BBC Interviews Jim Sangster, author of 24: The Unofficial Guide

24 The Unofficial Guide by Jim Sangster
24 The Unofficial Guide by Jim Sangster

Jim Sangster, author of 24: The Unofficial Guide, joined us on Sunday 4 August 2002 to answer a selection of your questions. Find out what Jim had to say about his book, what he’s discovered about the making of 24, and which character he’d get along with most…

Why did you choose to write a book on 24?
I didn’t choose! I was approached! I’ve done a few other books in the past. The publishers were looking for someone to do a book on 24, so it was as simple as that. As soon as they offered, I nearly bit their hand off to accept because it’s a really good show. 24 had already started on BBC TWO when I was approached, so I had to get some videos from a friend. I then just watched all the episodes up to that point, from midnight to 6:00 A.M., in one weekend. I managed to get the tapes from the US as soon as they finished over there, and I had to watch the tapes and write the chapters at the same time. So I finished writing it about a month and a half ago.

What do you know about the second series?
I know very little about it. I’ve heard rumours that it’ll be in the same format – 24 episodes, one hour per episode, one day in the life of the characters. Not everyone will be back! But I suspect Jack will be. That’s all I know!

Is your book a novel or an actual guide to the series?
The book’s a guide – it goes from the first episode to the last. It gives a summary of each episode, things to look out for, bits of trivia, and background information on both the show and things like the American electoral process, the nature of drama. Anything that came to mind. Rather than reviewing the episode, I thought of 24 different topics – one for each episode. So for the first episode, I looked at the effect of September 11 on American TV. For example, the first episode had to be re-edited slightly as a consequence of the terrorist attacks.

How long did it take you to compile all the information needed for the book?
It was a terrifyingly short deadline to do the book. I basically had six weeks, and in the last week it was almost like what Jack’s been through because I spent very, very long nights writing! And I should point out I have a day job too! So it was a very tight deadline.

What was the motivation for choosing the windowed format of the series?
I believe the split screen was down to the director of the first few episodes – Stephen Hopkins. He realised there would be a lot of telephone calls, and the best way to do that in real time is to have both people on screen. They did it in old Doris Day movies in the 1950s, so they realised a very good way to show simultaneous events would be to divide up the screen. It was purely practical. After they filmed the pilot episode, they realised it was a very strong style so kept it in.

Is it true there are three different endings and two more series?
To my knowledge, they’ve only just started working on the second series. I think they’d be foolish not to make a third but that hasn’t been confirmed. When it was getting close to the end of the show in America I heard a lot of different rumours – some magazines were saying there were two different endings, some said there were as many as six. Personally, I can’t see how they could have ended the show any other way without saying how they did it. Everything leads to a very strong conclusion.

If you could rewrite any part of the storyline, what would it be?
I’m not sure because a lot of the things that at the time I thought were silly made sense afterwards. I thought the amnesia plotline with Teri was hysterically funny. But it made sense at the end and I think that was down to Leslie Hope – she’s a wonderful actress. I would have kept hold of Alberta Green, or made more of Mandy, the assassin from the first few episodes.

How much flexibility did you have to profile the characters? Did you choose to portray Palmer as such a virtuous person? Or was it required propaganda after, as you said, the mood after September 11?
What’s difficult about a show like 24 is the characters aren’t the same in episode one as they are in the end. Sherry Palmer, for example, starts off as the perfect mother, the perfect wife. Now, as everyone’s just seen – she’s a monster! She’s absolutely self-motivated and what I was very careful of was to not give away anything before it happens in the episode. For example, that Alan York is not who he pretends to be, because I think that surprise, when you find out that he’s somebody else, is the biggest and best surprise of the early part of the series.

Why is the clock actually in 12 hour format when the programme is called 24!!??
I have no idea why the clock is in 12 hour format when it’s called 24! I suspect it might be to do with the fact that they only had the first 13 episodes commissioned. Or maybe it’s so you don’t have the first episode being 0000 to 0100.

Jim, when the series began, what scene immediately hooked you in, made you a fan of it and convinced you to write the book?
It was the 747 exploding that hooked me in. Up to that point we’d just seen Mandy as a drunken flirtatious woman who doesn’t seem to be important in any way. Suddenly she sobers up and orchestrates this insane, to the second, plan. So when she jumps out of the plane and it explodes, I was just sitting there with my jaw open. One of the best things they did was build her up as a character and then let her walk away, just like they did with Jonathan, the assassin.

Was everything in the whole 24 episodes set in stone at the beginning, or have the producers made some stuff up as they went along?
Everything up to episode 13, which is when Jack saves his family from the compound, was plotted with a very loose idea of what would follow. I can’t say anymore because the penultimate episode has the greatest cliffhanger! All I can say is that cliffhanger wasn’t planned from the beginning.

How long did it take to film 24, considering in the morning there’s only so long before the light changes?
It was approximately two episodes every 16 days, so that way they could use all of the scenes that were going to be shot in one set from those two episodes at the same time. So you might get a character like Palmer who has to record all his scenes from the suite in one go and then go back in the next recording block and film all of his scenes in the garage or restaurant or wherever. As you rightly point out, the early episodes were recorded in the summer when they had less night-time, when they needed more night-time for the series. Then the later episodes were filmed in the winter when they needed bright daylight!

People sometimes argue over which is better, the “Gaines hours” or the “Drazen hours” Which is it that your prefer and why?
I prefer the later episodes, purely because I think, by then, they know what they’re doing. They know they have to close certain storylines and explain others. It’s a lot more satisfying to finally learn what’s going on, especially when we discover who plays Victor Drazen (Dennis Hopper). I thought that was another great moment in the show.

In your opinion, what are the political ideologies within 24?
In tonight’s episode, I think it’s finally revealed that David Palmer is a Democrat rather than a Republican. It’s been hinted at but I don’t think it was actually stated before. What I think is wonderful about 24 and The West Wing is that the ideal President in fiction is smart, liberal and intelligent – really, really clever, whereas the reality is possibly somewhat different. In Britain, when we have a fictional Prime Minister, such as Jim Thacker in Yes, Prime Minister, he was a fool. So I think it shows that in Britain we’re quite happy to have a fool as our Prime Minister, whereas in America they’d like their leader to be an honourable, intelligent man.

Were you worried that the introduction of star guests would disrupt the flow of the show?
That’s a good question. Apart from Kiefer, they needed the hero to be recognisable, so that we identify with him straight away. Whereas the other actors might be familiar from different roles, but not to the extent where we feel we can trust them. So in the same way, casting Dennis Hopper as the villain, having seen him in Blue Velvet or Speed, we can trust him to be the villain. We can trust him to do the job – to be the most evil man on the show! It’s the sort of shorthand that when it’s done well can be just the most brilliant thing on television.

Shouldn’t the creators of the show have tried to create a higher sense of reality, by hiring real Yugoslavian or Russian actors (there are plenty of both in the US)?
I don’t know that reality is all that important. I think it’s a bit of a confidence trick, a con, because they use all this technology that does exist, and they use real locations but none of it is true. Plus, I certainly got a lot of pleasure out of Dennis Hopper’s very bad accent! I just think it adds to the drama of it. It stops you getting too upset when things get nasty.

What do you think is the least believable thing that has happened in the series?
The attack on the plane might have been unbelievable had it not been for September 11. After then, I think we could have believed anything. I’d say the most unbelievable thing in 24 is that Teri would park her car on the edge of a cliff. How stupid is she?!

What was the American response to 24 initially. I mean, there must have been some swift editing in lieu of Sept 11?
24 started airing in the US in November, so although it was two months after September 11, they had to be very careful. With the initial attack on the plane, in the original edit we saw the plane blow up, whereas on the transmitted version, we saw the countdown on the bomb, then we saw Mandy free-falling through the air with little bits of burning debris flying past her. I think, without spoiling what happens in the next few weeks, a lot of people needed to see the heroes win. There are certain parts over the whole run of the show where American viewers complained because they didn’t think the heroes were winning enough.

Do you feel that using this format in Britain would work?
I don’t necessarily think we should try and copy what’s gone on in America over here. To some extent, Spooks was along those lines but it still managed to be different. They’ve done real time before on British television, (eg: EastEnders) and it works very well, but I really don’t think you could make 24 in London because, for example, the gridlock wouldn’t allow you to get from anywhere in an hour!

Do you feel the show still retains its tension on watching an episode many times? Some people consider it a show without any rewatch value, but I’d certainly disagree there!
24 does have rewatch value. There’s so much going on at any one time that sometimes you need to watch it two or three times to work out everything. Believe me, when you’ve watched the last episode, you WILL rewatch it! If only to see how that could happen.

What nationality of villain do you think would have been used if the Kosovo war had never happened?
They would probably still have used Russians for the villains had the Yugoslav conflict not happened. In America, they’ve ALWAYS used the Russians, even if they’ve called them Martians or Klingons.

Which character do you think you would get on most with, and get on least well?
I think I’d be best friends with Nina, and I would loathe Sherry!

Source BBC