The Den of Geek interview: Nick Briggs - voice of The Daleks

Interview John Moore 27 Nov 2007 - 08:30
Nick Briggs: the voice of one of these

John sat down with Nick Briggs, the voice of Doctor Who's Daleks, to talk monsters, Big Finish, Cybermen and more...

Nick Briggs IS The Daleks. At least he’s every word you’ve heard come from their mouths in the new series, being the voice of the uber-baddies since Russell T Davies' re-boot.

But he’s more than that – he has a long association with Whovian fandom, and is a producer/director for Big Finish Productions, responsible for creating a successful series of audio books extending the adventures of some ex-Doctors, some of which he has penned himself.

John Moore got the chance of a quick chat about the DVD release of the last Who season, but of course – being John – he never actually asked a question about it. Here’s what he did ask...

How do you find ways, as an actor, to bring the deeper 'emotions' you're being asked to portray to an essentially monotonal voice like the Daleks?

I suppose it's the same as the way you approach any part, you think about what the character is feeling and what's going on in its head. I know that sounds a bit hilarious when you're essentially talking about something that most people see as a motorised dustbin... But it's the only way I know how to do it.

It's true to say they spend most of their time being angry - you just have to work out exactly how angry they are and what they are angry about at any given moment. Of course, the first Dalek story I did for the new series was a lovely challenge. The Dalek was having to resort to being devious, because it didn't initially have the sheer power the Daleks usually have. It had to coerce Rose into touching it so that it could absorb all her timetravelenergystuff. Oh yes, I understand it all, you know!

How does the more introspective nature of the Daleks in this last series sit with your own vision for how they should be portrayed?

Well, my job is to take the script and find the best way to make it work for the bit of it I'm responsible for. I like the fact that the Daleks are having arguments and loyalty issues. It makes it all very interesting from a vocal point of view.

I know some of it doesn't sit entirely well with some 50-year old Doctor Who fans [and certain DoG-ers too!] who judge everything on the basis of what happened in some story broadcast in 1965. But you can't please all of the people all of the time and some people just aren't worth trying to please, because they're happiest when they're moaning.

When you first played the Daleks, who of the previous voice actors did you pay most attention to? Who is your favourite previous Dalek voice and why?

My favourite Dalek voice is Peter Hawkins, who was the main guy on those first Dalek stories. Working alongside him was David Graham. Both of them have great vocal pedigrees. Peter was ‘the’ voice of the 60s; he was Captain Pugwash, he was Tony the Tiger and on just about every public information film or TV commercial, it seemed.

David Graham was, of course, the voice of Brains and Parker - m'lady - in Thunderbirds. Peter had that wonderful, insistent quality to his voice. David brought a kind of disturbing edge to it. Then the lovely Roy Skelton came along with his uniquely gravelly voice. Those are the three who have influenced me the most. I feel I've kind of absorbed their work by endlessly watching it and listening to it, then I've taken it in my own direction; but much of what I do owes an awful lot to those chaps.

As a child, what scared you most; Daleks or Cybermen?

I loved the Daleks. They did scare me when I was a tiddler... But I was mostly fascinated by them. I think the Cybermen did scare me more, largely because they were very quiet in those days. They said very little and you couldn't hear them coming.

Has audio production always been of interest to you, or is it something that developed because of Doctor Who and creating the Big Finish audio stories. For example, what control do you have over the effect as you're performing on the TV set?

I have control of the ring modulator [effects device central to the creation of the Dalek voice] that my voice goes through during the filming. I'm there on set, sorting that out. I can only really do the voice when I can hear the effect on it… It's a bit like playing a strange musical instrument - you judge what you're doing by the way it affects the modulation.

I did experiment once, in Parting of the Ways, with altering the modulation rate to make the different Daleks sound different, but I haven't done that since. You can get much more effective differences by changing your own vocal quality - being a bit more gruff or pitching it up, that sort of thing.

All the effected work I do on set is used in the final production. Very occasionally, I do a few lines in ADR, but that's usually to alter lines to clarify the story.

What's the best piece of Doctor Who related merchandise you've ever seen?

It's difficult to judge. I wish I was a kid again so I could play with the fabulous Doctor Who toys they have now. We had very little like that when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s. I do love the radio controlled Dalek, though.

How often do you get asked to 'borrow' things from the set?

No one's ever asked me that [trust me to be the first to mention nicking stuff off set]. People mostly ask me to give them Doctor Who toys, and since I get a fair few freebies, I can often oblige. But mostly I just post stuff off to people without telling them... It gives me such a thrill to be Father Christmas all year round.

Do you have a personal Doctor Who memorabilia collection; if so what's your favourite item in it?

I'm not a collector. I don't have that gene. I remember when I was a teenager, I was buying the Doctor Who books, then I suddenly stopped, realising that I thought most of them were rubbish. Luckily, I've got many friends who are ‘real’ collectors - so I've always got access to these things if I've got a craving. As I say, I do get freebie toys, so I suppose I love my remote control Dalek toy most.

Who was your favourite Doctor from before you got involved with the series?
Why?

My favourite Doctor was and is Patrick Troughton. He epitomises for me what I think the strength of the show is. He looks a bit scary, but is massively kind and reassuring. That's what the programme is. He was such a great actor and so funny too, but with the weight to be able to do the dramatic stuff.

Do you have to turn off your 'writer's mind' to act the parts correctly, or are you constantly re-writing things in your head?

When I'm on the Doctor Who set, there's so much pressure to get stuff right and do your job properly, that I hardly have time to think about things from a writer's point of view. I did, however, get some Dalek dialogue reallocated in Parting of the Ways. I had to get permission from the producer, though.

Have you been involved in creating toys related to the new series? Do you provide the voices for those?

I do the voices for the Dalek, Cyberman and Judoon toys.

If someone wanted to write a story for Big Finish, the audio book creator you produce for, what would be the first piece of advice you'd give them?

We're all commissioned-up for the forseeable future with Big Finish. I'm a little conservative - with a very small c - when it comes to writers. Our schedules are so punishing at the moment that I can't risk bringing in new writers.

If a script goes wrong, it can take months to sort out, and we just don't have that kind of time just now. I'm hoping to give us more lead-in time with productions in the future, and then we can try out some new people. But Doctor Who is deceptively difficult to write. I think people think it's easy. It's not. It's very difficult to get right, so I tend to stick with people I know can do it.

Do you have any more audio projects in the pipeline that you can tell us about? For Big Finish, Radio 4, or others?

Well, we're doing another series with Paul McGann and Sheridan Smith. The adventures of the eighth Doctor and Lucie continue. Also, I will be doing the third series of the Radio 4 comedy Nebulous [with the quite wonderful Mark Gattiss] early next year, hopefully.

Are we going to see you in cameo at some point in the BBC series, or did I miss it?

I don't think it's likely that I'll be appearing on screen in Doctor Who. They've kind of got me pegged as a voice man. The powers that be have been massively supportive of me and have said they're on the lookout for an opportunity for me to appear on screen, but it's very difficult for them, because they only know me as the voice of monsters.

I know from my own experience directing and producing that you have to be so sure about casting... And so I can imagine that it might feel like a terrible risk to give the role of someone sensitive or sophisticated and complex to a guy you only know for screaming 'Exterminate!'

If you could be one other Doctor Who 'villian' from any era, who/what would you be?

I'd love to be an Ice Warrior… Or a Draconian, that would be fun. Or the Candyman… Only kidding on that last one - although as originally written, he was just a guy in a white coat, with frosted sugar skin, not that Berty Bassett monstrosity! So I'd like to play something like the Candyman as originally conceived!

Nick Briggs, thank you very much..

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