Seventh heaven: BBC7 and Doctor Who

An interview with producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell of Big Finish, makers of audio dramas revolving around cult sci-fi shows such as Doctor Who, Sapphire and Steel and the Tomorrow People. Written for The Stage, September 2005, this version (which originally appeared on The Stage website, from where it is still available) is an extended version of the one which appeared in print the same week.

While one can hardly have failed to notice the return to Saturday nights of TV series Doctor Who, what few may realise is that – TV programmes aside – the Doctor has been far from inactive. Since 1999 audio drama production company Big Finish has been selling full-scale dramas starring several of the original series Doctors, from Peter Davison onwards, to legions of fans.

“We tried to recapture the essence of Doctor Who 1981–1989, because those were our three Doctors,” says the dramas’ co-producer, Gary Russell. “What makes Doctor Who work on audio is that it’s a programme that’s always pushed the imagination, but within that it still had the confines of BBC television budgets, which let’s face it in the Eighties were ridiculously tight. You had a BBC that generally flooded everything with light – the idea of mood and atmosphere wasn’t a prerequisite for any drama, let alone Doctor Who. On audio, you have the ability to tell the good stories – and I’ve always thought the series has those – but without the same constraint. So many people say, ‘On audio you can have ten thousand Daleks swarming over the hill,’ but it’s not about that. If anything, on audio it’s about two people in a dark room being scared. There’s no visual stimulus at all, so everything has got to come out in the story and the acting. That’s far more challenging and far more exciting.”

Author Robert Shearman used the audio medium to great effect with his Dalek story, Jubilee. It was so well received that he was to rework it in 2004 for the TV series episode Dalek. “That was the most flattering thing in the world,” says Russell. “It was something I’d produced and I’d worked with Rob on the script. The setting is different, the characters are different, but the basics of the story – isolation, Dalek, companion getting attached to Dalek and not understanding the Doctor’s hatred of it, Doctor wants to kill and companion says no you can’t – that’s straight from Jubilee.”

In 2001, Big Finish started a series of adventures with Paul McGann, who had originally played the role in a one-off 1996 TV movie, with India Fisher as his companion, Charley Pollard. For Russell, working with a Doctor who had rarely been seen was an opportunity. “It allowed us to push the envelope, because there was more of a blank slate,” he says. Working with the more established Doctors, he explains, there is a beginning and endpoint. “You know that whatever you do has got to fit in. You can go along a certain path and branch out, but at the end of the day, whether it’s at the end of an individual story or thinking ahead to the future, you’ve got to get them to Androzani, you’ve got to get them to Vervoid land or whatever, or to San Francisco in 1999 [where McCoy’s character regenerated into McGann].

“With Paul, it was much more of a blank canvas. At that point, we had no idea that there would ever be a Ninth Doctor, therefore Paul was The Doctor. And that’s where we went – particularly with the first season [now playing on digital radio channel BBC7]. It’s much more freewheeling than we’d been with the other ranges. We could be a little bit scarier because we were able to say ‘you have no preconceived notions of where this person’s going or how it’s going to end’.”

The deal to broadcast the plays on BBC7 came about thanks to the persistence of the channel’s controller, Mary Kalemkerian. Co-producer Jason Haigh-Ellery says: “Mary was very keen from the start, but at the time BBC7’s budget was very limited. Our agreement was for audio release only; to release them for radio, we would need to get new contracts done with all the actors, producers – everyone – and we needed more money for that than they had. A couple of years later, after the huge success on television and with increased funding for BBC7 because it’s been doing so well, they were able to scrape together just about enough for us to do it.”

The strict half-hour time slots meant that some episodes had to be edited down, a task made easier by the decision not to use one story, Minuet in Hell, which contained some content not suitable for the 6:30pm timeslot. “We cut one little ongoing storyline, with Ramsey the Vortisaur, out completely because the payoff was in Minuet,” says Russell. “If you’ve got things like that in mind, it’s quite easy to take that as our kicking-off point for cutting stuff out and then you’re just tweaking here and there. It’s amazing how easy it is, actually. With the hindsight of five years, it’s quite easy to decide which scenes could benefit from a little bit of trimming. There are a couple of little bits of character that we had to lose, and we cut the pre-credits sequence completely out of Stones of Venice, which got that episode down to 29 minutes dead. But I loved that sequence, because it’s such a good bit of character work between the Doctor and Charley. Ironically enough, it was the very first thing we ever recorded with Paul McGann. They’re having the end of an adventure, and there’s lots of gunfire, and I just thought, for the first scene they ever had to do together, Paul and India just kicked off. As I was sitting there cutting it out I thought, awww, there’s a bit of history we’ve just cut out of the radio broadcast. In context though, it’s probably the best thing to do, because anyone listening dry would think, ‘what on earth is this all about?’”

The initial listening figures have been promising, and Haigh-Ellery is hopeful that the company’s association with BBC7 will continue. “We’re already discussing something for Christmas, but that’s a way off yet. I think I can see that the link-up with BBC7 could be a long term thing.”

Following the success of the television series, the BBC has started to exercise a greater degree of control over Big Finish’s Doctor Who output – a far cry from their early days, when BBC Worldwide exerted little editorial influence. When they started, Big Finish were not given any restrictions on what they could do with the franchise. “We said they did to the fans, though,” notes Russell with a smile. “We put our own guidelines down. It was taken for granted that we knew what we were doing and we weren’t going to muck around with the license. We weren’t going to regenerate the Doctor, he wasn’t suddenly going to have rampant sex, we weren’t going to have Arnie-style violence.”

Now, though, things have changed, with future scripts and storylines requiring approval from the Doctor Who television production office at BBC Wales in Cardiff – a process which the audio producers are happy with. “Every time I get a storyline or synopsis, I run it past Russell [T Davies, the TV series’ executive producer] and say, are you doing anything close to this? And if Russell says, ‘no, it’s a great idea’, then we go ahead and get a storyline, and then it goes officially through the production office, goes back to BBC Worldwide and goes round, and eventually they come back with, ‘yes, you can go ahead and commission this as a script’. Nine people check them.

“What I think is good is the positive stuff that always comes out of Cardiff. There’s never just a ‘yeah, alright, just do it’, it’s always, ‘it’s really good, and maybe you could do this, or you ought to watch out, maybe this bit doesn’t work’. There’s a real interest in what we’re doing. It’s very flattering that they care enough to do that.”

Occasionally the producers veto a story idea that might touch on an area that will also be covered on television. “A year ago I had a story that featured Queen Victoria, and Russell T Davies said, ‘Could you not, because I’m thinking of using her’, so we took her out. And then the season went out and I sat there wondering where she was. But then all the announcements for Season 2 were made, including Queen Victoria. Russell is working that far ahead. If Big Finish’s output didn’t matter to him, he wouldn’t care less if the Doctor had met Queen Victoria already. He’d just say, ‘yeah, but that was just an audio and this is real television.’ Whereas he didn’t want our Doctor meeting Queen Victoria because he was going to do their first meeting.”

Big Finish has since diversified into other series, including Doctor Who Unbound, a range of stories with alternative actors playing the Doctor. For the first time, listeners could hear how the Time Lord may have sounded had the role been taken up by David Warner, Sir Derek Jacobi or even Fast Show actress Arabella Weir. “When we were casting new Doctors, we could have just gone with the obvious people,” says Haigh-Ellery. “Instead, we sat down and said, we’re going to have a blank piece of paper and go absolute ‘top end’ and wait for them to say no. We actually went for some really big names – seriously big film stars. In fact we got very close to casting someone who had done three of the biggest films in history, because he was interested but couldn’t quite fit it in. He was doing a lot of films at the time, eight films in a row, and his agent said, ‘He’s very interested, but can he do it next year?’ I had to say no, so his agent turned us down.” Despite that refusal, Haigh-Ellery maintains that it was a useful exercise. “Even for a big name star, when you’re doing one or two days in the studio, it’s not going to change their life.”

The latest Big Finish project is a revival of the cult fantasy series Sapphire and Steel, albeit without its original stars, David McCallum and Joanna Lumley. “David is doing a series over in America, Navy NCIS, and although he was quite interested, he didn’t want to come back to the UK during his time off,” says Haigh-Ellery. “And then because David wasn’t going to be able to do it, Joanna was less inclined. So we had to set about looking for two new cast members.
”We’d just been working with David Warner on the Doctor Who Unbound series. He’s a fantastic actor and a great bloke, very easy to work with and very enthusiastic. David loved working in audio. It’s something he hasn’t done in something like 20 or 30 years, due to spending all his time over in LA doing Hollywood movies. So, when it came to cast Sapphire and Steel, his was a name that came forward immediately.”

Playing Sapphire is Susannah Harker, who has also worked with the company before, on Shada, a 2003 adaptation of a 1980 Douglas Adams script for television which never completed filming due to industrial action. “Susannah’s a big science fiction fan – that’s why she did Shada, because she’d always wanted to be a Doctor Who companion when she was growing up. And so she came on board very quickly and they’ve been doing fantastically well together. We’re doing five stories in the first season, and we’re just about to start commissioning a second, which is good news.”

The series will add to Big Finish’s roster of 190 audio dramas produced to date, working with 463 different actors. “It’s quite an impressive thing,” says Russell. “I can’t think of very many other companies that in only 6 or 7 years have used that many Equity members. I’m actually very proud of the fact that we’ve used so many actors and given so many people jobs.”

Approaching actors has never been a problem, he says, “although I worry that it might become a slight problem now because they may go, ‘I’d rather do it on TV’. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people that have actually said a definite ‘no, the money’s not good enough’ or ‘God no, I’m not doing Doctor Who’. Everyone else goes ‘oh yeah, that would be great fun’. It’s amazing how many people we talk to who say, ‘you worked with a mate of mine a couple of months ago and he told me how brilliant this was – that’s what swung it for me to come and do this.’ To get that word of mouth from the acting industry is phenomenal. We’ve worked hard to create it, we really have, and it has paid dividends.”

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.