Kieran Bullock is a Melbourne based actor, write and director and founder of Social Club Productions. Together with Jack Richardson, the pair created Station J: An Mi6 Comedy, a play that started out as a lock-down writing project, but six drafts and several hundred cups of tea later morphed into a fully fledge play, which is set to premiere at Melbourne’s Motley Bauhaus Black Box Theatre in September 2023.
Set in the James Bond universe, Station J is a one-act office comedy taking place in a radio communication station in 1960s Jamaica, where three humble public servants of the British Secret Service spend their days wading through petty office politics and vast quantities of filing. What promised to be a quiet posting in an idyllic, far-flung corner of the world is thrown into disarray when one of the fabled Double-O agents walks through the door. It becomes clear that the final act of this spy thriller is about to unfold on Station J’s doorstep, and it will be up to them to save the world!
Station J started out as a lock-down writing project. Where did the idea come from? Were you looking to create something set in the world of James Bond?
We were very taken with one of early scenes of Dr No, after the British agent Strangways is murdered, where a large room full of big manned radios at Mi6 was shown. It occurred to us that there must be hundreds of people working furiously behind the scenes of Mi6 to make sure the place functions smoothly. Given the Bond series rarely features anyone other than the big-hitters – secret agents, quartermasters, and such – we thought it would be interesting to tell a story about those a little further down the pecking order. The initial spark was the idea of crossing the excitement and thrill of spycraft with the mundanity of an ordinary office.
Talk us through the process of creating the play. What challenges (or advantages) did you face creating the play via Zoom? Did the play evolve once you were able to work face-to-face again?
We were lucky enough to slalom between lockdowns, with our first big meeting a face-to-face one. There we thrashed out the plot and the story beats, and laid out the narrative as we saw it at the time. We settled on a one-act play – where the action takes place in one continuous scene without interruption – but divided the play into eight scenes for the purposes of writing. For the first draft we simply split the scenes evenly and wrote away. With the majority of the actual writing taking place separately having meetings by Zoom didn’t really affect us too much. But there was an excitement in the air when we were freed from our shackles and were free to meet again! By that time the play was a few drafts deep and we were keen to get some actors in to read it through, which was a cracking afternoon.
Were there any particular James Bond novels or films that you leant on for inspiration?
Dr No (both film and book) is very much at the heart of this play, similarly taking place in Kingston Jamaica and conceivably a year or two after the events of Dr No. We re-imagine Strangway’s home office (where he was – spoilers – murdered) as a larger stand-alone office, made to measure, overlooking Kingston Harbour and kitted out with all the mod cons of the time. There is a sprinkling of Thunderball in the play too – a stolen explosive device goes missing and forms the catalyst for a thrilling finale!
Has the process of creating Station J changed your views of Ian Fleming’s work and/or the spy genre in general? Was there anything new or surprising you learned from immersing yourselves in the genre?
We’ve both been huge Bond fans for many years so nothing we discovered during the research process came as too much of a surprise. If anything the main point we both agree is how sad it was he died as such a young age, as it feels like he was just getting started in terms of exploring the world that he had made for Bond. With today’s trend of cinematic universes and expansive world building its a shame that Fleming himself was only able to scratch the surface of what he had created. Had he lived another twenty years who knows how many more great stories he would have written, and indeed how much of Mi6 beyond James Bond he may have explored. In that sense we consider our play to be a love letter to Fleming’s world, albeit with characters he may never thought to have invent.
Station J, a farcical comedy with a strong satirical edge, also parodies recurrent themes in the James Bond novels, including hyper masculinity, casual misogyny, and exploitation of political scenarios. What was it about those themes that you wanted to explore, and why in a comedy format?
I think it’s no secret to say that the portrayal of women in the books and early films leaves a lot to be desired by modern standards. Given the sheer number of strong, creative, and talented women we’ve been lucky to work with over the years there was never a question that this story deserved female characters worthy of the actors we were working with. Despite the obvious feminist overtones we also wanted characters that were incredibly fun, and writing a female Double-O agent with Connery’s swagger and Moore’s cheek was immensely enjoyable experience. This show was always going to be a comedy – that is what we write – but sometimes comedy can be just the thing to cast a lens over bigger issues.
Three humble public servants of the British Secret Service are tasked with saving the world. How does their humble office job help them save the day? And should office workers be taking note in case they’re unexpectedly called upon to save the world?
The idea we initially wanted to play with was crossing the mundanity of day-to-day office life, and in first sketches of the story we liked the idea that these characters would be useless in a crisis, thus leading to the failure of the inbound Double-O agent to actually save the world. But it became clear that we needed our characters to rise to the top in the crisis, rather than be cowed by it. After all, the good guys must win! We take moments to establish that despite the petty bickering and seemingly daft office politics, they are all trained members of Mi6 with various areas of expertise. And when it comes to the crunch they all have their part to play, hopefully with aplomb! My advice to office workers is know your role, keep your skills sharp, and never refuse a cup of tea!
The play is set in a radio communication station in Jamaica in the 1960s. How did you go about creating visually engaging set and costume designs that reflect both the era and the James Bond universe?
The theatre, Melbourne’s Motley Bauhaus, has a beautiful brick backdrop that really suits the show’s 1960s aesthetic well. To that we&’ve added period-appropriate furniture – desks, chairs, rotary dial phones, typewriters – as well as a specially-designed code-cracking board. Costumes are all simple, but of the era. The boss is in tweed, the spies are in tuxedos and bow ties. Tea is poured from the finest bone china.
Before commencing work on the play, were you a fan of the James Bond novels and/or films? Which are you favourite(s)? Why?
A very controversial and tough question indeed! I think the early Connery films have stood the test of time because they stuck so fastidiously to their reference material. Once we started straying from the Fleming novels (albeit because they started running out of them) I think the quality really suffers. From Russia With Love is my go-to Connery, although Thunderball is such a cracking all-round film. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service gets an unfair rap in my opinion, as its story is one of the best. Swap Lazenby for Connery (or just have given George a little more training) and you’d have an all-time great. I also have a soft spot for The Man With the Golden Gun, which is a few bafflingly awful decisions away (slide-whistle barrel roll??) from being perfect. Christopher Lee is magnificent. From the modern era Casino Royale is brilliant, but I loved the dark edge of Skyfall and that just gets the nod from me as the best Craig film.
What did you set out to achieve with this play, and what do you hope audiences take away from it?
We want people to come along and enjoy the same sort of thrills and laughs that you might get in an older Bond film, maybe with more laughs and less thrills. In this play we have tried to distil the ethos of an original Bond story into an hour-long performance, with all its various double-crosses, plot twists, and sneaky gadgetry. Ultimately, Bond fans know this story already – a villainous organisation is threatening to blow up the world, and it’s up to MI6 to stop it! We think Bond fans will feel like this is an authentic little slice of old school Bond, and those that aren’t as across the Bond series should also have a cracking good time!
Are there any plans to tour the show beyond Melbourne?
Touring is always on the cards with a show of this nature. We’re currently looking into taking the show to next year’s Adelaide Fringe, and hopefully many more stops in 2024. The world is not enough!