Going Postal with Terry Pratchett

The Discworld author talks about a new television adaptation of "Going Postal," the problems power brings, and the impossibility of living in a world when he isn't writing a book. Matilda Battersby reports.

All novelists are worried about how their creations are put on screen, but Terry Pratchett, the cult fantasy writer who has sold 45 million books world wide, famed for his white beard and trademark black hat, is particularly pernickety. So much so, in fact, that during the filming of an adaptation of his 33rd Discworld novel “Going Postal” for Sky One, he spent most of his time behind-the-scenes, making sure it was all going smoothly.

“I was the on set Discworld expert, if you like. In fact they even came perilously close to taking advice from me,” he told me, during an interview at the Miptv conference in Cannes. “Working for television is very different from Hollywood. There’s much less money and much less interference and I think that, as a result, you get a lot more ingenuity. You take a bunch of good people and a small budget, and if the scenery shakes, that’s because it was meant to shake.”

Going Postal is the tale of con artist Moist Von Lipwing (Richard Coyle) who is forced, because of his criminal activity and the intervention of his powerful friends, to take on the job of Postmaster in the dilapidated post office of the city of Ankh-Morpork. The television version comes in two hour-long episodes, closely resembling the book in both dialogue and feel, although the ending and some smaller features have been amended, which hawkish readers might be offended by.

Pratchett is notably upset by such changes. He says: “With great power comes great frustration. Sometimes, when on set, I’d pipe up and say ‘that isn’t right!’ But often you have to recognise that the form has to change in adaptation. I know that the readers on the whole won’t mind too much.”

Mob, the production company responsible for Going Postal, have worked with Pratchett twice before on other Discworld adaptations, Hogfather and The Colour of Magic. “There is so much good dialogue in Terry’s books that we really struggled with cutting it,” says executive producer Rod Brown.

And with Pratchett’s keen involvement on the set and closeness to the story and it's characters, the production process is not always plain sailing. As Pratchett wryly remarks, there was a time during the making of the Hogfather when the pair “nearly came to blows” over an abridgement. But they appear good friends now and Pratchett claims to have only “some minute problems” with the adaptation of Going Postal and is aware of the difficulties of condensing his work.

“I recently had a complicated phone call with someone who had to abridge a Discworld book. He said that just when you think ‘Oh that bit’s nonsense, I can cut that,’ you realise it forms it the entire basis of the plot and have to start all over again. We had this problem with Going Postal, as the phrase ‘The falling angel meets the rising ape’ has particular importance and they wanted to cut it,” he says.

Pratchett, who is a self confessed lover of the Channel 4 comedy Black Books, said he was excited that Tamsin Greig, who starred in the series, agreed to be involved in the project. He said of her character, the spiky journalist Miss Cripslock: “I always wanted her to be that kind of sharp, adventurous woman and that’s just perfect for Greig.” Adora Belle Dearheart, played by Clare Foy, star of BBC1’s “Little Dorrit”, is described by Pratchett as “a kind of Bogart heroine.” Charles Dance, who plays the austere Lord Vetinari said he “enjoyed being mucked about by Terry Pratchett" on set.

Pratchett divides his audience into two categories: “There are fans and there are readers. The number of fans compared to the readers is a comparatively small amount. I found one once in Wyoming and, strangely enough, a collection of fans in Borneo. But the readers are all over the place. The fans will look out for the scenery shaking and any alterations in the stories’ adaptations, but the readers are not quite so particular.”

He describes the Discworld kids he meets as a bit like Midwich Cuckoos: “They have probably grown up with parents who read and have passed it onto their kids, which is pretty unusual today. They’ve most likely been encouraged to read by their mothers, if you consider that 70 per cent of my readers are women.”

Although his books can be read at any age, he’s got a series for young adults and has more recently been writing for young children. “It’s amazing what you can do with a children’s book,” he says. “You have as much freedom as when writing an adult book except you can’t put in lots of red hot sex. But, I’ve never been any good at writing that stuff anyway.”

Pratchett tells me his mother died just two weeks ago. “Oh it was a good thing really,” he says, attempting to be cheerful. “Neither she nor I would prefer her to be having a horrible time in a home.” But his sadness is palpable and says her death has delayed the completion of his current novel, “The colour of midnight.” "Plus people keep asking me to do this sort of thing, travelling, interviews and stuff. It takes up so much of my time. And people want me write the damned books."

Pratchett, who is a high profile euthanasia compaigner, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in December 2007, a fact he publicly announced and something he has since chronicled in a television programme for the BBC. But Pratchett is still razor sharp, reciting long and complicated extracts from past novels verbatim. He’s certainly not giving into the illness without a fight and says he’s signed two further book deals because he “cannot imagine living in a world when [he] is not writing a book”.

'Going Postal' will appear on Sky One screens at the end of May 2010

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