William Smethurst is the creator and producer of TV series Jupiter Moon, a space opera set in the mid-21st century.
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Launched in 1990 by BSB, the show ran for 150 (30-minute) episodes. After the merger of BSB with Sky, Jupiter Moon was repeated on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1995. Here, Smethurst talks about the programme’s origins…
Jupiter Moon was sold to British Satellite Broadcasting on the strength of one sentence: “The loves, passions, and courage of the students and crew of a space polytechnic as it ventures through the universe in search of scientific discoveries.”
I called it Voyage Of The Ilea. John Gau of BSB asked why the ship was called the Ilea. I said that in a dark dream I had imagined Ken Livingstone as a senior statesman, naming the first European space polytechnic in honour of the Inner London Education Authority, so brutally killed by Mrs Thatcher.
John Gau said that, well anyway, he loved the programme idea. 150 episodes, budget £6m. Dr Bob Parkinson of British Aerospace designed the spaceship using the very latest European Space Agency/NASA projections, and it was built in the Central Television studio in Birmingham that had until recently been occupied by Crossroads. ‘Beam me up, Benny’ a Daily Star headline had once said, reporting that Benny was an alien. Now it had come to pass – a spaceship landing on the motel.
From the start, we were tenacious about scientific accuracy. We were looking for the science of the future, the future as it might well actually be for humankind in the far reaches of the Solar system in 2050.
Our spaceship was the only accurately scaled prototype of a spaceship interior in the world. NASA had a design on paper, but ours was the only reality. The camera crew pleaded with Bob Parkinson to change the dimensions, particularly in the corridors, but concessions to the television-maker’s art were few and grudging.
In early days, we only allowed the Ilea to voyage between the Jovian moons on those dates that would be feasible according to the movements of the planets and their moons. The script team were given an orrery for 2050, provided by Bob Parkinson, and told to work to it. We rapidly found, however, that this was restrictive, and that very few viewers would catch us out if the Ilea journeyed between Io and Pasiphae on a date when the orbit of the moons made such a journey unlikely.
Dr Doug Bertram of Birmingham University’s Department of Space became our script advisor. His speciality was the study of diffuse x-ray emission from tenuous but hot plasma, particularly as seen between galaxies in the Perseus Cluster. Whenever the spaceship Ilea strayed dangerously close to tenuous plasma, viewers could be confident that every fact was accurate. A script revision of episode 127 carries Doug’s terse note: “Victoria’s papers. It was HII plasma not H2. Obviously it sounds the same, but if she gives a seminar on this then the display must get it right.”
No viewer was ever given the opportunity to mock: ‘Oh no, they’ve confused HII plasma with H2 plasma! What idiots!’ But it wasn’t always easy to maintain the integrity of our vision of the future world, not making three episodes a week. If somebody in Coronation Street wants a slice of toast the prop-buyer gets a toaster from Argos. But where does the Jupiter Moon prop-buyer go to get a toaster circa 2050?
A horrible moment came when I saw the tapes shot of a scene in the Stardust Café, Callisto. A character was pretending to film singer/bargirl Melody, whilst secretly filming a gang of South American space-wanderers suspected of illegally strip-mining the moon Leda. There, right in mid-screen, the camera being used for this secret recording was a very large, very obvious, 1988 analogue camcorder. Why, why, why? The prop buyer said nobody had told him what a 2050 camera would look like. The director said that if the camera didn’t look like a camera, then viewers wouldn’t know what was going on.
After talking to Doug, I decided that it only looked like a 1988 camcorder: in truth it was a tiny 2050 digital imager encased in a protective sheath to guard against the 200,000 rads from electrons and 50,000 rads from protons that bombard all sensitive equipment in Jupiter System.
Sir Michael Drury of Birmingham University’s Department of General Practice provided a medical scenario and told us, interestingly, that shingles and depression might well be common woes in space 2050. IBM offered to build the ship’s computer, but pulled out because we wouldn’t agree that it would not crash if attacked by space monsters. What would people wear in 2050? The future was Katherine Hamnett and John Paul Gaultier, we decided, buying up entire collections.
The special effects were shot in Prague, where the Ilea model was 10 feet long, and the Galilean moons hung on wires against black drapes. The Prague Symphony Orchestra recorded the superb music score by Alan Parker. The Czech special effects team had no conception of a system that made and transmitted 90 minutes of TV drama every week. When special effects were not ready on time, they calmly suggested that we postpone filming. They were also having a revolution. As the Ilea sailed through space at Barrandov studios, students filled the centre of Prague, raising the Czech flag over the statue of King Wenceslas. Communism fell while the Ilea battled in space with the pirate ship Santa Maria.
We wanted stories that were realistic, humorous, and based on character. Part of the BSB remit was that we should encourage and develop new writing and acting talent, and we looked for writers who had fresh, distinctive voices. They did not, for the most part, come from a science fiction background, although Ben Aaronovich, one of the very best Doctor Who writers, came in with some superb storylines and scripts. He plotted our most popular story; the murder trap embedded in the Achilles files of the Michelangelo Expedition, and invented Ruby Kumara of Red-Spot Radio, the station that’s better than bedtime.
Some of the writers had worked on Radio 4’s The Archers. They were daunted by the lack of countryside. While the sci-fi team wrote stories about space battles and dangerous missions to volcanic moons, they wrote a gentle story about a hamster, and another one about a donkey sanctuary.
There were other links with The Archers. Both programmes were made in Birmingham, and keen viewers noted that in a parallel universe old space-lag ‘Pegleg’ Johnson was actually Ambridge farmer Mike Tucker, the space doctor was Pat Archer, college bursar Rebecca was Elizabeth Archer, and Petra, super-computer of the Solar system, was Susan Horrobin from the council houses.
The series sold for £2m to Germany, and we cast a German actor to play a young space-criminal, but when the actor came to Birmingham he didn’t think much of it and, like the Czech technicians, he didn’t understand the concept of making three programmes a week: working in the studio for six days, and learning next week’s lines on day seven. When he did understand he flew straight back to Munich. A promising, keen young actor, Jason Durr, was called up from London. He had to learn his lines, manage without rehearsal, have his hair crew-cut and dyed yellow, and perform the next day. To add to his problems we forgot to book him into a hotel.
Most of the cast were young, inexperienced, and amazed to find themselves sometimes earning over £1,000 a week. Anna Chancellor, now seen in prestigious dramas like Four Weddings And A Funeral and Tipping The Velvet auditioned with a terrible cold and high temperature, and had got home and was about to crawl into bed when the phone rang – would she come back immediately and audition again. Back she came, across London in the rush hour, to give a brilliant performance as cool, lovely Mercedes Page, space navigator extraordinaire.
Faye Masterson, now starring in US sci-fi films having been cast in a major role by Mel Gibson, was only 16 when she came to Birmingham to play new Ilea student Gabrielle. Other Ilea students have made a name in the profession: Lucy Benjamin (who said the first line of episode one, and almost the last line of episode 150) in EastEnders, Nick Moran starring in Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Nick played a student called Zadoc. Providing names for characters was always tricky – what will be the in-names of 2050? Phillipe Gervaise was named after Ricky Gervaise, boyfriend of the associate producer. We thought we’d blow a little of the stardust of fame over him.