Back in 1992, when the world was miserable and had no Doctor Who on the telly, fans of the errant time-botherer flocked to bookstores for their fix. Virgin Publishing had picked up the baton with their series of New Adventures, original novels featuring stories that were ‘too broad and deep for the television screen’.
An early star writer of the range was Paul Cornell, who, in his second novel for the range, created a brand new companion for the Doctor. Bernice Summerfield, an archeologist from the 26th century. Benny was a regular fixture of the range for another five years eventually getting a series of her own when the company lost the license to publish Doctor Who books.
In 1998, audio production company Big Finish debuted with audio adventures featuring the character. Played by Lisa Bowerman, Bernice found a whole new audience and Benny’s world grew broad and deep indeed.
Several times over the last sixteen years, and sixteen series, of audio adventures, Big Finish have given Benny’s world a shuffle, allowing new listeners onboard and keeping her adventures fresh and innovative. This month, they have done so again, albeit in a way that hearkens back to her past. Once again, the Doctor and Ace have entered Benny’s life and brought with them new challenges and opportunities for adventure.
The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield is a box set of four linked adventures, written by Nev Fountain, Una McCormack, Guy Adams and James Goss (who also acted as the set’s producer). It takes Benny from high, comedic adventure, through haunted dead worlds, culminating in a face-to-eyestalk confrontation with the Daleks.
It’s director, Scott Handcock, was only too happy to answer a few questions about his work across the four stories.
KASTERBOROUS: So Scott, this set feels as if it’s very much designed to be a jumping-on point for new listeners; is this a new start for Bernice Summerfield?
SCOTT HANDCOCK: It is. Previous ‘fresh starts’ for Benny have generally meant wiping the slate clean and setting her up with a band of new supporting characters, and giving her a brand-new world to get to grips with. This time round, James Goss has rather cleverly circumnavigated all of that by reuniting Benny with the Doctor and Ace, so everything feels reassuringly familiar, whilst at the same time being predictably unpredictable (in the way only travelling with the Doctor can ever be)!
K: Twenty years and counting, what is it about the character that has made her so popular and allowed her to endure?
SH: I think part of it stems from the fact she was the first original character to be spawned since the show went off the air, so there’s a great deal of nostalgia and fondness attached to her. Those kids who were reading the New Adventures as teenagers are now avid Big Finish listeners! But also, she was a fully-rounded character when she first appeared. She had a life of her own, she had a job… She didn’t actually need the Doctor to be exciting. Which is what made her such a perfect companion but also a standalone character in her own right. That’s why she became a perfect figurehead for Big Finish before they acquired the Doctor Who licence, and why (coupled with Lisa Bowerman’s brilliant portrayal) she’s naturally been able to develop and grow up over the sixteen years we’ve been doing the audio dramas.
K: As director, what are your first steps on reading the scripts?
SH: I always like to go in fresh when I read a script. Often, I’ve been responsible for commissioning them as the producer so I already know the storyline, but with this latest batch of Benny, plus the New Adventures adaptations, it was quite refreshing going in with absolutely no idea what to expect. All I knew with these was that it was going to be Ace with the Doctor and Benny. I didn’t even realise the Daleks were going to be in it! So I received the scripts out of order, read them one-by-one, then pieced them all together for a second reading… then began forming ideas about how to schedule and physically record the entire set! It’s a big, ambitious storyline, which entailed a lot more flitting around and cross-recording than we usually do. But that’s all part of the challenge and the fun of it!
DI: You’ve certainly gathered an extraordinary cast.
SH: We’re always lucky at Big Finish that people enjoy recording with us, which makes getting your dream cast just that little bit easier. And with this, everybody really rises to the challenge of the material. Obviously Lisa, Sylvester and Sophie have been doing this for ages, but even they managed to bring something new to proceedings, and the guest cast were all a joy!
Alex Jordan, who appears in episode one, is a fantastic up-and-coming actor who I’d just worked with on our forthcoming production of Frankenstein with Arthur Darvill, and can do an astonishing array of voices. Miles Jupp is every bit the arch villain you could hope for, and Matthew Woodcock provides a wonderfully dry set of robot accomplices. Cabin Pressure’s John Finnemore described the second episode as a proper chamber piece, and it really is! It’s pretty much just him, Lisa and the delightful Sheila Reid in a really tight, atmospheric, and sometimes unexpectedly emotional setting. Our guest cast for episodes three and four then include Colin McFarlane (the voice of ITV’s The Cube!), Amber Revah and the brilliant Matt Gravelle, who radio listeners may recognise from a wealth of BBC Wales’ drama productions, which is where I first got to work with him, and I’m thrilled he joined us for this one. We even have a cheeky little cameo from Nicola Bryant, who popped in on our final day. So definitely something for everyone!
K: Describe the studio process a little; what is your approach when wanting to get the best from your actors?
SH: The studio process is fairly intensive and slick in how we operate – everybody’s on separate channels in separate booths, which makes picking up material an ease.
Unlike traditional radio drama production, we also do all our effects in post-production, which means we can focus purely on getting the vocal performance from the actors, without having to spend time choreographing movements and the like. In that sense, as a director, the job is to analyse the script, and know in your head everything else that will be going on in a scene so you can clearly instruct the actors how they should sound: will they be pitching up, breathless, running, etc. It takes some getting used to, but everyone takes to it remarkably quickly. As with any project, however, it’s all a matter of collaboration. You listen to how the actors tackle the scene, and sometimes tweak or cut lines to match their performance and rhythm. Flexibility is key to making it all sound real and naturalistic, particularly where science-fiction is concerned.
K: These four stories cover a wide range of tone, so how difficult is it to flip from high comedy to fractured narratives, emotional soul-searching to Daleks?
SH: Most of my work for Big Finish has, I think it’s fair to say, focussed on dark, tense, horror-based material, so you cannot imagine my joy at being presented with a script as wonderfully bonkers and joy-filled as Nev Fountain’s opener, The Revolution. Hopefully, people will realise I’m not just a curmudgeonly sod who deals in misery! But yes, it was a hoot to work on something comedic – particularly with Sylvester’s Doctor – and a whole host of larger than life characters. Again, it’s all a matter of keeping it truthful, but also allowing moments to be exaggerated for comic effect where appropriate. It’s a lovely opener!
In terms of the descent into darkness that follows, it’s all quite gradual and stems naturally from the stories, so it wasn’t too difficult. With the exception of Lisa, Sylv and Sophie, the guest actors are only really in for their own episodes, so they help set the tone too. We’ve been very lucky that, whichever play we’ve been recording, everybody’s been very much on the same page.
K: Once you have the cast recorded you’re still only half-way there. What are the challenges of editing and sound design?
SH: When you have someone like Steve Foxon across sound design, you know you’re in very safe hands. He knows Doctor Who and he knows Bernice Summerfield, so he was very good at getting the tone of each of the plays, and building a consistent world. But again, it’s collaborative. Generally, you trust a sound designer to deliver the best possible sound. Sometimes, specific effects or cues won’t sound as you’d imagined, so it then becomes a lovely game of trying to find audio clips that sort of describe the sound you’re after, or recording yourself doing an impression of what you think it should sound like! But Steve’s been brilliant and accommodating, and episode three, in particular, proved a real challenge due to its broken narrative.
The biggest, thrill, however, comes with episode four, where Steve faithfully recreates various iterations of Skaro throughout the ages. It’s a giddy fanboy joy to hear it come to life the way it does, and Nick Briggs shines as Daleks from every conceivable era!
K: What are the particular advantages of audio as a medium?
SH: The joy of audio is that everybody imagines something different. No two people will ever picture the exact same thing, so people can temper the visuals to their own tastes – they can be as scary or as dramatic as they want them to be, without overstepping the mark.
The other joy of audio is that it’s far more intimate as a medium. People tend to listen to it in isolation – it’s not something a crowd of people would do in the cinema, or sitting round someone’s house – so you can tell very different kinds of stories. You can mix the pace up a little and really delve into emotions the way you sometimes can’t in TV drama. Plus, of course, you have the advantage that people literally cannot see the twists coming – so there are some visual shocks or revelations that can remain a shock until the moment you need them.
K: You also masterminded The Confessions of Dorian Gray from Big Finish, can you tell us a little bit about that as a project?
SH: Ah, The Confessions of Dorian Gray stemmed from me wanting to do an original horror series, developing the character of Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s notorious novel: the conceit being that Wilde knew a real man named Dorian Gray, who had been inflicted with the same enchantment, allowing him to live through the 20th Century as a hedonistic immortal. It allowed us to tell stories in a variety of different time periods, without relying on science-fiction, and build a series around a true anti-hero. Because Dorian isn’t a man who does things for the good of other people: he’s selfish, and self-obsessed, and sometimes openly cruel and manipulative. He’s someone you love if he’s on your side, until you got to know him, at which point you’d realise he’s a monster. It’s great to have a character who can turn on a sixpence, and be just as horrifying as the evils he comes up against.
So yes, it took a while to get off the ground, but I think it’s gone on to become one of the most critically-acclaimed of all Big Finish’s ranges, which is a joy! It’s just something very different, which all of our writers, actors and post-production people have committed to – not least the astounding Alexander Vlahos, who brings Dorian to life with such relish. He’s so enthusiastic and passionate about the range – to an extent you wouldn’t get with most actors.
K: What are you working on next?
SH: I have Frankenstein coming out from Big Finish in September (starring the wonderful Arthur Darvill as Victor) and an adaptation of The Highest Science [a Virgin New Adventures novel written by Gareth Roberts who went on to script a number of Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures episodes] starring Sylvester and Lisa out in December. I’ve then got about five other projects currently on the go with Big Finish, all at various stages of production, some likely to be announced soon – and some people won’t be expecting. So that’s all fun! Otherwise, I’ve been busy beavering away on a few TV scripts for an animation with a few familiar faces (it really is a small world), and there are a few other plates spinning…
In short, there’s a lot to look forward to!