What’s it about: Paris, 1900. One of Dorian Gray's oldest friends is on his deathbed, locked away in a room at the notorious Hotel D'Alsace, where he is fighting a duel to the death. And when Dorian comes to visit him one last time, both men realise they may never be allowed to check out…
The Painted Man: ‘The boy without a soul…’ What a find Alexander Vlahos is. He has everything that you could possibly want in a leading man; a personable nature, charisma, confidence but coupled with a haunting dark side that makes him much more interesting than your typical protagonist. For all its surface beauty Dorian always thought there was something ugly about Paris, as if you are perpetually walking over someone’s grave. He’s a good friend of Oscar Wilde – they are of a similar disposition. I loved the way that Wilde highlighted Gray’s name, suggesting that he is neither black nor white. There is something terribly romantic about meeting in a bookshop, flirting over musty old tomes. He’ll still be alive when the world has quite forgotten Oscar Wilde, cursed with his good looks. Gray has met many liars and confidence tricksters in his time and doesn’t rate Genevieve very high. He’s not above walking away as she is hoisted by her own petard, not sparing her a glance as she is dragged away to the Underworld. I love a morally corrupt hero and this man without a soul looks like he is going to be great fun to explore.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘A tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadence. A poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the methedic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.’
‘Whatever they were they stank of rotting flesh and blood…’
‘What is Paris if it is not Babylon? A den of sin, corruption and vanity…’
‘The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect. There is a soul in each one of us. I know it.’
Great Ideas: David Llewellyn remembers that we can’t experience events as the characters within the story do and has a excellent way of describing images and smells that paint an evocative picture of the landscape without ever feeing as though that is what is what he is trying to do. The idea that Oscar Wilde’s famous novel could be based on real events is absurd…and they revel in the fact that everybody thought so. They aren’t Gray’s regrets captured in the painting but his sins and digressions, everything that makes up his shadow. Wilde thinks that the world wants to forget him because that is what the disdainful morals of the current generation wish but he doesn’t realise that future generations will look upon the man and his art more kindly. Those of you who are coming to this series for scares wont be disappointed. Wraiths forms in the night and create gargoyles that gnash and snarl their teeth, speaking in thoughts and visions through the faces of those you have loved and lost. It’s the sort of conceptual horror, an abstract menace that I would expect from a series inspired by a novel like this. The haunt Gray to show him every vile act he has ever committed, his sins actualised and ethereal. The Wraiths are from the other side and have been taking the twisted souls of humanity with them since the time of Babylon. When the bodies are left behind Genevieve takes advantage and picks over their remains for anything of value. You don’t realise until the climax what a blinding premise that they have for this series – Gray never withers or gets old and so exists across time. That means that these stories can be set in practically any time period and that allows for a lot of scope.
Audio Landscape: Steam train, whispering voices, the gentle playing of a piano, market place, street scenes, a biting wind, the wraiths snapping away at their victim.
Musical Cues: I was extremely impressed with the musical score. A memorable soundtrack is something that Big Finish is so good at providing these days sometimes I forget to mention it. James Dunlop’s music switches tone with effortless ease whether it’s the spine chilling confessions of a dying man and he horrors he faces at night or the atmospheric French streets scenes. One skill that I have noticed in the better musicians is that they know when to provide silence too, to let the actors make their impact without the backup of any music. This is something that Dunlop has perfected, providing a musical background only when it is required.
Result: Considering this is basically a two hander between two great men, This World Our Hell is a surprisingly evocative production that sets up the premise of the range with economic aplomb. I can think of no way of better capturing your audience by having the creator of The Picture of Dorian Gray and his muse coming together at the end of Wilde’s life and discussing their memories. It lends the piece a melancholic tone, revealing a maturity in the writing and performances that is going to make this series a standout. There’s even some chills too, as Wilde talks about the sinister faces that speak to him in the night. Scott Handcock proves an ideal choice to direct, taking the lead from his previous experience in the Bernice Summerfield range and bringing the piece to life with real sophistication. The best weapon this series has is its lead, I could listen to Alexander Vlahos read out a shopping list is voice is so gorgeous but fortunately he is afforded material that is much more erudite than that. All in all, a class act and confident opening gambit. The cover is gorgeous too: 9/10
The Houses In Between written by Scott Harrison and directed by Scott Handcock
What’s it about: London, 1940. As German bombs begin to fall, Dorian's past starts catching up with him. Something is gathering in the rubble-strewn streets of the capital: something dark, malevolent and all too familiar. Something with a score to settle...
The Painted Man: ‘I give you the vain, the arrogant, the Mayfair Monster himself…Mr Dorian Gray!’ You’d be hard pressed to find a more evocative image of Dorian in this set of stories than him standing apart from the unity of the nation and watching the city and its people burn. There’s something deeply disturbing about that but also a little bit attractive too. After making his bargain with the painting it would appear that Dorian is a magnet for supernatural phenomena and audio is the perfect medium in which to explore the haunting of a mans soul. Scott Handcock describes Dorian as a bit of a loner but I like him that way. Having him watch over the City feels a bit like the ‘Captain Jack syndrome’ and you can see that they are coming at this in similar directions (an immortal, tired with life and beauty, seeking out otherworldly horrors across time) but whereas I found Jack occasionally frustrating and extreme (often down to Barrowman’s less than subtle performance but also some seriously defective writing) I find Dorian quite beguiling. He doesn’t try and make a great fuss of himself, prefers slipping into the shadows and yet he’s perfectly willing to enjoy himself and lend a hand if needed. I also love that he is a uniform character in whatever time period we visit him in with only slight adjustments to suit the era. A man out of time who is spread across the ages. He thinks that love at first sight doesn’t exist outside of sensationalist pamphlets and penny dreadful novels. He’s always had an unhealthy interest in the supernatural and he never realised that the interest was reciprocated. Dorian tries to be straight with women from the start that he doesn’t like to settle down but that doesn’t always mean that they don’t like a challenge. He drove Mary to her death by rejecting her but he had slept with her and she was pregnant when she set the fire and died. Dorian is horrified by this revelation, appalled that he was the cause of his sons death and forced to witness the beautiful young man that he might have been. Occasionally he will still see faces in the shadows or flames, an accusing visage imploring him to save them. Next time he might not want to try and stop them from dragging him to Hell.
Standout Performance: Let the Gary Russell cameos continue! I never thought I would hear him playing a Jago-esque theatre owner salivating over the girls he is introducing but it really did make me smile. Bravo.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I was definitely attracting interest somewhere…’
‘You’re such an unsullied little thing. I’m surprised you haven’t been plucked before now.’
‘Have you ever seen a building after a fire? During the Blitz there was plenty of opportunity. They were everywhere, on every row, every street, every city. The buildings either side of them would be miraculously undamaged but the houses in between…blackened and broken like rotten teeth.’
‘We want what’s denied to us. We will be waiting, Dorian…’
Great Ideas: It was only hear that I realised that the Dorian Gray series doesn’t have a theme tune which under normal circumstances I would object to but thanks to the shorter length and distinctive nature of each story really helps to give this range an identity of its own. This is set after the night that Hitler tried to set fire to London and can you imagine a wartime setting more horrific than that? A girl that Dorian had known over 25 years before haunting Dorian Gray’s house in wartime London. Thanks to Dorian they have many guises to choose from, people he use and spat out without a second thought. People who have been cursed thanks to his inhuman pact with the devil. Rip away the soul and the bargain is over, if there is no soul to bargain with then the Devil will have no choice but to remove his favours. I love that this story directly involves the painting and that it becomes a vital part of the climax, appearing on stage and indulging in a little creative pyrotechnics.
Audio Landscape: Could anything conjure up the Blitz more than the sound of a biting wind seaguing into an air raid siren? Immediately it fills the mind with images. Explosions, rubble, ticking clock, parlour conversation, horrific screaming, a fire bell, Luftwaffe bombers attacking London, Dorian’s son crying in the flames,
Result: The narration in this series is so evocative and once you add in some sound effects and music you find yourself whisked away to other times at the drop of a hat. We continue to explore Dorian in some depth and the first person narration affords the chance to get very intimate with the character. I can see how his development is going to spread across the five stories, each one opening up a new facet about the character to build an overall picture. In many ways this is even more atmospheric than the first story, fire raging through London as Hitler tries to tear the City down and Dorian standing back from it all as another supernatural menace latches on to him. This taps into the same nostalgic menace that the second Sapphire and Steel Assignment on television did, only in about a tenth of the time. The half hour format is proving to be strikingly effective; never out staying its welcome and proving long enough to tell a surprisingly fulsome vignette. I’m scared that full length Big Finish plays are all going to feel padded from now on! Handling some very dark themes with honesty and conviction, this is frighteningly good: 9/10
The Twittering of Sparrows written by Gary Russell and directed by Scott Handcock
What’s it about: Singapore, 1956. A simple game of mahjong exposes Dorian to a whole pantheon of ancient demons. But why is he actually visiting Pulau Ujong? And what is his connection to the mysterious Isadora Rigby?
The Painted Man: ‘You’re nothing but a Phantom, Dorian. A shade that shouldn’t exist!’ London was never quite large enough for Dorian and he had began to make a name for himself and so felt it was time to move on for a time, to re-invent himself elsewhere. He clearly has an obsession with dead people lacking a funeral. Introducing Isadora is a stroke of genius, grounding the character when he is with her and initiating some domestic backstory to the character. Seven decades of time have passed since he last saw her and she has grown old whilst he has remained perpetually beautiful. They haven’t been together since the time of Edison and there is clearly no great feeling between them. So far we’ve subtly been informed that Dorian is bi-sexual but its nice to have it so bold facedly brought out into the open here. Its great that she isn’t the slightest bit surprised by his youthful appearance and that somebody finally pulls him up on his rudeness. She learnt a number of different languages just so she could follow his travels. Dorian doesn’t scare her because of what he is but rather what he isn’t. She has no emotional interest in him one way or the other and one days plans to burn her scrapbook of his adventures (perhaps with an effigy thrown in for good measure). Dorian has spent the last few years tracing the steps of explorers who have vanished, living life on the hop whilst Isadora has made a life for herself. Solving the odd mystery appeals to him although he hasn’t had any successes yet. I hope that somebody is keeping a note of Dorian’s timeline across the ages because we may dip back into these years again in the future its precisely the sort of detail that continuity hounds go ape over. When it comes to it and the pretence drops away, Isadora admits that she did miss her brother. She was the last of his family, at least those that he knew.
Standout Performance: The ever malleable Katy Manning who continues to prove that she can turn her hand to anything. Isadora is a world away from Jo Grant, Iris Wildthyme, Borusa and the myriad of characters that she played in Not a Well Woman. When Manning said she had all these voices in her head (check out my interview with her elsewhere on the blog) that speak to her it appears that she has a voice and manner for each one and they are all suited to different roles. She clutches hold a great deal of spite and deploys it to great effect here, Isadora being a marvellously cancerous character.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We shared parents, Christmas holidays, governesses and lovers! Aren’t we just the perfect siblings!’
‘You know there are far greater powers out there…’
‘We’re no more brother and sister than we would be total strangers!’
Great Ideas: Its lovely to be able to hear about some of the other adventures that Dorian has been on in the years between the last story and this one. Maybe we can re-visit some of them in greater depth at some point. The reduced running time has done Russell the world of good and he conjures up an enticing scene between several characters that establishes who they are their lives converging on a turning point in Singapore’s history. He achieves more in two minutes here than the first half of Gallifrey: Annihilation managed in half and hour. Ever since the Japanese took this area during the war, the dragons have guarded it and insured their safe passage across the seas. They had been trapped beneath the waters almost a thousand years before, trapped during a game of mahjong. They latched onto Isadora during the sinking of the boat and they have sat inside her head ever since. They have prolonged her life because they knew one day she would be reunited with Dorian. This has been a trap for him all along, so he can take them off her hands (or rather her mind) and they can influence him in his travels across the world. It’s a tight narrative for sure, Dorian stepping into the noose in the first scene but the audience only becoming aware of it at the last minute. Clever stuff. This story ends in an unforgettable moment of sororicide. I had goosebumps going up and down my arms…I have a similarly discordant relationship with my sister and the thought of releasing her from a curse like this…brrr. I don’t know if I could do it.
Audio Landscape: Whilst the sibling rivalry between Dorian and his sister gives this story a domestic tension, Handcock provides a chilling atmosphere behind the camera with a mixture of a very scary modulated voice and some spine chilling music. Whatever you do don’t listen to this one on your own in the dark because you might just find yourself reaching for the light switch. Birdsong, streets of screaming countrymen, pouring a drink.
Musical Cues: Instantly exotic, listening to the gentle strumming of the sitar at the beginning of this story and tell me that you aren’t whisked off to Singapore.
Isn’t it Odd: Astonishingly, nothing. Get Russell writing for this series again, stat.
Result: Speaking as somebody who is estranged from his sister and has experienced a great deal of hassle from her, a lot of this really resonated. I cannot believe that that is a Gary Russell script. Its tight (although typically the longest of the season…but I wouldn’t have lost a single word), restrained, atmospheric and to the point…it’s a gorgeous piece of writing from a man who I have always admired far his work as a director. The pairing of Handcock writing and Russell directing has always worked out rather well but reversing the roles is even more effective. The heavy narration is dumped in favour of a full cast drama (or as full cast as you are going to get with this series) and its refreshing change of scene. It’s the warmest portrayal of Dorian in this set of stories, contrasting him against his twisted, withered sister makes him even more personable in nature. The chance to explore a little of his family history is essential to his development and the scenes between Vlahos and Manning are loaded with tension, bitterness and ultimately affection. There’s something about sibling rivalry that brings the worst out in us and as this story continues we enter some very disturbing waters. This tops Beautiful Chaos as the best piece of writing to ever spring from Gary Russell’s pen and it pleases me to finally award something he has written full marks. It more than deserves it: 10/10
The Heart That Lives Alone written and directed by Scott Handcock
What’s it about: Whitby, 1986. At a masked soiree on the Royal Crescent, Dorian meets the elusive and enigmatic Tobias Matthews: a man he is instantly drawn to... but also a man with dangerous secrets. Has Dorian Gray finally met his match?
The Painted Man: ‘It was like some kind of addiction…’ Its time for Dorian to indulge in a bit of romance and he has fixated on the one guy who can light up a room and drag eyes away from him. Its not often that people abandon him at a party and its that general air of disinterest that really lures Dorian in. He’s not used to fighting for attention. He doesn’t usually allow people to get to him like this but the fact that he can’t just click his fingers and get what he wants, that he is actually rejected, is a sure way to keep anybody interested. He moves from interest to obsession, making it his mission to seek Tobias out. He tries to feign disinterest back when Tobias finally relents (although its clear he has been playing a long game with Dorian’s affections all along) but he can’t quite manage it because he’s desperate to unwrap this man who has been such a challenge. Tobias assumes that since Dorian is a fellow immortal that he would soon develop a taste for vampirism, anything to beat back the borderm of the encroaching centuries. Normal people come and go so quickly that you surrender them before they have a chance to let you down. This is the chance for Dorian to experience a proper relationship, a chance at a life with another of his kind (albeit in a very different way). You can completely understand the temptation, especially since Toby is a real looker in the bargain. Together they curb each others excesses – Toby no longer needs to kill in order to get his feed and Dorian is less reliant on narcotics and sex for his kicks. It’s a night time relationship, one where Toby sinks his fangs deep into Dorian’s neck and drags him closer to feeling alive. Its not just physical pleasures though, they share evenings of banter and memories. It’s a very easy relationship to buy into. Ultimately they lead different lives, one has a bruised soul whereas the other completely lacks one and whilst Toby could happily spend the rest of his life with Dorian he knows that their happiness wont last forever. Better to let it go out on a high. What I especially love about this story is that it is isn’t some grand deception (the way the last tale so exquisitely spun its trap) but everything we experience is completely genuine. It’s a love story, plain and simple and it maintains its truthfulness to the last second.
Standout Performance: Much of the hard work is done by the excellent characterisation in the script but Hugh Skinner takes a piercingly perverse role and provides an unforgettable romantic foil for Dorian. At the same time Alex Vlahos get the chance to show us an intoxicating new side to Dorian, a man who is utterly smitten with another. Its his most passionate reading of the five, the coldness dropped and in its place an eagerness to please.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘For the first time in years…I hurt.’
‘The body lives on but the soul within has rotted.’
Great Ideas: Thanks to the works of Paul Magrs (if you’re a fan of his Who work check out his Brenda and Effie series) and a particularly incredible holiday a few years ago I have a massive fondness for Whitby so setting the story there automatically gets me a quite excited. There is a romantic spookiness to the place with its ruins and graveyard atop the hill and its winding cobbled streets of eclectic houses. I could wander around that town for hours. Brilliantly Handcock shares the narration between both Dorian and Tobias and their tussle before the audience in both the story and the commentary provides some fun games. In a moment of unexpected cruelness Tobias takes Dorian home hinting a fun night only to introduce him to his girlfriend. Even more shocking is her fate and how he so casually dismisses her because he now has Dorian to play with. Tobias never wanted to be a vampire, he is just making the best of a bad situation. Imagine pouring all of your love and obsession with your partner into a painting? What beauty would be encapsulated within. I don’t think I could ever do justice to my feelings for Simon. Tobias is overcome by the image on canvas, the man who he hasn’t been able to see in a mirror for so many years. We experience the true nature of love, when you care for somebody so much that you are prepared to let them go. Dorian has to suffer the pain of his lover blistering to death in the sunlight, to have him turn to ashes in his arms. Its astonishingly potent.
Audio Landscape: A massive contrast to the previous three adventures that took their atmosphere from the staples of the era they are set in, The Heart That Lives Alone opens with an appalling eighties jingle that automatically suggests plasticky artificiality and everything I come to associate with the era (a general garishness and explosion of colour). Waves rolling, wind blowing, murmuring, diving into the water.
Result: A vampire love story between two immortals…if you think you’ve crossed into Twilight/Buffy territory then you are very much mistaken. Tobias is a mesmerising bloodsucker for Dorian to become infatuated with and their relationship walks that passionate line between fear and intimacy. You’ll never experience a romance quite like this again, one where we are privy to the romantic thoughts of both parties. In a way the audience is an almost voyeuristic third party to their liaison, experiencing all the emotional highs and the crashing lows that come with the curse of falling in love. Easily the horniest Big Finish drama I have ever listened to and one of the most tragic: 10/10
The Fallen King of Britain written by Joseph Lidster and directed by Scott Handcock
What’s it about: London, 2007. Dorian Gray is living the high life. But when his workmates start to die in their sleep, and he starts to dream about those he's lost, Dorian discovers that the higher your place in society, the further you have to fall...
The Painted Man: ‘I’m immortal! I can never die!’ There is a real feeling at the start of this story of trying to tie together Dorian’s experiences over the past five adventures. After a 100 years of life what has he become…nothing but a common or garden banker (well a man’s got to eat). A life of indolence itself becomes dull and eventually you find yourself craving wanting to do something with your life (I wonder if this is what rich people go through at some point in their overindulgent existences?). He calls himself Charles White now, dresses up in Armani suit and heads to work along with all the other drones. On the side he’s a dealer, providing a service to get people through the day (and night). He’s back in the shagging game and is willing to put it out for men and women if the mood takes him. It’s a massive departure from the sensitive guy we saw in the last story but that is part of the joy of this series – these stories take place over such distances that by the time we catch up with Dorian he has completely re-invented himself to stave the borderm. Watching him prey on a young man who is sweet and vulnerable is quite uncomfortable…but then Joe Lidster has always revelled in that sort of storytelling. Dorian sees a lot of himself in Simon back before he made his pact. Now when he looks at his bleeding portrait he feels absolutely nothing. His life has led him to a point where nothing, not even the death of people who should be considered friends, makes a mark. Sometimes a man can live too long to a point where everything stops having meaning. Perhaps that is why we have such finite lives. Death isn’t a curse, it’s a blessing. He’ll sleep with Simon because its something to do and because he appeals to his vanity. Simon makes the choice to walk away from Dorian because if he sticks around he might end up turning into him. As much as he loves him he doesn’t want that. The dead are dead and gone but he is alive and damn the picture…he is going to try and find peace.
Standout Performance: And its back to Alex Vlahos who has given so much of himself to this series he deserves a second round of applause. So much of the success of Dorian Gray rests on his shoulders and it’s a testament to his skill of an actor that the series transcends even the stirring material he is given to say into something even more profound thanks to his intimacy with the microphone. His monologue at the conclusion where he defies fate and his life and the demons that mock him gave me goosebumps.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I was hardly going to get a job in Tescos, was I?’
Listening to Mark say ‘let’s get fucking wasted!’ in his upper class accent is just hilarious.
‘You lot have it easy. If there’s two of you in the room…bang’ is the typical opinion of gay guys from the other side. And ‘only the good looking ones’ is the typical response from the other side.
‘My life is just one long endless night…’
Great Ideas: I wont say I was upset when Mark died, he was an unutterable wanker of the highest degree. We’ve met Oscar Wilde and now its time to experience some of the events that took place before his painting was brought to life. There’s a flashback to his meeting with Basil Hallward and a brief suggestion of his infatuation with Dorian. Basil, his sister, Sherlock Holmes, Mark…they all live in Dorian’s mind. Dorian knows there are others out there like him; strange, unnatural, beautiful creatures. I wasn’t keen on all the drug sniffing that the story promoted (its not a habit I have ever been enticed by) but the way it becomes an important plot point was very clever. There I was on my moral high horse and the story actually wouldn’t have made sense without it.
Audio Landscape: Another completely different audio soundscape, this time a contemporary backdrop for Dorian to inhabit. Traffic, cars honking, heartbeat, nightclub music, ring tone, Dorian and Simon at it, wind blowing through the house.
Result: ‘Just one little sniff…’ Oddly enough this reminded me a great deal of Joe Lidster’s script for Wizards vs Aliens with added drugs, drink and anal sex. But in the basics of the story of two kindred spirits coming together and exploring their relationship the two stories have a great deal in common. It’s about a man who is alienated from the world around him, who doesn’t fit in with his peers because of a supernatural gift and who tries his best to cope with the hand that life has dealt him. Whereas young Tom Clarke is just starting out in the world and thus sees everything through a childs naïve eyes, Dorian Gray is over a century old now and has seen too much pain, suffering and decay for anything to really impact him any longer. It’s the tone which is strikingly different, Lidster now let off the leash and can afford to make this as graphic as he wants. The drugs and the sex don’t really appeal to me (I much preferred the romance from the last story) but the characterisation at the heart of this story is just excellent, as it has been throughout the series. Ultimately this isn’t a climax but an exploration of where a hundred years of living has brought Dorian and a wake up call for him to change his ways and move on to the next phase of his life. I can’t wait to join him there: 8/10
Overall: The first series since Jago & Litefoot to get me really excited with its potential, The Confessions of Dorian Gray is a mature and sophisticated piece of work that offers supernatural thrills and blistering character drama. It has struck upon a winning formula that afford a diversity of storytelling and captured a charismatic lead in Alexander Vlahos who impresses with his versatility and passion for the material. Dorian Gray is available at the unmissable price of £12.99 for the first five stories and each one of them is a winner. Why are you wasting time reading this review when you could be purchasing it and listening? You can read about the details of the story here but these audios are so vividly brought to life they need to be experienced. Get to it: 9/10
Exclusive Interview with range show runner Scott Handcock…
How did this series come to be conceived? Was this always going to be a spin off in its own right or was it purely on the success of the Bernice Summerfield audio Shades of Gray?
Ah, now, here we kick-off with the debate about what constitutes a spin-off. In no way, shape or form is The Confessions of Dorian Gray a spin-off. It can't be! The central character was conceived by Wilde long before Bernice Summerfield came along. (You might be able to tell I've made this observation before, but I think it's an important one. It would be a little like saying Sherlock Holmes was a Doctor Who spin-off because the character appeared in All-Consuming Fire!)
But yes, the series was one I've had in the back of my mind for years. Lovely as it is to play with other people's toys - and I love my work on Doctor Who, Dark Shadows, Sarah Jane, etc - it's always been a dream of mine to tackle something new, that I can own to some degree. I've always been a huge fan of horror and Oscar Wilde and - after a few missteps with formats along the way - I latched onto the notion of Dorian Gray, and what sort of life he might have led had he been a real person whose peculiar existence Oscar simply documented in his novel.
So yes, that's the basic idea of the series - a simple twist on the classic story, allowing him to continue for as long as we want him to. And it was developed as that series: The Confessions of Dorian Gray. It simply took a while to get the green light because Big Finish had quite a lot of other original series on the go… So I put it on the back burner, and it was Gary Russell (co-producer of the Bernice Summerfield range) who suggested I write a Bernice Summerfield story featuring Dorian for the Legion box set, because he loved the premise so much… I resisted for a while - for lofty, artistic reasons - then gave in because I wanted to see if it could work. And it did, in terms of story. Unfortunately, release schedules meant that the Bernice Summerfield tale looked like a quick promotional vehicle in the end - even though it was recorded long before the series was even commissioned - but it's still a strong standalone story, which was all it was ever intended to be. The fact that Dorian got his own series later on is something we weren't expecting at the time!
So, no. That's the short answer. We never expected it to be a spin-off (not that it is). And when we did the Bernice Summerfield story, we weren't expecting the series. Funny how life turns out...
Who are the creative forces behind the Dorian Gray range?
To be honest, I was pretty much left to it. I was very lucky, in that respect. As I say, I'd had the idea brewing for years, so I had a very firm idea in my head of how it would all work, who I wanted on board, what the tone of the stories would be, etc, etc. So I presented Big Finish with a proposal, story outline, budget, and they very kindly let me go away and make it, with the people I wanted to work with. And I cannot express enough how grateful I am to Nick [Briggs] and Jason [Haigh-Ellery] for trusting me. That they trusted me to that extent with something new meant an awful lot.
So yes, I had very strong ideas about how the series would work. I always wanted them to be half-hour episodes, no theme tune, different periods, led by Dorian's narration… I know people get a bit funny about narration in drama - they act like it's a dirty word - but it's such a useful storytelling device. And all the writers got it, which was great, with Gary Russell as an even greater script editor. So I was very well supported from the outset...
David, Gary, Joe and Tony were all people I'd worked with before, so knew they'd deliver the goods, get the format, but also bring something of themselves to it. People always assumed I'd want to write all five for some reason - but then they'd be five episodes of me, and I think variety is what makes this series work. Scott Harrison was a complete unknown to me - he just happened to e-mail me on the off-chance at the right moment - and was delightful to work with. I think his story's genuinely rather chilling, and demonstrates we can go to much darker places than many of the other ranges Big Finish produce.
Top that off with some sterling sound design from Robbie Dunlop, and a magnificently evocative score from his brother James, alongside some brilliant actors, and the whole thing comes to life. And, of course, I have to credit our designed Stuart Manning and photographer Jon Pountney for their simple but striking visuals.
Alexander Vlahos is quite a find. Was there a lengthly auditioning process for the titular role or was this simply a case of an actor being selected for a Bernice Summerfield audio wowing you guys behind the scenes?
Actually, no. I've known Alex for a few years now - he'd done a few bits at the BBC, and was making quite a splash on the Cardiff theatre scene, where he'd been studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (a brilliant college, whose graduates we've used on many occasions). So I knew him, he knew me, and we got him in for the role of Arcalia in Gallifrey: Annihilation back in 2010 - where he was marvellous. Such a great voice, and so lovely to have in studio…
So yes, in that sense, I always had him on the radar for something else. We'd catch up quite often and talk about work - he was almost a Dominicci in Brand Management - when one night we were having dinner in Cardiff, and something about his manner just made me think of Dorian. Maybe I'd spent too much time working on it that day? But his confidence, charm and personality were perfect for the role… so I offered it to him for Shades of Gray, then we kept chatting about maybe reworking the series pitch, and would he be interested… and it all kind of spiralled out from there.
I did once mischievously suggest recasting him and getting someone else in to play the part. I still have the jokey death threats on my phone somewhere… At least, I'm hoping he was joking.
Have you wanted to make the move from writing to directing for some time or has it naturally sprung out of your work with Big Finish? Can you walk us through a typical day ‘at the office’ when directing a Dorian Gray audio?
The directing thing sort of came from nowhere, to be honest. After years of observing Gary at studio sessions, casting actors with, etc, it felt like a natural progression to tackle a full-length play - and Shades of Gray was the perfect baptism of fire because it was a small cast, it was my script, and I knew all the actors, which made it very easy. Gary was very supportive, right the way through. So I then went back and did Paradise Frost, then the behemoth that was Many Happy Returns, three more Bernice Summerfield stories across the forthcoming New Frontiers and Missing Persons box sets, and a Dark Shadows… so I had a fair bit of experience under my belt by the time we came to do the Dorian series.
There were quite a few differences with Dorian, however. First of all, we were recording in Cardiff, so didn't have the same facilities as we do at the Moat - it was like throwing ten years' worth of Big Finish experience out of the window and starting from scratch, which posed a few problems. We were also working to a much tighter schedule because of the budget; packing far more material into each day than most Big Finish releases… so there were a lot of obstacles, a fair few of which I'll overlook!
In terms of a typical day… well, usually it kicks off with mild panic. With a normal Big Finish, you have one cast throughout the day and you stick with them. With Dorian, we had three casts across a day, and five scripts all recording at once - so being across them mentally was pretty key, but I think we exhausted poor Alex by day two. Otherwise, it's a case of arriving at studio with your schedule, discussing the day with our studio engineer Mike, greeting the actors as they arrive… then locking them and myself in two very different but equally dark rooms for the day, occasionally breaking for food, and marking up preferred takes as we go along. It wasn't the ideal way of working, I'll be honest, but we got it all recorded and edited and out there, which is all we set out to achieve… and if we get to do more, blimey, we learned a lot!
How did you plot out the first season? Is there a narrative running through the adventures or are they entirely standalone?
At the back of my mind, I always wanted there to be a grand narrative running through the series. But the practicalities of time - having to tie all the writers' scripts together, etc - quickly negated that. Which is ultimately a good thing, I think. Perhaps as time goes on and people have a better sense of what the series is about, and what its potential is - then we can play with broader arcs. But as an introduction to the character and the format, standalone stories seemed the most sensible way to go. So there are a few small developments in terms of character across the plays, as there would be in someone who lived that long, but nothing essential from one story to the next. They're each as standalone as they could be!
Do you find the premise affords you the luxury of telling a wide range of stories over a huge period of time?
The joy of Confessions is we can tell any story, anywhere on Earth, at any point from the nineteenth century right through to the present day. He's not a time traveller, so we're not burdened with hindsight: it's all very much here and now. And that's lovely.
We're not confined to stories all taking place in a single place or time, either. The Heart That Lives Alone, for example, is a love story that plays out over the best part of a year for Dorian… and in future, who knows? Maybe we'll have a bit more fun with that, and tell stories that play out across the decades…?
Do you have any particular favourites from the first year?
They're all so different, it's hard to pick a favourite. It would really depend on my mood! This World Our Hell is where it all kicks off, and features that beautifully scripted exchange between Dorian and Oscar. The Houses in Between channels the glory days of Sapphire and Steel and is really quite grim and gothic in places, so I love it for that. The Twittering of Sparrows features Katy Manning in the most wonderful role, and is possibly Gary Russell's finest work. The Heart That Lives Alone is the first script written - and mine - so obviously I'm very attached to that one. And The Fallen King of Britain pits Dorian against something so human, and so non-supernatural, it would never have occurred to me to tell that story… so I love it for surprising me!
What was the idea behind teaming up Dorian Gray and Big Finish’s Sherlock Holmes this Christmas?
I'm a sucker for a Christmas special and thought, if it's to be the last Dorian we do, we should end on an event. I can't remember quite when the idea was formed… it's certainly been ticking around since 2010, so before I'd even approached Big Finish with the format. But yeah, it all just came together. I'd worked with Nick on Many Happy Returns and we'd enjoyed working together. I knew Tony Lee would kill to do either a Holmes or Dorian story, so combining the two was a Christmas treat for him. And in terms of the two characters, it seemed like such a delightful clash of age versus youth, and the rational versus the supernatural. Would you really not want to do it, given the opportunity?
What can we expect from the next series of Dorian Gray?
At the moment, we don't even know if there will be another series. I hope there will be, because I've lots of ideas ticking away. Things I've discussed with Alex, and some I haven't. It would be nice to build a few recurring faces throughout Dorian's life, if we can; just spend a little more time in certain periods and get a greater sense of the people he hangs out with. He was a bit of a loner in series one, unfortunately. Otherwise, I don't know. I think we can make it a little less introspective now we've explored his character. We can take the stories further afield, broaden their focus a tad, as we did with Christmas, perhaps? Though still half-hour episodes, narrated by Dorian. (Alex likes his narrations).
Oh, and he'd get a Vespa. Because Alex insisted...
What would you say if you had to sum up the series in a couple of sentences to somebody who might not approach spin off material?
The series is about the most charming, arrogant, amoral, selfish, flawed and haunted man in the world. A man whose story spawned the world's most notorious novel back in the day. A man you may think you know, but really don't. There are surprises for those who know the book inside-out, and that's what I love. We're faithful whilst taking the character somewhere new.
Same old man. Brand-new stories...
From the Big Finish Website…
Hi Alex. Welcome to the Big Finish fold! How did you come to be involved in The Confessions of Dorian Gray?
Hi Alex. Welcome to the Big Finish fold! How did you come to be involved in The Confessions of Dorian Gray?
Through working with Big Finish on several projects and producer Scott Handcock really. I did a Big Finish episode of Bernice Summerfield playing Dorian Gray which was set in the far future – a version of Dorian Gray that’s quite different from the version in this new series, mind you. As we were recording that episode, Scott mentioned that it would be a great idea for a series. At the time, I just laughed and thought, ‘I’ll believe that when I see it!’ Cut to a year and a half later, and there I was getting these scripts sent to me. It was pretty mental – in a good way.
What did you make of the premise when you first heard about it?
What did you make of the premise when you first heard about it?
I thought it was equally bonkers and brave. I was terrified too, at the thought of having to be the main person of the series. That it was relying on me to carry it in some way. Usually I’m used to rocking up at the studio to be greeted by well-known actors, whose projects I’m guesting on – not the other way around. It was brilliant though, I’m in huge debt to Scott and Big Finish for the opportunity to tackle a challenging role. It’s rare that an actor gets given this chance so early into a career.
What can you tell us about the stories that make up the series?
Each of them has been penned by writers who have risen to the challenge of writing for such a complicated anti-hero character as Dorian. I’ve been blessed by the scripts – such fun to read first time around, then heaps more fun to actually record. We have the last meeting of Oscar Wilde and Dorian, a story set right in the heart of Blitz-torn London which contains horrifying ghosts, a leap across the pond to a Singapore dragon duel, a heartbreaking love story between two unlikely candidates smack in the middle of the Eighties, and to cap it all off, modern day London and Dorian has found himself as an unlikely king – king of the economy! – and is faced with a weird monster from a very unusual source…
Sounds like there’s a lot going on! So what was it that appealed to you about the series, and what do listeners have to look forward to?
It has everything. It’s breaking new ground with what Big Finish has done before, I think: a horror series that has at its heart a character who, for most people, is the epitome of an anti-hero. Dorian is complicated, not your usual protagonist. People expecting the Dorian from the book will be pleasantly surprised as to where this series is taking him. I’ve made some bold choices on him, I hope people will just run with it.
The Confessions of Dorian Gray also marks the first Big Finish audio to be recorded in Cardiff. How did that compare to your previous experiences?
Recording in Cardiff was a delight, if a little unconventional… I did miss the studios in London at first, but when we got started, the layout and the feel of the new studio, I felt, fitted perfectly to what we were trying to achieve. It felt like Dorian. It added a sense of atmosphere that I hope will be apparent to the listeners.
And Dorian’s not the only thing you’ve been occupied with lately. What else have you been up to?
Currently, I’m coming to the end of an eight-month shoot for the BBC, playing Mordred in the fifth season of Merlin – which has been the most amazing experience. I’ll be sad to finish in October, but looking forward to what else is on the horizon… and of course this series, which I’m incredibly proud of. Awaiting the reaction to this is going to be a little nerve-racking but it’s something I’m eagerly waiting for!
You can buy The Confessions of Dorian Gray from Big Finish here...