Piloting the Dan Dare Audio Adventures – Casting Dan, his Crew, and the Mekon, too!

New art for the Dan Dare Audio Adventure "Voyage to Venus", created to coincide with the Radio 4 Extra release. Designed by Mark Plastow with art by Brian Williamson.
New art for the Dan Dare Audio Adventure “Voyage to Venus”, created to coincide with the Radio 4 Extra release. Designed by Mark Plastow with art by Brian Williamson.

Andrew Mark Sewell, Managing Director at B7 Media, reveals the background to production of the award-winning Dan Dare Audio Adventures, now airing on BBC Radio 4 Extra

“Each comic book panel was so vivid and rich in imagination, it has truly stood the test of time.”

Dan Dare” first burst onto the pages of Eagle comic back in 1950. Long before Star Trek sought out the final frontier, this truly British comic book hero promised a brave new world. “Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future” was the original ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’.

Whilst the combined brainchild of Reverend Marcus Morris (founder of Eagle) and Frank Hampson, it was to Hampson’s creative stewardship that “Dan Dare” owes its enduring appeal – each comic panel was so vivid and rich in imagination, it has truly stood the test of time.

The original comics are terribly 1950s of course, and very British too… but that’s part of its charm. Dare might have started out in a children’s comic, but really, like all the best stories, his adventures appeal to everyone.

Andrew Mark Sewell chairs the first writers meeting to discuss the Dan Dare Audio Adventures project in London in November 2015
Andrew Mark Sewell chairs the first writers meeting to discuss the Dan Dare Audio Adventures project in London in November 2015.

In approaching our audio revival – in part inspired by the Radio Luxembourg series of the 1950s – we were faced with many creative decisions and challenges – and there were some robust conversations had in the writer’s room and with the actors in the studio.

Such is our passion and fondness for the original “Dan Dare”, we were very conscious of our need to get the balance right between acknowledging Dan Dare’s comic book and audio legacy, and developing a new incarnation representing our modern, complex and troubled world.

When “Dan Dare” was conceived by Frank Hampson it was at a time of post war austerity, when the victory over the Nazis was tempered by continued rationing, fear of imminent nuclear Armageddon and the decline of the British Empire. The nation was in need of new kind of hero who embraced a bold, more optimistic future.

The cover of the first issue of Eagle, cover dated 14th April 1950.
The cover of the first issue of Eagle, cover dated 14th April 1950.

Dan Dare served that need – a bright ray of hope, enthusiastically looking towards a world beyond the stars.

Dare was also moral, honourable and heroic; all great attributes to entice your audience in an uncertain world. In many ways, amidst the global turmoil that now besets us we are once more in need of a heroic figure to help us feel more positive about the future. The beliefs, values and hope that Dan Dare represents are as relevant today as they were back in the 1950s. And that was our starting point.

“The beliefs, values and hope that Dan Dare represents are as relevant today as they were back in the 1950s.”

The important thing with our audio adventures was to retain the key characteristics that defined the original character, whilst making Dan Dare relevant to today’s savvy audience. We were lucky to have comics historian and series consultant John Freeman on board as our Dan Dare guardian, ensuring that we didn’t “throw the Mekon out with the bathwater!”

Much of the background to the Dan Dare audio adventures was based on a story bible originally created for a proposed comic strip revival of the character commissioned by Print Media Productions for STRIP Magazine. Lucas Bowers created some character and uniform designs, while John Ridgway created several spacecraft designs. One strip. "The Martian Menace" by John Freeman, Joe Pimenetel and John Ridgway, was completed, eventually published in Spaceship Away.
Much of the background to the Dan Dare audio adventures was based on a story bible originally created for a proposed comic strip revival of the character commissioned by Print Media Productions for STRIP Magazine. Lucas Bowers created some character and uniform designs, while John Ridgway created several spacecraft designs. One strip. “The Martian Menace” by John Freeman, Joe Pimenetel and John Ridgway, was completed, eventually published in Spaceship Away.

We wanted to keep the spirit of the original, but combine it with the fact that we now know a huge amount about the planets in our solar system, and about how space travel really works. We didn’t want to make a space documentary, but we knew that, say, levers in space would sound ridiculous. So we tried to keep the fantasy/sci-fi core, but deliver that in a way that is completely credible to an audience familiar with space exploration.

As writer Marc Platt, who was charged with dramatising Marooned on Mercury, says:

“It would seem terribly dated now if an audio revival stuck to that jingoistic, colonial, post-war feel. Except that many of those strange alien races (the foreigners!) are far more advanced than the Earth people. It’s the plucky spirit of ingenuity and defiance that allows Colonel Dare and his crew to win through against the odds. And that can never change about Dan the character. In some ways he’s still a bit of a dinosaur, always fighting for truth, justice and the English way; almost naïve in his beliefs and reckless courage.

“Ultimately he’s a hero and a maverick, chafing against a rigid military authority that can’t afford to lose him.
The stories, the worlds and the aliens that inhabit them must be as bright, imaginative and colourful as they always were, although maybe the colours are darker now.

“And the science has advanced too. In the 1950s, it was assumed that the planet Mercury did not rotate; that like Earth’s moon, it had permanent dark and bright sides. Now we know that one burning day on the surface of Mercury lasts 88 Earth days, followed by a freezing night – so it’s best to keep moving. Although we don’t know yet that there is no fungal forest growing under its ravaged crust. Sometimes the imagination has to adapt as well. It’s up to Colonel Dare to find out these things for us.”

It’s this innate understanding of Dare’s essential DNA by our writing and creative team that has contributed to making this audio series so popular with fans old and new.

Precisely because Dare encapsulates the elements of a classic hero, he can be reinvented for a new audience time and again, and for me and the writing team it was great fun to reach back to his roots, developing stories inspired by the classic Eagle comics tales, drawing on those core values of who he is and showing them through a modern-day lens.

“It was great fun to reach back to his roots, developing stories inspired by the classic Eagle comics tales, drawing on those core values of who he is and showing them through a modern-day lens.”

My introduction to “Dan Dare” came via my late father – alongside my weekly fix of Mike Butterworth and Don Lawrence’s equally imaginative “The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire”. I was soon hooked on the exploits of this most intrepid and ever so British space hero.

“Dan Dare” also ignited my fascination with mankind’s quest to journey beyond our blue planet and explore alien worlds. With film and television drama now seemingly dominated by American comic book heroes, Dan Dare has always stood out as being unashamedly British.

The future is never what it used to be, however, so when we embarked on our mission to dramatise

Dan Dare for audio we had to move the character on. It would be pastiche simply to recreate the tone of Hampson without addressing the audience of today. So our Dare stays true to the original spirit whilst updating the technology and sensibility, for a future that springs from our reality.

Speaking of reality, as with any drama, especially when adapting source material with such a heritage and loyal following, getting the casting right is of paramount importance. Get it wrong and you’ll never hear the end of it. And it’s fair to say that Dan Dare presented us with a particular casting challenge.

Ed Stoppard, who voiced Dan Dare for the audio adventures from B7 Media
Ed Stoppard, who voiced Dan Dare for the audio adventures from B7 Media

“Dan Dare presented us with a particular casting challenge.”

Obviously casting Colonel Dare was our first concern. Ed Stoppard was suggested to me and when I heard his voice and chatted to him, I knew: he just got it. Admittedly it helped that the scripts are very strong and Dare’s personality shone through. That’s why we try to spend as much time as possible to get the scripts in the best shape for our actors when we’re recording in the studio.

Geoff McGivern and Heida Reed recording a scene in the Dan Dare audio adventure "Marooned on Mercury"
Geoff McGivern and Heida Reed recording a scene in the Dan Dare audio adventure “Marooned on Mercury”

Dare’s counterpoint was Digby, a true-blooded Northerner, with a cutting dry wit. I was familiar with Geoff McGivern, not least as the iconic Ford Prefect in the original Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’d also met him when Dirk Maggs was doing the Hitch-Hiker’s stage show.

We needed a strong dramatic actor who had good comic timing and could bring a certain dourness to the character. Geoff was a treat and very committed to the role, so it’s no surprise that his interpretation of Digby has got some of the best notices from reviewers.

For Professor Peabody we could have gone down the route of the quintessential English rose, but I wanted to move away from that. We live in a multicultural, international world, so I knew I wanted to take Peabody in a different direction.

Heida Reed (Professor Peabody)
Heida Reed (Professor Peabody)

I’d been watching the BBC reboot of Poldark and I was very struck by Heida Reed’s performance. It was only when I looked back at her work I realised she’s actually Icelandic; she has this lovely English voice with a Scandinavian lilt. It gave the character a subtle and different complexion.

Another reason for updating Peabody was that the representation of women in the original comic book series was one-dimensional. As a character, although Peabody was undoubtedly strong, we wanted to make her a modern woman, who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Dare and Digby and give them a run for their money. She’s not just a sassy, ultra-smart woman, she’s also got an incredibly strong personality. And for the chemistry to really work between our three leads the drama had to be rooted in the real world of corporate politics.

“As a character, although Peabody was undoubtedly strong, we wanted to make her a modern woman, who could stand shoulder to shoulder with Dare and Digby and give them a run for their money.”

In casting our three principals, the dynamic and how their relationship develops through the series was very important.
We also gave Dan Dare an emotional core and a backstory in which Digby knew his father… so there are threads and ties between all the characters.

Michael Cochrane - Sir Hubert Guest
Michael Cochrane

For Sir Hubert Guest, I’d worked with Michael Cochrane some years back on our reboot of Blake’s 7. His was probably our easiest piece of casting.

The initial tension between Dan, Digby and Peabody and their conflicting agendas were very important to evolving their relationship.
The energy and the relationship between our leads come across as quite natural, and fun. In truth that was the relationship the actors managed to establish quickly between themselves. As luck would have it we had fallen upon the perfect alchemy.

Raad Rawi
Raad Rawi

But what about the Mekon? Any self-respecting space adventure needs an evil alien threatening the very existence of Earth. Fortunately for us Dan Dare was pitted against one of the most memorable sci-fi villains of all time. And we as producers were equally fortunate to be blessed with a wonderful actor Raad Rawi, who delivered a pitch-perfect performance, discovering the humanity within a troubled alien overlord. I just loved the layers to the guy – he’s such a smart actor.

Raad’s considered performance couldn’t have been more different from the interpretation of the Mekon presented in the 1990 BBC radio dramatisation of Voyage to Venus. In fact the Mekon in that version sounded like he’d swallowed a canister of helium.

I’d always been rather disappointed by Dare’s audio treatment in the past so in our new audio adventures, we set out to not only introduce him to a new audience, but also capture something of the classic Saturday adventure serials of the 1940s, which clearly inspired Dare’s creation. There have been many attempts to update “Dan Dare”, but audio is a perfect medium to deliver epic Dan Dare adventures that are the embodiment of its comic book inspiration.

The space adventure setting of “Dan Dare” was also perfect for us to really go town with our audio movie style of production for each story. This gave us the opportunity to make pure audio cinema, where audiences can immerse themselves in the Dan Dare universe, limited only by their imaginations.

The Mekon and the Treens were without question our most challenging piece of casting. They might be aliens, but we wanted then to move beyond the alien stereotype. We wanted them to feel real, as if the Treen civilisation actually existed on Venus, and although we’d decided we were going to treat the voices in post production, we were going to go for international actors to give the Treens, as well as the Mekon, to give to their voices a different but and distinctive tonality.

We also wrote the Mekon as a multi-dimensional character, not just the archetypal baddie. In many ways the Mekon would not have concerned himself with battling Dan Dare and the humans if only they’d left him alone. He had his “perfect train set” on Venus and it was only because Dare came in and kicked over a few of his trains – quite literally – that he turned his attention to Earth. Thus was born an unbridled hatred of Dare, a thirst for revenge and a desire to see Dare’s demise.

Dan Dare Character Design by Joe Pimentel
Dan Dare Character Design by Joe Pimentel

Dan Dare, the character, is not just a British hero anymore; he belongs to the entire planet. He’s one of those characters who come back – like the Doctor, the Batman, James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes. He’s a classic, and whenever the solar system needs saving, or Earth needs defending, a new version of Dan Dare is called upon by a new generation of creators.

To do this we have taken a few liberties with the original stories’ plots, yet we hope the end production satisfies both the die-hard Dan Dare fan and delights our new audience and that with these six audio-movies we’ve created an appetite for more.

Because, like James Bond and the Doctor, we really want to end these tales with a confident promise that – Dan Dare will return!

Check out Dan Dare on BBC Radio 4 Extra here – and tell your friends!

• Check out the Dan Dare Audio Adventures Official Site at www.dandareaudio.com

This article is based on a talk Andrew gave to the Eagle Society in 2018. © Andrew Mark Sewell / B7 Media

Dan Dare © Dan Dare Corporation

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