we loved as kids: Goonies and Raiders, especially, but also by more recent films that merged great storytelling and strong VFX; Jurassic Park, Super 8 and District 9.

One of the many great things about working with Jon is, thanks to his experience with VFX on his previous films, he knows precisely what can and cannot be done on a relatively small budget, so our movie will definitely be punching above its weight when it comes to spectacle. But, thanks to over 2 years of development and support from our producer Piers Tempest (Best. Name. Ever), and Natascha Wharton and Jamie Wolpert at the BFI, we also have a script with characters that are just a joy to write and will hopefully be more engaging than the kind of one-note cyphers you can get in certain big-budget Hollywood fare.

We also gathered a bunch of people we know to read the script at various stages in development. These included a director Olly Blackburn, editor Matt Platt-Mills, VFX expert Paddy Eason, writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, and the actor Rick Warden. Each gave their own unique perspective on the script, making it richer with each pass (my favourite note was from Mark: “I’d like 64% less infanticide, please…”).

It’s been so exciting seeing this story come to life. Not just through our words, but with the concept art of Paul Catling, the storyboards of Gabriel Schucan, the VFX work of Paddy Eason and his team at Nvizible, and the sales team at Embankment.

We’re now on the threshold of production.Thanks to our amazing casting director Amy Hubbard, we have a couple of jaw-droppingly good actors attached: Gillian Anderson and Sir Ben Kingsley (I still have to pinch myself), and the current plan is to shoot in May. Film is a precarious business, and the delicate house of cards we’ve built could still tumble, but it’s looking good so far. Wish us luck and we’ll see you on the other side…

Long films, my poor bottom, and the running time code

I’m 40 in a few weeks, so I guess that makes me middle-aged, and with that comes the added weight of middle-age spread, thus increasing the pressure on my poor derriere when I have to sit through overlong movies.

I seem to have endured more of these in the last 12 months than in any other year, and the main offenders are:

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN – 136 minutes: Would have been a fine 110 minute movie, but you had to bog it down with all sorts of sequel bait, didn’t you?!

THE HUNGER GAMES – 142 minutes: My kids loved it, but then they don’t have to get up at 5 AM for a pee every day.

SKYFALL – 143 minutes: Actually a cracking film, and the Bond films have a habit of breaking the 2hr mark with their over-complex plotting – there’s a list of their running times here – but next time, let’s knock it back to 120 minutes, eh? As we’ve already established, my bladder isn’t what it used to be.

THE AVENGERS – 143 minutes: So, over 12 hours of backstory movies wasn’t enough? To be fair, in the UK this was called AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, so we were forewarned that there would be some assembly. It’s a bit like calling another movie THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN HAVE TO GATHER BEFORE ANYTHING INTERESTING HAPPENS (incidentally THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is arguably the better film and runs for 127 minutes).

THE MASTER – 144 minutes: Absolutely spellbinding performances lost in a meandering collections of vignettes that eventually get bored with themselves and end up as celluloid rattling in the projector.

DARK KNIGHT RISES – 165 minutes: That’s nearly three bloody hours! About a bloke who dresses up as a bat! Don’t get me wrong, I love these films, but let’s not forget that this is about a comic book character. Do we really need all those scenes about the Wayne Company Board and shareholders and the scenes with the mayor that think they’re straight out of The Wire? We have to wait 45 minutes before we even see any Bat action. You wouldn’t get away with that in a comic book.

DJANGO UNCHAINED – 165 MINUTES: Spaghetti Westerns have a long tradition of being too long, but bullfighting and fox hunting are also painful, drawn-out exercises in ‘tradition’, so let’s bring the torture to an end now.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY – 169 MINUTES: Crikey, where do I start with this one? There’s an entire musical scene about washing up. If they could cut Tom Bombadil from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, surely they could have started by cutting the washing up shanty and going on from there?

I was going to add PROMETHEUS to this list, but it only runs for 124 minutes. I guess it just felt longer (ooh, you bitch, Mark!).

I recently watched LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which, in its longest version, runs for 227 minutes. It’s an utterly compelling film, wrapped around one of the best film performances of the 20th century, so it earns its running time, and you know what…? They have to decency to provide an interval! You even get it on the Blu-Ray: music plays over a dark screen for a few minutes. Back in the day, cinemagoers would buy choc ices from vendors in the aisles…

The mind plays tricks, but in my memory I'm sure they all looked like Kelly Brook.
The mind plays tricks, but in my memory I’m sure they all looked like Kelly Brook.

… I checked my email and did a few stretching exercises.

As this rant has gone on long enough, I think it’s only fair that I provide you, fair reader, with an interval of your own. She here’s the Overture from LAWRENCE (yes, the film is so long it has it’s own overture). Go stretch your legs for 4 minutes 38 seconds…

Better…? Welcome back.

So, how about reviewing the running times for the worst offending genres from now on? A RUNNING TIME CODE that all film makers should adhere to:

HISTORICAL EPICS: Okay, these should maybe run to 3 hours, as they have to cover a lot of ground. You have the childhood incident/murder/beheading that inspires the historical character to change the world, scenes of bearded men talking about honour and duty, lashings of battle scenes, and a romance that historians will insist never actually happened.

SCI-FI ADVENTURE/COMIC BOOK MOVIES: 110 minutes. Two hours tops! These are not THE SORROW AND THE PITY, these are fluff. Enjoyable fluff, yes. The stuff we all get excited about, definitely! But when did 144 minutes become the average running time for these? Cut the angst and get on with the story!

COMEDIES – 90 minutes, no exceptions, and I’m looking at you Judd Apatow! Those improvised scenes you shot with your pals may have seemed funny at the time, but they add nothing to the story. Their rightful place is on the DVD extras, not in the main body of the film. I’m looking forward to THIS IS 40 (can’t imagine why, it somehow strikes a chord with me), but does it really need to be 134 minutes long?

ANIMATED – 90 minutes. Think of the poor animators’ RSI!

BOOK ADAPTATIONS – 120 minutes. If I want the boring bits, I’ll read the book.

Any other suggestions…?

PS. Should anything I ever write exceed these rules, then feel free to slap me in the face with a leather glove and demand satisfaction.