Call Sylvester McCoy now! - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

31 October 2018
What's Your Story

Thirty years ago today, Children's BBC began an experiment in storytelling, one where we wrote the plot.

Your chance to put your own ideas on television. Sylvester McCoy and the company present the first part of an intriguing drama live from Studio A.

At the end of today's episode, phone in your ideas. Tomorrow you could see your own scenes on the screen!



Since the early 80s, Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks were a familiar staple in school libraries, a sort of interactive fiction where the reader made choices and was rewarded with success, failure, or something in between. Some of us were familiar with the world of Fighting Fantasy, others advanced to the story-building of Dungeons and Dragons.

Never had there been an experiment like this. What's Your Story would take ideas from the viewers, turn them into drama, and perform the scripts on screen. And they'd do it all in just one day.

The initial setup was rich with possibilities. Curious British Telly recalls it thus:

Stephen is busy being a late 80s teenager when he receives a phone call from his cousin Laura (Lisa Rose). Her father, Miles, who lives in sleepy Cornwall has disappeared. Sounds like a right old mystery, so Stephen and Laura hop on the train and head for the West Country with their deerstalkers on. Miles' cottage is in a right two and eight and appears to have had a whirling dervish rummaging through all of Miles' belongings. Stephen and Laura, being particularly tidy and well organised folk, decide to start tidying things up rather than getting on the blower to the old bill.

Whilst tidying up, they uncover a strange tin box which contains a map and a curious stone which glows. As the pair are bedazzled by the BBC special effects, the mysterious Quince suddenly appears and informs the young duo that the map is for a nearby tin mine. Quince promises to guide Stephen and Laura through the mine in return for the glowing stone. Wasting no time, they set off into the mine and come across a brick wall which appears to have been built recently. It's blocking their path and then...

That's as far as Peter Corey wrote. We viewers had to come up with the rest of the ideas. Sylvester McCoy encourages us to call into BBC Pebble Mill, where a bank of phone operators waited for viewers to call.

This was autumn 1988, and we had precisely five television options: this on BBC1, some dreary talking heads on BBC2, ITV's lineup of imports and commissions, Fifteen-to-One on Channel 4 -- or The Dreaded Homework. Which is more interesting, French vocabulary about the bus stop, or talking to TV's Famous Dr Who?

The phone lines melted down, half a million calls were placed in the first week. Indeed, at one point the studio caught fire behind Sylvester as he delivered a piece to camera. Behind the scenes, it was just as frantic, Peter Corey wrote his script overnight, sets had to be built in the morning while the actors rehearsed, and everything had to be ready for transmission just after 4. And then they'd do it all again the next day.

Officially, all of the ideas came from viewers. This blog noted - at the time! - that they could well have an outline plot in mind, with the viewers filling in the details. In the opening cliffhanger, there's got to be something behind the wall. What are they hiding? Fresh mine works? An underground factory? Bunnies who want to take over the world?

Most viewers suggested travel in space or time, confusing Sylvester McCoy with the character he played on Doctor Who. These ideas had to be thrown out, as were many others unsuitable to a children's drama. After a week of this, it became clear that viewers weren't going to wrap up the story by episode 8. There was a change of emphasis in the second week; rather than calling in with our wild ideas, we were now asked to vote on possible continuations, all suggested by viewers. Crucially, this gave Peter Corey more time to hone his script, and helped to make the show look a little less ramshackle.

The quality of acting was at least as good as can be expected: the talent hadn't had more than a few hours with the script, and we don't think they learned more than a couple of scenes in advance. These were professionals, it never felt like the Radio Active Rep, or The Play That Goes Wrong. It wasn't a polished performance, but that was part of the charm. The sets were clearly produced in a morning, and at times were very under-dressed.

The story was actually quite decent, and (with a few re-writes) the eight daily episodes would have made a decent three-part Wednesday serial. There was proper danger in some of the chase scenes, and each episode was plotted to end on a scary cliffhanger. The best cliffhanger, of course, was on the first Thursday, not to be resolved until Monday.

On the middle Saturday, Going Live was on an awayday to Centre Parks in Nottingham, and Sylvester McCoy was interviewed. He intimated that they'd spent Friday filming the next episode of What's Your Story, but it came out as "We've just completed the series". The most charitable explanation is that Sylvester's brain was frazzled, and he mis-spoke.

What's Your Story came back for a week from 19 March 1990. We know that Doctor Who hadn't been renewed, and this could have been the Beeb finding something for Sylvester to do before his contract expires. Here's the Radio Times billing.

Sylvester McCoy with your chance to help create a screen drama. All you need to make a TV series is awaiting your stories. Part 1 has been written based on ideas sent in by viewers including Kathy Donnelland, Sarah Holley, and Gillian Clarkson. What happens tomorrow and the rest of the week is up to you. Sylvester McCoy will be back at 5.30pm to take your calls.

With Sebastian Allen, Chas Bryer, Brian Deacon, Teresa Gallagher, Paul J Medford, Cordelia Roche, Claire Toeman.
Writer Peter Corey
Music Michael Omer
Lighting director Dave Bushell
Producer/Director Richard Simkin

Lightning didn't strike twice, and it wasn't quite as good as first time round. A weaker storyline didn't help, and the cast didn't feel as convincing. That they had to wrap it all up within a week meant we couldn't have a freewheeling and inventive start, the end was always in sight. There wasn't much surprise that the series didn't come back for a third run.

In the grand tale of television history, What's Your Story deserves a mention. It's the gloaming of interactive television, the first time viewers were allowed to shape a story, and it showed the massive invention of the viewers. This is both an opportunity and a danger, as the show might develop in ways the producers don't want. Later viewer interaction has been much more limited - "have you seen these people" on Wanted, "call to evict" on Big Brother, "love this?" on Rising Star. We might get to shape the story, we don't get to write it.

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