Starburst talked with Nick Briggs, the Executive Producer of Big Finish (aka the voice of the Daleks, amongst many other talents). Being the year of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, there were a lot of things to discuss…
Starburst: Nick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. With the big anniversary in November fast approaching do you find you are getting busier and busier?
Nick Briggs: I suppose I do. There are all sorts of little extra things here and there popping up - like the Proms, for instance. It’s been three years since we last did a Doctor Who Proms. But the biggest anniversary-related thing that’s taking up a lot of my time at the moment is The Light at the End, our anniversary special Doctor Who audio. I’m working through the post-production at the moment and I seem to be answering an unending number of questions about the packaging.
When it came to planning for the anniversary you’ve gone for a 1963 themed trilogy of stories in the main range ending with the November release. This will feature a reunion between Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and the Counter-Measures team in a John Dorney story entitled The Assassination Games. Is there a danger of overloading the events of 1963? Is it difficult not to go back to the show’s roots for such a significant anniversary?
I think anniversaries are naturally times when people look back to when it all began. 1963 is such an important date in the core fans’ group consciousness. Certainly it is in mine and all the team at Big Finish. And that’s what we do, stuff that we’d like to listen to ourselves, in the hope that it matches what our listeners would like. With the multi-Doctor story, we also pay attention to the whole of the classic series’ history, so it’s not just concentrating on 1963, even though, of course, that date - if you’ve heard the trailer - is very significant indeed. I see your question implies that concentrating on 1963 is some kind of error. I don’t think it is. I must say, my initial instinct was not to do the ‘obvious’ thing and celebrate the history of the show. I initially thought of finding some way to do the best ever Doctor Who story in the world ever, ever... But then I thought, that’s what we try to do on every release. So what would be the difference? And then you have to look at what people want... And I truly believe that most fans want to celebrate the history of the show on its anniversary.
Big Finish is also collaborating with AudioGo on the Destiny of the Doctor range which gives Big Finish their first experience with the more modern Doctors. Is this something we might get more of in future – i.e. both working with AudioGo and stories featuring the modern Doctors?
Just imagine! Wouldn’t that be great? We certainly love working with AudioGo, they’re a really nice bunch of people we enjoy working alongside. Michael Stevens, in particular, is always bursting with good ideas and has always been very supportive of our work.
Many fans are waiting for Light at the End which is the multi-Doctor and multi-companion story you have penned. How was the writing for that? Did you treat it as just another story?
Are you kidding me? Just another story, with all eight Doctors in it? You’re having a laugh, aren’t you? But I know what you mean. When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of writing it, you have to immerse yourself in the story the same way you’d do with any script. You can’t spend your whole time thinking ‘Oooh, this is special, special, special!’ That would make it impossible to concentrate. So once I’d got over that fan tingle moment, I just got down to business and followed the brief!
If we wind the clock back ten years to the dark days of 2003, when the idea of TV Doctor Who seemed as remote as it had ever been, Big Finish were keeping the flame alive almost alone. That year’s 40th Anniversary release was Zagreus, featuring many familiar actors in unfamiliar roles and still the subject of some debate on the forums. With the many great stories you have told since, where would you rate Zagreus in all your audio work?
I think Zagreus was an attempt to do something amazingly different. Gary must have thought, ‘We can’t just do another bloomin’ multi-Doctor story. We’ve done that already.’
So this was a brave attempt to subvert expectations. I think it was incredibly brave, and a huge undertaking. But then there was the unfortunate timing of the TV series being announced at almost the same time. Zagreus would have been better loved, I think, if it had existed solely in a time when Big Finish were making the only Doctor Who drama, but with a new series announced and on the way, maybe it just didn’t sit right. Many people do love it.
It was a lesson for me to learn, because I kept kicking against the idea of doing ‘the obvious thing’. My line producer, David Richardson, repeatedly pleaded the case. ‘Isn’t it exciting, though?’ he said, ‘To do a multi-Doctor story, if we can?’ And he was right. He and one of our best writers, John Dorney, came up with a very loose story idea that made it possible for all the Doctors to participate. I took that idea and made it my own, fleshing it out. And the result is The Light at the End.
If we go back even further to 1998 when Big Finish first started and look at some of the many highlights such as getting the Doctor Who licence, releasing Sirens of Time, getting Paul McGann on board, the many other popular series such as Jago & Litefoot and getting Tom Baker to appear in the Fourth Doctor Adventures, is it fair to say you’ve probably all achieved more than you initially hoped or is this all part of the original vision?
I never really thought about what we were out to achieve. With regards to Doctor Who, we just wanted to do as much Doctor Who as possible. Tom said no fairly early on. So did Paul’s agent. Then, after Jason and Gary persisted, and Paul’s agent changed, I believe, Paul came on board.
I think Gary gave up hope of ever getting Tom, but when I became executive producer, I found that people were still asking about him, over and over again. I hadn’t realized people would still be asking. And so I made it my top secret aim to find a way of getting him on board.
And how do you and Jason Haigh-Ellery keep the vision of the company fresh? What would you like to be looking back on in 2023?
2023? I just concentrate what I’m doing in the here and now, and plan ahead by about three years at a time. But I would hope that we’ll still be producing our Doctor Whos. My other hope is that we’ll find more and more things we can do. More and more ways of delivering them to our listeners...
Returning to now; June 2013 saw the release of The Dalek Contract, a story for Tom Baker and Mary Tamm as Romana. This is the third of four stories set in a future where an unscrupulous mega-corporation called Conglomerate run by Cuthbert (David Warner) is experimenting in time travel and even making deals with the Daleks. Some fans will know that back in the Audio Visuals days you introduced a version of Cuthbert and Conglomerate in a story called The Destructor Contract. Have you now explored all the ideas from the Audio Visuals range?
I’m not sure. Possibly. There’s still The Secret of Nematoda – I’d like to do that one some time. Hmmm. But a good idea is a good idea, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.
You recently started up your Facebook page where you describe yourself as “Actor, Composer, Director, Presenter, Producer, Sound Designer, Writer”. How do you juggle so many activities? Is there room for any more?
I don’t think there’s room for any more. Isn’t that enough? I just do as much of each as I can. It’s the only way for me to make a living, since I don’t get paid much for doing any of them. Group them together, and I can just about support my family.
If we could just ask about Nick Briggs the writer; this year your book The Dalek Generation was released – a story for the Eleventh Doctor. How did you find writing a book compared to a script for audio? Have your learned anything about writing from the experience?
I’m always learning, hopefully. I think I’d stop doing stuff if I felt I wasn’t learning. Every time I do a bit of sound design or music, I learn something new about how to manipulate sound and how to use ProTools. Likewise, with writing, I feel I’m always learning about that too. Even when I’m not writing but when I’m watching plays, TV or movies.
Since I’d never written a book before, I was bound to be learning... and I did! I got pretty scared at one point, when it suddenly struck me that all I had to engage the audience with were my words. No music, no sound design. No actors or directors... Just. My. Words.
Then, of course, a form of megalomania kicked in and I really enjoyed it. While I was writing it, I said to David Richardson , ‘If you see me accepting another commission for a novel, shoot me!’ But by the time I’d finished, I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I’d do another one of those.’
With a vacancy in the TARDIS is it your turn to return to the role of everyone’s favourite Time Lord but this time on TV?
Obviously! I start filming tomorrow!
Ho, ho. Like they’d ever cast the voice of the Daleks as the Doctor. I’d love to do it, though. Mind you, I’m very excited to find out who is going to do it this time.
I shall miss Matt, though. I think he’s bloody brilliant.
And one last question – if you could pop back to meet your 20 year-old earlier self for a drink, what would the drink be, where would you meet and what advice would you give him?
Oh Christ! What a question! Interesting...
I’d meet him/me in a pub in Sidcup, where I went to drama school, probably. He’d be drinking Guinness or some kind of bitter, possibly Director’s – seriously. I used to drink gallons of that. You know, in those days when what you feed into your body *seems* to have no adverse effects on you! Oh, those were the days...
You know, I’ve become very much a believer in what turns out in the end. I think it’s all turned out pretty well now, thanks to Russell T Davies, and I don’t feel I’ve made any terrible mistakes. I’ve made plenty of stupid little mistakes, of course, probably on an almost daily basis! Things I’m too embarrassed to discuss here, that’s for sure. I think I could have been far more considerate and less self-obsessed, less immature. I think I’ve only really just started to grow up, and I’m over 50 now!