Lisa Bowerman is best known in Doctor Who circles for her unforgettable portrayal of Professor Bernice Summerfield, a role she has successfully played for eleven incredible seasons of drama. A hugely popular character, Lisa managed to capture the voice of the character beautifully and play both the humorous and the serious angles of her life with panache. Bernice has been through much since Big Finish took on her character, falling for her ex husband again, having a baby in prison, trapped on the Braxiatel Collection under occupation, reunited with her father, coping with motherhood and discovering her mentor has been working against her! And that’s just on weekends! Proving her verisimilitude Lisa has played other roles in Big Finish audios unrecognisable as Benny; villainous Beth Purnell, Ruby in the Sapphire and Steel series and Ellie in the recently acclaimed Jago & Litefoot. Not one to rest on her laurels Lisa has also branched off into directing audios, in both the main range and the spin offs. Her direction of the Companion Chronicles, talking books that capture the magic of their era, has been nothing short of sublime.
Thank you for agreeing to take part Lisa. How did you come to be involved with Big Finish Productions? Looking back at all your work with the company how would you describe the experience?
I think it's been well documented that my first contact with Big Finish was indirectly through Mike Tucker (the Special FX Designer - who I'd got to know during the filming of 'Survival') who informed me that Gary Russell (who I'd met briefly when I took part in a video called 'I Was A Doctor Who Monster') was interested in using me for an audio series called 'The Adventures of Bernice Summerfield'. I subsequently auditioned for it in front of Nick Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary -got the job...and the rest is history! Looking back at my work, I'm just incredibly grateful to have been given so many opportunities.
Were you a fan of Doctor Who before you joined and have you explored the Whoniverse since becoming a part of it?
No, I can't say I was a fan as such. Of course I knew the show well, I'd been brought up with it. I knew who all the Doctors were and a few of the iconic monsters - but that was about it. As it happened my brother had extra'd in The Talons of Weng Chiang (as he's been an actor at the Royal Theatre Northampton when they were filming it) - so he kindly got me Tom Baker's autograph!! Since I've been more closely involved with the production side of Big Finish - I now find myself knowing more than I politely should do about the 'Whoniverse' - purely through osmosis I should add!
Bernice is such popular character, were you aware of this when you began playing the role and did you have any trepidation about getting it right?
I only realised what an icon she was until Stephen Fewell (who subsequently played Jason Kane) exclaimed as much, when he found out I was going to be auditioning for the part! Turns out he was a big fan of the New Adventure Books. As an actor you just approach the part as you see it. It was probably better I didn't know too much about her. The scripts were very clear with what kind of character she was - so I just used my instincts and hope for the best!
If you had to describe Bernice Summerfield in one sentence what would it be?
Blimey! She is her own woman, knows the difference between good and bad and always makes sure she has a trowel on her.
I remember you saying that you really enjoyed the intensity of Just War from season one: what have been your highlights through the eleven seasons of the Bernice Summerfield range?
I've said it many times before - but Benny only really works when she isn't over written. Yes - she banters, but only when her back's against the wall. The real pleasure in the series is that you can turn comedy into tragedy on the turn of a sixpence without losing the seriousness of the situation. I do have my favourites. Just War of course, but also The Dance of The Dead, Death and the Daleks, Timeless Passages (which I love) - but there are moments I love in a great many more.
How long do you envisage playing the character for?
As long as people want to listen to her. If I ever feel the whole thing's run out of steam I really would say something... but I'm just incredibly grateful to everyone at Big Finish who's shown the series such commitment. It really is a labour of love and there's a real loyalty to the character.
What other avenues would you like to explore with Bernice?
Watch this space!
Working with Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter on the Jago & Litefoot series must be a genuine hoot! Can you tell our readers something about the series and what it has been like bringing Victorian London to life on audio?
I love, LOVE doing this series. When David Richardson gave me the opportunity to direct The Mahogany Murderers I leapt at it. I'd actually worked with Trevor before on a theatre tour some years ago, and I've always been a fan of Chris's work - so I was genuinely excited. Andy Lane's script was great, the characters just leapt off the page...and as it turned out - leapt out of the microphone! Both Trevor and Chris are a joy and quite a double act now! I suspect most of your readers know that their characters Jago and Litefoot first appeared in 1976 in The Talons of Weng Chiang - a storyline with Tom Baker. I've hear that there were rumblings of a possible spin-off TV series with them - but it never happened. Now we had the opportunity to do just that. The response to the Companion Chronicle was overwhelmingly positive, and David took the bull by the horns and proposed the idea of a boxed set to Jason - who had the good forethought to say yes!
The series is set in Victorian London of the 1890's - and I suppose is in the Steam Punk genre (You see? I wouldn't have known a phrase like that a few years ago!!) Henry Gordon Jago is a theatrical impresario and Professor Litefoot is a pathologist... and they are 'Investigators of Infernal Incidents' We're just about to go into production on our 4th series - so as you can see things are ticking along very well. As a footnote, I actually cast my brother in the very first episode - so you could say he was part of the original cast of Talons as well! The Companion Chronicle series has been a massive hit and you are the most prolific director from the series.
Do you have any particular favourites?
Again, I've been very lucky in that David Richardson has trusted me with directing a lot of these. I enjoy the detail of directing a small cast. We've had some lovely ones. Jac Rayner's The Suffering was excellent, of course I've also mentioned The Mahogany Murderers, and the Sara Kingdom trilogy by Simon Guerrier. I'm also very fond of the scripts by Marc Platt and John Dorney.
Have you ever read a script and thought ‘how on Earth am I going to realise that?’
Not really - and I have to say the sound designers do all the hard work on that. Their imagination when it comes to audio interpretation of what's required is amazing... giant clocks, giant monsters, giant anything really. I particularly enjoy the historicals though - evoking different eras and environments...great fun. I'm pedantic as hell about anachronisms though, both in writing and sound FX. I once got an edit back from a story set in the 60's with a modern police siren on it - and more recently a bell that didn't sound right on a London Routemaster bus! As well as taking out 'OK's' in the Jago and Litefoots! What a funny way to earn a living!
Working with numerous older companions, what has been your favourite experience so far?
I haven't any particular favourites - it's just been such a privilege to get to know and work with the actors you've been brought up with. I mean - William Russell (or rather Russell Enoch!) - I've been a fan of his work (and not just Doctor Who) for years, I never thought in a million years I'd ever get to direct him!
Is it easy to slip your directors hat on and give notes to actors that you work alongside? Does being an actor yourself make it easier or more difficult to direct other performers?
I suppose being an actor, you have a sort of short hand with other actors when it comes to directing... and as long as the script is in place, it's just a matter of interpretation, and getting the story telling right. I think being an actor might be an advantage. I don't actually get intimidated by other actors and am happy to give notes to whoever is in the booth (however famous they are!) - I admit I am picky, and I hope that I make myself as clear as I can when it comes to notes. A very famous actor once said - quite rightly - that sometimes you just have to say 'faster or slower'. There certainly are two types of actor, the ones who need context, and the ones who just need the 'faster and slower' approach!
The one thing I DO have to be careful with now, is when I'm on the other side of the mic acting. I just have to take my director's hat off. There have been times when I've wanted to make a suggestion to another performer - but you just have to defer to whoever is directing and bite your tongue!
Having directed in both the main range and the spin offs which do you is more of a challenge?
The only real difference in the challenge is managing a larger cast and they're availability. Also working within the budget you have. Sometimes it's like juggling teapots. The actual process of directing is pretty much the same.
Do you have to – or feel the need to – dip into the era (within Doctor Who) of the play you’re directing to get a feel for each story? If not, what helps you realise the story in such a way as to be authentic to its era?
To be honest I'm less interested in genre, and more interested in good drama. I trust the producer and the script editor to have got the final script in place. Occasionally if there are characters that have appeared in previous TV episodes I'll dip into YouTube, and also, if there are references I don't understand, I'll ask the guys around me who are all experts. Generally we have the authors with us on the day as well. David Richardson who sits in - has been invaluable on that front! Of course I remember a lot of the old episodes anyway - and most of the evocation of the era is put into place at the post production stage. I might request the sort of style of music I want, but more often than not the sound designers are well up on the historical context anyway.
Could you take us through the steps of directing a Doctor Who audio from the very moment you receive a new script to the finished result?
In a nutshell?!!!
I get the script, I do the casting myself...with discussions with the producer who might also have suggestions - I work out a recording schedule, make notes in the script (with any queries or questions, or suggestions for tweeking). Go into studio, tell people what to do, have a lovely lunch and go home. A few weeks or months later I get an initial edit though from the sound designer (I usually do my first notes at the FX stage... without any scoring) - I then go through it and make notes (with their time codes to help guide the sound designers to the particular point that needs addressing) This might include notes on timing of dialogue, volume levels of dialogue and FX, and specific sound FX that might, or might not work - they then send me a second edit to approve, then a third with the music underscoring - I might make more notes - then they'll send me a final edit -and I'll finally sign it off! What can we look forward to from you in the future?
Again - watch this space!
Lisa, thank you very much for your time.