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Night Terrace: where Australia meets time and space

CNET Australia catches up with John Richards, creator of Outland, now head writer on Night Terrace, the radio play about a time-and-space-travelling terrace house.

(Credit: Ben McKenzie)

CNET Australia catches up with John Richards, creator of geek show Outland, now head writer on Night Terrace, the radio play about a time-and-space-travelling terrace house.

In the last few years, we've seen a few forays into independent Australian sci-fi. It makes sense; part of the white cultural identity here is bound up with the idea of being a stranger in a strange land. Much of our literature and films are concerned with a strange, sometimes hostile environment. John Richards knows this well: his TV creation for the ABC, Outland, is about a gay sci-fi fan club.

His latest project wants to take the Australian identity into space: the strangest of lands. Night Terracecurrently seeking funding on Kickstarter — tells the tale of Anastasia, a retired government agent who finds herself in a time- and space-travelling house — that Australian architectural mainstay, the terrace — with a door-to-door salesman. The project itself, however, was born of a genuine, deep love of science fiction.

"It's a little bit backwards, but we were coming to the end of our 2013 podcast project Splendid Chaps: A Year Of Doctor Who and we knew we wanted to keep working together," Richards explained. "We loved our audience and we'd also done a play together for the Melbourne Fringe Festival and we just said 'what next?'. We're basically a bunch of writers and actors so we had a meeting to throw ideas around and Night Terrace evolved from that. We'd spent a year talking about Doctor Who so a lot of it was in reaction to what we thought worked and what didn't. We knew wanted a travelling narrative, but we were also adamant it have a female lead. And the rest followed from there."

The terrace house in question may bear a strong resemblance to Doctor Who's TARDIS, but the seasoned sci-fi fan will recognise many influences in the radio play. The War of the Worlds, famously, was serialised as a radio play in 1938, causing panic among listeners who didn't realise it was fiction — but a closer cousin to Night Terrace would be The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the tale of poor, hapless Arthur Dent who finds himself travelling time and space after the destruction of the Earth — a tale that first arrived by radio waves.

Its influence, however, was likely more subliminal.

"We all love Hitchhikers. As a kid my first connection to it was through the records they made based on the original radio series, I still remember how much I loved the cover of the second one with the rubber duck on it," Richards said. "Curiously, though, we didn't talk much about Hitchhikers in our first meeting. We did talk about Nebulous, which is also inspired by Doctor Who, and other science fiction comedies like Red Dwarf. Ben McKenzie was really keen that we make something that worked both as a comedy and as science fiction, so it couldn't be straight-out parody but something with a proper plot that was also funny. Red Dwarf had a couple of seasons in the middle where they did that really well, or how Shaun of the Dead works both as a romantic comedy and a zombie film. That said, we're still using a lot of genre tropes in the same way Douglas Adams did, and the same richness of the soundscape."

Because of the team's work in podcasts, the choice to make an audio play was an obvious one. Around the globe, production companies and independent creators alike are releasing fresh, new dramatic plays in podcast format — Welcome to Night Vale is among the top 10 podcasts in Australia, the UK, the US and Canada, for example — and audio works particularly well for science fiction, where you can create crazy, otherworldly scenarios without blowing the budget on CG effects.

But for Night Terrace, a podcast simply wouldn't work, Richards explained. "There's a lot of people working on Night Terrace, quite a number of them famous," he said. "Genuinely, these are talented people we just wouldn't get for free. Sometimes I worry that the internet has made people think everything should be free, and I readily count myself in that mindset. But Splendid Chaps and Boxcutters were free podcasts; Night Terrace by its very nature needs money to exist. My dream is that the rise of crowd-funding will see more niche broadcasting arise, more of the shows I would like to see and which I know first-hand that broadcasters are terrified of."

So far, the show has Neighbours star Jackie Woodburne in the starring role, with Ben McKenzie and Petra Elliott of the Splendid Chaps in supporting roles. New guest star announcements include Jane Badler, Toby Truslove, Adam Richard and Alan Brough, with more personalities planned. Crowdfunding seemed the logical choice — especially since it has worked so well for the Splendid Chaps on Pozible.

"We knew we already had an audience," Richards said. "Splendid Chaps was recorded in front of a live audience in Melbourne and we'd already crowdfunded a Sydney show so we knew they were there. On top of that, [co-writer] Lee Zachariah and I both had television shows that generated a lot of love — if not exactly boffo ratings — so we knew that fans of The Bazura Project and Outland would be interested. And Ben McKenzie and Petra Elliott are both experienced live performers with their own supporters, so we knew people would be interested. Although we didn't know if that would translate into dollars! It's been a bit of a relief, if I'm honest."

And, with no backup plan in place, it was all or nothing — so the fact that the project has hit AU$12,535 of its AU$9420 goal with seven days still remaining (at time of writing) is great news for the team and fans alike. And at least several members of the team are already thinking ahead with big plans.

"I've discovered as head writer part of my job is to tell Lee Zachariah to stop thinking about the sixth season and the movie and to focus on the script he's writing!" Richards said. "But we're all nerds in the shadow of Whedon, so of course we're thinking about it. The first episode of season one is planned to have a throwaway joke that will form a major plot arc of season two, which is exciting. And we're already thinking about some unexpected directions we can go in format and audience expectation, but let's get the first series done first!"

You can read more about Night Terrace on the project's Kickstarter page.