Blimey. There’s a question! And not one I’m sure I can remember accurately. I know that as a kid I adored stories. I was constantly borrowing books from the local libraries, devouring as many as I could. I loved learning new words and the moment I discovered Doctor Who in print, I was devouring every Target novelisation I could find, not to mention a load of Terrance Dicks’s other children’s books. I remember drawing pictures of various covers - including Spitfire Summer and Destiny of the Daleks - and writing him a fan letter as an eight year-old, to which I got a lovely, encouraging reply. I think, in a way, I’ve always wanted to enter the creative sphere. I remember chatting to my teachers about wanting to be a writer, but never dreamed it might actually happen. It’s really easy to pigeonhole yourself at an early age and think, because you’ve no experience, you can’t do something. But writing’s addictive. It’s like acting in some senses: you get to pretend to be other people. But, unlike actors, you get to be EVERYONE. What’s not to love?!
What were your greatest literary, film and television influences?
It’s probably a cliche - but it’s true - that Doctor Who was a massive influence on my childhood. I got into it in the 1992 repeat season and never looked back. In terms of literary fiction, I was always drawn to classical mythology, and loved epic stories like The Odyssey. This was partly because my older brother studied Classics (I ended up following in his footsteps) but there was something rather magical about these tales of gods and monsters that appealed to my childhood self. They still do. There’s a wonderful balance of the human and the grotesque. For all their larger than life elements, there’s always something very human at the heart of them, and a reason they still exist millennia on. I’m not sure when my love of horror took hold in me - it would have been my late teens - but I’d definitely cite John Carpenter as an influence. Not only did Hallowe’en terrify me the first time I saw it (a good few years before I should have) but the original version of The Fog had a massive effect on me. Watching it back now, I’m not sure why, but there were sequences that thoroughly freaked me out. I’m pretty sure it was the music!
How did you first come to work for Big Finish? What were your first jobs with them?
It would have been around 2004, I think, when Big Finish opened their doors to unsolicited submissions, and I pitched a handful of ideas alongside Big Finish actor Dan Hogarth. None of them appealed for the Doctor Who range, but producer Gary Russell saw potential in one of the ideas, set in ancient Greece, and suggested it to Simon Guerrier for the Bernice Summerfield range. As it happens, Simon’s wife is also a Classicist, so it appealed to him as well, and so I could commissioned to write my first script. Around the same time, I also wrote a couple of Dark Shadows scripts for their first season of audio dramas. Looking back, I had absolutely no discipline. I was guilty of all the sins I’ve since learned to flag up to writers having trained as a script editor, and I wish I’d had a stronger understanding of the medium (beyond being a listener) when I tackled those first scripts. I made the classic mistake of think audio’s easy because you can do practically anything - but I’ve learned that’s precisely why you need the discipline. But yes, they were my first jobs for Big Finish, back in 2006…
You’ve had quite an influence on the Bernice Summerfield range over the past decade and came on board during a time of sweeping change for the range. What was the reason the range jettisoned so much of it’s established continuity during the Epoch set and driven in completely new direction?
Some fantastic stories took place during that period – do you have any favourites?
I’m very fond of Paradise Frost, and I was chuffed to introduce David Llewellyn to the Big Finish ranks. He’s a brilliant writer, and that was technically my first directing credit (though actually the second in studio) so it holds a special place in my heart. I also adore The Winning Side, which I think is one of the finest Bernice Summerfield stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on, written by the brilliant James Goss. I’m pretty sure it was hearing the finished edit that convinced James to ask me aboard as director when he took over as producer. But it was a gift of a script as a director, and for all the cast too. Beautiful stuff.
Since these were your first Big Finish direction credits could you take us through a typical day of an audio director?
To be honest, the studio days are the simplest thing. By the time you get to studio, you’ll have fed back all your notes, made revisions, prepped your script and cast your actors. The recording days themselves are just a case of being as prepared as you possibly can be, sticking (as much as you can) to a schedule, being prepared for curveballs that will shock that schedule, and making sure everybody in your cast has fun. That’s not to say we don’t take the work seriously - everybody does - but I’m a firm believer that you get the best performances when people are relaxed and comfortable, so we’re quite irreverent in some ways. It’s very collaborative. I’m in charge of the day, but not the boss, if that makes sense. Everyone should be free to suggest ideas, rather than simply be told what to do and how to play things. So it’s more suggesting ideas and seeing where they take us rather than any hard and fast “do this, do that”. It’s just about making sure everyone’s included and involved.
What was the inspiration for the move to box sets for Benny?
I don’t know, actually! The decision was made before I came on board…
Would you say the range has lost a little of its identity since adding the Doctor Who logo or that that was a move that salvaged the series?
I don’t think it’s lost its identity, no. If you look back at some reactions online, a lot of the responses to those early New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield box sets were they were too Benny-focussed, when a section of the audience wanted more Doctor and Ace. The shift simply allowed us to play with different sides of Benny, in the same way that previous ‘eras’ placed her in different environments, with different recurring characters, and so on. I think you only have to listen to something like Good Night, Sweet Ladies to know the emphasis is still very much on Bernice Summerfield - and even when we have her travelling with the Unbound David Warner Doctor, he’s very much her companion rather than vice versa. It’s been fun to take her out of her established comfort zone and throw all manner of new things at her.
Does Benny have a bright future with Big Finish? What is to come?
Absolutely! She kicked it all off, after all. I can’t imagine a Big Finish without her (and thankfully neither can anyone else). This year marks twenty years of Big Finish (and in turn, Benny at Big Finish) and we’re celebrating in style with two new three-story sets - The Story So Far - covering all eras of Benny’s long life at Big Finish, with a whole host of familiar faces - plus a special audiobook collection of classic sort stories, including contributions from the likes of Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, Andrew Cartmel and Steven Moffat…
Let’s talk Dorian Gray. What was the initial pitch for the series?
Can you take us through the individual series with your aims?
Yeah. The first series was just a doggedly determined stab at showing we could do something original and attract an audience. It’s strange to think that, even five years ago, Big Finish was in a situation where it was still a big gamble to try new things that didn’t have an established audience, and I’d like to think it’s partly due to the success of projects like Dorian that we now have an entire range of Big Finish Originals. Obviously that first run was self-contained, as we didn’t know if we’d get more. But we did get more, and a second series was quickly commissioned, so my intent was to again keep it contained and wrap up the timeline - this time travelling back through his timeline, to a childhood haunting that tied in with the present day and a cliffhanger that shocked the listening audience at the time. We still didn’t know if Dorian had a life beyond that second series, and The Mayfair Monster was commissioned partly because Alex had an idea for a story, and I suggested that - if we were to stop - when better than with a story written by the man himself!
We were then lucky enough to be asked for a third series, and had the episode count increased from five to eight, allowing for a much larger arc. Every time we came back, I wanted to do something different, so that third series was always going to be one long arc. Part of me wanted to do something set in the ‘80s, because I’d seen how listeners had taken to Hugh Skinner’s character, and I had a notion of them fighting monsters together throughout the UK (which sort of later inspired the Christmas special, The Spirits of Christmas, a year later). Instead, I knew we had to set it i the present day and pick up from the cliffhanger, and if Hugh hadn’t been game for a return, we’d have brought back Isadora, as played by Katy Manning. Series four then returned to stories through time, and a two-hour Christmas special; whilst the fifth and final series morphed into four hour-long episodes, covering all of Dorian’s timeline, ending in the present day and a controversial climax…
For such an incredible range, why aren’t we seeing anymore?
There just came a point where Alex and I looked at one another during a lunchtime and simultaneously went, “we should end on a high”. We didn’t want it to become a routine thing, or for people to feel we were churning it out, as a lot of love went into every single story, and it’s tough to maintain that momentum sometimes. I count myself lucky that I get to work on a lot of different ranges, so I always feel fresh by the time I come back to anything. But yes, I think it felt like a natural time to draw a line under Dorian. Do I miss it? Course I do. I love the range, and the listeners, and working with Alex… but I’d hate for people to become bored with something we love. We did flirt with the idea of doing a “Lost Confessions” collection for the twentieth anniversary of Big Finish - there are three scripts I had written long before Big Finish even came aboard, plus the original unmade finale, so we could have done four hour-long dramas - but it felt too soon and I know Alex is reluctant to return to the role. In hindsight, we probably should have done the original ending. It was predictable in some ways, which is why I rejected it, but probably what the audience really wanted. You live and learn!
How did you find Alexander Vlahos?
Just by being in Cardiff. I’m always keeping an eye out for new talent, and Alex was doing a number of things at BBC Wales around 2010, when we first got him in for Big Finish. Then, by the time we came to offer him the Dorian series, he was just about to appear on screens as Mordred in the popular BBC One Merlin series, so we managed to nab him just as he entered the Cult TV sphere!
Do you think audio drama is suited to half an hour segments?
It depends on the story. Some can be told in half an hour, others will need an hour or even longer. I think the joy of the half-hour format is it allowed us to tell different types of stories, with sharper focus that don’t outstay their welcome. I found the same thing applied when I took over the Iris Wildthyme range, especially as comedy really does rely on maintaining a pace, and I always felt the hour-long adventures meant the central gags became tired by the time you reached the end, which was far less of a problem when you only had thirty minutes. At the same time, we’d never have dome something like One Must Not Look At Mirrors justice if we’d only had half an hour. So yeah, audio’s suited to half hours just as much as any other duration, depending on the story your’e wanting to tell.
What are your personal triumphs with this series?
Getting it out there in the first place was a major triumph for me, to be honest. It was the first project I’d tackled solely as producer, and having sold the idea to Big Finish, it was my mission to make sure it worked - which thankfully, it did! I’m still amazed it developed the audience it did, and we were able to reach five series. It would have been tempting to carry on just to see how much further that momentum would have carried us. If I had to pick a single episode, however, as my personal favourite, it would have to be The Heart That Lives Alone. It was the first script written for the series in its Big Finish format, and very much set the tone of the series for the other writers. It’s a script I’m very proud of, and the fact it provoked such responses in people was great to see.
Is there anything you didn’t have a chance to do that you would like to do now?
There are certain storylines I’d have liked to have tackled, or writers I’d have liked to have on board, but so much of this stuff is down to timings and availabilities. I don’t think there’s anything I really regret not having done. Maybe I should have gone with the original finale rather than try to resist the obvious. But then, if I had, people could well have argued it did exactly what they expected. It’s easy to overthink things in the moment!
You’ve made a huge success of the Torchwood range. Firstly, were you a huge fan of the TV show and what do you think were its greatest strengths and weaknesses?
How easy was it to transfer such an ambitious show on to audio? It’s another series that has gone from individual releases to box sets – could you tell us why?
It’s remarkably easy, as we’re not limited by CGI budgets and can tailor stories to focus on individual characters. It’s not really gone from individual releases to box sets. The individual releases are still there and going strong, but there are also larger stories we want to tell too, which work better in box sets (such as Outbreak, or Believe, and the epic Aliens Among Us). It’s just a case of variety. Some stories require more time, we’re experimenting with arcs, and the monthly releases allow us to explore more intimate character combinations. We want to try and deliver something for everyone!
You’ve directed a great many of the Torchwood release, are the cast of this show as riotous in the studio as they appear? Care to share any funny stories?
They’re brilliant, every single one of them. I’m not sure I’d say they’re riotous. Cheeky, certainly, and they like to have fun, but they’re also deeply professional. The focus is always on the work, and we work at a hell of a pace, so there aren’t many standout stories. Just lots of giggles and funny voices, and anecdotes from the likes of John Sessions who told John Barrowman his John Gielgud Umbrella story. We lost five minutes to that. He told the same story on QI if anyone wants to Google it…
How have you found the reaction to Aliens Among Us?
For a show that encompassed swearing, violence and sex…how far can you go on audio?
We can go just as far, if we need to, and we’ve had instances of all of the above in the audio adventures. The question is always: does the story warrant it. I’m quite hot on swearing particularly in scripts. If it doesn’t feel natural, or doesn’t carry dramatic weight - basically, if you can cut it and no one would notice - we cut it. Less is more, so you need to judge when you want to play those cards to their maximum effect. So yes, while we can have sex and swearing on audio, we try to avoid being too casual with it, or it loses its impact. But I think the Love Rat episode of Aliens Among Us shows we can go pretty much as far as anyone needs…
What titbits can you tell us about the future?
For Torchwood? Well, we have the monthly range kicking off again, with the return of James Marsters as Captain John Hart opposite John Barrowman; then stories with Burn Gorman and Gareth David-Lloyd, Eve Myles and Kai Owen, Samuel Barnett and Tom Price, Naoko Mori, and finally Murray Melvin as Bilis Manger… John, Eve, Gareth, Burn and Naoko all return for Torchwood: Believe: a three-part adventure written by Guy Adams, reuniting the original line-up… Yvonne Hartman returns with Ianto Jones for more tales from Torchwood One… and there are a few other things recorded for further down the line.
What inspired the War Master series?
Will we be hearing more from him? What can we expect?
He’s turning up in UNIT: Cyber-Reality… and Nick Briggs mentioned in a recent podcast (with a clip) that Derek’s been back in studio with me. But I can’t say anything more than that!
What was the pitch you gave to Russell T Davies that convinced him this was a solid reason to tell more tales with the Jacobi Master?
I think Russell just had it in his head that Derek couldn’t have fought in the Time War because he became the baby on the shores of the Silver Devastation… so I asked why that process had to mean a regeneration, and Russell agreed he could simply have been rejuvenated from Jacobi to Baby Jacobi at some point. Having worked on the show during Russell’s era, I’m aware just how much thought went into every decision, however small, so I like to preserve that onscreen intent as much as possible, and he’s very happy to say yes or no to any suggestions… thankfully mostly yes!
Is it difficult to tell stories with an anti-hero driving the action?
Not really. You could have said the same about Dorian, in a lot of ways. Just because the Master’s not a sympathetic character doesn’t mean he isn’t interesting for the audience. He absolutely is. And, like the Doctor, he plays his cards close to his chest a lot of the time. His motivations may be different, but they actually share a great deal in common, personality-wise…
Gallifrey is a series very close to my heart and one I have been following since it’s inception. Is it difficult to find new stories to tell for a series with so much history and continuity?
Truthfully, yes. I’d sort of walked away from it after Enemy Lines, as it felt like we’d been treading water a bit ever since the end of series three, which hinted at the oncoming Time War but had never quite gone there. So when David Richardson said they were planning to pitch Gallifrey into the Time War, I was very happy to come back as it opened up a fresh avenue of storytelling beyond Gallifrey itself.
Do you have any favourite characters?
I don’t know if I do, really. They all work so well individually, but really come together as a unit. It’s the combinations of characters that excite me, if I’m honest. It’s why I rather enjoyed the recent Time War box set, because it allowed us to explore dynamics we hadn’t yet been able to, but that’s only fun if you have such strong characters to begin with…
Why did the last three box sets take place in three different periods of Gallifrey’s timeline?
How did you want to approach the Time War in this series?
It’s the very early days, so it’s more about the declaration of war at this stage, and how we’ve ended up from the skirmishes we’ve seen to something altogether more catastrophic taking place. The Time War’s such a vast and sprawling event, I was keen to show as many different aspects to it as possible, from all sides of Gallifrey, otherwise there’s a danger that it becomes hordes of Daleks flooding the Sky Trenches, whereas the Gallifrey series has always been something more contemplative. At its heart, Gallifrey has always been about character, politics and concepts, and we were keen to keep that at the heart of the most recent release.
The ending of Desperate Measures seemed to segue rather neatly into the New Series Time War…will we be hearing any more and will it continue the story as left here?
There will be more Gallifrey, yes.
Could you tell us anything about your upcoming Main Range story, The Helliax Rift?
Of all the stories that you have written or directed, what are your personal favourites and why?
The Heart That Lives Alone, for the reasons I mentioned above. It’s probably the first time I felt I truly cracked the audio medium. I’m also very proud of Torchwood: Cascade because of the sheer challenge that script presented everyone, whether as a writer, script editor, director, actor, sound designer, composer… it really was an intricate production with so many different layers, all of which came together better than I could have hoped in the final edit. And most recently The Devil You Know because I love my intimate casts, and getting to write for Derek Jacobi and Louise Jameson is simply something I’d never have imagined possible!
Are there any Big Finish ranges that you would like to take a stab at that you haven’t tried yet?
There are stories I want to tell, but I don’t think that’s the same, as most of those would be for ranges I’ve already worked on. As a director, it’s more about people I’d like to work with rather than ranges, as such. I just count myself lucky to get to do as much as I am, and to work with as many brilliant people as I do.
What does the future hold for Scott Handcock?
At the moment, a fair old chunk of Big Finish, plus some TV development work, and bits of writing here and there. Beyond that, I’ve no idea… which is always terrifying and exciting in equal measure!
Thank you very much for your time.
Bernice Summerfield... https://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/v/doctor-who-the-new-adventures-of-bernice-summerfield
Dorian Gray... https://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/released/the-confessions-of-dorian-gray