We’re delighted to bring you this interview with Commando and Doctor Who writer Rossa McPhillips MBE, spanning not only his first work on DC Thomson’s long-running war comic, but a mystery about a key “classic” Doctor Who writer, Malcolm Hulke… with Sea Devils thrown in for good measure!
Rossa McPhillips MBE is a former soldier and National Crime Agency officer, who is an unashamed fan of Commando, his first story for the title, “A Piece of the Action” published just this week, in Issue 5543, drawn by Dan Barnfield.
Originally from Tuam, County Galway, Rossa spent 10 years in British Military Intelligence, including tours of Afghanistan and an attachment with Special Forces.
He was awarded an MBE in 2017 for his intelligence work in South Sudan. In 2017, he joined the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Headquarters, specialising in intelligence.
He now writes spy thrillers, drawing on his experiences, including The Contact, in which MI6 officer Frank Oatley opens up secret talks with the IRA as the conflict teeters towards civil war in 1990.
Rossa’s other credits include Doctor Who, for Big Finish: his story, “Temmosus”, featuring on The War Doctor Begins – Battlegrounds, is out now from Big Finish, and due for general release in July. His screenplay based on his experiences in Afghanistan, Checkpoint 54, has been optioned by a BAFTA Award-winning director.
He has also written episodes of the forthcoming series Killing the Cure, and the pilot episode for E.L.E. Rossa’s screenplay for One Christmas Night in a Toy Store, is the third in a series of films due to be released in Spring 2022.
Thanks very much for talking to us, Rossa. You’ve had a varied career in the military and the police, but did you always want to be a writer, too?
I have wanted to be a writer ever since I was a child. That was all I ever wanted to do. But we weren’t a well-off family; my dad was a plumber from Ireland and my Mum was a housewife (until I got a bit older and she got work in a school). My parents told me that writing wasn’t a secure lifestyle and I’d need a day job to support it. I grew up reading Commando and watching films like Where Eagles Dare so, when I left university, I signed up for the Army. The Army put me in the Intelligence Corps, which has given me inspiration for many stories!
Now I’m a professional writer, I’m thankful my parents made me get a day job. My writing would be much less interesting if I hadn’t joined the Army (and police)!
You’ve also had a varied career already as a writer, too, with novels, audio drama, and now, comics. But what prompted you to pitch to Commando? Is it a title you’ve read for a while?
As already stated, I grew up (like a lot of people) reading Commando and enjoyed the stories of derring-do. I’ve pitched to the editors at Commando for years, on and off – but it was only recently that my pitches clicked with Kate McAuliffe, the editor there, who’s been incredibly supportive in helping me reach the Commando high standard of storytelling.
The joy of Commando is that there isn’t anything like it on radio, TV or the screen. Where can you get decent action and adventure these days? They’re usually in superhero form in the cinema, but I believe not all heroes wear capes! I’m probably not a literary author like Sally Rooney or even John Le Carre. I think my strengths are in action, and the best place for action stories is still Commando.
“A Piece of the Action”, your Commando debut, is set in wartime Sicily, and finds a group of US soldiers in a lot of hot water. You clearly do a lot of research for your novels – and you’re an advisor to a specialist agency for writers, too? How did you research this story?
I went to Sicily with an ex-girlfriend of mine and made her come to the military museum there. She was probably bored out of her mind, but I loved looking at the story of the 1943 Sicily invasion, and I was fascinated by the many deception operations prior to the invasion.
I then read Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat book afterwards, which I thought was fantastic (the film isn’t bad, either). I then looked up more stuff about the planning, and there were these stories about US Naval Intelligence visiting mafia bosses in jail in places like Alcatraz, and asking them to help with the invasion of Sicily.
Sicily is famously regarded as the birthplace of the mafia and many US mobsters had family there, so it made sense for the US government to approach them – although morally dubious! I found that incredibly interesting and that was the seed for “A Piece of the Action”.
It’s a multi-layered tale, and it was good to see Italian soldiers not portrayed in the way they have been stereotyped in the past. Did you have any difficulties juggling the multiple story threads in the pages available?
Thank you. I really appreciate those comments. I didn’t consciously think that I had to do multiple story threads, but Kate was very clear that they wanted real conflict between characters in the story. So I just tried to create as many conflicts between the characters as I could.
Yeah, I think the Italian soldiers’ reputation in World War Two isn’t justified; the individual soldiers all fought bravely but were let down by their commanding officers. If you look at the excellent Frank Sinatra film, Von Ryan’s Express, the Italian soldiers in that film are portrayed as quite tough also and that’s very much the portrayal I had in mind. Certainly, the Italian soldiers I’ve met are highly-trained professionals who I learned a lot from during my time in the British army.
Are you working on anything else, comics-wise, right now?
Ha! Just ask Kate McAuliffe! I literally email her nearly every month with new pitches for Commando. She must be sick of seeing my name in her email inbox by now. But that just shows you how much I love doing these.
I have another Commando comic coming out soon, this time set during the Battle of the Atlantic and I’ve been commissioned for two more. I’m hoping to do many more scripts for Commando over the next few years, and (sorry Kate!) I have no intention of stopping.
I haven’t thought about other comics to be honest, but I wouldn’t mind following in your footsteps and doing some comics for Doctor Who Magazine and other sci-fi TV tie-ins!
You’ve also written Doctor Who and Torchwood audio adventures for Big Finish – are you a longtime fan of the series, and if so, is there a particular Doctor that’s a favourite?
A nice segue from the above. Yeah, Doctor Who is my favourite TV programme of all time. It was a real honour to do the Big Finish audios, and I’m hoping to do more of those.
I’m an immigrant from Ireland, who moved over to the UK in 1987 when I was five. My first memories of being in the UK are watching the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who. McCoy was my Doctor and he will forever have a unique place in my heart.
I think why the show stuck for me was this romantic notion of someone coming from the outside and helping to solve people’s problems. As an immigrant, that was a romantic ideal to strive for.
During the 1990s, I picked up on the Doctor Who backlog, and, even though McCoy is important to me, I must admit that Tom Baker is my favourite Doctor of all time. He is the Doctor, without a doubt – whereas other actors just played the part.
I was over the moon when the series came back in 2005, and I love the new series. I’m still hoping to write an episode for the TV series in the coming years.
Did you ever find out more about Doctor Who author Malcolm Hulke, and what files the government had on him for your Doctor Who Magazine feature?
Hulke is interesting. There is an MI5 file on him based on his membership of the Communist Party. John Williams (not to be confused with the Star Wars musician!) wrote a fascinating article on Hulke’s MI5 file for Doctor Who Magazine, in Issue 489. He has the article on his website. It’s a great read.
Unfortunately the MI5 file stops in 1963, just before Doctor Who takes off and I wanted to know if there’s any more in MI5 archives about the years from 1963 until Hulke’s death. I haven’t heard back, but I am pursuing it through various avenues.
For Doctor Who Magazine issue 589, I investigated the story that two gentlemen from the Directorate of Naval Security came to the BBC to see the Doctor Who production team, as they feared that plans for a new submarine propulsion system had been inadvertently leaked out during transmission of the story The Sea Devils. The Royal Navy had helped during shooting of the story, so the officials thought that there had been a security breach during production.
It turned out to be nothing, of course, but it’s a strange story when you remember Hulke, who wrote The Sea Devils, had an MI5 file. It’s even more strange when you remember Jon Pertwee was in Naval Security during World War Two!
Which writing project you’ve worked on are you most proud of and where can people see it or buy it?
That’s a difficult one! I would hope I’m proud of all of them. I’ve just finished a TV pilot for a TV production company that I’m incredibly proud of but I probably can’t talk about it until it gets the green light from a TV channel (fingers crossed!).
In so far as what is already out there, the writing project I most proud of would have to be my first article for Doctor Who Magazine. I had always been fascinated that there were actual serving soldiers in Doctor Who, mostly during Earth-bound TV stories where the Doctor assists the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) military force. Nobody had ever tried to track these old soldiers down, so I thought I would do it. I pitched Peter Ware at Doctor Who Magazine and he said “go for it”.
It took a lot of painstaking research, but I was able to quash a few accepted facts within fandom (for example, that there were no Royal Marines involved during filming for The Mind of Evil story).
I also managed to track down one soldier from each story who were willing to talk about their experiences on the show, in the context of their wider army careers. They revealed new bits of information on the Doctor Who stories they did, and they were very nice.
I was hoping to interview more but the guys I did interview were quite old, and it’s likely most of the soldiers who helped film Doctor Who in the 1960s or 1970s are sadly dead now.
Peter also gave me five pages in the magazine to my article which is unheard of! I’m still very proud of that article now, and will frame it one day.
How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Unfortunately, I still have a day job (as a security advisor to a tech company) so planning my day as a creator is beholden to that. However, I ensure that, everyday I either do some script writing or I email a pitch to someone. I know then that I’ve made each day count and I feel better knowing that I’m slowly getting to the summit of being solely a writer. Weekends are easier to plan – breakfast, exercise and then writing till dinner.
What’s the best thing about being an author?
It is hard work and comes with its own anxieties about how your babies will be received in the wider world. However, it doesn’t feel like work in so much as a day job in the office feels like work. It feels like you’re a kid again, playing “let’s pretend”, or something. You’re using your imagination and letting it take you down exciting roads. It’s quite addictive in many ways. And, even if you’re writing about blowing up tanks or alien invasions, you’re expressing yourself in some way. And that’s an incredibly healthy thing to do.
I would encourage everyone to express themselves – whether that’s in the form of drawing, writing poetry, amateur dramatics or just scribbling stuff down. It’s good for you.
And the worst?
I suppose the worst thing is that everyone wants to do it. That means you’re competing with everyone, too. It also means it’s incredibly hard to get a gig. I’ve had so many rejections over the years, and each hits you hard. I’ve learned to deal with them now, but they still hurt. They always feel like a personal insult.
But, as someone once said, being a writer and fearing getting rejected is like being a boxer and fearing getting punched. I know even famous writers like Jed Mercurio or even Russell T Davies still get rejections. But when people like Kate McAuliffe send you an email saying they want to commission you for a Commando comic, it is the best feeling in the world. So, it’s worth all the heartache in the end.
What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Mostly hangovers. Joking! It’s the usual distractions – day job, social media, going out. A deadline focuses thought though. If I have a week to complete a script, there are zero distractions as far as I’m concerned!
What’s your favourite comic right now and where can people get it?
I have to say my favourite comic right now is a Commando comic by Colin Maxwell. Knock of the Gestapo was really multi-layered and did something very new with the comic series. Three interconnected stories rolled into one and a great ending. You can’t do better than that. It’s almost like the old anthology horror films, like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors. I liked it a lot and would recommend it to your readers. It’s still on the Commando website for people to order.
What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the publishing industry?
I know it will sound crass, but my advice is to keep going. Don’t give up. What’s the other saying? Quitters never win and winners never quit. I sound like a jock in an American football team saying that, but I think the essence is true: don’t give up on your dreams. Ever.
We wish Rossa the very best of luck with all his future writing projects. Commando 5543: Home of Heroes – A Piece of the Action is on sale this Thursday in all good newsagents now | Buy it from the Commando Web Shop
• Follow Rossa McPhillips on Twitter
Rossa McPhillips: Recent Releases
Commando 5543: Home of Heroes: A Piece of the Action
Story: Rossa McPhillips | Art: Dan Barnfield | Cover: Mark Harris
• Buy the digital edition from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link) | Buy it from the Commando Comics Web Shop
Sicily, July 1943, and US Naval Intelligence officer Lieutenant Commander Albert Russo has a major problem on his hands. Betrayed by their local contacts whilst attempting to aid the Allied advance, Russo and his men find themselves in the midst of a deadly Mafia feud. Resolve it, and the war continues. Fail, and it could mean the destruction of the Allied forces!
Watch out for dodgy dealings and devastating damage in this pacey action story from brand-new Commando writer Rossa McPhillips MBE, with dynamic, contemporary interiors by Dan Barnfield and another enigmatic cover from Mark Harris.
• Commando Comics is online at www.commandocomics.com | DC Thomson – Subscriptions | Facebook | Twitter | Commando Comics on AmazonUK
• Torchwood: War Chest
Released May 2022, Written by Rossa McPhillips | Starring Naoko Mori
This release contains adult material and may not be suitable for younger listeners
It’s the largest depository of alien artefacts ever assembled, ready to wage war against the heavens. Of course, they called it the Antebellum. Of course, they forgot about it.
But the Dow Cohort have rediscovered it. And tonight, they’re breaking in. They have one hour and Toshiko Sato as a reluctant hostage. Can they steal Torchwood’s greatest secret?
• Doctor Who: The War Doctor Begins: Battlegrounds
Released May 2022, Written by Phil Mulryne Rossa McPhillips Timothy X Atack | Starring Jonathon Carley
The Doctor is no more. In his place, a warrior, finally joining the Time War between the Daleks and Gallifrey. But how far will he go to end the conflict? What lines will he cross?
How much of himself will he sacrifice? The War Doctor is beginning to find out who he is…
3.1 The Keeper of Light by Phil Mulryne
The Doctor and his faithful companion are on the trail of strange psionic signals… At a remote costal cottage, holidaymakers David and Dorothy think there’s something strange about the lighthouse. But the Doctor can’t shake the sense of an even bigger mystery to solve…
3.2 Temmosus by Rossa McPhillips
Fighting alongside the Time Lords against their common enemy, some Thals have realised that this collaboration is not between equals. When his new battleship is stolen, the War Doctor must convince his old allies that they are on the same side.
3.3 Rewind by Timothy X Atack
Lacuna is on the brink of destruction, attacked by a new breed of Dalek. But every day, it is pulled back from that brink, and everyone prepares to live through the end of their world once again.
One strange man, alone in his castle, holds the key to Lacuna’s ultimate salvation – or its annihilation.
• John Williams feature on Malcolm Hulke, “Red Hulke”, reproduced on his site with the permission of Doctor Who Magazine publisher Panini UK
• Jon Pertwee’s wartime career is featured in Operation Big Ben: The Anti-V2 Spitfire Missions 1944-45, by Craig Cabell
Links to commercial web sites within this article are not validation by the interviewee
Commando Comics © DC Thomson Media | Doctor Who © BBC
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