Entering The Green Room: The Story Behind The Story
The original Green Room concept was interesting but flawed. Actually, 'interesting but flawed' sounds like a great description of the final version too, but we'll come to that. Let's take a look at where this story came from, and how it developed.
The concept came to me shortly after making Frank And Claude Are Following You, a podcast I was very pleased with, and wanted to explore some other audio fiction ideas. Like many people, I’ve been in the habit of paying close attention to celebrity obituaries since 2016, a year which saw the deaths of what seemed to be an unprecedented number of notable figures (among them two of my great inspirations, Prince and David Bowie). I rarely feel sad about the death of a famous person, even if it’s someone I greatly admire. There’s usually too much else going on in my life to register it properly. There have been a handful of exceptions in recent years. Scott Walker and Daniel Johnston died a few months apart in 2019, and on both occasions it felt as though I’d lost a friend. I was similarly saddened by the more recent loss of Terry Hall, who I’d always felt a kind of kinship with, despite having never met the guy.
It annoys me when people complain about the regular outpourings of grief on social media whenever someone famous dies. They say it’s ‘fake,’ ‘over the top,’ ‘out of proportion,’ and so on. And maybe that’s true, but I think we all have that Terry Hall moment at some point – that feeling that an important figure from your life isn’t there anymore, and you feel genuinely sad.
So, you know the thing about smartphones, right? They’re SMART. Clue’s in the name. You develop a perfectly innocent habit, like paying a bit more attention to obituaries, and how does your Samsung react? ‘Ah. This dude seems to like reading stories about the deaths of famous people. Let’s send him down a rabbit hole containing ALL THE CELEBRITY DEATHS!’
I keep on using that word ‘celebrity,’ although it’s not quite right. I wasn’t just reading the obituaries of TV and film stars. The thing about famous people is, I generally know who they are, so their obituary is likely to hold few surprises. But as you’ll know if you’ve developed this habit yourself, the more obituaries you read, the more you realise how many amazing people there are in the world, and how few of them you know anything about. There are some truly incredible stories out there.
‘I could do something with this,’ I thought. ‘I don’t know what yet.’
Then I thought, ‘How’s this for a podcast idea … It’s a fantasy show, but also it’s kind of topical. I gather together the obituaries of every notable person who’s died this week – maybe not all of them, perhaps just three or four – and imagine what their conversations would be like in the afterlife. There’s no one else there, just these three or four recently deceased characters. They’re in a waiting room of some kind. It’s likely they’ve never met before. They’re all from different fields. They probably don’t have much in common, but they’re stuck in this room together. How do they pass the time?’
There was something there, alright. But it didn’t quite work. For a start, in order to maintain the topicality of the thing, I’d need to write the script very quickly, then recruit and record the voice actors, and so on. Presumably I’d need a different cast every week, unless I had access to a suitably diverse group of actor/impressionists. In the time it would take to make the thing, the topical element would be lost.
That wasn’t even the main problem. The main problem was, IT WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA. You can’t write a story about celebrities in the afterlife without making jokes. The premise is too silly to be turned into drama. So, it would have to be a comedy, which works for me. That’s my territory. The trouble is, how are you supposed to make jokes about people who’ve just died without being incredibly tasteless?
In principle, I’m not against the idea. There’s a place in this world for rude and offensive comedy. It’s just not my style. It doesn’t fit with anything I’ve done previously. Also, I don’t think I’d be very good at being controversial. My work became much better when I began to impose content restrictions. I don’t even swear anymore, not because I’m prudish, but because my work has been vastly improved as a result.
Then I thought, ‘Hang on. Making jokes about people who died last week is a terrible idea. How about people who died fifty years ago?’
Naturally, I gravitated towards the dead celebrity who’s been relentlessly (and mostly affectionately) parodied throughout my lifetime. Elvis Presley died when I was minus three. What sealed the deal was the discovery that Elvis and Groucho Marx died two days apart. I had my story.
At some point, I decided my version of Elvis wouldn’t be just another ‘Uh-huh-huh’ impersonation. I’d play this character straight, and make fun of the much-loved comedian instead. Hopefully, the fact that I love Groucho’s work comes across in Issue 1 of the comic.
You know, because it’s a comic, not a podcast. If the idea had been anything other than ‘dead celebrities in the afterlife,’ I’d have dismissed the idea of producing it as a comic, for the simple reason that I can’t draw to save my life. Using cut-out pictures seemed like a fun way round this problem.
I suspect that a lot of people will be put off by the visual style of The Green Room, which is deliberately messy and chaotic. I’ve chosen not to use a digital arts package. Paper, pen, scissors, Blu-Tac and a printer/scanner are my only tools. I do occasionally use digital manipulation to change the colour of something, or blur something out. Otherwise it’s good old fashioned collage. I don’t consider myself to be a great visual artist, but I’m doing my best with it. That description I used earlier, ‘interesting but flawed’ fits nicely.
The central character in the series is Hector (AKA Saki / HH Munro), a constant presence in The Green Room, while the rest come and go. If you read the stories chronologically as a series, it’s a story about a man who’s been trapped in a world he doesn’t quite understand. Part dream, part nightmare. As with all the characters in the series, my version of Hector isn’t intended to be an accurate portrayal of the real HH Munro. That in itself would be quite a challenge, given that relatively little is known about Munro’s personal life. While Hector tends not to dominate any of the stories, he’s a constant presence, and a guiding hand to the recently-departed. In Hector’s own words, he’s ‘like Saint Peter, but with far less certainty about the order of things.’
I’m not religious myself, and firmly believe there’s no such thing as life after death. However, I’m very much against the idea of telling people what to think, particularly when it comes to religion. The Green Room doesn’t openly contradict any of the major religious groups (apart from atheists, ironically). Strictly speaking, the characters in the series are simply waiting to enter the afterlife, whatever that may entail. Hector is, of course, mysteriously exempt from this process.
The one piece of serious self-criticism I’ll offer is this: The Green Room doesn’t start to get really good until Issue 3. The first two stories, ‘The Big Giraffe’ and ‘A Toy Balloon’ are designed to introduce Hector and the strange world he inhabits. They’re very light and fluffy, which I suspect makes them entertaining but rather forgettable. Issue 3 sees the series leap from a ‘three out of five’ to a solid five stars. It gets darker. It gets funnier. ‘Stalin Finds God’ is a story you won’t forget in a hurry.
There isn’t much I can do about this rather slow start to the series. I can’t cut out the first two issues and begin with the Stalin one. Hector’s character needs properly establishing. Also, there isn’t anything wrong with the first two issues, as such. The only problem – if it’s a problem at all – is that ‘Stalin Finds God’ is a much stronger story. But hey, that’s the way it goes. The series is supposed to get better as it goes along, right?
It occurs to me that there are very few works of fiction set
in the afterlife. There are plenty of
fantasy tales in which angels and demons interact with the mortal world (Neil
Gaiman’s Sandman series is a personal favourite). But stories set entirely in the
afterlife? There are short stories – Julian
Barnes’ The Dream, for example, or David Eagleman’s frankly ingenious Sum:
Forty Tales From The Afterlives. There’s
Steve Toltz’s brilliant novel, Here Goes Nothing, although in Toltz’s world, life
after death is pretty much the same as life before it. The only other long-form narrative I can
think of is the TV show, The Good Place, which I haven’t seen, and would rather
avoid now that I’m muscling in on its territory. My point is, if the afterlife is an
underexplored narrative concept, this gives me a great opportunity to do
something that genuinely hasn’t been done before.
There is one very obvious reason why so relatively few stories are set in the afterlife: the complete absence of jeopardy. The characters can’t be killed, because they’re already dead. They’ve already lost their friends, their families, their material possessions. They can’t come to any physical harm because they no longer have a body. Even the possibility of dying for a second time doesn’t seem a major threat. Expiring for good seems preferable to everlasting life (see that Julian Barnes story I mentioned).
Whether this is a problem or not depends on your point of view. Do characters need to face some kind of risk in order for the story to be compelling? Not in my opinion. But this is a very rare position to take within popular fiction. The vast majority of mainstream narratives, whether it’s prose fiction, film, theatre, TV or comics, are centred around characters who can be defined by what they have to lose, and what they have to gain. I’ve always been drawn towards characters who have opted out of this process. Lester in One Hundred is a character who faces no jeopardy whatsoever, but hopefully remains compelling. Similarly, Frank in the Ragbag series has very little to lose, and no real desire to gain anything. He often encounters dramatic or dangerous situations, but he rarely cares what the outcome will be. With The Green Room, I’ve taken this concept a step further, and placed the characters in the most low-stakes scenario imaginable. All they’re really doing is waiting for their name to be called. How can I expect readers to be interested?
Inevitably, some readers won’t be, but that’s OK. I’d be very surprised, and a little disappointed, if The Green Room becomes commercially successful. As the Ragbag readers / listeners will know, this is far from the first time I’ve written fictionalised versions of famous people. For me, fame is a very interesting subject. But I have no desire to be famous. None whatsoever. I suspect it would make me very unhappy. And to paraphrase Leonora Carrington’s self-portrait (see The Green Room Issue 4), I don’t want to be famous. I want to be happy. I’m pleased to report that at the time of writing these words, I am happy. Very few people know who I am, but who cares? I honestly don’t.
Frank Burton, August 2023