Once again, the Whovians descended on Ronkonkoma, New York this November for a weekend of discussion, parties, and bumping into hallway Daleks. LI Who is a convention we never miss, and its fourth edition was one for the books. We still owe you a recap of the experience, including a couple of HOF-led panels. But first, we bring you our conversations with three notable members of the Doctor Who family. We had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Peter Davison, Jemma Redgrave, and Nicholas Briggs in the LI Who press room. And though we of course discussed the show, our interviews also touched on musical theater, glitter makeup, and how to tell a British crew member from an American one. (Hint: they react when you yell “Exterminate” at them.) We hope you enjoy our conversations as much we did. –Sage
Peter Davison – The Fifth Doctor
Sage: So I have my DVR set and I was in London last year and I saw you in Gypsy with Imelda Staunton…
Peter: Oh, really? (leans into the microphone) Yes, it airs tonight at 9 o’clock on PBS.
Sage: We were saying they should have done a screening party for us and you could have done live commentary. But it was so joyous and wonderful and you were fabulous, so I just wanted to hear a little bit about that experience and working with her.
Peter: It was great. The production was originally done at Chichester and when it came to the West End, they re-cast the part of Herbie, fortunately for me. I went off and I watched the black and white film version, which although it’s good, it gives you no clue as to how great of a musical it is. I thought “Oh this would be a good thing to do.” I didn’t realize what a great PART it was until I did it. I’d not worked with Imelda before and it was a slightly intimidating experience because she was so amazing all at once. She was very supportive and we got on really well and it was wonderful to do. I used to just sit in admiration of her and her energy.
Sage: I had no idea she had that voice. No idea!
Peter: She trained, she told me, she trained for a year before she started so her voice would be up for it. From my point of view, Gypsy is a play, a really good one when you take out the songs. The story is so well written. It was such a great acting opportunity. It worked really well and audiences seemed to love it. And all these famous people came to see the show! I would meet them after, they would usually just be asking me the way to Imelda’s dressing room. Meryl Streep! “Can you tell me where Imelda is?” She had no idea who I was! But THEN she said something rather nice about me and my performance, so I was happy. Put it on my tombstone.
Sage: As you should, if you got a compliment from Meryl. That’s such a great part too. In musicals, you have the romantic lead or you’ve got the character role. Herbie is just such a KIND person who is in over his head. It’s such a rare kind of part to see.
Peter: It is!
Kim: You just had your book (Is There Life Outside the Box?) come out. I LOVE the title.
Peter: I had such trouble with the title! I was working with a publisher, who shall remain nameless, before the one who eventually published it, who didn’t like the title and just wanted to have a picture of me standing outside the TARDIS on the cover. They named it on their own. I gave them the title and they changed it and advertised it on Amazon with a completely different title. I was a bit cross about that! I wanted to have the subtitle be “An Actor Despairs,” which is a play on the Stanislavski book An Actor Prepares. They didn’t like that, they said people might think it’s a miserable book. Eventually we decided to part company and we went with a publisher who just said “Call it whatever you want!”
Kim: Titles are important! I look at that title and I would pick it up. Is There Life Outside the Box is enough of a nod to Doctor Who…
Peter: I think for Doctor Who fans maybe there’s not quite ENOUGH about Doctor Who in there. I thought it was enough; it covers everything, conventions and events like this. But I didn’t want to make it just about Doctor Who, I’ve done other things as well, so I tried to give it equal space.
Sage: When did you start to get the idea “Hey, I would really love to write this down.”?
Peter: A friend of mine who had formerly written a radio series actually came to me and said “Why don’t we do your autobiography?” Meaning, “Why don’t I ghost write your autobiography?” He had done it before and he was very good at it. Because I knew him, I felt I was able to say “I would love for you to act as a go-between the publishers, but I would like to do it myself.” So he said fine and that’s what I did. I started with the book exactly where I said I started, which was the year I began to do Gypsy. I was about to fly to Australia, so that’s why there’s a kind of diary thing that goes through the book. I finally finished it last April.
Kim: And it just came out in October, yes?
Peter: Yes. You know, I’m really glad I did it. Because I tried to not make up stuff. I think sometimes actors tend to embellish.
Sage: Did you have to check in with people? Say, “Am I remembering this correctly?”
Peter: Yes! And sometimes their memories were different from mine and we would have to ask other parties. But quite often my memory was better than theirs! I was very gratified by that. I’m pretty sure it’s all pretty accurate.
Kim: And then going to David to write the foreword…
Peter: Yeah, well how could he get out of that? (Laughs) It was so easy for him! I wrote a highly fake foreword for him, which was based kind of on The Fiveish Doctors and the character I had for him there. So it was basically David complaining that he had been forced into writing the damn thing. But when he sent me his actual foreword, it was so much better that I just dropped the fake one completely. I wanted to put them both in!
Kim: We demand the outtakes for the next one.
Nicholas Briggs – Voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen and Executive Producer of Big Finish
Sage: It’s in one of the special features on one of the DVDs. And I love the moment where you’re in a table read with a new cast and you speak into the voice changer and everyone reacts. Does that ever get old for you?
Nick: Never, no. That does happen every time and that was a particularly special one because it was “Journey’s End” and that whole load of Doctor Who people were there from various eras of the program. And look, I’m an actor, and one of the things actors love to hear is a big reaction. Laughter, applause all that. I mean, there’s a slight element of – especially in that clip – people saying, “What the HELL was THAT?”
But you can imagine the first one I did with Chris Eccleston and Billie Piper. We were about to start the read-through without them, because they were filming pickups and they’d just allocated two of the smaller actors to play the Doctor and Rose. And they were just about to draw breath to do it – in fact, I think we actually started. And then suddenly, Billie and Chris just burst into the room. So they had no idea. We all just quickly introduced ourselves and said, “Let’s get on with it.” And I think the first thing the Dalek does is scream. And I’d brought the speaker and the ring modulator and everything and it was the full electronic effect. And Chris couldn’t carry on. He tried to and stopped. “I didn’t know that was happening!” And everyone just went wild except one person, who’d been brought up somewhere where Doctor Who was never broadcast and she had no idea. And I thought, there’s the cultural link there.
Kim: How did it even come about, you doing the Dalek voice?
Nick: I’d been practicing since I was five, obviously. And as a Doctor Who fan as a child, I’d really been especially preoccupied by the voice of the Dalek. I don’t know why, it just intrigued me. Partially because I was interested in sound. My older brother, who’s nine years older than me, had a tape recorder – an old reel to reel tape recorder – and I kind of inherited that from him and was always playing around with it. So I was interested in sound, and it IS the voice that gives the Daleks the fear factor. I’ve seen Daleks milling around with kids, and the kids start to think it’s cute until it screams “Exterminate.” It’s a bit like your refrigerator suddenly telling you it wants to kill you. It’s that sort of dichotomy between the two things.
But then I ended up doing it for Big Finish audios – BigFinish.com (Note: We love a plug.) – and then Russell T. Davies was a subscriber to the Big Finish range. And then when he brought Doctor Who back, he just said, “I knew I wanted you to do it.” I was a total solution. He knew I could do it as an actor, but he’d also read an article I’d written for Doctor Who Magazine where I talked about the technical side of it and said I’d got the gear. So he thought, well, there is no radiophonic workshop at the BBC anymore. We need someone who’s got the kit as well. So I was the total solution.
Kim: And what is the filming process like?
Nick: Well I’m on set…
Kim: So you are on set.
Nick: I do a bit of ADR, post-production recording as well. The Daleks are very good for fixing plot holes, because they state the obvious. You can always have a Dalek saying, “This is happening” and then the audience will understand. I say to people about the experience on set: whichever bit of scenery you see behind a Dalek, I’m probably behind that. And I watch a monitor and I have headphones on and I have a mic and I’m all connected up. And when I speak, the signal from my voice goes to a speaker that’s on the set, so the other members of the cast can hear it and also it goes to a transmitter that transmits an electronic pulse to the Dalek lights and they flash in time to my voice. So that’s the process, lots of fun.
Kim: So yeah, the Dalek voice is kind of monotone, but you DO have to react.
Nick: It’s always better as the Dalek to react off of someone else’s performance. And they’re not monotone. I’d say that the Cybermen tend towards monotone because they’ve no emotion. The Daleks are packed with full of emotion, it’s just all negative emotion. And they always write me interesting, crazy stuff to do.
Sage: So comparing that to what you said earlier, that as an actor that you always like a big reaction. And then you’re doing Big Finish and it’s just you and an audio booth.
Nick: Well it’s me and a cast of actors. We have the whole cast there. So there’s a lot of interaction. But it’s weird when I do it on the TV series. Because when I do it, I’m usually standing by the monitors. Behind the scenes. And the people near me can’t hear the Dalek effect. Only the people on set can hear the electronic effect. Especially when they have visitors coming to the set, and they’re sitting there and suddenly this man they haven’t been introduced to stands up and starts yelling, “Exterminate, exterminate.” But I heard in my cans that the scene has started. You know, they’re just sitting there wondering what’s going on.
Kim: Do you have, and I hate to use the word, but do you have a favorite Dalek episode you’ve done? Or that has really special meaning for you?
Nick: Well I think, when I first went to set to do it, that was a magic moment. I mean, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. There I was, Doctor Who had been brought back. Not only was I working on it, I was working on the first series, which no one else knew what it was going to be like. I was asked so much, “Is it going to be any good? Are we gonna like it?” And I said, “Well I like it, but I haven’t seen the finished thing yet. But I think it’s going to be brilliant.” So I felt very privileged to be a part of that select group of people who knew what Doctor Who was going to be like before everyone else saw it.
Sage: And being involved with Big Finish when that decision was made to reboot the series, was there a fear that, “Oh, we’re going to be shut down?” Because I know they allowed this to move forward, but when you DID get that news, was there ever the fear that “What we’re doing here has to end because of what they’re doing with the series coming back?”
Nick: Bizarrely, I don’t think I had a fear that they were going to shut us down. Which, funnily enough, was a possibility. But I was unaware of that. And I think we have Russell T Davies to thank for that, because it was then the head of something-or-other who sort of pulled up the carpet as it were, saw Big Finish, and said, “What’s this?” And Russell stood in the way and said, “It’s fine. I’ll deal with it.” But if it hadn’t been for Russell…I mean, you’re making a new TV series and then you find out that someone else is making an audio version, you just think, “Hell no, that’s not going to happen.”
But, we fairly quickly found that what Doctor Who fans initially did and thankfully this is no longer the case…a large portion just dropped Big Finish, and we nearly went out of business. It was really bad. I didn’t think that would happen. Gary Russell, who was the producer then, he knew that would happen. He’s a very wise man. I thought it would make us more popular but it made us far less popular. Because people thought, “TV series, don’t need that audio thing.” But then I became executive producer and I worked very hard with a great team of people there to give reasons for people to come back to Big Finish, tried to make as many stories as possible real event stories, things we could shout about, new stars and adverts, new ways of presenting it. And we’ve bit by bit got them back. And there’s still a big audience out there for Big Finish to reach. There are lots of Doctor Who fans who are crazy about Doctor Who, who have not only not listened to Big Finish, but they’ve never heard of it.
Kim: When I first started, I didn’t know about Big Finish, until, I think, the first LI Who.
Sage: Conventions are a great place to get the word out.
Nick: And listening to audio drama is not as easy as watching something on television. It’s halfway between reading a book and watching something. Because you’re given all the hints for your imagination to work. More than a book because you hear the voices, but you still have to do some of the work yourself. But when you exercise that muscle in your brain to do that, it becomes really pleasurable. Because half of what you’re doing is creating it yourself, and we all love to be creative. That’s something that goes across all Doctor Who fans. They’re creative people with creative imaginations, but sometimes getting that muscle to work, the initial thing, is not easy. But we’ve never had anyone – maybe they just don’t tell us – but we’ve never had anyone decide to listen to Big Finish and then get in touch and say, “You know, it’s not for me.” They all go, “I never thought I’d like this, but it’s amazing, and now I can’t stop buying and listening to them.” Which is music to our ears.
Sage: It’s also not really an American thing. We don’t hear a lot of radio drama.
Nick: No, not for decades.
Sage: So it’s new, introducing that to a generation.
Nick: With a British fan, you can say, “It’s kind of like radio drama,” they know what radio drama is. Where Americans will go, “Radio…drama? There is no drama on the radio.”
Kim: And Big Finish is how Paul’s Doctor lived on. He lives in Big Finish.
Nick: And we’re so grateful that he’s embraced us as well. We’ve done so much lovely work with him and continue to do so.
Kim: That must have been so wonderful for you guys in Night of the Doctor when he shouted out all the Big Finish companions.
Nick: Well I knew it was coming, because on the set of the anniversary story, Steven Moffat and I spent a whole night chatting and we were comparing notes. “How’s your script coming?” (It was the one where Matt Smith regenerates.) “How’s Light at the End coming together?” he was asking me. And I said, “That thing you’ve done with Paul…” And he said, “*gasp* That’s top secret, how did you know about that?” I said, “Well, Paul asked me if he should do it, and I said yes.” So I’d like to take credit for that. I’ve got the text. He sent me a little outline of the plot and said, “Do you think I should do this?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely you should do it.” And Steve said, “Oh, we researched the names of all your companions and put them in there.” And I said, “Well, that’s fantastic.”
When it was actually released, the first thing I got was a text from Russell T. Davies, and I was on a train so there was limited WiFi. It was Russell T. Davis saying, “Mr. Briggs, did I just hear Paul McGann name all your companions?” And I spent the rest of the three-hour journey trying desperately to get the WiFi to work so I could stream it. And it didn’t!
Jemma Redgrave – Kate Lethbridge-Stewart
Jemma: (referencing our glitter eyeshadow) God, you SPARKLE. Twinkle and sparkle!
Kim: That is our mantra! We will be in glitter all weekend.
Jemma: I’m going to need some of that!
Kim: Welcome to LI Who! Weren’t you supposed to come last year?
Jemma: I wanted to come last year but I got a job, so we were delayed by a year. I’m so glad to be here now!
Kim: I want to talk about that scene from “The Zygon Inversion” with Peter, Jenna, and Ingrid. What was that LIKE for you?
Jemma: You’re not the first person to ask me about that scene. It was a fantastic script, a completely brilliant piece of writing and it was toned down slightly because of the obvious parallels. But it’s an incredible scene and it plays out…I think it’s 5 or 6 minutes and we rehearsed it and Peter came in and that performance! My God, that man works. When Peter’s not filming, he’s round the corner on set and there’s a desk for him because he’s got scripts and he’s studying. He’s learning and learning and learning because he’s got these huge speeches. But that…that was like theatre. He came in and it was mesmerizing.
Kim: And you are watching and reacting to him but you’ve still got to deliver your line!
Jemma: It was an extraordinary scene to be a part of and it required absolutely no acting because it was so moving and so from the heart. From Steven Moffat’s heart and from Peter Capaldi’s. It was a privilege and an honor to be a part of it.
Sage: I love that in Series 9 you see the relationship that develops between Kate and Clara, where Clara is somebody who gets the call. It seems like there are things that occurred and there were conversations that were had and they’ve been planning and scheming about what to do when something happens. Do you get to have conversations about Kate’s arc for the whole series or does it just come script by script?
Jemma: Script by script.
Sage: So then how do you say “Jenna, this is what our relationship should be like in this particular episode?”
Jemma: We develop it scene by scene. You get the script and you get on the floor. You get used to picking up the clues very quickly. Jenna and Peter are fantastic. Jenna is a MARVELOUS actress. Peter, you see it and you see his brain working. Jenna is…when you are working with her on the floor, you see a certain amount of it. But when you actually really see it, when you see it on-screen, she’s working on two levels. She works so sensitively and communicates things to the camera that you don’t pick up when you’re face to face. The relationships really develop in the moment. Script by script, certain aspects of Kate’s background or character get revealed. So I didn’t know she was a bridge player and a gardener till I got that episode. Although, I might have guessed that. I’ve done a lot of work on her, created a background and a private life for her. I do think there’s a certain amount done, for example, with costume design. Peter said, when there was a lot of walking around with the Zygons in rubbly basements…
Kim: And you were doing it in heels!
Jemma: And Peter kept looking at my feet going “Really? REALLY? You know UNIT is an Army. Really?” But you see, the thing is, the costume designer and I worked on the character. Yes, she’s part of an Army and yes, she wears suits, and yes, she’s kick ass but there’s something really nice about the fact that she displays her individualism through quirks of costume. She likes to wear heels!
Kim: And that’s just a way for her to promote her femininity too. “I can still be all these things and rock a pair of heels.”
Sage: It’s so wonderful, with those episodes in particular, we have Kate and Osgood and two versions of Clara. It was such a wonderful female-forward arc for the show. It seems like having Kate in charge of UNIT changes the dynamic. As soon as she comes on-screen, it’s like the ladies are double in charge. It shifts it.
Jemma: It does! And if you look around at the episodes that I’ve been in, like the Cybermen episode (“Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”), there’s Osgood and Kate and Missy and Clara. They create fantastically strong female characters. And all very distinct. They are not similar, there’s an age range, they are all flawed, they’re brilliant. It’s very empowering for girls to watch. And that’s great.
Kim: When you did the 50th Anniversary, did you expect that you would become a recurring presence?
Jemma: No. I had no idea. It’s been an unfolding joy and it’s been a great joy of my life. Because I think our lives are profoundly affected by it. There are few things as important to a human being as a sense of community and one of the things that has opened up to me through this part and this series is being a part of an incredible community. I’ve been embraced, partly because of Steven Moffat and partly because of Nicholas Courtney and I’m immensely grateful. It’s a privilege and an honor to be a part of it. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you to Peter Davison, Nicholas Briggs, and Jemma Redgrave for their time and thank you (as always) to the folks at Long Island Who for allowing us the opportunity to talk to their guests.