AngelThrow Off Your Anoraks and Rejoice
By John Harlow
Sunday 11 January 2004
Throw Off Your Anoraks and Rejoice
Angel and Spike are back from the dead - again. And it’s all thanks to the weird science of Joss Whedon.
By John Harlow
The letter, pinned to a notice board, is well typed and politely phrased, but barking mad. "Did you notice," asks the writer, "an intruder materialise in your office the other night? I was practising my teleporting skills at home in Folkestone, and I think I may have ended up in your office in Los Angeles by accident. Sorry." Welcome to the off-kilter world of Joss Whedon, master of the Californian twilight zone.
For the past decade, Whedon - creator of the slyly humane satire that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, about Buffy’s vampiric ex-boyfriend, who has a soul of gold and a dodgy Galway accent - has been the unchallenged monarch of television’s bloodsucking hordes (or, in Hollywood PC terms, undead Americans). Questions of super-natural nomenclature are taken seriously in Los Angeles, and not just by teenage goths. The Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where fundamentalist scholars regard mental illness as satanic possession, is drawing up a map of demonic activity in LA - and Fox Studios, where Whedon has his office, is splat in the middle. Maybe they are on to something? The 39-year-old writer looks too young and innocent to be true. As he steps into the shady domain of his production company, Mutant Enemy, and taps a 6ft plaster demon on its knobbly head, you cannot but think: what if Auberon Waughand Renée Zellweger had had an auburn-haired surfer love child? He would have looked uncannily like Mr Whedon.
Dressed in cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the 1940s starlet Joan Leslie - big bonus points for obscurity there, Joss - the press-shy writer is taken aback by my materialisation in his sanctum. He has not sat down with a reporter for a year. The trap has been set by his cor- porate pals, because, frankly, since Buffy dusted her final "big, bad" last summer, the scene has not been rockin’ in the Jossiverse.
Buffy has gone, largely because Sarah Michelle Gellar, known on set as "the Duchess", wanted to spread her artistic wings - and ended up filming Scooby-Doo 2. A cartoon Buffy has failed to get off the drawing board: "Too expensive, allegedly," Whedon says tightly. His next venture, Firefly, a futuristic space saga, was sucked into a black hole after 13 episodes, criticised as dull. It may come back as a feature film with the original cast. "
That is a non-negotiable," he says firmly. "Firefly was the best experience I ever had in television, and it was killed before it could walk." Even Angel faced deep scrutiny in the mass audience shrinkage that has unnerved the TV suits over the past year.
Whedon, son and grandson of influential scriptwriters, whose chipper days (a shared Oscar nomination for writing Toy Story) have far outnumbered the lame (Alien: Resurrection, anybody?), was suddenly facing membership of the Hollywood hellfire club, where writers such as The X Files’ Chris Carter and Ally McBeal’s David E. Kelley are paired up with monkeys typing Shakespeare until they create another hit.
So, Whedon is a little on edge. As he talks, he is stabbing himself with a retractable Buffy stake and his knee is bobbing. Finally, unable to sit still, he picks up my minidisc recorder and weaves around the furniture. It works - at home, later, the machine spits out a few words, groans and melts down. Luckily, old-fashioned shorthand is less vulnerable to demonic influence.
Whedon’s battle to save Angel, which starts its fifth series on British television this week, has left its bruises. Last spring, studio bosses told him to cut costs or shut up shop. "I had too many stories left to tell. The series was not the pot of gold everyone might think: at least, that’s what the suits told me. It was painful dealing with those people. But we rescued Angel from the grave, again, at least for this series and maybe the next."
While Kelley sacked high-priced stars to save The Practice, Whedon expanded his cast, sharpened the writing and pushed Angel higher in the ratings than ever before. Key to its overhaul is the resurrection of the goodish vamp Spike, once a Victorian aesthete known as William the Bloody (thanks to his awful poetry), who had apparently sacrificed himself in the final, big-budget Buffy. Now Spike is back, still played with British cockiness and snarling wit by the Californian James Marsters. Think Karen out of Will & Grace with better cheekbones and slinkier moves. "The studio wanted him: it was me they were not sure about," says Whedon, half joking.
Fans are happy, too - last November, they raised £5,000 for a full-page advert in Variety, thanking Whedon for saving Spike. Let’s be frank. Obsessive fans - from Russian tweenies to scholars who organised a congress on slayerdom at Oxford - know that the Angel series has never quite equalled the intensity, tenderness and optimism that lay at Buffy’s ensemble heart. Lines such as "What is your childhood trauma?" and "I am love’s bitch, but at least I am man enough to admit it" have entered dictionaries of pop-culture quotations. Angel has not yet reached the heights of Buffy episodes such as The Body, which dealt with the death of the slayer’s mother, or the almost-silent Hush, or the episode staged as a musical, called Once More, With Feeling. But, suddenly, with Angel’s Anakin Skywalker whiner of a son written out, it is almost as wickedly funny as Buffy at its peak. It gives us hope again.
Angel has taken over an evil law office that runs a "dial-a- sacrifice" phone service: "Press one for goat, two for pets or loved ones." He seems a little bit less scowly, despite Spike floating around, goading him and trying to have sex with the gorgeously dumb vamp Harmony. She is played by Mercedes McNab, whose dad, Bob, was an Arsenal full-back when they won the FA Cup in 1971. But that is another tale from the twilight zone.
Whedon is an unashamed anglophile. He named his first-born Arden, after the Shakespearian forest. The scripted but unfilmed opening line of the film version of Buffy was pure Python - a medieval knight chatting up a wench: "Some plague we are having, eh?" Even more tellingly, Whedon loves Danger Mouse. His father, Tom, who wrote The Golden Girls, introduced Joss to England in the 1980s. "I was at Winchester College for three years. I nearly took my A-levels there. It was all British authors, except for Emily Dickinson, but I loved it. I named Rupert Giles (his pukka librarian, played by Anthony Head) after Mrs Giles, our matron, a rare point of comfort in a cruel world," he says, mocking his own nostalgia.
"My public-school education was not wasted. For instance, I can write British slang for Giles or Spike, like `wanker’, or worse, which nobody here understands.
I can get away with it." He can mock the Brits, too - Spike to Giles: "Bet your whole life flashed before your eyes, didn’t it? `Cup of tea, cup of tea, nearly had a shag, cup of tea.’"
What about this talk of a Giles spin-off, set in Britain? "I still want to do something with Tony Head, even if it’s only a one-off ghost story for the BBC. There is a clamminess there I look forward to. But I would not do an English school story - Rowling has the lock on that."
Are there any lingering regrets about Buffy? "More music. There were some musicians I wanted to get onto the show. I wrote Lovebomb after hearing Britney Spears wanted to come on, but, of course, it never happened. But we did get Aimee Mann, and when I met her, I said: `Oh, God, oh, God, I am such a fan - and now I have to finish this sentence.’"
Will Whedon ever break away from the world of ghosties and ghouls? "Why should I? You can make big points without getting pompous, such as showing how a teenage girl can be strong without being bad. I almost wish we had never been nominated for an Emmy for Hush, stayed underground and away from award shows. I am genre, through and through, and this is where I shall remain."
At least until he is teleported to Folkestone, anyway.
The new series of Angel starts on Sky One on Tuesday