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THE LOTUS EATER MAN
AN INTERVIEW WITH WRITER DAVID RICE ABOUT HIS NEW BIOGRAPHY OF LATE SCRIPTWRITER MICHAEL J BIRD
By Andrew Screen
You've been running the Michael J Bird website for a few years now. How did you become so interested in his work?

DAVID: I was reminiscing with a friend about the days when television was worth watching and one of us mentioned The Lotus Eaters, which was a show that I remembered as being exceptionally good. The name of the writer, Michael J Bird, had stuck in my mind and I knew that he had written several other excellent BBC drama series. My friend suggested I take a look at the Programme Preservation Society, which turned out to be a group of like-minded individuals who kept alive memories old TV programmes by pooling their respective video collections.

I joined the society and discovered they had a quarterly magazine called "Radio Tellyscope". The editor was begging for contributions. Since I was a writer I decided that I would offer to do something - and since the work of Michael Bird was my reason for joining the group I suggested something about him. The editor was pleased. (I suspect he would have been pleased with anything, particularly since it was non-paying!)

Doing the research for the article I was disappointed to find next to nothing about Michael Bird on the web. I did find his agent and an e-mail brought the news that he had died the year before but had not written anything for several years.

I finished my research - largely consisting of ploughing through back issues of Radio Times at the local library - and wrote my article. Around the same time I got to see The Lotus Eaters again, courtesy of a member of the PPS. The show was every bit as good as I remembered.


When and why did you come to set up the website?

DAVID: I decided the results of my research needed a home. I had my writer's web site and had been itching to do another but could not think of a suitable subject. It all came together nicely and I decided to put my ramblings on the web in the hope others might contribute. It opened in May 2002.

Next I began tracking down people Bird had worked with. A visitor to the web site mentioned that theatrical agents' names and addresses were on the web on the Spotlight site.

I started contacting the main actors in Bird's productions and to my surprise most of them responded. I really was impressed by that. Actors works with countless writers and directors in the course of their careers. They get loads of begging letters from "fans". Yet time and again these people were taking the trouble to write back to me, ring me, e-mail me - and every one of them said how special Michael Bird was. It really must be true!

More recently people have come to me offering information. A number of really interesting anecdotes have simply fallen into my lap.

It's funny now to look back but I can still remember being excited when the web site visitor counter hit 50. It is now over 10,000 and the monthly site newsletter has over 200 active subscribers from all over the world. It has become a little industry.


When did Olive Bird, his widow, come on board and how much help has she been with documenting Michael's life and works?

DAVID: After I set up the web site I contacted Bird's agents and asked they could let his family know about it. Olive Bird wrote to me in the July offering to help and I have plagued her with questions ever since! Seriously, Olive has been truly wonderful. Nothing is too much trouble. Cambridge is a fair distance from where I live, north of Liverpool, and she invited me to stay so I could spend time going through Bird's files. I thought that was a really plucky thing for an elderly lady, living alone - inviting a relative stranger into her home.


When did the idea of producing a book about Bird start to materialise?

DAVID: As a writer you are always looking for a market. Though it was never my intention at the start, the more information I acquired about Bird the more I felt it deserved wider exposure. I pitched an idea for a feature article to Cambridge Magazine and they readily accepted. A book was just the next logical step. I almost had to do it to exorcise him from my mind!

Recently the BBC decided to release The Lotus Eaters on DVD. They commissioned DD Home Entertainment to put the package together. After spending a day in the BBC archives, Marcus Hearn at DD concluded that my store of information exceeded that of the BBC and he commissioned me to write the sleeve and the accompanying 16 page "viewing notes". Michael Bird has been a great help in furthering my writing career.


How long did the book take to research and write?

DAVID: I suppose I have been doing the research since 2002, when I wrote that piece for the PPS, but I worked on the book proper for a little over a year. I write only part-time (I also have a "day-job") but in January I suffered a bad health scare and was off work for three months. I was able to spend a lot of that time working on the book, or it might have taken considerably longer.


Was there anybody you approached when researching the book that was more helpful than others? Or vice versa in that they were not very forthcoming?

DAVID: Almost everyone I approached was extremely helpful. Stefan Gryff, who appeared in three of Bird's creations, has been particularly supportive, as have David Cunliffe, a director and former Head of Series Drama at YTV, and Richard Wakeley, Bird's agent (now retired). I think of them now as friends. But there were many others. Vik Ritelis, another very talented director, wrote the introduction to the book. It's probably the best piece of writing in it!

There were a few 'near misses' that I regret but I may still get something from them. The actor Godfrey James was a close friend of the Bird's (Olive calls him 'Godders') and in a brief telephone conversation a couple of years ago he agreed to dictate his memories to tape for me. Despite several attempts since to get back in touch I never heard any more. He was very busy (still a working actor) and when we spoke he had just returned from filming for Disney somewhere in Europe. Carol Cleveland sent me a nice letter saying she was on tour but would ring when she got home. I heard no more. Probably the greatest disappointment was a short note from Alexandra Bastedo asking me to ring her on a number (which turned out to be her animal sanctuary). I must have rung a dozen times - at all different times of day - and only ever got an answering machine. I left so many messages it became embarrassing. She never did return my calls.

Was it difficult to find a publisher?

DAVID: Richard Wakely kindly arranged for my book proposal to be considered by Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, Bird's literary agency. Since Bird was one of their own I had high hopes that they might represent me, but the subject matter was deemed of only 'minority interest' and the agency felt it would be difficult to get a publisher to take it on.

Rather than endure the hassle (and disappointment) involved in hawking the manuscript from publisher to publisher myself, which could have taken months, I opted instead to use the excellent lulu.com - a web based 'Print on Demand' outfit. I knew nothing about them up until then but as time went on I became more and more impressed with what I saw. I had to do all the page layouts and source the illustrations myself, which took a fair bit of time, but I think the finished product is superb. And unlike the dreaded 'vanity' publishers you don't have to shell out anything - which suited me.


What are the details if someone wants to order a copy?

DAVID: The details are all on the MJB web site. From anywhere in the world you can read about the book, view sample pages, and order a copy from lulu at:
http://www.lulu.com/browse/book_view.php?fCID=230703&f
or go to the lulu.com web site and search for 'Michael Bird'. You can pay with any credit/debit card and they also accept Paypal payments.
Folk here in the UK may prefer to order through me at the MJB website since by pooling orders and ordering a number of copies together I can reduce postage significantly. Even allowing for the cost of mailing the book on, the saving can be as much as £3 a copy.


Now that the book is published is there anything you wished had been different or had more time to develop or research?

DAVID: I am still collecting odd bits of information and working out how to fit them in to the story. As I said, these days people seem to be seeking me out. If anything significant come up then I can always revise and add it. As they say "that's why second editions were invented!"


What future projects have you got lined up?

DAVID: I have already started a second book - The Armageddon Papers. Hotel Armageddon was a series Michael Bird wrote in the early eighties. He worked on it for two years but in the end became so exasperated with his treatment by the BBC he withdrew it. I have his production notes, storylines, character formats and a couple of the scripts. Olive has agreed I can use them, so I am putting them together as a book so folk can see the one that got away. The book will carry the bye-line "by Dave Rice and Michael J Bird". I can't tell you how much fun that is!


If Michael Bird was alive today do you think he would still be working in the business?

DAVID: Olive says he never really retired. He actually sold two further series, but they were never filmed. David Cunliffe still has the scripts. As time went on Bird became increasingly disillusioned with the way British television was going and I am sure he wouldn't be writing for either the BBC or ITV. He did talk to Richard Wakeley about writing a series of travel books, but he talked about a lot of things that never happened. It is a recurring theme in the book.


Interview conducted November 2006. Many thanks to David in sparing time to answer our questions and the best of luck with the book.




The book can be purchased from
http://www.lulu.com.



David Rice will also gladly provide further details or help and can be contacted via the Michael J Bird website.