It’s a new era for Big Finish, as the company joins the download revolution and offers its audio adventures for instant access from its site at www.bigfinish.com . It’s the latest milestone from a company that has been turning out quality, original, BBC licensed Doctor Who product for nearly a decade now, using actors from the TV show as well a host of other big name stars. It’s been an amazing success story, and the man who’s been overseen the company from the start, Jason Haigh-Ellery, spoke to SFX recently about the incredible audio journey.
SFX: So, Jason, what have been the highs?
“The first high must have been, I think, the first one we recorded – 'Sirens of Time' (1999), when I realised we had three Doctors in the studio – Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy – recording new Doctor Who. It’s easy to forget that Doctor Who had become almost a forgotten property. It was something that the fans really wanted, but just wasn’t available. Getting the licence in the first place was just fantastic, but actually getting it written and the Doctors physically in the studio, and suddenly we’ve got new Doctor Who being recorded… that meant a lot to everybody, I think. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all fans.
“Moving on from that, getting Paul McGann in the studio, and actually seeing what a fantastic Doctor he would have been, if he’d been allowed to continue. What he brought to the role is something very different to all the other Doctors, I think. He just enjoys, ‘’Avin’ a laff.’ Paul’s brought a level of intensity as well. When he gets going – when he’s fighting the Daleks – you really see the serious side, the intensity. I mean, all the Doctors are brilliant, but we knew what Peter and Colin and Sylvester were going to bring because we saw so much of them. But with the telly movie, we only got an hour of Paul McGann. And for most of that hour he was disorientated. So really we only got the last 15 minutes. But we’ve actually discovered what Paul McGann’s Doctor would have been like.”
“Colin always said to us, ‘I don’t want to do what I did on television. I want to be a much happier, much more accessible Doctor.’ We were happy to do that and Colin… Well, take ‘Arrangement of War’, for example. At the end of that I cried a little bit. Now that is probably wrong for someone who’s actually produced these thing, except it’s a wonderful performance with Colin looking in on two people who he’s travelled back to see and he knows both of them are going to die. But they’re happy at that point, and he’s watching them. It’s beautifully written, but I think the way he does it just brought a tear to my eye.”
“It’s those sort of moments that really stick out. Like the introduction of Paul McGann in ‘Storm Warning’. That had the new theme tune by David (Bond movie scorer) Arnold. He was a pal of Mark Gatiss. David did it and gave it to Mark, Mark gave it to us and we said, ‘Oh, we can’t afford him.’ And Mark goes, ‘No, it’s free.’ David Arnold was a fan; he wanted to do his own version of the theme tune. So we took it, and put it on, and we used it for a number of years. And I remember listening to Paul McGann in ‘Storm Warning’ fighting the Vortesaurs and the big thing about,‘Oh God, they’re going to break in! They’re going to break in!’ Then it crashes into an explosion and straight into the theme tune… Even now, talking about it, it’s raising hairs on the back of my neck.
“There are bits like that in ‘Spare Parts’ as well. I think you can judge a good story by how many time you go, ‘Ooooooh!’ And I think Big Finish have had those moments over the years. And I should be jaded because I’ve been through the process, but I still get those moments. And as long as we can keep doing that, we’ll keep doing it.”
“And we’ve created new companions, Sheridan Smith, for example, as Lucie – she’s been a revelation, because she’s such a brilliant actress. And Paul McGann was delighted when we cast her. He did a job with her on telly when she was 15 and he always thought she was a cracking actress. India Fisher as Charley as well. There was a big companion poll for the 40th anniversary before the new series came back. I think Sarah Jane won and Charley came second. And that is probably a lot down to India. Because she’s such a great actress with such a fantastic personality that all the writers were just desperate to write for her. And she gets recognised which is really weird!”
SFX: Bonnie Langford’s Mel is another of your success stories, in terms of making fans re-evaluate their opinions of her.
“I think there are several aspects, one of which, again, was that during that era, Bonnie Langford was being projected in a certain way. They asked Bonnie to do certain things that she wasn’t very happy with. We didn’t think that Bonnie would want to come back to Doctor Who because her career has gone in a totally different direction. But she wanted to come back as long as she could redefine the character. Steve Lyons wrote her first story, ‘Fires of Vulcan’, and it was a revelation, because she was feisty, she was more laid back, not Jolly hockey sticks. It was a more rounded performance because she was given the material. And that’s not to… it was a different time, a different era, and there were different requirements.
"And also, Bonnie’s changed over the years. Everyone changes. I shouldn’t really be saying this, but I was talking to, I think, Alan Barnes, and I said, ‘She’s a lot foxier than I thought she’d be.’ Because she is a very confident woman, and Bonnie Langford in real life isn’t what you’d expect. And I think that comes across a lot better. Nicola Bryant has also been very happy with what we’ve done with Peri.”
SFX: Are Big Finnish productions canon?
“Do you know, I would say… Oh God, yes! I would actually now. Because I think we’ve done so many, and we’ve introduced new concepts, some of which have even influenced the new television series. We introduced new companions which are accepted. So yes, in some sense we are canon, but I accept that some people will not see us as canon, because, ‘It’s not been broadcast by the BBC’. It’s quite interesting, actually. Those people on-line who say Big Finish is not canon because, ‘It’s never been broadcast by the BBC’, thay all had a huge problem as soon as it was broadcast on BBC7. Then they’re going, ‘Yeah, but it’s only BBC7.’
SFX: And Big Finish is obviously not just Doctor Who. You’re also doing original Sapphire and Steel stories and you’re just about to launch a range of Stargate audios.
"Stargate’s an interesting one. Not our first American licence. Dark Shadows was our first. That was an interesting for us, because it was our first time working in LA, our first time working with American actors, our first time dealing with an American organisation. And it was a good soft entry, actually, because it was a bit like Doctor Who. Dark Shadows hadn’t been made in Donkey’s years, far longer than Doctor Who actually. It keeps on getting revived; Johnny Depp’s bought the rights to do a version of it. It has a very similar fandom. We were able to launch over there and one in every four of all the people leaving the convention we launched at took a CD with them. They’ve been gagging for a second series which will be happening very soon.
"And then we went to MGM about Stargate. It took about a year to negotiate. We’re vey, very happy that we’re going to do something new. And something that is very well supported. The initial reaction has been very, very positive. We launch in April and we’re now able to launch on a download site.
"We are in negotiations over a couple of other properties. You’d probably be able to figure them out but I can't say. I can tell you who we’re not doing. We’re not doing Babylon 5. We tried. It just wasn’t possible. It’s a shame really, because it’s died off a bit now. Quite a lot, actually.
"And the big one, which I’d still like to do is James Bond. We pitched it. We wanted to do James Bond set in the ’50s and ’60s, doing the books verbatim, including the bits that aren’t as good as the other bits. The films' production company, Eon said - after they’d thought about it for six months - that it would impact on DVD sales. It was a great shame, because we had chosen our James Bond, even. Neil Roberts who is ridiculously good looking, but that doesn’t matter on audio. He has the right voice to be James Bond."