|Gary Russell talks about the Audio Visuals
the club zine for the DW Club of Victoria.
Interview conducted by Rob Mammone
In perhaps the most important news to emerge since the McGann television movie in 1996, the BBC have announced a co-production with Big Finish, producers of the Benny Audio plays, to produce a series of canonical Doctor Who audio plays. One of the prime movers behind Big Finish is Gary Russell, well known in fan circles for his work in revitalizing Doctor Who Magazine along with a number of well received Virgin and BBC novels.
It was in the mid-late 1980's, however, that Gary made perhaps his most important contribution to Doctor Who, the echoes of which come down to us in the form of the forthcoming The Sirens of Time. That contribution was his work on the Audio Visuals, a series of audio plays featuring, from story 2, Nick Briggs as the Doctor. The AVs have embedded themselves as an extremely important work in the contribution by fandom to Doctor Who. Through the miracle of e-mail, I conducted two question and answer sessions with Gary, and the result is below.
Note: Gary's attitudes on some topics have changed in the time since the sessions occurred.
The impetus for the AV's came from a mutual interest Gary and Bill Baggs had in drama.
'Bill and I were fans of Colin's Doctor. I think it came about because Bill's local group (what the DWAS calls its affiliates) had done a play for their audio fanzine featuring the Doctor and Peri with delightful Hampshire accents and I laughed my balls off at this.'
This encounter led to a meeting, of all places, at the beach. 'Bill and I were both interested in producing drama and thought, one afternoon, chucking stones into the sea at Milhaven, ' 'Ere, 'ang on, why don't we do audio adventures, about an hour long but with an alternative Doctor?' We talked this over during the next few weekends and wham-bam, AV was born.'
Bill Baggs asked Gary to play the new companion, Greg, but he refused, saying he'd rather create the character and write the first story, The Space Wail. However, Gary's opinion of his own story, and the production which resulted, is far from favorable.
'The deficiencies beyond the dreadful script? We changed the Doctor (delightful chap, couldn't act his way out of a paper bag.) Bill insisted we use his sister as a companion, so I created the character of Nadia. Lovely girl, our Sal, but Christ she was one step worse than our original Doctor, so her days were numbered. Oh, and Don't Record on Location - the scenes of Greg at school were done in someone's actual garden. We thought, this'd give us birdsong etc. It also gave us regular visits by Concorde and sound that drifted over the fence into a nearby field.'
With the release of The Space Wail, and the resultant 'constructive criticism' from within and without the group, the AVs were born. Gary considers the addition of Nick Briggs to the team as being a crucial moment.
'Well, once Briggsie was aboard, the whole thing took off. His enthusiasm and talent coupled with Bill's drive to succeed and my cynicism getting on everyone's nerves made us an unbeatable combination. Nick stated writing immediately. I'd have to say Nick was the cornerstone the rest of us at various times circled around.'
For those who have had a chance to listen to BBV's Cyberhunt Nick Briggs portrayal is a direct continuation of his time on the AVs. At times whimsical, and a touch erratic, there is more than a hint of Davison in his portrayal, though with a harder edge to lend the portrayal its own identity.
The question of copyright is one which always provokes heated discussion amongst fans. Gary is forthright in his views of the AV's situation.
'We were fans doing some stuff for a handful of people. We never advertised in professional magazines, we kept ourselves to ourselves. In doing so, we broke every copyright rule in the book (hell, Terry Nation would have crucified us - although I think our Dalek stories knocked spots of Saward's!) JNT was certainly aware of us, but he didn't care. Why should he? We were no more than any other fan product and at least we weren't printing articles about him or the show. I doubt Saward knew or cared. He wouldn't know drama if it bit him.'
As a writer of the first story, and several subsequent, along with being a prolific author, Gary has some interesting things to say about working in the two media.
'A story is a story - it has a beginning, middle and an end. A book is considerably longer and harder to write - but audio requires you to create characters, situations and action using bugger all except sound. No visuals, no narrative, no helpful text or plot inspiring graphics. It's the hardest medium of all to do right. I think we did. It's always been my favorite. I could never understand how the BBC could get audio Who so wrong, first with Slipback, and even worse with the two Pertwee disasters. They tried to do TV on radio - rather than thinking if they could use audio as a medium and structure the stories to suit radio. Bad move.'
In the light of the recently announced BBC co-production with Big Finish, the response Gary gave to my next question in the middle of 1998 is revealing. Had the BBC made a mistake in concentrating on releasing audio books and not plays? It only occurs to me now that Gary had given me a scoop!
'Yes, a big mistake. But the BBC are cost conscious and to do quality plays (i.e. not the Pertwee ones) would cost them a lot. You see, first and foremost, for internal BBC reasons, they'd probably have to go through various administration things (lotsa dosh) and actor agents are canny creatures. They see the name BBC - plus the lead actors have all moved on and so to go back in time, as it were, and become associated with a role from their past makes them want more - and know they can demand full fees. It's been a nightmare. We also went to the Beeb and said, 'We're doing these Benny plays, how about licensing us? We'll make 'em and sell them, rather as authors do with books. The Beeb say, 'Here's X amount of cash, provide me with a book.' We wanted them to say 'Here's X amount of dosh, provide us with a finished play ready to master, dupe and flog.' They didn't. It's their property, they know whether or not they can financially afford it. Sad fact is that although 10,000 Who fans may buy it (or 5000 and the other 5000 will pirate it) that's not enough to make back the costs involved. Doctor Who is nowhere near as big a moneymaker as fans like us delude ourselves it is.'
The production process is always something that fascinates people. Gary had a few interesting things to say.
'I wished we'd had more money (we did everything in our spare time out of love. God knows how much money Nick and I would still have in our pockets if we hadn't done those. They really only paid for themselves two-thirds of the way through Season 4.) Also, we should have been stricter on scripts that got out of hand. Subterfuge - John and I should have put our metaphorical foot down and said to Nick he was going way OTT. Similarly, Mythos should never have been written - Jim was losing control of his story, writing exposition scenes that went on for pages. But then again, we were all in it for fun - the moment it became a business we would have run a mile. We leave that to Bill and his videos.'
And the sort of stories the AV team produced?
'Good ones! You didn't do repetitive gun battles or chase scenes or corridor running. You did intelligent stories that people needed to listen to to follow. All our writers did magnificently. Look how many have gone onto better things - Nick Briggs has done Auton and The Airzone Solution series. Andy Lane, Jim Mortimore and I have done Who books. Steve Bowkett was already a successful novelist. Richard Marson is a producer on Blue Peter. Bill Baggs does BBV. Nigel Fairs has written and directed award-winning plays.
'We were providing something people wanted. New but very traditional Who done the way fans would if they were in charge. We stopped when the New Adventures started, thinking they'd be a natural successor to our ideals. We were wrong, but it was too late, we'd all moved onto greener pastures.'
The AV's worked with several well known Who actors. Gary is effusive in his praise.
'Nabil Shabin was fab, getting into the sword fight (Second Solution) scenes by actually fencing with a mike stand - which was actually a little alarming. Michael Wisher was a lovely friend and always contributed greatly to whatever he did for us, and Peter Miles turned in a marvelous performance in Geopath. No-one considered us 'amateur' or anything like that. Indeed, by Season 4 I'd say 90% of our cast were fully pro-actors which helped us no end.'
In fact, for Season 4, Gary moved into the producer's role.
'Well, I was heavily involved in all of Season 1, just as support really. Season 2 I kind of dropped away and came back towards the end of Season 3. I was also writing regularly for DWM, but that didn't affect anything - except it meant the odd AV plug got into the mag! I did quite a lot post-production-wise during the third lot. I kind of took over running the tapes off, doing the orders etc. and as the only car owner amongst everyone, I did a lot of donkey work.
'The producership was the reward/punishment for the above. I was probably more committed to the AV's, particularly the customers, during the third run than Bill Baggs and when he opted to do other things, Nick asked me. Jim Mortimore and Nigel were keen on this, so it fell into place. That said, Season 4 was really just me, Nick and John all the way through.
'As producer there wasn't much change - Bill had overseen a fabulous product, all I wanted to do was sell more, keep Nick interested and have fun. I think I succeeded in all three ways magnificently. I think on initial orders we sold about 150 Planet of Lies for the end of Season 3. Justyce, end of Season 4, I had over 600 prepaid subscriptions before the ads even went out.
'Story wise, I was keen to have just one companion - it was easier to pin two regulars down to recording dates than three - there were times when certain companions recorded their lines separately from anyone else and had to be edited in later. They tended to be replaced by the next play! I wanted a running theme (Justyce) and I wanted longer plays - no sixty minute plays, everything was 90 minutes or double tapes.
'Why did I do the Justyce idea? Dunno, looking back, I just thought it was a good idea - I borrowed heavily from a character called Scourge who was rampaging through the Marvel Comics universe at the time, bumping off villains left, right and centre. But I wanted something bigger - more punishment for the Doctor. A vendetta rather than just a bad guy. The death of Fionara at the end of Requiem was my very first thought for the season, and Andy Lane did it beautifully. I also loved Jim Mortimore's idea of the Doctor tricked into killing someone by Justyce substituting the victim, in Mythos. Yeah, I think it (the season) worked. It might have been more coherent if we hadn't found more things to do with our lives meaning that Season 4 took four years to come out, rather than the intended eighteen months.
'Season 4 was never intended to be the last - we had story lines prepared for the fifth season. Nick was going back to find Truman, but fifty years too late and he was an embittered old man in a time not his own who had grown to hate the Doctor. Marc Platt wrote Boom City (but then decided Ghost Light was more important... I don't know!)
'I mean, it really folded because we lost interest in the amount of time it was taking. Nick was working full time by then, which slowed things down and I got bored of sticking tapes in envelopes, buying stamps, sending 'em off and then getting moaned at by t'other two because there were always tapes being run off or on the floor and neither of them could be bothered. John Ainsworth just got fed up playing middleman to Nick's and my creative discussions. Everything comes to its natural end, and so did AV. But it was mainly because we thought we'd done all we wanted to. We started a fifth season and then gave up because we simply didn't want to do it all over again.'
Quite a few of the stories make social comment. Given that the AV's were made during the decade of Conservative rule in Britain, I asked Gary about the inspiration for stories with a political or economic axe to grind.
'Well, Nick and I are dyed-in-the-wool lefties, so subconsciously Thatcher may have been there (in stories such as Conglomerate and Destructor Contract based around the Conglomerate, a business whose credo embodied the very essence of capitalism), but it was more Nick's desire to create the ultimate villain who doesn't have villainous ends. Just amoralistic financial one's. Thatcher was evil personified. Cuthbert (president of the Conglomerate) was just greedy and had no morals. Nick and myself are very anti-colonial, hence The Secret of Nematoda and Deadfall, and I guess Posedor represented Everyman versus the corporations.'
I pointed out to Gary the resemblance of the setting and plot of Endurance to H.P.Lovecraft's novella, At the Mountains of Madness.
'Well, let's be honest, what are the Silurians/Sea Devils if not Lovecraftian? Indeed, Hulke pastiches Lovecraft in the Sea Devils novelisation with the inscriptions outside the Castle. John Ainsworth is a Lovecraft fan and he suggested we put them in Endurance. Nick wrote it, but with healthy encouragement from me and John. I think that and Sword of Orion are still the best he did.'
The Daleks make several appearances in the AV's. Gary expounds on Davros, Saward and the AV Dalek stories.
'I think Davros devalues the Daleks and saying (as Saward has said) that he makes dialogue easy merely shows how little Saward understood the Daleks. It's lazy to use Davros. We just looked at what made them work to us as kids and recreated the idea. Nick Briggs is a master at Dalek dialogue - he rewrote all my Deadfall Dalek scenes to make them sound 'right'.
The Big Finish audios promise a return to 'traditional Who'. I asked Gary what traditional Who meant to him.
'Lots of monsters, much running up and down corridors and climaxes. Mix that with tight scripts, good 3-D characters and a sense of escapism, you've got a winner. We didn't deliberately do dark stories with the AV's, we just did cracking good yarns. We did drama with a beginning, a middle and an end.'
And Gary's opinion of the AV stories themselves?
'Oh God. The Space Wail is tripe because of the novelty and the lack of Nick Briggs. Connection 13 is awful because of story. Trilexia Threat was a case of too many cooks spoiling it. Blood Circuit suffers from being too long. Enclave Irrelative works bar the incomprehensible demons - a point I had been making for years that with treated voices, we knew what the characters said but the listeners who weren't as au fait with the scripts, wouldn't have had a chance. Enclave Irrelative proved me right. Mythos is sheer tedium. Subterfuge is up its arse. The others I more or less like.'
Of course, every Doctor must have his fair share of companions. The AV team did some interesting things with theirs.
'Truman Crouch worked well because of Nigel's performance. I like Ria and as I created Greg, I had a soft spot for him. Mind you, I also created Nadia and was overjoyed when she touched that wire! Fionara was fab-all credit to Andy Lane as I just said 'give me a companion then kill her in the closing moments in the TARDIS' and he did it perfectly. A companion needs a good character and a good actor. Fionara was blessed with both of these, making her demise even more poignant.'
The AV's were bought and listened to by fans. What was their response?
Fan response was high - people really loved them. Those that didn't, didn't buy more than one or two. We always acted on the criticism if it was something we could rectify that didn't involve spending thousands of pounds. We had no budgets! There was a small proportion of women buyers, mostly from America, but it was 75% male listeners. Or rather, male buyers.
'I guess the plethora of audios coming out now wouldn't have done if we hadn't set the ball rolling, but then, maybe that's me being an arrogant twat. Perhaps the stuff being done now and sold over the newsgroups have never heard of Audio Visuals.'
Given the resurgence in audio stories, (remember, this interview was conducted way before Big Finish and the BBC made their announcement) I asked Gary why the AV's hadn't been re-released to a new audience in the late 1990's.
'To make the AV's available again would be wrong for a variety of reasons.'
'(a) The Beeb would undoubtedly get to hear and I think Doctor Who is far more a franchise now to them than ever in the past. I think they'd be very 'interested' in what we did and equally displeased! To advertise them like Bill does with his Ace and the Professor stuff would incur their wrath, which I could do without.'
'(b) Putting them on CD would be pricey as most of them run longer than you can put on one CD.'
'(c) They are of their time - the same reason I wouldn't contribute to Paul Cornell's Licence Denied fanzine book. They are something that worked in the context of 1984-1991, not 1998.'
'(d) It's a lot of work none of us want to undertake right now. It's not just a case of copying old ones - I suspect initially there would be a deluge and we no longer have the equipment we used for duping them.'
'I haven't heard any of the new audio stories by fans, but I'm pleased to think we started a ball rolling which others have given a nice push to. I'm pleased, proud and massively in love with what we achieved. And the fact that people are still interested in them now is immeasurably ego-boosting and fun.'
Gary Russell, thank you very much.
|Audio Visuals : Audio Adventures in Time and Space