TV

Anthony Head: "These people are locked away, out of sight, out of mind"

Buffy’s mentor used to slay vampires but Anthony Head's new play is a much more serious matter of life and death

Hello. How are you?

I’m good. I just want to say I’m a huge fan of The Big Issue. I live just outside Bath so whenever I go into town I always buy it.

Hopefully you’ll be buying this one since you’re in it! But at the moment you’re not in Bath but preparing a play in London. What does the ‘Ticking’ of its title refer to?

Ticking time going by. It’s about the meeting of a dysfunctional family – two parents have come to see their only son who is on death row in an Asian prison. It’s almost like a thriller because we’re waiting for a reprieve on what could be his last night. So that throws up lots of emotions. He is asking questions about us, our relationship, his upbringing… It’s funny.

It’s funny?

In places. There’s a gallows sense of humour.

Is it a play that goes behind the headlines of how the story would be reported?

The life that they lead is really extreme. If they do get a visit from someone, it’s through a grill across a four or five-foot gap so everyone’s shouting to be heard over the din of other prisoners and visitors.

Did you research real-life cases?

I watched a few documentaries about Europeans in Thai jails. Most are in for drugs offences but as they are hauled into a room at customs, on the wall is a sign saying this can be punishable by death. They all have that hanging over their heads. If they get shipped home, most European governments commute the sentence to something like five or six years but the British government commutes it to something like 15. We don’t hear about these people locked away, out of sight, out of mind.

Do all the negative news stories in the world explain why escapist fantasy shows (you seem to be in most of them) are popular on TV?

It’s not just science fiction shows I do. I’ve done all sorts. I wouldn’t call Little Britain sci-fi or The Iron Lady.

We just wish The Iron Lady was science fiction.

Ha! I’ve been doing a show called Dominion, which just heightens all the questions one asks. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where man is struggling against angels. Virtually every religion has winged deities as a stalwart part of the religion, and they’re usually avenging. I think people identify with that.

Is all science fiction a commentary on the world?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an allegorical tale, what everyone goes through at school – the pain of finding out who you are, your place in the world. Joss Whedon was an absolute genius. His writing was so delicate and clever and brilliant at turning emotions on a dial.

Is Buffy responsible for making fantasy shows and geek culture cool?

Buffy was definitely a turning point. Joss gave the genre permission to experiment and made it palpable drama. As far as geeks being cool, I think that’s happened over the years. A lot of producers in Hollywood – the Steven Spielbergs and George Lucases – are relatively geeky. Thanks to the likes of Steve Jobs we now live in an IT-driven world and it’s changed the focus of how things are done and who’s cool and who’s not. It has radically changed the way we live.

Ticking is playing at Trafalgar Studios, London, October 6–November 7

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