Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Nicholas Briggs Interview
Nicholas Briggs is by far the most prolific writer, director, actor and musician of the Big Finish ongoing saga. He has written a large handful of stories that often top the ‘favourite story’ polls and his atmospheric scores can be heard in such diverse locations as Dalek infested futures, alien worlds and never Neverlands. His style of direction is hard hitting and beautifully atmospheric, his stories always have a strong visual sense (a hard feeling to pull off on audio) and he drives some compelling and convincing performances from his actors from the regulars right down to the extras. It is little wonder that with the departure of Gary Russell, Nick took up the reins of Big Finish and has continued the success of the Doctor Who audio drama with similar aplomb.
Nick thank you very much for your time.
Tell me something about the effect Doctor Who had on your formative years. Which was your favourite medium to enjoy the show; the Target novels, the comic strips or the TV show itself? Do you have any favourite stories in the classic series that really made you want to work on this show when you were older?
Nick: Doctor Who was a huge thing in my childhood. Although I went through phases of loving Tarzan, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, oh, and Star Trek… I always returned to Doctor Who. It always seemed to be there. That was the one programme that my parents would not dare to deny me, no matter how much they wanted to. I believe I deserted it once – round about the time of The Space Pirates – because Joe 90 started in our region, and it had been heavily plugged in a school magazine that I’d read, but I was back in time to watch, aghast, as Patrick Troughton’s Doctor spiralled off into the Vortex. By far, my favourite medium was the TV show, naturally.
But I would say that the comic strips were almost as important to me. I certainly regarded them as proper Doctor Who, which seems daft looking back at the format deviations in TV Comic, Countdown and TV Action – but I loved those stories. I’m not sure there were any favourite stories that made me actually want to work on the show; but there were loads that made me interested in telling stories, creating stories… and I would do that by writing or getting out my super 8mm camera and filming Dalek toys and spaceship models or recording audio drama in which, rather sadly, I played all the parts!
Can you tell us something about the formation of Big Finish and its enduring legacy and continuation to produce high quality audio dramas for over a decade?
Nick: Jason Haigh-Ellery had formed Big Finish some years before we started doing the Doctor Who audios. It’s named after Jason’s favourite episode of that Steve Moffatt kids’ series Press Gang. But when he and Gary started talking about getting a licence to do Doctor Who audios for the BBC, I think Jason thought that Big Finish would be the natural home of such productions. Gary and I had always talked about how we wanted to do Doctor Who audio drama professionally, after we’d both spent years doing it for fun with Audio Visuals – a group of fans producing top quality Doctor Who audios for no profit. After a false start in 1996, when the BBC turned us down, we got underway in 1999, and I was involved right from the start. As the years passed, I think we developed a great expertise at what we do, and my aim, when I took over as exec producer, was and is to continue learning. We listen hard to our audience and we listen hard to our hearts too. And between the input of both those sources, we hope we provide great entertainment for our audience. My ambition for Big Finish is for it to expand into other areas and one day for it to become a major entertainment platform. I’m just starting to figure out how to do that. But Doctor Who is unique for us and we have a hugely loyal following, which we hope will stay with us and cement our popularity, even long after I’ve moved on from Doctor Who… which I don’t anticipate doing any time soon, by the way!
Were you the natural successor to Gary Russell or was this strongly discussed at the time?
Nick: I think many people regarded me as the natural successor, and there were times when Gary Russell felt keenly that I wanted his job. But I never did. I always thought it was a nightmare of a job. Too all-consuming, leaving you no time to live your life or do other things. I thrive on variety and hate repetition. But when Gary had been offered the job in Cardiff, I was having a redefining moment in my life. My father had recently died, and that kind of shock really makes you start to assess your progress and perhaps strive for a stronger identity and purpose. I knew I had the energy and ideas to run Big Finish, but I also knew that doing the job exactly the way Gary did it would crush me. So I took some proposals to Jason Haigh-Ellery and we talked it over and came up with the plan of having a line producer, who would do all the day-to-day running, leaving me free to be in a more creative, policy-making role. Of course, as it’s turned out, I more or less turn my hand to anything that needs doing – including emptying the bins! – but having the line producer, a script editor and a producers’ assistant has left me in a really rewarding, creative position. I still have to pull the odd all-nighter and there are still massive pressures, but probably nothing like the pressure that Gary endured, because I’ve got a team. I love being part of a team! And luckily, we have all the right people doing the right jobs, which doesn’t often happen in life, but it makes things a hell of a lot easier.
Can you take us through the construction of a typical audio drama, starting with the script conception right the way through to the finished product on the shelf?
Nick: Okay… Alan Barnes, script editor, and I will chat through what we want to do for the coming year. We will talk about the kind of stories we want to tell, how we want to develop any ongoing story arcs, companion stories etc. Then we will hone that down to specific story types… writing simplistic notes like, ‘something in outer space, maybe involving a new monster’ or ‘something supernatural’ or ‘a police procedural with aliens’. Then we start to fit writers to the story ideas. In the process, we nab any commissions for ourselves that we think either of us suit. Then we ask those writers to pitch a few ideas. During that process, we work out with them what it is they and we actually want to do.
Once we’ve decided on a storyline from a particular writer, we commission a full storyline. We may discuss and edit that with the writer. When we’re happy with it, we send a shorter, concise version to the BBC, for their approval. After any alterations have been made in line with BBC input, we commission the script. Our usual way of working is to go to a second draft from the writer, and if it still needs major fixing after that, either Alan or I do it, depending on who is most busy or free at the time. If the fixes needed after a second draft are not major, we will sometimes ask the writer to do another draft, but we don’t believe in working them to death on draft after draft. The thing can die on the page when that happens, and you end up with something incomprehensible, or horribly fake. When the first draft is in, we often involve the director, who will often give notes for the second draft. Then when the script is signed off by me or Alan, the director starts casting. The recording dates will have been predetermined by David Richardson, who will have provisionally booked the Doctor and companion several months in advance. Basically, for publicity reasons, we need to be sure that a production is definitely happening six months before release, and ideally, it needs to have been recorded six months before release, so that we can promote it by naming any notable guest stars.
Then the play is recorded over two days in the studio. The recordings are then sent to the sound designer and composer, and the director works hard with them over the next couple of months. I will also listen to the sound design and music stages and give notes on those. Files are flying around the internet all the time. How we managed before all that, I shall never know. We had to wait for the post to arrive! Then the finished production goes to the BBC for compliance listening, where they may point out any contentious or worrying issues in the content of the production. So far, we have self-policed and have yet to be asked to remove anything at the BBC’s request. I’ve had a couple of things removed from stories at my request. But basically, we are very keen for the BBC to know we’re a safe pair of hands.
Then, after that, the masters are sent to the pressing plant, along with the files for the covers to be printed, which will have been designed during the sound designing stage. The booklet/cover designer will have read a script and listened to any bits of finished production on the way. When the CDs are delivered to our mailing unit, the mp3 files are uploaded to our website for download purchases. So the downloads go up as the CDs start being mailed out.
You wrote the very first story for the main range, The Sirens of Time. Is it true that this raised a few eyebrows at the time?
Nick: Well, I’ve told this story many times, so I won’t go over it again here. But suffice it to say, that was the moment I discovered that there was a whole universe of Doctor Who fans-turned-writers – just like me – who also wanted to do the job! Quite a wake-up call.
What was the feeling like having three Doctor’s in the studio performing original Doctor Who that you had written?
Nick: It was amazing. I took it dreadfully seriously. Probably far too seriously. But it was a like a dream come true. What could be better than writing a bit of Doctor Who history and getting the proper Doctors to act it out for you? I think I was a bit stern with the Doctors, because they were larking about and having a good time. But they were brilliant and I was living the dream. Looking back, I suppose I wish I could have lightened up a bit. But we’d never quite done that kind of production before, and I was terrified I’d run out of time. That seems so long ago now. We’ve all learnt so much.
Was there a driving passion to tell the Dalekmania-inspired tale, The Mutant Phase?
Nick: I don’t know what you mean by Dalekmania-inspired tale. But it was an Audio Visuals title. The basis of the story was similar, but it was pretty different in the telling. It was really great to do. Lots of fun.
Do you find Nyssa works as a much stronger character in the Big Finish adventures without her contemporaries from the TV series edging her into the background?
Nick: We had no choice but to do Nyssa on her own, because Janet Fielding didn’t want to do the audio plays then. But Sarah is lovely. We’re about the same age, and we met doing a Myth Makers interview… so there’s a sort of affinity there. And she’s great to work with. I’ve always found her a very easy person to get on with. I have a bit of a soft spot for our Sarah. And I think the character works beautifully with Peter’s Doctor. Peter is also very supportive of Sarah and they work nicely together. Now that Janet has made it possible for us to do Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough, the dynamic is different… but we’ll always return to the Nyssa-only stories too.
Can you tell us something about the long running saga of Sword of Orion in its various forms?
Nick: I don’t know that it’s a saga. It started life as an Audio Visuals amateur release, with me as the Doctor. Gary and Jason were big fans of it. It had been just about the most popular Audio Visuals play we’d done. And my adaptation of it for Big Finish didn’t change it that much. Interestingly, it attracted a lot of criticism on its release, but it’s still one of the biggest sellers. I recut it for Radio 7, and I think that edit is better… tighter.
Was Embrace the Darkness meant as a purely visual piece with lots of chances to show of the astonishing sound range of Big Finish?
Nick: I think you should always try to be visual with audio. But I also exploited the advantages of audio with this one. There were several ghastly bits in it that we couldn’t have done visually without being a full-blown horror movie. But on audio, it was just… chilling.
I think it came out very well, and I’m particularly proud of the episode one climax.
How difficult was it to construct Creatures of Beauty? Where you happy with the finished product?
Nick: Creatures of Beauty rattled around in my brain for ages and ages. I think Gary was wondering whether I’d ever get on with it and just write the flipping thing. Then suddenly, it all came pouring out. I was very preoccupied at that time with the notion that we all knew Doctor Who back-to-front. The format was sooo familiar to us. We always knew how a story would end. So I just wrote it in completely the wrong order, just to find a new way to make it interesting. I wanted the audience to focus on how the story happened, rather than just being shocked by ‘what happened next’, because, at that time, I felt we already knew ‘what happened next’, so why bother to pull that old trick? I think I was being a bit too purist.
But I think it worked well. Gary very kindly said that he thought it was the best thing I’d ever written. Which I think was a compliment.
You had the chance to write for the extremely popular sixth doctor and Evelyn in The Nowhere Place. What are your thoughts on the two characters and their enduring popularity in the BF stories?
Nick: Colin is the Doctor I know best, because we’ve worked together the most. We worked on Bill Baggs’s videos together. And when you worked for Bill Baggs, you all had to crowd together and make a community to survive the ghastly conditions and the machinations of Bill’s strange schemes. So we are mates. Maggies is also a mate. I’d worked with her in theatre before her Big Finish work. I introduced her to Big Finish. She’s all my fault! Gary came up with the Evelyn character while relaxing with friends in a pool in LA at a Doctor Who convention.
And I thought what he came up with was brilliant. And, of course, Colin and Maggie work brilliantly together. She’s just done a brilliant job in a Sylvester story recently (A Death In The Family) and she’s got another run of adventures with old Sixy next year, which I directed. I love working with the two of them.
How hard was it to write the 7th Doctor solo in Frozen Time?
Nick: I really enjoyed that. I liked the whole vibe of him getting to know someone afresh, and getting to know himself afresh. I wanted that feeling that it was the first story for a new Doctor. It wasn’t, but I just wanted to deploy that effect.
Was it exciting to push the eighth Doctor into his own range of shorter but punchier episodes?
Nick: It was very exciting, yes. And it was my way into exec producing the whole range. I started producing the first Radio 7 season of Eighth Doctor stories because Gary wasn’t interested in doing it. That was my crash-course training for doing the main range. And the most important discovery for me was that Alan Barnes and I work really well together. We have a good mutual respect thing going. At least, that’s what he tells me!
Was this new format inspired by the new series?
Nick: There was a large degree of being inspired by the new series. Remember how struck we all were with how the new series was different? It’s hard to remember now, isn’t it? But we certainly wanted to have a go at that bolder kind of storytelling.
What are your thoughts on Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller?
Nick: Isn’t it dull reading interviews when producers just go on and on about how brilliant actors are?
I can’t really offer anything new about Sheridan. She’s brilliant. A fabulous actress. There’s something really raw and dangerous about her. And she’s brilliant to work with. She never just ‘makes do’, she wants to get it right. She kind of wants you to be tough with her. It’s been a delight working with her. She can do anything. And it would be my wish to work with her throughout my entire career. A really special actress…
How did you find writing a two-part season finale with Sisters of the Flame and the Vengeance of Morbius?
Nick: I loved that. The first thing was to give more or less a whole episode to Sheridan, because we knew she could carry it. And I wanted to do an epic with a fairly small cast. Morbius was brilliant to write for, and getting Sam West in was an inspired bit of casting by Barnaby Edwards. But yeah, I really enjoyed writing that one. I think that’s when I really acknowledged to myself that I wanted to write all those pivotal moments in the series,
when the stakes are really high and it seems that all is lost. It’s for that reason that I co-wrote Orbis and all the pivotal Charley Pollard and Sixth Doctor stuff. Ah, India Fisher, another brilliant actress I’d like to work with all my life.
Wirrn Dawn was a real adrenaline rush of an adventure. Where you consciously trying give this story some pace and excitement throughout?
Nick: Of course! When Alan, Barnaby and I discussed this season, we said, ‘Space opera… possibly Wirrn… kind of Starship Troopers’. Alan just looked at me. ‘That’s got you written all over it,’ he said. I was happy to pick up the challenge. I wanted to do a story that kept moving forwards and never returned to the same place. I’d read that about James Bond. James Bond movies hardly ever go back to a previous location, the story keeps moving ever onwards.
And, of course, Jamie Robertson did the most extraordinary score for me. Really great, snarling, clanking orchestral stuff!
Why was Charley Pollard picked up by the sixth Doctor? Where you aware that this would be a controversial twist in the tale and did you ever imagine the combination of Colin Baker and India Fisher would be as popular as it was?
Nick: We thought we’d give it a go, because we felt we hadn’t finished with Charley yet. The line-up with the Eighth Doctor had gone off the boil a bit, I thought. We gave her as high stakes an exit in The Girl Who Never Was as we could, but we still felt there was more potential in Charley… and in India herself. So we thought we’d do three with her and the Sixth Doctor and wrap it up. But we were surprised by how popular it was, both with the audience and with Colin and India.
Colin virtually demanded we do more. And you can’t really stand in the way of Colin Baker, can you? Well, I would have said ‘no’ if it’d been unpopular, but the combination of good audience reaction, good working relationships and excited writers – including me! – was irresistible. We very nearly considered doing it forever. But I think the Eighth Doctor stories with Charley had taught us the lesson of not flogging things to death. Don’t get me wrong, there were loads of good things in that Divergent Universe series, but somehow, the energy of the stories and characters seemed to do dip a bit.
Were you aware of the importance and expectation surrounding Charley’s departure from the series?
Nick: We became more and more aware of it. And we delayed it as long as we dared… but then I knew, I wanted to be the one to do the deed. Alan said, ‘Look, I wrote her out last time, I can’t bear to do it again. You do it!’ And I was really flattered and as proud as punch that both Colin and India couldn’t stop telling me how brilliant they thought my scripts were. Very kind of them.
How well do you think it was executed in your two stories in her final three tales, Patient Zero and Blue Forgotten Planet?
Nick: Well, it’s daft question to ask me, isn’t it? I mean, I did it. I’m not going to say it was all rubbish… Well, I suppose I would if I thought I’d messed it up. But with the inestimable help of Alan Barnes… I mean, we worked so hard on those scripts. We were so precise about exactly what we wanted to do. And that relationship between Colin’s Doctor and Charley was so fascinating and had reached such a complex pitch that it was a real dream to write. Well, sometimes a nightmare… oh, I don’t know… sort of like exquisite torture. I loved and hated it while I was doing it. But ultimately, I loved it. I admit the sin of pride. I’m very proud of those stories because they have such a definite purpose and both paint very vivid world pictures and contain such raw emotion.
And I like the fact that we found a way of fooling the Doctor’s memory without it making him seem weak. He makes the choice not to mess up his memory timeline.
Tell us something about your love affair with the Daleks? Was it tremendously exciting to be able to bring the metal meanies to life in Dalek Empire?
Nick: The Daleks really struck and chord with me when I was a kid. There was something about them that made me buzz with excitement. The enemies you loved to hate. But they were kind of cool, like the Thunderbirds craft, you know? I think I liked the machinery of the Daleks. Little boys are fascinated with technology and military hardware… at least they were when I was a kid. And the Daleks fit into that category. Fighting machines.
And then, when I got older and wanted to tell stories in things I wrote, I found out that they were one of the most powerful elements to use in a plot. They were the baddest baddies in the entire universe. You could have characters mention them and literally sweat and shake with fear. And then they arrived and blew everything up while squawking madly. Brilliant. They’re great for stories, like some kind technological, mechanistic fairy tale villain. A hobgoblin with a laser beam.
Which do you think holds up as the best overall series?
Nick: I can’t really judge which is the best series of Dalek Empire, because I feel they all offer something different. I suppose I think the third series went off the rails a bit. But I’m very pleased with how it came out. I think the most disciplined, finely honed scripts were for Dalek Empire: The Fearless, the final one. And it was a real privilege to work with Maureen O’Brien – another fabulous actress who I’d like to have in everything I work on – and my mate Noel Clarke, who gave a really beautiful performance. Noel really throws himself into stuff. And he’s been a great friend to me. I mean, aside from anything else like being a great laugh and generally a good guy, he’s put me in two movies. Genius!
Is it true that Russell T Davies asked for scenes in the new series to crackle like those between Susan Mendez and the Dalek Supreme?
Nick: Yes, that is true. He phoned me up and said that to me the night before I did those scenes in the cell with Chris and Billie.
Given that you wrote, directed and scored the four extremely popular series do these stand up as your proudest achievement with Big Finish?
Nick: Some days I think so. But I love my work. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to be doing this. So I am constantly guilty of the sin of pride on lots of stuff I do for Big Finish. But, yeah, I’m very proud of the fictional universe I created for Dalek Empire. John Ainsworth helped me a lot with that too. And I was also helped by great actors, especially Sarah Mowat as Susan Mendes.
Was it much more difficult to achieve the same results with the Cyberman series?
Nick: It was more of a challenge. The Cybermen were, in many ways, just an attempt by the Doctor Who production team to ‘find another Dalek’, and I think they do suffer from that sometimes… a lack of uniqueness. But I had my love affair with the Cybermen when I was a kid too. As many people say, they are very creepy. It’s a pity that all that marching in the new series kind of messed that up. But Graeme Harper had it fixed in his head that the Cybermen marched when his hero and mentor Douglas Camfield directed them. But I didn’t see any marching in The Invasion, did you? But I found my way in to the Cyberman series for Big Finish by being inspired by two odd things. First off, Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And also, The Shield. You can work the Macbeth one out very easily for yourself. But The Shield aspect was to do with having an antihero in a very central role. Somehow, all that stuff about loyalty and betrayal was a really good juxtaposition with the emotionless Cybermen. And making the androids extremely emotional seemed to work very well too.
Acting wise can you tell us something about the atmosphere on set throughout the last five years on the TV series? Were there any particularly fraught days or is the Doctor Who production a fairly smooth process?
Nick: The atmosphere on set is professional and busy. I was insanely excited when I first did it, and Chris was so impressive, as was Billie. It felt more relaxed with David, because I knew him, so I’d pop over to his caravan for coffee and stuff like that. There are always fraught days. Quite often you overrun. I remember that block with Graeme Harper directing the Cyberman story and the Dalek-Cyberman season finale being the most fraught. There was a lot of what looked like ‘bish-bash-bosh’ shooting stuff in a real hurry during that. But Doctor Who is an ambitious show. They were always pushing the envelope with what they could achieve. In the first season, things had got so behind with the season finale that Joe Ahearne set up two units shooting almost simultaneously in the same studio to get back on schedule. By sheer force of will he managed to get everything done when it felt as though it might all fall apart. But, you know, work always expands slightly beyond the time available in which to do it.
I think Daleks in Manhattan was the most calm, fraught-free shoot I’ve had on Doctor Who. James Strong somehow has the ability to be very creative but also keep to schedule!
Do you have a favourite voice, Dalek, Cyberman or Judoon that you perform?
Nick: Oooh, the Daleks, of course. Iconic. Angry. Cunning. Great fun to do. Good for getting out all your negative emotions. Quite fun to do the Judoon, though, because no electronic trickery is required.
How did your brief role in Torchwood Children of Earth’s most gripping instalment come about?
Nick: Russell T Davies suggested that the casting people saw me for the part. So I went along and was interviewed and did a couple of scenes and they gave me the part. Nice. They’d seen a few other actors for it, but luckily thought I was the best.
And was that you in the garden centre in the League of Gentlemen?
Nick: It certainly was. And did you notice, my name tag read ‘Gary Russell’? Mark Gatiss thought that was very funny. I’ve played Gary Russell on screen!
What exciting things can we expect from Big Finish in the future? And what projects do you personally have up your sleeve?
Nick: I’m particularly excited by the subscriber-only special, The Four Doctors. We’ve just completed that. It’s available free to anyone whose subscription goes through December 2010. Or it’s available as a subscriber freebie that anyone can choose if they subscribe. I’m also loving Relative Dimensions, the latest Xmas Special for the Eighth Doctor. And then in February, there’s Lucie Miller and To The Death… the final stories of the Eighth Doctor standalone season. I’m pretty proud of those two.
As for me, personally, I’m reading a couple of talking books for Audiogo, and I’ve got some more theatre work in Nottingham in February, when I star as Inspector Pratt in Murdered to Death, at the Theatre Royal Nottingham. No other plans except Big Finish after that, but my agent and I are always on the look-out for new opportunities!
Nick, thank you again for you time.
Nick: A pleasure.