In an exclusive three-part interview with BlogtorWho, 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 Part Two, Briggs discusses some of his acting roles and his work as the voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen…
Nicholas Briggs in Sound and Space
Blogtor Who: Turning to your acting career, you made an appearance in Mark Gatiss’ ‘Adventures in Space and Time’. I keep getting the title wrong.
Nick Briggs: We all do.
BW: Where did that come from?
NB: Because that’s what it used to say in the Radio Times.
BW: Ah. Something to remember
BW: I thought it was really touching that you played Peter Hawkins [the original voice of the Daleks with David Graham in 1963] in the movie.
NB: That was an interesting one. I was only in it because of sheer Mark Gatiss power. Mark Gatiss’ power is very strong in the media. He breaks down barriers and insists on doing things his way and I’m very, very grateful for that.
BW: So how did you become involved?
NB: He said, “Come along and be in it”. I wasn’t sent a script; I wasn’t told anything. I think he intimated that I would be playing the man who did the voice of the Daleks. But since I wasn’t sent a script, I just assumed I would be seen in the background or something.
So I arrived, and first of all Mark took me to the set. Because that was his favourite thing to do while they were shooting. He’d invite his friends along, take them down to the set, not tell them what he was going to show them, and then watch their faces as they walked into the room and found themselves on the original TARDIS interior set.
And he’d stand there [makes faces] going “look what I’ve got”. And I gave him another one of those delights.
BW: I bet your face lit up like everybody else’s?
NB: I’m sure he’d done it to several people before me. And it was amazing. It was breathtaking. I burnt my finger on one of the controls because it was like a little illuminated ping pong ball.
And I thought “I wonder if that’s an illuminated ping pong ball, and I wondered if it moved.” So I put my finger on it — absolutely white hot with light.
I mentioned it to David Bradley, and the whole TARDIS crew while they were on set, and I said “I burned my finger on that”. And they said “Yeah, we did that as well!”
BW: Then I imagine you had to get into character?
NB: I was taken to makeup and they put a wig on me. They had a picture of Peter Hawkins and said ‘His hair was like this’. And then when I got down on set, the director said hello to me and said “Oh, I expect you’ll want a script.” And Mark Gatiss said “Oh, he won’t need a script, he knows the lines.” And I thought, “What is going on?” And I then realised that they were about to do the first Dalek scene. And funnily enough, I am sad enough to know the first ever line of Dalek dialogue. However, I don’t know the rest of the scene! So they sat me down and they gave me a copy of the original shooting script with the lines. I just got my glasses out to read it, and the costume person ran out and said “You can’t wear those, they’re too modern”. I said “Well, they’re a bit old fashioned.” “No, no, you can’t –“, and they quickly gave me another pair of glasses, through which I could see nothing. I can’t read without glasses! That’s what’s happened in my old age.
BW: Mine too.
NB: So the shot was happening, and it was only as the camera was getting to me, I don’t even know if this was the actually take. I’m not sure, it might have been in the rehearsal, it might have been in the take. And they handed me a pair of glasses just in time and I said, “Yeah, they’ll work.”
BW: And you managed to skate through?
NB: Yeah because of course, inevitably at the point the camera got to me — it was a huge crane shot and I could see the thing coming towards me — at the point it reached me those were precisely the lines I didn’t know. If they’d been on me earlier, I’d have been able to say them without looking at the script, or without being able to read the script before I put the pair of glasses on. And they also expected me to have a ring modulator with me.
BW: Which you didn’t?
NB: Mark said, “Well, get the thing out” and I said “What thing?” “You know, the ring modulator.” I said, “Mark, you didn’t ask me to bring it. I don’t walk around with it the whole time.” And he said, “Oh, I thought you’d just assume.” And I said “Well you didn’t tell me I’d be doing a Dalek voice. I thought I’d just be a person in the background.” Because that’s the basis on which I was employed, anyway, because of the budgets.
BW: It still must’ve been wonderful to be involved though?
NB: It was great fun to do and I was delighted to be in it. I wasn’t going to mention to Mark that actually that wasn’t how they did the Dalek voices in those days. They were pre-recorded on quarter-inch tape and played in by the Grams Operators upstairs.
BW: We’ll give him a little leeway, how’s that?
NB: Well, if I’d told him that he would’ve said “Oh, I don’t need you then!”, so I just kept quiet about it. It was fun to have me there doing that, but I’m sure a lot of the purists there would say “What on earth have they got Peter Hawkins at the side of the studio for?” I mean I think they did later on, I’m not sure when they started doing it, I know they did later on. They did have Dalek operators present in the studio doing it, but I’m not sure…I’ve got a funny feeling it might have been “Power of the Daleks” — but I don’t know.
BW: So, speaking of Dalek voices…
NB: [strong Dalek accent] “Yes”
BW: How many different Dalek voices do you have?
NB: I don’t keep count. And I’m always making up new ones. And slight variations of ones I’ve already done.
BW: So I was just going through in my head before this interview and I came up with ten.
NB: It’s probably more than that. Certainly when they’re all screaming and shouting there have to be so many different ones for them all to line up together. I’ve no idea, but that shows the really interesting, different things the writers have given me to do over the years, for which I’m really grateful.
It could just be — though I wouldn’t mind too much — but it could just be a job where I go in there and the Daleks all just bark orders at each other and say they’re going to kill people. Which would be fun to do anyway, but brilliantly, because they’re always striving to make it more interesting, I’ve had all sorts of interesting challenges.
BW: I think the Daleks have more layers to them in terms of that pitch than the other one you’re known for which is the Cybermen?
NB: Oh, totally. I mean the Cybermen are as dull as anything. But that is in their nature; they don’t have any emotions. The trick is to find some way to do something interesting that, by it’s very nature, shouldn’t even be remotely interesting.
The Cybermen should be really dull to listen to, if they were a *real* thing. But you have to remember of course that they’re not a real thing.
BW: You can’t of course go the other way then either?
NB: No, it would be wrong to make them too emotional. I think they got a bit like that in the 1980s, with the fist clenching, and [Cyberman voice] “excellent”. That doesn’t sound like an emotionless creature to me.
I think they should sound really odd. I’m a big fan of the original Cyberman voices — the [in a Tenth Planet Cyber voice] “We are Cybermen” voices — because that really strange alteration of pitch removes all trace of discernible emotion, and I really would have loved to have done that for the TV series, but Graeme Harper was not having it.
Graeme Harper directed the Doctor Who stories ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (1984) and ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ (1985). He returned to the programme in 2006 to direct ‘Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel’ and ‘Army of Ghosts/Doomsday’.
NB: I think what Russell had in mind was ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ and ‘The Moonbase’. He did that to me over the phone — [in a Moonbase Cyber voice] “weee arrrre Cyyyybermen”. The trouble with that voice is that the articulation of it is so tricky, and you have to have an electro-larynx to do it. It’s so tricky that you can’t really say anything complex or interesting, or give a scene any dramatic weight in a way that modern Doctor Who needs. Everything has to stop for a Cyberman to speak like a ‘Moonbase’ Cyberman.
I’ve recently done them for Big Finish, and they absolutely make you sick with all of the vibration going through your skull. Really! Nearly to the point of vomiting… certainly a bad headache. I was finding in post-production that I was having to rewrite all of the lines, so that they were saying things that it was possible to articulate clearly through the electro-larynx.
Even though they sound great to the Doctor Who fans of my age, they’re quite a trial to do.
BW: Good job we didn’t get them in the new series then. How did you approach their voices?
NB: Graham Harper and I worked out what we called — and he thought they were based on my attitude — “tactless”. So they weren’t entirely emotionless but they were certainly tactless. This really blunt way of speaking. Then a load of high pitched ring modulator distortion added onto it, and I pitched my voice incredibly, ridiculously low to fight that high pitch. Finally, you got this sort of strange, buzz of a voice.
BW: So I’ve been told by one of my crew that I had to ask about the ring modulator and the larynx. What would you like to say about them? What do they do? How do they work?
NB: OK. I can’t go into the technical details, partially because I don’t know all about the ins and outs of it. But mainly because most people would find it very boring. The ring modulator I liken to a strange musical instrument, and your voice is driving it. Certain things you do with your voice are then exaggerated by the ring modulator. Especially with the Daleks, slight changes in pitch are exaggerated by the ring modulator which gives you easy access to different types of Dalek voice. Plus the Daleks are all meant to sound very similar. One of the most important things about them — they’re not individualists.
So you have to put a lot into the ring modulator to get the result out of it. I’m a bit exhausted now because I’ve been screaming and shouting this morning doing the entirety of ‘Day of the Daleks’. Which actually amounts to about 14 minutes worth of solid Dalek, which isn’t a lot, but it seemed a lot at the time when I was doing it. They’ve got more lines in the book than they had in the TV series!
Due for release next month ‘Doctor Who and The Day of the Daleks’ will be an unabridged reading of the classic Target novelisation written by Terrance Dicks.
NB: Anyway, the electro-larynx thing creates a buzz. It’s for people who have lost their own larynx because of cancer or something. I felt very awkward buying one — it seemed like very poor taste. I had to buy it from a medical supplier online. I eventually had to phone them up; they didn’t actually ask me what I wanted it for, but they are very expensive.
You hold it right where your voice box is, and the buzzing vibration moves through your throat and your voice box — I’m not entirely sure it’s very good for you — but that then creates a buzz so that you can mouth words. Of course, when you speak normally, your voice box is creating sound that you then just articulate through your mouth. When using the electro-larynx, your articulation forms the words, but not with the noise from your own voice box, from this electronic buzz instead.
Interestingly they’ve created a new electro-larynx that follows the tone of your voice up and down, but that’s not what the old Cybermen sounded like. So it was quite difficult, I had to get hold of an old one. They’d rather sell you the new one because it’s much nicer for people who have speech problems to be able to give more vocal colour to their electronic voice. So it’s [bzzzzzzz] — very annoying.
BW: Another of your notable acting roles was for Torchwood: Children of Earth. Even though it is my favourite Torchwood, I don’t think I could watch again.
In Torchwood: Children of Earth, Briggs played Rick Yates MP who engaged in discussions over the 456’s demands for 10% of Earth’s children.
NB: Oh yeah, I don’t think I could watch that now I have a son.
BW: As I said I can’t watch it again. It just hit too hard. It was a very powerful scene that you delivered there.
NB: Funnily enough when I had to say the line, “Sorry, I haven’t got any kids”, which was very tactless, like Rick, of course my wife was pregnant. So that was a really funny thing to say because technically it was true for me as well. But to consider that possibility. It’s certainly a very powerful thing, in any drama, when you put a child or children in peril, for a large percentage of the population that is extremely powerful.
BW: Has your perspective changed now that you have had a child?
NB: Before I had a kid, I could appreciate things like that being powerful, but you just don’t know what it’s like until you do. I’d just been watching the last part of Peaky Blinders, where they kidnap his small child, and I think that had I not been a father I would have thought, possibly naively, “That’s a bit of an overreaction.” But the idea that your helpless little child is in the hands of people who will harm him if you don’t do as instructed…….. And the whole thing about Children of Earth is really horrible anyway. But it was a great job to have; it was lovely to do.
BW: You also appeared in Noel Clarke’s film Adulthood. How did that come about?
NB: I became friends with Noel on the set of Doctor Who, just chatting away. He said “Briggsy, give me your phone number, we’re going to be mates.” And he’s been true to his word. He tried to get me into an episode of Torchwood that he wrote, but unfortunately the character got cut.
Having appeared as Mickey Smith in Doctor Who, Noel Clarke also wrote the Torchwood episode ‘Combat’ in 2006. He also authored the British films ‘Kidulthood’ and ‘Adulthood’. ‘Brotherhood’, the third in the series, was also recently released in cinemas.
NB: I remember him phoning me up to apologise profusely. In every draft he put next to the character’s name “to be played by Nicholas Briggs”. But it didn’t work. That’s probably why they cut the character, to avoid embarrassment. Noel said, I would be in all of his films, but I don’t think that’s quite possible. Anyway, he got me in Adulthood, and we had great fun shooting the scene.
BW: What was Noel like as a director?
NB: He’s one of those sneaky directors who sometimes gives different actors different notes in the same scene. So he told the girl [Scarlett Alice Johnson], he gave her one note, and he gave me the opposite note. He told her, “You don’t like this man anywhere near you. You don’t want him to touch you.”
And he told me, “You really like her. You want to reassure her [reaches out as if touching shoulders]. You want to let her know that everything’s all right.” So that creates an incredible dynamic in the scene, because she’s just been beaten up outside, and I’m running along, and say a four-letter word. And I’m constantly trying to reassure her, and she’s flinching away from me the whole time.
It makes the scene far more interesting. I remember thinking at the time, “Bloomin’ heck, this is a bit weird.” But it’s great because I’m disconcerted and she’s disturbed because she’s just been told she mustn’t let this guy near her and all he’s trying to do is get near her.
The other thing was that during the editing process, Noel kept contacting me and saying, “You’re still in it, I haven’t cut you out.” There was a great director of photography [Brian Tufano] — he was quite a veteran. He had all these guerrilla tactics for shooting film, sliding cameras off wardrobes or goodness knows what. He didn’t have to have the full kit and a lot of it was filmed hand-held.
Now I knew that he wasn’t the kind of director of photography that would want loads of coverage of everything. If he knew he had the scene encapsulated in a shot, he’d say “That’s all we need for this scene.” I knew that one big scene I did, they’d shot in one shot – a “two-shot” with me and the lead character with the hand-held camera – and we’re both in the shot at the same time.
He didn’t do the thing of coming around and doing her close-up and then doing my close-up, and then covering it on a wide, and maybe do it on a track to begin and all that kind of stuff. It was just done in one shot. So when Noel kept saying to me “You’re still in the film,” I’d say to him “Listen mate, it’s the scene when she leaves her job, when everything changed in the movie.” I said, “There’s only one shot of it, and it’s got me in it, so even if you wanted to cut me, you couldn’t miss out a vital bit of the plot.”
BW: That was a great scene and quite pivotal too. Did you enjoy the premiere of the film?
NB: It was great going to the premier of it. Sitting there, I’ve never seen my face so big, a huge big bald head on a screen, it was disturbing. [laughs]
BW: You also wrote for Starburst and TV Zone magazine and did a lot of interviews for those?
NB: Yeah, I went to Visual Imagination because I was unemployed, and some friends of mine, Gary Russell and John Ainesworth worked for them. They got me a job basically as the office boy. So I was just putting things in envelopes, answering the phone, and then they discovered I’d done a touch-typing course. I was, and still am, a really fast touch-typer — it’s one of my few skills. That, growing a beard, doing the voice of the Daleks, and rowing a boat, and sleeping — I’m very good at sleeping.
I saw them struggling typing up the letters page, because in those days letters came in as letters not as email, and I said “I can type those up for you.” They were astounded at how quickly I could do it. I think I did it in about a quarter of the time it took them, if not quicker actually. So I used to do the letters page and then they thought, “Well if he can type so fast…”.They often used to get press releases and try and reformat them into something that looked a bit like an original article and not like it was just a regurgitated press release.
BW: They thought that you could be a bit useful?
NB: Yeah. So they gave me these big press packs for movies and say “Can you turn this into an article?” And I go “Yeah, yeah, sure.” And so I’d do it. I’d type it all up and move it all around and make it sound a little less like a press release. So they realised I could do that, and they knew I’d been doing Myth Makers, and so they then started to get me to transcribe interviews that other people had done. Or I’d do actual phone interviews. Or go off and do interviews. It just grew from there really and I ended up being the editor of Film Review. I learnt lots and lots of things there. I learnt how to work in an office, which I’d never done before, and I was probably quite bad at it and annoying to start with.
BW: How did you find the office environment?
NB: I must say that the whole time there was quite difficult and restricting and unpleasant for me, but I did learn a load of stuff. A lot of computer stuff, being a person of my generation, I wouldn’t have otherwise known. I would now be one of those fifty-four year olds who goes [stilted voice] “Oh, I don’t know what to do with my computer.” I do feign that behaviour sometimes, but I pretty much know how to use computers.
BW: Do you think it also gave you the tools for Big Finish? There is a certain amount of structure that you have to have for a company like that?
NB: Yes. Both that job and then working for the Sci-Fi channel [now SyFy] later gave me enough experience of, for lack of a better phrase, “grown-up work”, to be able to tackle the less “bright shiny” things about being executive producer at Big Finish. You can’t rely on yourself to be distracted just by the shiny, exciting stuff, you have to get down to the nitty gritty of working out stuff about…
BW: Timeframes? Schedules?
NB: Yes, all that kind of stuff.
BW: Not very exciting stuff but if you can’t do that successfully then you can’t be successful overall?
NB: Well like with all these things and with computers, if they can facilitate creativity in my life then I’ll do those things. I’m not a computer wiz, but I always learn enough about whatever tools I’m using, like ProTools for editing, in order to express myself sufficiently.
Interview by Susan Hewitt, Article by Bedwyr Gullidge
In the third and final part of our exclusive interview with Nicholas Briggs he talks all things Big Finish, how it all started, the highlights and the casting coups…