Interview with Scott Handcock
From Doctor Who to Big Finish, Scott Handcock has been involved in the Whoniverse since 2006, from production runner, writer to director, plus acting roles in Big Finish. Scott is also involved as director for the new series of Torchwood audios, directing all but One Rule and Uncanny Valley to date.
Hi Scott, I wanted to ask you about Doctor Who first before we moved onto Torchwood if that’s OK? When did your passion for Doctor Who really begin and do you think it’s grown stronger over the years with the new incarnations of the Doctor and indeed the many stories that have grown with Big Finish, keeping alive the Doctor’s that have long since regenerated on the television. (There always seems to be a great many Who audios involving the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Doctor).
Scott: I got into Doctor Who through a friend of mine, Tim Jones, way back in the early ‘90s. It was kind of an unknown quantity then. We were about seven or eight years old, and hadn’t quite been old enough to catch the tail end of the original series. Then, in 1992, BBC Two started repeating some of the classic episodes - I vividly remember the cliffhanger to The Sea Devils part three, I think that’s my first distinct memory - and from then on, I was hooked.
Those repeats were a bit of an intense introduction to the series, come to think of it. You had five different Doctors - from Pertwee to Sylvester - and so quickly got your head round the idea of regeneration. And the stories they chose were really strong. I still can’t watch Davros in Genesis of the Daleks and eat a bacon sandwich at the same time. That says a lot about my Friday teatimes, growing up in Birmingham!
So yes, I got into it that way first, then Tim revealed he had some of the VHS tapes, so my education broadened rather rapidly. I started reading the magazine, and collecting the New Adventures (though they were way over my head at the time). Plus, of course, there was the glorious TV Movie in 1996, offering so much hope for the future!
I’ll admit I drifted slightly away towards the late nineties. Exams began to dominate my time, and with no sign of a new series, it somehow slipped by the wayside… then I remember wandering into the Northfield branch of WHSmith, and seeing a copy of Doctor Who Magazine that offered a sampler CD of a new Paul McGann audio story, Invaders From Mars, along with an original standalone with Colin called The Ratings War. Needless to say, I gave them a listen, and was instantly hooked once more!
It was very much Paul McGann who got me into the Big Finish audios. I picked up The Chimes of Midnight and Seasons of Fear first of all, then The Apocalypse Element shortly after that. It’s strange to think - after over a decade of new Who - how the idea of the Sixth Doctor and Romana was such a massive thing. But it was, and it was thrilling - and it evokes those memories, every time I listen to it! I loved those first two seasons with Paul McGann - I think they’re some of the most brilliantly executed Doctor Who Big Finish have ever produced, really embracing the fact they were effectively steering the course of the series’ future. They made me fall in love with the series all over again!
Of course, when the series came back on television, I still listened to the audios, but there was a real buzz about the idea that Doctor Who was coming back to where it belonged. I was in my second year of university at the time, and a lot of my mates were faintly aware of Doctor Who as an idea, but had never really seen any, nor could they understand why I was so excited about the new series. Suffice to say, that quickly changed. We ended up having gatherings to watch them go out live. (I even put a Doctor Who spin on my final dissertation… which is slightly embarrassing, looking back on it now).
I graduated back in 2006, then a few months later started work at BBC Wales, thanks to a recommendation from script editor Gary Russell. It was only meant to be a month as a runner on Doctor Who Confidential, but that in itself became several years… and they were such a brilliant team. It was a real baptism of fire for me in terms of TV production, but they were very generous and encouraging, recognising what I could do and keeping me on. Plus we also covered Torchwood: Declassified and Totally Doctor Who, so we really were across all Who output for a number of years!
I then spent a year on the second series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, and later joined Doctor Who itself for series six, which is how I came to know Arthur Darvill who’s subsequently appeared in a few Big Finish audios for me (and coincidentally grew up on the same road as me in Birmingham - who’d have known?!)
So yeah, it’s weird to think, when I was growing up and there was never even a glimmer of a potential series on television, that I’d later find myself working on the series in various capacities, alongside new, unknown Doctors finding their feet, and the veterans of the classic series keeping the flame alive. It’s a series that means an awful lot to me, and I know it’ll be having the same impact on the next generation even as we speak!
When did your passion for writing begin and can you remember the first piece you wrote?
Scott: I always loved reading and writing as a kid, so I suppose I was always doing it. None of it was ever any good, of course, I lacked the discipline to tell a properly-focussed story. But the enthusiasm was certainly there! To paraphrase Big Finish’s own slogan, I simply loved stories. I studied English Literature, and also Classics, so I was exposed to a broad range of drama and prose throughout my teens. I loved how engaging writing could be, and really wanted to achieve something similar. Whether I have or not is for other people to say, but it’s lovely when you received feedback for certain things - The Confessions of Dorian Gray, for instance - and realise you’ve managed to make an impact, somehow. Ultimately, you’re wanting to provoke a response and for your readers or listeners to engage, even if their reaction’s not always positive. I’d far sooner someone but critical and explain why than simply come away not particularly having felt anything even if they enjoyed.
As for the first thing I wrote… I can’t begin to remember the very first thing - I have faint memories of a story at school about a giant, and actually a terrible Doctor Who play I performed for my class (Tim Jones was the Doctor, I was a Cyberman - we made the heads out of plastic tubs and everything!) Professionally, my first commission was for one of Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield audios, The Oracle of Delphi. Write about what you know, that’s what they say, so I set it during the Peloponnesian War and had Benny meet up with Socrates. It’s a bit of a romp but, my god, I don’t think I could ever listen to it again. Like my early Dark Shadows scripts, I look back on them now and cringe. I can hear how unfamiliar I am with the nuances of audio, and character, and just drama generally. I’m extremely grateful anybody stuck with me and gave me any more opportunities after those first few, if I’m honest!
I really enjoyed the story ‘The Conspiracy’, the return of Torchwood, Captain Jack back where he should be. It’s nice to feel that old Torchwood feeling again, such as it was back in the early seasons of the show. I loved the good old thumping theme tune, so it came as a bit of a surprise to hear the new upbeat funky theme tune for the new audio series. Why was there a need to change it?
Scott: You’d have to ask James Goss about that! I don't think there was any need necessarily… but the Torchwood theme has had a few different variations on screen, with Children of Earth and Miracle Day, so it didn’t seem odd for Big Finish to have their own version. Plus Blair Mowat, our brilliant composer, knows both Murray Gold and Ben Foster very well, and just wanted an opportunity to give it a bit of an update. I remember we played it to Russell and it got his blessing instantly! I think it’s great… And I can’t wait for people to hear The Victorian Age.
In ‘The Conspiracy’ you had two recording teams. John Sessions, Sarah Ovens and Dan Bottomley in the UK and John Barrowman in Palm Springs. How difficult is it putting the story together when you don’t have the full group all together in the same place, at the same time?
Scott: It’s a challenge, obviously. In an ideal world, you’d have your entire cast present all of the time. It just allows for flexibility in recording, and means you can work around any problems if they arise.
Practically, it meant we had to engineer a split day with later starts. Where recording might typically start around 10am and we would work through to 6pm, we knew we wouldn’t be able to start with John until 5pm (UK time). Thankfully, David’s script always featured a substantial chunk of narration from Captain Jack, which I knew we could tackle with John alone at the end of the day… So we were able to get a few hours recording with the UK cast on their own (scenes between John Sessions and Sarah Ovens as father and daughter, for example, plus Dan’s blogger entries, etc) and there were some scenes where John B only had a few short responses, so we could pick those up later and get the bulk of a scene recorded. There’s always something you can record!
Also, when John Barrowman was recording his scenes, as much as I know he was in the studio in the US, how was it set up, was he able to hear the others in the studio in UK or were his scenes similar to that of Sir Ian McKellan as Gandalf in The Hobbit, where all his scenes were spliced together afterwards?
Scott: Unlike conventional radio drama, Big Finish always records everybody on individual tracks, locked away in their own booths, to allow flexibility in post production, so to be honest, it didn’t make a world of difference. When you’re working through a scene, the actors focus on their script, and the voices in their headphones - and John Barrowman was one of those voices. The fact he wasn’t in a booth in Ladbroke Grove, but instead in a studio in Palm Springs made no difference to the process whatsoever! Laughs were still had, anecdotes were still shared (John Sessions shared the John Gielgud story, which ensured we lost John B for an entire two minutes on account of his laughter) and everything felt very natural. It’s astonishing how easy these things are to achieve in 2016!
In the audio drama ‘Forgotten Lives’ it actually felt as if this was an actual episode of the television series. I remember a documentary years ago that had people making all the familiar sounds of someone running across gravel and you could sometimes get the feeling that this was a recording in a studio, but this story and indeed a BBC audio drama ‘Asylum’ felt very much as if the Torchwood team were actually at their computers, were actually in the car, were actually acting out the scenes rather than standing or sitting around a mic with their scripts in their hands, or tables, or however they record. Were they?
Scott: I’m afraid not. Because of the way Big Finish works - with environments and effects in post-production - our studio sessions with the cast focus entirely on capturing the vocal performances. Each cast member has their own mike and script stand, and they perform the scenes purely with their voices. It’s my job as a director to be aware of what sounds we need. So, for example, if Gwen takes her mobile phone out of her pocket, I might ask for a split second of fidgeting from Eve to marry up with the rummaging effects we’d put on later. If we get it right, you shouldn’t even notice because it will sound exactly as you’d expect it to sound. It’s a very precise skill, I think, recognising what elements are needed. Particularly when Torchwood deals with a lot of domestic scenes.
There’s a running thread throughout Series 1, which I look forward to finding out the conclusion of, and I’m really keen to find out what the story arc is for Series 2. Are you involved in the directing of the new series also?
Scott: So far I’ve directed four of the six releases for the second series, and am across James Goss’s plans for the others. It’s another cracking run. Lots of humour, tons of action and plenty of Cardiff!
Is it easier directing audios than it is to direct a visual episode or are the principals the same?
Scott: Every director works a different way. The same applies to actors. At the end of the day, anything creative needs to be collaborative, so you adjust your way of working to match the people around you, and vice versa.
Technically, I wouldn’t say either TV or audio is easier. Both have their challenges. On audio, you have to make up for having removed an entire sense, and typically have a fraction of the time you would for a TV episode. We record an hour-long drama in a day, for instance. If you were shooting the TV equivalent, you’d likely have just over a fortnight. But they really are so different, I’m not sure it’s wise to compare!
What drew you to direct the first story in the Series, The Conspiracy written by D. Llewellyn?
Scott: I was asked by James if I wanted to do it - it’s as simple as that, really! It all happened very quickly. The original script had been sitting around for a while as Big Finish drew up their plans, then suddenly John became available to record. I think we had perhaps just over a week to sort everything out.
Thankfully, I’d already read a draft of the script, so I knew the basics - and I’ve worked with both James and David Llewellyn on many occasions - so it felt extremely comfortable in that regard. As a script, it also appealed to my sensibilities by really focussing on the characters and the conspiracy. It felt extremely truthful all the way through, which made it all the more fun when you had to go through and track the various strands of lies and double-crossing all the way through. Often the most interesting scripts to direct aren’t the ones with all the crashes and explosions, but the more intimate, concept-driven dramas.
I actually think it’s one of the strengths of Big Finish’s current take on Torchwood. By focussing on one or two characters at a time, it really helps to focus the stories, and draw the listener in. It actually happened on TV all the time - each character had stories where they were the focus - so it’s not straying to far from the series’ origins. I dare say there will come a day when we can get schedules to align and get a few of the gang back together all at once, but I also think you’d struggle to find enough for all of them in just a single hour.
Your Wiki Page needs updating! There’s no mention of your Big Finish: Torchwood involvement yet. (Not a question, just thought I’d mention.)
Scott: Ha! I’ve never found out who started that page, and I wouldn’t want to find myself updating it. There’s a reason I stay behind-the-scenes! (And blimey, just taken a look, and there’s barely anything on there, you’re right. Whoever my online stalker was, they clearly lost interest, way back! Ha…)
The Torchwood audios have been greatly received, the fans love them. There are however a lot of fans who are unable to enjoy the audios as much as others because of hearing difficulties. Will there ever be novels for the audio stories/dramas that we are enjoying on Big Finish, would this ever be something Big Finish would consider doing for those ‘hard of hearing’ fans?
Scott: I can understand the frustration. Ultimately, however, it comes down to rights. Big Finish are an audio production company, and thus have the rights to produce Torchwood on audio. If they don’t have the publishing rights - and I’m sure if they did, they’d be making use of it - their hands are tied, as they’re legally not allowed to publish original novels, etc…
Oh, that feels like a bit of a downer to end the interview on. Can I just rave about the series two stories coming up? I mean, I know I can’t get too spoilery, but… there’s Jack and Queen Victoria! Toshiko Sato on a mission in Russia! Sergeant Andy Davidson and the fabulous Norton Folgate! Suzie Costello having a terrible day in Cardiff! And I’m actually back in studio on Thursday for an as-yet-unannounced story which ticks all my directing boxes…
Strange to think all this is yet to come, when this time last year, new Torchwood seemed like wishful thinking… Long live Torchwood! And long live Torchwood at Big Finish!
Yes, long live Torchwood! Thank you again Scott for a wonderful interview.
Profile photo courtesy of Scott Handcock
Photos of audios courtesy of Big Finish