Phil Murphy interview: Doctor Who, Symphonic Spectacular

Phil Murphy chats to us about the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, and the logistics of taking Doctor Who on the road...

Once upon a time, Phil Murphy was working on live events for BBC Worldwide. As such, he saw the evolution of the Doctor Who Prom, and took the Doctor Who Arena Tour out on the road.

Now, Murphy is at Vision Nine, and he’s teamed up there with BBC Worldwide to bring the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular to six cities during half term in May 2015. We had a chance to chat to him, to find out just what it’s all about…

Can we start with the obvious? The Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular: what are you up to? Can you pick up the story of where it came from, as I understand it goes back to the 2010 Doctor Who Prom?

That’s the genesis of it all. The 2010 tour that was done by BBC Worldwide came out just after the 2010 Prom, and they couldn’t have been more different. Ben Foster was involved in the Prom, and has been involved since, but he was on stage doing [the Doctor Who Arena Tour], but the rest of it was very different.

Ad – content continues below

The Arena Tour was intended to be a live episode on stage, so it had music, monsters, Nigel Planer playing a character. That tour, it was a big one, that played pretty much all the arenas that existed in the UK then, a lot of people came to see it. I think it was about 130,000 people. But it wasn’t universally well received. I think it averaged a three out of five stars.

So what happened next?

One of the things that we took out of it, because by that time I was involved in the live events business for BBC Worldwide, was the music, and the audience reaction to the music being played live. And obviously the monsters! Bearing in mind it was almost impossible to put together a live tour where you’d actually have the Doctor performing live on stage. The actors are generally filming, and they want to do other things when they’re not filming Doctor Who.

To get them to do a tour event, their time is pretty limited. So we learned the monsters are really important, the music is fabulous. The Prom was a huge success, a non-commercial thing. There were only a limited number of tickets, so most fans were disappointed. And of course, you’ve got to be able to travel in the first place. So we thought music tour? Yes. Monsters? Yes. Let’s focus on that, rather than trying to do a live episode piece.

The other thing is that the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular is it’s all about Doctor Who. The Prom by necessity has not had new music. The most recent Prom they tried to make sure that they had music in some shape or form that had been used in an episode. But nonetheless, they still had music other than that which had been used in the series. Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular – and it’s a long title! – will.

I was one of those who would have given the Arena Tour three out of five, to be honest. It sounds, here, that you’re trying to capture what worked best from the Arena Tour with what worked best about the Prom. Would that be a fair summation?

Ad – content continues below

It’s very much a commercial version of the Doctor Who Prom.

All of the Proms are paid for out of the BBC programming budget, so there are only relatively few tickets. We have to find a line between where we’re charging enough for the tickets so that people can afford to go, and also enough to put it on. So it’s everything that’s good about the Prom and the tour. This tour, we’ve got the house band of Doctor Who too, the BBC National Orchestra Of Wales are doing the music, which is great. They did the last Prom.

How are the logistics then of taking a 100+ piece orchestra on a tour on the motorways of Britain?

I don’t want to talk to you about it [laughs]. The total number of people going on the road is going to be around 160. So yeah, you’ve got the orchestra, the singers, the monster actors, and the presenter and the tech production crew. It’s a big undertaking, which is part of the reason why we put the word Spectacular in the title!

When you did the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular in Australia, you’ve had stars of the show along to host it, and I know you have similar plans for the UK tour. I’m assuming you can’t tell us who will be appearing, but can you tell us who won’t be?

[Laughs] I can safely say that the current front-of-camera talent for Doctor Who will not be appearing. Because they’ll all be filming in May next year! It will be people who are associated with the show! Someone who knows what the band is talking about. And obviously, there’s quite a pool to draw from! The reason we won’t announce a host until nearer the time is that often people don’t know what they’re going to be filming in May!

Ad – content continues below

Would you be looking to have one consistent host across the whole tour with the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular?

Yes. Absolutely. There isn’t enough time to rehearse to change host.

The way that the tour ended up and is operating in Australia, it’s not really a tour in the sense that it’s a different orchestra in every town. So you turn up in town with all your production kit, then you have to rehearse the orchestra and the chorus, and you could rehearse a new presenter too. But here, they’re playing a different town every night, and there’s no gap in between.

Since you started doing this, I understand that the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular has become a bit of an evolving beast. So it’s integrated quite quickly with the music from Doctor Who series 8. Is this an ongoing thing now, and is it something you want to continue to evolve, working hand in hand with the Doctor Who team?

Absolutely. We obviously have to bring in the music from series 8 because it’s the new Doctor! It’s really important. Obviously, the music from the Christmas special hasn’t been finished yet, and it won’t be recorded until early December. So we’ll be making sure we use some of that. The show that we’re staging here in the UK in May will be taken worldwide. I think we’re in Adelaide in January, so obviously that one goes right down to the wire!

It has evolved, yes. And each time we’ve done the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular we’ve added new content. We’ve had to make difficult decisions about what goes in. This one’s going to be a really difficult one to get right, because we think the show as it stands is great, but it doesn’t have any Peter Capaldi Doctor stuff. So we have to take things out and replace it with new material.

Ad – content continues below

There are some real favourites in there, particularly one or two things that I’ve identified with from watching David Tennant and Matt Smith that won’t be included. A bit like a director cutting a film. We’re going to have to lose some pieces that I really love! That’s kind of what’s exciting about this thought, that we can keep changing the content every year. If they keep making it, and bringing new things in!

What’s your eight or nine coffee day then? The day before the first show? The day when the tickets go on sale? What’s the bit that makes you hit the caffeine?

[Laughs] Well, the scary bit is just before curtain up. We don’t have curtains but you know what I mean! Just before it’s going to start, because I’ve never done any kind of live show and had there not have things go wrong in rehearsal. They tell me that if you have a really good rehearsal, then it’s a bad thing!

Usually there are a lot of last minute problems before it comes together on the night!

Actually, the very first time we presented the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular in Melbourne, at the very end of the first half where we were due to have a section from the Christmas special… Normally we take the piece of music first, and then arrange it to whatever, then edit the media to match. We’re not doing live Star Trek Into Darkness or something like that where we’re playing live underneath the movie! But we had video for this bit, and the screen went blank. My heart was in my mouth!

Ah, but it’s Doctor Who. We’d all assume that was deliberate.

Ad – content continues below

There was a really magical moment actually, where lots of people held up their sonic screwdrivers and started waving them at the screen!

Is that the holding a lighter in the air moment for Doctor Who? I love it!

Then thankfully the system played out fine, and we got to half time. At which point I went out and had a little bottle of beer!

Where for you after this then? I know in your time at BBC Worldwide you did Doctor Who, and you also did a Walking With Dinosaurs arena tour. Appreciating you’re not BBC Worldwide now, are you still looking to do more Doctor Who stuff? Do you have ties into BBC Worldwide that allow you to do other properties in such a way?

No. Obviously I’ve got a very good relationship with all the people there, because I spent a decent amount of time working there!

There are certainly some BBC properties that I’d like to turn into live shows, and I’m having some conversations with other intellectual property owners. We’re developing a number of shows, but we’ve got a lot invested in this one! We’re doing this one during half term in May 2015, and going around school holidays in the UK. But there are other cities, and other international venues!

Ad – content continues below

So anywhere where there’s a local Travelodge with 160 rooms, basically?

[Laughs] That’s definitely a factor!

Phil Murphy, thank you very much.

For further information on the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, head to

Follow ourĀ Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be ourĀ Facebook chum here.