by Bob Tinsley
If you’re a Doctor Who fan and you don’t know about Big Finish Productions you are missing out on one of the best things ever. They started with well-loved TV shows and extended their lives with audio fiction.
Big Finish is a British company that has been turning out exceptional quality Doctor Who (and others, more later) audio stories for twenty years. What makes them different is that they use the original actors whenever they can. Their current stable of original doctors includes Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Peter Davison, and Colin Baker. Not only that, they have many of the original companions from the earlier Doctors as well as those above.
In addition they have other shows such as Dark Shadows, Unit, Jaco & Lightfoot (who appeared in The Talons of Weng Chiang, an episode of the Tom Baker/Louise Jameson run), The Prisoner, and Torchwood, among many others.
Their shows are very reasonably priced compared with Audible. Not only that, they have an enormous amount of free content, including full episodes, and two behind-the-scenes podcasts. There is also an exceptional monthly fanzine, called Vortex, professionally laid out and available, for free, as a PDF or Word doc. It contains news, interviews with cast and crew, including the Doctors, behind-the-scenes info, and fan letters. It is up to issue 121 as of March.
The following is an interview I conducted with Nicholas Briggs, co-executive producer of all things Big Finish.
RT: How did Big Finish get started, about 20 years ago if I remember correctly? Was it a shoestring operation originally?
Nick: It was very much a cottage industry, and our CEO Jason Haigh-Ellery expected to release about six CDs a year for no longer than three years. The original producer worked solely from his bedroom, but when demand and popularity increased, he hired an office space, and CD production doubled to 12 double-disc releases a year. Since then, it’s snowballed somewhat.
RT: What market gap did you see that made you want to start Big Finish?
Nick: Doctor Who wasn’t on the television then. It was in the middle of a 16 year hiatus — which had only been broken by an American TV movie [Doctor Who, 1996] that hadn’t led to a new series being produced. There was a strong core of Doctor Who fans, and many of them had grown-up making audio recordings of classic Doctor Who episodes in the days before even domestic video recorders existed. So to some degree or another, a lot of our potential market were as used to listening to Doctor Who as they were watching it. And in many ways, old Doctor Who sounds better than it looks. The work of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and the many talented composers who wrote music for Doctor Who ensured that some of the ‘cracks’ created by wobbly sets or less than entirely convincing special effects or monsters were very effectively ‘papered over’ by some brilliant sounds and music. Add to that the fact that all of us there at the beginning were huge Doctor Who fans who had produced audio drama for fun, and you can see how we felt strongly that there was a market for Doctor Who audio drama.
RT: How tough was it to get the rights to Doctor Who and the other series?
Nick: It took Jason two goes. The first time round, in 1996, the American TV movie had just been made, and the BBC expected Doctor Who to take off massively. They’d already taken the original fiction Doctor Who books back in house, revoking the licence they had with Virgin Books, in anticipation of this big return of the series. So they weren’t really interested in forging a new relationship with a small company like Big Finish. They also probably thought that if Doctor Who audios were going to be made, they’d be made by the BBC. Sadly, at that time, the resurgence didn’t come along. So, two years later Jason went along again. Doctor Who had very much gone off the boil at the BBC, and so it was relatively easy to get permission.
RT: There are a lot of Doctor Who fanfiction sites over here now, but one thing they haven’t done is expand on the peripheral or supporting characters the way you have. Why did you decide to do that?
Nick: Firstly because we love all elements of the programme. But also because, with not all the Doctors available to us for one reason or another, a way of exploring all eras of the programme is to focus on supporting characters, and tell the stories from their point of view. That’s how The Companion Chronicles came about, for example. The first three Doctors had died quite some years before we started, so their eras were particularly being neglected by us. I thought we should find a way of covering the whole of Doctor Who history, so I suggested stories told by the Doctor’s companions, not least because many of the actors who played them still survived. I’m glad to say that it worked out rather well, and along the way we discovered that some of the actors were very good at imitating the voices of their Doctors.
RT: What gave you the idea to start Vortex and distribute it for free? How much help in maintaining and increasing your fan base do you think that has been?
Nick: This was very much an idea which was pioneered by Jason Haigh-Ellery. We resisted it for a long time, because of the workload involved. But ultimately, we found a brilliantly qualified editor in the person of Paul Spragg, who very quickly took over running it. Since Paul’s tragic, sudden death, our good friend and colleague Kenny Smith (who is a journalist in his day job!) has been doing a brilliant job with it. Our aim is always to give our audience as much free, extra content as we can. And we want to tell the stories of how much love, detail and attention goes into our work. That’s exactly what Vortex delivers, and, of course, it features questions from our listeners too. So it’s very much about getting people involved with us and helping them to get to know Big Finish as an important part of their lives.
RT: In addition to the TV show tie ins you also produce original content, eight new series I think. How has that worked out for you?
Nick: We’re really excited about these Big Finish Originals. It’s a tougher sell, of course, because original fiction does not come with the ready made audience that something like Doctor Who brings. But we are lucky enough to have inspired a lot of loyalty amongst our listeners, so that now we have an audience who will come with us into new territory.
RT: Your FAQ states that you occasionally hold script competitions. Approximately how often do those occur and are submissions from our side of the pond eligible?
Nick: Every year, we run the Paul Spragg Memorial Short Trips opportunity. So it’s not a competition. It’s a way for us to invite people to show us their work. Although there is a ‘winner’ whose work is selected to be produced, we do very often go back to some of the other submissions and commission work from them. We are keen to continually look for exciting new talent, and they can be from anywhere in the world.
Thanks to Nick Briggs for taking time out from an insane schedule to talk to me. If you haven’t already gone to Big Finish (www.bigfinish.com) do so immediately. I would recommend starting on their “Ranges” page. It contains everything they have, collected in different categories, including the free stuff and a “Start Here” category. It’s well worth your time whether you are a Doctor Who fan or just a fan of well-produced audio.
Bob Tinsley is an artist, writer, boataholic and a new pro in the field of Audio Drama. In other words, he’s an expert in finding new marketplaces, as he’s showing us here.