Doctor Who On Audio: Jason Haigh Ellery

The man behind Big Finish's acclaimed audio Doctor Who adventures talks continuity, monster overload and Tom Baker...

Big Finish's excellent Doctor Who productions have brought many old faces back to Who

Jason Haigh-Ellery is the Chief Executive behind Big Finish productions, producers of Doctor Who audio adventures for ten years. Only available on CD until now, the company launched a new download service last Friday whereby fans can download all the adventures to date, and where new ones will become available.

Fans who currently eschew audio Who for the live-action version might be interested to know that two of the audio stories were promoted to live-action treatment by Big Finish supporter Russell T Davies: Jubilee (season one’s Dalek) and Spare Parts (season two’s Cyberman two-parter Rise Of The Cybermen and Age Of Steel.

The downloads come in MP3 format without DRM, and before our chat, Jason talked about the decision to use the MP3 format and avoid DRM, and about piracy at the general Q&A:

There is a shift in what people are doing [regarding obtaining audio]. We’ve actually looked online and we think somewhere in the region of about 75% of the people who listen to Big Finish are doing so illegally, which is substantial. By launching this new service, hopefully, a lot of people will come back and download it for, hopefully, a small fee.

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But it’s the ease – a lot of people who for instance live in America, by the time they’ve paid the shipping, and then waiting for it…it’s too easy to look at an illegal downloads site and think they can get it down and it’ll be free. I’m sure a lot of them would like to contribute to making sure that Big Finish continues.

Questioned about the relatively modest price differential between the CD and downloaded versions (£14.99 and £12.99 respectively), he said:

We have to raise revenue to produce the plays. The budgets are from the sales. However the first 25 Doctor Who plays, their retail price is now £13.99, but from the Big Finish website you can buy the CDs for £9.99 and the downloads of those stories for £7.99. If this is a really successful move, there will be the opportunity to look at the whole pricing thing anyway.How has Big Finish evolved in the last ten years?

I think when we first started, we honestly didn’t know if it was going to work. We didn’t know if there was going to be enough demand, we didn’t know if the actors would support us enough…it may be, for instance that some actors might have come in and done six episodes and said ‘That’s enough for me’. Sylvester McCoy once said to me that when he took that job on back in 1986, he had no idea it came with a pension scheme! He said that you never stop being Doctor Who, that you never stop working as being Doctor Who in one way or another.

He did those Look and Learn stuff with Sophie after the series finished, he’s always done conventions; he did the movie, he’s done the audios for us…he’s not stopped being Doctor Who since the day he was cast. I think that’s something that people take on board, and I know that David Tennant knows he’s going to be Doctor Who forever, because everyone else has been.It’s still relatively early days for Christopher Ecclestone, perhaps…?

Well, no-one believed that Paul McGann would ever come back. He was mostly doing movies, mostly doing big television series, had worked in the states and done a lot of work with the National Theatre…there was this thing that when we started we deliberately went after the Doctors we knew – Sylvester, Colin and Peter.

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And then it was a question of talking with Paul’s agent, with whom I have a very good relationship, because his agent is also the agent for Susannah Harker and various other people as well, so that’s been useful over the years. So she said that she’d ask him and see what happens, and that she couldn’t see why not.

So Paul turned up, did the jobs, enjoyed it…and then later on, over the years, we’ve discovered by talking to him at conventions and stuff…convincing him to do a convention was very interesting, because he said “That’s not me”, because he viewed it as entertainment, and viewed it that natural entertainers would be good at conventions, such as Sylvester McCoy, who is very much a natural entertainer.

He saw Sylvester at parties, and he’d known Sylvester for years and years, before Doctor Who, and he thought that was the kind of people we’d need at conventions, rather than him.

But eventually we strong-armed him to go to the 40th convention in 2003, and it was an amazing experience – the most electrifying audience I’ve ever seen. Twelve hundred people suddenly going ballistic because they didn’t expect to see Paul McGann ever on stage talking about Doctor Who.What about continuity issues – earlier on you were saying that it was less of an issue at the start because Who was seen as a dead property…

Well, we always did worry about continuity because we didn’t want fans to be disappointed…

At branching off…

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Yes, totally. The amount of stories we’ve now got in between Planet Of Fire and The Caves Of Androzani is colossal actually. We’ve introduced new companions in this period, we’ve actually had Peri stories on her own, we’ve had Peri and Erumem, we’ve got other things going on…and we’ll continue to do so, because it is actually a nice little space. There is an argument that if you look at the performance, it does seem as if they’ve known each other for some time, by the time they get to Caves Of Androzani.

So yes, we do shoe-horn things in, but we try to keep the same continuity. For example, if we did a Turlough story, we’d ask ‘Hang on a minute, has he met the Daleks yet? No he hasn’t’. So basically you do have to tailor certain things to what’s available. The only ones where we have complete free reign are the McGann stories.

With the two companions we’ve created for McGann, India Fisher as Charley, and Sheridan Smith as Lucy, we’ve had free reign, and I think we’ve really enjoyed the fact that we can live on the edge a little bit, because with a story with Nicola Bryant’s Peri and with Peter Davison’s Doctor, we can’t kill Peri because she has to be in The Caves Of Androzani. We can’t kill her, and everyone knows that. With Charley or Lucy, we can kill them, and it gives another edge to the story.The fans would obviously like to see Tom Baker involved in these audio adventures…

The door is always open to Tom Baker. Tom left doing Doctor Who a very long time ago now, and it is something in his past, but it’s a show that he loves and has been connected with from time to time, doing events and doing screenings and doing signings…so you never know what the future may bring.

Who was your Doctor?

Well I grew up with Jon Pertwee. I remember being a bit confused at the age of six or seven when Tom Baker came along, and I was a bit confused because Jon went on Crackerjack the week after the regeneration. It’s a great shame Jon Pertwee left us about eighteen months before Big Finish got going, and I’m sure, having spoken to Elizabeth Sladen, Barry Letts etc, that he would loved to have done Big Finish, and he would have been one of the ones banging the drum at every convention, ‘Buy these CDs!’.

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Do you think the fans follow their own Doctor as far as Big Finish releases are concerned?

Well there is evidence of that happening, actually. There are certain people we’ve looked at in the past – though we can only tell by subscribers, obviously – there are some people who dip in and out and buy all the Sylvester stories or all the Peter stories, because that’s the Doctor they grew up with and who they support. And that’s not so unusual, but there is the vast majority of people who buy everything – which is great, we love them!

What’s the best-selling production from Big Finish?

It’s The Sirens of Time, followed by Sword Of OrionThe Sirens of Timewas the first one we did, so it’s the one where everyone goes ‘Okay, I’ll give it a go’, and as with many magazines, the first edition is always the one that sells the most.

Storm Warning, where we brought back Paul McGann, is also a very big seller, because everyone thought that this is the new Doctor. At the time no-one ever thought Doctor Who was coming back, and we launched Storm Warning as the first episode on the cover of Doctor Who magazine, and the response was fantastic. But ironically, Sword Of Orion sold slightly more, because it had Cybermen in it.So it’s villain-based too?

Ironically Nick Briggs has some of the biggest-selling Big Finish work ever, because he writes a lot of the Dalek stories, which are very good sellers. There are people who dip in and buy the Daleks, Cyberman, the Ice Warriors and so forth, and there is actually a business case for us just producing ‘old monster’ stories. And we could do a whole season just with Daleks, Cyberman, Ice Warriors, Draconians, blah blah…

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Guaranteed money-spinners.

Well, yes and no. The reality is, as with anything, you would get bored. If we haven’t run the Daleks for a year and a half, there’s some excitement when we actually do them. If we did six Dalek stories a year with Doctor Who, it wouldn’t be important, it wouldn’t be an event, but also it wouldn’t be moving the narrative on. It wouldn’t be creating new monsters, new characters, new situations outside of what was already there.

Chimes Of Midnight was voted best Doctor Who story ever at Panopticon in 2003, for instance, and Russell T. Davies is a big fan of Big Finish, thankfully, and he’s been really great to us. He listened to that, he listened to Jubilee, and he got Rob Shearman [to write for the first [TV] series on the basis of that. We’ve been very lucky to have Russell supporting us.Is there going to be any cross-over from the TV back to Big Finish Doctor Who?

No. The new series is outside our remit regarding contracts. It’s because our license is for the complete series up until 1996. People have said ‘Why can’t Big Finish get off their arses and go out and get a new licence for that?’. It isn’t available. The BBC, quite rightly, have got a new television programme providing new drama with a new series, and that’s great. We have a licence covering the first 40 years, and we’re quite happy with that.

It provides a link for the fans regarding continuity and the past. Having said that, the Paul McGann material that we do on CD with Sheridan Smith – I think Dead London‘s in there as well – it’s more like the new series, and deliberately so. It’s much faster and more in-your-face, and part of the reason for doing that is to provide something that’s recognisable for potential younger listeners who’ve got to know Doctor Who through the new television series.Can you tell us anything about upcoming productions?

Not really! there are returning characters as you’d expect, and sometime in the next couple of years we will do Daleks, but you’d probably figured that one out for yourself! We like to play these things a bit close to our chest, and things do tend to slip out without people knowing. For example, in Frozen Time we’ve given the impression that it was the Silurians, and it turned out to be the Ice Warriors, because of the way things were done and the previews and the plotting online, and what we’d given away in the press release and so forth.

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We do have a big surprise coming up soon, but if I told you what it is…we like surprises, it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Big Finish Doctor Who adventures can be purchased online as CDs with free delivery or in downloadable MP3 format. See www.bigfinish.com for more details.Many thanks to Leesa Daniels of Forbidden Planet and David Richardson at Big Finish for helping to arrange these interviews.