In an exclusive three-part interview with Blogtor Who, Nicholas Briggs looks back on 10 years as Executive Producer of Big Finish audios. He reflects on his career, his work as the voice of various Doctor Who monsters and of course, Big Finish.
In the third and final part, Nicholas Briggs talks all things Big Finish, how it all started, the highlights, the casting coups and where the future lies in 2017 and beyond…
Blogtor Who: So let’s get into Big Finish then. How did it all begin?
Nick Briggs: I did the Doctor Who audios for fun, ‘Audio Visuals’ it was called. Gary Russell and I finally finished doing it because we thought we had to get proper jobs. Gary certainly said to me, “Wouldn’t it be brilliant one day if we could get a licence from the BBC to do this properly, with the proper Doctors?” And I agreed, what a wonderful idea it would be, and how exciting it would be.
Then a few years later Gary set about making that a reality, because he got to a point where he had enough contacts at the BBC to find out about it. When I say “contacts”, I think it was largely Steve Cole; there may have been other people.
[Blogtor Who Note] Steve Cole worked for BBC Books and authored a number of novels including ‘Sting of the Zygons’ and ‘The Monsters Inside’.
NB: [Gary Russell] had the where-with-all to realise that he would need someone who had a business in order to run it. He’d been friends with Jason Haigh-Ellery for years and years and years, since they were children, although Gary was older than Jason. So he got Jason involved, and Jason is a massive Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 fan.
They got it together but there was the Doctor Who movie and there was going to be a new TV series. So the BBC said, “No, not just now.” Then we went and did Bernie Summerfield, got a licence from Paul Cornell and Virgin Publishing, and did that.
[Blogtor Who Note] Bernice Summerfield was a character introduced by writer Paul Cornell during the Virgin New Adventures series of novels. Big Finish therefore, began adapting stories featuring that character which they could then present to the BBC as evidence of their work in order to secure the licence for Doctor Who.
BW: Sadly the Paul McGann movie didn’t result in a new TV series.
NB: No it didn’t. So they [Gary and Jason] went back and asked again. By that time Doctor Who had sort of been kicked into the long grass with the BBC; it wasn’t a happening thing. And when something’s not a happening thing it’s easier to get an agreement on it because no one’s really interested. Although, that’s not to say they didn’t care about Doctor Who, but it just wasn’t a *big thing*.
BW: How would you describe the attitude towards the show at that time?
NB: There was the feeling that it had had its day and had its chance, and so it was relatively easy — relatively easy — to get an agreement. Gary, as he often did, came around to visit me for a cup of tea, because we used to live five minutes’ walk away from each other.
We used to visit each other without prior announcement, but it seems that these days that doesn’t happen in our lives, in anyone’s lives, and certainly not in mine. But then Gary came around and he told me the good news, and he told me that I couldn’t write it because I wasn’t a recognised Doctor Who novelist!
NB: But I could do all of the directing and sound design and music that I could handle. I was very excited, but also disappointed because I desperately wanted to write it. By the time he’d got home, five minutes later, he phoned me and said, “Look, actually, maybe we should get you to write the first one.” I said “That’s lucky, because I’ve already come up with an idea.” He said “Yeah, I knew you would have done.” And that was essentially ‘The Sirens of Time’.
[Blogtor Who Note] Released in July 1999 ‘The Sirens of Time’ starred Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, all reprising their incarnations of The Doctor. Nicholas Briggs wrote and directed the release which is still available to download from the Big Finish website.
NB: I think Gary wanted me to write it a) because he had some confidence in my ability, and b) because he wanted it to be kept secret for as long as possible. He knew that me being part of the team would keep a lid on it. So we had a big meeting with a load of potential writers, and then other people started to know. But almost none of those potential writers were happy that I was writing the first story.
That’s when I first encountered potential discord within Doctor Who fandom. Up until then I hadn’t had any *real* encounters. I had this naive belief that we all liked the programme for the same reasons and thought the same things about it. It was at that point that I realised that it was an *extremely* broad church bristling with egos. I expected people to say, “Oh, brilliant, really exciting, good luck and well done.” But almost nobody thought that.
The only person who seemed to be pleased that I was writing the first one was Justin Richards, who seemed to be pleased. But there were others who were pretty furious that it wasn’t them. But that has been covered elsewhere so I won’t open that wound.
BW: How do you look back on it now?
NB: It was a long time ago and it causes no hurt to me. I just look back at it as an interesting moment when I thought, “Oh? That’s what this world is like? I never thought it was like that, but it is.” It is bristling with egos, and “things should be this way”, and “things should be that way”. I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m just saying that’s what it’s like, and I hadn’t known it up until that point.
BW: Well, I suppose that happens when you become passionate about a subject and particularly with Doctor Who.
NB: But that’s in the nature of things when you’re an aficionado of something, especially if it’s a TV programme not actually being made. Those people who follow it, with some justification, but possibly unconsciously, take some ownership of it. They feel they own it in some way, because no one else has paid any attention to it, and ‘We are the custodians of it’, is what they think. And I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself. Not that it’s a thing to feel particularly guilty about. But yeah, that’s what happened with Doctor Who, and I don’t think that will ever change now because of that long period when it wasn’t on television.
BW: The way that people are able to express their views has of course changed drastically since the advent of social media?
NB: I think the interesting thing about the internet is that it’s blurred the distinction between people having an opinion about something in their life that’s important, but not important in the grand scheme of things, and that opinion being directly injected into the eyes and the ears of the people who create that thing which they follow.
I’ve always said, and I’ve noticed that Steven Moffat has said something similar, when you love a movie or TV show, you get together with people who you like and you have a good old bitch about it. Down the pub, round a friend’s house, wherever. And in my view that’s where that should happen. And that’s absolutely fine.
As someone myself who’s creating something with other people discussing it — not that it’s within my gift to give them permission or not — it’s absolutely right that they should be saying possibly the most appalling things about me over a pint, over a cup of tea, on the phone to each other, in emails. But it’s not for me to be part of that conversation. The trouble is that when negative comments appear on the internet, it seems to feel as though I’m being included in that conversation. But it only feels that way. Those being discussed — whether it’s me or important people like Steven or Russell or whoever — should not be part of the conversation.
BW: Of course it would be preferable if they were saying nice things but either way it is not your place to be involved in that conversation?
NB: It’s a bit like if someone is slagging you off in a pub and you suddenly turn up. If I’m being rude about a particular film director whose work I don’t like and he suddenly turns up in the pub, that’s just a disaster isn’t it? That’s the problem with what’s happened with the internet. What I always say to people, when they do do something on the internet in front of me that’s really rude about me — on my Facebook page or whatever — I say “Of course you’re entitled to that view. I can’t change your mind. All I want to say is that you’ve hurt me.'” That’s all, that’s all you’ve done.
I’m just another human being, and you’ve said something rotten about me and my work, and it really hurts. And of course a lot of people go “Well, you should get a tougher skin.” I don’t think I should, because I don’t know what kind of person that would make me, but not one that I would want to be. I think, perhaps controversially, that if you’ve got a ‘tough skin’, you can’t be a creative person.
BW: We have an approach on our site that a reviewer is free to critique a particular piece or work – they have to give an honest opinion – but we don’t publish any personal scathing comments on the actors, writers or their skills or the talents. We’ll make a comment like – the story can be difficult to follow or such but we would never say the writer is incapable of producing a plot. One is a critique. The other can be a painfully personal attack.
NB: The thing is, I even think that if someone does attack something in a review, I think that’s fair enough, that’s just their point of view. You’ve made a judgment about Blogtor Who that you’re not that kind of website. I honestly think that’s very laudable, but there are other websites that don’t do that. I’m not saying that they should be banned or expunged. They simply make a choice about the kind of website or magazine they want to be. And I think that if a “creative”, as it were, in inverted commas, is offended by a dismissive, or as they see it, unfair, aggressive, negative review, then it’s kind of their fault for reading it. It’s your responsibility for reading it. My responsibility.
BW: I imagine you learn quickly the websites or publications where the reviews are the most aggressive in their criticism but can it also come from people too?
NB: Just the other day someone that works on a magazine thought it was OK to say to me, “A lot of my friends say ‘I don’t bother watching the Dalek ones, because it just sounds like Nick Briggs going ‘blah blah blah blah’.’” I just thought, “I don’t know why you thought that was appropriate to say to me because it’s really hurtful.” What you’ve just said there is “Well, your job’s not worth anything, is it? It’s just a load of rubbish.” It doesn’t matter if people don’t like it, of course. But what he said to my face was just a massively, massively insensitive and selfish thing to say. I pretended not to be hurt of course — like a tearful child saying ‘Doesn’t hurt’ when the bully punches him. But I can’t quite work out what his purpose in saying that was. Maybe he has no experience of caring about anything in his life, or in his work, and he doesn’t care if people don’t like it or not. Maybe he’s got a really ‘tough skin’. But I can’t think why people need to be that rude to your face. I’m sure they probably don’t know they’re being rude.
BW: I don’t know.
NB: There’s this idea that if you put yourself out there and part of what you do is for popular adulation or appreciation, then it’s your own tough luck. And that’s probably right. The price you have to pay for the privilege of people loving your work is people also hating it or being indifferent to it or rude about it, and telling you!
BW: Going back a little, there’s currently all this buzz around a female doctor…
NB: [Feigns surprise] Is there?
BW: … but you’ve already sort of done it?
NB: Yeah, we did do it in our Unbound series. We had our Arabella Weir playing [the Doctor]. But the Unbound series is a very much “what if” thing.
[Blogtor Who Note] The ‘Doctor Who: Unbound’ series offered a number of hypothetical ‘What if?’ scenarios and are still available on CD and to download through the Big Finish website. This includes ‘Exile’ which featured a female incarnation of The Doctor…
NB: The Doctor, in order to change sex, committed suicide because in our Unbound story, the idea was if a Time Lord took his or her own life, it would swap the gender of his next regeneration. I just made it up as a bit of a joke at the time really because it is a fairly humorous episode. She, or rather he, escapes from the Time Lords before they sentence him to regeneration. He goes and hides on Earth, commits suicide, becomes a woman, and goes to work at Sainsbury’s.
[Laughter] Of course the Time Lords send agents after her…him.
In the meantime, she gets involved in a very dull workaday life. A lot of people escape from their dull workaday life with alcohol abuse, and she gets caught up in that whole horrible situation of going to the pub all the time, and spending most of her life intoxicated, and feeling rather ill. And when she’s feeling ill, she hallucinates. The previous version of the Doctor, which is played by me, harasses her about the fact that she’s a rubbish Doctor and she should be out in the universe fighting the Quarks.
BW: It was certainly an imaginative and creative series.
NB: It was a crazy, crazy thing we did. It’s really interesting for me looking back. It’s something I would never do now. We did it then because Doctor Who had been gone for a long time, and it seemed like ages (but it wasn’t that long at all). But we’d been doing Doctor Who, and repeating the format over and over again, and we felt, “Let’s do something new. Let’s break the rules and see how Doctor Who would work with all the rules broken.” So it is very much of its time, and I wouldn’t recommend it for younger listeners. It’s a little piece of Big Finish history, and it actually features David Tennant playing one of the Time Lords! Arabella Weir was his former landlady, and she said “You must get my friend David in. He loves Doctor Who.” So we had a fine old time.
BW: So that’s how you ended up with David Tennant in Doctor Who then?
NB: I don’t know whether he’d done one for us before; I can’t remember. He certainly did quite a few afterwards.
[Blogtor Who Note] David Tennant appeared in a number of Big Finish audios beginning with ‘Colditz’, released in 2001, and of course the recently released Tenth Doctor Adventures.
BW: You’ve had nearly everyone in there. Didn’t you have Benedict Cumberbatch?
NB: Yeah, yeah, he played Howard Carter, the famous egyptologist.
[Blogtor Who Note] Benedict Cumberbatch played Howard Carter in ‘Forty-Five’ opposite Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor with companions Ace and Hex.
NB: Benedict had just done the audition for Sherlock, and they told him they wanted him but he hadn’t accepted the part. So it was just on the cusp of him becoming ridiculously famous.
BW: Well that seems to be where you catch a lot of people, just on the cusp of them becoming ridiculously famous?
NB: Well, Hayley Atwell had just come out of drama school and had just done some big thing on BBC2, “The Line of Beauty” I think. Now she’s an international film star and been doing a big American TV series [Atwell plays Agent Carter for the Marvel franchise]. But she still comes back to us now and again.
BW: I think you have everyone coming back too.
NB: Yeah, mostly, mostly. I don’t think we’d ever get Benedict Cumberbatch back; he’s just rocketed off, into the stratosphere. But maybe I’m speaking out of turn — if I were to bump into him tomorrow and mention it to him, he might say “Yeah, alright.”
BW: But people can fit it in and they get this nice little slot where they can do this one particular episode. It also seems like a lot of fun for a lot of people. It is certainly creative. Creative and cost effective. And I think that keeps the stories sharp because you’re not doing all of the visual stuff that goes along with it.
NB: You’re so right. From all those points of view, but for example, Catherine Tate said, “Aw, it’s so quick! You don’t have to worry about hair, makeup, lighting, standing on your mark.” I think she just loved the fact that it was so quick and easy to do. But as long as you get the lines recorded, it doesn’t matter what happens around them, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter about the timing — you can sort all that in post-production.
BW: I think that’s probably why you’ve kept a lot of people involved.
NB: And we’re nice to people as well. We see it as our job to treat people nicely, give them some nice food, chat with them, introduce them to everyone else. I can’t tell you the number of jobs I’ve been on — I shall not mention what these jobs are — and no one introduces anyone to anyone, and you turn up and you’re sort of sitting there looking at them, and you’re wondering “Are they in this job? Who are they? Am I supposed to talk to them?” All this kind of thing. We make sure everyone knows everyone. That’s a hugely important thing. We always do it, we always make sure, you know, everyone’s shaken hands.
It’s just such a basic thing and it doesn’t happen in so many jobs. Particularly television, a collection of caravans in a car park, and someone knocks on your door and brings you a cup of tea, and then you’re stuck in there and no one talks to anyone else.
When I work on Doctor Who I always go and knock on the Doctor’s door. I’m probably not supposed to. Particularly with Peter [Capaldi] as well, he always says “Come in! Come in!”, and we have a good old chat about everything under the sun.
BW: OK, how about the Dalek Empire? How did that come about?
NB: That was just something I’d always wanted to do. And when we got the rights to do the Daleks, because we didn’t get those straight away, Jason came to me and said, “Would you like to do a Dalek thing where The Doctor isn’t in it?” And my initial idea was to adapt the old Dalek books and annuals, but then I thought, “no, let’s do something new and original”.
I wanted the stakes to be higher. That was my thing at the time about Doctor Who. I always thought, “We always know he’s the cleverest person on the planet. We always know he’ll defeat the enemy, and that he’ll survive.” And I wanted to do a story where the heroes weren’t in that position. They weren’t necessarily cleverer than the Daleks; they weren’t necessarily going to win; they weren’t necessarily going to survive. And I wanted the audience to think “Gasp! This person who I’ve invested some emotion in could die in the next two minutes!”
But Jason did warn me while we were doing the first series, “Stop killing people off. It’s quite popular and we need to do another series.” [laughs]
BW: They were very good. I think it’s one of the best because it’s unique and outside the standard formula. And I like the fact that you’ve been able to do those twists.
So how about The Prisoner? That was a killing and a coup. It was brilliant.
NB: The Prisoner, was, of all the things we’ve ever announced, it was received with the most hostility we’ve ever had, I think.
NB: Yeah, yeah. But I understand that and had I not been the person making it, I think I would have been one of those people receiving it in a hostile way. You think, “Why? Leave ‘The Prisoner’ alone for goodness sake! It’s perfect as it is.” And the remake wasn’t well received.
[Blogtor Who Note] ‘The Prisoner’ was a classic British television series broadcast between 1967 and 1968. In 2009 a remake co-produced with American network AMC and British channel ITV and starring Ian McKellan and Jim Caviezel. It lasted only 6 episodes.
NB: I was very lucky that ITV trusted me to do it, with very little explanation of exactly what I wanted to do. I did present them with a document, I did give them quite a bit of explanation about the storylines and everything. I said “This is what I want to do with it, I want to make it very much like the old series, but with just a sort of twist.” But I don’t think I encapsulated it particularly economically. Traditionally people say that if you can’t encapsulate your idea for something in one sentence then really it’s probably not worth doing. Well, this is one of those cases where that’s not true, because it was worth doing.
BW: You must’ve said something right though?
NB: I just believed in it. I had a real, blind, faith in it. It wasn’t until after it had been released, and it was clearly loved by everyone, I suddenly had that feeling like I’d leapt from one ledge to another, over an abyss, fearlessly. And then I stopped and looked back over my shoulder and looked where I could have been: squashed at the bottom. Only then did I become stressed and fearful in retrospect. “That could have gone really badly.” It didn’t. It got the most incredible reviews — go and look on the product page, they’re all there (as many as I could fit on, anyway).
BW: Did you enjoy the process of making it?
NB: It was incredible to do. Because even though it wasn’t my idea, I was creating the new way of doing it from the ground up. It was great fun to work out how much it should be just like the original, and how much I could extrapolate into something new but that was still in the spirit of the original. From all the reviews, and everything people have said to me, no one has said anything where I thought, “Oh, I wasn’t intending that. It’s odd you got that out of it.” When people talk to me about it, it’s almost like they tapped into my mind, and they’re saying exactly what I’m thinking about it. So I’m really pleased from that point of view. I’m really lucky to have found Mark Elstob [who played Number 6], to have remembered him as someone whom I worked with. I thought he probably would like The Prisoner, and then discovering for certain that he adores it. Yeah, loads of brilliant stuff fell into place.
BW: The music isn’t the same, it has a slight twist…
NB: The music encapsulates it…
BW: … it makes you feel exactly like the Prisoner does.
NB: That’s exactly what Jamie Robertson, the composer, was after. It took him a couple of goes to get it exactly right. And once he latched into that style, this was just working on episode 1, then he just flew through the rest of it, and I hardly had to say anything at all. He got it. He’s such an incredibly brilliant, instinctive composer, who has such a great feel for different styles of music. He said, “It’s kind of big band music with pop music in there, very ’60s, yeah, I’ve got it.” And boom! He was off. The music is exactly what I wanted across the board; for it to feel very much like it could be an alternative universe version of the 1960s, where ‘The Prisoner’ was made as a radio broadcast and not a TV show.
BW: Are there any other shows you’d like to do that you haven’t been able to get yet?
NB: We’ve not got Thunderbirds. We’d love to do Thunderbirds. We’d get Gerry Anderson’s son Jamie, who works with us a lot, we’d get him to do it for us. ‘The Prisoner’ came out of lots of talks with ITV about Thunderbirds, so that’s how that came about. When they couldn’t give me Thunderbirds, they said “Well, is there anything else?”, and I said “I’ve been mentioning The Prisoner for the last six years.” And they said “Oh, OK then.”
BW: Speaking of Anderson, I’d love you to do Space 1999.
NB: Yeah, that’d be good. All those things, we’d love to do ’em.
BW: Returning to Doctor Who then, you’ve now nearly got a full complement of Doctors haven’t you? Only missing the Ninth?
NB: And obviously we’d like to do the Eleventh Doctor as well. No, Chris Eccleston is passing on the opportunity to do it at the moment. So we will investigate other ways of presenting his era within Big Finish. But hopefully one day he might change his mind. We’ll keep asking him. One day he and David Tennant will be playing water pistols at a Doctor Who convention, don’t you think? Just like Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. [laughter] If only. There was a time when people thought Tom [Baker] was never going to do them and now he’s having the time of his life.
BW: Big Finish has certainly extended the lives of all of the Doctors.
NB: In the remote possibility that Christopher Eccleston is reading this interview, I would urge him never to close the door on it entirely. I don’t think he has. He always speaks about Doctor Who with great affection, when people corner him into speaking about it. I really enjoyed working with him, I thought he was a great Doctor, dedicated to the role and I was nothing but really impressed by him.
BW: His Doctor was quite special.
NB: I think he made the continuing reinvention of Doctor Who possible by showing that something could be completely different. It needn’t be the kind of Doctor that it used to be, and I think that was important. Although interestingly the Doctors have now veered back more towards the way they were in the classic series. But I think Chris particularly showed that actually, it could just be anything and anyone. And be brilliant.
BW: Now you also have John Hurt as the War Doctor in there too?
NB: Oh! Of course! Wow, that was the most amazing…
BW: That was a coup, wasn’t it?
NB: Yeah, great experience. He’s made no secret of the fact that, basically, because he had cancer he was looking for work he could do when he was sitting down. But he’s said he’s done all sorts of jobs for all sorts of reasons. The reason doesn’t matter, it’s the fact that he’s done it, and he had a really great time doing it. It was such a pleasure to work with him.
BW: Do you see him coming back for more?
NB: We’ve certainly intimated we’d like to do them. He was given the all clear from the cancer after our first recording session, so he did the next few knowing that he was well again. But I think he pretty much knew he was on the mend when he did the first one with us. The moment he’s given the all clear, he’s eligible for lots of film work and straight after his last session with us, he was off filming something else. He’s very in demand. He’s just one of those actors where casting directors say, “Oh, god, can we get John Hurt? That would be brilliant if we got John Hurt.” They’re always making that decision because, apart from the fact that he’s clearly a brilliant actor, he’s brilliant to work with, he’s really well prepared, he has a great dexterity in his performance, he’s really smart, he’s really on it, and he doesn’t bring any peripheral nonsense with him. He’s just great. Really a lovely, lovely man.
BW: We have just heard the great announcement of John Hurt returning as the Invisible Man. What can we expect from Big Finish in 2017?
NB: That is, of course, a gigantic question, and one that I can only answer with a list of teases! Where to start?
The Doctor Who main range is going to feature a trilogy of double-bills, in which the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors will appear in two, related two-part stories per double-CD release. It will deliver really exciting stories and challenging ideas.
There’ll be a new website this year, with all sorts of great new features. You’ll be able to access the Doctor Who releases by individual Doctor strands far more easily.
The Fourth Doctor range enters some fascinating new territory, with the Doctor and Romana encountering Jago and Litefoot, Sontarans, the Hollywood silent movie era, a haunted 1920s mansion and some really mind-blowing alien stuff.
The Eighth Doctor finishes his Doom Coalition sequence of stories and we move into the Time War with him — although there are plans afoot to do many more adventures with the Eighth Doctor in that almost infinite run-up to the Time War. We’re not shutting off any narrative possibilities there.
There’ll also be all sorts of great stuff for the First, Second and Third Doctors too — with the Daleks turning up to have a battle with the Third Doctor.
As you have heard, we’re doing all the great H.G. Wells classics — I’m currently writing The War of the Worlds, very exciting.
There’s a second series of The Prisoner out in time for the 50th anniversary of the series in September.
There’ll also be some great Gerry Anderson news too!
Honestly, the list feels almost endless. There’s loads I’ve left out, but I hope that gives you a flavour of the exciting times ahead.
One last thing, though… We have two anniversaries coming up. 2018 is the 20th anniversary of Big Finish Productions and 2019 is the 20th anniversary of Doctor Who at Big Finish Productions. So, 2018 will celebrate our inventiveness and tradition of creating new things, with a number of entirely original productions. 2019… well, it’s a monster of an anniversary for us, isn’t it?
All sorts of plans for that. Consider my big tease over… for now!
Interview by Susan Hewitt, Article by Bedwyr Gullidge
Read the previous two parts of this interview at: